Interview with Max Sollitt

The author of The Correspondence Course talks about the origins of his novel, finding a publisher, the changes to writing mores and processes over the years, his upcoming memoirs, and more.
Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: Tell me about the story of The Correspondence Course. What was its genesis?

Max: Some time ago back in the 1980s, friends of mine had a secondhand book shop. They gave me a binder which contained a correspondence course by a bloke called Vivian Smith. He wrote romance stories and detective stories and he dropped out for 20 years, and resumed his writing in the war years. He didn’t say exactly why he dropped out but it gave me a good idea. If this guy wrote autobiographical material it would make a good story. I wrote the book about 10 years ago.

Magdalena: What made you choose to use that particular structure of story, commentary, story, commentary?

Max: For one thing I thought it would appeal to aspiring writers, and also I had done quite a number of creative writing courses myself, although no correspondence courses. I’ve been doing them on and off throughout the years and had plenty of experience on the subject.

Magdalena: Tell me about the initial e-mail between Sian and Huong. Why did you have that?

Max: When I first wrote the book I had that part as a letter exchanged between two academics. It was quite long and went into a detailed examination of Oswald Brown’s psychology. The academics were an historian and a psychologist, and my editor, Joseph Zaresky, thought it was a bit long and tendentious. I quoted Freud and got a bit carried away. The academics considered things like whether Oswald Brown had a death wish, and lots of other things. The e-mail idea came from Joe (Zaresky), who thought it would be a fit in with the time. In 2025, communication would more likely be by e-mail than letter.

Magdalena: Why did you choose to use a small publisher for The Correspondence Course?

Max: Joe Zaresky wrote a letter to Newsright, which is the organ of the Rozelle writers centre which I belong to, saying he was looking for manuscripts. I had been sending Correspondence Course around for 10 years, and no one was interested in it. Angus & Robertson were a bit interested at first, saying it was worth a fair bit of attention, but later decided not to follow up. I hadn’t had any luck but when I saw this letter and decided to go for it. The rest is history.

Magdalena: Although The Correspondence Course is your first novel, you’ve done quite a lot of creative writing prior to that. Tell me about what you’ve done.

Max: I’ve written 3 novels. Correspondence Course is the third novel I’ve written. When I was at sea I started to write off watch. I actually won a short story competition for Humour, and I wrote off and on over the years. Towards the end of my stay I started to get stuff in People magazine – it was quite a different magazine back then, they had long articles. When I left the sea I worked as a technical writer for a while. I had articles in the Herald and the Sydney Sun, mainly articles on Australian history. Then I started writing more literary stuff. I had a story in Southerly about 10 years ago, as story in Heartland, some poetry in Spindrift.

Magdalena: What are some of the challenges in writing a novel that you don’t have in shorter types of writing.

Max: It requires a lot of application. It reallly has to become an obsession to keep it going. It amazes me that so many people write novels that don’t manage to get published – but they finish them. I’d written one novel while I was at sea.

Magdalena: What sort of schedule do you have?

Max: I write every day. I’m writing my memoirs now. I write a certain time each day. I generally write in the afternoon. Some people are morning people, but I’m definitely an afternoon/evening person.

Magdalena: The Correspondence Course references a lot of the changes, both in mores and in technology which have occurred for creative writing over the years. Tell me how these changes have affected your own work.

Max: As far as the sexual content is concerned. I’ve always been an avid reader- I’ve read just about everything. There was a famous Chatterly trial in the 60s which really showed how attitudes had changed. The real correspondence school was actually called the Palmer Institute in Hollywood and they actually gave this chat a list of donts. He wrote one story about drug addicts and they told him that it just wasn’t done. He couldn’t even have a bad mum.

Magdalena: Has the Internet had much of an impact on your work?

Max: No I’m not on the Internet. I still use a typewriter. I’m not a very good typist and when I correct my mistakes, I often notice that the word I used wasn’t the right one in the first place. I proofread for literary quality as I correct my typos. It works for me and I can’t see any reason to change to something new.

Magdalena: Tell me about the memoirs you are working on now.

Max: It is the story of my life, but there is the theme of depression. I recently suffered from clinical depression, and when I recovered I got very interested in the subject. I got a lot of books out the city library and it was mostly men who had written about depression. There was a really famous booked called Prozac nation, and a book by William Styron. I found two books by Australian women written on the subject of depression, but felt that there was room for a book by an Australian man, and once I started I couldn’t stop myself and I’m still going. It is a memoir with a theme of what it is like to be depressed. One of the more interesting books I read was by a woman called Kay Redfield -Jamison, about artists and writers who suffer from depression. She gave a list of artists over the year who have been afflicted by depression, one of whom was Graham Greene, who suffered from manic depression. I found fascinating his book, Travels with my Aunt. I felt I could put myself in that position. My work will be primarily a self-examination. Depression is said to be genetic/inherited and my mother suffered from it, as have a lot of these American guys. But my book I’m writing in a timescale from birth until now whereas they often shift the perspective and timescale.