Adrian Caesar is an Australian writer with a terrific literary capacity, an engaging warmth and wit, and a deep sense of humanity.
Born in the United Kingdom, Caesar emigrated to Australia in 1982. He studied at Reading University and has held appointments at various Australian universities, including the Australian National University and with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra.
Caesar is the author of several books, including the prize-winning non-fiction novel The White, which is based on the Antarctic exploration of Robert F. Scott and Douglas Mawson from 1911 to 1913; this work won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Nonfiction and the ACT Book of the Year in 2000. He is also the author of several books of literary criticism including Taking it Like a Man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets (Manchester University Press, 1993) and Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s (Manchester University Press, 1991). His poems have been widely published and his 2005 poetry collection High Wire (Pandanus Books, 2005) was shortlisted for the 2007 Judith Wright Prize. Adrian Caesar’s latest work is The Blessing, a novel published by Arcadia in 2015. According to eminent Australian author Alex Miller, ‘The Blessing is the most satisfying and enthralling novel I’ve read in a long time.’
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
What was your original motivation for embarking on this work?
I began with the idea of writing about my maternal grandfather. He was born in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, and lived and worked in Belfast until he was in his mid-twenties, first in Mackie’s foundry and then as a tram driver. He was an Orangeman. In 1912, he signed the Solemn Oath and Covenant pledging to defend the North from Home Rule by any means necessary. (I have his signed copy of the Covenant). A year later, he left Belfast for Manchester for reasons that are not entirely clear. Family rumours suggest he was running away from a woman. He drove trams in Manchester until 1914, when he volunteered for the armed forces. He served in France and Flanders with the 21st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment. They were at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele. Like many British soldiers of World War 1, his military records were destroyed in the Blitz. My knowledge of his service is incomplete. I know he served for at least two years overseas and that he was wounded, probably at Arras or Passchendaele. A shell splinter took away a slice of his shoulder and damaged a lung. Though he survived the war, he suffered from its effects for the rest of his life. He died before I was born.
Jack Young, of course, is not my grandfather. I suspect the gaps in my grandfather’s story allowed my imagination to flourish. There were also ‘gifts’ arising from my research. The discovery that arms were smuggled via Manchester to the Ulster Volunteers, was too good not to use.
Thematically, I was drawn to the Protestant/Catholic tension because I grew up with a knowledge of the bigotry of some Irish relatives and I felt in the 60s and 70s I was on the ‘wrong’ side, so to speak. I was interested in trying to understand the Protestant point of view in Northern Ireland as well as writing a story about the defeat of bigotry. As in much of my previous work, academic and otherwise, I was also interested in questions about masculinity, violence, and adventure.
You mentioned the ‘gifts’ of research. How did you approach the research process for The Blessing? Was it an organic process, or more planned from the outset, especially as you already had what sounds like a significant amount of source material?
The research I did mostly arose as I was writing and in this sense was organic. Very early in the process I was browsing in the library of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra and came across Arming the Ulster Volunteers. When I realised that the UVF were smuggling guns through Manchester, it was like a gift I couldn’t refuse. I subsequently read a history of the troubles in Belfast in the 1920s. It mentioned a pub and a spirit grocery being bombed in Cromac Street, which is situated at the top of the Ormeau Road, where I knew my grandfather’s family lived – it seemed like another nudge to my imagination. Similarly, when I was struggling with how to do Part II of the book, I suddenly thought about my several visits to the World War 1 graveyards and made this sudden connection to gardening. I then researched the development of the graveyards – another gift I couldn’t refuse.
Other research had already been done, i.e. well before embarking on the book, I’d researched the progress of the 21st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, because I knew my grandfather served with them. Jack’s memories of his last action at Passchendaele are based on the Battalion War Diary and various historical accounts of the 21st Manchesters.
In many ways, The Blessing is a romance. However, it is set during a tumultuous and fraught time in Irish history. How did you go about negotiating the complex politics?
I didn’t write with genre in mind. I had a story I wanted to tell about working-class characters living extraordinary lives in and through very troubled times. My approach to the politics was inspired by the characters. I’d grown up feeling I was on the ‘wrong-side’ of the problems in Northern Ireland and wanted to understand and come to terms with this. I have very distinct memories of my great-aunt Irene, who lived in Belfast all her life – she used to come and visit and her diatribes against the Catholics were appalling. In every other way she was a warm and generous human being. I wanted to explore this; I wanted to know more about both Protestant and Catholic positions before and after World War 1; so I researched. But I tried all the time to write from the characters and to give a number of points of view from both sides.
