Robert Lukins has an extraordinary dedication to literary craft. His debut novel The Everlasting Sunday has built a momentum few first novels achieve, and is frequently recommended by the likes of no less than David Malouf.
Robert's shorter writing has appeared in Crikey, Overland, The Big Issue, Rolling Stone and Broadsheet.
- David Malouf, longlisted for the Booker Prize, has repeatedly recommended Robert’s book The Everlasting Sunday as the best book he has read in 2018. High praise. Listen to David discuss the Greek and Roman classics in our interview, recorded at the Mildura Writers Festival.
Astrid: Robert Lukins, welcome to The Garret!
Robert: Thanks for having me.
Astrid: Robert, we need to talk about David Malouf. David, as you well know, received the Miles Franklin and been listed for the Booker Prize, and he has described your book, The Everlasting Sunday, as the best book he has read in recent times. Not only has he described that, but he has been running around writer's festivals, recommending your book to individual patrons, including the Bendigo Writer's Festival. How does that feel?
Robert: Well, you know. How do you think that feels? But, I think... goodness. How do I even answer that question. It's remarkable, and unexpected, and wonderful. But I grew up on the Sunshine Coast and in Brisbane, and David Malouf was this semi-mythical figure. I remember my primary school teacher reading us Johnno from start to finish in class, you know. You've read To Kill a Mockingbird, and you've read Johnno. This was part of the fabric of growing up. And so, David Malouf never really existed to me as a real person. He was always this person that was always there, and always seemed to hold this particular space in Australia. Anyway, I always had this idea that he was always on a cargo ship off to Tuscany or something, writing his book on this kind of thing. I've absolutely loved David Malouf's work my entire life. He's quite a hero of mine. And I'd never had any interactions with him, and then one night several months ago, my phone slightly exploded one night when he gave a speech at some event and decided in the middle of the speech to start talking about my book. And ever since then I've been really appreciative. I just heard these echoes... he's become Malouf to me. It's like Cher or Britney, he's Malouf. And it's been remarkable, and it's something I can't quite process yet but it's very ... it's lovely.
Astrid: Oh, it's just extraordinary. I'm so very impressed. Now Robert, you have quite the career outside of your book, The Everlasting Sunday. You've worked for The Wheeler Centre, The National Gallery, The Museum of Victoria, The Big Issue, and now Melbourne University. I know you have written many manuscripts. How did you write whilst building your career elsewhere?
Robert: It's more of a question of how did I keep down on job while I was writing. [Laughter] That's the way I've come to view it, because I've always had a full time job because I'm a normal people and you have to work to keep things going. And writing has just been something that I've always worked into the folds of my day. And I think part of it's because I started when I was... I've been writing seemingly my whole life. But trying to seriously write novels since I was a teenager. And so, it was always part of the deal, that if I wanted to do this, I expected that it was something that I would have to squeeze into the rest of my life. I think the one thing that it has taught me over the years of having to do this is that I've become very efficient at dropping into the secondary world of writing because – like anyone else that writes – I can't afford to have to be looking out a particular window, wearing my writing jacket, or all these kinds of things. I need to be able to slip into that very quickly, and that's just something that's come through training. It's like becoming a footballer or something. It's just something you have to develop.
Astrid: Training is an excellent word that you've just used there. Tell me how you trained yourself, because I've read that you have described this writing that you've been doing as your p;rivate apprenticeship’.
Robert: Yeah, I suppose so, and I... somewhere along the line, very early on in my life, I accepted the idea that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a good writer, and that was really as far as my thinking got. And I think I attached myself to some slightly romantic ideas around... my devotion was always to writing. And I was prepared to do what I needed to do to get to that place, and I didn't know how long this road would take to go down. I was always just committed to the idea of developing myself as a writer, so I was always just writing to learn how to write. And I also slightly hindered myself in that I was always a very independent little kid, and that turned into that writing was always a private world for me, it was always something that – and I think probably to my detriment – I attached myself to this idea that it was something that I had to teach myself, and it was something that was probably supposed to be hard. And so, I probably made things harder than they needed to be.
But I think in some ways those things fuel you as well. You need to find things to fuel you along, and that independent spirit, that idea that I was locking myself away and doing these things, that was part of the energy that I drew from was kind of, when I was 19, 20, none of my friends would have known that I wrote at all. And I liked it that way. And I liked that I had this secondary world to escape to, and it was this place where I could fly, I could be powerful or weak or explore things, or do whatever I wanted to do. And it's remained that way for me.
Astrid: Has it always been literary fiction?
Robert: Yeah, it has. I read much more widely than that, but there was something about... when I was young, my elder brother and sister both worked in the local council library, that was their first job. Went on to become my first job as well.
Astrid: Oh, that's extraordinary. [Laughter]
Robert: And so, the Cotton Tree Council Library was where I went after school every day to wait for my brother and sister to finish work, and it became my place. I felt like I used to walk down those aisle ways feeling like I owned the place. So those shelves were these things I devoured. And there was… Somewhere along the line I picked up this thing of the object of the novel. The novel to me, it seemed like this complete world you could hold in your hands, and there's a little kid reading things that were far too old for me and that I didn't appreciate or understand, but I wanted to get into that world, there was something I attached some kind of value to that.
So yeah, it has always been the novel, and I don't think I've ever written a short story. I know in school when they said a short story, I used to take bits out of novels that I'd written.
Astrid: Good work.
Robert: But I love, I read short stories and I've always read a lot of poetry. But yeah, there's something about the novel that… There's only so many things you can do in a lifetime and I have attached myself to the novel.
Astrid: So, in this private apprenticeship that you set for yourself, the training that you did, how many manuscripts did you write?
Robert: I don't know. [Laughter] If you write one novel and you tell your friends, ‘Oh, that's impressive’. You write two, it's like, ‘Whoa’. There is a certain point where the number of novels you've written is a symptom of something as opposed to an impressive number. It was a ritualised thing, I wrote a novel every year. That tended to be how this thing worked, and I wrote my first one when I was about sixteen. And when I say novel, I suppose I just mean a novel length piece of writing, though I often self set exercises, and they were never with the intention of trying to be published. It was about this learning in my own little learning centre in my room. So, I would just set myself tasks, ‘Can I write this?’ or ‘Can I write my way out of this situation?’ So, I would put myself in an improbable situation in a literary sense – an empty room with no characters – and how do I write that novel. And this was – exactly, you're shaking your head because it's a terrible novel! But it was a useful exercise.
Astrid: I wasn't shaking my head because I thought it would be terrible, I was shaking my head because I immediately draw a blank. How do you write your way out of that?
Astrid: Good exercise.
Robert: Exactly. You fill the void, and that's what writing is. It's an improvisation on a stage, and sometimes you build in a lot of props to start off with, you might have characters and these kinds of things. What happens if you just go on a stage and the audience is there and you have to perform an impromptu exercise? So that's what I did, and it was exploring how do you fill an empty space. And that's what writing is. So that's what these novel length exercises were. And again, it's the kind of thing that, I'm so glad I did it, and I don't regret it at all, but they are also some of the things that you can just learn on a rainy Friday morning at a writing class, which is something that I denied myself for a long time, because I had that independent streak in me. But, here we are now, so.
Astrid: The independent streak is coming through. And I have to say, you are perhaps the writer who most epitomises the idea of The Garret. The writer alone, in the room, working away.
Robert: I actually edit myself before I refer to it. It's always been referred to as The Garret in my mind, but I thought I'd spare you that one.
Astrid: No, no. I love it. Now, the independent streak. How did you know that you wanted Curtis Brown as your agent, and Queensland University Press as your publisher? Because I've been reading about you, Robert.
Robert: It's easy. I've got a piece of paper from 1996 that I keep in my drawer at home – and this will give you a picture of the slightly obnoxious, pretentious 19 year I was at the time –
this piece of paper just has ‘The Plan’ written with a line, and number one. Here we go, hold your breath for this one. It said, ‘Write a novel of which you can be justly proud’. These are the kinds of things you do. Number two was, ‘Sign with Curtis Brown’. Number three was, ‘Publish with the University of Queensland Press’. And number four, and I still don't quite know what I mean, it just said, ‘And the rest is gravy’. You're getting a picture of the 19 year old Robert Lukins. [Laughter]
Astrid: That's three ticks though!
