The enigmas of arrival: Novelist Michelle de Kretser on a life of leave-takings and homecomings

Interview: Is your journey really necessary? Max Liu talks to Michelle de Kretser about her prize-winning novel of travel and its discontents.

Before we discuss her epic new novel, I have a bone to pick with Michelle de Kretser. What, I ask, as soon as we're seated in the restaurant of the St Pancras hotel, is wrong with being born in Cornwall? De Kretser laughs, as she frequently will during our conversation, before explaining: "My mother's ancestors were from Cornwall so writing that Laura's mother was born there 'through no fault of her own' was a nod to them." Has she visited my home county? "I'm saving it up." I mutter the kind of mythologising platitudes (rugged coastline, dramatic sunsets) that de Kretser skewers in Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin, £12.99), her fourth, and best, book, which has just won the Miles Franklin Award - Australia's leading prize for fiction.

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Even though she lives in Sydney, I'm slightly surprised to learn that de Kretser hasn't ventured west of the River Tamar. Like Laura, one of two characters who the novel follows through four decades, she has travelled widely. Traversing Asia and Europe, Laura dreams of "transcending tourism". So has de Kretser managed to do this on her own journeys? "Never," she says, "but I knew for quite a while that I would write a novel about travel. I imagined two characters who represent the division between the global rich and the local poor: someone for whom travel is easy and someone for whom it's difficult."

Questions of Travel shares its title with Elizabeth Bishop's mesmerising poem, which de Kretser has loved for many years, but she makes only modest comparisons between herself and the American writer, who died in 1979: "Bishop achieves in a page and a half what I could only do in over 500 pages." She was initially "devastated" by the book's length, fearing that readers might be put off: "I thought, 'Who will read this?' But my agent said: 'A novel is as long as it needs to be. Get to the end and see how it works.'" De Kretser says she finds writing difficult but, like Bishop, who took 25 years to complete one poem, she makes it look easy.

The other protagonist of this moving, funny novel is Ravi, a Sinhalese man whose life is changed forever by the deaths of his wife and son. Against the backdrop of Sri Lanka's civil war, between the state and the Tamil Tigers, their murders are a perfectly judged piece of offstage slaughter, and Ravi's discovery of their bodies haunts the reader indefinitely.

AS Byatt has praised de Kretser for writing "quickly and lightly of wonderful and terrible things", but how does she go about describing atrocity? "It's easy to sentimentalise violence," she says. "Describing victimisation in great detail can glorify suffering. The murder of Ravi's wife and child is, I think, more shocking because it's described quickly."

De Kretser was 14 when she left Sri Lanka for Australia in the early 1970s and her childhood has shaped her fiction. "My last three novels have all been, in part, prolonged leave-takings of Sri Lanka," she observes. The family settled in Melbourne where much of her last novel, which was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2008, takes place. The Indian-born protagonist of The Lost Dog believes: "To possess a city it's necessary to have known it as a child."

Does de Kretser agree? "In crucial ways Australia still escapes me," she says. "If you've been to primary school in a place, your early memories give you a distinct purchase on it. Telling Laura's story made me nervous because it's the first time I've written about an Australian childhood."

Between the travel of her twenties and her emergence as a novelist in her early forties, de Kretser worked in academia, then as an editor at the Lonely Planet group. When I suggest that the best moments in both travel and literature resist explanation, she draws parallels between her previous careers: "When I was doing my PhD, the jargon of poststructuralist philosophy made things unnecessarily difficult and clichéd. Later, when I encountered corporate discourse, the deterioration of language drove me crazy again."

Did these frustrations also drive her towards writing? "I didn't see myself as a writer. As an academic and an editor, writers were always on the other side of the desk. Even when I took a year off work, and began my first novel, it was a while before I acknowledged what I was doing."

After The Rose Grower was published in 1999, de Kretser was working on her second novel when she had a startling experience in the British Library, next door to where we are today. Researching colonial Ceylon, which provides the 1930s setting for The Hamilton Case, she found a reference to a book by her father. "I'd completely forgotten that he'd written it. There was a copy in our house in Sri Lanka but it was left behind when we moved," she says.

Her father's book was a casualty of the division between before and after, which can define emigrant experience, but does fiction help to recover the losses of time and travel? "Absolutely. It pushes against the darkness. Philip Larkin said: 'The impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.' I'm interested in putting what is ephemeral in to books. That comes from a desire to resist the obliteration of the past."

Laura's travels eventually take her to London, where she befriends Theo, a troubled intellectual who believes that what everybody wants is to be loved unconditionally. I connect this yearning to the last line of Bishop's poem ("Should we have stayed at home/ wherever that may be?"), which de Kretser and I recite over the chatter and clatter of the restaurant, before she adds: "Even if she'd never left Australia, Laura would have been a floating person. She's searching for a connection to someone, to somewhere. Ravi must flee to save his life but he's still tethered to Sri Lanka by history and family. In that way, he's richer than Laura."

Ravi submits to a terrible ordeal so that he can obtain a visa to enter Australia where he will claim asylum. The episode raises questions about the role of NGOs in regions where corruption is rife and de Kretser, who agonised over her novel's sinister elements, says: "The horrible truth is that for somebody who's in danger, getting out of their own country can be even more difficult than being granted asylum in the west. That's why people try to sail across the Pacific Ocean on leaky boats."

The Australian government's stringent policies on immigration, she believes, belie the kindness of ordinary citizens: "I'm struck by how far out of their way Australians go to help asylum seekers. Many immigration lawyers work pro bono out of a desire for people to have fair representation." She was also determined not to idealise Ravi: "I wanted him to be intensely human, to get across the individuality of suffering. I hope the reader is engaged by his virtue and his flaws."

While he waits to learn if he can remain in Australia, Ravi works as a web developer at a travel-guide publisher. When Laura returns to Sydney, she gets a job at the same office and, with subtlety, de Kretser charts her characters' differing responses to historical events. Laura is shocked by 9/11, while for Ravi, who has lived in the shadow of mass murder, the attack in New York goes unmentioned. "A lucky country is one where history happens to other people on TV," says de Kretser, but the internet impacts on both protagonists as their employer scrabbles to adapt to the digital age. Neat metaphors contrast real and virtual travel: "Laura goes from one hyperlink to another while Ravi scrolls down a continuous story." Travel confirms our solitude and technology compounds it.

Even if Ravi is granted asylum, does he wish to stay? Years ago, his wife said: "Who'll be left if we all emigrate? Only idiots and brutes." Those who move from the periphery to the centre, from danger to sanctuary, from deprivation to opportunity, negotiate this dilemma, which is crucial to Ravi's story. De Kretser says: "He doesn't want to be a tourist in his own country. I dislike returning to Sri Lanka as a tourist because a tourist has no purpose. Ravi wants to be in a place which matters to him and to which he matters." Questions of travel are questions of home, wherever that may be.