The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Brendan James Murray
author of The Drowned Man
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 in Geelong, but have no memories of living there. Very early in my life my family relocated to Dromana on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. My father was a firefighter with the Department of Aviation – possibly one of the reasons I have a serious fear of flying to this day! I was well into my twenties before my girlfriend finally forced me to get onto a plane for the first time.
For anybody who hasn’t been there, Dromana is a beautiful but unusual place. The national parks of Arthurs Seat overlook beaches that are lonely and windswept in winter, then crammed with tourists in the summer. For the local business owners, it’s a place of feast and famine. The demographics are interesting; in some streets, housing commission homes stand alongside palatial villas built by wealthy retirees wanting a sea change.
The ocean is a big part of the culture in this part of the world. People surf, fish, kayak.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. It started with horror and ghost stories when I was in primary school. I was probably about ten when one of my mother’s friends (her name was Theresa Jenkins) gave me a gift: an old Remington typewriter. From then on, I was really hooked. I’d be holed away in my room for hours on end, bashing away at the machine to the point that all my fingers ended up calloused. I’ve never been able to unlearn the habit. To this day, people ask me why I hit the keys on the computer so hard. They think I’m the angriest writer going around!
Somewhere along the way, I decided that I might like to try teaching. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. For the last six years I’ve been teaching English, Literature and Humanities in a large government school, and I love every minute of it. The students are (mostly!) amazing. I never could have predicted just how much I’d come to care about the students I teach. You get to know each of them as individual learners and human beings, and it’s a privilege to be able to play a part in helping them shape a better future for themselves.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I look back at myself as an eighteen year-old, I see a young man who was pretty clueless and naïve. I’ve dropped a lot of beliefs since then. Whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, I think I’m far more realistic than I once was, and a bit of cynicism comes along with that. I still think there are far more good people than bad in the world, but I do not hold that belief as strongly as I once did.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc. – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
There are many books that have had a huge impact on me, but one that stands out is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The blend of humour and horror is genius, as is the swirling structure that brings us closer and closer to the ultimate revelation of Snowden’s fate. Anybody who reads that book and doesn’t laugh out loud, plus shed a tear, must have a heart of stone. I think it’s the best anti-war book there is.
Along similar lines, Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line has also been a significant influence, particularly in terms of how I went about writing The Drowned Man. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched that film. Malick examines war from many perspectives, and shows American servicemen in all their sadistic, compassionate, terrified complexity.
If there was a soundtrack to my writing career, a leading number would be The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. When I finished high school, I took a year off and did almost nothing except write short stories (looking back, most of them were fairly ordinary). Somebody had given me a CD of classical music as a gift, and though I’m not generally a fan, I did come across The Lark Ascending and loved it. I listened to it over and over again that year. It has an uplifting, epic quality.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Writing is something I’ve always wanted to do, literally for as long as I can remember. I have no talent for music or the visual arts, though I do enjoy them as an audience member.
6. Please tell us about your novel, The Drowned Man…
Some years ago, I had a random meeting with an elderly man who had served in the navy during the Second World War. This caught my attention, as my own grandfather – Richard Radcliffe – had also been a sailor. In the course of a strange conversation, this man told me a story about a gay shipmate being murdered on board HMAS Australia during the war. Apparently, this sailor had been brutally beaten and thrown over the side because of his sexuality.
My grandfather had served on the Australia, so I asked him about this rumour. He had also heard the story, and in fact was able to provide far more details than this other man. According to my grandfather, the victim had been “bothering a young ordinary seaman,” and as a kind of punishment, was killed by some shipmates. So the story went, he was gripping desperately to the guardrail, and his attackers stomped on his fingers until he fell into the sea. My grandfather had been told this story by sailors who had served on the Australia far longer than he had. They said the death was simply written off as “lost at sea.”
I decided that I wanted to find out if such a thing could have occurred. The result is this book. However, it’s not only the story of a possible murder; it’s also the tale of the ship itself, as well as some of its personalities. Readers will experience everything from the day-to-day politics of life on a warship, to the bloody horrors of kamikaze attacks in the Philippines. I write about some extraordinarily brave and remarkable Australians, but don’t shy away from the prejudice and bigotry of the time.
In many ways, this is a book about masculinity.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
First, I would like readers to hear the extraordinary stories of some extraordinary people. We are often so fixated on the army in this country that we spend little time learning about the sacrifices made at sea.
I would also like readers to reflect on the place of homosexuals in Australia’s World War Two story. Currently, it’s an area that gets little acknowledgement. I want people to be aware of the diverse sexual identities of our war heroes, and understand the struggles of men who were often brutally treated for little more than who they loved. There were sailors who served with great distinction on the Australia during the war, only to be expelled from the navy when their sexuality came to light. These men (already greatly traumatised by their experiences of combat) weren’t even granted their war pensions. It’s shameful and needs to be acknowledged.
More broadly, I would like people to think about how masculinity is perceived and enacted in this country. In The Drowned Man I talk a great deal about ‘male honour’, a concept introduced to me through the writing of criminologist Professor Stephen Tomsen. So much poor behaviour in society can be (in my opinion) traced back to notions of male honour, and I include warfare in that poor behaviour. I would like people to think about whether or not things have changed all that much since the 1940s.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
In my early twenties I came upon an English writer named William Sansom. He died in the 1970s and has been long out of print, but his short stories did a great deal to shape my beliefs on what good writing should be. His work is probably a bit dated now, but his descriptive power absolutely floored me as a budding writer. I am yet to find another author who can so thoroughly transport me into a scene. Sansom was an Artist with a capital A. He wrote with beauty, lyricism and passion.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
This one’s short and sweet: I’d love to be able to write full-time. Then again, I might miss teaching too much…
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Probably a thousand books have been filled with advice on what aspiring writers should do to hone their craft and march towards the promise land of publication. As far as I’m concerned, there are two things that are more important than anything else: read a lot and write a lot. It may be a cliché, but I genuinely believe that’s the key.
Thank you for playing, Brendan!
The Drowned Man
A chance encounter in a fish-’n’-chip shop set Brendan James Murray on the trail of a mystery. Had a gay man been secretly murdered on HMAS Australia during the Second World War?
The veteran he spoke to was certain. ‘I knew about it,’ he said. ‘We all did.’
But was the story true? If so, who was the dead man? And why was it so hard to find out? ...