Interview with Peter Cochrane

Interview by Samuel Elliott

Set against the awe-inspiring immensity of the hinterland west of the Hawkesbury River, The Making of Martin Sparrow is an epic of chance and endurance is an immersion into another time, a masterpiece of language and atmosphere. Rich, raw, strangely beautiful and utterly convincing, The Making of Martin Sparrow reveals Peter Cochrane – already one of our leading historians – as one of our most compelling novelists.’(PRH 2018)

Was the life-giving Hawksbury river the inspiration for what would ultimately become The Making Of Martin Sparrow, is that where your idea flowed from?

Absolutely. When I was teaching, long before I started writing this book, some of that involved early Colonial history, including the farms on the Hawksbury River, the first frontier. Along the way I discovered the great flood of March 1806, which was cataclysmic. The dramatic dimension of life on the Hawksbury caught my eye, as did the wilderness to the west, and that incredible moment at 1806, the vast flood that turned the whole region into an ocean, wiped out all the crops and even threatened the whole colony with hunger and starvation and I just thought – boy, that’s a great way to start a story.

So I did, but with the writing and the rewriting, the flood starts the story but only in Sparrow’s memory as it begins with him finding himself washed downriver, having been carried off by the mighty waters. But that sort of worked out anyway, because the story is about Sparrow, not the flood.

Still keeping with discussing the Hawksbury itself, I noticed in the Acknowledgements you thanked a couple of people. I wanted to touch on the research aspect of what you’ve conducted, first complimenting you on this wonderful sense of place that you’ve created there,  but also delve into that. Could you share some of your experiences as to what you were doing when you were researching the novel?

Where the novel ends up, really way west, in the uplands as the name of Part 5 suggests, I had actually done quite a bit of trekking around that country years back, I used to go to GlenDavis and walk into what is now the Gardens of Stone national park there. That country, that really spectacular country that I hope I’ve done justice to, is the setting forthe story, deepin the mountains. Thegorge,for instance, itis such a dramatic feature, I had to use it and it also fitted really nicely into the plotting of the novel, because if you’re in a gorge, if you’re actually following that, then there’s a kind of storyline there.

I think there’s a number of chases in the second half of the novel, so from a plotting point of view, the gorge was a convenient way to kind of help the reader, in terms of location, but also, it was just so dramatic. I knew that from threethings.One,from looking at photographs, of David Noble, which you can find on the internet, and they are fantastic, and they do give you a sense of how spectacularly deep that gorge is. Also I looked at maps, lots of maps and studied them and I also went into the Colo Gorge itself and stayed there over the course of a weekend.

I went with David McKnight who is a great bushwalker, and had been there before. I’ve done some bushwalking, but I had not been up the Colo, into the far reaches. Most tourists will getto the Hawksbury to look at the flatlands, but I wanted to get into the gorge, way west, so we went down, pretty steep, about a thousand or so feet down into the intersection of Canoe creek and the Colo Gorge and walked into the Gorge from there,into the cavesand so on.

So the physical sense of it, what that’s like, is what I wanted to capture. For instance,there are caves there that have been carved out over the millennia, cavesat water level and higher, way higher if you want to be higher than the highest flood marks. We went in when the river was low. We just camped on the sands, with the goannas and a variety of wildlife passing through, scrutinising us with some care. A lot of the detail featured in the novel, I got from that trip, phrases like ‘anchor vines’, as you’re going down, you sort of need to abseil, and these anchor vines can be seventy to eighty metres long and they will not break. You can use them as rope and they are as thick as rope.

There’s one cave that features in the novel, they walk in and the roof of the cave has all these little recessions in it in which birds have made nests in it, so they frighten the birds and the birds fly out and they are left with the smell of bird dung and feathers. Now you’d never be able to imaginea roof like that.It’s a geological quirk.You’d just think of stone, but the geological detail was fascinating -this cave was pocked with little recesses that were very convenient nests for these birds. And the smell…

Those sort of particularsyou only get from being there, gathering detail and atmosphere as it were.

As a historian writing a work of fiction, I noticed that you kept the scope of the goings-on of the world at the time to just that of the characters inhabiting the novel, did you purposefully keep it within such a narrow scope so as to avoid including too much fascinating but unrelated history? Did you find that you did include more in earlier drafts and had to pare it back in subsequent drafts?

