The Garret has a lofty aim: to interview all living writers who have been awarded the Miles Franklin Award. We are on our way, with interviews with A. S. Patric and Sofie Laguna (to be published 6 July 2017). The shortlist for the 2017 Miles Franklin was announced on 18 June 2017, and this episode - featuring all five shortlisted authors - was released on 20 June 2017.
This episode features interviews with all five shortlisted authors: Emily Maguire (An Isolated Incident), Mark O'Flynn (The Last Days of Ava Langdon), Ryan O'Neill (Their Brilliant Careers), Philip Salom (Waiting) and Josephine Wilson (Extinctions).
- A. S. Patric was awarded the Miles Franklin for Black Rock White City in 2016, and is mentioned in this episode by Ryan O'Neill.
- Sofie Laguna was awarded the Miles Franklin for her second novel The Eye of the Sheep in 2015, and shortlisted for her first novel One Foot Wrong in 2009.
- Toni Jordan was longlisted for the Miles Franklin for Addition in 2008. She recommended Ryan O'Neill's Their Brilliant Careers in her previous episode, and we played her audio to Ryan in this episode.
Emily Maguire is the author of the novels Taming the Beast (2004), an international bestseller and finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Kathleen Mitchell Award, The Gospel According to Luke (2006), Smoke in the Room (2009) and Fishing for Tigers (2012). Emily is also a social commentator, with her articles and essays on sex, religion and culture having been published in newspapers and journals including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Review, The Big Issue and The Griffith Review.
Mark O’Flynn’s fiction and poetry have been widely published in Australian journals as well as overseas. His novels include Grassdogs and The Forgotten World, and he has published five collections of poems, most recently The Soup’s Song. He has also published the comic memoir False Start and a collection of short fiction, White Light.
Ryan O’Neill is the author of The Weight of a Human Heart and Their Brilliant Careers. He was born in Glasgow in 1975 and has lived in Africa, Europe and Asia before settling in Australia with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has appeared in The Best Australian Stories, The Sleepers Almanac, Meanjin, New Australian Stories, Wet
Ink, Etchings and Westerly. His work has won the Hal Porter and Roland Robinson awards and been shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Steele Rudd Award and the Age Short- Story Prize. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.
Philip Salom is a poet and novelist. Several of his collections have won national and international acclaim, including the Commonwealth Poetry prize in London, and his two previous novels between them have won the WA Premier’s Prize, a Canberra Times Book of the Year, and shortlisting for the ASL Gold Medal. His recent poetry collection Alterworld completes the trilogy of his earlier works Sky Poems and The Well Mouth.
Josephine Wilson's writing career began in the area of performance. Her early works included The Geography of Haunted Place, Customs and Cusp. Her novel Extinctions was the winner of the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Prize. She teaches at Curtin University.
- Emily Maguire was influenced by P. M. Newton, and in particular her work The Old School.
- The long-form narrative journalism Emily mentions is In Small Places, published published in July 2015 in Right Now.
- Mark O’Flynn first wrote Eleanor and Eve, a play that imagines a meeting between Eva Langley and Eleanor Dark. The Last Days of Ava Langdon is his second exploration of Eva Langley’s life and death.
- The Dick and Jane books mentioned by Mark were reissued by Penguin Random House in the United States.
- We interviewed Toni Jordan in late 2016 for Season 1 of The Garret, and she happened to mention Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers.
- Ryan mention’s the Lost in Track Changes project by if:book, which you can find here.
- Nic and Ryan refer to previous Australian literary hoaxes, including Ern Malley and Helen Demedenko.
- The first book Ryan read when he came to Australia was For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke.
- Ryan also refers to Australian writers Steele Rudd, Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse.
- Vivian Darkbloom, used by Ryan in Their Brilliant Careers, is the anagram used by Vladimir Nabokov.
- Ryan recommends reading contemporary Australian writers Alec Patric, as well as Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck and Julie Koh’s short fiction, Portable Curiosities.
- Philip Salom refers to the colourful swearing habits of Peter Capaldi (of Dr Who fame).
- Josephine Wilson admires Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.
Nic Brasch: This episode features interviews with the five writers shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award. According to the judges, these five books celebrate the diversity of voices and approaches to writing about Australian life.
Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident…
Emily Maguire: It’s the truth. It’s the reality of any death, and particularly in this case of violent murder. That victim can’t speak. That’s why it’s sad, that’s why it’s terrible. Their voice is gone.
Nic: Mark O’Flynn, The Last Days of Ava Langdon…
Mark O’Flynn: She changed her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde, and I thought, ‘Wow, there is something there’. So I found out a bit more, and I thought ‘That’s too good not to use’, so I used that.
Nic: Ryan O’Neill, Their Brilliant Careers…
Ryan O’Neill: It’s an odd book, and I felt a bit sorry for Black Inc in terms of the marketing, because I know it has actually popped up in the non-fiction section of the shops.
Nic: Philip Salom, Waiting…
Philip Salom: You have to have your own love affair with your own style somewhere, otherwise I think you’re sort of… bloodless. And if you don’t have that kind of love affair with both your work, but also the way you’re doing the work, you’re doing something less than you might.
Nic: And Josephine’s Wilson’s Extinctions…
Josephine Wilson: Part of what I wanted the book to do was to function on a n umber of levels, and to resonate and… Perhaps if I were to summarise it here, it would sound like a potboiler.
Nic: This episode is a little different. We usually speak to authors about the craft of writing. This time, we’ll speak to each author about their shortlisted books. We’ll feature the winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award about their approach to writing in a future episode of The Garret. It is my pleasure to share with you these stories.
Emily, congratulations on your shortlisting and welcome to The Garret.
Emily: Thank you very much.
Nic: In An Isolated Incident, you’ve turned the crime fiction genre on its head somewhat. Are you a fan of crime fiction?
Emily: Huge fan of crime fiction, read heaps of it, and also a lot of true crime as well.
Nic: When did you start getting into the genre, is this a long time ago, or…?
Emily: True crime in particular, yeah. One of my sisters and I, we had a really nasty dirty habit of reading what I now realise were really trashy, exploitative true crime books.
Emily: A bit of an addiction. And also our dad got us on to – really inappropriately, now I realise – suspense thrillers, so less straight crime but you know, your Alfred Hitchcock and all of those things we grew up watching. And then as time’s gone on, I’ve always loved crime fiction. You know, I mean it such a huge genre…
Nic: Which crime fiction writers have you particularly enjoyed over the years?
Emily: Yeah. I really loved – she’s not hugely prolific, but the Sydney writer P. M. Newton has a couple of crime novels that I just think have been actually really influential to my thinking, and some of the things in this book too, particularly The Old School.
Nic: In what way? So in what way were they influential in this book, what aspects of it?
Emily: Well, she takes a more traditional approach. So her story is set in the late 80s early 90s I think it is, around police corruption and within the police force in Sydney, in Western Sydney. But what I really love about her writing and in this genre is that there are no easy cutaways, there’s no gratuitous descriptions of victims and what’s happened to them… And then it’s all into solving the puzzle.
Grief is present. The consequences of crimes are present, they become as important as anything else. You know, her second novel following on from that first, there were real consequences to the dramatic climaxes of that first one. The people are traumatised, they’re hurt, and I just think that kind of crime writing, what it is really doing is talking about what it is like to be a human going through the worst things that can happen.
