EXPLAINING BEES: an interview with Wayne Macauley

Posted on November 5, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

RYAN O’NEILL

A few years ago you made a comment about Australian short stories that could be just as well applied to Australian novels, namely that ‘the stuff that gets published… is, for the most part, stylistically and structurally conservative social realism.’ With your latest novel, The Cook the narrative voice, with its unique approach to punctuation, immediately announces a stylistically experimental novel. How did you go about capturing the voice of Zac, the narrator, and were you ever worried that Zac’s voice would alienate readers more used to stylistically conservative narrators?

WAYNE MACAULEY

‘Experimental’ is a very relative term, isn’t it? In my case, given that I am writing in the early part of the 21st century, as opposed to the early 20th, with high literary modernism now nearly a hundred years old and post-modernism already looking a bit fat and middle-aged, to write a two hundred-odd page novel of unpunctuated sentences in the interests of capturing the rise and fall of a character’s thoughts is, let’s be honest, actually a bit of a conservative thing to do—and probably something a so-called edgy writer like myself ought to be ashamed of.

I don’t consider my work experimental, in and of itself. What is experimental about it, I guess, certainly in the Australian literary context, is my willingness to mess with form in the pursuit of an idea. In this instance the idea of a rudderless young man as the apogee of a fast, liquid, shape-shifting, centreless modernity; a mind that thinks like society functions (or malfunctions): rapidly, superficially, vainly, disconnectedly. If in pursuit of this idea you end up getting some readers offside—well, what can you do? Writing is not a popularity contest. I’ve certainly never set out to deliberately alienate a reader—and I hope I never do—but that doesn’t mean I want to kiss them on the forehead and tuck them in for beddy-byes either.

As for Zac’s voice, specifically, its tone and cadence and so on, I’m still not completely sure where it came from. As a writer I obviously prepared myself, took notes, tried things out, attempted to relate the work in my own mind to the works of other great writers I knew and loved, but in the end, as with any piece of creative work, you eventually have to close your eyes and jump in the deep end. This I did for a bit over a year. For the year or so following I used what skills I had so far learnt to turn the consequences of my floundering into The Cook.

RYAN O’NEILL

You mention that when writing The Cook you attempted to relate your novel to the works of great writers you love. Can I ask you about your literary influences, both Australian and international?

WAYNE MACAULEY

I’ve been asked this question a number of times and every time I answer it I feel like I am being reductive, quoting a handful of writers as if they will somehow ‘explain me’. But my reading has been extremely broad and varied over many years, with fiction playing an important but not definitive part in it. So this time I have decided to make my list of authors more comprehensive (which, when I think about it, is the only really honest way to answer your question). This list, chronologically ordered, describes the authors on my shelf that I still turn to for inspiration or comfort, or most often to snap me out of my lethargy and remind me what great writing is: Heraclitus, Plato, Montaigne, Cervantes, Pascal, Defoe, Swift, Voltaire, Sterne, Lichtenberg, Kleist, Schopenhauer, Gogol, Kierkegaard, Dosteovsky, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Stevenson, Conrad, Hamsun, Walser, Kafka, Orwell, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Camus, Bernhard, Murnane, Coetzee, Sebald.

The idea of literary influence is a strange one, and something I still have trouble wrapping my head around. On the one hand I freely acknowledge the influence of all these authors on my work but on the other I want to protest that, no, what I’m doing is original and always has been. Somewhere between these conflicting feelings, I suppose, is the truth underlying the journey every writer takes towards finding their own voice: we are right to acknowledge our influences but wrong to be slavish to them.

