Interview by Samuel Elliott
How did the idea for The Adversary come about? Was it a place? Because the sense of place is so strong throughout? Or a group of people, because they are all so realistic throughout?
It started from something that I wanted to imagine/explore/investigate, which was this idea of best friendship. Especially best friendship between two gay men and one that was long-lasting and platonic and came right up to the edges of that was something more or something less, where there’d be a couple of points that they’d come up to where they’d be almost done with each other, or wanting something more from each other.
In part, you asked if it came from a group of people I knew, it was sort of the opposite. I’ve always had different relationships and friendships than the one in the story, but I have seen best friendships and I kind of liked thinking about them and being around them, so I wanted to see if I could make that work in novel form.
I’d seen so many friendships that weren’t that blurry, maybe they had started with a blurry edge, but they quickly become something supportive. Supportive and close but has a different dynamic to a sexual relationship, or a professional relationship, or a family relationship. I think a best friendship can occupy a very different place in your life, to other kinds of relationships that you can have.
One of the challenges of writing it in fiction, is determining where is the right position for the friendship to be in the novel. I figured it couldn’t be what was driving the plot, I needed a whole bunch of other hectic characters to do that, but I thought it would be the bedrock of the story.
One of the aspects I really liked about The Adversary, was how realistic it was. It was a slow burner as well. For a relatively short novel, you took the time to carefully set up not only the key relationships, but also the setting as well. I’m in Sydney so I don’t know Melbourne suburbs, but I certainly do after reading this. I wanted to know if you had any pressure from the outset, worrying about such things, or if you just wanted to write the story in your own way and terms?
I’m so happy that you say that, because I’ve heard feedback that it might be too quick, too pacey. I’m glad when people love the descriptions in it. I came from a non-writing background and sort of had to learn the mechanics of writing a novel. The thing that would get me from one page to another, was writing descriptions and expositions and scenes where really nothing is happening. I really had to kind of cut a lot of that stuff down.
So, when you say was there pressure to not have descriptions of suburbs, or anything like that – I really wanted to do that, and I probably did it too much and had to cut lots out.
But that was probably less pressure from external sources and more just me trying to figure out how much the reader can take, how much does the reader want. How much is descriptive enough to set the scene but still lets people get through the page.
So how did you go about realising that, was it through multiple rewrites? Because it just seems that you have that right balance of nuance, and understated description.
It did come from multiple rewrites. I started writing it at the end of 2013, then I finished the first draft in 2014. Then there was a lots of stepping back, and giving the draft to someone else to read. Then you get closer to the thing that you actually want the story to be. But it takes a bit of trial and error to get there.
I wasn’t very good at throwing myself forward in the book. Some people I think are very good as conceptual thinkers, in thinking ok I’m going to write the book like this and then they write it, and kind of transcribe it.
For me, I had to find out what the themes were and then what I wanted the story to be about. Sort of, by letting myself write it first.
How much did the narrator change throughout the rewrites? I wondered that the whole time.
Oh yeah, he changed a lot.
The simplest way he changed, is that when I first started writing it, because you’re still trying to figure out the other characters, you’re trying to figure out the plot. And it was first person, like he just automatically sounded a bit like me. By the time you get to the end, you know a bit more about the character, or I knew a bit more about the character and I was able to act him more really in character. So, he’s kind of a grumpy, reluctant, paranoid, curious, naïve, critical sort of person. It took a while to really get that balance of qualities right.
The thing I liked, and I thought throughout reading it, was that the narrator was like someone you’d taken that seemed like a lesser considered, or more wallflower character and had them be the main character. Whereas if others were to write this novel they might’ve taken one of the characters constantly dominating centre-stage, Chris L or Vivian. You’ve opted to narrate from the perspective of someone you might not notice at a party. Was that deliberate? Was that a challenge you gave to yourself, to bring a character to the fore that would otherwise never be noticed?
I think there’s sort of a trick to the ideal narrator for a story, where you want someone who can be both kind of in the scene and a little out of it. Because he is self-conscious and he is at that age where you’re kind of figuring yourself out a little bit, and you’re figuring yourself out by observing other people and how you match up to these other people.
You kind of have an excuse as a writer to analyse things and to describe things and try and put them in the voice of the character. So sometimes you’ll read a novel and the character will be a painter, because they don’t want them to be a writer, but they still want them to notice things the way a writer would, in a writerly way. Having someone, like how you said, a little outside the party, a little not sure about other people’s emotions, I think that was a good way to feel like you’re realistically describing a world.
You kept the narrator nameless, which I felt enabled readers to maybe have an affinity for him, or resonate with him. Even when you take the time to let him do pretty unkind things a few times. That alone is something that you wouldn’t normally experience with a more ‘typical’ narrator and it makes me again wonder about the challenges you might’ve faced subverting the norm – was it liberating?