Nic: Perpetrators as well? Because you rarely read about the guilt of perpetrators in crime fiction. So did it touch on that sort of aspect of it as well?
Emily: Yeah, and the complex social reasons behind perpetrators of certain types of crime, like drug crime and gang related crime in certain communities. You know, it’s that different approach, it’s not ‘Here is an evil mastermind’…
Nic: No, that’s right. Because it rarely is that simple.
Emily: Right… It’s complicated.
Nic: So what prompted your wonderful, wonderful story?
Emily: So I guess all of that was in the background, but not what I was consciously thinking of. I am not a very organised, planning sort of writer. I very much write from a vague idea and character.
Emily: But certainly the vague idea, such as it was, was to write something that started in a familiar ‘crimey’ kind of way – so with the discovery of a body, of you know, a beautiful young woman, which is the trope – but then it never pulls away and goes into the whodunit, the puzzle, but it really stays with ‘What is the size and the shape of the whole this woman’s death has left in the world?’
So that was always the original idea, and I wanted to write it from the point of view of a sister.
Emily: Because… Well, one reason is because that’s one of the primary relationships in my life, as a sister, and I think there’s not much written about that kind of love.
Emily: But also because I think it is a bit of an overdone trope too, of the romantic partner who suffers. That’s a whole thing too, of men needing to seek revenge after the death of a beautiful wife. So, that was the starting point.
I started writing with this sister, Chris, and you know, this is my fifth novel and I have never had a character come to me like that, just so easily. It just felt too easy, are other people going to feel this when they are reading her as well? Because I thought, well. It’s too easy… I mean, the subject matter is not easy, and the book as a whole wasn’t, but getting the voice of Chris, it just, she just really came to me strongly and really carried a lot of the writing.
Nic: How long from the moment you first came up with Chris and the concept to seeing the final draft? And what was the process you went through?
Emily: So, it was about three years, I think, but very stop and start. I certainly didn’t work on it full time. The first draft was all Chris…
Nic: Ok, ok.
Emily: … It was entirely Chris and her voice and her grief. And although, like I said, that came very easily to me and I loved writing from her point of view, the book was really, to me, very claustrophobic like that. Because her grief was so intense and her viewpoint so extreme it felt, you know, as a novel it felt just too intense and too claustrophobic. And I also wanted to… As I’d been writing, thinking real world thoughts about how crime is reported, and how the experience, for those who do lose someone in violent circumstances of the kind that make front page news, their grief is always complicated by them suddenly being cast as some kind of star in a drama that they don’t actually want anything to do with. And so I brought that media thread in.
Nic: So you introduce the character of May…
Nic: Which also enables you to go beyond. It’s almost like the best of both worlds, you’ve got the first person perspective of Chris, but then if you want to go outside that world and report from it, as you do, from all that was going around, you have that at your disposal as well.
While reading your book I was in there, in that world of crime fiction as I know it, and then suddenly I was pulled out of it into a completely different genre. Was that deliberate from the outset?
Emily: I don’t really write thinking about genre at all.
Emily: Certainly the first couple of drafts, anyway, it’s all story and character, and it’s only in that last polishing draft when I’m really already talking with my editors and publishers that we start thinking about those kind of things. So what I really had was a fairly clear idea in my head about the feeling I wanted the book to give readers, as much as you can ever predict that, rather than these are the exact genre tropes and how I’m going to subvert them. So, it was really more about that feeling of wanting to…
You know, it’s lovely what you said, that’s exactly what I was going for! Not just in terms of genre, like I’m in a crime thing, but I’m going along this path that we are all used to…
Emily: … In terms of how we think about these stories, and then a bit of a slap across the face…
Nic: Well, it helps from a reader’s perspective. It means the reader… It’s active reading rather than passive reading, which I always think is nice, is good.
Bella is obviously a dominant figure in this book from the outset. I’m just interested in knowing how well you knew, or know, the character of Bella, given that she is the victim and doesn’t actually appear physically. I mean, do you go about tyring to understand the character as well as you do for someone who appears physically in the book?
Emily: Yeah, I feel like I got to know Bella really, really well, and I wanted to. It was something I really grappled with in the writing from a craft point of view, and a philosophical point of view as well, because part of the whole thing I am writing against is this disappearing victim. You know, someone who just gets killed in order to make story for other people.
But then of course it’s the truth. It’s the reality of any death, and particularly in this case of violent murder. That victim can’t speak. That’s why it’s sad, that’s why it’s terrible. Their voice is gone.
Nic: Totally, totally.
Emily: And so it felt like a cheat, or not being true to that kind of idea of it, if I were to have… I thought about doing thing like having diary entries from her, or some kind of backstory or something, you know, like flashbacks in there so she would be really present in terms of action in the book. But that felt like a cheat in this particular type of story, because the point of Chris’ grief and why it is so awful is she’s just gone, and we can’t actually know what happened or what went through her mind, and that is part of the pain of it.
So I did do a lot of my own nerdy writer work, developing her character of who she was and what she was doing, but most of that is not in there in a literal sense. I hope it is in there in terms of how Chris thinks about her sister and remembers her.
Nic: Sure, sure. You’ve written a lot of essays and articles on sex and feminism and power and what have you, and I’m wondering whether to try and change things, whether a novel can be as effective in effecting change as essays and articles and even public advocacy can be?
Emily: Look, I don’t know. On my most optimistic day I want to say ‘Yes, literature will change the world!’ And fiction is better, because it sneaks under the skin in ways that sometimes more direct polemical writing can’t, but I don’t know. I mean, there’s a lot of bastards out there who will rave on about wonderful novels they have read but it doesn’t seem to have made a bit of difference to how good they are in the world.
What I think fiction can do, for me anyway, is a lot harder to do in non-fiction. It can sort of present some of these questions about how to live, or what it is like to be a person living in particular circumstances, and just let them play out and not have to come down on a side and say ‘this person acted wrongly’ or ‘they should have done that’. And I think a lot of the issues – which is an ugly word to use here – but the issues that appear in this book I am exploring through fiction because I don’t have an answer to how we deal with this particular problem or how we live with it. I just know that we have to.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Emily: That’s part of it, trying to imagine how we live. How do we live, knowing these things happen?
Nic: It is through the reality of the situation, isn’t it? There are so many messy relationships in this story. Do messy relationships…
Emily: There’s reality!
Nic: Do messy relationships make for a good story?
Nic and Emily: [Laughter]
Emily: Yeah… They seem to be the only ones I can write. I don’t know how that happens. It is so often a thing, someone will read my book and go, ‘Oh, your characters are really hung up on people bad for them, and all these patterns’. And I haven’t necessarily seen those patterns when I’m writing, so it is a bit confronting! But I think so. I mean, it does make for great storytelling, and also it is more real to me. There’s not that many relationships that are really clear-cut and everyone is good for each other.
The central romantic relationship in this is Chris and her ex, Nate. And they are just both pretty good people who are flawed and make mistakes, and they really love each other, but they are terrible for each other. The best thing they can do for each other in love is to stay away from each other, and that to me is a really interesting kind of relationship too, because there is this kind of ‘self-helpy’ thing that especially girls learn growing up, which is that love, if it is real love, will always make you feel safe and it will always be… You’ll know it is love because you fell happy and content all of the time… And sometimes people love each other and are really rotten.
