RAISING THE DEAD: an interview with Maxine Beneba Clarke

Alec Patric: Maxine Beneba Clarke is a name that in most Aussie minds of a literary bent, conjures the image of a Slam-Champ, kick-arse performance poet. But my first experience of that name was of the novelist of something called Black Lazarus in the Overland Master Class for Progressive Writers, a year ago today (give or take a week). I thought it was finely written prose with the lightning power of a poet lighting up each sentence. At the time it was selected for a project Overland was running–> a search for the best unpublished manuscript in Australia. Black Lazarus won that particular honour but that whole project seems to have dissolved quietly, into nothing. Would you like to talk about what happened?
Maxine Clarke: Black Lazarus and the Overland Novel Search seemed to be a match made in heaven: longstanding left-leaning literary magazine’s novel search discovers the heavily political first novel manuscript of a young, black female writer and publishes and distributes it to 2000 subscribers as a special edition of the journal, creating not only a new novelist, but a new (at least, post Australasian Book Society) and cost-effective way to distribute literary fiction in Australia.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out like that. I was poet, wrestling with my first novel manuscript, having barely written any short fiction at the time. I was shocked when, two days after mailing 10,000 words of the manuscript to Overland, I was emailed for a full submission. It was the classic dear in headlights situation.
In the end, after working with Overland for 12 months to try and get Black Lazarus up to scratch, it was decided not to proceed with the manuscript. Ultimately, Overland hadn’t the time, experience or resources to deliver what I then needed: comprehensive and experienced editorial help in realising a promising manuscript, and I wasn’t able to deliver what Overland needed in order to publish the novel with the resources they had: a completed, structurally sound first novel manuscript already primed for copy-editing.
The entire novel search experience has been without a doubt, the steepest learning curve of my literary career to date. My affiliation with Overland has been mutually beneficial in many ways though: I continue to blog for them on occasion, and my first personal essay in the publication, The Unbearable Whiteness of Beauty was picked up and re-printed in part by the Age last year.
The novel search has also probably resulted in the interest (or in some cases, intrigue) I’ve received from other publishers regarding the manuscript, which is now, eighteen months later, an extremely different manuscript from the Black Lazarus of the Overland Novel Search. Sections of the manuscript have been widely published, including in Harvest, Page Seventeen and the Short & Twisted anthology and I have confidence it will eventually find a home…I’m just not in any hurry.

Alec Patric: Doesn’t publishing parts of the novel in Harvest, Page Seventeen and Short & Twisted speak to the quality of Black Lazarus? Consider how difficult it is to get anything published in literary journals as it is, let alone sections of a longer work–> and then multiply that by three. It strikes me as odd that Overland would embark upon a well publicised national search, find a manuscript so eminently suitable to their objective, and then not be able to proceed through a standard editing process. I can only imagine the pain that comes with that kind of disappointment. Your diplomacy seems extraordinary. But it also seems entirely fitting for a project called Black Lazarus. It needed to be killed at least once. When can we expect this brilliant novel to be brought to life again?
Maxine Clarke: Of course it was a let-down – financially, emotionally, psychologically. How could it not be? There are so many things that go through your mind when something like this falls through, and worst of all, you do start to doubt the quality of your own work. But there were always uncertainties throughout the project, not least of which was the security of Overland’s funding. Overland was always clear that they loved my writing, and through the project I was able to get at least some broad feedback which I otherwise wouldn’t have received (this was also the case through the Masterclass, of which you were an integral part).
Having had other journals publish sections of the work is extremely reassuring, and has helped me sustain my passion for Black Lazarus. Yes, it’s true that on the flipside of this, the more interest there is in the manuscript, the more difficult it is to accept that the project fell through – particularly since I was also ideologically committed to project itself: the idea of finding an alternative and sustainable method of distributing literary fiction.
You yourself would know though, that as a writer you very quickly harden to such knocks.
And as you say, what kind of manuscript would Black Lazarus be, if it didn’t rise from the ashes at least once?