The Booktopia Book Guru asks
the three contenders for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award,
and Roger McDonald,
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourselves – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Chris Womersley: I was born in Melbourne in 1968, and have lived in that city for most of my life, aside from periods travelling overseas and living in Sydney and the UK. I went to a few schools, but ended up at Melbourne High School where I did my HSC.
Kim Scott: Born in Perth, Western Australia, but moved to Albany when I was three or four years old and did all my schooling there. Albany is my home town.
My father’s family had lived a couple of hours drive east of Albany, at what’s now Ravensthorpe for the generations since its proclamation, and lived in the vicinity since human society was formed there. But Ravensthorpe has a bad rep with most Aboriginal people today because of a lot of killing that occurred there in the earliest years of its colonisation. I didn’t even know about it until I was a young adult. There’s much food for thought, contemplating one’s Aboriginal family raised in those circumstances, having reconciled themselves with their country if not its recent history.
Roger McDonald: I was born at Young, NSW during WWII. We lived at Bribbaree, a small town on the Forbes-Stockinbingal railway line, where my father was Presbyterian minister. Farmers drove sulkies to church and the policeman patrolled on a horse. My first memories are of looking over a dry-grass paddock and seeing army trucks going past. They were seemingly able to lift through the dust and haze and fly. I started school at four and a half at Temora, and finished primary school at Bourke and in Sydney. At The Scots College, Bellevue Hill, the secondary teachers I remember were drunken ex-theological students, fake WWII pilots, one-lunged athletes. Their classes ran riot. In my English classes, no matter how well or badly taught, grammar, spelling, and imitation of 18th and 19th century essay structures left no room for “personal creativity”. Paradoxically this was good training for a writer. The lesson was to take your writing seriously, not so much yourself.
2. What did you each want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Chris Womersley: At 12 I wanted to be an archaeologist because I liked the idea of hanging out in Egypt. At 18 I wanted to be a rock star because I liked the idea of hanging out in mansions in the south of France. At 30 I wanted to be a writer because there seemed there was little else I could actually do.
Kim Scott: At twelve, a sportsperson (Australian rules football). At Eighteen – after one injury too many – I wanted to be a musician, once I met people who played music and sang. At thirty, a published writer – I was teaching “English”, and felt fraudulent, not having the experience of publication.
Roger McDonald: At twelve an aeroplane pilot, at eighteen “a writer” – both were equally unreal as ambitions. Writers of the older generation were battlers and eccentrics. I started writing early but didn’t show it to anyone I knew until well into my twenties. “Expressing myself” I found excruciatingly difficult, and still do. Publishing opportunities expanded. In my late twenties and early thirties I published two books of poetry, Citizens of Mist and Airship, then gave up salaried employment to try fiction (I’d worked as a teacher, then as a producer for the ABC, and as an editor in publishing).
My first novel, 1915, was a joining of two unfinished stories set in the WWI period from either end of a chronology. After reading C.E.W. Bean’s account of Australians at Gallipoli I’d found a way in to an earlier time. The writing went steadily ahead meeting a target of 300 words a day over two years. A Literature Board Fellowship made the work financially possible while supporting a family. The novel sold well and was made into an eight-part ABC-TV mini-series, still available on DVD, by the way. From then on I took my chances as a freelance, writing novels and commissioned books and film scripts, with fellowships and prizes thrown in. I was lucky to be born at a time when new writers had cultural support, found readership, and attracted interest from a burgeoning film industry.
3. What strongly held belief did you each have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Chris Womersley: When I was 18 I tended – as many of us do at that age – to view the world in rather black-and-white terms. Since then I have learnt that the world is actually more complex and harder to pin down, which is necessary for a novelist, because it helps me create more interesting characters and stories.
Kim Scott: That I was near-on indestructible, and pretty well unique.
Roger McDonald: That a divergence in beliefs and values made it hard to find common ground, when actually I was standing on it. I saw my father as a religious man, and could not connect to that part of him; whereas now I see him as a spiritual man, and can connect to that. I’m sorry I could never tell him my appreciation of where he stood.
The other difference was with my two brothers, who both became farmers in Queensland (one later farmed in New Zealand). Like them I always loved the idea of living in the country (which I have for many years), but not working it. I saw us in entirely different occupations (they had the hardest work on their hands), but now I see us, all three, as part of the same impulse. Some sort of primary production, you could say, entirely bound up in common ground.
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?
Wuthering Heights was also a great influence, a story of intense love and violence.