Robert: But yeah. And I think I just accumulated the idea – especially in regards to University of Queensland Press – and it is things like being the foundation of David Malouf and…
Astrid: Always published his poetry.
Robert: … and Kate Grenville, and so many writers at the time. And Nick Earls at the time, in 1997, 1998, and from Brisbane – he was the guy who got out of town, you know. These things mean a lot, and my writing doesn't have a lot in common with Nick Earls, but he's always been a figure that, he got on the clipper ship out of town. And he was with, I believe it was Curtis Brown and University of Queensland Press. So that seemed like a reasonable idea. And nothing happened in the intervening 22 years to shift my opinion on that. And you know, I've always kept track of University of Queensland Press and Curtis Brown and so when this novel, the first novel that I wanted to send out into the world, I still had that plan and nothing substantial had changed. So, they were the two bodies that I sent the novel to.
Astrid: I have so many questions to ask you about your process, but before we jump into those and how you chose The Everlasting Sunday to be the first one that you put out into the world, I want you to read you some stats that Louise Adler, the CEO of Melbourne University Press, gave in our most recent interview of The Garret.
In 2017, 66,500 books were published in Australia. Only six sold more than 100,000 copies, only 23 sold more than 50,000 copies, and only 458 sold more than 5,000 copies. As someone who has put a good 20 years thought into your writing career, what do these stats mean to you?
Robert: They're fascinating and I think eye opening, but not particularly surprising to me. That seemed to be the environment of the literary landscape in Australia and probably in the wider world. It's tricky to answer. I know I've always purposefully kept – and it's part of this self-protection thing I had about my writing, and the way I would keep myself going is I didn't really at all think about things like that. I've told my publisher and agent to never tell me how many copies my book has sold. If it's selling a lot, I'll know. [Laughter]
Robert: And so, I figure if there's anything significant happening in that realm, I'll find out about it. And there's nothing to be gained by me knowing. But also because I don't... I think it has something to do with this – and I can only speak to my personal experience of this – that those figures are in terms of trying to build a sound financial standing to write, and that it's impossible. And even if you wanted to be a mastermind and cynic and construct a novel that builds you a career, I mean, good luck to you. I don't know how you would presciently and look four years into the future and digest the zeitgeist and make a novel that could feed into that. You know, great, go for it, if you can engineer that together it would be fun. But, I don't know what to do about it, I can't let that into my thinking too much. And I think there's something, the way I've gotten around that is by front loading my career – let's be generous and call it a career – with a complete devotion to the writing, and that's how I keep myself secure, and I don't attach any of my personal relationship to my writing, I don't attach any of that to the publishing sphere. There is two very separate objects, there's the story I wrote that I'm so attached to and so proud of, proud enough that I wanted to send it out into the world. And then there's this object that's existing in this other sphere, and I can't really let the water cross that divide, because I'd never write again. Why would you write, if you attach too much to that? So, I don't know the answer to that question, I just have to keep those things separate to keep going.
Astrid: I want to read you another quote from Louise Adler. She says, ‘There is relentless pressure on writers to be distinctive. You've got to talk, you've got to be able to sell yourself. You've got to have a social media presence. It's not good enough to write the best book possible.’
Astrid: She was not being critical of writers, she was reflecting on the environment and how you build a reputation. How have you felt that this year, with The Everlasting Sunday?
Robert: Yeah. I think I'm in that luxurious position of having released a quiet literary fiction novel through a relatively small publisher where... it's a strange situation. It's like playing French cricket with your sister in the backyard where you're eight, there's no stakes but it means everything at the same time and that's how I feel about this novel. So, I think because I haven't got a half million dollar marketing campaign behind me, I don't feel any sort of direct pressure around that stuff. But I wouldn't have sent this book out to a publisher if I didn't want people to read it. I want to share this book and I want to have that moment with people, so I do want people to get this book in whatever way they can. It's funny, I've done a lot more press and things than I've ever imagined a writer with my first novel and a little publisher would do, because you just do a lot. And the only way I've dealt with that – because you don't know until that day one. You write a book, and then suddenly they kind of scrub you up, make you shave, go out and do a radio interview, and just sink or swim – the only way I've dealt with it is the same way I've dealt with joining social media, which I wasn't a part of until 18 months ago, I just thought, ‘If I'm going to do this, I'm going go on the radio, I'm going go on social media and do any of this stuff, I’m going to genuinely try and have an actual human interaction with people. I'm not going to polish up my pitch and sell it. I don't have an elevator pitch. Same with social media, I'm actually going try and meet some cool people and talk to them and actually have interactions. It's the same when you have radio interviews and things. And sometimes it's… By just going into a situation and being completely open and honest and giving real answers, you can see people's eyes open because they're not used to hearing that. Even if I haven't got a sparkling story to tell, if you're honest in these situations, it's quite refreshing for everyone involved, and that's how you get through.
We were speaking earlier that someone gave me a great piece of advice the day before I gave my first interview. They just said, in theory, I should be the world's expert on this topic. Me and the novel I've written is something that I should be able to answer questions on, and that took a great weight off my... So, I just forgot any ideas about practising things. So, I think if you actually go, doing radio interviews and doing podcast interviews is really interesting and really fun if you actually answer the questions. So that's what I endeavour to do, and so I look forward to it. And these things are fun, and I don't know anything about strategies. I feel that is my strategy, it's the only one I've got. And so that's the one I'm sticking to.
Astrid: I think it's working for you, Robert. I became aware of you through your social media presence well before I met you, and you always come across as authentic, not staged like often happens on social media. I did want to ask you though, about your choice to join social media 18 months ago. I recently interviewed Ceridwen Dovey, also a beautiful writer of literary fiction, and she has made a conscious and deliberately thought through choice to stay off it.
Robert: Yep. Absolutely.
Astrid: Because it impacts her writing and ability to think.
Robert: Yeah, absolutely. And I have taken breaks, in the last four weeks, 've had a break. Sometimes I haven't kept my break as much as I'd want to, but I took a break because I've been writing something new. So, I completely understand that, and I think, again, if for a moment I felt like it was draining me, if it felt like an admin job – which sometimes social media feels like you've got a second job in admin – I have an all or nothing kind of personality which I'm trying to grow as a person and develop. So, I normally would have just kept clear of social media because I would have felt that… But I've met so many remarkable people through social media, yourself included, and before I put this book out, I'd never met a writer in my life. I've never been in a writer's group, I'd never been in those kinds of social... it was part of that obstinate streak of me, to keep to myself. I'd never met a writer. In the last 12 months, I've met so many interesting and fabulous readers and writers, and booksellers, and people who are just interested in writing. And it's an amazing group of people and I get strength from that, and these aren't just screen friends, some of these people I've gone on writing retreats with and I've seen down at the pub and we've become actual friends. And I think that's because if you put yourself out in an honest way and if it doesn't feel like work, then you sort of find your people. And I feel like I've found my people online. But I absolutely understand that you might want to keep away from it, and it is absolutely a time suck, and you need to keep that in check. But I'm never on social media when I should be writing. I'm on social media when I should be working, but I'm not on social media when I should be writing.
Astrid: I love that distinction that you have. Now let's talk about The Everlasting Sunday. I have my dog-eared copy here, which I have highlighted as I was reading The Everlasting Sunday. You have a very strong voice, it feels almost old-worldy. It almost reminded me at the beginning of Brideshead Revisted, the idea of secrets that we never quite find out.
Tell me about your process. The specifics.
Robert: When I started writing this and when I start to write most things, I never have a plot, I never have characters. They tend to come from a very, very, specific atmosphere or flavour or feeling, some kind of lingering sensation that's either from something that's happened in my life, or just an accumulation of an idea. This all sounds very astrological, but I have this secondary world, and in that world, it's always running in the background. I'm processing things and thinking about things, and this novel came from a very specific ambiguous feeling that I wanted to try and capture. And so, the writing process, I went to a blank page, and this novel I wrote in a very concentrated block. It seems to be the way I write. I want to develop other ways to write, but I feel like I'm in a period of my life where that's the way these things happen.
