A SENSE of place is crucial to Di Morrissey. It might be the place she is writing about; it might be the Manning Valley in New South Wales, where she lived her first five years; it might be Byron Bay, where she lived for 20 years; or it might be Hawaii, where she lived with her first husband and where she holidays regularly with her children and grandchildren.
At the moment the place preoccupying her is Burma, which is not only the subject of her new novel – politics, history and the quandaries it throws up – but also where she is heading a few days after our outing. However, the place we are in today is the Montague Hotel in South Melbourne, a slightly out-of-the-way corner pub that does excellent food and is unfailingly welcoming.
Once we've settled into the dining room – you can eat the same food at the same prices in the bar – she tells me how heartened she was by the "burgeoning, big old-fashioned bookshops stocked to the eyeballs" she visited on her promotional tour for The Golden Land. Morrissey is a reader of the traditional book. When in Europe recently with her partner, Boris Janjic, whom she has known since her teens, "Boris went with his Kindle and I carried 7.5 kilos of books in my hand luggage – and brought them all back".
Eventually we confront the business of the day – choosing our food and drink. It's not easy. Morrissey suggests we share the duck and water chestnut spring rolls with a plum and chilli dipping sauce.
She plumps for the swordfish on a warm lentil salad with babaganoush and yoghurt, green beans on the side. I shouldn't have been surprised – "I love fish because I love fishing". It comes delicately grilled and the combinations delight her. I opt for the gnocchi – fried soft-centred rectangles that almost dissolve in the mouth – embellished with crisp slivers and nuggets of beetroot, asparagus, goat's curd and truffled pecorino. It looks fabulous – deep red is a winner – and the flavours are distinctive. Morrissey chooses our bottle of Riposte sauvignon blanc.
We know Morrissey these days for her novels; however, things might have been very different. In the late 1960s she was married to Peter Morrissey, who was with the US State Department. As Di wasn't an American citizen they couldn't be posted outside the US, so lived in Hawaii, where she worked in TV.
"When they started shooting Hawaii Five-O and it started to take off, they rang me and said could I audition. And they used me a few times because I was there. They didn't have to fly me over." Then the producers thought she might do for a full-time role as Jack Lord's secretary. "I went in to see them, seven months' pregnant, and their faces fell. I was not quite what they had imagined. Gabrielle was born, I became a US citizen and Peter was posted overseas, and that was the end of my TV career as an actor." The show's remake "is appalling".
When the marriage ended she returned to Australia and spent eight years on Channel Ten's Good Morning Australia. Then she thought she would write an outline for a TV drama, "have that made – this is my naivety – and be famous and then publish the book of it". An agent showed it to Pan Macmillan; the publisher suggested she turn the outline into a novel. Heart of the Dreaming was published 21 years ago, and it's been a novel a year since. "My year is dictated by my writing schedule and working backwards from knowing a book will be published every November."
Burma has been on her radar since the days when her grandfather would sing On the Road to Mandalay to her. "I've always had this idea of an exotic place called Rangoon, right up there with Casablanca, where I'd go someday."
More recently, she got involved with Burmese activists in Sydney, taking part in rallies and campaigning for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her son is a professor in the US specialising in Buddhist art history and he encouraged her to go to Burma. "I was there when the first political prisoners were released and you saw the doors beginning to open. But there are still a lot of human-rights issues."
The Golden Land focuses on a young Queensland mother who inherits a Burmese artefact. "Burma would never have come across her radar. As her awareness and knowledge and journey goes on, and her moral dilemma, I felt the readers would go on that same trip." Morrissey says the book is about two women making moral choices – "there's Aung San at one level, but equally a young woman is facing doing the right thing". Morrissey was hoping to meet Aung San Suu Kyi on this trip. "We have close mutual friends, put it that way, so I've been given a lot of help."
Morrissey has now returned to the town in which she was born after she felt Byron was changing for the worse. She was tempted to buy her grandfather's house, but it's close to the railway and a large road. Nevertheless, she had a squiz and found it virtually unchanged – the same handles on the doors into the lounge that, as a six-year-old, she would fling open when she put on shows for her grandparents.
That childhood changed overnight when she was 10 and her mother's husband and her little brother drowned. "It was terrible for me, but now . . . as a mother I think, how would you deal with losing a child and your husband like that?" It wasn't until Morrissey was in her 20s, working at The Australian Women's Weekly and needing a passport, that she discovered from the birth certificate her mother gave her that the husband, Bill, was her stepfather. "We never talked about it. It became such a taboo subject, it was so painful.
"Everybody had a kind of theory – he [her biological father] had treated her badly; or there was some issue which actually went back to him coming back damaged from the war."
Her father had other children, and on his deathbed asked them to find "their sister", which they duly did. "We're all wonderful close friends. We don't see each other a lot but . . ."
Morrissey had never been to a funeral until her mother died – "I've never been able to deal with death" – and she had to arrange it.
But she has learnt a lot as she matured, confronting her history and heritage and feeling secure that "things go on".
"I've never thought of this but I hate to lose people. If I have someone as a friend, if I meet someone, you're part of my life. I never let you go. I maintain relationships."