I also loved The US band The Velvet Underground, who produced music that was by turns beautiful and terrifying. It’s often said The Velvet Underground only sold 1000 copies of their first album in 1968, but every person who bought it was inspired to start their own band.
Kim Scott: My answer will change from day to day. The first book I can remember reading is Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer which, as I recall, starts with a repeated shout: “Tom … Tom …’ , along with, ‘where is that infernal boy?’
On another day I might mention le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for the great pleasure of its shifting narration, and the metaphor of spy as writer: you must create a character, including their motivation and ‘back story’: find a voice … Be cunning and deceptive, for a higher cause and greater good.
The piece of music that comes to mind is Bach’s Chaconne in Dm (played on guitar), although I’m no classical music aficionado. Again and again over the years, I have returned to its complex variations, and its slower phrases toward its close speak, I think, poignant truth. I can sink into it, yet be buoyed at the same time.
In visual art, I often return to the so-called Carrolup Art and the rich and distinctive sense of place so evident there, even though the original artists were so new to the materials they were using, and so young.
Roger McDonald: At the family dining table I was the one who used words, the bigger and more pretentious the better. I read everything I could put my hands on, comics, cowboy paperbacks, war stories, epics of girls’ boarding school life, Tom Sawyer, Kidnapped, the dictionary and the encyclopaedia. If there was anyone I would have liked to be, it was Freddy Freeman, the crippled newsboy saved by Captain Marvel from Captain Nazi. He became Captain Marvel Junior by uttering the word “Shazam!”
In starting a book I don’t put an example of the sort of novel I would like to write in front of me. I don’t have specific influential works of art in mind, except in the sense that “a book exists that has not been written yet”, and I write towards it, somehow.
But occasionally, when writing, when stumped at where to go next, I look elsewhere to guide or reassure. When writing my novel The Slap (1996) – about a childhood slap that echoes through a man’s troubled lifetime – I was helped by the structure of a painting by the New Zealand painter Nigel Brown. It depicts a family at the breakfast table, with a huge black dog circling the kitchen. I already had my story but it helped me stay relevant. Otherwise I am not aware of inspiration beyond the story itself, as it comes into being. I do, however, sometimes open the books of other writers while working, just to reassure myself that others have survived the process.
Examples are: E.L Doctorow’s novels, which take a bite at history, experience, and the inner life, all in one intense, headlong narrative; Darwin’s The Origin of Species, offering a vision of connected life, at the level of a work of art; the dusty pile of diamonds spread with gum leaves, that is Patrick White; the portrayal of working life in the plays of Ray Lawler – The Doll Trilogy, and in D’arcy Niland – Call Me When the Cross Turns Over. Altogether it amounts to a trust in Australian life and landscape as a source of inspiration, never entirely barren, always surprisingly subtle, and often beautiful and definitely quirky and confoundingly wise.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you each choose to write a novel?
Chris Womersley: The novel still strikes me as the most involved art-form we have, the narrative form that can still go deeper and take people further than any other.
Kim Scott: It doesn’t feel like a choice. Writing is an art form suitable to solitude, and independence. It values voice, a good ear, and something we might call ‘inwardness’. Perhaps one needs a certain detached coolness. And anxiety? Some of these things, at least, suit aspects of my temperament. It feels a privilege to engage in what is very intimate communication, a kind of collaborative exploration outwards.
Roger McDonald: I had only one choice – words. They give me my music and my visual perspective. Having started with poetry, after a time my poetry felt restricted – I could never fit enough in. I wanted a variety of voices, situations, conflicts. Novels offered that.
6. Please tell us about your Miles Franklin shortlisted novel…
Chris Womersley: Bereft is set in the immediate aftermath of World War One during the Spanish Influenza pandemic. A returned soldier named Quinn Walker returns to a country town in rural NSW where he meets a young girl he comes to believe is the ghost of his murdered sister. Bereft is about loss and longing, the way families and communities deal with grief. It is a ghost story and a love story.
(BBGuru: Here’s the publisher’s synopsis –
It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging through Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours it is the end of the world.
In the NSW town of Flint, Quinn Walker returns to the home he fled ten years earlier when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. Aware that his father and uncle would surely hang him, Quinn hides in the hills surrounding Flint. There, he meets a mysterious young girl called Sadie Fox, who encourages him to seek justice — and seems to know more about the crime than she should.
Kim Scott: That Deadman Dance is inspired by what’s sometimes called the ‘friendly frontier’, particularly the role of its Aboriginal people – the Noongar – who even turned a military drill into a dance. Though that’s not necessarily the dead man dance I’m talking about.