RYAN O’NEILL

The Cook is very much a portrait of the artist as a young man, with Zac gradually mastering, and becoming obsessed with, succeeding in the culinary arts. While there are many elements of Zac’s progress that could apply to any artist, whether a writer, a poet or a sculptor, such as his delight in his first successes, his feeling of a found vocation, and his intense craftsmanship, it seems to me that in the artistry explored in The Cook there is an inherent criticism of Australia’s attitude to the arts. This country’s recent obsession with ‘the art of cooking’ in shows such as MasterChef and its imitators, and the concurrent phenomenon of celebrity chefs is in stark contrast to the continuing marginalisation of much Australian writing and filmmaking. While Zac becomes a great artist, I would maintain (and I confess that I am a food philistine) that the art form he excels at is essentially a transitory and empty one. The human body passes criticism on all food, no matter how good it is, by eventually excreting it. In the end, Zac’s idealisation of the art of cooking and what it can achieve eventually destroys him and others. I’d like to ask how much the choice of Zac’s vocation was influenced by the MasterChef fad, and if this choice was indeed a criticism of Australia’s general attitude to the arts.

WAYNE MACAULEY

In the notebook I kept before and during the writing of The Cook there is an entry that reads, simply: Worship of the superficial. I know that in the writing of the book I was trying to explain this idea to myself—how in contemporary society the deep, complex and profound is increasingly sneered at while the superficial is worshipped. Or more correctly, a society in which the superficial is treated as if it were the profound. This situation, of course, in the first instance, is comic gold, and has been since the time of Aristophanes. When people take the shallow and ephemeral seriously they give themselves the illusion of status and power (Don Quixote taking up his lance in the cause of knight errantry, the Emperor without any clothes) but they also leave themselves open to ridicule. But the idea of the superficial parading as the profound also speaks in a very serious way to what contemporary society has become. We are increasingly infantilised. Like a small child we grab at this and that, have a quick taste then move on. We have forfeited our critical judgement and with it our sense of irony. We can’t see any more how childish and stupid we look, because childishness and stupidity have become the norm.

I think this new cooking phenomenon—and here I’m talking about the high end of the business, rarefied fine dining for the credit card rich—is shallow and ephemeral. It has also, unfortunately, because of all the things I’ve outlined above, been allowed to take itself so seriously that a satirist need only alter the perspective very slightly for the whole thing to look ludicrous. The phenomenon is comic, but at the same time, in a world where one in seven of our fellow human beings cannot feed themselves, deeply, deeply shaming and tragic.

As to how this may relate to the status of the Australian artist, it is probably drawing a long bow. Disenfranchised Zac’s determined pursuit of the perfect dish might indeed equate to the marginalised artist’s pursuit of the perfect artwork, but I think The Cook throws its net a bit wider than that. Yes, I think the arts are by nature marginalised in this country when compared to say TV or sport, but the mantle of martyr to the cause of marginalisation doesn’t sit easy with me. I don’t think we as artists are any more hard done by than anyone else—and there are plenty of people far more hard done by than us. In my earlier novel, Caravan Story, I satirised the so-called arts industry and its commodification of culture, but I think I reserved the most poison in my pen for that novel’s principal character, a writer by the name of Wayne Macauley, who during the course of the book comes to believe that by writing to order he might one day win approval and financial support from those above pulling the strings. A marginalised artist with delusions of grandeur is a writer’s comic gold, too.

RYAN O’NEILL

Finally, I’d like to ask you about the nuts and bolts of your writing process. Graham Greene’s slow and steady five hundred words a day eventually led to a considerable number of brilliant novels and stories. Proust liked to write in bed at night, while Nabokov wrote his later novels on index cards while standing up. Some writers are more comfortable having several pieces of work on the go at once, whereas others must concentrate on one thing at a time until it is finished. Earlier, you mentioned that The Cook took a number of years to write. Could you take us through that process in a little more detail? Do you have a target number of hours/words that you try to write every day? Were you often distracted by other projects, or did you deliberately take time off from The Cook in order to refresh yourself? Did you need a fallow period after finishing The Cook or did you begin work on a new story/novel straight away?

