Interview with Anson Cameron

The author of Confessing the Blues talks about his latest book, his characters, about dreams that are dangerous journeys, about good and bad music and writing, slander, about his “quintessentially Australian” style, the tyre business, parental neglect, his next book and lots more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball: Talk to me about the birth of Confessing the Blues? What were your initial ideas.

Anson Cameron The idea for Confessing came from watching so many of my schoolmates keel over defeated in their late teens and early twenties and vector off
into psychological trauma as their dreams died. I mean, at school we were all going to be Jimi Hendrix or Helen Garner or Jack Nicholson. Hardly one of us wasn’t going to be a major talent in art somewhere. Art, music and writing beckoned as vehicles to take us to the stars… until they didn’t. And it’s a crushing blow to find out the world is not actually your oyster. I saw my friends enter despairs from which some never emerged.
In way the world is treacherous about what it promises and delivers. It spends the first twenty years telling you you can be whatever you want and then abruptly changes tack and tells you to do a marketing degree. The night you hear the stud who was barracking for you to be Brad Pitt tell you he thinks you should enroll in Commerce 101, is a dark watershed in a young life. So I wanted to test the value of dreams. Considering that not many people’s dreams are coming true, and they usually end in heartbreak and despair. Are dreams an indulgence of middle-class western kids, or are they journeys worth taking? I think I discovered in writing this book that dreams are dangerous journeys, like whiskey and heroin are dangerous journeys. But I hope, in the end, the book comes down on the side of dreams.

MB: How long did it take you to write?

AC: I have a full-time job in a flawlessly anti-literate field. I come home for three-and-a-half hours in the middle of the day and write. Then I go back to work. Sometimes, when I’m not drinking, early in the week I will write at night. But as a rule I do it all in the middle of the day. I’ve engineered my day and life to allow me this window of silence in my day. And I think the blue-collar drudgery helps concentrate the mind and press the nose into the blank page. I’ve paid the price to get myself this silence, so it’s valuable, and I’m loathe to waste it. I suppose the book took two years to write.

MB: I know that you aren’t a musician per se. Is this book a way of vicariously entering the music world for you – playing music with words as it were (in a way that parallels what Be Good does).

AC: I know very little about the making of music, its composition and
architecture. But I think I know of its motivation, it’s aspiration, and it’s affect. It’s a notoriously difficult task, writing about music, or magic, of any kind. But when I write about music in the book I stick to writing about its power, the flights it enables, the transcendence. I try and make the world larger and possibility broader when the music is playing and the heart is master of the intellect. Then I shrink the world when the music ends and trap my characters in the surrounding now.

MB: You’ve been quoted as saying that the worst thing about being a writer is the thought at the back of your head that you might be wasting all that emotional energy and intellect (and presumably time). Is this one of the driving themes of Confessing the Blues? This fear of creative failure?

AC:It was watching the artistic failure of my contemporaries that gave spark to the story. But I certainly use my own fears of artistic failure to drive the novel. So far I’m getting away with it, I suppose- writing. But, when it’s finished, every book is a failure in a way. Writing is full of despair because every time you sit down at your desk you
climb into the ring with Shakespeare and Joyce and those Brontes etc. So in a sense every day you fail. You’ve got to accept creative failure as symbiotic with creative success. Which is not to say it doesn’t hound you. So I certainly used my fears in writing this book. Because my fear is realer than anyone else’s, and I’m more likely to bring it real to the page.

MB: Is Mark schizophrenic, or just confused?

AC: Mark is a young dude who has just stepped off the edge of the world. He had a beautiful future mapped out in front of him and it dematerialized in a moment. He’s floating in space. He, or someone who loves him, has to invent a new world, a new future, for him to live in. Luckily for him I think he might have a girl who loves him to help him invent the world anew.

MB: Each of your main characters undergoes a journey of sorts. Tell me about Amarita’s.

AC: Well, Amarita’s journeys were all expected to be taken in the shadow of the
high-rise flats she grew up in. But I think the fact that she fell in love with one, or two, blokes who actually believed in the worth of dreams and the power of the heart may have liberated her from a fairly constricted life. In the end Amarita may be the big winner in this story. She’s gone from Spice Up Your Life to Astral Weeks, and all the epiphany that implies.

MB: The Spice Girls are the real villains in Confessing the Blues. Why is “blandly marinating virgin ears in girly pop” such a bad thing?

AC: I’m of the antique opinion that some things are worth more than others.
There is no universal artistic equivalence. Shakespeare is worth more to us than Superman comics. The Spice Girls are just the most successful example of what’s wrong with the world of music today. So much music is art made for kiddies… but dressed up as sexy and dangerous and adult and worthy. I have a slogan hung in the broadcast booth of Triple X, the radio station in Confessing, that says: “No Song Composed To Harvest The Unallocated Pocket-Monies Of Prepubescents Is To Be Played Here.” And that’s about how I feel. There is a lot of good music being made today that never gets its place in the sun because the marketing men are selling us conniving dance-poppets and boy bands with tangerine pecs. It’s sad, but the marketing people have almost conquered the music industry.