I wouldn’t say purposefully – it’s just the way fiction has to be. Fiction has to adhere very tightly to your principal storyline and there’s just no room, unless you’re playing around with historical fiction in the sense that you’re dealing with historical characters and have to follow in a historical trajectory, a line of documented history in other words. If you’re not doing that then you’re in what I call pure fiction, wherethere is simply no roomfor that. There’s so much on every page anyway, whether you’re reading Dickens or me, whether you’re reading one of the greatest fiction writers ever, or a mere mortal like myself. There’s so much on every page, just to, sort of plait your three or four storylines around your main character, along with, as you said before, the descriptive dimension, that of the landscape, the sky, what time of day it is. In my work for example, you might’ve noticed how important the tides are, in order to operate on the river. That’s what you might call an historical detail but it has to infiltrate its way into the story in an entirely subordinate fashion – quietly, in the flow of the story so to speak. The history or the physical setting has to be the humble, hardly-noticed servant of the fiction. At least that’s mostly the case. Deep in the ‘wilderness’ I think the physical setting, the grandeur of it, the forbidding nature of it, becomes a kind of character in its own right. Then it’s prominent.

As a tale of adventure set within the unforgiving wilderness, the novel has already drawn comparisons to American Westerns and the works of Cormac McCarthy, do you think that Australian stories are similar, or unique to American Westerns in this regard? Did such works influence your own writing?

There was one review, delightfully complimentary, where the reviewer seemed to think that the literary heritage or lineage of the novel actually came out of the Australian convict novel tradition, which was absolutely wrong.I think he was just guessing because he didn’t really know and perhaps doesn’t read the American stuff that I read. So, it is not a convict novel. It is much more a colonial western,or better still a frontier novel,but it doesn’t quite fit the Western tradition either, because obviously it’s not about cowboys, but somebody described it as Deadwood on the Hawksbury and I’d say that is much closer to the story.

I was talking at the Hawksbury Central library a while back and there was a great turn up, a hundred or so people. When question time came, one lady stuck up her hand and just said ‘My husband thinks that Alistair Mackie and Thaddius Cuff are a bit like Gus and Woodrow in Lonesome Dove and I nearly fell off the podium, because that is my all-time favourite novel. And of course, Gus and Woodrow in Lonesome Dove are these two cantankerous old,ever-arguing Texas rangers, there’s definitely some influence that has come through there in some subconscious level I think. I just said ‘You’re on the money there!’ – I would say the influences are definitely American frontier novels, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, but also, one of the things that a reviewer did get, was the comic dimension, some reviewers sort of think it is all darkness and menace but there’s a lot ofcomic dialogue theretoo. ‘Not for the faint-hearted’ said another reviewer. Ok, but I think the menace is balanced with the comic. Every reader , it seems, sees it differently. Ultimately that’s nice.

I think that capacity to find the comic in the human affairs even when they are dark, or tragic, or menacing, is really a special quality, all I can say is, if I’ve got it, I’ve got it from my mother, because she certainly had that comic eye but her view of humanity was generally quite dark and not to be trusted, she had a very Irish point of view.

Another writer who comes to mind is Annie Proulx, where you do have heads in a suitcase, and at the same time, you will have some set piece comic writing which is just so hilarious. All of those things, if you love this stuff, and Deadwood, all of those things, hopefully come through in some way. But it has to be natural, the worst thing you can try and do, is imitate some other writer, you’ve got to be working on your next paragraph and it’s gotta be spontaneously crafted in the sense that you’re not thinking about anything else or anybody else, or any other writer, you’re just in that parallel universe. Like the silk-worm, the fiction writer has to spin his own ‘cocoon’.

Still a bit on that, who are some of your influences, do you have some favourite historians as well as favourite fictional writers?

First off, I just wanted to say, that the reviewers who are complimenting Martin Sparrow for its historical rendering of real life in the colony, that makes me shudder a little, because that’s not what I set out to do. Of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall there’s been a lot said about its historical verisimilitude. I think that’s the art at work, I don’t think that’s getting the history right, I think it’s a conjuring trick.