WAYNE MACAULEY

I work early mornings and when I’m working on a specific project I write a minimum of a page a day. For five months of the year I have a full-time day job. During this time I get up at 4.30am and am at my desk at 5.30. At 9 I finish writing and ride my bike to the pool and have a quick swim before I start work at 10. For the other seven months my day job is part-time, starting at 1. During this time I get up at 7, start at my desk at 8, ride my bike to the pool at 12, swim, and have a half-hour for lunch. I do this five days a week—I rarely, if ever, work on the weekends. Outside the hours described I try to avoid my desk completely, although I will on a Friday evening often open a beer and put on some music and sit there for a while thinking about what I’ve done and what I’ll do next and maybe even make a few notes. Each weekday morning when writing a first draft I read what I have written the previous day and edit and change where necessary then refer to the note I have left for myself on the verso page the previous morning to point the way for that day’s work. I write freehand in cheap lined notebooks. I don’t use a computer until the work is finished, then I type it up, like a stenographer. That marks the end of the first draft. Then I print it out, date stamp it, and the next draft begins. The first draft of The Cook took fifteen months to write. Redrafting and editing to final proofs took another fourteen. I don’t take many breaks between writing if I can avoid it and if possible I always try to have something on the go. But The Cook was an intense and exhausting book so I have been taking it a bit easy since I finished.

If that all sounds boring that’s because it is. The external life of the writer is truly, truly boring. (Can there be anything more boring than someone getting up every day at the same time to go and sit at a desk…?) It is the internal life that’s interesting, of course, but that’s precisely the life we never get to see. I know my internal life’s best chance of birthing a book is by surrounding it with a firewall of regularity and routine, but the process by which a novel emerges from that internal life is still a mystery to me. I am as little able to explain it as I am of explaining bees.

 

 

Reply to a Letter
(Wayne Macauley)

Posted on October 26, 2010 by in Lies To Live By

 

You asked me about Witton, I’ll tell you as much as I know. I’ve had him on my books now for a little over five years though the act itself originated some fifty years ago. Your enquiry is about Witton but I should first point out that your dealings will in fact be with his wife who has now run the business for some considerable time, Witton himself having fallen on ill-health.

Fundamentally the act is that of a dancing bear, a popular vaudeville routine during the past few centuries right up until recent times. The keeper puts the bear through a variety of set routines: barrel balancing, ladder climbing, basic counting and finally a dance, a Hungarian waltz which the keeper plays on a violin. Witton began the act back in the 50s when, after losing his job as a cabinet maker he began spruiking outside the tents at various country fairs. Finding that he had a talent for selling the seemingly unsaleable and having heard of the bear act from some old entertainers on the circuit, he decided to spend his last penny on buying a North American grizzly from the zoo. (The bear in question—a male—had been imported for the express purpose of mating with the zoo’s old resident female, a task it had obstinately refused to perform.) Witton got it cheap, for the zoo it had become not only an embarrassment but a burden; he immediately put it into training and was soon touring the country circuit with great success. He kept the bear muzzled and chained in the back of a converted utility: a steel frame had been welded to it and a wire mesh cage added. He called it Norman, his own first name (he himself was always referred to as Mr Witton), and the act was known from that time on as Norman, The Amazing Dancing Bear.

Witton dressed in a top hat and tails and carried a short willow stick. The bear performed dutifully, placidly even—its lack of interest in the ladies was now being turned to account—offering a growl or a swipe of the paw as if only to keep up appearances. But the main thing was it performed; and to the country folk for whom the mere sight of this strange creature was enough to draw gasps of amazement, the sight of him dancing a Hungarian waltz with a little fez cap on his head was guaranteed to provoke wild applause. They started with the fairs and country shows but could soon even afford to arrive in a town unannounced, park the utility beside the memorial in the main street and within half an hour have a crowd more than willing to fill Witton’s top hat with coins.