Nic: Sure. I have thought about the title many, many times from many angles. Each time I’ve thought about it I’ve come at it from a different angle. Did you have the title from the outset?
Emily: No, the title came quite late.
Nic: Right. Ok.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. This one didn’t have a title for a really long time.
Nic: Because sometimes I look at it and it’s ironic, and sometimes in my mind it refers to this, and sometimes it refers to that, and I’m just…
Emily: Oh good! That is exactly what I was after.
Nic: That’s what you wanted? Ok. Where did the title come from then? At what point did you... Was it a eureka moment, or…
Emily: It was, actually. So, the title came from real life. So, I was actually working on reporting this piece of long form journalism for Right Now, which is a human rights publication, about the darkest of possible subjects really, which is family homicide. And because of that I’d really started paying attention to the news, and stories of domestic murders. And I realised how many there were that were reported as isolated incidents. And they are, in that the victims have nothing to do with other victims, and the killers haven’t killed anyone else – just their own family or people in that family. And yet, when you look at a society where you have one of these things a week, you have to start asking how isolated they are in a larger context.
Nic: Sure. Do you enjoy it when you get these unexpected responses?
Emily: I do actually, yeah. Again, this is a few books in for me, and it is something I have come to really enjoy the most, because I write very privately – I don’t have a writing group or a feedback group or anything – so no one sees it until my agent an editor see it when it is pretty much done. And obviously there is feedback and editing happening, but in terms of developing... And that is terrifying, that first time when you have been working on something for years the first time someone reads it.
But once that’s all done and it is out there and I am happy with it, I’ve just found it is something that I enjoy so much. There is something that I can switch of, once I know it is done and it is out there, I’m really happy for people to – not tear it apart – but to dig in and pull out things I didn’t see and notice things, because it does feel a bit less personal, whereas when I’m writing it I think I need to not have any of that and be really in that place.
Nic: This is an industry that loves segmentation. Do you want this book to sit amongst crime fiction or literary fiction? Where is it being put? Where do you expect it to be put? And was this an issue with your publishers?
Emily: It wasn’t an issue, but it was a conversation.
Emily: And I think – they would never say this, because they are lovely – but I think I drive my publishers crazy a bit, because each of my books is really quite different. I mean, none of them are genre as such, but they’re also not quite literary fiction, the previous ones are not quite, well definitely not, blockbuster mass fiction… As much as we’d all like the sales. They’ve all been actually really hard to put on a shelf, which makes marketing and sales all really difficult. And I really am sorry about that. I’d love my books to be easier to sell! But it’s just not how I write. So, the conversation came up with this, because it is a clearer question, because the description and certain tropes are very much crime fiction.
But, even in terms of the cover, we had all these conversations, because I think it is a book – and this has been proved from feedback – that a lot of people who love crime fiction will love, because it really speaks to so many things they are reading for and about. Sisters in Crime, which is the woman’s crime writing network, have really embraced it, which has been fantastic.
But on the other hand, you don’t want to do a cover and marketing that gives people the expectation that it’s going to be this classic whodunit, because then they might throw it across the room.
Nic: Sure. Exactly.
Emily: So you know, it’s hard to fit in there. As far as whether it goes on crime fiction shelves or literary fiction, I’m happy to have it on any shelves.
Nic: All right, well enjoy the next few months as a shortlisted – or the next year as a shortlisted Miles Franklin award winner. Congratulations again.
Emily: Thank you.
Nic: From Emily’s An Isolated Incident to Mark O’Flynn and his novel, The Last Days of Ava Langdon.
Nic: Ava was loosely based on Eva Langley, and you wrote a play about her and Eleanor Dark. When did you first hear about Eva Langley and what did you find that was so intriguing about her?
Mark: I saw an article in a magazine that had a photo of her hut. And in reading that, I realised that the street that this hut was in was in the town where I live. And I thought, ‘I know where that is, I’ll go and find it’. And I did. I was able to find it, and the hut was still standing. I was intrigued by how isolated and ramshackle it was. It’s derelict now, it’s fallen down, but when I first saw it, it was standing.
Nic: And was there anyone there are that time?
Mark: No, it was completely empty.
Nic: It was completely empty.
Mark: Yeah. It’s a very sad looking thing, and then it collapsed. And so there is nothing there now, except a chimney and a lot of rubbish.
Mark: And then I heard an anecdote that she changed her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde, and I thought, ‘Wow, there is something there’. So I found out a bit more, and I thought ‘That’s too good not to use’, so I used that.
Nic: Sure. And when was this, and how long before you started using it writing your novel? I mean, did it follow very quickly, the idea?
Mark: I got some funding to write a play, and so the initial research was done then. That was probably 15 or so – maybe even longer – 15 years ago. And it always stayed with me.
Mark: So I didn’t begin writing the novel. I wrote the play straight away, and then the voice was kind of in the back of my mind all that time, so I suppose I was subconsciously thinking about it.
Nic: The character in the book so suits the location, the Blue Mountains. I’m wondering whether one could have existed without the other? I mean, could you have set this character somewhere else?
Mark: I don’t think so. Or, it would be a different sort of eccentricity I think. She does suit the mountains, and she was there for a good 15 years. But the mountains attract its fair share of eccentrics.
Nic: Why do you think that is?
Mark: Oh, it’s probably an economic thing, it’s cheaper to live there than Sydney.
Mark: I don’t know, but there’s no shortage of them.
Nic: Time wise, what is so intriguing about this book is that it takes place over one day. Was that always going to be the case?
Nic: Why did you decide on that?
Mark: I had the voice, so I knew the character pretty well. But I didn’t really know how to go about telling the story. I didn’t want to repeat biography.
Mark: And then when I had the idea to contain it to one specific timeframe, that structure just opened the door, and I was able to start writing straight away. So, I didn’t think containing it to a single day was the sole given right of other people who have done that…
Nic: No, that’s right.
Mark: I suddenly thought – because nothing is known of her last days, months, perhaps even years – so I had carte blanche, really, to – within the confines of her character – make up what I wanted.
Nic: When you started, did you know where you were going to go everywhere on that day, or through the writing did that day expand?
Mark: I knew how it would end up.
Mark: And the title… It’s not really a secret.
Nic: No, I realise that, but also the events and the interactions leading up to the end, were they there from the outset, or was it something that came as you went along?
Mark: No, they emerged as they went along.
Nic: I roughly knew she had to go to certain locations, but I didn’t know what would happen once she got there. But that’s… I suppose I was having faith in the character, that she would tell me what to write down once she got to certain situations.
Nic: And the other characters that appear, were they also based on Blue Mountains characters, people that you sort of new, or were they totally created?
Mark: They’re completely fictitious, except perhaps the character of her son. Her son did come and visit her, not at the end, more in her middle years. But again, I don’t know much more than that, apart from the fact that she thought he was wearing a space suit. The rest I made up.
Nic: [Laughter] Is it… It’s probably advantageous that you only knew a small amount and were able to… It would have been a very different book, a different story if you had had a lot more information about it, wouldn’t it?
Mark: That’s right. And I consciously decided not to revisit the material that I’d researched 15 years ago for the play, and I didn’t use any of the material that was in the play, but it was just my memory of that research that informed it.
Nic: Right. Because you could also done further research. I mean, you must have been able to dig up further stuff if you’d really wanted to, but you just decided that you were going to leave it at that and let your imagination take over.