Similarly, while Martin Sparrowhad to have an historically researched foundation, whatever came out of that research, had to infiltrate, almost imperceptibly into the narrator’s perspective, into the characters’ dialogue, or into the descriptive passages. It was interesting with Wolf Hall, one of the great literary professors in America, who knows Thomas Cromwell’s letters back to front, said in a review ‘it is almost certain Thomas Cromwell never spoke like that’, but it was nevertheless a really complimentary review.

Mantel might’ve had Cromwell speaking in a way that he never would’ve, but she did it so persuasively, with everything else, her art, not her history, that there was this powerful feeling of being there a verisimilitude that some will call historical.

On the second part of your question,yes, I’ve got some favourite historians. I think Grace Karskens, The Colony, if were talking about the early history of Sydney. In England, there’s some very fine historians , E.P Thompson, one of my favourites.

Some of Greg Dening’s work is fantastic. I wrote a novella called Governor Bligh and the Short Man, some of the research for that, I looked into Greg Dening’s work, in particular Mr Bligh’s Bad Language. But the best of our historians who have written on that early period is, I believe, Inga Clendinnen. Her Dancing with Strangers is a masterpiece.

What was the writing process for The Making Of Martin Sparrow, was it different from your more straight-laced historical work, if so how?

In one phase, it’s similar, in that you’re working as a historian, gathering information and atmosphere for the purposes that are unhistorical. Beyond that, once you’re writing, you’re writing. Someone asked me at Windsor the other day, about how I planned the writing and the simple answer was – I didn’t. I explained that there are two ways to write a novel, one of them is to plan very deeply because you’re terrified that if you don’t, you’re going to work for 2-3 years on something only to find that you’ve got a disaster on your hands. But if you’re game enough not to do that, and that’s not your instinctive way into fiction, then the way to do it, asE.L. Doctorow said, writing a novel is like driving at night  you can only see as far as the road ahead of you but you can make the whole trip that way.

In other words, you write the novel as you live life, with every encounter, with every turn of the road, to keep the analogy going, wondering what is going to happen next. And you have to allow the free spirit of your characters to kick in, and your imagination and whatever other influences come to bear. The question is what do you see next, what happens next and that in fact with writing, is the next paragraph, so you set about building the paragraph, what images, ideas, influences, phrases that you might have gathered that are really wonderfully authentic in that sense that they have that historical feel or language and then you shape it according, so you end up with, what does happen next.

There’s really not a great deal of room in that for anything that’s really like history, when in history, you’re constantly going back to your notes or the documentary record and you’ve struck a kind of moral contract with the reader, at least in professional history, that you will stick to the documentary record as best as your own skills, interpretative skills, permit and you won’t go beyond that. No matter what or how limiting it might be, so the reader has this understanding that the writer is committed to the truth status of the account you’re providing.

None of that applies in fiction and none of that applies in that moment, when you’re driving that drive, atnight,and you turn that corner and find out what is going to happen next and that’s the art of the paragraph, the act of composition. You may well refer to a bit of history, but there’s so much else you could be referring to. And it’s so much more, I think, centrally about language and the art of writing. I don’t want to put down historians, because some historians write absolutely beautifully and the account can be as exquisite as any novel, but I just think that when it’s fiction, when it’s a novel, the primacy of the conjuring and the primacy of the art is complete and total. That other concern, is the distinction between scholarship and art and the other concern which you have in history, is the historical record, the truth status of what you’re doing. I think they are very different. Coming from a historian’s background, I’ve been very conscious of some of the questions you’ve been asking and they are most pertinent. But the answer is not simple.

Did you find that novel itself changed much throughout the process? Both that of the initial drafting as well as that of the subsequent numerous edits? Did the innate historian within you kick in and try wresting control and perhaps try putting more of a historical tilt to it? Or did it remain largely the same throughout?

I didn’t try to give a historical tilt to it, being out in the wilderness I was free not to engage with the twists and turns back in Sydney, so that was great, very liberating. In other respects, the manuscript or drafts did change. Historical fiction, of fictionizing the history, just did not work for me. A great writer like Hillary Mantel made it work, as we all know. But perhaps because I am a historian, I just didn’t feel right with it.

