Interview about Blueprints For A Barbed-Wire Canoe with Romana Koval on ABC Radio National's The Book Show', 27 November 2005. (Transcript)
We’re up the creek without a paddle this week. Ramona is in conversation with Wayne Macauley about his first novel Blueprints For A Barbed-Wire Canoe.
It’s about a failed suburban housing development. And while the story
is firmly rooted in the complexities of contemporary urban Australia,
it also has the timeless feel of a fable or allegory to it.
new housing estate promises its residents a marvellous lifestyle, but
what they end up getting is a life they could never have imagined. It’s
a bleak, funny, and utterly original take on the Australian dream of
owning your own home and living a happy life.
Hello, Ramona Koval with you on ABC Radio National. This is Books and
Writing, and this week we’re all going up the creek in a barbed-wire
canoe. Wayne Macauley is the bloke who’s taking us there. He’s the
author of a book called Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe.
It’s his first novel, published by a relatively small publisher, Black
Pepper, and unusually for a first novel it’s just gone into reprint. It
has also now found its way onto the Victorian certificate of education
English curriculum reading list, and it’s a book that’s firmly rooted
in the complexities of contemporary urban Australia, but it also has
the timeless feel of a fable or allegory to it.
Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
is the story of a failed housing estate, an outer suburban development
in Melbourne that offers the people who go to live there affordable
housing, a village lifestyle and the promise of a fast freeway to the
city. But in reality the services and amenities never arrive.
Eventually only a few obstinate residents remain, feeling conned and
isolated. As Wayne Macauley writes of their situation, and it’s a
strange but actually very apt way to put it; ‘We had no mighty river of
a freeway to irrigate us, to give us cars and life.’
Yes, it’s an odd metaphor, isn’t it, because it almost goes against the
grain. We’ve been trained to dislike freeways, but in fact, yes, that’s
right, almost every outer suburban development is totally dependant on
them. So if we were to look at a symbol that represented what actually
provides life, work, travel to an outer suburban housing development,
then the freeway is it.
Ramona Koval: So these people were promised a freeway, and they were encouraged to really go to a suburban utopia.
Yes, you’re buying a home not a house, you’re buying a life…it’s more
the advertising that annoys me about the idea of utopia. I think it’s
possible for people to dream about utopias, and I think dreaming about
them is fine, but selling them as a package is another thing entirely.
So these citizens who’ve bought here in the ‘outer suburban village
development complex’, as it’s called, and they’re expecting this
freeway as a river, giving them cars and life, and they suddenly
realise that they have been really let go by the planners, politicians,
and it has turned into a suburban dystopia. It doesn’t turn into that
immediately but slowly, slowly, and it starts with a smell. Tell me
about the smell.
It’s the smell of sewerage flowing into a creek from a pipe that was
never connected. As simple as that really; the smell, the first scent
that something may be wrong. I suppose the idea of the smell, of
something that’s on the nose, continues throughout the book, as also a
rubbish tip is then put nearby, to the residents’ horror, to the
residents’ disbelief, and that smell also wafts across the estate.
Ramona Koval: Interestingly though, Bram, who’s... well, I guess in a sense he’s the author of this, it’s his history...
Wayne Macauley: He’s a narrator.
He’s a narrator, but he is writing, he’s trying to write a history, and
he’s an archaeologist in a sense too because we meet him kind of at the
end when he’s digging through the stuff and he’s finding artefacts and
he’s telling us about those artefacts and how they got there. Why does
he stay in his stinking house?
Initially it’s because he’s staying there out of protest. He believes,
and most of the other residents do, that this can’t be true, that what
has been promised will come, utopia will happen. But then eventually I
think there is a point at which the logic of that disperses and there
is something more strange and perhaps insane that takes over.
There’s also a kind of Ned Kelly twist, there are some urban bush
rangers that get developed during the plot, and all sort of twists like
that. But it’s a kind of bleak book with amusing bits.
Wayne Macauley: I love that. That’s very quotable.
