- The Breaking, by Irma Gold. MidnightSun Publishing, $29.99.
Imagine travelling to a country for the first time, and, in the process of adjusting to the heat and inhaling new scents, two perfectly formed characters present themselves to you.
And, by the time you arrive home, you have the makings of a short story, right there in front of you.
This is what happened to Canberra writer Irma Gold when she visited Thailand for the first time several years ago. She went to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary, and suddenly, there they were.
"Hannah and Deven just kind of arrived on the page fully formed," she says.
"And it's like I almost followed their story, which sounds like an odd thing to say."
Except that, as it turned out, it wasn't a short story she was writing, it was a full-blown novel.
"The first draft just spooled out of me, it was a very odd process, and not one that I'm sure I'll ever have again," she says.
We're sitting on a weekday morning at a suburban cafe, contemplating the strange weather and talking about The Breaking, the product of that long-ago trip that turned into something she had never expected.
It's the story of Hannah Bird, on her first trip to Thailand, where she meets another Aussie expat, Deven, and follows her on an adventure to rescue elephants. It's a journey of discovery that becomes both confronting and romantic - the world of elephant tourism is depicted amid the backdrop of steamy, exciting South-East Asia. Gold depicts the place as both a dreamlike universe far removed from the workaday worries back home, and a complex country where life gets about as real as it's possible to get.
Gold says on her own first trip to Thailand, she was struck, first and foremost, by the contrasting groups of people who were there, ostensibly, for the same reasons she was.
"I went to volunteer with elephants, and it was really interesting, because the groups of people who were there volunteering were two different categories," she says.
"I didn't fit into either one of them, which as a writer is really interesting, because it meant that I was observing it even more keenly.
"It was either people older than me who had grown-up kids, and they were off travelling for a few months, or it was those in their early 20s who had the freedom to travel."
Gold herself is in her 40s, with three children at school. She was travelling alone, and it was the latter category - the freewheeling 20-somethings - that captivated her the most.
"Thinking back to when I was 19, 20, and went off travelling the world, it was just interesting to think about these characters, as they became, who had so much freedom, but they're not exactly sure of who they are or where they're going yet. And that's a really interesting space to be in."
As a coming-of-age story, The Breaking is particularly vivid and evocative; the dust and humidity, cool drinks and steamy nights waft right off the page. But when it comes to the elephants, the life experience is about more than two girls finding themselves - it's much darker.
It's about ethics and morals - animal cruelty inextricably tangled with traditional ways of life. Unspeakably beautiful and majestic beasts, and the people who rely on them for their livelihoods. And, inevitably, the ways in which tourists, as foreigners, view elephants as objects of curiosity, often through the filtered lens of social media and happy memories.
"So many people in Australia travel to Thailand as tourists, and yet none of those people seem to know what it's actually like," Gold says.
"It was very interesting ... you're witnessing the brutality towards elephants, and then there were other tourists there who seemed completely oblivious to it."
Gold is adamant she didn't set out to write what she terms as "issues-driven" book - it's the story of two women meeting each other at a crucial life moment, rather than a book about elephants.
"It's a book about two young women, because for me, that's what drives the story," she says.
"And they're in the context of this landscape of rescuing elephants and examining what it is to be behind the scenes in animal tourism."
In fact, she says, she set out to write a story about something that would make her - and her readers - happy.
"Because I initially thought it was that short story, actually, the only real thing that I had in my mind was that I wanted to write something that was joyful, because my fiction tends to go into dark places," she says.
"So the elephants were actually not in my mind at all. And I think that is actually probably a strength of the book in a way, because I think if I'd set out to write an issues-driven book, it would have a completely different tone."
It was her short fiction writing group who first gave her the inkling she was onto something more with her atmospheric vignette.
"They said, 'This is great. But what happens next?'" she says. So she went off and wrote a second, linked story, and the response was exactly the same.
"One of the writers said to me, 'I think you might be writing a novel', and it was like a little light bulb went off in my brain. And I already had 20,000 words by that point, so I was actually already into it."
Still, it came as a surprise for someone who had published numerous short stories - her debut collection, Two Steps Forward, came out in 2011 - and several picture books, but never a novel (notwithstanding one unpublished one that took seven years to write but never made it to publication).
But once the writing was under way, it was hard to stop.
"I almost feel like they led me by the hand through the story," she says, of Hannah and Deven.
"I was discovering it with them, which is the most fun as a writer. So there were things that I knew were going to happen, but I didn't necessarily know how the story was going to get there, and I didn't know how it was going to end.
"I know some writers like to know how the story is going to end, but for me, it probably takes the joy out of it. I love that exploratory process that you actually go through as you're writing."
And while she didn't put herself in the characters - they are, after all, free-spirited young things without children, mortgages, money or material burdons - she did go back to Thailand during the writing process to make her rendering of the country on the page as authentic as possible.
"I really went in much deeper ... that was really eye-opening in terms of seeing exactly what's going on behind the whole kind of facade of the tourism industry.
"I did a lot of research, a lot of talking to people, a lot of reading."
Being Thailand was a wonderful experience, but thought-provoking as well.
"During the writing process, I was really analysing my own assumptions and my own knowledge and beliefs, and really kind of interrogating that," she says.
"It's a really complex issue, and there's no easy solution.
"I do hope that it does start conversations and makes people think about the way that they engage as tourists, once we can all start travelling again."