Mark: That’s right.
Mark: Her manuscripts are still in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, along with some photos...
Nic: Would you enjoy – and we are talking here about Ava Langdon and not Eva – would you have enjoyed having a beer with her in the pub?
Mark: Part of me would. I know Hal Porter did. He thought she was the bee’s knee. I suspect she’d probably be pretty hard work. And that’s also why I suspect Harper Collins, or Angus and Robertson as they were at that time, bought her this hut to get her out of their hair.
Nic: Oh right, they bought it for her?
Mark: They gave her the hut.
Mark: So, imagine a publisher doing that for a writer these days?
Nic: No, you can’t imagine that, you can’t imagine that at all. Is the book about eccentricity? Is it about persona? Is it about a longing for the past? Is it about hoping for a new future? In your view, what is your book about? Is it all of those, or is it something else?
Mark: It is all of those. I think it is kind of a romantic nostalgia for lost youth, and a romantic view of the past… Couched within the frame of an outsider, someone on the fringes of society who is constantly harking back to her romantic days when life was better.
Nic: It’s beautifully, one of the things about it is it’s beautifully paced. I mean, it’s almost like going for a walk. As you were going along, was this pacing something that you were deliberately aware of as you were going?
Nic: So how do you go about that and ensuring it turns out as well as it did?
Mark: Well, I knew she had to go at walking pace. So I did one silly thing. At one point she goes into a shop, which I name, and then she walks up to the corner, and she is obsessively counting her steps. And I thought, well I guesstimated, and then I thought, ‘No, I really need to go and do this’. So I went and counted the steps from the shop to the corner, which is perhaps a little bit OCD of me.
Nic: No, a lot of writers do that though. Reading it, I felt a little bit like a voyeur, sort of hovering above the figure of Ava as she went along her merry way, and not so merry way.
What sort of relationship did you have with her while you were writing it?
Mark: The character?
Nic: With the character. Was she with you all of the time, when you were writing and when you weren’t?
Mark: Oh yes. Absolutely. In the process of writing I was obsessed with her.
Nic: How does that effect, in terms of… when you are socialising with people, probably all you want to talk about is…
Mark: Oh no, I keep it under my hat. I keep it close to my chest, really.
Nic: Did you enjoy her company while you were writing this book?
Mark: Oh yes, I loved her.
Nic: In what particularly?
Mark: Just her view of the world and her dismissal of pretension.
Nic: Is there a touch of you in her, or what aspects of her would you like to have with you, if not?
Mark: She didn’t suffer fools!
Mark: And I like that in the character. I suppose, inevitably, there is a little of me in her, but you’d be hard pressed to pin it down I think.
Nic: Do you want to try?
Mark: Oh no, not really.
Nic: You don’t dare! The language is beautifully nuanced, and I particularly love the occasional foray into writing I found reminiscent of the Dick and Jane books. For example, ‘See Ava drinking. See Ava walking. See Ava lying’. What effect were you trying to get with that particular technique? It really stood out to me.
Mark: I was really trying to hark back to those Dick and Jane books.
Nic: For what reason? What were you trying to achieve there?
Mark: To try to couch the simplicity of her life, because one of those is to over-fragment. So I was trying to move it out of a childhood realm into a kind of, I don’t know, a crazy world, a crazy pattern of thinking.
Nic: Because one of them is also used as sort of the climax at the end, and I thought it was a wonderful technique.
Have you got Eva Langley out of your system now?
Mark: I hope so.
Nic: You hope so. What else could there be?
Mark: When she passed, a lot of literary scavengers went to the hut and raided it.
Nic: Oh goodness.
Mark: Fortunately, a lot of things were preserved, like manuscripts and personal effects, and they are in the library. But a lot of stuff went. When I went there – this is 30 years after the hut fell down – I found a pair of thongs, just under some rubbish. They were different colours, and you could tell… ‘Gee, she had small feet’.
Mark: And they are beautiful. And so I kept them when I was writing the play, as like a good luck charm. And then when the play was on and was over and done with, some years later I put them back. Then, when I had the idea for the novel, I thought I’ll go and get them again as my good luck charm. And I did. And when I finished writing it I thought, well I can’t just put then back, they will just become rubbish, I’ll take them to the Historical Society in the Blue Mountains. And they said, ‘You can’t prove these are hers, someone else could have put them there’. And so I’ve still got them, and I’ll put them back one day.
Nic: Isn’t it remarkable that this one newspaper article has led to this, well, what has it become? Almost… I wouldn’t say obsession, but certainly almost an obsession and a major part of your writing career for so long. It’s a wonderful discovery.
Do you find you are inspired in the same way by newspaper articles, or what other types of research have inspired some of your writing?
Mark: It doesn’t have to be much! Just an anecdote, a line, or a story I hear, that can be enough to…
Nic: Can you give me an example of some of your other work that has been inspired by something like that that has led you along a similar path?
Mark: My novel prior to this one, I heard… In the Blue Mountains, which is a kind of a wilderness area, there was a story that down in the wilderness back in the 1870s or1890s, there was a village with a whole lot… When you look at it now, there’s just jungle, wilderness.
Nic: Right, right.
Mark: And so I thought, ‘there is the place’. I don’t know what the story is, I just know it will be located there. I just have to find a way to populate that.
Nic: This village actually exists, or…
Mark: It actually existed.
Mark: And it’s all overgrown now, it’s rainforest, pristine rainforest. That got me going.
Nic: Wonderful. Congratulations again on you shortlisting and on this wonderful book. And hopefully, also, it might encourage a revival in Eva Langley, you never know.
Mark: That was in the back of my mind.
Nic: It was?
Mark: She is sadly neglected. Text reissued, reprinted, her famous book, oh, perhaps ten yeas ago now, but even so she still feels neglected to me.
Nic: Alright. Thank you very much.
Mark: Thank you.
Nic: From one remarkable character to Ryan O’Neill’s 16 characters in Their Brilliant Careers. This is the book that Toni Jordan was so excited about when we interviewed her in an earlier episode of The Garret.
Toni Jordan: What is in my bag now? Can I give it a little plug?
Nic: You can certainly give it a plug.
Toni: Can I do that, because I’m absolutely loving it, it is one of my picks of the year. It’s actually not a novel, it’s Their Brilliant Careers by short story writer Ryan O’Neill. Have you seen this?
Nic: No I haven’t.
Toni: It is just fantastic. It is biographies of famous lost Australian writers. Like… it’s not real. They’re all… you know, a guy that is called the Chekov of Coolibah.
Nic: I was just seeing the Chekov of Coolibah. So is it all fictional?
Toni: It is just hilarious.
Nic: What a great idea.
Toni: It is the prefect gift for the writer in your circle, because it’s entertaining on any level, these made up biographies, but also there is enough allusion to the publishing scene and the publishing history of Australia, so that you can pick, kind of, who this person might be intended to be. It’s just delighting me.
Ryan O’Neill: I heard Toni say that on the podcast when I was listening to it and I nearly jumped out of my seat, it was fantastic.
Nic: [Laughter] That was the first time I had heard of your book, and I went out and read it.
You must love biographical dictionaries.
Ryan: Yes! Well, when I was doing some research for the book I got several at the library and flicked through them, and as much as I loved them, I got the feeling they were leaving the good bits out.
Ryan: So I think of my book as a biographical dictionary with the good bits added back in.
