The shortlist for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced on 2 July in Sydney. Rodney Hall (shortlisted for A Stolen Season), Michael Mohammed Ahmad (The Lebs) and Gregory Day (A Sand Archive) appear in this interview, which was recorded on 3 July and released on 4 July 2019.
You can listen to interviews with the other three shortlisted authors - Gail Jones, Jennifer Mills and Melissa Lucashenko - in Part 1.
ASTRID: This is the second of two special episodes of The Garret featuring the shortlist of 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The shortlist was announced on Tuesday 2 July, this interview with Mohammed Ahmad, Rodney Hall and Gregory Day was recorded on Wednesday 3 July 2019. Enjoy.
Rodney Hall, welcome to The Garret.
RODNEY: Thank you. Lovely to be here.
ASTRID: Congratulations on being shortlisted for A Stolen Season.
RODNEY: Well, that's a pleasure. It's such a risk taking book that it’s fate was always up in the air.
ASTRID: Well, it is a beautiful book. Before we start talking about that I have to say for our listeners you are well practiced at the Miles Franklin. You have received the award twice before, for Just Relations in 1982 and The Grizzly Wife in 1994. I have to ask, how has the prize changed?
RODNEY: The prize has changed enormously. When you look at it it's astonishing how little Miles Franklin had saved - little in terms of funding a prize. It's been brilliantly managed I have to say since the beginning in order that it's survived and grown. And certainly since I was last... I've been on the shortlist since that second win. It just changes every year. I mean this has been much more public and high powered and organised and much more pizzazz going on with it. I mean last night was like... it was more full on than the previous ones have been with the actual award. The shortlist, you know, it's it's been ramped up tremendously. And it's much appreciated because when you're working in the literary field as I do, your very separate from that commercial world and then very disconnected from it and very much at sea with it. I mean, I'm absolutely hopeless at selling what I do. And so to have other people doing it for me is really great.
ASTRID: I could only imagine. Now with your experience with the Miles Franklin and other prizes, what if any impact has that had on your creativity? You know, when you sit down to write.
RODNEY: I mean, money is money. I don't have a day job, so its earnings is what it is. You know, when they don't come while it's just belt tightening time which is the usual state of affairs. So, when money does come in this way it just means paying off the credit cards, getting my teeth fixed and funding the next book. That's basically what it is.
ASTRID: The way writers make money in Australia, has that changed, gotten easier or harder over the years?
RODNEY: It all changes. But I mean I've never, or until recently, I've never made my main income in this country at all. I mean, the book of mine that sold best, Captivity Captive, in Germany was my biggest market. I sold more English language copies of that book in Germany than I sold in Australia.
ASTRID: My goodness.
RODNEY: So, I put things together by having six or seven little little amounts of money from different parts of the world that just kind of add up. And you can kind of dodge the bullet and get on with the next book.
I’m well into the next one now and I know it's going to happen. I mean, because I don't plan my books I never know where they're going. They have to find their own way, and that's a dodgy way of working because more often than not they're going nowhere. Sometimes I can get up to... once I had a full book, like 70,000 words, before I realised this is never going to gel.
ASTRID: So tell me how that worked with A Stolen Season?
RODNEY: Oh well, that was a it was a medium type book. I've had books... four times in my life I’ve had gift books that I handwrite, that I've just written down in three weeks.
ASTRID: My goodness.
RODNEY: One one took 19 days, it was the quickest book I had. And they need nothing done to them. But when they come like that you don't... they don't need editing. You don't have anything to do to them. And on other hand, the longest took six years full time. That's doing nothing else. And it was Kisses of the Enemy, and it was an enormous struggle to get through.
This one was a medium book, it took three years. It presented me with a challenge, which I present to the reader. I kind of pass the buck to the reader to deal with the challenge, that as I was writing I got a grip on what I thought it was about - this soldier, desperately wounded, sent home to his estranged wife from the Iraq war and discovering that the reasons for going to the war were a lie, and they were always known to be a lie. And so he has to look at how his life is ruined and his wife's life is ruined. And what does that mean? How does the government come to lie to its own people and go and bomb other people for the same lie?
