A novel is like a street bum. Every one of them has a long, swashbuckling tale about how things got to be that-a-way. Tell me how such a young, good looking thing like The Ottoman Motel ended up on the streets. Of course, the hobos of Shangri-La are happier than fat emperors anywhere else in the world, so the first thing I should have done is congratulate you.
Firstly, thank you. And an extra thank you for that excellently worded question. I am tempted to write the history of The Ottoman Motel as some Ripping Yarns-esque tale of early colonial adventure, such was the evocation of a naive young novel alighting a steam-ship, face scrubbed harshly with the last of its homeland soap, breathing in the spiced and curlicued air of some mysterious empire of the east. When in fact this novel, as with any other narrative with a past, is indeed a well-travelled and world-weary thing: a being that has shifted its shape (indeed, its elemental code) so many times as to not even remember what form it was born with.
The earliest version I can remember is a short scene I wrote a while ago (2000/2001?) about a young boy sitting with his parents in a food court, thinking about all the meals left in layers on the table. It was the kind of scene I’d started thinking would make a good story and then called the file something instantly forgettable and left it on my hard drive for a year untilI stumbled across it again. This was the birth of Simon, the main character. By then, I had been playing around with the idea of two children, one on holiday at the other’s house, becoming overly competitive with one another, driving each other on. The character of Audrey (the young girl who is the daughter of Ned, the man who takes Simon in after his parents disappear) developed from here. Ned, the father, and Gin, his son (Audrey’s brother) both emerged from two stories I had written, one called ‘Fingernail Moon’ and the other ‘Watch Over Me’ (the end of which was on my blog here), each about the strange relationship between a single father still coming to grips with what it meant to have and love a son.
All the other characters were new (which is not to say the others I had already imagined didn’t change), and the original story was, I think, far more ghostly—for want of a better word—than the version that I finished up with. Halfway through the first draft, I was watching Twin Peaks for the first time, which inevitably had an impact (although I had already written the character of Audrey before I knew there a character of that name in Twin Peaks). So I had a disappearance, a eerie guest house, a selection of mysterious characters and a really dodgy ending (which, if you track down those stories I’ve already mentioned, you may guess the end of). After I signed the contract with Text, my editor really got me to strip the story back to what was important. The early versions of the story had eight separate POVs, which was insanely ambitious on my part, and tended to diffuse the tension and interest I was trying to achieve.
There have been five major drafts of this novel, and I am very very happy with how its ended up. I have had to do far more work than I would ever had envisaged (It’s really not: ‘I’ve signed a contract, now where’s that royalty cheque?!’), but I really think it has paid off, and has given me a leaner, more elegant novel.
There’s a story I sometimes think about – Ginsberg went overseas when On The Road was published, so he wasn’t around to witness the furor Kerouac’s novel caused. The interesting part of the story for me was that while he’d seen his friend Jack use drugs before, and drink heavily, he’d never seen him totally wasted, and this was now happening every night. Kerouac never managed to find a way to deal with his success or the bad press. You’ve had some good reviews for The Ottoman Motel, but you’ve also had some negative ones. I’m interested in how you’re negotiating this part of a writer’s career but I’m also wondering if you have any insights into why the reception of a novel into the broader culture (which will always come with measures of acceptance and rejection), and should be the fruition of so many year’s of hope and work, can be so difficult to bear for writers like Kerouac.
That phrase ‘writers like Kerouac’ is really an interesting one. Kerouac, to me at least, is a writer whose behaviour and life almost eclipses what it was he wrote. While it’s not in dispute that he was immensely talented and a stylistic trailblazer, oft-times Kerouac the name becomes a signifier for something outside of what writing actually is, i.e. really hard, really boring work. There are those who aspire to the life of a Beat Writer, meaning buying a typewriter and smoking and starving yourself of anything approaching talent. Which is not to say I haven’t tried it myself, it’s just that in my experience the energy you expend trying to appear like a writer leaves very little left for actually stringing sentences together. If you’re at a stage where you’ve defined yourself so much by your art, then of course you’re going to self-destruct if someone punctures your sense of worth, which is stitched into your art like a second skin.
What that rant leads me to, I suppose, is the motto I have found my way to over the ten years or so I’ve considered myself a writer: BE REALISTIC. Now I’m nowhere near organised enough to have anything approaching a career plan, but I suppose my internal navigation system has developed enough to realise that if you’re trying to carve out a life and a career as an artist, then you’ve got to be very, very patient. And while innumerate Hollywood film scripts and thin-hipped folk singers tell you ‘it’s easy if you dream’, I can tell you it ain’t the case. I realise I have been so lucky thus far in my career. I honestly never expected to have a book out before I was 30. Yes, I’ve done the hard yards writing anything and everything for free, working my way up through street press and student magazines and start-up journals and blogs. Yes, I’d gained a profile writing a story every day for a year, but realistically I never thought The Ottoman Motel was good enough. It was my dry-run. The plan was going to be: write another novel, keep writing stories, get into Griffith Review, get into Best Australian Short Stories, get an agent, get a book deal.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m really lucky to be where I am, and I understand the world I’m in well-enough to know that books get good reviews and bad reviews, and I’m further than I ever hoped to be, and, to probably quote another movie ‘No one can take that away’.
It doesn’t seem enough for a writer to produce great work. I’m tempted to write ‘these days’, but even back in Joyce’s time I know he did a massive amount of networking with various key writers before Ulysses came out and prepared the reception for his ‘book to end all books’. If we go back to Ancient Greece there’s a kind of proximity value that Aristotle and Plato had in relationship to a man who apparently never wrote a word – Socrates. And now we have writers like Wayne Macauley who despite winning The Age short story competition and being published in every literary journal of importance in the country for over a decade, remains unknown outside of esoteric circles, because he simply lacks the ability to generate attention for his work. Another similar figure is Australia’s most likely next Noble Prize winning writer, Gerald Murnane. He should be at least as famous as Carey or Winton but readers don’t come in looking for The Plains or The Barley Patch and most of the people I recommend him to have never heard of Murnane. So I’m interested in the traditional course you were prepared to take, Best Australian Stories, Agent, etc, etc, but more than that, I’d like to talk about the genius you have for generating attention for your work. The one story a day has become a superb piece of blogging mythos. It was something I heard about a long time before I actually read your work. And then there’s the most recent marriage proposal in the forward for The Ottoman Motel, which has generated world wide attention. What makes it work is that it wasn’t a commercial ploy but you nevertheless clearly have a superb instinct for drawing notice. So I was hoping I could have your thoughts on the importance of self promotion.
Socrates was the original badass, and Joyce truly was a genius. And I really think their ideas and their work would have stood the test of time, whether they had been ‘marketed’ or not. As far as It doesn’t seem enough for a writer to produce a great work, I absolutely agree. I think it’s been a symptom of working in the bookselling universe for a bunch of years that I realise just how many books get published every month (not even counting the number of writers trying to make a name for themselves even before they get a book deal) and that, for better or worse, it often does take something extra for you to be noticed.
Conversely, a lot of over-hyped, under-written books are still published. The sad reality is that despite every zany publicity stunt and airport lightwall and magazine cover, every book that is published is still a gamble, and most ‘instant’ publicity campaigns fail. The most successful books of the past fifteen years: Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight, have all taken time to become an ‘overnight success’, and franchises in their own right. I really do think that the slow-burn is the only sure-fire way significant book sales actually happen. The news cycle is incredibly short, word-of-mouth is a slow but relentless rising tide. I read a great story recently about Quercus, the original publishers of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, how they resorted to leaving copies of it in taxis and on trains and park benches, so fervently did they believe in it, and so resolutely had booksellers refused to stock a long, translated book by an unknown author from a small publisher until then only known for nonfiction.
I suppose the difference is if you’re trying to get noticed, you have to be genuine about what you’re doing. Now, I am actually the last person you should talk to about ‘genius’ or ‘attention-grabbing’ ideas. Both my story-per-day blog, and my recent proposal, had nothing to do with getting attention. Both were done purely for me and, in the second case, my partner. Furious Horses was an exercise in re-starting my writing routine, and yes, I did try to get people to watch me only because I would have stopped otherwise. About a third of the way through I realised its promotional potential, but really it was me just trying to pinch out a new imagination turd each day. Maybe I should trademark the phrase Imagination Turd. The reaction to my proposal has been extraordinary. The interest has certainly helped the profile of the book, but at no stage was I calling up media outlets offering them my story. If I had really wanted it to be a cynical marketing ploy, I would have done it when the book was actually available for sale!
As to why people like Wayne Macauley and Gerald Murnane aren’t better known I’m not sure I can answer, except to say that many modern publishing houses seem to be motivated as much by their publicity and marketing department as their search for new literary talent and the importance of storytelling, but that is a particular Gordian knot of logic we should probably attempt to untangle another time.
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The Ottoman Motel is published by Text Publishing and is available from all good bookstores.