MB:You weren’t worried about a slander lawsuit along the lines of that which Be Good has to fight?

AC: No one ever wrote a good book with one ear cocked for the footsteps of the aggrieved. I never worry about defamation, because I have a tendency to believe I’m inventing the world entire and all those in it are mine. And you can’t be sued by your own invention, can you? My publisher doesn’t have my happy, carefree disposition however, and is wont to introduce me, just casually you understand, to defamation lawyers in bars at night. So certain names and smallish facts and hairstyles are changed to protect the guilty lest one of them should recognize themselves and seek vengeance. In my last novel, Tin Toys, they wanted me to change the name of manufacturer of the Japanese Zero because they thought Mitsubishi might sue. Which you’d have to say was a little gun-shy, as Mitsubishi actually manufactured the Zero.

MB:The book is very Australian in its landscape, its musical references and its language. Were you (or Picador) worried about the broad marketability of such a locally coloured (and essentially youthful) book?

AC: One reviewer once called me “quintessentially Australian” which I think is
just a lazy way of saying his novels are set in Australia and the trees in his landscapes are gum trees. But this is the world I know, and you’re more likely to be able to bring your world to the reader with some resonance and power than some invented world. You make your world good enough and people will come to it. But I don’t think people are quintessentially Australian or quintessentially anything else. The people in the story are as real as the writer can make them, be they Chinese, Indian or Welsh. I think it’s a mistake writers who live at the edge of the world can make, to believe that there world is somehow less valid and their life less real than the lives of say Salman Rushdie or Tom Wolfe. The world of Annie Proux is just as parochial and colloquial as mine. As for the novel being youthful, well I hope there are enough ideas and enough truth and humor in it to engage anyone. Old people have told me it’s a very funny book. Just because it is steeped in rock music doesn’t make it unreadable for older people. It just makes the location more exotic for them, I hope. But they can certainly recognize a part of their own journey in Confessing. We all want to sell books but I’ve never discussed marketability with my publisher. I think it would be a sorry and misguided conversation if it ever took place. There are enough things to think about writing a book without trying to take on the guise of an ad man while you do it.

MB: The garage is looted, the tyre business implodes from its own corruption. Is this your revenge on the day job?

AC: The tyre business in the book takes its shape from an actual business I have had something to do with, but it’s not the one I work for and its demise isn’t a revenge on my employer. I don’t feel any animosity to the people I work for. If my day is hard it’s because I’m stupid enough to have made it hard. I used Westgate Tyres to juxtapose the hard-nosed, money-grubbing world of business with the world of music. Westgate Tyres and the workaday world is the looming foul-breathed behemoth that is about to snatch up Mako now that his dream of fame has died. It horrifies him at first, but in the end he sees he could have lived in it. But there really is, somewhere in this city, a photo on an office wall of two old men exposing their flaccid rears and a caption beneath it saying: “These are the arseholes who are ripping off Dunlop.” That much is true.

MB: Another big theme in the book is parental neglect. It runs through the lives of all three main characters. Tell me more about this.

AC: Their parental neglect works differently on the three main characters. For Be Good it is something for which he seeks atonement, and thus is trying to save young people by promising them beautiful futures. For the other two, well, he is the thing which has damaged them, an absent parent. I suppose I was trying to look at the parent/child dilemma from both sides at once. I found both sides suffer from it. The absent parent and the abandoned child. Yet it is Be Good, the parent, who makes an attempt to save
them from what their lives may be. A bewildered man trying for atonement. (Though it must be admitted his libido plays as large a part as regret in his attachment to Amarita. So maybe he’s horny for a second chance.)

MB: Where does Be Good disappear to? Do you think we’ll hear from him again in future work?

AC:Be Good goes, I hope it is understood, because finally and fully he believes
in what he is doing. So he leaves trailing the defamations in his wake, that the radio station is freed and can go on doing what it does – helping kids dream and believe a big future. Where he goes doesn’t matter. The act of his going is what matters. He will not be heard from again. You can’t have a man make a grand gesture of self-sacrifice and then bring him back again, that’s flouting the good faith of your reader.

MB:Who is your ideal reader?

AC: I don’t know. Someone who reads for the pleasure of language and words as well as drama and story. Someone who believes laughter is never an insult to a scene or to human dignity. An amateur reader who doesn’t run a story through the lit/crit filter as much as just feel the thing.

MB:What can fans look forward to next from you – can you give us a hint?

AC:I’ve started another novel. A love story, strangely enough, between royalty and politics. It is set in Australia in the year of our Lord 1975, a dangerous year for a royalty and politics to fall in love. This one does have my publisher concerned with defamation.