Ever had an idea for a story that became a highly prized novel that became a highly acclaimed movie with an A-list star? Think it never happens? Well, it does happen, because it happened to Denise Young.
Denise Young was born in Sydney, though she spent some eighteen years living in London, Wellington, Adelaide and Perth. In 1986 she came back home to Sydney for good. Her background is in both academia and theatre, where she’s worked as a teacher, actress and director. She began writing plays in the mid-eighties, as well as creating theatre pieces with actors’ companies and directing a youth theatre team. In 2000 she turned to writing prose and her first novel, The Last Ride, was published by HarperCollins in 2004, after winning a Varuna/HarperCollins Award in 2002. The novel won the NSW Premier’s Prize for a First Novel in 2005, was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in the same year, and was shortlisted for the SA Festival Awards in 2006, amongst other awards. A film of the book, with script by Mac Gudgeon and starring Hugo Weaving, was released in 2009. Young has taught writing workshops and at community colleges, and lives on the coast south of Sydney with her husband Paul, with whom she has three grown up children.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
Where did you get the original idea for your novel The Last Ride?
The Last Ride had a particularly long gestation period. I was working as an actor in Perth and a Theatre Arts teacher at Curtin University, writing and improvising plays with students when I began going into Fremantle Prison as a volunteer, teaching literacy and also, rather disastrously, drama. We had one session where we played one of the drama games that always went down well with students: it was called the swearing game where you had to conduct any ordinary transaction and at the end of each sentence add a swear word. Middle class students loved the licence it gave them, the freeing up, ‘anything goes’ atmosphere but in a maximum security prison it nearly led to a serious assault and closed down the drama classes. Despite this setback, I met many men in there like Kev, the anti-hero of my novel, and one in particular who was studying for his University Entrance exam to whom I taught English. I really enjoyed how strongly somebody with no formal education responded to the poetry of John Donne, for example. This man, like Kev, was part-Aboriginal but had no living connection with Aboriginality or any of his family.
I became too close to this man for anybody’s comfort and the teaching and the relationship came to an end, but I never forgot the stories he told me, and how, despite his high intelligence, he seemed forced to keep re-creating his own miserable, neglected and abused past, without the resources or training to change. I hoped rather naively that a relationship with me might change things but that was not the case. For a long while afterwards I wrote plays in which this character featured, but though some of them were workshopped, none of them ever was given a main-stage production. Perhaps it was too soon. I think material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and this story needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level.
Back home in Sydney, with a new partner and children, I did some emergency fostering of children whose life experience and development were often as harsh and neglected as the guy in Perth. One night the kids were watching a TV program, now defunct, with real life crimes re-enacted and a call for the public to watch out for certain wanted criminals. There was a story about a father and son on the run after a murder and the picture of the child was so angelic and that of his father so brutal that I began to ask myself questions about that relationship: what might have caused the murder, what precipitated the escape, why would you drag a kid through that, what would it be like to be a child on the run? I started to write about what I already knew of those lives. Finally I’d found a way into the material I’d been playing with in the theatre, but now I was out of the theatre for good, I decided to write the story as prose. It took a long time even then for such a short novel; I began writing it as a crime story, a police procedural, I think they call the genre, but wasn’t happy till I ended up telling it from the point of view of the ‘innocent’ in the story: the child.
The prose in The Last Ride is paired right back to the very essence, short sentences, basic words, which connect the reader to that innocent child, often with devastating effect. What was the process of getting the writing to that point?
It was hard at first to find the style for the book because I didn’t want it to read like a child’s book, but rather a book where the child’s viewpoint is in the foreground, while over his shoulder the adult can see further. I struggle anyway with lyrical writing but know that a fiction writer needs to employ words that let the reader see things in a new and fresh way. What I ended up doing was really pushing the observational qualities of the prose, where the writer regularly stops to see/smell/hear/taste/feel so that the experience comes through for the reader as a strongly sensual one. I did this as if I was an eleven-year-old-boy. I have had three children and fostered more, so I did feel quite in touch with that childlike state of being. Also I came from a background as an actor, where thinking like somebody else was part of the job.
Using Chook’s dreams helped to convey a lot of emotional anxiety and highlight the way he’s slowly working out a strategy to deal with impossible things. I tried to make the verbs and adjectives work hard too. For example in this passage, which I opened at random, the adjective ‘haunted’ before ‘face’ allows me to draw that out in the next sentence in the way a child might: ‘When Kev has his smoke rolled, he sees him bring the match up to light it, the flame showing his haunted face. He looks as if a bad dream has come true and he needs someone to be there for him in the night.’
In the beginning there were lots of more sophisticated expressions and metaphors left over from earlier drafts and I let go some of the more hard-won of those with regret, but I ended up thinking it was more alive when I found an appropriate child-wise view. The more I wrote and re-wrote the more I found myself slipping into Chook’s voice rather than my own. I’m writing memoir now and am finding it even harder to write as myself!
The Last Ride went on to bag an impressive range of accolades, including being long-listed for the Miles Franklin and short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Novel), both in 2005. What was it like going from that subconscious level that you mentioned earlier to the very open world of publication and prize-winning?
