THE SENTENCE MAKER: an interview with Andrew Croome

Posted on February 12, 2013 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Andrew Croome and tree - croppedWhether in person or over the wonderful, magical internet thingy, Andrew Croome is fantastic company – smart, thoughtful, and disarmingly friendly.  His most recent novel is Midnight Empire (Allen & Unwin, 2012), an espionage thriller that deftly explores drone warfare.  Described by publisher Allen & Unwin as a ‘Cold War historical novel’, Croome’s first book was Document Z (2008), which examined the infamous Petrov affair. For Croome the book won the Australia/Vogel’s Literary Award in 2008 and the University of Technology Sydney Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. In 2010 Andrew Croome was named a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year.  If all this isn’t enough, Croome has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, which investigated the relationship between fiction and history. While others might ask him about the moral ambiguities of bashing up countries by remote, we ask him about the big issue – literary craft.  Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.

INTERVIEWER

How do you start a novel?

CROOME

I think with two things. The first is an idea – a zone or a topic that feels ‘big’ enough. Ideally, it will be something I don’t necessarily know too much about – so that there’s a process of discovery and mystery in the writing – yet it will also not be so alien that it feels beyond me to capture. This relates to the second thing, which is to find something outside the ordinary: a distance on the ordinary that will act as a kind of ‘source’ for the writing, that will offer an essence or an imagination at the core of the novel. In Document Z, this was the Cold War and the period of the 1950s and often the aura of photographs from that time – not necessarily of the historical figures I was writing about, but perhaps just of streets or crowds or buildings. In Midnight Empire, it’s the landscapes: the deserts of Nevada or the distant mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan. I feel like that – finding the ‘source’ – is where novels begin. The rest follows later.

INTERVIEWER

I’m really interested in your idea that for you a story starts with a sense of place, especially as your novels have considerable plot and story momentum.  At what point do you start thinking narrative structure?

CROOME

For me, narrative structure comes last of all. Before that has to come the narrative situation – the premise – and the characters who will occupy that space. Some would argue that characters and narrative are in fact one and the same, because the former tend to dictate what is possible in terms of story, and I think that’s mostly true. Plot and momentum are important, but for me any narrative structure is for the most part about meaning. It’s one of the spaces in a novel where the logics of the subject assert themselves. Only once the story is underway does narrative structure come to the fore, especially in the later stages. Document Z and Midnight Empire were different in that the events of Document Z (but not the narrative) were defined by history, whereas in Midnight Empire the story is pure invention. That made them quite different projects, and in terms of narrative I think Midnight Empire was more challenging. I was trying to weave tropes from the worlds of the war on terror and poker together, and to find a narrative that made sense in both.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have moments where you ask yourself, where is all this going?  If so, what do you do – keep writing until the story resolves itself?

CROOME

Midnight EmpireYes. I think uncertainty about direction is an important part of the writing process – part of exploring the terrain the writer has chosen. Too much planning probably inhibits the ability of a work to set its own course, to follow paths and find conclusions that are unexpected. Thus, I see not knowing where something is headed as just part of writing – which makes the solution more writing (which could also be re-writing). That said, I usually do have a final destination in mind that I am writing towards. In Midnight Empire, I knew that I wanted my protagonist to end up in Europe, playing poker and existing ‘off the grid’. When I began the novel I didn’t know how or why he’d get there, even if I knew he would. The reasons for that were ones that the novel assembled over time. Alongside ‘Where is all this going?’ another important question is ‘Where has all this gone?’ That is useful for understanding the story that you’ve reached, then for redrafting in order to tell it better.

INTERVIEWER

And what about ending a work?  With your two novels have you found that they’ve ended quite naturally and neatly, or do you rework and rework, sometimes going back to earlier chapters to make adjustments?  I’m reminded here of something Peter Carey once said, and I’m paraphrasing: that if chapter thirty doesn’t work it’s likely that something in, say, chapter three isn’t working.

CROOME

I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story – things like Cormac McCarthy’s brook trout at the end of The Road (‘On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back’) or John’s dilemma at the conclusion of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, as to whether he will nurse his ailing father, or abandon him (‘One or the other: there is no third way’). Mostly the task of an ending is really to carry the reader out of the experience of the novel, without being disappointing. If the ending is doing that, it could be that the journey is working too.

INTERVIEWER

Both Document Z and Midnight Empire are intimately concerned with the politics of the respective eras. Do you see yourself as a political writer? What motivates you to write so knowingly of political context?

CROOME

While my books are concerned with different types of politics, I don’t see myself as a political writer. That doesn’t mean that my work is without politics, just that the politics are driven by questioning and exploration, rather than by ideology or message. I am intensely interested in politics, especially those that are used to justify or enable actions that are morally fraught. I enjoy characters who are driven by beliefs, who consider themselves to have thought deeply about their world, and who see in the ordinary and day-to-day the influence of global forces. If I had to say what motivates this, I think it’s that all politics are a way of seeing the world and, in a novel, threading together these different ways of seeing seems like a way to get at a little more of the truth not just about those views, but of the greater shape of things. One of statements I think Midnight Empire makes is that while there is danger in following ideology, there is danger in following nothing too.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned Cormac McCarthy and JM Coetzee earlier.  Which other writers inspire you in terms of technique and craft?

CROOME

I admire Solzhenitsyn and his ability to draw a character, especially works such as The First Circle, We Never Make Mistakes and his prose poetry. Also Don DeLillo for what he writes about, with Underworld and Libra being an influence on my own writing. More recently, I’ve been reading Richard Ford, but in the last while, nothing has topped Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses for me. I’d also list John Le Carre and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – alongside Conrad and Greene, these works are the template for writing about espionage in a way that goes beyond clever plotting and hard boiled protagonists.

INTERVIEWER

You said last year that writing was the hardest thing, and that sometimes you’ll spend months not writing at all.  What’s the impetus to start doing it all over again?

CROOME

Writing is hardest thing that I know how to do, and between projects I do spend some time not doing it.  Other writers might go straight from one novel to another, but for me these are such large endeavours that a break to work on other things for a time feels worthwhile. The impetus to begin again is the new idea for a book, but also the pleasure of writing itself, the satisfaction of writing sentences. After that, the impetus becomes the ability of fiction to imagine and to find and create meaning.  Once the writing starts, discipline returns.  One of my favourite observations on writing comes from Bill Gray, the author in DeLillo’s Mao II, who says, ‘I’m a sentence maker. Like a donut maker, only slower.’  Writing is work, but the impetus to do it is that it’s work that’s a little bit mysterious as well – exactly how it functions and what it achieves can be mysteries for the writer too.

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