Dislocation and transition are major themes of your work, which is entirely understandable if we look at your life. Your bio describes a man from rural Australia going oversees to ride horses on equestrian circuits, who becomes a Californian lawyer, yet who ceaselessly writes fiction. Your characters travel through Russia and inland Australia; they return home feeling unable to stop for longer than a few weeks. Transition is one of the great literary themes, of course, and a sense of being dislocated is central to an artistic perspective, but they are rarely comfortable or conducive to the writing life. I’m wondering how you’ve managed to negotiate these elements and to continue to be so literarily productive.
Los Angeles is a weird enough place that someone like me can feel they have permission to re-invent themselves. I now spend most of the year here where I fight for the time to write (getting to it in my half sleep, scribbling prose as I wake, in a cemetery near Downtown L.A. at lunch time, in my office ‘of an evening’ as they say, or late at night in my attic looking out to the Hollywood Hills). As I’m always plotting to find writing time, when I do, I don’t have the luxury of procrastination. And when I’m not writing, my sub-conscious mind seems to mull about in my characters’ heads or the world I’m creating. In the book I’m working on now, that’s mostly back on a farm in Australia. A far cry from my office on the 41st Floor. But there’s something about that distance and dislocation that makes me yearn for the faraway place and to see it more clearly.
I work organically, without structure, building sentence to sentence, ‘bole to twig to leaf to bough’ as someone famous called it. An attempt at creating the vivid, continuous dream. In Stray Dog Winter, I was writing about a boy growing up on the Mornington Peninsula who ends up in Cold War Moscow. I saw him on a train and followed him there. The current novel is about a young man going home to Australia but told in the voices of several characters. When I hear one of them, I try to scratch it down long-hand, wherever I am. The furious taking of notes in a business meeting can be awkward but I need to catch those voices as they pass. And anything I write that’s half-way decent, usually begins in long-hand.
When I take on a teaching gig, or, as I am now, judging a fiction prize, and doing this, it often feels like the one thing to many, as if it’s hijacking my novel. I wrote Agapanthus Tango back when I was not only lawyering but also riding a team of jumping horses on the show-jumping circuit here in California. I realized I had to surrender the riding to pursue the writing. Which was the best thing I ever did. I’m not afraid of becoming old as a writer, so long as I have a room and still have something to write. And having travelled and seen and experienced things, seems vital to me to fuel the possibility. (Although, Emily Bronte rarely left the house.)
Yes, I seem to write about dislocated characters. Someone ‘comes to town’ and eventually leaves or stays as someone slightly different. I don’t pursue this consciously, but that’s what tends to unveil itself, perhaps because I’ve come and gone so often. I spend a month each year back on the farm back in Victoria and another month or so in Paris. I’m fortunate to have this kind of flexibility and yet the luxury brings with it transitions that aren’t always easy. They can create a vague longing for the other place or for ‘home’, wherever that might be. But at the end of the day, it’s being at peace in a room with a lamp, a pen and paper, in the throes of writing a book. Seeing what might unfold.
There’s an idea that good prose should be pared back to the essentials. It’s a school of thought that eschews ornamentation or elaboration, and makes a virtue of concision and only the sharpest, most pertinent details. This has been an established aesthetic since Hemingway, and was pushed even further and consolidated by Raymond Carver (with the rather merciless helping hand of Gordan Lish). In Australia this has become so pervasive as to be doctrinal.
Best Australian Stories 2010 opens with your piece Once Removed. It’s a short story well in excess of the Australian maximum length of 5000 words but it’s also opulent in detail. In fact, it luxuriates in nuances of description. It was recently described by Angela Bennie in The Sydney Morning Herald as being ‘like a carpet unrolled before our eyes… [a] revelation of mosaic structures’. The story was, of course, not published in Australia. It appeared in Harvard Review. Have you found it liberating writing for literary journals in the States and do you think there’s a different literary climate over there?
My first novel, Agapanthus Tango/The Great Inland Sea, was generally regarded as spare and restrained in flavour (compared, in that regard, to Hemingway in one review, and as being Faulknerian in another, though I never quite understood the latter). Nonetheless, a leaner tone suited the stark emotional and physical landscape of the story. And I have to say, I love that kind of prose – where the emotionality bubbles up as much from between the lines as from the lines themselves, so that what is not revealed becomes almost as important as what’s on the page.
Stray Dog Winter, more of a mystery which evolves into a kind of literary suspense novel, is fuller in style and arguable more ‘prosey’. As a result it often resonates in a different way to readers, and connects with a slightly different readership. While the prose is still lyrical, I hope, it is perhaps more ‘lapidary’ in style. While none of this was particularly intentional, it was just what the story required.