So that's what I thought it was about. Well, it still is about that, but it's not only about that because as I was trundling along and feeling quite complacent and thinking, ‘Yeah I've got a book here. This is happening. I've got the right characters I like’. I mean, so many books you think the writers don't actually like their own characters. I really like my characters, I like them all. So I was feeling pretty happy about that. I get to my standup desk - I stand up to work - and as I say I handwrite size, so there with my notebook. I only write on the on the right hand page and the left pages just kept free for random thoughts. So I'm standing there pencil in hand, notebook at the ready, thinking I'm pursuing the story I'd begun about Adam and Bridget, and what comes to me is a completely new character who I have not met before who is sitting on a garden bench looking at a garden and behind her is a hotel and she's in Central America.
RODNEY: Mariana's in Central America. And she's got a secret and she's on the run. And we don't know why, I don't know why. The beauty of not planning a book is that I as I'm writing it I'm in the same position as the reader. I don't know what's going on. I don't have any plan. I don't know what's going to happen.
ASTRID: So, this book has essentially three separate stories. There’s Bridget and Adam, who've you mentioned, there’s Marianna and in the middle of all there is John Philip.
ASTRID: You spend the most time with Bridget and Adam, and Adam is the returned soldier from the Iraq war. When I reflect back on A Stolen Season, it is Adam that my mind goes to you. Even though you kind of you just described not necessarily planning this, was there any research in involved in telling Adam story? I mean, he's using the exoskeleton from the military...
RODNEY: Look... A great thing I did when I left school at 16 in Brisbane and had to go out to work. I got sacked from various jobs and did low grade the office boy type deliveries and things, and I saved up and saved up to take myself away, to get away from Brisbane and never come back. I was 22 and I finally got that amount of money and set off, with what was 112 pounds sterling - because we dealt in sterling and those days - in my pocket. I landed in Genoa and started walking around Europe and spent three years walking 9,000 kilometres, talking to myself basically and trying to convince myself that I was a writer.
On that journey I called on Robert Graves, who is of course a major figure, especially then more so then and now. But I, Claudius is very famous...
ASTRID: Classicist will always remember.
RODNEY: And he is a wonderful man, and his fabulous book The White Goddess is just the great book about poetry. Anyway, I was being a cheeky Australian. I called on him and he very kindly gave me a two hour discussion. And he gave me so much advice that I've had all through my life. So this preamble - which should warn you about the way my books go, they amble around and do their own thing - was it he said to me, ‘If you if you ever write a historic novel’ - of course, I have now done quite a few - he said, ‘There's this golden rule. Write first research afterwards, because if you don't write first you don't know what you need to know, and if you don't get the facts right nobody will believe you’. So it's just the greatest rule of thumb.
So, I didn't ask myself if I knew about the Iraq war. I didn't do any research whatsoever. I made the entire thing I made up, I invented Iraq, I invented the war, I invented the injuries, I invented the armaments - I just put numbers down, you know the F37 or something appeared, whatever that was. God only knows. I thought when I get to the research stage when I've written the book I'll find out the real armaments they had. And so of course I did do that.
ASTRID: And all the fact comes after.
RODNEY: It is quite quick. So you go with a finite number of things to look up.
In this case I had several areas of research, because Mariana, the second of the the featured characters, is in Belize and she's going to climb one of the ancient Mayan temples. Anyway all she does is she appears twice in the book. All she does is to arrive in Belize and figure out where she is and what's going on around her and get directions to get to the temple. And the second thing, all she does is climb it. I did know beforehand that from various reading that those Mayan buildings are built on a rather strange system of mathematics, but an extraordinary system, I didn't know what it was, but I filleted stuff in, my usual way working. hat I was interested in was Mariana.
I mean, Robert Graves was right, novels are about engaging the reader in recreating a world where the reader has never been before. But of course, the reader is creating it with the reader's own material. So, a novel is different, in everybody's mind it's different. And the better the novel the more the difference.
RODNEY: Because the novel has triggered real things for the reader. I mean it is an interesting thing, Astrid, because you know if you say the the grist of non-fiction is fact, the grist of fiction is truth. Because what we're doing in the novel is we're speaking to the truth the reader knows, and if we're not then we're having to explain ourselves, and if we explain ourselves the novel is not a good novel.
ASTRID: When you look back at all of your novels, what do you think preoccupies you as a writer?
RODNEY: There a few things that keep... as with any writer. I think the theme that most commonly emerges is self captivity, how we trap ourselves into all sorts of things we really don't want and we can't ever find a way out of it.
And this book has that as well, but the theme of this book as it emerges - and I didn't know until I got to the third of the strands, which is a comic strand - as Adam's life, and Adam and Bridget's life had been ruined by war and governmental lies, Mariana's life has been ruined by a husband, John Philips life has been ruined by too much money. The family's always had too much money, it's had too much money for 500 years and so they have no idea who they are, they have no idea if anyone likes them. He has no idea of anything real in his life, he can always buy his way out of trouble, and he's profoundly dissatisfied.
And it was at that stage that I realised what the theme of this book was - that this book was to say that power is a parasite on the people, whatever the culture power is a parasite. The parasite so huge in every culture, it's so huge that the people in the culture can't see it. It's everywhere. So as the slaves who built the Central American temple probably thought building Central American temples is what life is. That's what you do. And we are equally enslaved, but our pyramid is invisible. It's a pyramid of finance, international finance totally out of our hands, and we can do absolutely nothing about it. Global Financial Crisis comes along whack, a third of the world's income is wrecked. Do they ever get charged with was fraud No, they get off scot free because it's invisible.
So, once I knew that I knew that then I suddenly felt at home, I thought, 'OK, these three strands, I can see exactly how they are gonna echo each other'. And my job is to not connect them for the reader but to leave them fly free, so that the reader gradually gets... so they've each got an independent presence, and it's left to the reader to say, 'I see how...' Think of them as a drawing on clear on tracing paper that you can lay one on top of another, you could actually think of the three layers on top of each other and they in different ways illustrate the same thing.
ASTRID: They do indeed. It's going to take me a long time to forget Adam and his story. Rodney, have you read the rest of the shortlist?
RODNEY: No. In fact the only person I know in the shortlist is Gail. She's a very good writer, so I'm sure it's a very good book. I am now going to go - because I didn't know who the shortlist were going to be - I am now going to have a read and take my own guess of what the judges might think. It hardly matters, but it seems absolutely clear is what the judges have done is to pick a book of each of six kinds. This is not one... previous times that I've been on the shortlist, it's been that we're all working in roughly the same sort of direction. I think this is a very different kind of list and that's quite exciting way for them to go.
ASTRID: I would agree. Rodney, thank you so much for your time.
RODNEY: It's a pleasure.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad
ASTRID: Mohammed welcome to The Garret.
MOHAMMED: Thank you for having me. And also, Salaam Aleikum, which means peace be upon you in the language of my ancestors.
ASTRID: Congratulations on your short listing for the Miles Franklin Award last night.
MOHAMMED: Thank you.
ASTRID: Now this was for The Lebs. You've already received the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for the same work. They are two high honours. How do you feel about your work, only your second novel, hitting these heights.
MOHAMMED: This is how I feel. When I was told that I'd won the Premier's Literary Award the first thing that went through my mind is, 'this must be a mistake'. And then when I was contacted and told that I'd been long listed for the Miles Franklin I said to myself, 'this must be a mistake'. And then again when I was contacted and told that I'd been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, I put my hands in my face and I cried and I said, 'this must be a mistake'.
And I've spent a lot of time since then asking myself why a second generation Arab Australian Muslim constantly feels like a mistake. And I have to say that the answer to that question is probably because our immigration minister Peter Dutton, three years ago said that me and people like me are the mistakes of the Fraser government.
And so I'm feeling both great pride in these achievements and also a great sense of inadequacy.
ASTRID: Why inadequacy?
MOHAMMED: Because my identity has been heavily delegitimised and I'm putting a lot of energy into trying to reclaim my sense of Australianness.
ASTRID: I apologise that we don't have that much time to fully explore this topic and I would like to come back and talk to you both about Tribe, your first work, and The Lebs, which we are now briefly talking about.
I suspect that we are about the same age. I might be a bit older than you actually.
MOHAMMED: Can I ask how old you are?
MOHAMMED: Yes, I'm 33.
ASTRID: Oh my goodness. Okay. I'm very much older than you.