The move into the open occurred a bit before 2005. In 2002 I’d been working on the book for two years and had made the change to the child’s point of view but had a very rudimentary plot line; I knew father and son were on the run but where to and what might happen on the way were still up in the air when I was selected to be part of a mentored group of new writers at Varuna, The Writers’ House. Peter Bishop was then a very dynamic director of Varuna. The four-day session was led by Tegan Bennett Daylight and involved five writers sharing current drafts of each others’ work. This was agony in prospect, as I was sure mine was the worst and that I’d be exposed as a charlatan.
The first day at Varuna I met Tegan with her head in the fridge looking for something. Over her shoulder she tossed out a remark that she thought my work was good and should find a publisher. That astonishing revelation stayed with me throughout the session, boosted my confidence and drew out of me a massive number of words which I wrote in the studio that Eleanor Dark once occupied. There were also many helpful plot suggestions from the other members of the group, one of whom went on to have her work published after mine (and far more commercially successfully: she created a crime series based on her experiences as an ambulance driver, which has been sold in many countries). After that session, I applied for and was given an ongoing mentorship with Charlotte Wood, who read and fed back suggestions over about three further months, till I won a Varuna/Harpercollins Award in 2003. They published the book a year later in 2004.
All of this is to say that the privacy, the dreaming, the subconscious workings had already given way to a more open process by the time of publication. Maybe this would not suit everyone and I don’t seek it now, but at the time I was so unsure of what I had created that it was exactly what I needed. I’m sure that the support of Tegan and Charlotte, the questions they posed and the shape they encouraged, made it a better book than if I’d carried on writing in total privacy. I found publication uncomfortable and exposed, of course, but it’s never hard to get used to winning or being shortlisted for a prize!
Not only did the novel come up trumps in the prizes, you were also informed that The Last Ride was going to be made into a film. Tell us about that process of your book becoming something that would be shown on the silver screen.
Once my book was contracted in late 2003 for publication in 2004, I set about ‘the next’, not realising that process was going to take a long time and lead down several disappointing rabbit holes. Fascinated by the Afghan Mosque in Broken Hill, which I’d discovered doing research for The Last Ride, I was in Coober Pedy about to go on a camel trip, thinking of writing a historical novel about those early Muslim non-settlers, when I made a phone call home and found out my novel had been optioned for a film. The Cameron Creswell Agency, which represented me, also represented some film directors and one of them, Nick Cole, had read and wanted to make a film of The Last Ride. I was stunned, madly imagined vast wealth coming my way, then settled down to ride a camel for five days on the Oodnadatta Track. When I got back I read the contract, which specified that I was selling the rights, lock stock and smoking barrel to the film-maker and that my only option if I disliked the film was to have my name taken off it as the writer of the novel on which it was based. I guess if I’d been a better-known writer I might have had more clout in keeping some control of the script, as, say, Luke Davies did with the film Candy. Anyway, I signed it and discovered the proposed payments were very, very small, only rising to a decent sum when the film was actually made, if that ever occurred. My agent told me to forget about it and get on with ‘the next’.
Meanwhile Nick Cole set about getting funding, which depended on finding a screen-writer with sufficient cred to attract funds, then a director, ditto, then a lead actor, ditto. So the whole process went on for about five years with only occasional eruptions of information, though, to be fair, the screen-writer Mac Gudgeon from Melbourne did show me both the first and a later draft of the film as a courtesy. None of those contained the ending of the final film, as that was changed as they went along. Once a director, Glendyn Ivin, came along and then Hugo Weaving, the funding was assured in quite a short time, and they proceeded to make the film in South Australia because they were promised funding from the South Australian Film Commission and an opening at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2009.
I spent a day on-set and really enjoyed watching scenes not very different from those I’d written come alive. I thought the acting was excellent. The opening night in Adelaide by contrast was miserable. Watching the completed film I felt it was too bleak, I missed the alleviating whimsy and innocence of the child’s point of view and felt that the ending was too sad. They’d elongated the chase, which I knew about, but I thought they’d turned Chook into a harder person by the end, more like his father, and while the book’s ending was perhaps less dramatic and final, I preferred that sense that it wasn’t all over. The screenwriter struggled with the fact that so much of the book was a kind of interior monologue, didn’t want to have voice-over as a solution. I thought his dialogue was more muscular than mine in many ways and I admired a great deal about the film-script.
I watched it five times in cinemas with audiences and each time felt at the end that audiences were overwhelmed by the film and wanted more relief. It has, however, always had really good critical reviews and is still going along now with an American release. I guess, finally, I prefer my book, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?
To finish on a question about the present, with a nod towards the future: What have you taken from this rather extraordinary experience into your most recent projects?
My most recent project has been a non-fiction one about jade in New Zealand, which includes a memoir of my time in New Zealand as an actor in the seventies as well as some travel writing. If there was a remote likelihood of a film being made again I think I would keep a closer grip on it. As far as the writing goes, I have been less dependent on other people’s input and more trusting of my own instincts, but that may be because I am not writing fiction. In some ways what I am doing at the moment is more like journalism, which trawls more on the surface and doesn’t expose quite so much about me. Perhaps that’s what attracts me about my current subject matter!