It’s about communication between black and white at a tentative maritime colony, and the paradoxically global-yet –local nature of nineteenth-century shore-based whaling industry. At one stage, Noongar people were a large proportion of its workforce, those individuals who would row out and spear leviathan so as to experience what their visitors called a ‘Nantucket sleigh ride’, and the festivities afterwards. ‘Here’s adventure and romance’ (as they used to say in tv series, The Cisco Kid), and from it, and the perhaps disconcerting slippage between narrator and character, I hope a collaborative reader and writer can create a sensibility appropriate to such a history.
Roger McDonald: When Colts Ran began differently from my other novels. It did not grow out of itself in the same way. Its parts originated in long stories, almost novellas, with a variety of main characters. First there was a failed novel about a runaway boy (Colts) and his bumptious mentor, an old soldier (Major Buckler). I finished that novel ten years ago; it was about to be published as “To the Night Sky” when I backed out because of a nagging feeling that I had failed to bring it to a proper finish. Over the next decade parts of what became When Colts Ranwere published as stories in “The Bulletin”, “Best Australian Stories”, and “Making Waves: Ten Years of the Byron Bay Literary Festival”. Another part won the O. Henry Prize as one of the best twenty stories published in the USA (2008). The accolades encouraged me to bring them together but they had much more in common than a collection of short stories. Then I’d written a story about a rugby playing minister who became a quadriplegic, and another about two boys who witness a horrific car accident. They became part of the mosaic.
Colts, the runaway boy, the title character, passes through the seven ages of man in this novel – he is present in every chapter from adolescence to old age, watching, walking away, coming back, reliable, unreliable, losing himself in drink and dreams, while rousing love, affection, and sometimes terminal exasperation. Colts is my hymn to the virtues of failure, the way life has of conveying hope while “singing of despair” (to adapt Cyril Connolly’s phrase on F. Scott Fitzgerald).
There was also the love story between the old soldier and a barmaid – it went nowhere, originally, but revisiting the drafts I found (I think) a richer alternative outcome, a passage of the years consolation. Major Buckler went back to his wife, a painter – and I went back to that story and took it in its new direction, spanning the years 1942-2000. This gave the yet to be fully assembled manuscript a chronological sweep matching my lifetime. Another part was a long story about a father and his daughters, the wish for male friendships in a household of women. People are like they are in life. The hero of one chapter (or pair of chapters) is the villain of the next. This pattern of existence gave me the balance, and rhythm, between the separate parts. In assembling the sections I found I could introduce almost completely new characters right up to the end, and still have them connecting back and towards all other elements of the story in a satisfying way. I hope the reader feels the same. I would have to say, too, that the Australian landscape is a character in this book – a villain in drought years, a hero when it rains.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Chris Womersley: I want readers to be compelled by the hook of the narrative, moved by the emotion of the story and intrigued by the possibilities of longing people back to life.
Kim Scott: I would hope some sense of pleasure, of play and thoughtfulness, might linger.
Roger McDonald: The feeling of having been inside a complete created world, three dimensional in physical reality, vivid, moving through time with men and women as real as the worn down hills.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Chris Womersley: That’s very hard to narrow down. I admire Joyce Carol Oates’ productivity and her ability to write in whatever genre the story needs to be told, without fear or favour.
Kim Scott: As before, there’s quite a group. But Nabokov’s opening to the novel, Lolita, with its description of the ‘tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth’ is hard to beat for expression: a name, a linguistic description, and already we are in the realm of sensuality and arch style. Mind you, it was Anthony Burgess who pointed out the quality of Nabokov’s opening to me, and Burgess’s Clockwork Orange is no mean performance either.
Roger McDonald: Shakespeare, for the marvel of words. Otherwise usually the last book I’ve read and liked.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Chris Womersley: Each time I set out to write a novel, I try to write something that has never been written before. I usually try and write the novel that I would like to read but hasn’t yet been written.
Kim Scott: To persist.
Roger McDonald: To get the work done. To have it read.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Chris Womersley: Read everything you can get your hands on, write a lot and persevere.
Kim Scott: Read, play with writing, do diagrams. Feel and think, and be alive to the world around you as well as within.
Roger McDonald: Don’t talk about your writing or show it to anyone until it is finished (emptied out) to the very end of your own sense of it. The essence of writing fiction is a unique set of demands, or requirements, that arise from the writing itself. The writing will have to answer those demands, however imperfectly, before it is ready to be looked at by someone other than the author. Then the editing and revision process can begin.
Chris, Kim and Roger, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.