Witton met his wife—a publican’s daughter—in the early 1960s, and she took off on the road with him. They added a caravan to the back of the ute and for the next twenty years this was their home. They made a strange little family; camping out at roadside picnic areas, football grounds, vacant lots on the edge of town. At the end of the day the bear would be let out of its cage to share the evening meal with them, the three seated on camp stools around a foldaway table, and sometimes afterwards Mrs Witton and he would dance in the moonlight to the accompaniment of Mr Witton’s violin. Financially they were doing very nicely; Mrs Witton’s careful accounting methods not only kept the show on the road but always ensured that a little extra was put aside for their annual holiday. They headed for the coast, worked the foreshore crowds over Christmas (always their most lucrative season), then stayed on after the holidaymakers had left until March. Whole tracts of sand dunes and beach were theirs; they took long walks, the three hand in hand, and ate the fresh fish that Mr Witton caught from the rocks.

It was in the late 60s that things started to go bad, a change in public opinion that the strange little family, always ignorant of the greater world around them, could never have foreseen. It began as a falling off in the usual crowds, then increasingly vocal rumblings of discontent in the crowds they still managed to muster. Mrs Witton, now undoubtedly the ‘boss’ of the outfit, turned her mind to it, made various changes to the act, spruced up Mr Witton’s costume in line with the new fashions, replaced the violin with an acoustic guitar, Norman’s fez with an orange Carnaby Street cap, his old wooden barrel with a new multi-coloured one. The idea that it was in fact the sight of the bear itself—secured by a chain and forced every day to go through his tired routines—that so upset the formally enthusiastic crowds never even crossed their minds. But the times had changed. It was only Norman, the most affected by this new hostility, who correctly read the signs. He began to pine away. What was formerly an innate placidity now became a heavy, stubborn reluctance. Mr Witton could no longer get him up the ladder and found himself filling out the act with stupid, ribald jokes. His usually playful swipe of a paw or raising of a lip suddenly took on a sinister aspect. Mrs Witton, always a great believer in diet, piled his plate high and encouraged him to eat, but in direct proportion to the increase in his ration, Norman ate less and less. He died peacefully in the night on the twenty-seventh of September, 1971.

The Wittons were devastated. They immediately rang around the various capitals’ zoos in the hope of purchasing a replacement but with the zoos themselves now under fire from all quarters they were not about to release a full-grown grizzly, or any other bear for that matter, into the care of a travelling sideshow. In the midst of their shock the Wittons didn’t even have the presence of mind to bury poor Norman and his body remained covered with a sheet of canvas in the back of the ute while they drove to their favourite holiday spot on the coast in order to collect their thoughts.

Norman’s body had already begun to stink when Mrs Witton came up with her bright idea—most likely it was the stink that gave her the idea in the first place. She told Mr Witton and he reluctantly agreed. They would have Norman gutted and his hide preserved, if they couldn’t have a bear they could at least have a real-life bearskin suit; Mrs Witton would wear it, play the part of Norman and the act would continue as before.

It was in a town in the north-east of the state that the next disaster struck. Mrs Witton’s idea, for all its ingenuity, was still acted on in ignorance of the ever-changing public attitudes. In town after town, to their great consternation, the couple were forced to cut the act short beneath a barrage of abuse with barely a coin in the hat to show for it. It was simply beyond them to understand why. Finally, for Mrs Witton, it all became too much. On a bright sunny Sunday in the town in question the crowd pushed her one step too far. She unzipped the costume, emerged red-faced and sweating, and began berating them for their ignorance. Mr Witton stood dumbstruck, willow stick in hand. He’d been doing the act for so long now that even after the change-over he could still never really think of the animal before him, responding faithfully to his every command, as anything other than Norman, The Amazing Dancing Bear. Suddenly the magic was broken and there was his wife, the bearskin crumpled around her ankles, swearing like he’d never heard her swear before. For a moment there was silence, then an ominous murmur swept through the crowd. To mistreat an animal like this was one thing, to mistreat a woman quite another. They turned on Mr Witton and began beating him mercilessly. Mrs Witton joined the fray, swinging her arms wildly in every direction, but she could do nothing to stop the blows and kicks being rained down upon her helpless husband. Someone eventually called a stop to it—even in the name of politics the violence had gone too far—and the Wittons retreated to the safety of their caravan where Mr Witton was laid out on the bed half-dead. The taunting and abuse continued for a while, the occasional stone landed with a clunk on the roof; they kept the door locked, then crept out of town that night under the cover of darkness.

