OUTSIDE THE LINES:
an interview with John Clanchy
If you haven’t heard of John Clanchy then Verity La is going to fix that. Clanchy was born in Melbourne in 1943, but has lived in Canberra, working as a counsellor and academic at the Australian National University, since 1975. Clanchy has published nine volumes of fiction (five novels and three collections), as well as many uncollected short stories in magazines, newspapers and anthologies. His stories have won many awards, in Australia, Europe, the US and New Zealand. His novel The Hard Word won the 2003 ACT book of the Year in 2003, and his collection of stories Vincenzo’s Garden won both the same prize in 2006 and the Steele Rudd Award the year before. In addition to literary fiction, Clanchy has co-authored two detective thrillers with Mark Henshaw If God Sleeps and And Hope to Die, both now appearing in French and German. His most recent collection Her Father’s Daughter, five long stories dealing with the complex and often fraught relations between fathers and daughters, was published in 2008. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
When did you start writing? And what was the original motivation?
I guess there are two ways of answering these questions, both relevant to what happens later. I first began to write – in the simplest sense of beginning to form my letters – in Grade One under the fearsome eye of a very tall Irish nun with a wart on one cheek, in an ugly red and cream brick building on the outskirts of north-western Melbourne in 1948. This was the parish church school of St Raphael’s in West Preston where we were ‘learnt’ for sixpence a week, and beyond it lay the open fields and farms which became the suburbs of Reservoir and Regent. There were sixty of us in one perpetually chilly classroom and we wrote in cheap, lined exercise books with narrow black lines for making small letters and more expansive blue lines for big letters. My motivation for writing back then was pure fear. Sister Xaveria roamed the rows of desks like a malevolent mobile metronome, a heavy wooden ruler flicking left and right in her hand and cracking the knuckles of any child stupid – or simply cold – enough to go outside the lines. This was the first lesson I learnt about writing: you’ll come to no harm so long as you don’t go outside the lines.
At the age of eleven my father rescued me from the nuns and sent me to the Jesuits. Here we learnt Latin, the language of the Church, and one clearly superior in every respect to English. We learnt to parse, to break sentences into their constituent parts and classify them. We learnt to write essays – usually on social, historical or ethical topics – never poems or stories since these were frivolous forms of self-expression. The purpose of education was to master what had been said by scholars through the ages, not to give vent to our own callow thoughts or feelings. An essentially mandarin education.
I was quite a stupid child and accepted all of this on faith. I was in fact so slow that it wasn’t until the middle of a Classics examination at the end of my second year at Melbourne University that I looked up for a moment from the tasks I was engaged in – composing a sonnet in Latin in Vergilian alexandrines, and translating into the Latin of the Age of Augustus the back page of the previous weekend’s Melbourne Herald newspaper, most of it, as I remember, cricket results and a long account of a golf match – and asked myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ I switched the following year to English language and literature, and began doing bits and pieces of my own writing, which always seemed to involve going outside the lines, though it was years before I gathered the courage to show anything to anyone else, even friends.
So – to get, finally, to the real point of your question – I was a very late starter in the business of writing and publishing stories. I was probably thirty-five before I settled to it seriously, and I’ve been caught up in a love-hate relationship with the practice ever since. My motivation? Two-fold, I guess. First, an inward, inexplicable pressure to get stuff down (there was a lot of personal turmoil in my life at the time and writing stories about it and about my life to that point – autobiographical material, family stories – proved a way of releasing that pressure and also a way of objectifying things which troubled and puzzled me and which no other form of expression offered). I had tried poetry but found that every poem I wrote was a tired echo of what I had studied or read.
Second, I wanted to become part of the community of those people whom I admired most in the world – writers – and that was the reason I began, very hesitantly, to show a few of them my work, and it was through them that I got both initial encouragement and later entrées to publication.
From fear and writing between the lines, to community and writing outside the lines – might that be every writer’s journey. Despite starting ‘late’, as you say, you’ve achieved a remarkable publishing record. Ultimately, what does publication mean to you?
When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material. I’m talking here about getting your story out and down in a satisfactory form in the first place. I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about the reader at all; naturally you should, as in any form of communication. The crucial thing is when you do so.
For me, the reader swims into view when I feel I’ve understood the story I’m telling, and I’ve got it down in a form that is vaguely approximate to my original intention. In other words, thinking about the ‘receivers’ of the story occurs for me only in the revision and editing stages, and issues of ‘signalling’, of style, of clarifying language etc then become important. Until that point, the story is private, not ‘public’ and the only reader is the perfect Platonic reader, who is, I guess, in fact a shadowy, mythic projection of the writer’s self anyway.
More practically, publication is important to me for four reasons.
First, when all is said and done writing is ultimately an act of communication and even if publication means reaching as few as a dozen readers, then the circle of intentionality is nonetheless satisfactorily completed in reaching them. I’m talking about creative writing here, not the consciously ‘private‘ writing of, say, a diary. Writing which never reaches anyone else seems discouragingly incomplete to me.
Second, there is an undeniable thrill in seeing one’s work made public, arising partly out of vanity (That’s me/There’s my name in print), and partly out of a genuine and reasonable pride at having created something that didn’t exist before (You see that? I made that). It’s the same pride as that felt by any maker: a composer, say, or a skilled cabinet-maker.
Third, beyond the initial thrill there is a deeper satisfaction in knowing that others value what you have made. Most writers are congenitally self-doubting, and writing can – in the act – often be more miserable than exhilarating. Getting published is a vindication of all the hard days.
Finally, if you’re lucky you might even get paid for your work. Inevitably any money you do make simply gets ploughed back into further writing (‘buying time’) – but that’s one of the ways you know you’re a writer in the first place.
Is there a story or publication of which you are especially pleased, perhaps even proud? If so, why?
I suppose the story I should be most pleased with is the novel The Hard Word. It gained some good reviews; it won the ACT book of the year and was shortlisted for other awards. And it does have some worthy features: it’s a complex, cross-generational story, and it addresses a range of important contemporary social issues, including the phenomenon of aged dementia (Alzheimer’s), the plight of refugee and migrant under-classes in Australia, as well as the issue of work-life-family balance for women. Technically too it meant an advance in my writing: I wondered whether I could write a multi-layered story (i.e. with vertical levels – thematic, generational) but combine it at the same time with an onward driving narrative (the ‘horizontal’ level, which essentially is provided by the progressive decline and eventual death of Grandma Vera). And I thought I pulled this ‘double-axis’ story off with reasonable success and with a degree of humour – a fair achievement, given the potential grimness of the content.
But actually, you know, the stories writers are deeply (privately) pleased with are often different from the most ‘worthy’ or well-regarded ones. The story of mine I’m privately most proud of is Lessons from the Heart, which is the sequel to The Hard Word. This novel appeared, received a couple of pleasant reviews and disappeared without trace in a matter of a couple of months. In a recent reading group about a different book, one of the participants said to me: ‘You know, I think your best writing is in Lessons from the Heart. What I don’t understand is how a nearly seventy year old male can get inside the mind of a seventeen year old girl like that – let alone sustain it for 300 pages.’
It’s the nicest thing any reader has ever said to me.