MODERNITY & INEXPERIENCE: an interview with Anthony Macris
There are trends in publishing, that is undeniable, but some writers refuse to do anything other than go their own way. Enter Anthony Macris.
Macris is an Australian writer and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. His first novel in the Capital series, Capital, Volume One, won him a listing as Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist 1998, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Southeast Asian section) Best First Book 1998. His book reviews, articles and features have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review and The Bulletin for over a decade. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw, his family’s inspirational story and a powerful evocation of the world of autism, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction category.
Published in 2016, Inexperience and Other Stories (University of Western Australia Press) is his latest work. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Macris charts laconically the impersonality of modern urban life, loneliness in a crowded world, and the absence of ideals, beliefs, commitments’.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
Congratulations on the publication of Inexperience and Other Stories. What was the motivation for the collection?
Thanks for that. With Inexperience the novella I wanted to write about the couple and about love. It’s a theme that’s always fascinated me: what holds people together, two people who have at one point ‘chosen’ each other, and what can drive them apart. So that’s at the core of it. My couple in this instance are a standard boy/girl couple in their mid twenties, so you get that sense of youth, but youth that’s also embarking on major life decisions. I also wanted to write about this notion of going on a grand adventure that doesn’t quite live up to expectations: hence the title Inexperience. So, my young couple save and save for this long European trip that they think will be some kind of transcendent experience in itself, and it doesn’t quite turn out like that. I was originally going to call it Transcendence, but I thought that was a bit much.
That’s at the core of it: the way we strive to raise ourselves up, make ourselves more than who we are. It’s a wonderful, noble and fraught thing. We all do it one way or another, in small ways, in big ways. We raise ourselves up, we fall, we do it alone, we do it together, we have a stumble, we come crashing down from a very great height, we have the best of intentions, we do it out of vanity: the combinations are endless. But it’s all a learning process, one that never ends. I finally decided on Inexperience as the title because I thought that was more concrete: it’s more humble, more of this world. It’s the moment of stumbling, of not getting it quite right, of falling that little bit short because either the situation is bigger than you are, or you’re just not quite up to it at whichever stage of your life you’re in. So that’s the kind of thematic big picture.
I also wanted to write about what it means to be Australian. Our young heroes set off to Europe quite innocent and wide-eyed. They seem to think that everyone will see them as the fresh young cousins of the Anglo-sphere, first worlders like the American or Brits, but with none of the politically inconvenient baggage. They soon find that’s not really the case all the time, that not everyone sees Australians – at that general, national level – as the benevolent citizens of some far-flung Arcadia.
Inexperience is a wonderful title, especially in terms of hinting at the idea of never knowing enough to get by. What attracts you to the novella form?
Thanks for those kinds words about the title. I wanted something pretty straightforward to sum up the theme, and that one came pretty easily, which was good: I usually struggle with titles. As for the novella form: well, different kinds of stories require different degrees of development. You have to gauge how big the story is and fit it to the appropriate length. This one had a limited cast, the two romantic leads, and a fairly simple story without a subplot, so I think you can only go so far with that. But I also wanted more than short story length so I could develop another level of complexity: how I told the story.
One of things I try to do in my work is tell interesting stories, but to try and tell them in fresh and interesting ways. Whether I succeed or not is for others to judge I suppose, but I’m always looking to do things at a bit of angle. I still want the story to be clear, to have central conflicts with forward movement, etc, but that doesn’t always come out in the standard way. I think this can lead to thinking my work is a bit disjointed or lacking in coherence, but I think it’s just because I’m doing something a little unexpected.
For example, the novella Inexperience is divided into two spheres: the heavenly sphere and the earthly sphere. This compositional element finds its core expression in the painting my couple sees in Toledo, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, which is all angels and swirling clouds in the top half, all flesh-blood men below. So the story’s events and settings all reflect shuttling between these two spheres: the banalities of travel and the transcendence of art; the mundanity of the everyday that forms the life of any couple, and the sublime moments of love that make it all worthwhile. Throughout the novella these spheres intermingle in unexpected and sometimes ironic ways. The story’s design in this instance called for something shorter than a novel so all this could be controlled adequately: it was quite fiddly to do, or at least I found it so. But that’s one thing I’m always trying to do in my work. Find a form that embodies the theme. I think that’s one way you can get more innovative forms.
Inexperience begins: ‘We were in Australia, in shabby modernity, and we were restless, unbearably restless. So we decided to go to Europe. Exhausted, decaying Europe’. What do you think drives your ongoing interest in the averageness of Western life?
I’ve always been interested in the way experience is shaped by pre-existing social forms that determine our lives, that become the templates for our experiences. So, in Inexperience, we get a classic rite of passage relevant to this particular group: in my couple’s case, the cultural pilgrimage that ‘new worlders’ like Australians make to mother Europe. It’s as if we plot our individuality on these pre-existing grids. So there’s this duality that fascinates me: experiences that are touted as unique, but are underwritten by a form that is just about guaranteed to make them banal: sometimes they’re ultimately commodities, even the most sublime experiences.