Mr Witton’s recovery was slow and it kept them off the road for some time. He had punctured a lung, the day after the fracas he blew up like a balloon; Mrs Witton rushed him to the local hospital where he lay prostrate for two weeks, a bloated, grotesque-looking animal, a plastic tube bubbling into the water bottle on the floor beside his bed. They had come, it seemed, to the end of the road. Their savings dwindled; they parked the caravan on a permanent site north of the city and sold the ute, with Norman’s cage still intact, to the greyhound trainer next door. They lived off Mr Witton’s benefits—he was classified permanently disabled, was always in frail health and consistently short of breath—packed the old props away and put the costumes in mothballs. Though she was still unable to comprehend what it was that had caused such an outburst of public loathing as to have permanently incapacitated her husband, it was nevertheless obvious to Mrs Witton that her days as a bear were over. She accepted the fact with a heavy reluctance, the years passed slowly and uneventfully and they both grew old before their time.

The story might have ended there, but Mrs Witton was never one to be beaten. Slowly, as she sat through those long evenings outside the caravan door on the old camp stool, the next phase of the Witton saga began to crystallise in her mind. She resurrected Mr Witton’s violin and began to teach herself the old Hungarian waltz. She let out his suit in the necessary places and rehearsed his old showman’s patter. She rang every venue and agent in town and finally secured a late-night spot at one of the new, alternative cabarets.

They appeared under the spotlight a little before midnight in front of a crowd that was immediately stunned into silence. Mrs Witton, in ill-fitting top hat and tails, a thick layer of face powder and bright pink lipstick, with a full-grown grizzly bear on the end of a chain beside her. They performed the act exactly as Mr Witton and his bear had done all those years before; he walked on the barrel, climbed the ladder, did some basic counting then finally danced his clumsy bear dance to the strains of the whining violin. The audience remained hushed and open-mouthed throughout, but when Mrs Witton and her bear held hands at the end and lowered themselves into a bow, they suddenly burst into thunderous applause.

I took them onto my books shortly after and they have never been out of work since. Though Mr Witton is somewhat enfeebled he is still quite able to perform the act; he takes a small portable oxygen mask inside the suit with him, breathes more or less normally and is yet to put in a bad performance. His movements are slow and a little clumsy but this only adds to the strange realism of it all—he could just as easily be old Norman himself—and the occasional dull spot is more than compensated for by Mrs Witton’s ebullient and at times ribald patter. You say you are putting together a mini-festival of new and unusual theatre. For this I believe the Witton act would be more than suitable and I look forward to hearing from you.

* * *

‘Reply to a Letter’ won 1st Prize in The Age Short Story Competition. It is just one of the many fine stories in Wayne Macauley’s collection Other Stories published recently by Black Pepper.

Image by Alison Murray

THE POSSIBILITIES OF WAYNE MACAULEY: an interview

Posted on October 25, 2010 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ALEC PATRIC

I picked up your new collection, Other Stories, published recently by Black Pepper. In a word, superb. ‘Reply to a Letter’ might just be the great Australian novel boiled down to an essence. This kind of piece often leads to a backward looking perspective but there’s an open hearted dream of multiculturalism in the equally brilliant ‘One Night’ that drives us forward. In that second story you play with a powerful sense of nostalgia for a yet to be realised future. In both, there are subtle notes of surrealism, and though there are degrees of playfulness, your work pushes; it has urgency and relevance. And then I turned to your Acknowledgments page, and was stunned. You’ve won The Age short story competition for ‘Reply to a Letter’ and ‘One Night’ was published in Meanjin, which you’ve done a few times. In fact, the nineteen stories have been published in all of the very best literary journals in the country. So this seems a kind of greatest hits collection, not only of your work, but an anthology of the best writing in Australian literature over the last decade or more. Yet before picking up this superb collection, let me confess, I’d barely heard of you. This might suggest a degree of ignorance on my part but with the kind of continuous success you’ve had, I’d expect you to be at least as well known as writers like Cate Kennedy or Nam Le. I was hoping you might talk a little about writing for Australian literary journals for over a decade and why it has not brought you wider recognition.

