With the release of his latest book, you could be forgiven for thinking that more than a decade in academia teaching aspiring writers the fundamentals of literary theory, and writing a form-challenging novel or two of his own, might have taken its toll on Anthony Macris. In contrast to his debut novel, Capital, Volume One, a rhizomatic narrative that examines the impact of market forces on everyday life, Tony’s latest book is When Horse Became Saw, a memoir billed as a ‘family’s search for answers’. That his time teaching at the University of Wollongong and at the University of Technology, Sydney, where he is now a senior lecturer, has eroded the interests he’s spent his adult life cultivating could be a logical conclusion. It even justifies his own belief that teaching makes writing a living – and lived – thing.
But between books, something else happened. Tony became a father to a son, a son who at eighteen months regressed into severe autism. It didn’t kill the writing bug or force a severing of his post-structuralist roots. His writing, like his life, simply underwent an unequivocal change. Interviewer: Tristan Foster.
Your first major work, Capital, Volume One, a novel which borders on the experimental, was published internationally in the mid-nineties. Your next major work, When Horse Became Saw, a memoir, was just released. Between books you had a son, Alex, and at the age of two he “descended” into severe autism. What happened to your desire to write fiction during this time?
For about a year after my son’s regression into autism, I found it hard to cope with anything literary at all. I had a real struggle with teaching literature and creative writing. I had to, of course – we needed money more than ever before. You know those religious narratives about saints who are tempted or have great doubts and they have to reaffirm their faith? I went through that for about six months. It all seemed so remote.
It started when I had to research autism, because the state services couldn’t be trusted in any way, shape or form to give my son adequate therapy. So, I literally had to research the condition. I’ve got a PhD, I can research – it’s something I can do. Suddenly, texts no longer had the same character for me. These were texts that had to be truth-yielding. They had to be factual. They had to give me the answer to a very concrete problem that I had, like what would be the most appropriate education for my son who might never have been able to speak again.
I was educated at university in high post-structuralism and, to some degree, postmodernism, which deals with speculations on the nature of meaning, slippages of meaning. But suddenly texts were no longer about speculation and they were no longer about creating and managing a world. I didn’t read anything that did not have a direct bearing on a very, very serious problem that I had before me.
In that context, I can now understand why people in engineering or doctors or people who study other branches of knowledge can go a bit blank on literature and sometimes don’t quite get it. Suddenly I understood them perfectly. I needed things that intervened in the most practical way in the world.
I was two-thirds of the way through Capital, Volume Two: Great Western Highway and I came to a dead halt. I could not really continue on with that book. I hadn’t lost faith in it, but my attention was utterly diverted by this more important problem. When I came to wanting to again write about a year later, there was only one book I wanted to write. I was so horrified by the abandonment of kids like my son that I thought this story had to be told. All that ornate, intellectually baroque machinery that I’d built up and taken to a nearly ridiculous extreme in Volume Two, which has got 900-word sentences – suddenly I didn’t want to write a book like that anymore. I wanted to write a book for a public, that would be read and that could intervene.
Don DeLillo believes that writing is a concentrated form of thinking. Helen Garner has said she writes to understand, to explore. Was the writing ever an act of needing to penetrate what was happening to your son and to your world?
I’m going to give a semi-complicated answer to that question. One of the things that came out of my PhD research was the notion of embodying affect. How do we recreate affect or emotion? Emotion is a central thing to narrative, something other forms of writing don’t usually do as effectively. A philosophical treatise is based on the modality of reason. Even when a psychologist writes about emotion, they’re doing it from a rationalist standpoint.
What literature can do very well is create a field of affect. You enter into an emotionally driven story-world. When I was looking over my old uni texts to prepare for some lectures I read The Poetics again. I came across something I’d never noticed before, it’s so central – the two great machines of Aristotelian tragedy are pity and fear. You don’t have a tragedy unless it’s based around moving the audience to pity and fear. This was at the time when I was starting to write Horse and it was like a revelation to me. These primordial, blood-soaked affects – no polite words like empathy or respecting the other – just this really quite brutal, twin-cam engine of pity and fear. I can’t tell you how that spoke to me.
When I wrote Horse, what I wanted to do was create a field of affect that put a reader through an experience of pity and fear. That’s the frame of the narrative. That’s very particular to that book. It wasn’t the central task of the Capital novels, which were about other things. They’ve still got emotional dimensions to them but never did I so self-consciously say I’m going to create a field of signifiers that evoke pity and fear – in the first third of the book, I’m going to make the reader watch a child disintegrate.
On that point, When Horse Became Saw is a profoundly personal piece of writing. Was it difficult to put yourself and your family out there in this way?
It actually wasn’t. It was an enormous relief. I’ve always been drawn to the confessional mode – I like music that’s in this mode. But I also like this notion of stand and deliver, of the unplugged – I’m going to strip away everything and it’s just going to be me and the audience, communicating what I think is important, that is quite personal and, I hope, affecting.
It didn’t feel like an act of catharsis at the time because I’d set this project for myself, to recreate affects. It was actually really disturbing. I know this sounds melodramatic but I wept and wept as I wrote that book. It was extraordinary because I had to whip myself up to recreate a moving experience for the reader. I was no longer a writer of sentences. It was like restaging things and creating a flow of affect.
I want to return to the word descended. It’s heavy with connotation and meaning – I think of Dante and abandoning all hope. In the book it becomes clear that it’s not just Alex who descends but both you and your wife. But the descent allows for an ascent. How redemptive was the writing of When Horse Became Saw? Did it satisfy the writerly desires of Tony Macris the author or was this the act of Tony Macris the father?
They all come together. I’m a person who has to write. There is a force in me that must be channelled towards that. My whole life I’ve spent trying to find time to write. It just will not go away. It’s like I’d be better off dead.
But it was interesting – you’ve got that precondition, but things in life happen to you and drop into that flow of energy, and in this case it was When Horse Became Saw. Suddenly I’m a father, a father under very weird and trying circumstances. There was no choice but to write from that space – there was no other book in me at the time.
There is a lot of artistry in the book. It’s still written according to first, second and third act. It does very standard things, it sets up a happy family in order for there to be an identification effect. The first sentence is a classic premise, it could be straight out of Kafka: Gregor Samsa woke up and turned into a bug, when my son was eighteen months old he descended into severe autism.
Could you write the fiction of Capital again?
I’m trying to find a way back into it. I’m not quite sure what this experience has done to me yet. I want to write another couple of books. But it changes at every stage and things happen to you.
I was fixated on this notion of how market forces affect our everyday lives. I now see that as somewhat narrow. The Capital novels are an attempt to use a vast repertoire of narrative techniques and even try to find a couple of new ones. They’re ambitious under-40 type novels that young men write in wanting to change the form.
Something I do and something I like other writers to do in their texts is meditate on the meanings of words. Early on when you’re researching autism you come across these terms – incurable, proprioception, intervention – and you’re weighing them and overwhelmed by the connotations attached to them.
Horse is not a standard memoir at all. There are whole chapters about critiques of behaviourism and essays on behaviourist psychology because that was the kind of therapy we ultimately decided on. There’s an intellectual, self-rationalisation of it because it comes from animal training, the denying of the states. In some ways it’s a pretty radical thing to do to a child.
I’ve had journalists say to me, all I wanted to know is if he’s going to be all right. I can see them flicking over to the end, and it kind of isn’t all right. This isn’t a miracle story. Autism wins in the end. It’s about mounting the fight and failing, but succeeding in another way.