So when my couple finally front up to this beautiful ancient church in Toledo to see the astonishing painting that is the ‘Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, they have to get past a cash register first. I know this sounds all very disenchanting, that we’re stuck with a familiar position that says the act of commercializing everything degrades everything. Now, I’m always wary of any totalising argument. So let’s just say there are degrees (there’s some grudging optimism for you!). But I’d still argue that, for the most part, the process of commodification does create at the very least a kind of unease, a conflictedness that infects just about everything it touches.
I might just say a few words about the opening line you’ve quoted: it’s been appearing a lot in the reviews, which I think I’m happy about. I wanted to have a grand, sweeping opening, something quite Olympian, but also tongue-in-cheek. I mean, Australia and Europe are disposed of in sentence. I must have re-written that line 50 times. I’ve always liked this idea of a first sentence that contains the whole narrative in moment of foreshadowing: it’s a formal nod – albeit a very oblique one – to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But there’s a key phrase in the opening sentence that speaks to the notion you’ve raised of western averageness: ‘shabby modernity’. Inexperience the novella is set – as is the whole collection – in the 1980s. This is an interesting decade, and I think somewhat neglected. It’s not quite old enough to be historical yet. (I read a great line somewhere that said nothing is as dated as the recent past.) But I find it a very interesting decade, a real ugly duckling period. Australia hadn’t yet reinvented itself as the glittering postmodern entity it thinks of itself today. The tug of war had started, but in those pre-internet, pre-social media days, I’d say that it was still an entity of modernity, and one not quite sure of where it was going.
There’s one feature of the Australian suburbs that sums up this notion of shabby modernity for me. You know those small suburban shopping strips, very generic, just a small row of shops, a newsagent, a hairdresser, a fish and chip shop, a small bottle shop? Just one long building made of brick, lots of glass and aluminium, built in the 1950s, that always seemed to have looked downtrodden from the moment they went up? That’s exactly what I mean by shabby modernity. That’s where, as Australians, a lot of us come from, and if we didn’t directly, it still forms a substratum to our shared experience. And these places are still everywhere in the suburbs. They’ve got a kind of stark, sobering truth to them I like.
That’s why I featured that setting in one of the collection’s stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’. I wanted to get across this sense of Australia emerging out of some staid, tail-end modernity, and into the uncertainties of a globalised postmodernism. I see the social context of the stories as a whole straddling those two worlds. My characters Carol and her boyfriend are, at this stage of their lives, caught in between these worlds. That’s where their hopes and dreams and ambitions are being played out. And they don’t even know it. Later, in my novel Great Western Highway, I push a similar couple along the timeline a little more: into the 1990s, and into a postmodernity in full swing.
What do you enjoy most about the shorter form?
Short stories are an incredible challenge and I’m in awe of those writers who can do them well again and again: Maupassant, Chekhov, and Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few. For me, at any rate, as soon as you start writing a short story, it’s as if a pistol has gone off and you’re already racing for the finish line. You’ve got to do so much at once for it to work: establish voice, the characters, some kind of situation or conflict, the style or diction you want, and so on. You don’t have the novelist’s luxury of seeing how it will all go, of writing into things for a while in the hope that things will reveal themselves.
To write an effective short story I think you need to be quite specific about what you want to achieve from the start. And that’s a great discipline in itself, formulating something concrete in your mind, then executing it. Of course it’s not always as simple as that: there can be this mass of crisscrossing paths between the thought and the execution. But as an exercise in task setting, there’s nothing quite like subjecting yourself to the rigour needed to pull off a decent short story.
In Inexperience, a big influence on my approach for a couple of the stories was Joyce’s Dubliners, which I think contains one of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘Eveline’. I love its blend of pathos, drama, and stillness. I also love its contrast of crystalline poetic diction and authenticity of voice, and the way Joyce brings those factors to bear on the quiet desperation of his characters. It’s just an astonishing piece and a real touchstone for me when I think about the short story form. This kind of influence – definitely only in the aspirational mode! – is at work on the two last stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘The Quiet Achiever’. The influences on the longer story, ‘The Nest Egg’, are different, and somewhat more experimental, for want of a better term.
I see ‘The Nest Egg’ as a kind of cross between Samuel Beckett and Descartes. I remember being struck by reading Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ when I did philosophy as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I liked this idea of conducting a self-critique wherein you try to answer some fundamental question about existence. So instead of posing the question of how do I know I exist, which gives us the famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, I wanted to pose the foundational question: what do I need to do to exist in a material, economic sense? This was an early attempt to explore the theme of capital and market forces in my work. Now, I’m a fiction writer: I didn’t want to write a philosophical essay. So the kind of language I looked to was that of Samuel Beckett, a kind of interior monologue that glides between image and reflection without ever quite settling on either as a dominant mode.