MOHAMMED: We're actually trying to find out if I'm the youngest ever shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. That's possible.
ASTRID: That's extraordinary.
MOHAMMED: Yeah. And I'm also pretty sure I'm the first Muslim Australian to be shortlisted.
ASTRID: And about time.
MOHAMMED: Yeah it's overdue.
ASTRID: I went to school in Sydney. The Lebs blew me away. What responses are you getting from your readers?
MOHAMMED: The idea that you were blown away is very flattering to me. Thank you. It doesn't go past my head that, you know, the kind of stereotype of the Arab Muslim is like blowing things up.
ASTRID: Oh, that's not what I meant.
MOHAMMED: I find that really funny actually. As I as a writer I'm always looking for those kind of like connections, you know. But what I would say is that the usual... that's actually kind of a kinder way of how most people engage with the book. What they usually say is things like, 'I was very come confronted' and 'I was very challenged'. And the usual response that I give back when somebody says I was confronted or challenged by your work, my usual reaction is to say, 'if you think it's confronting to sit in your bed, or under a tree and read a book about being a Leb, try being a Leb, try growing up in a post 9/11 context where the entire country had transformed us into terrorist suspects'. Similar rhetoric that we're hearing at the moment in the media, and you know, sexual predators following the Skaf gang rapes. Try going to a school where it was surrounded by barbed wires and cameras and where you regularly saw friends of yours get stabbed, get shot. Where you regularly had to engage, had to witness and engage or push up against racist, homophobic, misogynist behaviour that's just ongoing. That was my reality and my experience. So I can't really apologise for the confrontational experience that people have with my work because that is the experience of being an Arab Australian Muslim in the year 2019.
ASTRID: I don't want to apologise nor should you apologise. I was blown away because you are a fantastic writer. And at different stages in the book in my reading I was reminded of - you write in the first person - and I was reminded of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby and also Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye. Both extremely famous and influential characters in English literature. How do you feel about that comparison?
MOHAMMED: I'm flattered by the comparison. I'm a fan of both texts. I think the difference is that my character, whilst he has that powerful first person voice and that energy from that voice, is that, you know, the boy that I talk about really comes from the cultural margins. You know, that he is a Leb and the book is called The Lebs. And so he identifies as a minority within this space.
I mean, a lot of writers write about that troubled soul who feels like an outsider. But I think what's so different about the experience of being Arab Australian Muslim living in a settler colony as opposed to being a member of the dominant culture is that direct experience of racism, engaging with the dynamics of race, class, gender and sexuality that are constantly intersecting.
What I really appreciate about your analysis of my work is how it can be read for its literary merits as opposed to just the fascinating story. Throughout the entire book the narrator, Bani Adam, he is a first person narrator, but there's two narrators actually who operate simultaneously. There's the older narrator, and his text and his voice is in the present tense. And that is a way in which I frame the text to remind you that it is a boy speaking. And then when you're with the younger narrator it's written in the past tense, and you're in really the head of a 14 year old, 16 year old and a 19 year old boy. And there is never any prompts for when the voice moves. That's that's a technical ability that I had to develop through ten years of university education, and I think it reminds us that, you know creative writing, is a skill. It's not just... I'm an interesting person, I have an interesting story to tell, but that actually what we're doing as storytellers and as artists is the craft of creative writing. And I think really at the Miles Franklin at the shortlisted level, we really need to take that into consideration and appreciate the art form.
ASTRID: I could not agree more. I've been speaking to all of the shortlisted authors, and quite a few have pointed out the level of craft and the diversity in approach, in literary approach, in the shortlisted works. What is your opinion of that?
MOHAMMED: You know, because in addition to being a creative writer I run a literacy movement in Western Sydney called Sweatshop. And it's about empowering culturally and linguistically diverse young people through reading, writing and critical thinking. And so often when marginalised writers are pushing up against the dominant culture they tend to construct themselves as the severe victims of racism. Every reason, every time they are rejected or their work is dismissed you can usually say it's because of racism, it's you don't appreciate my unique and authentic voice. There is actually some basis for that. There's a lot of research that backs up that kind of discriminatory discourse in our field. But in order for you to really pull off that claim, you have to really know what you're talking about in terms of literature, in terms of high art. And so Sweatshop puts a lot of pressure on our writers, particularly under the director, I put pressure on the writers, to really understand the skill of creative writing. That it's an art form. And from my own background having completed three degrees, one of them being a PhD in creative arts, I have a very passionate sentiment towards what it means to actually learn to write, and the skill that goes into writing, separate from whatever interesting fascinating life experiences you have.