It was liberating I reckon. I tried not to think that much about likeability. If you understand what a character wants, and why he loves what he loves, then you can kind of go along with a lot of negative stuff from a character and why he makes bad decisions, which he does, several times throughout the book. I thought, well OK, his love for Dan is very strong and he also loves being alone, and showering, which many of us love. Then you can see when he dislikes something, it’s always because it’s not Dan, it’s not what he wants other people to be able to stack up to.
I think that when you understand that about the character, you can get this sort of pleasure from a character about being negative. I always find it really funny to read characters that say or think things that I wouldn’t, when I walk into a room. So I found it really fun and really liberating to get into a character that can really be quite critical.
Let’s keep talking about making realistic characters for a second. Another element that you incorporated that you still seldom see in even contemporary literature and even that set within the gay and queer community, is the existence of HIV. You mentioned it sparingly throughout the novel and it was only the centre of one freak out scene with Vivian. I noticed in the acknowledgements you thanked Dion Kagan for his book Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the culture of ‘Post Crisis’ – and I can see the influence or inspiration that might’ve had. Because you’ve challenged the pernicious and still prevalent misconceptions about poz people in the community. What I wanted to know, is if that’s what you set out to do, to let it appear as the story flows, but to never have HIV/AIDS as the centre-point or focal point of the story?
I treated that pretty carefully and there was a lot of trial and error. I was thinking about a pretty specific subset of the gay community and a group of people within that community in one little area in Melbourne. I think that attitudes towards HIV is one of the biggest changes in gay communities in Australia within the past six or seven years.
I think I did have trouble at a different points with writing it, and thinking is this realistic – what is realistic in that situation? Is it realistic for someone to freak out in a situation? Is it realistic for someone to be as prejudice as one of these characters might be towards a HIV-positive character?
You’ve got to be careful, because sometimes it might not look like someone is prejudice towards a certain group, but the prejudice is still there – it just comes out in other ways. Maybe it doesn’t even make itself known to the person, who believes that they are quite open-minded but in a moment of weakness, or a moment where they are caught off guard or something unexpected happens, that’s when they find out something about themselves.
What I wanted the book to do, I was happy for it to depict different levels of discomfort with HIV and different levels of misunderstanding around it.
But I wanted HIV to not be the melodrama in the book, while still making it quite clear that there is a difference between having an HIV-positive body like Dan does and having a HIV-negative body, like the narrator does. There are actual distinction between them, that they have to negotiate to make their friendship work. I wanted that to be something that they were able to live with, work with, deal with and do so in various creative ways that spoke to their personalities.
When I was reading this novel, I found striking similarities to Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Lily Bart, the central character, reminded me of the narrator in The Adversary in that she kind of begrudgingly pursues suitors and there’s a procession of that and what results is defined by her waning and changing interests and who can provide what for her and that ultimately it leaves her in this unenviable, heartbroken situation. Does that sound sort of similar? Or am I way off?
I’m so happy to talk about this, because I would never have consciously thought of Edith Wharton and House of Mirth as an influence. But House of Mirth and Age of Innocence are two of my favourite books. And I think that the Lily Bart comparison is interesting, because when I was sort of building the narrator, I was thinking of about female models from literature, rather than gay male models. Because I think that’s what you often find at the centre of a social novel and a novel of manners which is about navigating a society.
I think that’s often something that has powered novels, about a hundred, to a hundred fifty years ago, often you would have a female protagonist in those stories.
So, while I wasn’t consciously thinking about Lily Bart, it think it makes total sense that The Adversary would make you think of her, because of the way in which, as you say, her choices are really contingent on social expectations. And I love as well, that the story does have a dramatic structure that shows the consequences to those choices and shows the way a character can be affected by fate outside of their hands. I think that it’s really interesting where stories play choice and fate off against each other. I think that story in particular is bitter, brutal, tragic and really sharp about that.
You’ve written a whole bunch of disparate writing over the years, as well as founding The Lifted Brow and all the mountain of work attached to that. But I wondered if all that differed, or you found that your writing process changed, when writing The Adversary, particularly because you’ve mentioned it gestated over several years. So that sounds like it might’ve changed quite a lot, both your writing and the novel itself, over the years?
Yeah, it’s not like there was ever a point where it suddenly clicked. It was incremental. Like it gets closer and closer to something that makes sense and doesn’t feel awkward and have strange little byways. For the last couple of years of working on it, you eventually get the feeling that it’s more of a cohesive thing. I wish there had been a eureka moment or something.
But I think that you’re just in the dark a whole lot of the time and then slowly it gets brighter and brighter. Probably, like every writer in Australia, or most writers in Australia, I was doing a lot of other things at the same time. Like teaching and freelancing and things like that. So, it was often an hour or two in the mornings, and then weeks where you can’t do any of it and then like occasional periods where you can put tons of time into it. A lot of balancing that.
The Adversary can be purchased at: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/the-adversary-9780143796640
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: