"I honestly don't know why anyone writes a historical novel," says Amanda Lohrey.
The novelist tells me, on the phone from Tasmania, there's never a dull moment in contemporary life. Why, then, reach for the past?
In a little more than half an hour, we talk about the cult of renovations, the Cathedral-like ambitions of those who appear on episodes of Grand Designs, the decline of religion, the cult of nature, the ever present but ever changing tension between the city and the bush in Australia, those who find Arcadia and those who do not, and why Californian writers ignore bushfires - wildfires, to them - but Australian writers are drawn to this country's cyclical experience of inferno.
In The Conversion, Zoe buys a deconsecrated church in a small town, leaving the city behind. It had really been the dream of her husband, Nick, to convert the building into a home, but she faces the task alone.
Lohrey, who gave up Catholicism at 15, says she has often found churches a bit gloomy.
"But I've got a lifelong interest in architecture and the design of space, and what interests me about this current phenomenon of selling off churches and turning them into homes or galleries or restaurants or, you know, all sorts of things - bowling alleys, believe it or not; nightclubs, even - is the way in which they are designed is so powerfully focused on them being a place of worship that I don't think you can actually change them," she says.
"I looked at some of them. I got access to some of them and, I thought, no matter what you do with them, they're still churches." Something about them endures, a curious thing, she says.
Lohrey says the interesting thing about the decline of religion is the rise of what takes its place.
"You get the rise of other kinds of cults, and one of them is renovation, which intrigues me," she says. It has been a recurring theme in her writing.
"Because I'm old enough to remember when no one had a second bathroom, not even sort of affluent middle-class people."
There are the people, she says, who tinker endlessly with their houses even when they are perfectly good. "So that drive and that impulse is a kind of thwarted search for meaning - or something's going on there," she says.
Is the drive to convert a building, then, really a drive to convert something within yourself? Can we really change all that much from how we are designed?
The Conversion is Lohrey's first novel since winning the Miles Franklin Prize for The Labyrinth, in which a woman moves to a hamlet on the NSW South Coast to be closer to her son, an artist locked up in a private prison.
The Miles Franklin, Lohrey says, is very special. "It occupies quite a remarkable place in the Australian cultural landscape, in sort of the broader public's mind. I mean, people know about it and people you think wouldn't know about it, do, and comment on it," she says.
"Local fishermen say to me, 'Oh, you won the Miles.' I've been amazed."
Not that winning the prize has changed the way Lohrey works. "That's a function of my age," she says. "I think if I were a young writer, I think it would have had a much greater effect on me. I probably would have felt more anxious about the next book. I've been publishing for 40 years and so I think I'm the second oldest winner of the Miles Franklin. I mean, it was lovely to win it."
The Conversion completes a trilogy of pastorals that began with Vertigo, a 2009 novella about a couple who move to the South Coast where they are threatened by a bushfire, and continued with The Labyrinth in 2020.
Fires are another of Lohrey's recurring themes. "It's interesting how, although California has terrible fires, not many writers in the US write about bushfire, but Australian writers do a lot," she says.
After three books, Lohrey says she is done with the pastorals and is working on something completely different. The Conversion is an astonishing and beguiling end to the trilogy. Each part can be savoured separately but together they are a triumph.
MORE IN BOOKS:
"The whole theme of Arcadia is a constant one. And it's not just about trends that come and go, of tree changes or sea changes," Lohrey says.
"They've always been there in Australian life. The grass goes up and down according to circumstance. There's always this thing about getting back to nature and then finding, like during COVID, you know, those people who sold up in Melbourne ... and went and lived in rural towns like Castlemaine or Ballarat ... and then found some of them liked it, but then some of them found they missed the city.
"So there's always this tension between city and country: where's the real home? Where's the best life?"
The answer, perhaps, is in the spaces we create for ourselves and with whom we choose to inhabit them.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.