ASTRID: I've previously asked Maxine Beneba Clarke and Alice Pung about this.
MOHAMMED: My sisters.
ASTRID: The idea... Alice Pung is on record on The Garret as saying obviously migrant stories, obviously stories from all different backgrounds are viable and valid and fascinating, but they don't always fly or they don't always sell, and then that might never get published again if they're not crafted, if the actual story is not built using all the techniques available.
MOHAMMED: I feel really compelled to point something out, because in our industry you almost sound conservative for talking about the idea that there's some skill in craft. Because you know, that fantasy of the beautiful mind, you know, 'it comes from the heart and it's all natural and that's God given talent'. And so there's a misconception about how we critique good writing and bad writing, and I think people... the reason why we sound conservative is because it sounds like we have a checklist for what's good. But we don't. We have a checklist for what's bad.
When I'm editing or I'm mentoring a student, or when Alice Pung or Maxine are talking about good writing, it's not like we're looking for a particular series of things that make it good. What we're looking for are the things that make it bad, and we know the things that make a work bad - if it's cliched, if it's generic, if it's so universal that it lacks specificity and particular detail, if it lacks a particular kind of voice that makes it pop out and that distinguishes it, then we would be able to classify it as bad because it's so cliched that anybody can access it at any period in time and it doesn't say anything new it doesn't make an original contribution to knowledge.
So, the checklist is looking for those things that we've never actually seen before and that's how we assess good writing. And it's ironic because while we put a lot of pressure on migrant voices to step up to develop these original contributions to knowledge... Very few can compete with the migrant voice and the Indigenous voice because it's so heavily underrepresented, and there's such fascinating stories there that have been untapped at this point in time, that there's so much potential for minority writers in Australia to make the most original contributions to knowledge imaginable.
ASTRID: With your short listing of the Miles Franklin I like to think that you now know that you're being recognised for the craft of your words, and the incredible power that you can marshal to tell the stories that you choose to tell. Now The Lebs is, if I understand correctly, the second in what will be a loosely linked trilogy. Do you know when the third book will come out?
MOHAMMED: The trilogy that I'm writing fits within the genre of autobiographical fiction. I know you brought up J.D. Salinger, for example. I would say that it's one of the huge influences for me in my undergraduate studies. And who stayed in the back of my mind while I was developing my work was actually James Joyce, though Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye was a huge influence for me as a teenager, and you know, the form that he was really playing with I think was the autobiographical fictional form, you know, which combines my lived experiences and my realities with fictionalised elements. So there's a... I think it's a celebration of who I am, but also a celebration of the fact that this is art and we're creating art, and that you shouldn't mix me up with my characters.
And so the autobiographical fictional trilogy that I'm writing starts with The Tribe, where Bani Adam, who's based on my autobiographical self, is 7, 9 and 11. And The Lebs is the continuation of that story, Bani Adam is a teenager in a post 9/11 context. He's 14, 16 and 19. And there will be a final book. Right now the working title is To Marry a White Girl, and it's Bani at ages 21, 24, 27 and it will look at a love story in which Bani goes through two marriages, actually an arranged marriage with the girl from his tribe and then a marriage outside of his tribe, which breaks a number of rules and I think transcends some of the barriers that so many communities in Australia are currently struggling with.
ASTRID: I look forward to reading that one. Tell me about Sweatshop.
MOHAMMED: So Sweatshop is a literacy movement based in Western Sydney. It's built on the on the philosophies of an important cultural theorist named Bell Hooks, who campaigns rigorously in the United States for literacy as one of the primary ways to empower minority groups. And she argues that all steps towards freedom and justice in any culture are built on mass based literacy movements, because degrees of literacy determine how we see what we see. And there was one particular term that she introduced me to as a boy that really stuck with me, it was the term 'coming to voice', which is the act of moving from silence to speech as a revolutionary gesture.
