A. S. Patric is a writer and bookseller. In 2016, his novel Black Rock White City won the Miles Franklin Prize. The novel was also listed by The Australian Book Review as one of the best novels of 2015, and was Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards 2016.
- Atlantic Black (2017)
- Las Vegas for Vegans (2012), shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards for the Steele Rudd Award 2013 and awarded the 2011 The Ned Kelly: SD Harvey Short Story Award
- Bruno Kramzer (2013), shortlisted in the 2013 Viva la Novella Competition
- The Rattler & other stories (2011), shortlisted for the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award.
Alec has taught Contemporary Fictions and Creative Nonfiction at the University of Melbourne and conducts novel and short story writing workshops nationally.
- Like Alec, Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman were (and remain) heavily influenced by the science fiction they read in their formative years.
- Mark Rubbo, Managing Director of Readings (where Alec works) reflects on the Australian book trade (and mentions sales of Alec's books at Readings stores).
- Alicia Sometimes, a poet, also discusses poetry and the links between lyrics and poetry.
- Alec was awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2016. If you are interested in literary fiction, listen to our interviews with Sofie Laguna (who was awarded the prize in 2015) and the 2017 Miles Franklin Shortlist.
- After winning the Miles Franklin Award, Alec joins the likes of Patrick White, Tim Winton, Thomas Keneally, Elizabeth Jolley and Peter Carey.
- Alec’s publisher is Transit Lounge.
- Alec’s grew up in a household with Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy on the shelves.
- Alec viewed science fiction (including Piers Anthony and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series and Foundation series) as his ticket out of the Western suburbs, and found science fiction more relevant to his life than Charles Dickens and Jane Austin.
- At the time of recording this interview, Alec was reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
- Alec recommend the little-known A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin.
- Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
- Alec was influenced by the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society.
- Nic mentioned Paul Kelley’s memoir How to Make Gravy.
- Both Alec and Nic consider Gerald Murnane a great Australian writer not even short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award.
- Alec works at Readings Books (one of the sponsors of Season 1 of The Garret Podcast).
Nic Brasch: Welcome to the Garret. A. S. Patric is the latest in a long list of esteemed writers who have claimed the Miles Franklin Award. Alec joins the likes of Patrick White, Tim Winton, Thomas Keneally, Elizabeth Jolley, Peter Carey. And the honour of this award isn’t lost on this self-described kid from the Western suburbs. We sat in one of the board rooms in the State Library of Victoria recently, and talked about writing. I wanted to learn about his process, his influences, and ultimately, why he writes. What I find is an immensely talented and honest writer. I started by asking him the question all award winners get asked: How did he do it?
Alec Patric: Lovely to be here Nic. Yeah, how did I do it? I lot of luck I think. It certainly wasn’t anyone’s bet. I couldn’t get the book published. I couldn’t get any of the publishers to really even seriously consider it. You know, for my book to actually win the Miles Franklin is just really mind-boggling. Also, an independent publisher like Transit Lounge is such a small publisher that the, sort of, red carpet isn’t unfurled every time a book comes out from them, whereas if you come out with a big publisher, you can have that sense of the awards being for, you know, your Allen & Unwins and whatever else. Those books are big productions in their…
Nic: The story of you winning it is a story of inspiration for all the talented writers out there, isn’t it really?
Alec: I think what it is also is, it’s a sea change really. I think also for independent publishing versus your big publishing houses, which to me seem to be part of a broken publishing industry. The independent publishers are the publishers that are still considering manuscripts, they’re still looking broadly, they’re looking to represent various voices, and I don’t really see that kind of thing happening from the major publishing houses.
Nic: More willing to take the risk, and they’re reaping the benefits in awards and what have you.
Alec: Yeah, you could use that word, risk. I don’t know, I think there are better words than risk. It’s just a question of what publishing means to you or what you’re really about. Is it a search for vivid, vibrant representations of Australian culture, is it about art, is it about… I suppose those big publishing houses would say, yeah, it is for them. I don’t know though. I think when an editor picks up a book and they have to go consult their promotions and…
Nic: The marketing.