Despite being set over 100 years ago, it could be said that The Blessing is relevant to day’s big issues such as faith, home territory, and violence. Is that how you see the novel?
Yes, very much so. It seems obvious to say there is an urgent need to understand bigotry and educate against it; I am also interested in the relationship between bigotry and religion. Although I’m not an orthodox believer, it seems to me important to try to make the point that bigotry in any form is a perversion of any true religion or spirituality. My deep suspicion of nationalism relates to this in some ways. Although I understand the impulse towards nationalism in places with a history of colonial oppression, the problem is that it can easily develop into nasty manifestations of self-righteous xenophobia or outright aggression. The attachment of ‘nation’ to a specific religious position seems to produce particularly potent forms of ideology, which can inspire appalling acts of violence.
I was interested in exploring these issues in The Blessing, not in any programmatic way but through the lives of individual characters. The issue of what or whom one should be loyal to is at the heart of the book. That Jack’s education entails moving between different countries is important, I think. Similarly, I wanted to suggest through Jack the difference between imagining violence and actually experiencing it – this is an issue that I’ve written about elsewhere in different contexts. I think it is horribly easy in our culture for young people (and maybe older people as well) to be attracted to and excited by the romance and glamour of military violence. Through Jack and Kevin and Cocky Shuttleworth, I was interested to explore various aspects of this.
Let’s turn to your writing process. How much planning do you do, especially in terms of the writing of this novel? And, for you, is there an element of ‘writing into the story’?
In broad terms, with fiction I have learnt to plan less and less. It’s something I’ve found quite difficult. There is a big difference between writing an academic essay or book and writing a story. It’s possible to plan an argument paragraph by paragraph and a book-length argument chapter by chapter. I had to stop myself from trying to do this in fiction and let the narrative develop more organically. Of course, I have a sense of the general trajectory of the story I want to tell and I might work with a few chapter headings to give me a sense of direction but I try to let the characters and action lead me. It’s more exciting this way and gives the writing more life, I think.
The development of The Blessing was peculiar, to say the least. I wrote the first draft of Part I in about 2002 in a burst of energy and without a plan. I just had the shape of my grandfather’s life in my head. When I reached 1914, I stopped because I didn’t know how to handle the war. I put what I’d written in the drawer – I’d been awarded a literature grant from the Australia Council for a different project, so I embarked upon that. I took my draft out of the drawer in 2011. I then wrote several versions of Part II but they struggled to solve the problem of the war. It was only when I decided to deal with the war retrospectively that the whole thing came together.
Along the way, I had some very good editorial advice from Bryony Cosgrove whose comments made me think more deeply about Kathleen and led me to write chapters from her point of view. These were all written in 2012. Another wonderful moment of revelation came when I was thinking about Jack’s life after the war. Driving home from having a swim, I suddenly thought about my various trips to the World War I battlefields and cemeteries. I had already made Jack a gardener. I thought, who made those cemeteries? I immediately researched this and knew pretty quickly that Jack had to find his work in the War Graves Commission. That Gertrude Jeckyll was consulted about the plantings in the cemeteries seemed like an affirmation as I’d already made Jack read her books before the war.
To conclude, then: I think it’s possible to write formulaic fiction to a plan, but for me this doesn’t work. The downside with the organic method is, of course, that it’s easy to go wrong and it can take a long time to get it right.
You have published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What is that you enjoy the most about being able to move between the various forms?
I am always worried about being ‘Jack-of-all-trades and master of none’. However, the beauty of working in all three areas is that if something isn’t working, I can always shift forms and have something on the go. In recent times, I’ve put most energy into my fiction, unless I’ve had a specific commission for non-fiction, but I keep a few poems on the go as well. I like working with poems because they are smaller and usually don’t take three years to write. And you can work on several at the same time, so if one isn’t happening you can leave it with no worries until some solution evolves. The challenge with a novel is that it is so BIG. It’s nice to have some smaller projects simmering at the same time for the inevitable periods when the novel is proving resistant.
In the end, I think good writing is good writing whatever the form and trying to work in different ways keeps me from boredom and allows me to try and understand the way different kinds of writing work.
You can purchase The Blessing from Australian Scholarly Publishing.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction – his contemporary dramas plunge into family dynamics, new relationship types, masculinity, history, and the lure of secrets. He is the author of three novellas: The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce,Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award; I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), which was short-listed for both the 2013 ACT Book of the Year and the 2013 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction; and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011), which won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction. His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collectionJoy (2000). In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of theCanberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written forAustralian Book Review, BMA Magazine, and Capital. He has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, courtesy of the Launceston City Council, Tasmania; in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La (2010-2014), for which he received a 2012 Canberra Critics Circle Award. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au