Addiction to redemption: Unlikely tale leads to prestigious writing award
Georgia Tree with her dad Grant.
I can’t remember if I went first now, but I distinctly remember it was Ralphy who tied the fabric belt around my bicep and pulled it tight…I felt the pinch of the needle. When Ralphy undid the belt, I felt like I’d fallen into a hot bath. At the same time, I remember feeling nothing, not even my own skin. I felt so light, I thought I was dead. (Old Boy, page 78.)
When Curtin creative writing graduate Georgia Tree was in her 20s, she discovered shocking secrets about her father, Grant Tree.
The man who’d loved her, nurtured her interest in books, and taught her to read before she started primary school, was a former heroin addict, who spent time in Fremantle Prison for drug dealing.
During Covid, Georgia decided to write about her dad’s tumultuous past and unlikely friendship with notorious Perth drug dealer Brian Chambers (known as Charlie) in her book, Old Boy.
Shortlisted for the prestigious Fogarty Literary Award in 2021, the book is a moving tale of addiction, dumb luck, love and redemption.
With a love for storytelling and writing, Georgia said she dreamed of becoming a writer one day, but never thought her passion could ever lead to a promising career path.
The self-described book worm said when applying for Curtin, she wasn’t sure what to study.
“I decided to study journalism initially but at the last minute changed to a creative writing degree,’’ she said.
“In my mind it wasn’t a feasible thing to be a creative writer. It wasn’t like a real job. But I absolutely loved it and ended up doing my Honours as well.”
Following graduation, and despite enjoying her degree, Georgia still wasn’t convinced she could make a career out of being a writer, so she returned to Curtin to study a Master of International Relations and National Security, with hopes of joining the world of politics.
Starting as a volunteer for the Labor Party, Georgia eventually working her way up to senior policy advisor.
However, writing still called to her and a niggle to tell a story about a brave man who escaped the grips of addiction, played on her mind.
Grant Tree with his siblings in the 1960s.
“I knew I had to tell my dad’s story,’’ she said.
“He’d always told me I was the one to write his story and it was easily accessible to me. One of the first things we learn is ‘write what you know’.
“I thought, ‘no matter what it’s win-win, because I get to hear all these stories and it’s an amazing family and an interesting story as well.”
Told in parallel to her dad’s story, is the life of his friend, mentor and dealer Brian Geoffrey Chambers (known in the book as Charlie) who was executed in Malaysia in 1986 for drug dealing.
The pair met at Grant’s 20th birthday party and bonded over their shared taste in clothes, music and food.
For a brief but significant period, Georgia said their lives intertwined. And Brian recruited Grant to deal the heroin he was importing from Asia — even injecting him with a particularly potent batch of the drug.
“Dad became the go-to dealer for the surfers and musicians bumming around the western suburbs, while falling further into his own addiction and eventually living in his car,’’ she said.
In her book Old Boy, Georgia acknowledges her dad as being just your average, ordinary bloke.
“He grew up beachside in Perth’s western suburbs in the 1970s, when Perth was a ‘small-town’, perched on the edge of a vast coastline and riddled with heroin, which was trafficked in from South-East Asia and distributed from Fremantle Port,’’ she said.
An unstable childhood and fractured family with an absent mother, the likely trigger for his demise into the world of drugs.
At 19 Grant tried heroin at a party and soon succumbed to the grips of addiction.
An early morning raid by the cops a few years later, would land Grant in Perth’s most notorious and dangerous prisons – Fremantle Prison for four years.
The experience, ultimately changed his life.
I don’t really remember making a conscious choice to stop. It wasn’t like a switch had turned off in my head or anything like that, I just didn’t seek it out when I was inside. I can’t say I didn’t ever try it again. Any drug addict will tell you relapses are inevitable. And it’s embarrassing as hell. But they were few and far between. (Old Boy, page 140.)
Despite being excited about telling her father’s story, Georgia said there was much she didn’t know about his life, and she said she found the experience confronting, even painful at times.
“It wasn’t until adulthood that he told me about his incarceration and his drug addiction. He hinted at it, but I didn’t know the extent of it until later years, or the detail until we sat down when writing this book,” she said.
“The words, ‘I went to jail’ are jarring to hear from a parent because you just don’t expect it.
“It was shocking, I suppose. It’s just one of those things you think doesn’t happen to your family. As a child you are often cushioned from the realities of family dysfunction, or relationships that are strained…so reckoning with that as an adult has been an interesting experience.”
While Georgia’s dad managed to get clean and start a new life for himself, his good friend Brian was executed under Malaysia’s tough new drug laws – which were an attempt to crack down on the flourishing drug trade in the region.
The case made international headlines at the time with Australia’s then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke making a plea to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, for a stay of execution.
His representations were ignored, and he later described the hangings as ‘barbaric’, affecting Australia’s relations with Malaysia for more than a decade.
For years following, her dad grappled with why his life was spared while his friend’s wasn’t.
“Sometimes it all comes down to chance. Life and the world are inherently chaotic,’’ Georgia said.
“Anything could happen. Your parent could go to jail, you could go to jail, you could find yourself in this situation. There’s no binary right or wrong where good people don’t go to jail and bad people do.”
While writing Old Boy, Georgia said she felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
“My dad taught me how to read before I started school and for that I am grateful,” she said.
“Dad is very proud of the book. He’s proud of me anyway but, based on the number of books he’s asked me to sign and give to his friends, I think he’s pretty happy with it.”
These days, Georgia is a Senior Advisor in the Albanese Government, a role she loves.
“It’s fascinating. It’s really interesting and amazing being in the room where decisions are made,” she says.
“There’s also a lot of creativity in politics. I do more policy and strategy than communications but do get to write speeches and definitely lend my hand when there’s some writing to be done.”
So, what’s next?
“I’ve actually started to think about my next book. Possibly an Agatha Christie style mystery/thriller,” Georgia said.
“I’ve already started jotted down some notes.”
Watch this space.