Alec: … publicity people to okay it, well that already is part of the problem. Not to say you can’t have commercial considerations, but commercial consideration shouldn’t entail a whole department of people.
Nic: I guess with the independent publishers that their recognition, that there are, niche audiences can be large enough to be financially sustainable, or profitable, and that you don’t just have to go for the…
Alec: In terms of, you used that word niche audiences. In terms of literature in Australia I don’t know what is ‘niche’, you know? Because Australian literature in itself isn’t big enough to have all the smaller compartments that fit within it.
Nic: That’s true.
Alec: You can have a book, it doesn’t have to be like a, by a major writer with a major Hollywood filmable plotline for it to be successful.
Nic: That’s two terms you’ve picked me up on already. I’m scared of continuing.
Nic: Let’s go on anyway. I’ve been asking other writers to fill us in on their early reading experiences. Who or what were you reading as a child, and then through your teens and into your twenties?
Alec: Well I grew up in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. So, the Western suburbs of Melbourne were pretty – especially when I grew up there in the early 70s or mid 70s – we’d built a house and it as surrounded by paddocks, and there weren’t any services or anything. The only thing you had were roads and powerlines, and just those paddocks as far as you could see. So, we saw those paddocks being slowly filled in, I didn’t even feel like I was part of the suburbs. It was like some kind of frontier.
But my parents were, I wouldn’t say that they were really… they were working class people, but they had an appreciation for literature. We had books on the shelves and they were writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and those kinds of names were uttered in my house like you would the names of saints. So there’s that kind of sense of appreciation. Anytime I said to my mother ‘Can we go to the library?’ that was the one guarantee. It was like ‘drop everything. Okay, we’re going to the library’.
I would sometimes spend the whole day reading. Considering that cultural wasteland that I sort of grew up in, I suppose it’s not really, totally radical, to have a kid that’s deeply interested in science fiction. Science fiction was the ticket out of there.
Nic: (Laughs). Almost every writer says that, who I’ve spoken to. Science fiction is just… absolutely.
Alec: Yeah, It certainly was for me. I think of the earliest things… I should say, no one in my neighbourhood read. I didn’t know anyone else that was reading.
And, I’m not sure why I picked it up, but I suppose it was because I found a connection to humanity in those books. I wasn’t really interested in the stuff that you know, in primary school, high school, and just generally speaking, like Charles Dickens and Austen and whatever else. Those kinds of writers were even more removed from my life than the science fiction writers were. Because, Charles Dickens, he’s London, and Jane Austin is England, what do those things mean to me? Living on that sort of frontier experience. It wasn’t really a frontier experience; it wasn’t like that. A frontier experience would probably be a little bit more interesting.
Alec: You kind of imagine, like, Daniel Boone or something like that in the wilderness. It was just like scrub as far as you could see, there wasn’t even any rivers.
Nic: Which science fiction writers do you recall capturing your imagination?
Alec: Well, there were periods where Piers Anthony was a major writer for me. I could spend the whole the weekend, every single moment from waking to going to sleep on a Saturday and Sunday, reading Piers Anthony, or reading Isaac Asimov. He was a really major love for me as well. Not only his I, Robot series, which were great ethical stories, but his Foundation series were epic visions of history, both in the future but also in the past.
The thing with science fiction is that it always had that sort of forward thinking, forward looking thing, but in fact it was really always examining the past. Just in a kind of way that would be a little more accessible to someone like myself, growing up in the Western suburbs. I didn’t have to memorise all the dates and all the names, but I was still getting a sense of…
Nic: That’s right. And it’s still dealing with the human condition.
Alec: That’s right. Our limitations and our aspirations and all those things feeding into my own sense of what was possible for me.
Nic: And, at this point, were you writing yourself? Were you considering writing as a…
Nic: … oh I should I say it… as a career? As something you wanted to continue and pursue?
Alec: Sure. You know, when I was growing up I was okay at sports, but I wasn’t great at anything, and what I had in front of me was some kind of labouring job. I saw friends of mine become apprentice butchers by the age of 14 or 15. And, that’s, you know, you go to see your mate that you’ve been playing cricket with, just in the streets in your driveway, and he’s now chopping up carcasses of pigs or whatever. It’s a pretty scary sort of thing. And then, working with my dad on the weekends in his factory, he was an engineer in a gear making factory, so I worked with him. And, I was like, that’s the only thing that’s in front of me.
But, I suppose, then I sort of felt, actually, like the only thing I am actuallygood at, was writing. I just seemed to somehow have a facility for it. I’m not a big believer in talent, I suppose. The way I define talent is just simply, a facility for it. Kind of like, let’s say, if you’ve got a facility for swimming, it’d mean having huge feet like Ian Thorpe. Have you seen his feet? He’s got to be a swimmer, right?
Alec: So, for me being a writer was just having a love for literature, but also, you’ve got to have some kind of desperation as well, which is like, redefine myself, get out of here, become something. Because, I wasn’t going to content myself with being what I saw, butchers, apprentice, or working in a factory. So, those kinds of writers offered me a way out.
Nic: Were you encourage by teachers at school who recognised your passion?
Alec: No, not really.
Alec: Well, I’ll tell you. I started writing poetry when I was in primary… high school I should say. And, I found my friends who I showed the poems to, actually kind of responded to it, which was unusual because they didn’t read poetry. Then I started writing a science fiction novel at some point, and mainly I was like dreaming up a novel. I wasn’t actually writing pages and pages and pages, but I was writing out the way the narrative might develop, and what kind of characters would be in there. And, I think it was heavily based on Frank Herbert’s Dune, and those kinds of books that I was reading at the time.
I do really remember this one, really significant moment when I was in… To answer your question, because you asked me ‘didn’t your teachers encourage you?’ I think the teachers that I had were pretty, I don’t know, they weren’t really involved in their job, I don’t think they really cultivated anyone. They were just people doing their jobs, you know what I mean? More or less effectively but, generally pretty mediocre sort of jobs that they were doing teaching kids. It was the Western suburbs, I don’t think they really put that much expectation into any of those kids.
But, there was this one time where we had this English lesson where we could write anything we wanted, anything we wanted. No ‘write about a response to Charles Dickens’ or anything like this.
Nic: No prompt.
Alec: No, just whatever you like, and that kind of blew my mind. Anything I like. I wasn’t even that kind of kid that would go home and do homework, I just sort of somehow managed to get by throughout most of my early high school without doing much homework. But, I did go home and I was really taken by the idea. I sat down and I spent a few hours writing this story.
And the next day, or maybe the next week, the teacher was reading out the three best stories in the class, and I was just at the back of the room as usual not really paying attention, I wasn’t really engaged by the teacher or what she was talking about, but, she read the first one, she read the second one, then she started reading the third one, and the third one was mine. To me that was the first time I’d been acknowledged by a teacher, actually, in any kind of way of significance. That put up to some kind of achievement, you know?
Nic: Sure, sure.
Alec: And I think that was a significant moment for me because it made me feel like, well it’s not just my friends responding to some of the poems I’ve written, which is kind of about our lives and our interests.
But this was just an… and it was also a really unusual story. I still remember it. It was about a guy who’s an assassin and he’s tracking some other guy, and in the end he kills that person, and the final thing is that there is someone tracking that guy and he’s about to kill that assassin. And, it was this idea of infinite regression or, one person ready to kill another person, but I just sort of… and then she liked that story. It really blew my mind that you could have that kind of story.
Nic: So that decision by that teacher was a significant decision? I’m trying to make up to the teachers that are listening here, for what you were saying before about them. And, I’m just going to point out that all those that work in Western suburbs, let’s call it, let’s put it down to a matter of… that was the past rather than the present.
Alec: Well, I just can’t help but feel, Nic, when I consider that moment, that it would’ve been cool if that teacher came up to me after the class and said, ‘You know I really liked that story, I think you do something with this.’
Nic: So, all they did was read them was it?
Alec: That was all.
Nic: Oh, okay.
Alec: And, there was never any sense of the teacher going to me, ‘Yeah you could do this, you should do this’. It was like, no. For all of them and everyone around me it was impossible to become a writer.
Nic: I know today you work at a Readings store, one of our beloved partner organisations on The Garret. Which contemporary authors or books have caught your attention lately? I mean, it’s like everyone’s dream to work in a bookstore, but so many books would come in you obviously can’t read them all. How do you choose, what excites you?
Alec: It’s a flood. I feel like, or rather, maybe not a flood. The metaphor I have in my mind is like being one of those air traffic controllers in New York, and you’ve got thousands of planes in the air, and you’ve only got one landing strip to land all those planes. Honestly, most of the planes in my airfield are just crashing.
Alec: There’s so many books I want to read and I’ve just only got time to just read. And what happens like right now is I’m reading Moby Dick. There’s a lot of planes crashing like that because it’s such a big book. It’s such a crazy book as well. You’re not only finding time to read the very latest books that are coming out, like I said, I’m reading Herman Melville, but there’s lovely new editions that come out of a particular book and that re-ignites your interest in giving that book another go. Especially with something like Moby Dick, the text is so small and you find this big, beautiful, hardback edition come out, you give it another go. But, books that… It’s a constant conversation with the people I’m working with as well, like Lucia Berlins’ book Manual for Cleaning Women, that’s an amazing book, and I feel like what happens with a book like that is that, it’s not getting general appreciation, not a lot of people are talking about it, but amongst writers and amongst book sellers, a book like that is gathering a reputation and momentum that keeps it alive and eventually it sort of trickles out into a broader literary community. And, more people start reading a book like that.
Nic: How do you react when people come up to the counter with Black Rock White City?
Alec: It’s always a thrill.
Nic: I bet it is. Do you tell them?
Alec: No, I don’t.
Nic: You don’t?
Alec: Not when they’re buying my book. Unless, these days they know. I use to actually be able to – when the books just came out – once or twice actually, sell the book to a customer looking for a book that was set in Melbourne. And, I’d go ‘Oh you might want to try Black Rock White City’. And, they didn’t know it was me, but you don’t really feel comfortable doing that. And, you also don’t mention it to a customer that you’re talking to, having a good literary conversation with about books, because then they sort of feel like, obliged to buy your book.
Nic: (Laughs) Obliged to buy it.
Alec: You could see that in their eyes, you don’t want to do that.
So, I prefer not to say it, but yeah it’s always a real thrill, especially the other books. With Black Rock White City I’m almost a little bit blasé about it, because since the Miles Franklin it’s done well, it’s been moving pretty steadily. But when someone picks up The Rattler and Other Stories or Bruno Kramzer or Las Vegas for Vegans, it’s a real sort of thrill. Literally my heart literally jumps like ‘Oh! My book.’
Nic: Well, speaking of them, you had written and published collections of short stories and a novella prior to Black Rock White City, what’s the key to writing a good short story as opposed to an extended story? What are the differences? Different approach from the very beginning, or is there a certain you get and you go, that’s going to work as a short story, but it won’t as an extended story?
Alec: Yeah. I would say that different lengths have also got different internal structures to those ideas as well. Like, there’s something organically different about an idea for a short story, an idea for a poem, an idea for a flash fiction, or an idea for a novel. Let’s say you were a crime writer and wanted to write a series of novels, that’s really an epic, you know? That could last ten or twelve volumes, it’s kind of investment. In that case, probably not so much an idea but a character, and what makes that character unique, how that character connects to you.
And, that’s just to say that, there’s all kinds of ways that a writer finds engaging with ideas, but the main thing is that you find something that really animates you and excites you.
And, with a lot of my short stories, the things that were really exciting to me was, formal properties sometimes. Like, can I write a story that’s unattributed dialogue? And, that’s just all it is, and actually still tell a story. Have all the narrative movement, and then you’ve got to actually find a way to frame that. Sometimes it can be that sort of idea.
Sometimes it could be an idea of like, what happens if you woke up one morning and your wife had just disappeared, and every trace of her existence has gone? It’s like you’ve never met her or married her, how do you explore that sort of idea? So, that becomes the basis of another kind of story.