The emphasis back then, in the first draft, was much more on a historical chief constable, who’s name was Andrew Thompson, who was based on the river, to some extent Alistair Mackie was drawn from Thompson, but the really nice thing about creating fictional characters, is that, as soon as you commit to that – you’re free, they can do what they like, or at least they can do what you like, if that’s how you think about it. Dramatic characterisation is then what matters. And how the character fits in the story, not the history.

I found that terribly liberating, as at the same time, I found the more historical fiction, with more historical characters really depressing and fake and so, there was a time when I just committed to a totallyfictional world and a totallyfictional character, Martin Sparrow. That parallel universe, that entirely fictional world, obviously a story riddled with historical influence, because you’ve got to know about the times, about the agriculture, about when they planted corn and when they plant wheat, when they reap and sow, you’ve got to know about the way it was a centralised economy, it was kind of like a soviet economy, it was utterly centralised through thevarious branches of thegovernment store, where you could get credit, as long as you’d submitted your wheat. I could give you a list a mile long of historical stuff that had to just be there, imperceptibly as it were, almost like a texture if you imagine ink sinking into a tissue, or dye into a cloth. Never more than quietly present.

I had to get completely into that world, and the rules of history had to be left behind entirely and I found that great, as someone who has written non-fiction for such a long time, I really enjoyed that freedom.

I marvel at novelists like E.L. Doctorow who wrote that book about the civil war and he had historical characters like Ulysses S Grant coming into the story and all that. He did it quite persuasively, but for meit did jar a bit, the mixing of fictional with historical figures.

I was much happier to enter that parallel universeof pure fictionand shut that door behind me.

Even though The Making Of Martin Sparrow has only just been released, are you currently working on anything at the moment?

Well, my new non-fiction book, Best We Forget, is now just out. Best We Forget, is a book about race fear of Japan and distrust of Britain, and how that fear and that distrust shaped the strategic thinking of Australia’spolitical leaders prior to World War One, during the war and at the peace negotiations thereafter.

Japan was our ally in World War 1, or the ally of the British Empire anyway, a very powerful naval force in the pacific. The fear that the British would betray us and sell us down the river if it really came to the crunch, because of the British dependence on the Japanese naval power, was an important shaping force in our foreign policy, and our relationship with Britain over those years.

That Australian dilemma, that runs as long as does the alliance between the British Empire and Japan, 1902 to 1923 -is almost completely unknown. It’s a story of a nation’s fear of being abandoned, or at least it’s fear of having to give up the policy of White Australia to assuage the Japanese. It’s also astory about Australia at war and yet it is not a story aboutthe soldiers. It’sabout the confidential foreign policy and diplomatic to’ings and fro’ings and the very fractious relationship with Britain over the question of Japan.

Billy Hughes, the Prime Minister for most of World War 1, said ‘this war is about saving White Australia’ and he said to the men in 1916 , men who hadn’t yet volunteered ‘I bid you, go to France and fight for White Australia’.

It happened I knew the substantial literature on this ‘story behind the story’ as I’ve called it. But I also knew it was a specialised literature that a general readership was never go to know about and never going to plough throughanyway.  I knew these works, I had used them when I was teaching and more such writing was appearing in published form, the most recent being Peter Rees very good biography of C.E.W. Bean, the official war correspondent.. So I thought, what is required here, is someone who knows this literature, because your general reader, is never going to read it, it’s just too hard going, it’s foreign policy stuff, it’s diplomacy stuff and of course, as we know, due to the popularity of the ANZAC legend, people want to hear about the men in the trenches. So how do we provide access to this ‘story behind the story’?

I thought, OK, what we need is a writer, someone who can provide a synopsis of the collective meaning and impact of these works – the ‘core historiography’- and to do it in a way that’s going to be entertaining enough and intriguing and fascinating enough, with enough evidence of this kind of manic racial anxiety at the Commonwealth level, to keep people interested from beginning to end. The project then required a great deal of additional research, particularly in Hansard –the Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates – and related literature, newspapers, invasion scare novels, journals such as the Bulletin and so on. The end result was Best We Forget. The War for White Australia, 1914-18. I think it’s a really important story and so does Text, my publisher.

The Making Of Martin is available to purchase from Penguin Random House from here:


About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: