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Posts tagged ‘The Resurrectionist’

On writing and not writing: depression, creation and fiction

Resurrectionist coverAbout fifteen years ago, when I was working The Resurrectionist, Ivor Indyk from Giramondo Publishing approached me and asked me whether I’d be interested in writing a piece about my work in progress for Heat. Although the book was slowly moving toward completion it had been an incredibly difficult process, both emotionally and creatively, and at first I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to open up about how hard it had been. Eventually I decided I would, but in the process I found myself having to think about a whole series of questions about the way I worked, what I thought fiction did, and the ways in which my experiences with depression had shaped both the book and my life and work more generally.

I hadn’t thought about the piece for a long time, but recently I found myself going back to it after somebody asked me whether I’d ever written about process. Reading it again was surprisingly difficult – many of the feelings and experiences it discusses are ones I have no desire to revisit. But simultaneously I was struck by how little had changed, especially in regard to the mysteriousness of the actual process of writing:

“Novels – or at least the ones I am able to write – always seem to me to be curiously fragmentary things, at once prismatic and elusive. These pieces, these fragments, are part of a pattern, and they take their meaning from the whole, even as they reflect the whole within themselves. Finding these pieces, fitting them together, is not so much an act of creation as one of uncovering, of giving voice to something that is already there. This thing, the unwritten book, is like a potential, and to find it you need to learn to give way to the lines of force within it, the invisible tensions and attractors which give it its shape.”

I’ve now uploaded the piece. Although I don’t discuss it explicitly a lot of the piece is about depression, a subject I explored more fully in my essay ‘Never Real and Always True’. And if you’d like to read more by me about how I write, I recommend Charlotte Wood’s fantastic collection of interviews with writers, The Writer’s Room, or my interview with Catriona Menzies-Pike in Sydney Review of Books.

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Clade now available through Audible

Clade AudibleI’m very excited to say the audio book edition of my Victorian Premier’s, Christina Stead and Aurealis Award-shortlisted novel Clade is now available through Audible in Australiathe UK and internationally. It’s read by Ian Bliss, and features a rather lovely new cover, so if you’ve been holding off reading it perhaps now’s the time to grab a copy.

And if audio books are your thing you might also want to check out the audio editions of The Resurrectionist, read by Stan Pretty (UK only), and Wrack, read by Humphrey Bower (AustraliaUK and US).

A blast from the past: me talking about The Resurrectionist

I was chatting about book trailers this morning and it reminded me of the video below, which was produced and directed by Steve Macdonald to coincide with The Resurrectionist’s inclusion as one of Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008. If you can get past the fact I look even more crumpled and feral than usual, my hair’s about a foot high and my stammer is particularly noticeable, it’s actually not too bad. And of course if you’re so excited after you’ve watched it you want to buy a copy, you can check out Booko for prices on the Australian and UK editions.

 

“A country founded on the air”

I’ve always been struck by the difference in the way Australian and British readers seem to respond to the last third of The Resurrectionist, in which the narrator is transported to New South Wales to begin again with a new name and a new identity. While Australian readers seem to grasp the significance of this Australian section, I’ve always got the sense that for many British readers it seems a slightly bizarre (and I suspect fairly unsatisfying) add-on to what they see as a novel about London and a very particular piece of British history. Which is why it’s so lovely to read this analysis of it in Jerome de Groot’s new book, The Historical Novel:

“Is it the case that historical novelists may only write about ‘their’ history in so far as they have some kind of ethnographic, sociological, nationalist, geographical claim to a past? Clearly not, as writers have amply shown. However, it does tend to be the case, primarily, presumably, because of access to source material, or language problems, or lack of confidence, that historical novelists keep within their own national historical boundaries. Yet does this mean that ‘history’ is somehow inert and neutral, mere source material? Again, clearly not. However, this tension and dynamic infects our reading and understanding of historical fiction. The Australian writer James Bradley appears to have broken free of his country’s past in The Resurrectionist, setting his novel in the grim London streets of the early 1820s and specifically amongst the grave robbers servicing the various professional anatomists of the time. However, the novel inverts this for the last section, as one of them is transported to Australia for his crimes, and the novel becomes a meditation upon origin, a consideration of the relationship between mother country and colony. The inhabitants of the colony are formerly prostitutes, convicts, criminals and murderers, yet ‘To laugh at them, or mock them, however, is no easy thing, for what lies in their pasts is there for all of us. And so we conspire not to enquire, nor to tell, as if by this silence we might forget what was and make a life without a past, as if this were a land without history, a country founded on the air’. This is impossible, however: ‘And yet the past is ever there’. The Resurrectionist elegantly creates a dialogue about national character and self-definition through its historical setting, reclaiming ‘British’ history for a postcolonial audience.”