And so we built the idea of the Sweatshop movement in Western Sydney on this concept of coming to voice. We wanted to empower the culturally and linguistically diverse young people in our region, who live in the region and who have experienced that region and have experienced, face a sense of marginalisation their entire lives both through class and through race, and of course the other intersection sexuality and gender. And what we wanted to do was enable that community to come to voice to develop the skills to speak their own stories.
And what's so exciting is that now after ten years of having run this movement, we're seeing an incredible generation of culturally diverse writers who are about to publish, and have already been publishing, these books that are just I believe going to change the Australian landscape. Writers like Sara Saleh, the Palestinian Australian writer. Winne Dunn is a Tongan Australian writer. Shirley Le and Stephen Pham, who are Vietnamese Australian writers.
And I think anyone who's listening to this podcast, you know, keep an eye on The Lebs, but also these writers I just named and many others like Maryam Azam and so many others that come to mind, but keep an eye out for them because they're going to be the future Miles Franklin winners.
ASTRID: I can't wait to read all of their work. Thank you so much Mohammed.
MOHAMMED: Thank you so much. And also, Salaam Aleikum.
ASTRID: Gregory Day, welcome to The Garret.
GREGORY: Thank you Astrid. It's lovely to be here.
ASTRID: Now A Sand Archive was originally published in April 2018. It is now more than a year later in June 2019. Tell me about the book's reception in that time?
GREGORY: The book's reception? Well, critically speaking in terms of reviews it's been very well received.
I think there was one episode of a show on Radio National which absolutely trashed it. But that was the only anomaly in that. So that that's been really good. And I've had a number of letters from readers and so forth. It's had a pretty strong response although it hasn't sold much. So...
ASTRID: A shortlisting for the Miles Franklin should change that.
GREGORY: That should help. Yes, that should definitely help.
ASTRID: So, do you read all of your reviews?
GREGORY: Probably. See, I work I work as a literary critic as well, so I'm interested in all that as well. Plus, I've got an ego. [Laughter] And yeah I can't resist. I'd like to be pure and say I'm not interested, you know.
ASTRID: Does it affect your work, either your approach as a critic or your approach as a writer?
GREGORY: No... Oh, my work as a critic I think definitely informs my work. I mean, I'm kind of caught in an ecosystem of texts and books that... I love that ecosystem. I love that habitat as well as the natural habitat where I live. So, my my stuff really is about bringing those two habitats together, I reckon.
ASTRID: I like that outlook. Now I'm interested in what you did on page 29 of trade paperback of A Sand Archive, and I'm going to read that to you if I can. You write:
"I know this myself as a writer. If you give up all the information too quickly, the reader becomes bored and has no reason to keep turning the pages."
I kept coming back to that. And is that your... That's the voice of your character, okay this is in the work.
GREGORY: It's not me it's the narrator the book.
ASTRID: But as a writer yourself and as someone who works with words, is that your philosophy?
GREGORY: Yeah, well in terms of craft narrative craft I think I'm a little... what can I say. I'm a fan of close reading, I'm a fan of subtlety. I'm not a fan of what I say... issues based literature, but I think all the the issues within the narrative which, if you're authentic, will speak to the world, the crazy world we're living in now. I think they'll come through and fold themselves into it, but I'm not into shouty stuff if you know what I mean. And I think as a reader, it's a base... it's almost a biological need we have within story to have it unfold in a kind of procedural way that gives us momentum and a future in the story.
ASTRID: So, you know, we're here now talking about your shortlisting for the Miles Franklin. But you've previously received many other awards, including the ALS Gold Medal for The Patron Saint of Eels. Do short listings or prizes change anything for you in the process of creating a work?
GREGORY: No I don't think that... just for me, I think we live in a post literary world. And I'm a poet as well, and there's a thing where in the poetry world it can feel like an arcane activity these days because so few people read poetry, and in the last five or ten years at times there's a whiff of that about literary fiction as well. As I say, it's a post literary world. So, winning awards and being shortlisted it's not that it affects the process, but it definitely just gives you the encouragement, and the context, and the idea that you're actually publishing into a context of readers who don't need to be shouted at, who don't need you to say look at this, don't need you to do it in that kind of simplistic way. You can continue to evolve your craft and it will be understood as that.
