EMMETT STINSON: Having read and loved both of your novels (Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story) and your collection of short fiction (Other Stories), one thing that strikes me about your work is just how funny your writing is in the tradition of great literary satire. I still speak to a lot of people who seem to think ‘serious’ literature can’t or shouldn’t be funny, despite all evidence to the contrary. Do you want to say something about this strange idea and how you view the role of humour and satire in your work?

WAYNE MACAULEY: I’m glad you mentioned serious and funny in the same sentence because they not often are. But to my mind these two extremities, mutually wed, have created some of the most exhilarating literature in existence.

‘… a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled…’. I first read Swift’s A Modest Proposal many years ago but I still come back to it every so often, if only to read the page where the Dean’s prose suddenly turns on the head of a pin, sneaks up from behind, winks, then whacks us across the back of the head with an ironic lump of four-by-two. ‘I do therefore humbly offer it to publick Consideration…’. What makes A Modest Proposal the quintessential piece of satire (perhaps our seminal piece of satire) is that everything in it is taken so seriously. Not for a moment does Swift drop the mask, regardless of the outrageous things being said. ‘Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the Times require) may flay the Carcase; the Skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen…’. It is this ability to take seriousness all the way that defines a really great ironic or satiric work. To keep it deadpan, to hold the mask. Seriousness and humour are not mutually exclusive, for me they are the warp and woof not only of life but of all great humanist writing.

There is an irony at the heart of all creation, as there is at the heart of all living. A work of art with humour in it is one that simply, honestly, acknowledges this fact. We all know our art-making is at bottom a pretence, that we are asking our readers or audience members or viewers to be moved and/or intellectually stimulated by something we’ve just made up. Humour is simply a part of this ‘play’, the game between writer and reader. If the fictional space is an open space, as I think it is, a space of questions rather than answers, then what Kierkegaard called ‘the infinite elasticity of irony’ is an essential part of this openness.

There’s nothing wrong with seriousness in literature, per se, but I suspect a lot of its over-seriousness comes about because we as writers tend to be serious people. (I myself am a serious person.) As a human type we’re a bit navel-gazing. No matter how ridiculous our lives, how ludicrous the actions of our peers, how utterly, unbelievably stupid the things we read about in the newspaper and see on the television, we are too often overly-committed to seeing ‘the serious side’. But to my mind any conversation about the human condition that doesn’t include the funny bits is a very one-sided conversation indeed. Life is ironic. The whole history of philosophy and religion has been little more than the history of humanity’s attempts to attach a serious meaning to human existence—a meaning, that is, that might actually stick—because without it, we know, the very idea of life starts to look like a joke.

One last thing. I am an Australian writer. My work loosely falls into that category we call ‘Australian literature’. I find it ironic (that word again), in a country that speaks often of its ‘laid-back, laconic sense of humour’, how we have nevertheless produced such a large body of serious—in fact, often very dull—literary work. There’s not much leaven in it. Viewed by those outside our shores Australians have always been seen as a bit of an oddity. Like our wildlife, there’s something a bit funny about us. I think those people outside our shores are right. We are funny. Not fall-about-laughing funny. Weird funny. I see no reason not to be fond of that.

EMMETT STINSON: You’ve just expressed another thing that I particularly like about your work, which is that—in a Swiftian manner—it typically combines really unexpected sets of ideas with real-world issues (such as Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, which is sort of about both Melbourne’s housing crisis and ancient Sumeria, or Caravan Story, which discusses both the effects of neo-liberal arts-funding policies and the logic of detention camps). It seems to me that this helps create that ‘Socratic’ conversation, you’re talking about, but this also places a demand on readers to hold up their end of the bargain, too. Do you think about what kind of readers you want, or what you’d want your readers to get out of one of your books?