Yeah, sometimes it’s an idea. Sometimes it’s a formal sort of challenge. It’s always different. I always feel like you’ve just got to be open to all kinds of possibilities when you’re a writer.
Nic: But, something like Black Rock White City, do you have the idea and go, that is definitely a novel, not a short story? And, why do you think that?
Alec: Sure. Well, firstly I had this phrase that was rolling around in my head. I woke up with it, and it was ‘life on crumbs’. I think that someone at work in the bookstore the day before had mentioned something, life on crumbs or something like that, I don’t know. But, I woke up with that phrase rolling around in my head, and then I just sort of had this idea that there was some graffiti on a wall, and ‘life on crumbs’ might have been the thing that was written on the wall. I thought it might be the title for a short story. So, that graffiti was a particular type of toxic graffiti, it was sort of coming out of the walls of a hospital. And I thought, and what would happen when language and ideas become like a disease, seeping out of the atmosphere, infecting your mind? That was the sort of general idea of Black Rock White City, but, it could’ve been a short story.
Alec: It would have been a short story except that I thought to myself, who’s going to be cleaning up that graffiti? And I thought to myself, it’s usually like an immigrant, someone from another country. I thought, what if he was a Bosnian man refugee? I’d met Bosnian refugees in the late 90s, and as soon as I thought what if it’s a Bosnian refugee, and he was a poet, and he had to have left his poetry behind because it was a different language, and those books had burnt in that awful war, the Bosnian war. Then that exploded. That really exploded. Then that was no question that was not a short story anymore, that was a novel, because there’s so much then to explore with that character.
Alec: You’ve got to have a character, I think. Now, I suppose I say that because I feel like really a novel is a million ideas. Every sentence has to have an idea.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Alec: You can have big thematic ideas that create a structure or whatever else, yeah. But, there’s a million ideas packed into it. So, I feel like, when I had Jovan Brakochevich, that character, and then I met his wife, and I fell in love with her and I thought she was a great character as well. Then that novel just came to life for me.
And, I think that’s what you’re trying to do when you write, is to find something that feels compelling to you. You’ve got to be the first person that’s responding to these things. So, the scenes that I write with Jovan in them, I’m like laughing, and there are scenes I’m writing with those characters in them where I’m crying.
Nic: One thing I really loved about it, and you were talking before about a million ideas in a novel, is that each sentence, the start of each sentence contains its own world, its own idea. It was one of those novels I was reading almost cursing you, I loved every single sentence of it.
Alec: Thank you.
Nic: There wasn’t a sentence that seemed as if it was wasted. You could tell that each sentence was crafted and was there with a particular purpose, and that you knew what that purpose was. I don’t know how much you took out and drafted, you know, in the re-drafting process. But, I’m going jeez, damn he is so damn good with every sentence.
Alec: (Laughs). Well, that came from that short story past. I felt like what I wanted to do in so many of the novels I’d been reading, that even in good novels, there’s often these passages, whole sections of the novel that just feel really repetitive and you know, just fat. Really just fat. It’s not really necessary.
And then, when I started writing this novel, I was writing a lot of short stories, and what I wanted to do, I wanted to keep those short story ethics going through this novel as well, so that every chapter would read like a short story. It would have a beginning, middle and end, it would be as tight as a short story, there would be no fat in it, there would be nothing extra in it. But, also focus on every single word and every single sentence being as necessary as the next, you know? And never losing that, never losing that tightness.
Nic: Absolutely. You spoke about poetry being a part of the novel and a major part of it, and the poetry in it certainly shows your love and interest in poetry. Where did that first come from? Because, you spoke before about writing poetry as a kid. Were there particular poets that inspired or did you read a poem and went wow or was it just typical teenage angst when you started writing poetry? It’s obviously continued to this day. What is it about poetry that you love, and why is so damn impossible to have poetry published in this country?
Alec: Well, I don’t know. I suppose people get what used to be the only place you could find a fix for in poetry, they find it lyrically, in music. And, if you look at how popular music is, how important it is to people, they’re just listening to music all the time. The lyrics that they’re listening to, how rarely is it just music? So, the lyrics are still very, very significant.
