Interview with Ross Duncan

Interview by Magdalena Ball

The full audio of this interview can be listed to at

Ross Duncan began the session by reading from his novel, pages 23-33: Here’s the final paragraph:

I wandered for a while through that transient end of town, past the sex shops and gun stores, the cheap hotels and backpacker hostels. I needed to call Angelica but didn’t have enough money for that and the train fare. I made my way to Central, entered the long tunnel that leads to the platforms. The only sounds were the echoing squeak of my sodden footsteps on the tiles and the mournful wailing of a busker somewhere up ahead. (33)

Your reading covers the rock bottom moment. It’s something that perhaps any addict would be familiar with – talk to me about that.

I think that’s right. In Martin’s case and I think probably with a lot of problem gamblers it’s never about the money or how much money you win. I think in Martin’s case it’s about escaping from the grief and being in a place/space or cacoon from the world where the emotions and the harder feelings in life that he’s trying to deal with can’t penetrate — he’s immune in that little world. I think he’s really trapped. He’s hit a wall and he does want to go on as it were, but can’t see a way out and has hit that rock bottom that gamblers talk about – where to from here. He doesn’t have any money left. He can’t gamble his way out of it, but it seems climbing his way out of it is impossible.

The passage seems to suggest that this kind of gambling is on the wane and that somebody like Martin is an anomaly, but is that true?

I think there’s a bit of a myth if you like or a conception that the sort of people who play poker machines in this country anyway are either the flashy well heeled gamblers who go to the casinos or old age pensioners who go to the clubs, but I think it cuts across the community and there are a lot of people–quite educated professional middle class people–with very serious gambling problems, and poker machines seem to have a particular lure for them – poker machines seem to have a magnetic hook.

The title of the book is what Martin writes in his notebook, but it isn’t a quote from his research — it’s different. Is this a hint that the book we’re reading is the Martin’s found treasure?

I’m not sure about that. I think it perhaps reflects the fact that the treasure hunt for Martin is really about something else. Like his gambling it’s not about the money but rather a journey of self-discovery and that he’s taken himself to Fiji and being in Fiji and having his treasure hunt and his research into it is really a bit of a pretext and rationalisation for being able to put himself in that space where he’s a bit distant from his real life if you like and his past and he’s got a bit of time to try and sort things out, although he’s only often dimly aware for a long time about what it is that he needs to work out to be able to move forward in his life. Certainly Martin entertains fantasies that if he doesn’t find treasure at least he might find something in the story of the treasure that no one else has – some piece of the puzzle that he might be able to turn into the book. I guess I haven’t really looked at it that way before, but you see the book or at least Martin’s story as being the treasure itself.

Given that the savage treasures is Martin’s biggest gamble of all, where do you see his transformation occurring?

I think it comes gradually and I think for a long time he’s only dimly aware of it, but I think it comes at the point at which he decides to act in relation to the conman character Lester Delayne, because he could just simply walk away and go back to Sydney and leave everyone to it, but I think at that point he realises that a lot of things in his life aren’t in control and he’s very much a control freak like many gamblers, despite the risks they take. I think it’s at that point really where he realises that a lot of life isn’t in his control but he needs to act and needs to take steps.

From a political perspective, is Lester a bit like the government — feeding off the gambler’s weakness; making money from illicit schemes and poker machines?

That’s an interesting way of looking at it as well. I think that Lester is representative of all sorts of people and institutions that feed off of others. I didn’t really see him as a metaphor for governments extracting revenue from gamblers. I guess I sort of saw him as the kind of character that washes up in places like Fiji and exploits the country and the people and often somehow manage to get away with it. I think that theres also a parallel between Martin and the Lester character because Lester is an out and out fraud and conman and, I guess I was interested in exploring the comparison between someone like that and Martin, or people generally who often feel that we’re fraudulent or that we’re not as capable or talented that others would have us believe and have a sense of our own fraudulence and Martin’s been secretive and lied about his gambling, so I guess I was interested in exploring the difference between an out and out fraud like Lester and the rest of us.

Talk to me about the parallels in the self-immolation and insecurity between Martin and Tabua?