WAYNE MACAULEY

Thanks for your kind comments. As to the question of why I have not gained wider recognition for my work, this is on the one hand a very complicated and on the other a very easy question to answer. The easy answer is: I don’t know. You make the work, you put it out there, and hope it lights a spark. If it doesn’t, what can you do? The complicated answer is that every writer is unfortunately a victim of forces outside their control: the shifting moods and tastes of the public, the changing personnel and philosophies of big publishing houses, a contrary zeitgeist, blind luck, and so on. In my case I think I did have the misfortune to begin submitting my work at a time when big changes were happening in the Australian publishing industry. In fact, I would call that time, looking back on it, a very dark chapter in the history of Australian literary publishing. It was the time when economic rationalism began to rule, the big houses here became subsidiaries of head offices elsewhere, publishing was ‘rationalised’, lists cut, risks reduced. Poetry disappeared, as did (with some very rare exceptions) collections of short stories. (You still often hear the mantra from the big publishing houses now—‘Short story collections don’t sell’—proving again how received wisdom becomes a truth. Of course they won’t sell if you don’t want to sell ‘em…) Throughout the 90s and well into 00s it was solely the literary magazines, plus a few small and dedicated alternative presses, that allowed a place for an alternative, fringe, experimental and/or political voice. That is, a different kind of Australian literature. My first novel, which ticks a few of the above boxes, did the rounds of and was rejected by all the main publishing houses during that time before it was picked up by Black Pepper and published in 2004. Of course the magazines were absolutely critical during this period in allowing me to explore and push my prose in the direction I wanted, free of any commercial constraints, and for that I am very grateful to them. But it has to be said this didn’t necessarily do anything for my ‘career’. It’s a cold hard truth, and one we might not like to acknowledge, but the fiction editors of big publishing houses probably don’t read Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Island, much less Going Down Swinging, Harvest, Page Seventeen, Kill Your Darlings or Wet Ink. The literary magazines are a training ground, a testing place—but a path to literary recognition? I’m not sure.

As for the main game, book publishing, thankfully these days things are changing and changing for the good. The lunatics are taking over the asylum. Like the massive changes wrought on the contemporary music industry over the past decade, a seismic shift is happening in publishing. The mainstream publishing industry has begun to devolve. A new generation is asserting itself, small presses and journals have begun to proliferate, and new modes of delivery are challenging the old ways. In every respect big publishing houses are going to have to re-invent themselves—big, lumbering publishing houses with big lumbering structures—while meanwhile those on the fringe have already done the reinventing. I think one of the great consequences of all this is that there will be a lot less of a rift between the new journals and literary blogs and book publishing as such. A serious, alternative publisher of literary fiction will now also read GDS and Verity La. And this has got to be a good thing. It was time for the old paradigm to be challenged.

Finally, at the end of it all, what is ‘recognition’? I am happiest when I am sitting in my study, writing. All the other stuff just becomes an annoyance in the end. I might have been recognised ‘earlier’, and as a human being my ego would have been stoked, but as a writer would it have done me any good?

ALEC PATRIC

There’s a brand of satire you use in your writing that I find incisive and rewarding. There are elements of surrealism, which with most writers comes off as merely fanciful and often just kills a story for me. That’s not the case with your writing. The surrealism in your work has a political dimension that imbues it with gravity. But that brings us to the question of why there’s so little political or experimental fiction in Australian culture. I’m not suggesting we need a Dadaist style smashing of convention but there’s very little that even squirms in the envelope, let alone pushes the edges. Is there a conservative quality to Australian culture that cannot be opened up? You’ve mentioned retreating to your study but I wonder what you think about the roll writers play in other parts of the world as leading cultural agents and why this is not possible in Australia.