Nic: Yeah, there’s not much left out of that thing. So tell us, where did this all start?
Ryan: The idea for this book, it came from… There is a great literary journal called The Canary Press. They asked me to write a story on the theme of erasure, and I had several ideas for it, and one of the ideas was an Australian writer, who is considered to be the greatest ever Australian writer, despite the fact that none of his worked survived. I thought that was quite a fun idea. And eventually, that story didn’t get published, I went in another direction with the idea of erasure, but the idea remained in my head.
And then a year later I was involved in another project with F Books called Lost in Track Changes, and again I had the idea of using a biography to tell a story.
This time, it became the first chapter in Their Brilliant Careers. It was the biography of Rand Washington, a horrifically racist, murderous science fiction writer.
Nic: I loved him!
Ryan: And after that, I thought it would be quite interesting to do several of these. Maybe there would be ways of interconnecting them, and things like that. And it really took off from there. And when Black Inc emailed me to say ‘Do you have any ideas, are you working on anything?’, I said ‘I have this weird idea for a book, you are probably not interested, it’s a bit odd’. And they went, ‘Go for it’. And that was it.
Nic: Do you think that your background as a short story writer played a part in, well, the extraordinary structure of this novel, well, it’s hard to call a novel, it could almost be described as a short story collection.
Ryan: Yeah, I think it is an odd book.
Ryan: I felt a bit sorry for Black Inc in terms of the marketing, because I know it has actually popped up in the non-fiction section of the shops.
Nic: That doesn’t surprise me! I’m sure people were picking it up, and they’re going ‘Oh my god, I’ve never heard of this person’. It’s wonderful. As I said, it’s hard to describe as a novel, but do you think of it as a… Did you write is an entity, or did you treat it as 16 short stories, but interwoven?
Ryan: Kind of a bit of both. I first came up with the basic idea for what became each chapter. And as I was writing it, I found what I hoped were really fun ways of how these writer’s lives interconnected, with rivalries, love affairs, even murder sometimes.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Ryan: And then also I had the idea of giving this more of an overall structure, which was to use myself as a character, and quite an unpleasant character. So the novel is dedicated to my late wife Rachel, which my real wife Jenny was very generous, if not entirely happy, in allowing me to do that.
It has taken a life of it’s own a little bit, in that a friend from Scotland emailed me very concerned, he thought I’ve divorced Jenny, remarried and lost a wife. No I haven’t, it’s all made up!
Ryan: And in fact, at a writers festival last year, one of the writers on a panel I was one came up and was starting to offer he sympathies for my loss, and I said, ‘No no, it’s made up, it’s not real’.
Ryan: So that idea of using myself, and being married to a character in the book, and then having everything from the previous publications to the introduction to the index and the acknowledgements all giving an overarching story to the book as well.
Nic: It plays with the readers mind from start to finish because all of that. And while I was reading it I was just reminded of so many Australian literary hoaxes, from Ern O’Malley to – speaking of Miles Franklin, Helen Demedenko – there was this whole… I don’t know it if it was deliberate, but its as almost like you are perpetrating this hoax on the Australian literary industry at the same time. It was quite wonderful.
The book is a trip also through some 150 years of Australian literature, both real and imagined. What was your knowledge of Australian literary history before you started, and did you have to do a lot of research?
Ryan: Well, I’m ashamed to say before I came to Australia it was almost zero... Maybe even zero. And the first book I read when I came over here was For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke, which is a classic…
Nic: Of course, which is a great one to start with.
Ryan: I really enjoyed that, although I do prefer his short fiction. And from there, when I arrived in Australia I immersed myself in Australian writing, and I looked around and read a lot of things from Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton onwards.
I really found the writers I really admired a lot of them were in the 1970s, Murray Bail, Frank Moorhouse is probably my favourite Australian writer, and playing with the form, doing fun things, writing in different styles. But Australia has a hugely rich literary history, and it was great fun to go in and create an alternate history, and taking some of those… the good and bad aspects of Australian society and literature, and turning them into the living. And seeing the ludicrousness of some things, the sexism and racism and things like that, and seeing how ludicrous and stupid and evil they are through the characters in the book.
Nic: What was an incident or feature of real Australian literature that shocked or surprised or excited you the most while you were doing your research?
Ryan: Oh, I think it was the way that women writers were treated. Sort of in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, where great poets like Gwen Harwood were really sidelined and looked down upon with contempt by male editors, a very male-dominated literary society, and the way they fought against that and refused to give up.
That really fed into what I consider to be the most admirable character in my book, Matilda Young, who encounters this relentless stupid sexism throughout her life, and wins the Nobel Prize, and of course because she is a woman it is absolutely discounted. And people will remember Patrick White, because he is the man who won it, and it was taking that maybe unsavoury aspect and showing again the stupidity of it and showing the really admirable and brave qualities of those women who fought against that sexism.
Nic: Were there other aspects of literature or other figures within Australian literature that you are taking a dig at throughout this book?
Ryan: I think some readers think that each character is based on a specific writer, and that is not the case.
Ryan: One or two are, to be honest.
Ryan: But a lot of them are amalgams, and also take a few shots at… There is sort of a J. D. Salinger-esque character, who becomes a recluse, but the twist is that no one actually cares about her writing, but she thinks they do.
But I suppose the one character that is probably unfairly based on someone is Addison Teller, who is based on the Australian short story writer Steele Rudd. And Steele Rudd is very little known today, but he is still the author of the most successful, highest selling collection of Australian short fiction…
Nic: Dad and Dave.
Ryan: Dad and Dave, yes.
Nic: On our Selection.
Ryan: On our Selection, which I actually enjoy. I did enjoy On our Selection. But the problem was, he wrote an endless number of selection stories after that, and the public loved it, but they became increasingly shallow and caricatured a little bit, so at the start he was talking about ordinary people, but by the end it’s basically Dad and Dave telling stupid jokes to each other, and it became a very one dimensional view of Australia. But weirdly, hugely successful, which again says a little something about Australian culture, I think, buying into this thing which does not represent real life.
Nic: It must have been fun coming up with the names of the characters. How did you go about that? Was it the same sort of process with each? Or did you start some without the names, did you start with the name first, did you develop a name later? Tell me about that.
Ryan: All of that, really. Some of them came fully formed. Rand Washington just sounds right wing, he sounds like a right wing reader on Fox News who runs off… That just came straight away. A few of the others, they did change a little bit. I had great fun thinking up the names of the authors, and I think even greater fun for me was the titles of the books…
Ryan: … Thinking up the most bush title you could think of, and the most science fiction title you could think of, and inventing little extracts. And it was great, because I’m an absolutely awful poet, which is a strength in this case, because the extracts I give are generally by bad poets. So I could let my bad poet side go free reign. It was great being that kind of chameleon, doing different things.
Nic: Vivian Darkbloom, I assume is an anagram. Am I correct?
Ryan: Yes, and that was stolen from Vladimir Nabokov, he has an anagram of his name in English, Vivian Darkbloom. And I thought, ‘Oh, what if she was actually a person!’
Nic: Wonderful. How did you decide on the order of the entries? I mean, they are not by birth; they are not by death.
