Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born at Solihull and Warwickshire, England, where my early childhood was spent during the Second World War. All through the bombing, my mother promised us we would return to the family farm in Kangaroo Valley, NSW. I was 13 when we finally got back to Australia. As for school, I’m not sure this matters much. It was okay. The main thing about school, in my view, is learning to be among other kids and finding your way in the world. I left school in Brisbane at 16, so I did not have and HSC or equivalent. I went out to work and did various jobs, none of them interesting. I just wanted to get on with my ‘real’ life, which I saw as a life in the arts and a life of travel.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, with the war having finished only 3 years before, I think I probably just wanted to be alive long enough to grow up. At eighteen I was acting, playing music (classical – baroque), painting and writing. Any of these would have been fine by me. At thirty what I wanted was to be free of debt.
I have never been a commercial writer and that raises a problem because I haven’t had a day job since the age of twenty-two , nor have I written as a journalist. I am just a writer, writing poetry and novels.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That the world was too big a place for the individual to make any progress without being corrupt. I don’t believe that now. And if I didn’t have my international editions in the USA, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden, I would never have been able to scrape a living together. (BBGuru: Shame Australia, shame!)
4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
1: Way back in 1971 I had the privilege of seeing a group of Aboriginal dancers from Arnhem Land. They had never performed in a theatre and never seen a city. Their dancing was electrifying. By that stage I had already been involved in the Aboriginal rights movement in Queensland for ten years, but the integrity of their culture and the virtuosity of their dancing was an eye-opener. One young lad was destined to become famous: David Gulpilil. I still remember his brolga.
2: When I first saw Michelangelo’s statue of the dead Jesus in his mother’s arms, the Pieta, in St Peter’s, Rome, it impressed me as the greatest work of art I had ever seen. I was 23. The miracle was (and still is) that Mary’s flesh is living – and Jesus’s flesh is dead. All carved of a single piece of marble. How did he do it? Don’t ask me. It’s beyond explanation. A miracle of art.
3: I was 18 when I first encountered the short stories of Wolfgang Borchert – a German writer who died at 27. He wrote forty short stories and a play. His entire output fits into a 250 page book. But the power of what he wrote made him a major writer by any standard. He transmogrified the experience of war into words as no other writer did before him and none since. These stories changed my vision of what literature can be and what it can do – that the kind of writing I hoped to achieve was not an entertainment but an exploration of the meanings of life. He wrote prose that is timeless and that speaks deeply of human nature.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why do you choose to write books?
Really that was chance. I was acting and making music and painting as well as writing – I think I could have gone in any of these directions. What happened was pure chance – I met a published writer, John Manifold, who was twenty years older than me. He became my mentor and encouraged me. If a music mentor had come along, I might have ended up a composer. If an artist mentor had come along I might have ended up an artist. But it was John and he became the key. I will always be grateful to him. (BBGuru: Now that’s the answer I was seeking!)
Popeye Never Told You is a memoir. I have published 36 books, or so, but this is my first attempt at putting autobiographical material on the page.
I have chosen to turn my back on the usual method of writing autobiography – I do not reminisce or theorise or explain anything. The book reads more like a novel. What I do is to get the experiences I remember as clear and straightforward as I can.
It covers the war years, from age 5 to age 9, as nearly as possible capturing the actual experience of being a child. A lot of the experience for the reader is ‘between the lines’, because the adult reader understands what is going on better than the child himself. We moved to another town straight after the war (and then to Australia), so I can date these experiences pretty accurately. I hope readers will find the book touching and funny despite the seriousness of the wartime setting.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
All my novels aim at one thing, really: to engage the reader, moment by moment in the experience. Vivid and intense experience is of central importance to me. That’s what illuminates us for one another. With Popeye Never Told You I want to reader to come away knowing just what it was like to be a fatherless child at that time.
The greatest book written in my lifetime is The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The language is the richest, the most free from the shackles of explanation or the plodding Realism of cause-and-effect of any book I can think of. It is free of story – that overrated and formalistic structure. It ranges from first person to second to third and back again in a single sentence. The images tumble out in a cataract of the most brilliant inventiveness ever put on the printed page. And his passionate and compassionate insight into people, the good and the evil, is second to none. A great, great book about the death of a South American dictator. (BBGuru: Must buy this book!)
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To embody experience in words so that it ‘actually happens’ in the reader’s imagination. The reader is central to me. I want to take my readers into a world they have never been in before – even if it is the simple world of a child in a small country town.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Read books that challenge and stimulate you. Don’t waste your life on time-filling entertainments. Love the language and use it to the full, stretching it if you are able. Find out everything you can about words, their origin and use. Think about them. ‘Feel’ them. Feel the rhythms they create. Experiment to create different emphases by changing word order or choice of vocabulary. Get the best dictionary you can afford and a Roget’s Thesaurus (and if you’ve already got a thesaurus arranged as a dictionary, throw it away, it’s rubbish). Like anything, if you want to be good at it you have to practise. And remember that what you read will shape what you write. Choose well and aim high. (BBGuru: Don’t waste your life on time-filling entertainments! And remember that what you read will shape what you write..! There is a god. Rodney be thy name.)
Rodney, thank you for playing.
Note from Toni Whitmont, editor of Booktopia Buzz.
Rodney Hall was born at Solihull, Warwickshire, in England. He came to Australia as a child and, as a result of the enchantment of embarking on that six-week voyage by sea, he suffers from a lifelong addiction to travel. After leaving school in Brisbane at 16 he worked professionally as a musician and for a while as an actor, but since 1961 he has lived by his writing, being the author of over thirty books and countless articles. He has won the Miles Franklin Award twice and many of his novels and poems have been published internationally. He lives in Melbourne.
* The Ship on the Coin (1972)
* A Place Among People (1975)
* Just Relations (1982)
* Kisses of the Enemy (1987)
* Captivity Captive (1988)
* The Second Bridegroom (1991)
* The Grisly Wife (1993)
* The Island in the Mind (1996)
* The Day We Had Hitler Home (2000)
* The Last Love Story (2004)
* Love Without Hope (2007)