ASTRID: Now this is not the first work that you've produced that involves the Great Ocean Road.
ASTRID: So you know, there is a Flash Road: Scenes from the Building of the Great Ocean Road.
GREGORY: That's a record, that's music.
ASTRID: But it's creation, from you.
GREGORY: Oh yeah, sure.
ASTRID What draws you to that part of the world? I know you live there but to put your creativity into it, to to bring it to a broader audience.
GREGORY: Well look, it's where I live, it's where I've grown up, it's where my family have been since 1841. So this is my world, my patch, my psycho geography, it's my family, and for me it's like... I think I've said this before it's like there's a proscenium arch over that landscape and the whole place is a theatrical space for me. It's incredibly dramatic landscape, but it's also a landscape that's undergone great disruption through to colonisation. It's also a landscape where, you know, millions of people come and visit it every year. So I can sit there in my little shack and the whole world comes through there. So although it's a small regional part of Australia, it is in a very literal way it's really connected globally as well.
ASTRID: And that's what you explore, one of the many things that you explore in the novel. I mean, you have the Great Ocean Road contrasted with Paris and France.
GREGORY: Yeah, absolutely.
ASTRID: What drove that part of the novel?
GREGORY: Well, that comes from this idea of looking at the Australian personality or culture outside the urban Australian situation, and watching how that personality, that culture has interacted with big moments in Europe. So my previous book Archipelago of Souls was a person from my landscape who goes to Crete in the Second World War and hits against this incredible mythological culture. And A Sand Archive was based on a guy I knew who was an engineer and stabilised sand dunes and actually did go to look at these revolutionary ways of stabilising sand dunes. So, I love the juxtaposition of the little tiny world, vernacular world, and then this philosophical crisis in 1968 and in Paris.
ASTRID: Played out on the streets.
GREGORY: Played out on the streets.
ASTRID: When you consider your previous work, and I mean your published work not your literary criticism, what do you think preoccupies you as a writer?
GREGORY: It's place. It's nature and culture and the way they intersect. And we really do have to get our shit together and get that balance right. We all know that in this era that is the big challenge. It's not even... it's beyond a moral challenge like Kevin Rudd said. It's a survival challenge. And it's about balance of nature and culture. And that's what the novel is about, A Sand Archive it really is about about that.
And like I'm staying here here in Sydney at the moment. I'm on the slope up from Circular Quay. And when I... You know, staying there the last few days thinking about when those first ships arrived, and when the Eora peoples saw the first net that's being thrown out down there at Circular Quay and too much fish being taken for the first time. So the scale shifts, and now 200 years or so later there we are on that slope and there's no sunlight on that slope, the whole thing is huge concrete towers on that beautiful wooded slope on this sacred place. And that's what we've done as a culture, and we really that's a great example for me of how nature and culture are not in balance.
ASTRID: Have you walked around to Barangaroo? Barangaroo spent most of the last century as a very large rectangular block, as a working... it was the Hungry Mile in the 1930s, and then a working container terminal. It was one of the areas mapped by Captain Cook's crew as they originally sailed around. In the last couple of years it's been... the concrete has been ripped away and it has been relandscaped and revegetated according to what the maps look like. But the price of doing so was a casino next to it.
GREGORY: Yeah, ok. There you go.
ASTRID: It's extremely beautiful what has been done, but you stand there in the shadow of a casino. So what bargains do we make?
GREGORY: That's right. So there's philanthropy and then there's philanthropy, isn't there.
ASTRID: There is. Now going from that very off topic, this is the power of fiction. It take us takes us to these places. What do you think of the shortlist this year?
GREGORY: To be honest with these things, I mean it's a bit counterintuitive... and I'm always thinking about the books that didn't make it, only because I've missed out a few times, you know, so I know what that's like. So it's very difficult for the judges, so I'm always thinking of that. But given that, I think the shortlist is really really interesting. I think it's... I'm very happy about the shortlist, not just because I'm on it, but because of the ground it covers. And I really like the fact that there's an experimentalism running through that shortlist, which I think for younger writers in Australia we have to concentrate on process and experiment with writing, not just selling books. So good on them for doing that.
ASTRID: I could not agree more.
ASTRID: Thank you so much.
GREGORY: Pleasure Astrid.