WAYNE MACAULEY

Your question is a very broad one and I’m not sure I can answer it all. But I’ll give it a go. I think at the heart of it (I may be wrong) you are asking me about an element of my work that, as you suggest, ‘pushes the envelope’. So let me talk about that first.

In his essay On Authorship and Style, Schopenhauer said: ‘the first rule of a good style is that an author should have something to say’. I spent a lot of years (my twenties and early thirties), before writing the works that would eventually become the pieces collected in Other Stories, doing little else but reading and thinking. I kept a writer’s journal throughout this time (I still do, though not quite so assiduously), in which I wrote down my thoughts on what I’d read, quotes worth keeping and sometimes the beginnings of prose pieces inspired by an idea in one of these quotes. I say idea, and this is important. I wasn’t observing the world and writing down what I saw, I was observing the world through the prism of the ideas I’d got from my reading. I guess in some ways I was looking for evidence of these grand (generally European) ideas in my own backyard, or, more precisely, in the streets of suburban Melbourne. Sometimes I found the evidence I was looking for: Heraclitus’ ‘all is flux’, Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘despair of possibility’,  Plato’s ‘becoming and never being’, Schopenhauer’s ‘human existence must be some kind of error’. After a couple of pots on a Saturday night in a pub in Glen Waverly it was very easy to understand what Nietzsche meant when he said ‘man is absolutely not the crown of creation’.

As you can probably guess, most of my reading throughout this time was philosophy (my fiction diet was almost exclusively second-hand Penguin classics). This wasn’t because of any formal course of study I was doing (I don’t have a tertiary degree) but because I wanted to understand why I was here and, now that I was, what exactly I should be doing. The world already looked strange to me; I wanted to understand why. I believe there are two layers of reality: the one we see, which realist fiction describes, and the one we find when we look, which I guess is what ‘other’ fiction covers. A couple of weeks ago I read something that relates to this in a book of essays by Kundera: ‘The more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality, the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it…’. I agree with this sentiment, which perhaps explains why my surrealism, as you call it, doesn’t, as you suggest, seem forced. (I don’t see it as surrealism, a realism ‘above’ or beyond a common reality, to me it is the realism inside it.)

Now to the difficult part of your question which asks (to paraphrase): Yes, but what does all this mean to one living in Lotus Land drinking cold beer and swatting the flies off the meat?

When Socrates drank his hemlock he died for an idea. I can’t yet see an Australian writer dying for an idea, but perhaps that’s only because we’ve had no occasion to, yet. You have to remember this culture we’re talking about (white, European-derived culture) is only two hundred years old. Our relationship to most other (read European) cultures is still that of a small child: looking up in awe for approval, smiling when we get it, bawling when we don’t. When you talk about a ‘conservatism’ in Australian culture, though, I presume you are talking about literary culture. The contemporary visual arts scene for example is anything but conservative, the contemporary music scene likewise, the architecture scene is as alive as a scene can get, the contemporary theatre scene, which I myself have been involved in, takes way more risks than I ever see in contemporary literature. No, we have a very conservative literature, protected by very conservative gatekeepers. Somewhere along the line (the early 90s) a white surrender flag was put up about what ‘Australian literature’ is. Carey had done his ‘Fat Man…’, Bail his ‘Contemporary Portraits…’—and that’s quite enough experimentation for us now thankyou very much. Since then I think the main object of Australian literary publishing has been to shore up what 80s-defined Australian literature was. Why change the tyres when the car’s running fine?

There is no such thing as a definitive ‘Australian film’, a definitive ‘Australian theatre’, a definitive ‘Australian sound’, god forbid a definitive ‘Australian literature’. We’re a baby. Nothing’s defined. We’re still making it up. And we’ll be making it up for centuries yet. This, for me, is what is exciting (as opposed to frustrating) about being an Australian artist—and I hope one day it will be seen that way for the gatekeepers too. There are no rules, other than the ones we write. Everything is possibility.