Alec: And, we see, in terms of lyrics now, we see, like Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize for Literature. So, it’s to say that ultimately those distinctions are blurred. And, just for a general person, it doesn’t need to be something incredibly complicated or abstract, for them to enjoy it. In fact, what general people want, is something that’s going to speak directly. And, sometimes it’s going to be really repetitive or really evasive, but it’s still coming from the heart, and their feeling that sincerity to it. So, it’s got that poetic charge to it.
And I think that’s why poetry, when we talk about that thing that you find in the poetry section of a bookstore, has been diminished to that small role because it’s been taken over by lyrical expression.
And, to answer the other part of your question, which is, where do I get my love of poetry? It’s from music essentially, but it’s also from films. When I was young I watched the film ‘Dead Poet Society’. That was significant. You know, I went out and looked up those poets, and there was a sort of spirit of that… Of loving something even if it’s not popular. Even if it’s not something that people are talking about anymore, as though it’s…
Also, when I grew up in the early 90s, I should say when independent music came out, it was about going out and finding things that no one else knew about. It wasn’t about waiting for it to come through on Triple M Radio, or one of these main broadcasting things. You wanted to find something for yourself that came through to you, almost as though it was from one person to another, and almost no one else is listening. There’s a beauty to that as well, of that discovery.
Nic: That comparison with song lyrics and what-have-you is so apt, because it brings to mind Paul Kelley’s memoir How to Make Gravy, which I absolutely adored, I’m a huge fan of Paul Kelley. You read it, and if you hadn’t heard his music you’d be reading it as poetry. If you didn’t know the songs…
Alec: I mean it is poetry.
Nic: It’s got all the lyrics. It’s totally poetry.
Alec: Yeah, absolutely.
Nic: And, it’s only when you add the music it becomes something else. And, it’s glorious poetry.
Alec: Yeah. Look at, listen to that song ‘Bradman’, that’s an amazing song. It’s not only… and it’s also a particular kind of poetry, that tells history. And, that’s that kind of epic poetry that, for me was really effective in communicating to me a part of Australian history that I wasn’t directly involved with, because Bradman was already… well he wasn’t dead but he was gone from the scene when I came up. And, through Paul Kelley’s song I’m getting a glimpse at what it was like to be living in that time, and what the significance of Bradman was during the Depression in Australia. How much of a resurrective force he was to fathers and sons, you know what I mean? That definitely is poetry. It needs music to really deliver itself to your heart and soul, but it’s still poetry.
You know, I was born in Belgrade, but I came to Australia before I was even 2, and I used to always just ride off that history as like a pre-history. I couldn’t possibly remember anything that happened when I was 1 in Belgrade. But, then I started writing about something, and there was a sense of a memory, there was something. There was a sort of idea of this place, Belgrade, as being a white city – which is what it literally translates to English. Belgrade [with accent], which is the name Belgrade, it means White City.
But, I remember it being like a white city, just like ice and snow everywhere. And, I was talking to my mother at some point, after writing a piece about this experience of Belgrade as being ice and snow, and from the perspective of this baby. She said, ‘Well, yeah. Belgrade that year, before we left, had its worst blizzard for like twenty or thirty years’.
So, there is that sort of ability, that writing leads you into the deepest parts of yourself, and you discover aspects, it’s almost like archaeology, you discover these forgotten rooms, this whole strata of your being that has just been gone. I do think, through writing, writers become, it’s possible they become, come into contact, with the deepest aspects of themselves. And, then through that as well, into actually a deeper history, and not only anymore being in reference to an ego and its individual biographical history. But, to the sense of the history of our species.
And, then when I started, when I mentioned before, I grew up reading a lot of science fiction writers, I moved onto the Russian writers at one point, and they just blew my mind with the depth of that excavation of being that I felt was happening with someone like Dostoyevksy, or someone like Tolstoy, and that sense of his history. And, then you go further back and you read someone like Homer. Homer’s like a presence, he’s not only is he a presence, like a ghostly sort of figure, you actually feel his character and his personality.