Certainly, one thing that they have in common which perhaps draws them to each other is their self-destructiveness. Tabua is a young Fijian woman who is basically part of the urban underclass of Suva with not too many hopes or prospects and engages in physical abuse and crazy drunkenness and so on. I guess there’s a parallel there with Martin’s own self-destructiveness and that’s something that draws them together, but there’s also a whole lot of ambivalence in their relationship –they’re thrown together but there are obvious problems and difficulties with class and age and so on and I think partly I was interested in exploring whether two people like that could have a relationship that was more than just exploitative – whether there was something there at some basic human level that could bring them together that wasn’t just the rich white man in Fiji exploiting the young white girl from a developing world. Certainly Martin has an urge and a tendency to want to rescue Tabua in some way and finds himself frustrated in that sense in that way because Tabua is a wilful young woman who insists on doing things her own way. I guess you could draw some connection there between the relationship between Australian and Fiji – Fiji is obviously very dependent in ltos of ways economically on places like Australia and Australia provides aid and so on and always wants to have a say in how Fiji should run itself and be and there’s a degree of resentment amongst Fiji about that. No one wants to be dependent I suppose and whilst aid and skills and knowledge and expertise from outside are welcome, there’s quite a proper I think insistence that we want to do things and work things out in our own way.

How did All Those Bright Crosses come about? What were the origins of the story?

There were basically two strands – about five years ago I was working on a series of short stories and it seemed to be the case that, although the stories were verye different and the main characters were different – male and female and so on – there was this persistent voice which was really the voice of Martin Flint I think, and I think I came to see that there was perhaps a bigger story here to tell through that voice and that character. About the same time I developed an interest in Fiji and went there for a bit of a holiday and have been back several times since and did stretches of several months there. It was a place I never really thought much about at all before, even though it’s only four hours plane ride from Australia – and just was completely seduced by Fiji, but also became very interested in the history and culture, and particularly that period in the early 19th century of the first contact between Fijians and Europeans when trading ships were plying the Pacific and I spent a lot of time in Suva and was fascinated by the diverse rich and transient culture that was there and wondered why no one had written about that before because it was so rich for fiction.

Is there a morality underpinning the book?

I don’t think I was trying to moralise or create an anti-gambling tract or anything like that, but I guess I’m interested in exploring notions of truth and authenticity and what it means to act as a decent human being I suppose. More so the problem that one is only ever armed with a certain amount of ammunition in terms of knowledge and information that one acts on and one takes to be the truth but it often turns out that there are bits of the picture that one is not aware of.

At the end of the book, an awful lot is left unsaid — only hinted at. Were you tempted to finish telling the story? Did you have a conclusion in mind?

There were certainly people who urged me to finish it and get Martin to Sydney and tie it up with some neat resolution in a nice rhythm, but I was reluctant to do that partly because personally I don’t think life’s like that—I don’t think it has neat resolutions. Particularly in the context of the theme of grief that Martin’s trying to deal with. I think that what happens is that as time goes on we’ll become better able to deal with things like grief, but I’m very suspicious with notions like closure or moving on. One develops a greater understanding and is better equipped to act but it’s just another part of the ongoing story in one’s life.

Law isn’t the sort of career that generally gives you a lot of free time, nor is it one which is given to the use of metaphor and imagery. Do you find that your day job inspires or competes with your work? Do you see an interaction?

I don’t really see an interaction. I don’t really – someone asked me this question this recently – someone asked me why don’t I write a novel about a lawyer. I see them quite separate in a way. The world of the law is a very rational, logical world and writing fiction obviously is quite the opposite and it’s a breath of fresh air for me. While I still enjoy various aspects of the legal practice, I enjoy being able to rip off the suit and tie and sit at the desk and write whatever I want – whatever comes into my head.

All Those Bright Crosses is your debut novel — has the publication changed the way you now view yourself as a writer?

Yes, it’s very interesting because I think before one’s published you have dreams and fantasies about being published but you never quite believe it’s going to happen and suddenly you wake up one morning and there are your books in the bookshops and people like you asking me questions about the book and speaking publicly and one suddenly has to wear this label as writer. It’s interesting, it ties back into the theme of the novel, feeling slightly fraudulent – people suddenly calling me a writer and I’ve got a book in the bookshop. I think it carries a certain kind of responsibility – it’s a bit of trepidation realising that the words that you’ve written aren’t just sitting on your computer or in your head but are out in the world for everyone to read and judge and scrutinise and make judgements about you as a person and so on.

What’s next for you?

Yes, well, someone asked me the other day what I’m working on now, and I said that I’m working on my anxiety about the publication. I’m working on some fragments at the moments – I just sort of write bits and pieces and play with some ideas and hope to God that after a while it falls into a cohesive whole and story and themes so I can make the commitment to put in the hours and hard yards. I’m very interested in the idea of anxiety, so I think that will be a theme in the next one.