Interview by Magdalena Ball
The Service of Clouds did so well for a first novel (short listed for the Miles Franklin, Age Book of the Year, Nita B Kibble, Australian Booksellers’ Association Book Industry Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, etc). Tell me about the pressure that went along with such a tremendous debut.
Most of the pressure came from myself. I didn’t want to write exactly the same book over again. Like most novelists I had been writing short stories and essays for some time but novels are of course far more visible and so suddenly, on the basis of this first book alone, one is seen as a certain “type” of writer and for a first-time novelist that is the thing that most takes you by surprise.” I had this strong sense that I wanted not to be typecast for the rest of my career and wanted to do something quite different. It would have been easier to do a Service of Clouds 2; not a sequel per se, but something very similar in style. I really didn‘t want to do that though, so I spent a lot of time looking for a subject that would challenge me to go in a different direction as a writer, to find a new voice and form, which for me is a great pleasure of writing. I wanted to raise the bar, not necessarily in terms of this being a better novel, but in terms of originality. It was a different sort of bar to jump over.
There has been much talk about the 8 year gap. Do you think that the book industry (readers and publishers) underestimate the amount of time and effort that goes into writing literary fiction.
You‘ve probably heard that I had a novel fall over between the first and this one. So the time period between Clouds and Soldiers wasn’t all spent on writing Soldiers. But yes, it does take more time than people expect. You don’t want to be writing all the time though. I think it’s important to have a life outside of writing fiction. I spent a considerable amount of time on the novel which I didn’t publish. At the same time, too, when a novel collapses it’s not as if you can just put it away. I was very involved with it, and after that I didn’t write full-time for a couple of years. I taught almost full-time for a while, running the MA in creative writing at RMIT. Also, I think that I don’t have the personality or inclination to churn things out. The actual writing for Soldiers was about 1-2 years. What took the most time was the identification of the subject and development of the voice.
The book has, I felt, about five different strands, and what I wanted to do is to have each moment of intensity trumped by another moment of intensity. It’s like one of those old children’s puzzles where you fill in the grid by colouring in each section with out any colour touching. I was trying to get this feeling of building intensities. Getting that balance and mix right was really hard.
Alex Clark of The UK Guardian talks about the dumbing down of fiction – “the problem is that the difficult and the innovative are finding it harder than ever to fight their corner.” However, your books break all the rules and defy all of the trends, to quote Aviva Tuffield in The Age, “making no concessions to the demands of story.“ Do you think that the rumours about the demise of the literary novel are unfounded? Or are you worried about the “icy cultural climate” that Tuffield talks about.
I think the problem lies more with our gatekeepers than with readers. Publishing conditions are even worse in England and America. I’ve been talking to agents there and there is this sense almost of despair about literary novels. The issue is not so much that there isn’t a niche reading public for certain books. But once upon a time publishers took on a broad spectrum of novels, with bestsellers like John Grisham paying for the quirky more innovative newer work. Nowadays publishers want a hit with every book. If there is a problem it’s not with the reader. As a reader personally I’m desperate to read good quality literary fiction. WG Sebald for example has a huge following, even though his extended beautiful melancholy essays aren’t adherent to certain ideas or rules of successful fiction. So it’s more a matter of getting the book published in the first place. I was very lucky that Picador was open to this book that I wrote. I’m a reader as much as a writer, and I assume that my instincts as a reader aren’t too different to a lot of other readers out there. I just wrote the sort of book I want to read. You can’t try to second guess a novel You just have to trust your instincts as a reader.
Tell me about the voice of Benteen. Was it difficult to find it?
It’s always difficult for me to find the voice of any particular character in a piece of writing. I think there is an assumption that writers have a particular style that they apply every time to their subject matter, whereas for me the pleasure in writing has always been in finding a voice and form to best express my subject matter, which may be different in each case. The thing that I found really difficult about the Custer material is that it was a history overlaid with kitsch and cliche, although this strange sense of myth is also part of its power. I had a little cowgirl outfit myself as a child, and Hopalong Cassidy books, so I was interested in the fact that this is also, in a way, our own [Australian] history. I didn’t want to write the book unless I could find a fresh approach. I didn’t want to write a heavily fact-based historical novel, or try to ventriloquise (possibly very badly) an exact “American” voice. I decided instead to go for what I think is the “essence” of American speech and writing that really attracts me – its beautiful subject-verb-object directness, its lack of prevarication compared to Australian speech – and what I felt were the fundamental feelings and sensations of being a soldier at war. There’s also a lovely kind of dry contained irony up in that part of the country [Wyoming and Montana]. I hope I got that right – giving a flavour of America rather than trying to bottle it.
Did you worry that Benteen might be too feminine, too Australian, or too introspective?
I thought that Benteen was quite a reflective man, judging from the scraps that I could find of that historical figure. He refused to write or speak about the battle, which made an interesting contrast to our era where everyone wants to be famous. My point wasn’t necessarily be a commentator on American history. The moment of the Custer battle is when heroism and celebrity begin to conflate: you can almost see the beginning of our modern era. Custer is almost the first media superstar. He was a movie star before movies were even invented, just as America was playing its history out almost as a cowboy and indian movie in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before moving pictures came along – in fact, some of the very first movies made by Edison’s Kinetoscope were of the acts in Buffalo Bill’s circus. This was the invention of the celebrity. Benteen is a contrast to that. He saw through the flash of Custer. His quiet voice is an antidote to that moment of celebrity, and so were the soldiers who fought with Custer. I began to see them as the last generation of ordinary men. Although Benteen was a man of action, he was also ordinary and poignant. As Benteen says in my book, the large part of war is “nine tenths nothing,” a combination of terror and boredom and waiting.” He said things at his court marshal which were telling. For example, he said at one point that his life was ‘a harvest of barren regrets.’ I think just by dint of having lived on for more than twenty years after battle he would have to – at the end of his life – reflect on his position vis a vis Custer’s, and the weight of his actions.