Alec: And, that’s like over two thousand years ago. And, somehow that’s still part of a continuum that leads from Ancient Greece to you here in Melbourne…
Nic: Of course.
Alec: Reading him.
Nic: What parts of the writing process do you find easiest and what do you find hardest? And from that you can talk not just about the writing but the re-drafting or editing process. Do you struggle with any of it, or what comes naturally?
Alec: That’s an interesting question because I feel like, there’s a part of my mind that wants to say that it all flows and it comes easily, that’s how it feels when it’s working.
Nic: It reads like that. It reads like that. That’s why I asked, because it reads as if it just flows like that.
Nic: And, that’s another reason I hate you.
Alec: That’s how it works sometimes, and that’s how it feels sometimes. But, more often than not, I think there’s a sense of crisis that’s constantly in your life. Like, every day, what will I write today, it’s never clear. I don’t know, some writers might write with a sense of formula, they’ve sort of mapped it all out, and they’re just going to connect all the dots from there, sort of plan that they’ve started out. But, if you writing every day and looking for something that’s going to surprise you, that’s the only way you can surprise your reader, is if you’re surprised yourself, and surprise yourself on the page as it’s happening. And, then, you know, try to keep those surprises happening.
So, yeah I feel like on the one hand when you find that, those pages, and it’s working, it feels like it’s a flow and it just feels wonderful. But I think that what we do is retroactively delete and forget the crisis that feels constantly imminent. Like, there’s a way in which writing is proof of existence. It comes from the sort of, like sense that everything evaporates eventually. Even the people that love you today, they are also going to die and disappear. So that eventually, the only thing that’s remaining from your existence, are these things that you’ve managed to make art out of from your life, put down on paper.
So, if you function on that level, it’s like what today, can I show for my life? What proves today wasn’t just something that evaporated with no significance, there was something in it? And, I feel like every day is a desperate search for some moment of significance, something that gives you that sense of being, of finding that level of being in yourself rather than this feeling of existing only on the superficial levels of your life, and that just sort of drifts out and is just kind of washed away. You’re kind of looking for these things to give yourself a sense of contact with existence.
I suppose, like that’s the answer. To many people it might sound mystical, but I just don’t know what people, how people generally feel satisfaction in their lives, if they’re not finding that level of being. If it’s just about accumulating money and assets and having a nicer car every year. I just look at that and I think how do you find satisfaction in that? Doesn’t that just disappear when that car starts getting older?
Nic: I agree with you there.
Alec: So, I suppose when it’s just looking for a more permanent state of happiness. Of just like finding things in your life that genuinely give you that sense of connection.
For me, the act of writing and reading is an act of humanity. It’s the way we have of stepping outside of the ego and it’s small concerns, of it’s various vanities, and finding something that feels broader than that, more significant than that.
Nic: What did it mean to win the Miles Franklin? Does it add pressure? The day before the Miles Franklin you hadn’t won it, was there a difference the day after? Is there a difference months later? Do you feel added pressure working on the next work, or do you just take it and move on, and go well, that was nice?
Alec: The experience of something as massive as the Miles Franklin is just constantly a changing experience.
Nic: Okay, so when I read the names of some of the others at the beginning…
Nic: It’s extraordinary. You’re now, I’m not saying you’re Patrick White or David Malouf yet, but you’re… you’ve won the same award that those people award, that’s pretty damn impressive.
Alec: Yeah. But, then there were great writers like Gerald Murnane who was never even short-listed for the Miles Franklin.
Nic: Absolutely, now that’s true.
Alec: And he’s amazing.
Nic: He is amazing.
Alec: There’s lots of great writers that…
Nic: He’s probably the most under estimated writer in Australia.
Alec: Yeah. There’s lots of really great writers that haven’t been short-listed. That doesn’t, you know…
Nic: That’s true, but it is…
Alec: I’m not trying to be… I’m not even sure what the reverse would be. Just, the experience really is, isn’t straight forward. Like, there are days where I’ll be thinking ‘I won the Miles Franklin’. I’ll feel as surprised as I was the day that they called and announced it.
