The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Navigatio
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 Rockhampton, raised and schooled in Roma in Southwest Queensland.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
12: A bull rider. My father was a rodeo announcer, and most of the young men I admired were bull riders. They carried themselves with a quiet confidence that I imagined must come from regularly facing danger. Either that or a priest. This because a little Indian priest came to our house for dinner one night and told me stories of working in India and Africa and he seemed the most wise and worldly person I had ever met. It was perhaps the first time I glimpsed a world beyond the one I knew.
18: A ringer/horseman. I had done horse work as a kid, and it seemed the natural thing to do. The pay is terrible, though. Or at least was. I remember working for a nut in Cloncurry who paid me a hundred and fifty dollars for one month – that included building stock yards for a desert hermit who wouldn’t come out of his house. I had to speak to him through his door.
30: I was considering going into investment banking. My first novel The Long Road of the Junkmailer had not been a success, and I felt like the world was kicking my ass. I wanted to kick back. I imagined those martini fuelled parties in New York and Shanghai and thought I wanted in. Someone told me to read The Richest Man in Babylon, that it was a great book of business philosophy. After that I couldn’t in good conscience pursue that path, any more than I could’ve become a professional nose picker. It (the book) seemed so much low-rent pop psychology and mysticism after reading Hemingway and Kipling. I felt like a decent trade should be able to produce better discourse than that.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That a really good crop of long hair would make me irresistible to girls.
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?
The first was a rare enough book of poetry by Ernest Hemingway called ‘88 Poems’. My sister needed a book of poetry for a high school assignment, she said, ‘go to the library and just get anything.’ Roma Council Library had three books of poetry. Hemingway’s was the one name I vaguely knew. When I got home, I had nothing to do and started to read. The language was so hard and strange. I never knew language could do the things he did with it. It seemed a new reality opened up within his words. The truth of things, the beautiful and dangerous truth.
The second is Arvo Pärt’s piano piece, ‘Für Alina‘. For me, Pärt is the greatest artist in any medium ever. I think he will draw as hard a line between what came before and what will come after as Hemingway or Bach did. ‘Alina’ is so simple, so full of quiet and silence, yet it manages to feel enormous, like it’s carved out of rock. It was his first work after years or creative silence. He had started out composing in the fashionable 12 tone style, then gave up on it, vowing not to compose a single note till he could find the musical language he needed to speak in. This was his first articulation.
The third is a recent film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). It floored me. Made me realise the potential of something I’d been toying with for some time: the ambient narrative work; that favoured drift over drive; that left deliberate loose ends; that was all about framing poetic moment, but was not ‘episodic’; that refused to clamp down hard on ‘meaning’, and let the viewer get inside the silences and roam around. I see the influence of this film on my new book.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
TI always will love the form. It’s so immersive, like the best new video games (‘Journey’, ‘Flower’), it invites you to participate, to live in its world.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Navigatio revives the Irish immram, or ‘sea adventure’. It is a redux of the medieval work Navigatio Sancti Brendani (c 900) , which tells of St Brendan and companion monks sailing an ox-hide boat on the Atlantic in search of Paradise. My book was written under the influence of Japanese ‘ambieint’ fiction … see Yuki Kurita … which maximises generative silence, and employs minimal signification and circular repetitions, all bent on inviting the reader’s subjectivity into the work to an increased degree. I take quite a few liberties with the original text. There are interpolations from right across the Celtic imagination and experience, and some way beyond. It is about journey, about searching for lost things in the hope of finding them again.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
An experience. Certainly not a lesson. In the case of Navigatio, the experience of journey – one that, like any worthwhile journey, expands their universe a little. I would be happy if someone told me reading the book was therapeutic … In the modern West, we’ve demoted the idea of utilitarian and instrumental art. Yuki Kurita hoped her book Hotel Mole would put people to sleep, and was applauded for her success. In the Anglophone world, every work is meant to be a tour de force with two functions: to demonstrate the genius and intelligence of its author, and to titillate its public. This idea of production and reception would seem very unusual and reductive to most artists and audiences throughout history.
Of the living, Barry Lopez is my favourite author. He has such a great appreciation and intuition for the music of language … So in any one of his books you know you are going to find at least a half dozen phrases that will turn your world upside down. Like the first time you tasted beer. Also, he writes with such regard for people, such compassion and wisdom.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To write my books as well as they can be written. That’s all.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Most young writers’ only theme is how delicate a genius they are and how the world’s bitched them. Knock yourself out that narrow and dull world by writing about the first time you really hurt someone. That’ll adjust your sense of injustice. Then you’ll be on your way.
Patrick, thank you for playing.
by Patrick Holland
Navigatio tells the story of Saint Brendan of Clonfert, a sixth century monk and adventurer, and his legendary quest for the Isle of the Blessed via a gauntlet of monsters, devils, angels, prophets and beautiful maidens. Brendan’s battles with the sea and the cosmos bear out what William Faulkner once called ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.
This haunting parable of darkness and light, of temptation and belief, of voice and silence, is told with the utmost economy of words, making it a small masterpiece of compassionate perception.
About the Author
Patrick Holland is an Australian novelist and short story writer who grew up in outback Australia doing horse work for local station owners.
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.