A few years ago you made a comment about Australian short stories that could be just as well applied to Australian novels, namely that ‘the stuff that gets published… is, for the most part, stylistically and structurally conservative social realism.’ With your latest novel, The Cook the narrative voice, with its unique approach to punctuation, immediately announces a stylistically experimental novel. How did you go about capturing the voice of Zac, the narrator, and were you ever worried that Zac’s voice would alienate readers more used to stylistically conservative narrators?
‘Experimental’ is a very relative term, isn’t it? In my case, given that I am writing in the early part of the 21st century, as opposed to the early 20th, with high literary modernism now nearly a hundred years old and post-modernism already looking a bit fat and middle-aged, to write a two hundred-odd page novel of unpunctuated sentences in the interests of capturing the rise and fall of a character’s thoughts is, let’s be honest, actually a bit of a conservative thing to do—and probably something a so-called edgy writer like myself ought to be ashamed of.
I don’t consider my work experimental, in and of itself. What is experimental about it, I guess, certainly in the Australian literary context, is my willingness to mess with form in the pursuit of an idea. In this instance the idea of a rudderless young man as the apogee of a fast, liquid, shape-shifting, centreless modernity; a mind that thinks like society functions (or malfunctions): rapidly, superficially, vainly, disconnectedly. If in pursuit of this idea you end up getting some readers offside—well, what can you do? Writing is not a popularity contest. I’ve certainly never set out to deliberately alienate a reader—and I hope I never do—but that doesn’t mean I want to kiss them on the forehead and tuck them in for beddy-byes either.
As for Zac’s voice, specifically, its tone and cadence and so on, I’m still not completely sure where it came from. As a writer I obviously prepared myself, took notes, tried things out, attempted to relate the work in my own mind to the works of other great writers I knew and loved, but in the end, as with any piece of creative work, you eventually have to close your eyes and jump in the deep end. This I did for a bit over a year. For the year or so following I used what skills I had so far learnt to turn the consequences of my floundering into The Cook.
You mention that when writing The Cook you attempted to relate your novel to the works of great writers you love. Can I ask you about your literary influences, both Australian and international?
I’ve been asked this question a number of times and every time I answer it I feel like I am being reductive, quoting a handful of writers as if they will somehow ‘explain me’. But my reading has been extremely broad and varied over many years, with fiction playing an important but not definitive part in it. So this time I have decided to make my list of authors more comprehensive (which, when I think about it, is the only really honest way to answer your question). This list, chronologically ordered, describes the authors on my shelf that I still turn to for inspiration or comfort, or most often to snap me out of my lethargy and remind me what great writing is: Heraclitus, Plato, Montaigne, Cervantes, Pascal, Defoe, Swift, Voltaire, Sterne, Lichtenberg, Kleist, Schopenhauer, Gogol, Kierkegaard, Dosteovsky, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Stevenson, Conrad, Hamsun, Walser, Kafka, Orwell, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Camus, Bernhard, Murnane, Coetzee, Sebald.
The idea of literary influence is a strange one, and something I still have trouble wrapping my head around. On the one hand I freely acknowledge the influence of all these authors on my work but on the other I want to protest that, no, what I’m doing is original and always has been. Somewhere between these conflicting feelings, I suppose, is the truth underlying the journey every writer takes towards finding their own voice: we are right to acknowledge our influences but wrong to be slavish to them.
The Cook is very much a portrait of the artist as a young man, with Zac gradually mastering, and becoming obsessed with, succeeding in the culinary arts. While there are many elements of Zac’s progress that could apply to any artist, whether a writer, a poet or a sculptor, such as his delight in his first successes, his feeling of a found vocation, and his intense craftsmanship, it seems to me that in the artistry explored in The Cook there is an inherent criticism of Australia’s attitude to the arts. This country’s recent obsession with ‘the art of cooking’ in shows such as MasterChef and its imitators, and the concurrent phenomenon of celebrity chefs is in stark contrast to the continuing marginalisation of much Australian writing and filmmaking. While Zac becomes a great artist, I would maintain (and I confess that I am a food philistine) that the art form he excels at is essentially a transitory and empty one. The human body passes criticism on all food, no matter how good it is, by eventually excreting it. In the end, Zac’s idealisation of the art of cooking and what it can achieve eventually destroys him and others. I’d like to ask how much the choice of Zac’s vocation was influenced by the MasterChef fad, and if this choice was indeed a criticism of Australia’s general attitude to the arts.