Ryan: That was a difficult one. At first I thought of doing it by order of birth, as you would in a normal biographical dictionary. But then I found that didn’t quite work, they could be too ‘samey’. And also, I liked the idea of weaving in different plots between them. And so in order to do that I broke it up, but it was very boring and nerdy. I had a spreadsheet…
Ryan: … With sort of, ‘Is it mostly serious? How long is it? What are the themes of that chapter? Does it lead into…? Who appears in it?’ So I had this big spread sheet and I tried to work out… I went through several iterations of trying to work out which went where.
Nic: Tell me you had an algorithm.
Ryan: Oh no! I wish I was as good at Excel as that. I can barely work Excel…
Nic: Join the club.
Ryan: … So it is just me cutting and pasting.
Nic: Have you had any reaction from Australian literary figures who actually appear in the book?
Ryan: I did ask Frank Moorhouse if it was ok to use him as a friend of one of the characters in the book. He was very generous and said yes, and I think he really enjoyed the book, which I was absolutely thrilled about. He is one of my heroes.
Nic: Of course. Favourite characters? You mentioned Rand Washington before, but are there other ones you particularly enjoyed spending a bit of time with in your head?
Ryan: I think, I don’t know what is says about me, but the more unpleasant the character, the more I enjoyed writing them. Rand Washington, the great pleasure for me was giving him a comeuppance, which doesn’t often happen in real life, sadly. But having such a vile person, and then giving him what – I won’t spoil for the reader – but giving him what I think is a great and very fitting comeuppance for his evil deeds, that gave me a great deal of pleasure.
Nic: Just finally, you mentioned Frank Moorhouse and Murray Bail before, but are there any other contemporary Australian writers that you enjoy?
Ryan: Yes, there are several. I love Alec Patric, who you’ve interviewed.
Nic: Yeah, sure. Absolutely.
Ryan: An absolutely fantastic writer. And there is a lot of interesting Australian writing going on at the moment that isn’t strictly realist.
Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck, which is a fantastic book, speculative, historical, lots of different stuff.
Julie Koh, her short fiction. She was recently made one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists, even though she’s never written a novel, she is a short story writer. We won’t go there, but she is a fantastic writer, and her short fiction is hilarious, weird, strange, bizarre…
Nic: If that is not a kick up the ass to write a novel, I don’t know what is!
Ryan: Yeah. So get on it, Julie.
Nic: It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting to you today, Ryan, and letting us… Giving us some insights into what is a remarkable novel. One of my favourite Australian novels in quite a long time, I absolutely loved it. Congratulations on the Miles Franklin Shortlist.
Ryan: Thank you so much Nic. Thanks for having me.
Ni: Ryan O’Neill’s inventive Their Brilliant Careers. We have two more authors to share with you in this episode.
Previous episodes of The Garret are available at thegarretpodcast.com, including our interviews with the two most recent Miles Franklin winners, A. S. Patric and Sophie Laguna.
Hoping to join Alec and Sophie is Philp Salom, with his novel, Waiting.
Philip Salom: People often begin books with a different kind, or even individual poems, with a sort of idea, a concept, one little image. There are lots of different ways of beginning.
In this case, I thought I’d write a novel by writing everyday, which I had never done. I was spending a lot of time looking out the window, and I was seeing some of these people, because I was living opposite two rooming houses. And so what I was doing was taking my ideas of what they might be like and putting them into my writing everyday. And I just kept on writing, until really I had a book rather larger than this one, which was then just edited back. The editors simply said, ‘It’s too long, take out 20,000 words’. And it is still a substantial book, and I just took out the pieces that didn’t really have to be there.
So in other words, the characters and whatever tiny stories there were, there is a minor story there. And the characters are actually doing the telling, and the reason I was able to do the characters after brining them in from outside into my imagination was that they, particularly the rooming house characters, swear non stop.
Philip: And I started writing all this swearing, and I realised I had a bit of a gift for writing swearing. A lot of people don’t! And I can’t claim it to be something I even knew, and I do claim I’ve done it, I think, quite well. Not necessarily the Peter Capaldi level…
Nic: [Laughter] No, no, exactly!
Philip: It’s not as colourful as that, because it is meant to be more realistic, they way people really do swear. And I hadn’t realised… Once I started to write their swearing, I started to really get them.
Nic: So your characters, were they based on specific people from this guest house, or an amalgam of people you watched?
Philip: Well, inevitably, both, because three of the main characters in the rooming fact – four, in fact – I could see. I have no idea what they are like as people, not at all.
Philip: The only character from the rooming house I had long conversations with isn’t in the book.
Nic: Ok. Fascinating.
Philip: So what I did was, I amalgamated a bit of that character into a character I’d met years ago and worked with, who was Tom, the rather disreputable… the man who liked boys, and then became… went down to the Billy Graham Revival and became, you know, beholden to Jesus.
Philip: And you know, as Big says, ‘You had to do something that criminal to become that good’.
Nic: That’s right.
Philip: Big is not impressed at all. But Big and Little… I saw some people who looked rather like that, particularly Big, a very large hairy cross dressing man.
Nic: I’ve noticed throughout the book, and not just with these two characters but with a number of characters, whether in the airport or passing someone, you describe a lot of people by size. I’m wondering why you did that?
Philip: Oh, I think our physicality is a very fast shot into a writers imagination.
Nic: It is. But I’ve rarely seen it done so often.
Philip: I think we are living in an era where size is talked about everyday. That doesn’t actually worry me, I just found that I was doing it because I liked the eccentricity of people’s bodies. Because we are all bloody different…
Philip: And there is no knowing what we are inside. So Big looks likes this great massive character, but he is an autodidact, and he goes around, particularly in public, professing all kinds of arcane knowledge. You know, you would not expect a big hairy cross-dressing man in a skirt to be talking about his theories of this and that.
Nic: No. I kept imaging what it would be like in the film version, who would be playing that, the leading role?
Philip: Well, the character of the Sheriff – which is always capitalised, all the characters in the rooming house have nicknames – The Sheriff was an ex hard man, a bloke who was a driver and a thumper, someone who did the heavy fist work for someone more suited to be a criminal. And now he has, of course, become of all things the lawmaker. He’s the bloke who keeps guard on the rooming house. So he is the Sheriff, he’s the guy who now imposes the law, the very opposite of what he started out as.
Nic: I just want to go back to something you said before, this was the first time you wrote everyday, because I mean, writers when they are starting out are often told by writing teachers, ‘What you must do is write everyday’. Here you are, saying this is the first time you did it, after what is a very illustrious career, and throughout your career you obviously haven’t. What was your practice before that, and how did writing everyday change things for you?
Philip: Well, the commitment I made to myself was that for this book, I would write, say 500 words minimum. If I wrote more, that was a bonus. But I had to do something special. I wouldn’t know what it was, but I wouldn’t be able to say I’d done my days writing until something – it might just have been a figure of speech – came up. It might have been an element of characterisation, it might have been something that someone said, it might have been something that someone did. Or, the way my narrator… Because my narrator is so important in this book…
Ni: Yeah, yeah.
Philip: The way the narrator turned some bit of mischief into maybe some deep feeling. Something had to happen. And my feeling was, if I just kept writing theoretically in a rather forward motion in terms of wherever the story might be going… I just kept on concentrating on who might be doing what next.
Philip: With the expectation that I had to find something special within myself.
Nic: Was it written chronologically then?
Nic: Ok, so tell me about that. How do you piece it together if you’re not writing chronologically?