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Welcome to the real world

As some of you may be aware, UK book site, Bookhugger, has been running an occasional series of online Author Panels, in which selected authors are asked to discuss an issue pertinent to their work. Past panels have included Aly Monroe, Helen Walsh and Armand Cabasson on Writing from Life and Ian Thomson, Daniel Kalder and John Geiger on Reportage. I’m very pleased (and a bit flattered) to have been asked to contribute to their newest instalment, Welcome to the real world, which focusses on the use of real life characters and settings in fiction (something I did quite a bit of in The Resurrectionist). It’s a fascinating question, both because of what it tells us about the changing nature of fiction and fictionality, and because of the creative questions it throws up. As I say in the panel:

“All of that said, as a writer I’ve always been a bit wary of over-emphasising the role of research. At some deep level it seems to me that as a writer your responsibility is to the story, and to the way you’re telling it, and everything else is subservient to that. Indeed often too much research can be a trap, because you begin to feel constrained by it, as if you have a responsibility to what really happened.”

You can read the full piece on the Bookhugger site.

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Audiofile’s Best Voices of 2009

Just a quick note to say congratulations to Humphrey Bower for being chosen as one of US Audiofile Magazine’s Best Voices of 2009 for his work on the Audio Book of my first novel, Wrack, produced by Australia’s Bolinda Publishing. Perth-based Humphrey, who’s built quite a reputation in recent years for his work voicing novels by Sonya Hartnett, Gregory Roberts and Tim Winton, also works as an actor and director on stage and screen (anyone who was watching John Safran’s Race Relations over recent weeks may have caught him in episode 3 as Rabbi Packouz) and voiced the Audio Book of my third novel, The Resurrectionist, back in 2007 (if you’d like to know more about Humphrey there’s a bio at Audiofile).

I suspect the world of Audio Books isn’t one that intrudes into many people’s lives, but it’s an incredibly important industry. My grandmother began to lose her sight in her 70s, and was basically blind for most of the last decade of her life. I’m not sure she was a great reader before she lost her sight, but once it was gone she found great solace in Audio Books, even though, as the years went on, her hearing became worse and worse.

Looking back, I wish one of my books had been recorded in time for her to listen to it. I’m not sure she would have enjoyed it particularly, but I think it would have meant a lot to her, and it would certainly have meant a lot to me. So while I’m congratulating Humphrey, and Bolinda, I’d like to extend a larger thank you to the Audio Book industry in general for all their efforts. I don’t know much about the economics of it but I’m pretty certain publishing Audio Books in Australia faces all the same challenges the Australian publishing industry in general faces, only more so, which makes their work all the more praiseworthy.

If you’re interested you can listen to a sample of Humphrey’s recording of Wrack here, and of The Resurrectionist here (for what it’s worth I particularly like his work on Wrack).

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On novels and place

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The Beaumont Children, who disappeared in Glenelg on Australia Day, 1966.

If this blog’s been looking a bit neglected lately, it’s because I’ve been frantically trying to knock over a first draft of my new novel. I had been hoping to have a draft done by the time our second child is born in November, and while I suspect that goal has now slipped away from me, I’m at least halfway there, so I think there’s a good chance I’ll have something by Christmas.

Writing first drafts is always a weird process. A lot of writers are planners, but I’m not, or not particularly. I’ve usually got a rough idea of the shape of the book, and at least a few key scenes, but I usually don’t have a terribly clear sense of how those pieces stick together, or what order they happen in. So mostly what I’m doing when I write first drafts is looking for the rhythm, and the energy. Sometimes that can be exhilarating, but mostly it’s a matter of feeling my way forward, looking for the moments when the thing chimes into life.

I’m still not quite sure what I think of this one (which is currently called Black Friday, though that may change). If you’d asked me a few weeks ago I would have said I wasn’t sure if it would work, but in the last fortnight or so I’ve become a lot more confident it will. Partly that’s because I’ve slid past the halfway mark, but mostly it’s because I can feel the characters beginning to live, and breathe, and the narrative beginning to develop the forward energy it needs.

That’s not to say all’s right with it. I’ve got a point of view problem that won’t go away, and the plotting of the section I’ve just finished is a shambles. And it’s precisely the sort of dark, disordered book I promised myself I wouldn’t write after the experience of writing The Resurrectionist. And my central character is pretty spectacularly unpleasant (as is the subject matter), but she also feels scarily real to me, which has to be a good thing.

What’s been strangest though, has been the manner in which the setting of the book has come bubbling out of me. Although it begins in the present day, the bulk of the action tales place in the early 1980s, and focuses on the actions of a small group of political radicals who decide to kill the Prime Minister. These characters come from a variety of backgrounds, but one of them – the central character – grew up in Adelaide, and there’s an extended sequence near the beginning depicting her absorption into the alternative demi-monde of the time in the backlots of Glenelg.