WAYNE MACAULEY: I think I’m a bit perverse. Every time I take up my pen (yes, I do take up a pen) I find myself thinking not how easy can I make this for myself and my reader but how difficult? I don’t mean to thumb my nose, it’s just that as a writer I often get bored and restless—as a reader even more so. If a book is offering me a warm bath, my first thought is: Well why don’t I just have a warm bath, I mean with lavender oil and a neck pillow and all that? That would be much simpler, wouldn’t it, than trying to get a warm bath through reading? There are so many comforting, simplistic forms of art and entertainment available in the world (one could argue too many) that I see no reason to add to the horde. For all my bolshie politics I am probably quite elitist in that regard. I think literature can and should offer challenges. Within the general subset of what we call ‘literature’ there are a lot of unchallenging things on offer, if I choose to work within that smaller subset of weird, jangling, discordant, challenging writing then I don’t think I’m hurting anyone by doing so. And people will always know where to find me.

But to say I want only to make things difficult would be wrong. My initial impulse when writing is to look for the difficult, the challenging, the discordant and see where it takes me (that way I won’t get bored). The work, the hard daily grind of writing, is of course to make the difficult look easy. I’m not interested in shocking my reader, or even wrong-footing them necessarily; I just want to take them somewhere they haven’t been before, even if that somewhere is the place they already dwell. You can’t assume though, straight off, that your reader wants to go to these other places (they might have a warm bath running); the onus is on you to take them by the hand and point the way. A reader has to trust you, from your very first sentence, otherwise they won’t go with you, no matter where you intend taking them.

If my time in the theatre has taught me one thing it has taught me this: without an audience the play doesn’t exist. The theatre space is a communal space where the exchange of energy and ideas cuts both ways. The reading space is the same. To acknowledge the existence of a reader doesn’t mean being slavish to them. It means you’ve found someone to talk to. It means meeting in the air.
EMMETT STINSON: I can see that though—that interest in community runs all throughout your work, from the de-facto anarchist commune of Blueprints to the residents of Boxstead Court in ‘One Night’. Your stories always seem to gesture towards issues of the social or the community, although always in ironic ways—and I guess I’m intrigued by the way your fiction often brings together such disparate material. For example, despite the fact that much of your writing has ‘surreal’ elements, it’s also very much tied to the local: how many other authors have set short stories in Keilor Downs, for example? Can you talk a little bit about the importance of this kind of specific locality in your work?

WAYNE MACAULEY: This probably comes back to what I said earlier about seriousness and humour. There is a tense, ironic relationship between them. I feel the same kind of thing about place. A lot of my fiction (maybe all, I haven’t counted) is set in what we might call the liminal zone between a recognisable reality and something else. Geographically, this zone for me is represented by—or this zone for me represents, it’s hard to say—the area between city and country and in Australia the outer suburbs particularly. This is the place of ‘possibility’, an open space, of events potential rather than actual, and where Kierkegaard’s ‘infinite elasticity of irony’ is stretched to the limit.

My fiction probably doesn’t bring disparate things together so much as explore the potential space between these disparate things: seriousness and humour, light and dark, city and country, isolation and community. My interest lies in the interstices, the fluid spaces in between where nothing is definite, because for me they are the least boring and the most pregnant with possibility. I also believe, in a general sense—I’m talking as an Australian writer here—that we are an interstice, an in-between place, and that a true literary record of our thinking and feeling would be one that deals with this.

So, to take up your particular example and apply my own peculiar logic to it, there is in the outer suburbs of Melbourne a place called Keilor Downs but there is not a place called Boxstead Court in it (in fact, no such street exists in greater Melbourne or surrounds). But at the risk of sounding pretentious, or worse, insane, I sincerely believe that if there is the possibility of a place called Boxstead Court in Keilor Downs then there is a place called Boxstead Court in Keilor Downs and that in this place called Boxstead Court in Keilor Downs the things described in my story One Night might certainly have happened.

I’m not sure anyone can argue with that, but if they can I welcome their correspondence.