Philip: Well, getting back to what I used to do before. When I wrote my first novel, initially I wrote it chronologically at high speed, so I was writing every day, and I wrote for about two months and I had finished it, the first draft. And then I spent the next two or so years just rewriting it in order and out of order. And whenever I thought – as most novelists do I’m sure, not all – I would think, ‘Hang on, this scene could happen between these characters’. And so I’d write it, and then I’d think, ‘I’ll work it in later’. I know roughly where it is, it might have been separate. Now I write on a computer.
And the other thing about writing everyday is that I didn’t write on a keyboard. I have to write poetry by hand, otherwise I am terrible.
Nic: Is that right?
Philip: I cannot do it if I type it, I have to write it by hand. And I got so sick of trying to read, you know, thousands of pages of handwriting – because my handwriting is awful – and then typing it up… And I thought bugger it, I’m going to have to type it from the beginning. And so that thing about writing everyday was also about typing everyday.
Nic: Two fingered typer?
Philip: Oh, absolutely.
Philip: I have never learned how to type. I just can’t do it. I’m coordinated in all sorts of other ways… I do a lot of cooking, so I am pretty handy with a knife. But I can’t type.
Nic: In the hands of a less assured writer, these characters may well have come across as somewhat pathetic losers, in a way. But you endow them with enormous dignity, I think. Would you have them over for dinner?
Philip: Of course not.
Nic and Philip: [Laughter]
Philip: Oh no.
Nic: What would a dinner party with these be like?
Nic and Philip: [Laughter]
Nic: It would be entertaining.
Philip: It would be good if I wasn’t there, and I could just watch. I’d do the fly on the wall thing, but I’ve already done that.
Nic: Yeah, exactly.
Philip: Because they’ve cooked… Big, who is a cook by trade, sits back and reads the newspaper every night while Little, who isn’t a cook, does the cooking for him, because he is eccentric enough to think his main role in life at dinner time is to read out the stories from the newspaper to her, and, of course, expound on his wonderful theories of everything.
Nic: I can’t go without mentioning the magnificent language, the rich language, it’s obviously the language of a poet in this book. When you were tapping away at the keys with this novel, was there a sense of joy playing with language?
Philip: Yes. I mean, I don’t think about it. I mean, I think a lot about writing when I am not writing, and I think a lot about it during writing. But the actual process of just writing… I tend to write, when I am writing, pretty quickly. I’m writing faster than I can rationally think. Whether it is poetry or prose, I just create a lot of words per unit of time.
And so what happens is, I have taught myself. I think this is my best novel by far, and I think it’s taken me this long to actually find a narrative voice. And I don’t mean voice in the sense people talk about voice, I just mean a linguistic style that I can write with that I think is both constructive, communicative and poetic, without being over poetic.
Nic: And humour is also obviously important from the very first page. It is a very funny book. It reminded me a bit of some of the great American novelists, Philip Roth or John Irving…
Philip: I’ll accept that, thank you.
Nic and Philip: [Laughter]
Nic: You would everyday of the week. But from the moment I started, I mean, I was laughing from the first sentence.
Philip: I’m pleased, I’m very pleased. I didn’t know I could write like that. That was the big discovery for me, the humour.
Philip: I mean, as a poet, I’m… Poetry, unless you are an entertainer, poetry is usually not something that makes anyone laugh.
Nic: Unless you are Spike Milligan, of course.
Philip: Yes, but he is an entertainer, a mischief-maker. And that is all he does. I’ve tended to write long poems that are serious in intent, and the element of wit is in my poetry, but that is not comic.
Nic: No. Did you intend it to be so funny from the outset? Was that the intention?
Philip: I have no idea how it happened. That is the discovery.
Nic: Is that right?
Philip: It is part of what I discovered pretty early on. I just started writing thinking, ‘My writing style is eccentric, and the eccentricity is becoming amusing to me’. And then I realised the characters were becoming funny, and they I realised the characters themselves aren’t funny, it’s the way the narrator is colouring them.
Philip And that is the writer going full blast into a linguistic… Well, I don’t know, a purple patch that isn’t purple. It has that feeling of richness.
Nic: What a magnificent discovery to have after so long.
Philip: I know! And then I found that some of the reviews… All of the reviews have been terrific, I’ve never been so pleased to read reviews in my life. And regardless of what people say, writers do read the reviews.
Nic: Of course.
Philip: And I have always read mine. And I listen to them carefully. If I think they are bullshit I will call them that, but if I think they have some painful insight in them, I’ll listen. These ones have been very good.
The first few weren’t really saying the book was funny, and I though, ‘Oh, it isn’t’. Bu then over time I got quite an extended academic review, and this person was saying – and an academic, too – this book is hilarious.
Philip: ‘It’s not only doing all these things I’m saying, it’s hilarious, I was laughing out loud’. And I thought, ‘Good’.
Nic: I’m wondering, are you able to work on poems when you are writing a novel, or do you put them aside?
Philip: So when I’m writing poetry I’m writing poetry. I mean, any day, or week, or probably series of months, but I’d write some poems and I’d think, ‘I have to go back to Waiting’, and I’d do the Waiting writing. And if it was really going, I’d turn off the poetry. Just gone. I haven’t written a poem for about a year.
Philip: Because I am writing anew novel. Using… I’m not carrying the characters forward, but I am carrying the style forward.
For me, the intoxication as a writer – and we have to have that, I think. You have to have your own love affair with your own style somewhere, otherwise I think you’re sort of… bloodless.
And this is the first time I’ve ever said that in an interview, but I think it is true, if you don’t have that kind of love affair with both your work, but also the way you’re doing the work, you’re doing something less than you might. And so, it was the style I wanted to keep. I couldn’t let go of the style because I’d discovered it, but I didn’t want to ruin the integrity of the characters by having them reappear in another book.
Nic: You’ve discovered a lot writing this novel.
Philip: Well, I think a book is a controlled hallucination, a novel. As a reader, you are seeing and hearing an intact hallucination, and everyone gets a slightly different version to it. But I wanted it to finish whole. In other words, when the book finishes, and there is a lot left to think about or imagine… When the book finishes a lot of people say, ‘Why is it finished there…?’ Except it is a joke, of a kind. But I didn’t want to interfere with the integrity of that finish.
Philip: Philip, congratulations again on the shortlisting.
Philip; Thank you very much.
Nic: And for spending time speaking with us today on The Garret.
Our final shortlisted writer is Josephine Wilson, with Extinctions.
Josephine Wilson: The character of Frederick Lothian is a character who is unable to make connections with people, and yet can make connections with things, and is very in love with his collections and unable to let go of things and objects.
But also he has had a series of catastrophes in his life, and I found it very interesting to look at the idea of the bridge, the collapse of a bridge, the Tay Bridge, the collapse of buildings, and there is a line in the books that says that he could never really risk the idea of making something real, because it could always collapse. And that really goes back to the loss of his sibling, and the relationship with his father, and these are things that he has been unable to resolve in the past and that revisit him in the present. And so that is really part of the images. But there are also images of animals.
Nic: Yes, absolutely.
Josephine: Part of the book… The book is called Extinctions. Part of what I wanted to do is to function on a number of levels.
Nic: Which it does, all around that term extinctions.
Josephine: Yes. To resonate, and perhaps if I were to summarise it here, it would sound like a potboiler.
Josephine: Over the course of one week, Frederick discovers this, that his son is this, his wife is that… He meets the lady next door…
Nic: Rush out and buy it!
