Interview with Peter Mews

The author of Bright Planet talks about the writing of his second novel, the premises of his book, his research, his use of the Fibonacci numbers for the book’s structure, the literary games he plays in the novel, about the relationship between working as a bookseller and as an author, the future of small independent stores, his next book, and more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: What were the origins of Bright Planet?.

Peter: The book began with the quest for the inland sea that the early Australians had an obsession with. I had to find a novelistic way to explore it. I read about the early settlement in Melbourne and the two concepts seemed to combine quite well. The concept of an Inland Sea was deeply felt. People simply couldn’t conceive of a continent with nothing at its heart apart from desert; they refused to believe that and kept sending expedition after expedition to the interior. Stories like Patrick White’s Voss for instance which is based on a true story of Leichhardt’s explorations which had a similar imperative to find something in the middle.

Magdalena: Tell me about your research.

Peter:I read a lot. My research was of two kinds. I read a lot of explorers journals and a lot of ship voyage accounts from those days, and also journals from settlers like squatters who lived in the colony and what it was like to exist in this sort of fledgling civilisation. I also read lots of history. I read documents about land sales and all this kind of thing and I read a lot about the history of Melbourne including aboriginal history, and basically whatever I could come across. I wanted to become immersed in the language of the time. It Didn’t matter whether what I read had a practical relevance, it was about getting the atmosphere.

Magdalena: Did you find yourself seeing the old Melbourne as you were walking along the streets of today?

Peter: Yes. It was easy to scrape away the veneer. I could easily imagine that these were the streets of a century and a half ago. I think you can see the origins there. One hundred and fifty years is not very long. This was fascinating for me.

Magdalena: You’ve called your book a postmodern novel. Talk about some of the post-modern elements.

Peter: I would certainly call Bright Planet a contemporary novel. I think that post modernism is a difficult tag though. Firstly there is the ironic tone. The narrator’s voice has a very self-conscious brio that is much more knowledgeable than the usual narrator’s tone in historical fiction. I thought that the narrator was a parodist of the past, and just as I immersed myself in that language, the narrator plays with that language and overplays that language sometimes in a self-conscious irony. Another thing that is modern is the heavy colonial critique which is going on. The narrator is critical of the arrogance and the bloody mindedness of the colonial elite about owning a whole country simply by standing on it. The notion of going out and mapping the unknown and thereby in the knowing of it, own it. There’s a heavy amount of satire going on regarding the colonial imperative, and that may be what makes it a modern novel. And of course the comic elements. I’m never quite sure how to describe these elements but they made me laugh. The one other thing is the amount of death. There are an inordinate number of deaths in the story. It is as if the land itself is rejecting the expedition and ambitions being denied.

Magdalena: Would you say that the ending is a positive one though?

Peter: Maybe. For Giles at least it could be read as a positive ending, but it is also possible that he isn’t seeing the world as it is. Giles is something of a weak character to begin with, but he ends up being one of the strongest because his achievement is to still desire to go on even in the face of indomitable odds and to pursue the dream of science. He is an unlikely candidate. The modern reader knows that there is no inland sea, and has to come to this novel with that knowledge. This fact was important in shaping my narrative.

Magdalena: Talk to me about your use of the Fibonacci numbers for the book’s structure .

Peter: As I was dealing with such a large amount of time, I needed a way to structure the story – obviously I couldn’t write out every moment sequentially. I had always been fascinated by the Fibonacci numbers, and I decided that each chapter would describe one day of the action. I worked out that if I assigned the days to the Fibonacci sequence there would be a heavy concentration of days early on, since as you know the sequence goes .0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8,etc, and as the story progressed the gaps between the numbers would get larger and larger, becoming more and more distant to the reader. As the journey does get more isolated so it seemed to fit to me and I stuck with it and deliberately only wrote about the days of the numbers. I wondered whether I should make up the intervening periods or stick rigidly to the days, but I found through a couple of readers’ responses that they really wanted to know what happened to characters that disappeared, etc, so I had to make references to these.

Magdalena: Does it also pick up the way time appears to speed up as we become older?

Peter: Yes, the way in which time is subjective, that’s true. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms while I was writing, but I think that it does relate quite well to that notion. The idea I had was that you would have a telescopic series of scenes going away from you in larger and larger distances of time and that you would get this series of snapshots of the journey. It also helped me tremendously to have the structure of the novel clearly in mind as I worked. I knew all that before I began and it helped me a lot. I always had the big picture in mind.

Magdalena: Tell me about Stately Plump Septimus Sploon and some of the other literary games you play in the book.

Peter: One reader told me that he found at least two Joycean references in the book. I just did that as a little homage to modernism; a signpost to the reader that they’re not reading a standard historical novel. I didn’t want to be read as a simple historical novel, but then again the author’s intentions mean nothing, only the reader matters. If you are unsuccessful as a historical novel and that is what people feel that they are reading then you are unsuccessful.

Magdalena: As a bookseller, you have worked on both ends of the life of a book, from creation as a writer to the person who gets the books into people’s hands. Is it difficult writing a book when you are so aware of what sells and what doesn’t?

Peter: I can’t help but be conscious of what sells, but I don’t take any notice of it. I’ve always tried to consciously separate the two roles, a bookseller by day and a novelist by night. Plus it doesn’t help to write to a market. If you set out to consciously construct a novel with all the elements of a bestselling novel, you somehow end up being fake in the first place and you’re bound to fail, as bookselling trends are everything and unless you can predict what trends are going to happen in the future, you’ll miss them by the time your book comes out.

Magdalena: Do you feel pressure from the big chains, or do you think that people will always look for the educated small scale bookseller who can help them find, and purchase books to suit their tastes.

Peter: I haven’t felt any pressure from the big chains so far, although I might if one moves next door. No, I think there will always be a place for the small bookseller.

Magdalena: Have your customers been supportive? I suppose they can always get hold of a signed copy?

Peter: Yes, they have been supportive. We had a book signing party here, and it was fun, but I don’t really like selling my own book. I tend to leave the room for those sales.

Magdalena: There has been quite a gap between Maritime and Bright Planet. Has there been pressure on you during the past eight years to write another novel? Or has Bright Planet been in process all that time?

Peter: Yes, there has been a lengthy gap, but there hasn’t been any pressure on me. Fortunately writing isn’t my sole source of income, and I had the bookstore to run, so I just did what I could. I spent a whole year of that time in research. And I think that publishers know that literary fiction takes time. I’m hoping that the next book is a little quicker. Maybe three years.

Magdalena: Is the next book in the works?

Peter: Yes, I’m planning to do a contemporary novel of suburbia. Set in today’s Melbourne. It should be a nice change.