ANTITHESIS INTERVIEW: JULY 2011
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.