Interview by Magdalena Ball
What was the impulse for El Dorado Where did the concept come from?
El Dorado took four years to write. I’d just finished the publicity tour for Wild Surmise, and I had at the back of my mind the desire to write another love story; a different love story, and was reminded of how important my old friends were; long term friendships. I knew that I wanted to work with the friendship between a man and woman who were both very different and had been around the block. At a completely different point, I thought that it might be fun to write a book about a serial killer, as that seems to be the genre in crime writing at the moment. Most of them are slick or morally repulsive books, and I wanted to test myself to see if I could write a serial killer book in verse. So I put those 2 things together, and it ended up being the most humane of my five verse novels. The characters the most developed of all my books, and I think it’s the baggiest of my books in that it’s dealing with a whole lot of stuff, using the template of a crime novel along with a friendship that is tested.
Now let’s talk about what you call the “million dollar question of literature” – not so much the differences between prose and poetry as such, but rather, what you were able to do with verse in this novel that you couldn’t have done with straight prose.
I’ve been asked less sophisticated versions of that question. I feel that poetry does extreme situations better. One of the reasons that the crime genre is so popular is that it deals with life and death issues: violence, fear, murder, moral disorder, while poetry often veers off into private meditation and reflection or into simplistic political poetry. I’ve always had a yearning for poetry to engage again with these big issues mainly dealt with in popular fiction. I think I have a Greek dramatic yearning to do follow Homer or Euripides. I want to have the intimacy of poetry– I think it’s what modern poetry does sublimely—combined with a bigger picture: the soul engaged with a threatening world. Passion can be contemplative and I wanted to have some of those contemplative type moments in El Dorado but coupled with the big, action oriented scope of a thriller.
In interviews you’ve been known to rail against “the obscure and effete in poetry” – that “heavy, pretentious ‘boys’ poetry” full of semantic incoherence.
I don’t want to be too antagonistic about this, because I’ve been reading lots of exceptional demanding poems. I just don’t want it to be the only game in town. I welcome new and vibrant voices, and I think I made that very clear when I edited The Best Australian Poems 2006. I was absolutely astonished about the diversity around, and wanted to showcase the range of Australia poetry, from poems set in a house in Adelaide while waiting for the cops, to the exquisite almost haiku-like work of Vera Newsom just before she died. There was an exhilarating range. What I don’t want to see is poetry which has become anaemic, or a cerebral exercise for a handful of superannuated academics. I think that’s happening less and less. I’ve noticed a real kind of brash liveliness. I think poetry is a lot healthier than it was.
Were there particular problems to overcome in ensuring that the poems were both self-contained (each with what you call the “smack across the head” denouement) and also able to become a cumulative story?
Yes. That’s what’s so difficult about these verse novels. It’s like I’m leading a parallel life when I’m writing them, so that the poems come fairly easily, but putting them together to make a coherent narrative and also to find out where the gaps are, what characters need more development—basically developing the fictional connective tissue is what takes a lot of time and craft. I put together a loose first draft, and then begin to refine it, add characters, and do all the hard work in creating a workable fiction.
Did you begin, as novelists often do, with a mapped plot and characterisation, or did you let the music of the words and poems drive the narrative?
I let the music of the words and poems drive the narrative. I had a sense of this friendship, and amazingly it told itself. It’s almost as if there is some invisible page in my mind—not blank, but invisible—that I have to rub at and, and it reveals itself like a jigsaw puzzle. There was a fair bit of my own childhood, not in an autobiographical sense, but in the sense of setting. I gave Bill and Cath the same Northern Beaches background that I had – I grew up in Pittwater. One of the earliest poems I wrote for the book was “Mangroves” which is now near the end. Bill had no idea what was going on—he just knew that he was in a very bad space. I very rarely write directly autobiographical poetry. I know that, in the Wordsworth tradition, many many poets do this, but this is a book that deals with key themes of childhood, including a wonderful and enriching friendship, and I did put a lot of myself in it.
There are 3 fairly distinct voices in El Dorado. Tell me how you distinguish between Bill, Cath and later, the killer.
I worked on that very hard. I didn’t want too many clunky signifiers. I didn’t want to be too obvious about who was speaking but at the same time I wanted the reader to understand the voices almost instinctively. I spent a lot of time ensuring that there were subtle shifts in tone from one poem to the next. I removed some of the more ambiguous poems, and in the end I hope it’s fairly clear but still subtle.
And yet, in the end the voices aren’t so distinct after all, are they. Peter Pan, the whole question of culpability, of bullying, of reality versus fantasy. There’s something intrinsically linked between the three key characters.
When I first wrote the book, I had the end chapter first—Bill was in the fire and Cath was useless–back in Hollywood. But making that flow was too difficult, so I moved it to the back of the book and began with the child’s hand.
In your recent Australian interview, you said that “Poetry makes Macbeth and Medea sympathetic, not morally repulsive.” Did poetry give you the right tool to deal with the horrible nature of the material?
I tripped myself up once by suggesting that my novel was the first serial killer in poetry. Of course there have been many serial killers in poetry. Macbeth is a monster and psychopath—he’s utterly horrible. What Euripides did in Medea horrified the conservative Athenian audience and would have indeed shocked a contemporary audience, but he got away with it. Poetry has long been widening the boundaries for characters behaving badly. Macbeth and Richard the Third are vile, amoral, violent men, yet because they’ve been done in poetry, there’s this extraordinary linguistic grandeur that very few prose writers can match. I feel that tradition when I put characters into poetry.
The line I drew in the sand to make it not too horrible was that I didn’t want to deal with sexual torture. I thought that, if anything can deal with this kind of material, it’s poetry. The weight of the book isn’t on horrific children in stress. These kids have good deaths. It’s almost like the Pied Piper. I can remember being horrified by that story as a child.
You’ve said that your last verse novel, Wild Surmise was the toughest and most rewarding of your verse novels to write. Was El Dorado any easier? Or is each one slightly harder than the last?
I’ll probably say this after each one. Wild Surmise was particularly tricky because of the intellectual and scientific subject matter and the complexity in its imagery. But I think El Dorado had much more to it. It was more fictional. I think and I hope that with each verse novel, I raise the bar for myself. None of them are easy.
Where do you see your work going next? Is there a direction or genre that you’re hungry to get into?
What I’m currently working is a screenplay for a filmed version of The Eternity Man. I wrote the libretto for a chamber opera by Jonathan Mills in 2003 (we won a Genesis Foundation award for it), and director Julian Temple is now filming it for Channel 4.
My next actual book will probably be a collection of poems. Most of them are written already, but I want to sit on them and let them stew for a while.