Josephine: Yeah, rush out and buy it! Dot, dot, dot, and all will be revealed happily ever after!
Nic and Josephine: [Laughter]
Josephine: But of course it’s not. On the surface, there is that structure. However, what I was trying to do was to connect all kinds of ideas about the end of life and our inevitable deaths, with beginnings and origins.
Particularly the story of the daughter, Caroline, who is adopted, is an adult in the book, who isn’t the main character but is a very central character, and her story as it comes to unfold, she feels herself cut off and disenfranchised from her origins, because she is adopted.
Josephine: And because she is Aboriginal. She’s been adopted at the tail end of the Stolen Generation. Her parents believe they are liberal, good people, they think they are doing the right thing motivated by what they see as the proper kind of things, and the parents see themselves as very different to the generation before.
So, Extinctions is also the existential feeling of having no biological mother and father to connect to, an experience many adopted children feel. So she is a museum curator…
Josephine: And she is researching an exhibition which will travel around the world – which initially I thought would be a great thing to accompany the release of the book, but I haven’t been able to get that together yet…
Nic and Josephine: [Laughter]
Josephine: So I did a while lot of research on animals and the species that remained in museums all over the world of extinct species. So, you’ll find there are sections which operate like Caroline’s catalogue essays about the last days of a species.
And at the very beginning of the book it says in the little front part, ‘all is allegory’. In a way, you could read her desire, her working with animals as a way of her dealing with her own issues about death, origins, extinctions, future and past.
Nic: You shove poor Frederick into an aged care home at the age of 69, which I thought was extremely unfair of you.
Josephine: Oh, many people are very upset with that, let me tell you.
Nic: Is that right?
Josephine: I’ve been to book clubs, and everybody says, ‘He’s only 69!’
Nic: That is what occurred to me. So, why did you do that?
Josephine: Because, because, there is now a movement where people not of great age move into not aged care, upmarket… they are aged care facilities because their tenancy and lease are different, you can’t just buy a house – they own it, you lease it. My parents knew some people who moved into these places quite young…
Josephine: … And thought this will be fabulous. We’ll have independence, we’ll have a lock up and leave, we’ll have somewhere to go, and we’ll have this kind of protection… And they didn’t really think about that, because there is this narrative, across the road there will be the care facility, all the staggered movements towards the ultimate moment. And so, it is not unusual.
And in fact, some people move in and move out because they hate them. I know a family that sold their place in order to move in when they were in their late 50s, hated it so much, stayed their seven years, and b the time they got out they realised the lease didn’t give them any interest on what they had invested, and they couldn’t afford to buy back in.
So it is not… I tried to paint it as an upmarket kind of place, rather than… The new model of independent careful planning, which Frederick refuses to do by refusing to get rid of his stuff. He resists the whole thing.
Nic: Well, he is somewhat of a misanthrope.
Nic: Totally. Do you like him?
Josephine: No, not particularly. It’s interesting. Yes, I do. I believe I understand… My intention was to write… It’s in the third person, not first person…
Nic: No. But you have spent a lot of time with him writing this, and you made him your main character. How do you spend a lot of time dealing with a main character you don’t particularly like?
Josephine: Because of the point of view, because of the structure of free and direct discourse – I hate getting too technical – but what it does is it melds third person with the voice of the character, so while it is third person, it is also him speaking. So in it I am able to put my attitude, through irony and satire, and I feel like I manipulate how we see him in order to demonstrate, I suppose, the limits and the conditions of masculinity in the period… as a husband, as a man. And that was really part of what I wanted to explore, was a marriage in that time, what kind of relationship, what they could and couldn’t be.
And her struggle, Martha, the mother, who is dead in the book but we revisit what it was like for her. Women, those women who went through the first wave of feminism where they went back to university to do women’s studies in their 40s, and tried to reclaim something from this new way of seeing women… But their husbands were of the period, kind of dinosaurs, in a way.
Nic: You also delve into generational relationships in this book, as you did in your first novel, Cusp.
Nic: Is this a coincidence, or something that occupies your mind?
Josephine: Generational… Look, my parents, during the writing of this book… Well, I started my PhD, I got a scholarship, that was, you know, I applied for it because it would give me that financial support, because I had children and my parents suddenly became very perilous, and all sorts of things happened.
I went through that process with my brothers of where are they going to go, they have to move out, they haven’t prepared… It was really tough. And at the same time, we were also waiting for the process of adopting a second child.
So I had these two ends, the beginnings of life and death, together at the same time, which was very... I stumbled through the PhD, trying to go part time, going back to it…
I think the experience of… I was trying to bring something of that experience to… that experience shapes the book as well.
Nic; Just finally, which contemporary Australian writers do you most enjoy at the moment?
Josephine: Look, I’ve been asked this… I deeply admire Charlotte Wood’s book, and I suppose I am somewhat biased because I know Charlotte, which shouldn’t be a bias. I say her because what I really like about The Natural Way of Things is that it starts as realism but if goes somewhere else. And I think that kind of… I’m fearful of… I’m not a particularly poetic writer, I’m not, you know… I think I craft my writing a lot, and I don’t write… I think I like the long sentence, the more complex idea. But it is not really embedded in a kind of poetic lyricism. I want it to be tough. And what I admired about Charlotte’s book was its toughness, and it’s bravery around that.
And I think that’s why… I mean, someone said to me ‘Why did you want to write from the point of view of a man? Why did you want to write this man?’ And I think, because why not? It is an act of imagination, a creative act.
And I really wanted to say something about that kind of masculinity. But also about what a family could be, and connection, and all of those relationships, like Jan Morrison. All of the relationships are relationships that are not forged directly in biology and giving birth and family as a kind of biological right.
Also, I wanted to write a book – and I like Charlotte’s book as well because it’s got plot, it drives…
Josephine: … And I like that. I am somebody who reads like that. And also, I like satiric, I like humour, dark humour. I keep talking about her book, because to me it took Australian literature somewhere else. I’ve been to a lot of book clubs and I’ll ask people what they have been reading, and ‘I couldn’t finish that book, it was’… See, I don’t just read for enjoyment, for nice stories. I’m a more perverse reader.
Nic: Writers should be, shouldn’t they?
Josephine: Yeah. So that is why my book doesn’t really… That question of how does it end? I’ve had many debates at book clubs, when people said, ‘What a ridiculous ending, because who could imagine that could happen?’ And someone said, ‘Why not? Why couldn’t it?’ So without saying what happens at the end, it is written to be very open. I wanted the reader to have that desire, that longing and yearning for a happy ending that we all have, it makes you almost kind of cry sometimes as you wish everything could be like that, but yet, maybe it isn’t.
Nic: What a collection of talented writers.
Thanks to Perpetual, Trustee of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, for organising the writers featured in this special episode.
Let us know what you think on Twitter, @GarretPodcast.
Of course, we could not do this show without our partners: the State Library of Victoria, where we record The Garret podcast, Writers Victoria, Readings Bookstores, Swinburne University and the Australian Society of Authors.
For this particular episode, we would like to also acknowledge Perpetual, the Trustee of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which was established through the philanthropic will of My Brilliant Career author Miles Franklin.
Also, The Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, who are proud supporters of this literary legacy that celebrates Australian life in any of its phases.
Until next time, thanks for reading, thanks for writing, and thanks for listening to The Garret.