Although the scenes in question take place in 1980, and I didn’t finish school until 1984, the world this section takes place in is absolutely one I remember. The characters go to school at the school I went to (though it’s not named) and though they live a couple of suburbs further north along the coast, most of the action takes place in Glenelg, where I grew up (I’ve actually based the share-house she becomes entangled in on the house an old friend’s mother bought not long after we finished school).

In a way it’s unsurprising that the book has such a definite location. All three of the novels I’ve published so far are powerfully anchored in the places they’re set. Given that two of them – The Resurrectionist and The Deep Field – are set in places which don’t actually exist (the London of the 1820s and the Sydney of the future, respectively) that might seem an odd thing to say, but it’s true. Whenever I write about a place I need to feel I have a connection with it in an emotional sense, and to feel it’s an integral part of the larger symbolic and textural landscape of the novel. And so while the places they describe may not be real, in a literal sense, they need to be real to me, and to resonate with the book as a whole.

The curious thing is that I never had any desire to write about Adelaide. I left the best part of 20 years ago, and though when I visit it still seems almost overwhelmingly familiar, it’s been a long, long time since it felt like home. And although the South Australian landscape I grew up in has found its way into my work from time to time (the sandhills on the southern coast of New South Wales in which much of the action of Wrack takes place are imaginary versions of the Coorong, and the sandhills at West Beach, rather than anywhere you’d find on a map) I’ve not just not written about the place I grew up in, but actively not wanted to write about it.

In a way, of course, all I’m saying here is something I think any writer, and most readers understand, at least intuitively, which is that place, or location in fiction is never physical, or at least not in any simple sense. Place is always really a psychological space, a thing evoked through the layering of detail, and emotion. And like the strange, almost mystical capacity of characters to be conjured into life by a few words of dialogue or description (not for nothing, I think, do Christians understand God’s Word as a living thing; language has a primal and often quite unsettling power to take on life of its own) places are brought to life by the suggestion of great strata of meaning layered beneath the details we use to evoke them.

I’m not sure precisely what led me back to Adelaide, and the world I knew as an adolescent. What I do know is that it’s a process that began when I was struggling to finish The Resurrectionist. One of the inspirations for that book was the Snowtown murders, and having heard me talk about them, and about Adelaide and its history of serial murder more generally, my agent, David Miller, convinced me I should write about them, and about what seemed to me the very particular experience of growing up in Adelaide in the 1980s.

I still think the piece that came out of that conversation, ‘The Element of Need’, is one of the better things I’ve written in recent years. For contractual reasons there was a lag between me writing it and it being published, but a version was published in Heat last year (you can read a brief extract on the Giramondo website) and it’s recently been picked up for inclusion in Best Australian Essays 2009.

But good or not, writing the piece seemed to unlock something inside me. For a time I toyed with expanding it into a full length book, but for various reasons to do with my reluctance to spend too long in the headspace it inhabits that didn’t happen (though it still might). But alongside the book I didn’t write I found myself playing around with stories and novels which used the landscapes of my childhood and adolescence in quite direct ways. And although few, if any, of these are ever likely to find their way into print, the thing I kept running up against was the manner in which the landscapes they inhabit are so vivid and so particular.

I always think it’s dangerous to assume you know why you find yourself writing about particular things (and I’m painfully aware that even when you think you do know you’re often wrong, and the real reasons are hidden from you). But I do wonder whether this process of moving back, into the past, isn’t at least partly to do with growing older. My father is 76, and he routinely says his childhood, which he once barely remembered, is now almost frighteningly vivid. And while he’s got three and a half decades on me, the last few years have been pretty tumultuous. I’ve turned 40, become a father, felt the always unstable cycle of my moods spin frighteningly out of control, felt the only thing I ever wanted to do – writing – leave me, and then, tentatively at first, but then with greater certainty, return, all experiences which have left me painfully aware of the fragility of life, and of our vulnerability to its vicissitudes.

Yet at the same time the spaces I’m exploring are not simply memory. Despite various disruptions I had a pretty happy childhood. But the landscapes of the writing that draws on it are alienated and often downright creepy, populated by people with important parts of themselves missing. This is partly to do with my sense that there is something haunted and even sinister about Adelaide, some sense in which the outward peacefulness and order disguises something cruel and brutal. But I’m also aware that this view is itself coloured by my own fairly uncomfortable relationship with the place, and the person I was when I lived there.

I’m not sure this is terribly surprising. Like a lot of people who have left places I’ve allowed Adelaide to stand in for my past, and going back is always a pretty uncomfortable experience. But it’s also a reminder of the way fiction takes elements of our inner lives and gives them shape. For the Adelaide (and more particularly the Glenelg) I’m writing about in my new book isn’t a real one, in any literal sense, but an expression of whatever it is in me that has drawn me back there. I’m not going to try and unpack that part of me here – that’s what the novel’s for – but it is a reminder of the dangers of assuming fiction is, in ever, in any narrow sense, autobiographical, and simultaneously an illustration of Faulkner’s dictum: “The past is not dead. It is not even past”.

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