Really all I do is I keep that atmosphere, that flavour that I'm trying to express. It's like I'm holding my breath. And then I write. And I just go to a blank page and it forms itself only because I've spent a huge amount of time thinking about the kinds of tastes and ideas and thoughts and types of language that I want to write. I front load the whole process. So, the writing is the final stage of the work, and I just come to a blank page. And it's an improvisation as I spoke about earlier, and that's the thrill I get. I'm discovering what this story is about and who's in this story and where this story is as it's coming out on the page. And when I look at it after I'm finished and I think, ‘Oh, that's what I'm interested in. That's fascinating.’ And it's that strange interplay of the conscious and the subconscious, because I know I'm writing all this, I'm not channelling the muse or the gods or anything. I'm writing all this, but it is that strange interplay of the way memory and little pieces of things you've read. And again, memories of feelings and atmospheres that you never quite process and you're trying to get them down. And in its worst form, it's a dream journal, but in its greater form, if you focus it into language, you end up writing. And that's what this novel was.
That all sounds slightly ethereal but that's the way it feels to me as well. I certainly don't have a scrap of notes for this novel, it's all on the page.
Astrid: So, when you say you write in a concentrated block, what is that?
Robert: I'm literally just trying to work in a short space of time. And again, it's hard to compute because you're working full time, you're doing all the rest of it. From when I started writing this to when I sent it to the publisher, I think it was three months.
Astrid: My goodness!
Robert: So, but having said that, anyone can sit down in front of a computer and write a novel like thing in three months, that's…
Astrid: Yeah, but they couldn't write a good one in three months!
Robert: But so… What I sent out was something that I knew needed editorial work, something that I knew wasn't finished on a kind of nitty gritty word to word level. But it was something that I, for the first time, I felt like I finished what I started. That I captured, in some way, that ambiguity, that kind of half feeling, that strange atmosphere that I was trying to get on the page. I got it. And the minute I finished writing that final word, I was out of that world and I could never go back to it again. And so that's why I felt like I had to write it in that concentrated period, because I was holding that atmosphere in my mind and if I didn't get it down it was going drift away. A couple of months of the main writing, and I did a bit of lazy shuffling around and spell checking and some tightening, that kind of thing. But there was something about I knew that I just wanted to send this object out into the world, and I knew it needed that editorial work, and I guess I clung to this romantic idea that it would find its people. And it seems to have.
Astrid: It did, and it has. So, in that three month block, where you were working, I assume you didn't take three months off to write. In the morning, at night, how many hours a day?
Robert: Yeah. I get up as early as I can, and I get myself ready as quickly as I can, and I thankfully have a decent length commute to work. Commutes are good things. If I didn't have a commute, I would never read and I would never write. So, I literally just write on the tram on the way to work. And again it's that thing of – the one thing I have developed is that ability to click instantly, really, into this writing mode. And I almost weekly miss my tram stop because I'm just writing and I'm unaware that the tram is filled up with people. So, I write on the tram on the way to work. When I get to work I'm always the first one in the office, the lights go on. I'll write until it feels like there's too many people in the office for me still to be writing, and then I'll write in the staff cafeteria at lunch time, and then I'll write on the tram home. And that's what I do.
And again, the actual writing, getting it down on the page is a very short process, but that's preceded by endless completely consumed in this world… And it's funny, I don't try and lock down characters or places or plots. In fact, I love that just revealing itself out on the page. But, it's hard to describe, it's like one of those magic eye pictures that were popular in the 1980s. It's this kind of furry block and then you lock into something and you can suddenly see that three-dimensional skeleton, you can't quite describe how you saw it, but you just hold it in your mind. So, I just do a lot of walking around, starting at the ground, and considering all these things, so that when the writing comes, that feels like the final flourish.
Astrid: So, the first person who read your manuscript for The Everlasting Sunday was someone at Curtis Brown?
Robert: Yeah, my partner read it for the first time, and it's really helpful because my partner doesn't really like books that much, and particularly doesn't like the kind of books that I like, and that's really useful, because all my partner ever says is, I just want to read something with a good story! And that's really useful to someone who just heard me describe my writing process. Perhaps I needed a little nudge in the direction of story. So, it's really useful to have a resistant reader. So, I took those notes on and did a little bit of shuffling. And yeah, but then I sent the book off to University of Queensland Press, and Curtis Brown, on the same day. And I realised afterwards, I never even checked if University of Queensland Press had opened submissions. They don't know, so they probably... I don't know. And I just sent it off. And then didn't hear a single word from either of them for about 18 months. So, Ian See, who is an in-house editor at UQP, it percolated up onto his desk at some point in that 18 months. So, I think he was my first reader.