In the notebook I kept before and during the writing of The Cook there is an entry that reads, simply: Worship of the superficial. I know that in the writing of the book I was trying to explain this idea to myself—how in contemporary society the deep, complex and profound is increasingly sneered at while the superficial is worshipped. Or more correctly, a society in which the superficial is treated as if it were the profound. This situation, of course, in the first instance, is comic gold, and has been since the time of Aristophanes. When people take the shallow and ephemeral seriously they give themselves the illusion of status and power (Don Quixote taking up his lance in the cause of knight errantry, the Emperor without any clothes) but they also leave themselves open to ridicule. But the idea of the superficial parading as the profound also speaks in a very serious way to what contemporary society has become. We are increasingly infantilised. Like a small child we grab at this and that, have a quick taste then move on. We have forfeited our critical judgement and with it our sense of irony. We can’t see any more how childish and stupid we look, because childishness and stupidity have become the norm.
I think this new cooking phenomenon—and here I’m talking about the high end of the business, rarefied fine dining for the credit card rich—is shallow and ephemeral. It has also, unfortunately, because of all the things I’ve outlined above, been allowed to take itself so seriously that a satirist need only alter the perspective very slightly for the whole thing to look ludicrous. The phenomenon is comic, but at the same time, in a world where one in seven of our fellow human beings cannot feed themselves, deeply, deeply shaming and tragic.
As to how this may relate to the status of the Australian artist, it is probably drawing a long bow. Disenfranchised Zac’s determined pursuit of the perfect dish might indeed equate to the marginalised artist’s pursuit of the perfect artwork, but I think The Cook throws its net a bit wider than that. Yes, I think the arts are by nature marginalised in this country when compared to say TV or sport, but the mantle of martyr to the cause of marginalisation doesn’t sit easy with me. I don’t think we as artists are any more hard done by than anyone else—and there are plenty of people far more hard done by than us. In my earlier novel, Caravan Story, I satirised the so-called arts industry and its commodification of culture, but I think I reserved the most poison in my pen for that novel’s principal character, a writer by the name of Wayne Macauley, who during the course of the book comes to believe that by writing to order he might one day win approval and financial support from those above pulling the strings. A marginalised artist with delusions of grandeur is a writer’s comic gold, too.
Finally, I’d like to ask you about the nuts and bolts of your writing process. Graham Greene’s slow and steady five hundred words a day eventually led to a considerable number of brilliant novels and stories. Proust liked to write in bed at night, while Nabokov wrote his later novels on index cards while standing up. Some writers are more comfortable having several pieces of work on the go at once, whereas others must concentrate on one thing at a time until it is finished. Earlier, you mentioned that The Cook took a number of years to write. Could you take us through that process in a little more detail? Do you have a target number of hours/words that you try to write every day? Were you often distracted by other projects, or did you deliberately take time off from The Cook in order to refresh yourself? Did you need a fallow period after finishing The Cook or did you begin work on a new story/novel straight away?
I work early mornings and when I’m working on a specific project I write a minimum of a page a day. For five months of the year I have a full-time day job. During this time I get up at 4.30am and am at my desk at 5.30. At 9 I finish writing and ride my bike to the pool and have a quick swim before I start work at 10. For the other seven months my day job is part-time, starting at 1. During this time I get up at 7, start at my desk at 8, ride my bike to the pool at 12, swim, and have a half-hour for lunch. I do this five days a week—I rarely, if ever, work on the weekends. Outside the hours described I try to avoid my desk completely, although I will on a Friday evening often open a beer and put on some music and sit there for a while thinking about what I’ve done and what I’ll do next and maybe even make a few notes. Each weekday morning when writing a first draft I read what I have written the previous day and edit and change where necessary then refer to the note I have left for myself on the verso page the previous morning to point the way for that day’s work. I write freehand in cheap lined notebooks. I don’t use a computer until the work is finished, then I type it up, like a stenographer. That marks the end of the first draft. Then I print it out, date stamp it, and the next draft begins. The first draft of The Cook took fifteen months to write. Redrafting and editing to final proofs took another fourteen. I don’t take many breaks between writing if I can avoid it and if possible I always try to have something on the go. But The Cook was an intense and exhausting book so I have been taking it a bit easy since I finished.
If that all sounds boring that’s because it is. The external life of the writer is truly, truly boring. (Can there be anything more boring than someone getting up every day at the same time to go and sit at a desk…?) It is the internal life that’s interesting, of course, but that’s precisely the life we never get to see. I know my internal life’s best chance of birthing a book is by surrounding it with a firewall of regularity and routine, but the process by which a novel emerges from that internal life is still a mystery to me. I am as little able to explain it as I am of explaining bees.