Did you worry about being on hallowed ground? That historians might take umbrage with your characterisations?
I always worry about that. I did some work on Ned Kelly, and I was always concerned that some historian was going to seek me out. With this material though, it’s so well covered–it’s such a ploughed field–that whatever I do to Custer or Benteen won’t be the best or worst thing that was ever done to them. There’s a certain freedom in working with such a well covered area. I was much less worried about the real people involved in this work than with my fictionalised Harry Philips in Clouds. Libby and Custer were busy fictionalising their story when they were alive, which makes it a bit more fair game.
Tell me about Handsome Jack and Stargazer.
I can’t remember where, but early in my research I came across a list of names of men who had been in the battle. Two of them were listed as Handsome Jack and Star-gazer, and that was it. I immediately began visualising the characters. Star-gazer wore glasses, and I saw his greasy bangs and nervous gestures. With Handsome Jack, I immediately saw a pasty barfly, the kind of person who could be great company and push an evening beyond its limits, but who could also become unpleasant if things didn’t go his way.
In what way is this also an Australian story?
My take on living here is that you do grow up with culture from elsewhere. When I was growing up, television was split pretty evenly between American TV and British TV, which gave us a different perspective on those cultures. The other thing about Australia is that we went through a great postcolonial moment which revised history and we were no longer talking about Australia being discovered but there being an indigenous presence, and this gave us a kind of perspective which is aware of issues of who tells a story and whose stories get recorded. I know there’s quite a debate about whether we should be telling our own stories or other people’s stories. But being Australian means that these stories from elsewhere are also our own. I think there is more on the record in America. That said, it was quite a surprise to find myself interested in the soldiers’ story. Of course I barrack for the other side, and it would have been natural to tell the Native American story, but that would perhaps have been too difficult a step. I was interested in looking at what sort of person would be out there in the American army, and in how they would live with the weight of what they’ve done and what they’ve seen. America was being invented out on the plains [of Montana and Wyoming] and those soldiers saw and did things that they would have to live with for the rest of their lives.
Will you ever resurrect Buffalo Bill do you think? Or has Custer and Benteen filled this gap for you?
I like to say that this book is my dark love letter to America. It’s a country that I absolutely love, but it can drive me to distraction. I’ve heard it said that if you have a love hate relationship with a county then that’s when you start to know it. Travelling in America is almost like travelling in a number of different countries. Driving around New Mexico and Arizona is almost another world to being in Montana and Wyoming and New York. It was a terrible thing for me that the other book fell over, but there was a positive side too. My approach to America in the first book [which was about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show] was very different. The fact that the show was travelling around Europe meant that I had a kind of escape clause, that I was writing about America at a remove. I was left with my intense fascination with America, but in The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers I had to push myself to face my fears about writing a book set wholly in that country; I had to bite the bullet, and find a way of writing about my characters and a landscape in a much more intense way.
Talk to me about the ribald humour.
As a reader I like a book that has the full gamut of life in it. I’m less likely to like books that are wholly poetic or wholly ribald. I admire the Russian writers like Chekov and Tolstoy who have a way of showing life in all its light and shade; humour and tragedy sitting side by side. I’ve put this person at the end of his life and I’ve tried to give a sense of what it’s like when you look back– your life can have a completely dark cast and then you’ll remember the humorous parts. Sometimes memory is very heavy and sometimes so light that the it feels like it might blow away. Another thing about the language is that I was interested in what men talk about when women aren’t around. I kept thinking of that 9/10th nothing and how the soldiers would psychologically be dealing with it. Ribald humour – with its inventiveness and its emphasis on the ordinary and human – is one way of dealing with the fear and boredom of that void.
Tell me about your involvement in the republican preamble.
James Bradley asked me to do it, and I said yes straightaway. I thought it was a fantastic idea. I knew I could go off in one direction and write something much more utopian and rhetorical but decided I would like to work within the limits of the language and form and find something that I’d like to see at the beginning of the constitution. What I really wanted to do with it was to make it clear that the constitution and functionaries were performing the will of the people, rather than the other way around. For me it was quite important to look at the history of Australia and give a sense of where we’ve come from. I also wanted to make the point that the land was given to us by no God. I have always felt that religion and politics should be separated. It has always has been the ideal democratic principle which our current government occasionally forgets. It is very important.
In Irina Dunn’s The Writer’s Guide, you’re quoted several times talking about your slow, painstaking writing style. Once you’ve drafted a novel, do you have to rewrite much?
I don’t tend to draft and redraft a novel, but work very slowly in the conceptual and early stages so that what I’m left with at the end is pretty much my final draft. I was sitting on a panel with Kate Grenville at Byron Bay last week and she mentioned that she had gone through about 20 drafts writing The Secret River. I admire her way of working, but couldn’t take a book through so many drafts myself, because all the interesting stuff for me happens when the book is loose and chaotic, whereas drafting over more-or-less finished material would make me lose the thread and deaden my feel for the story. I prefer to work in fragments until the shape is in. This keeps the freshness and excitement and passion in a book for me. So that’s why I work in that other way, painfully adding on and going back over the early parts. What I end up with is something that usually only requires about a 10% adjustment.”
I know you won’t talk about the next book, but how about a hint of one of the themes.
I can say that I’m looking at short stories. That’s about all I’m prepared to divulge at this stage!