Astrid: Eighteen months. I just want to ponder that. You wrote it in about three months, and it took eighteen months to get any kind of feedback from the two places that you'd sent. In those eighteen months, what were you thinking, and did you send it anywhere else?
Robert: I wasn't thinking anything, and I didn't send it to anyone else. I just carried on as I did before, and I think that's part of the strategy – let's again, generously call it a strategy to my writing is – this was just what I was going to do. And if Curtis Brown and UQP hadn't responded, I like to think I'd just continue in the same way I always had. So, I just carried on with my life, and I started thinking about the next thing to write.
Astrid: How many manuscripts have you written since the day that you sent The Everlasting Sunday off?
Robert: Well, nothing interrupts a writing career quite like having your first novel published. [Laughter] It is such a... no. It's wonderful, but normally what would have become the next novel became the editorial process. But I've written two since then. I just this week finished a new one.
Robert: Thanks! And I'm wearing my first draft beard. I started writing and after about a week I realised I haven't shaved and then I just thought oh, I'm just going see what happens what this. So I've been writing for this long. I'm pointing to my face, listeners, but this is…
Astrid: We will show you a photo. So, this new manuscript, this new work. How long has that taken? I mean, three months again?
Robert: The latest one... feels different to me. And I was warned against, publishers always tell you, ‘Don't go into your interviews and start telling them about how great your new thing is’. But, we're being honest here and being open. But the latest thing I've written, it's taken over my life in a way that nothing else has before. So, I've written this manuscript in about a month.
Astrid: I just... that is so impressive.
Robert: But, you know, read it. [Laughter] Read it and then tell me it's impressive. It's just the way I've developed to write. And I don't know if it's a good way to write, it's the way I'm writing right now, and these things come... it feels very similar to The Everlasting Sunday, just a very different flavour. So, if The Everlasting Sunday is sort of a refined... I was going say vanilla, but that's not a good way to put it.
Astrid: It's not vanilla. It is refined.
Robert: A soft gelato or something. This new one feels like a fiery hot sauce or something. That's a terrible description.
Astrid: No no, it works. I love it, we're running with it.
Robert: As in, it's felt incredibly compelling and I felt like I had to get this out. And it's turned my life upside down. The last month of my life has been very – in the scheme of things, not difficult, but in my world it's been turned upside down because I've had to write this really quickly. And it's just come out in a really, really concentrated... it doesn't come out in an easy way, it comes out in a voluminous way. It comes out very quickly, but it's like hot sauce. It hurts on the way out.
Astrid: Have you structured it, or was it just, you mean it just came out so quickly. Do you need to go back in and do a structural edit, or you…
Robert: Yeah, I need to go back and do a lot. And there's a sort of internal secondary story, and again this is good for me, because I might be changing my process a bit. It's very addictive, that first thought, best thought, 1950s, hippie idea. I think I was too romantically attached to the imperfect diamond approach, that this is what it is and it's the best version of itself it could be. And that's where editorial assistance is amazing, that's what saved me with The Everlasting Sunday. But yeah, this new novel, and if I'm sounding a bit scattered about describing it it's because I just sort of emerged out of the darkness of writing it. I don't quite know where it sits yet, but I know it's something. But I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do with it, I don't know if I'm going…
Astrid: You didn't immediately hit send?
Robert: Oh, absolutely not. And, and that's…
Astrid: Like this one.
Robert: No, and not because I don't want to send it out. It's because it's still an unfinished painting, really. It's still happening. And I suppose that's the one thing that carried through with the one approach I've had where I've written so long without publication being the end point of it. It makes perfect sense to me that you would write novel and not necessarily want to get it published. I've written... let's say, twenty novels. One of them has been published, I don't understand why now everything I write, I would want to send out. I wish novelists would publish less sometimes. We've all had our favourite novelist you just think, slow…
Astrid: Did you think should be the last one?