Also, with ‘The Nest Egg’, I wanted to try to structure something that had forward movement, that would keep the reader wanting to turn the page, but that didn’t rely on the traditional machinery of plot or story. I’m always looking for ways to do this. I like the notion that the act of reading draws you on and on. A lot of experimental approaches dispense with this as nearly a badge of honour: we don’t need that stuff, language or thought or whatever, is enough in itself. So in some ways I’m rebelling against this standard type of experimentation by trying to find a way of maintaining compelling forward movement, though not necessarily with traditional story dynamics. I tried this again on a bigger scale in my first novel, Capital, Volume One.
That’s another great thing about short stories. You’re not making a huge time commitment on any individual piece (not years, at any rate, as you do for a novel), so you can treat them like mini-laboratories to try things out.
You have been an active writer for a significant period of time now. Has your overall ambition – or writerly project – changed?
Ambition is an interesting word. I think a lot about it. In Inexperience and Other Stories, in some of the very early work it contains, I see a tremendous energy there, the energy of youthful ambition. I can feel an almost unbearable pressure behind those pages, as if all my hopes and desires as an artist are pressing from behind but can’t quite get through. But, then again, I suppose it always feels like that. I’ve always only ever wanted to make beautiful, inspiring, complex things. It’s a very curious drive. It’s central to who I am. In the periods of my life when I haven’t been able to do it – for example some long stretches when I’ve had to raise money for my son’s therapy – I’ve been so utterly miserable life hasn’t seemed worth living.
There have been certain moments in my life where this drive to make art was revealed to me. I remember walking home from school one day, I must have been 11 or 12. I was walking along, lost in my own thoughts and senses. And I had this sudden awareness of the combined power of the mind and of sensing to produce things, to make things. It was a very odd moment. I realised that you not only passively received the world, but that your mind and senses were active in constructing it. And that if this was the case, then you could make, do, or think anything. The vehicle for this kind of reverse projection was art. These were the blank screens you could project your version of the world on. These were the empty vessels you could fill with your thoughts, your perceptions, your senses. Now I know this sounds a bit much for a boy that age, and I’m of course articulating it in ways that a boy that age wouldn’t, couldn’t, but I’ve thought about that moment for decades, and this is the first time I’ve tried to articulate it. That moment was a turning point in my life. The whole prospect of it was thrilling, intoxicating, utterly empowering.
Now, what is that drive? That fundamental drive to make art? Where does it come from? I wouldn’t have a clue. So, to finally answer your question, it would appear that in one sense nothing for me has ever changed. There’s only been this desire to make these projections, to fashion these artefacts of words that somehow capture the particular world I’m trying to create.
It’s all very well to start out with such pureness of heart, but soon you find that your drives have to be channelled into a chosen art form and the cultural and market forces that shape it. You need to pick themes, forms, make decisions about your audience, and about the kind of writer you want to be. The stories in Inexperience and Other Stories are, for the most part, the first full attempt I made to turn myself into a real writer, someone who was trying to say something they thought was of importance to an audience who might want to listen. And it’s interesting how the themes I go on to develop later – on a much larger scale in the Capital novels and in When Horse Became Saw – are pretty much all there. I think they basically come down to two: love and market forces. It doesn’t seem a lot, does it? At least I’m not just a one-trick pony: I’ve got two!
But there is a flipside to this: I also think my work has changed a lot over the years. If you look at the trajectory that goes through from Inexperience to the Capital novels, in one way it’s a thinking through of finding new narrative forms that can capture larger developments in a world driven by market forces. And I use a range of tools derived from various literary movements to fashion something of my own that can grasp that: in that trajectory there’s the self-conscious, modernist commitment to making it new, to shaping a new novelistic language to capture new realities.
When Horse Became Saw is somewhat different. It’s a melding of realist and essayistic forms: the best name for it is probably creative non-fiction, to use a term that’s currently being bandied about. When Horse Became Saw was born of a kind of parental rage at how badly we let down our children with disabilities: in my case severe autism. It’s a much more emotional book. I call it my Aristotelian book: driven by pity and fear. It was a book in which I wanted to communicate with a large audience, so I put aside my usual baroque narrative machinery. It was a liberating experience, and it’s a book I’m very proud of, but I still like to think it does something interesting with form: I can’t seem to stop myself trying to do something different. Nevertheless, it was still a step outside the trajectory of my main work. I’m back to that now.
I’ve been working on the third part of Capital for some years, but it’s slow going. The Capital novels just take forever. It’s a return to my early childhood, part of the great looking back that overcomes you with time, that rises behind you in a great cresting wave of the past. You shouldn’t live in its shadow, but it can be hard not to. It’s an odd thing to do, to create works that draw from different periods of your life. Recently there have been days I’ve spent writing when I’ve become seven years old, and I’m amazed when a man in his mid-50s stares back at me from the mirror.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce, Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His previous novella, I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year.
In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Featherstone has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains) and Bundanon (Shoalhaven River); in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. On a contract basis he currently facilitates the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, which is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au