Nic: Sure, yeah.
Alec: And, there are also days where I think to myself ‘you can’t let this change you’. Because, writing has to come from a quite humble place.
Alec: If you start thinking to yourself, I’m some kind of big writer like a Patrick White or, you know, David Malouf was the other person that you said. If you start thinking of yourself as being some kind of giant of literature, you’re going to produce shit.
Nic: Sure, of course.
Nic: Yeah, you’ve got to be true to yourself no matter what.
Alec: Well, to me, the place where it comes from doesn’t care about those… The writing, if it’s going to some from a genuine source of energy, if it’s going to come from somewhere that’s not corrupted and not egotistical, it’s got to come from somewhere that doesn’t care about something like the Miles Franklin.
But, there’s another part of me that just the other day, like a few weeks ago I was like thinking to myself ‘I’m 44 years old, I published three books before Black Rock White City, how much longer was I going to keep on going?’
Alec: And, it’s sort of like almost like it was a horrifying thing. How much longer could I have gone, without something like this happening? Because, I’m working in a bookstore part time, some of the people that work in the bookstore are like 20 years old. I’m 44. How much longer can I go? And, it’s not like the Miles Franklin means you can just quit your job.
Nic: No, of course not.
Alec: It’s not millions of dollars, it’s only like $65,000, and, oh right, there’s sales as well that come with your book. But, what I’m trying to say is that there’s ways in which that award takes years to process.
On the one hand you’re simply delighted. There’s another aspect, like I started saying about growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, at one point you start thinking to yourself, ‘Could I do this thing, being a writer? I don’t know any writers, I don’t know how that works, but could I do this? Could I write stories?’ And, at one point you come across something, the Miles Franklin Award. You don’t know who that was, you don’t know anything about it other than that’s the most significant award you can win in Australian literature. So that lodges in the back of your mind. But, there was never a moment in my life when I was young that I thought ‘That’s something that’s going to happen one day, I’m going to win’. But, if you’re like from a wealthy family in a wealthy suburb you grow up and your parents are probably saying to you, ‘Yeah, of course you can do that, that’s part of the plan. If you don’t achieve the Miles Franklin then we kind of think of you as being a failure in some way’. You know what I mean?
Alec: So, for me coming from the Western suburbs and winning something like the Miles Franklin, is just science fiction.
Nic: Sure, yeah.
Alec: It’s also incredibly affirming, because what you’re trying to write about are experiences that are significant to you, you know? And, I grew up and I was looking at the lives of my parents and the lives of family friends, and I didn’t see those lives represented anywhere. Not in Australian TV, not in Australian radio, not in Australian literature. I didn’t see those lives being represented, so that’s the reason why a lot of the experiences isn’t just about refugees in Black Rock White City, but it’s the immigrant experience.
Nic: It is. And, there’s also, there’s a lot of humanity in your characters that comes through.
Alec: Yeah, and those immigrant experiences, that humanity, is something that I wanted to take from my mother, my father and those deep sources of affection that you find in your family home, and have a place for those voices to be heard, those lives to be represented.
And, for something like the Miles Franklin to come along and say… You know, there’s one aspect of an award like that, that just is like excellence in literature, but there’s also another aspect to that award that says ‘these are the representations of Australia that matter’.
And, if you grow up and it’s just an Anglo-Saxon representation, just the white male perspective, patriarchal perspective, and that just keeps on going on for one generation after another. That feels totally irrelevant to you, but I’m hoping that a story like this represents a type of story that, ten years ago you wouldn’t have heard of.
Nic: On that note, it’s been an absolute delight talking, and I could keep going now for three hours. It’s been an absolute delight, we’ve got to wrap it up unfortunately, but I’d like to thank you for your insights, your honest insights, just giving us a taste – well, more than a taste – but, an idea of what the whole process of writing involves, the thinking, the philosophy, everything that you shared with us. I want to thank you greatly for being part of The Garret. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.
Alec: Yeah, lovely to do it with you, thanks.
Nic: Thanks Alec, cheers.