Robert: Yeah, but it should be. A musician doesn't put every song they write on the next album, or something. So yeah, I'm just going sit with it for a time and see what happens with it, and I’ll write another... they feel like pallet cleansers. Definitely being published was something that I needed to... the machinery needed some cleaning out after that. So, we'll see.
Astrid: That's extraordinary. I'm looking forward to reading it. Now, tell me how important are reviews to build the career and to build the public engagement around your novel?
Robert: I don't know. It is an interesting question, because we've seen the complete dismantling of the previous... you know, if it was 1975 I'd say they meant everything. I don't know how they sit in today's… I don't know anyone who knows the answer to the question of why you buy a book. Just to refer back to the great Malouf, he passed on some great advice – and I think it still holds true – word of mouth is still the greatest seller of books, I suppose. And I think increasingly you're bombarded daily more than ever with options and media and books. If I listened to everyone who recommended a book to me, I'd be living on the street. So, there is still no beating some nice word of mouth and things spreading around. And maybe that lasted longer, I don't know. I think reviews still hold some significance, I suppose.
I've had to protect myself from those to some extent. I've yet to read a review all the way through. I read bits and pieces. I really appreciate them. It's just really important to me that I don't read them. I sort of hold them at arm’s length and squint and maybe try and get a sense of something about them, but beggars can't be choosers. My first novel, and again I'm so grateful and I've had great luck with…
Astrid: You have.
Robert: … getting lots of reviews and things. And that's been amazing, and I'm so appreciative of that.
I used to work as a living, I used to write arts and music, I used to review various things. I worked in Brisbane at Time Off Magazine in house in the glory days, back when you got paid for working on street press – and gee they were good days – but you know, you'd review ten albums a week, that kind of thing. So, I know the work that goes into these things, and I really appreciate them, but it's just important to me that I can't get too attached to them because what keeps me going is my personal attachment to the writing. Because if it started attaching to things like reviews or sales, I'm done for.
And so, it's really important to me. It's tricky because people work really hard to do these reviews, and you know, if you write a review for some newspaper now – I don't know what happens – maybe you get paid $50 or something. I don't know. That's a lot of emotional energy going into that and I really appreciate it. So, I don't know the answer to that question. Why people buy books, I don't know. But I think reviews still hold some significance, I don't know.
Astrid: I like to think they do. Now, as I started to read The Everlasting Sunday and I realised that it was a very place-based story, 1962, England. I adore your writing and one question kept coming up for me, Robert. A little while ago, I heard a joke from Ryan O'Neill who has won the Prime Minister's Literary Award, and he was joking to Alec Patrić, who of course has won the Miles Franklin, and he said that, Alec had ruled himself out of the Miles Franklin because he set Atlantic Black on a cruise ship with no Australian characters. There are no Australian characters in The Everlasting Sunday. Did this occur to you?
Robert: Actually, the very first thing my publisher said to me, just as she was walking me through the halls of UQP and showing me around. I think maybe it was just happenstance and I was sending things out and she said, ‘You know, you're not eligible for the Miles Franklin’. These things aren't on my mind, these things had never occurred to me in a million years. I was barely getting my head around the idea of being published, awards and things, I'm not in that conversation. This novel's not in that conversation. So, what am I going to do, just implant an Australian character? And it's funny because if I think of all the novels I've written, by and large three quarters of them have been set in Australia. I just write where ever the wind blows me next, and the wind blew me to rural Shropshire in 1962.
Astrid: In the worst winter for 300 years.
Robert: Yeah. Yeah. The Big Freeze that I grew up seeing photos of in my parent's photo album. My family are all, my brother and sister are British, my parents are British, this was a winter my parents lived through. You know, and when you're a sun burnt Sunshine Coast kid and you see photos of your father riding a sled down the roof of the house, they last, those kind of memories. So that was definitely a big part of why my subconscious grabbed at that memory to locate this story. Yeah. Not eligible for the Miles Franklin.
Astrid: Yeah, Robert, it's a big call but I would like to see your name on the short list at some time in the future, so I hope that one of the manuscripts that you work on soon may make you eligible.
Robert: I'm sure I'll write something. Most things I've written have been set in Australia. So that's all I can say. But who knows, my head will go to that place when it feels like it needs to.
Astrid: It will. Robert, thank you so much for your time on The Garret.
Robert: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.