Once Removed arguably contains the best of both those worlds, some slightly more luxuriant prose, but still somewhat restrained. The piece came to me in a kind of flourish and I wrote it, not knowing whether it would be a short story or the beginnings of a novel. Oddly, it has now emerged as both. Perhaps, because its form hadn’t yet declared itself, it seems a bit unorthodox in style and shape, but this can happen if you write without too much sense of what it ‘should’ look like, or what is fashionable or expected. I suppose I have been patient and naïve enough to let it become what it wants to be. I don’t presume to have great authorial control, other than building sentence to sentence, one informing the next, hammering along the walls in search for a load-bearing beam. So I’m not much of a big picture, need to know where I’m going kind of writer. I just want to be inside the scene, inhabiting my narrator, feeling the story along as close to its bone as I can.
The fact that Once Removed hadn’t been edited down to within an anorectic inch of its life was partially what drew Nam Le (as fiction editor of the Harvard Review) to the story originally. Now, the same story but written in third person, past tense, is the opening of my new novel, the first draft of which has just been completed. As a reader, I love tight, lyrical, heartfelt stories. (Did I say that already?) And if this is doctrinal in Australia, for me, it’s far preferable than its opposite.
My two cents worth is that most books published in the U.S. are not taut or heartfelt enough for my taste and as a result, I find myself disconnecting and putting so many novels down. Maybe there isn’t enough care for or love of language, and rarely is there any real music. Maybe as writers and readers we are becoming increasingly disconnected from ourselves and so we don’t really notice. But those odd times when I read a book and hook into the rhythm of the prose and the energy of the voice and the propulsion of the story, I’m in heaven. This happens to me about once a year, if I’m lucky, and, sadly, less and less. But if all that’s somehow clicking, it doesn’t matter so much if the tone is spare or luxuriant, it just works on the page and as a reader I want to cherish each sentence, go slow and bathe in it. That’s the connection between reader and writer that I aspire to.
Some books light us up with various explosions of thought and feeling and remind us why we love literature. So much so in fact, that we continue to dedicate our lives to making structures of words bearing resemblances to these inspirations — and we seek to ignite within ourselves and in our readers similar explosions. I confess to the same feeling you’ve expressed (especially when it comes to novels), of finding fewer and fewer of these kinds of books being published now. But I’d like to move to specifics and ask you which recently published novels you’ve discovered that have had this effect on you. More than anything I’m interested in how and why? Is the recognition of an absence in the literary landscape what inspires you to produce something that might fill such dead spaces?
I tend not to write with any audience or a conscious literary purpose in mind; I’m just trying to find a voice that has a resonance and a story that has its own motor. Beyond that I’m trying not to think too much about the big picture, what I’m supposed to be doing, because as soon as I get into that, or an idea of something grand, it seems to create an interference between me and the characters and any thread of a narrative. A kind of self-consciousness and the beginnings of contrivance, probably the infiltration of some device or clever formula to get to where I’ve suddenly decided the story ought to be going, or the deliverance of some great theme (which prior to that moment had been bubbling up from my subtler mind). And so I’ve invited my ego to run the show and it’s all going downhill. The story feels plain in my hands. I’m looking in at it from outside, from outside the window of the room where it lives, outside of myself and unable to climb back in. So I hope to gradually become humble enough to once again eke out a new sentence, find a door back into the heart of the thing, to some new vein in its arm where I might find blood or gold or something unexpected. I feel I can tell when a novel is truly written from this place. If it can then fill some small space in a literary landscape then that’s a benediction.
(This sounds like a total wank but I strongly believe it.)
I’m struck again and again by how strange what we do actually is. You write about attempting to get ‘back in’, of seeing the story from beyond a window, of needing to cultivate a more conducive relationship between you and ‘the characters’. You use an array of metaphors to understand your process and yet there is still the constant threat of waking up one morning to find the work is dead in its cradle. We go on doing this for years but it never gets to be easy. In fact, some writers, like Truman Capote or J. D. Salinger, self-destruct or run away because it seems to get harder. How do you understand this difficulty?
My first book was written without knowing what I was doing, so without expectation, my second book was deeply challenging. My new novel is coming with suspiciously fluidity and so I am slightly wary of it but also strangely exhilarated, experiencing both the compulsion and surrender, the feeling somehow that it isn’t even mine.
It seems to me that uncomplicated, well-adjusted people rarely have a need to tell stories, to sit in a room for three or five years making themselves think they might be descending into madness. At some unconscious level working out what they think about themselves or others, or something, explored with an almost compulsive fascination. A drive to pursue the next paragraph in an almost addictive way. But I don’t share such an intensity for it that makes me hate or resent it. Once I enter the world of a book, I feel somehow safer, better hinged to this world.
Annie Dillard once said: ‘At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you.’
I feel confident that so long as I don’t cut myself off from the world, there ought to be more to write about. If I’m lucky. I know a story can slip through my fingers and become feral, that the relationship is tender.