Ramona Koval: Did you mean it to be whimsical?
There’s a certain element to myself that enjoys whimsy. Whimsy’s a bit
wet for me but... humour, I can’t help it. Amusing bits, I can’t help
it. And of course there’s another side of me that is dark, troubled...
not troubled but that worries about things a lot. So I suppose it’s
those two things coming together. I’d have to say that some of my
favourite bits are those bits where, as a reader, I would say, ‘I don’t
know what I’m supposed to do. Am I supposed to laugh here or not?’ And
I love that moment where any art form takes you to that very
uncomfortable place where you know you want to laugh but you’re not
sure whether you should be, given the circumstances. But in fact that’s
often where the best laughter comes from.
In the suburbs, and in fact in this particular suburban dystopia, the
name of the suburb is Ur, because it was... now what’s the phrase again?
Outer Suburban Village Development Complex. However, all the letters
from the sign which, on the roadway into the estate, have fallen off or
been souvenired by the vandals, and after some time everything except
the two letters from ‘suburban’ are left; ‘ur’, Ur.
Which is also, strangely enough, the name of a ancient city. Tell me
about Ur, and tell me about the fragments of poems at the beginning of
There’s an epigraph at the beginning of the book which is from an
ancient Sumerian poem. Most of those Sumerian poems are hymns, laments,
threnodies... they mourn the loss, mostly in fact, of cities, and this
being an extract from a poem called ‘Lamentation for Ur’, I think it
is. Ur is famous for a couple of things. Ur is in the Mesopotamian
Valley in present-day Iraq...
Ramona Koval: And Abraham came from Ur too.
Correct, yes. That’s one of the things that it is famous for. In a
sense it was the place in which Monotheism began really, and those
three great religions then sprang from that. Judaic myth and legend
tells the story where Abraham one day had a fit with his old man Terach
who was a maker of idols, and said, ‘You’re making all these idols to
all these gods, this is bullshit, you know? There’s only one God,’ and
he actually picked up all the idols and smashed them on the floor.
That’s what I think of your polytheism, Dad! And off he went and ended
up, of course, going to the Promised Land as we know it in that
particular strand of mythology.
was also an extraordinary place because it was also generally
acknowledged as the birth of civilisation. That is to say, some of the
fundamental things started there, particularly urban living. People
moved in off the plains and actually settled down, built houses, brick
houses, and they planted crops, they actually settled, and they
established all those kinds of city things that we know about. They had
pubs and cafes and stuff and they started to live an urban existence.
Also writing as we know it (symbols that imitate the phonetics of
speech) was invented in a.... which I find really intriguing, but
that’s where writing, as we westerners understand it, began.
also probably the most important thing of all; beer was invented in Ur.
So Ur was a very interesting place, but of course as it relates to this
book clearly there’s a couple of things... one is the idea of an
ancient civilization, an original civilisation, and from my nihilistic
view of how in some ways the civilisation of the west since then has
got so messed up and so screwed up. There is some sense of; what is
civilisation? Civilisation of cities, urban civilisations; how can we
be getting it so horribly wrong?
But then again, how can we expect that anything will last forever,
because things have always diminished after they’ve been built up.
Look, true, and in some ways that’s the metaphor running back to
ancient Ur, which is precisely that; it rose and it fell, it rose and
it fell, and that’s what civilisations do. The other interesting thing
is archaeology because we only know about these civilisations by
digging them over...
Ramona Koval: Through their rubbish dumps.
Well, that’s absolutely true; we actually dig over their rubbish, and
we pull them out and these things are precious items that we display in
glass cases in museums, and it’s what tells us about those
civilisations. So in some sort of small way, the metaphor of all the
letters but ‘ur’ falling off the sign out the front of the estate
points us in this direction of an attempt at civilisation, an attempt
at urban living that unfortunately does go wrong and is lamented over.
But there are signs and symbols there, there is debris embedded in the
ground that we can go back and we can hunt though and look through. As
readers we can hunt through and look through the clues and signs in
this thing called a book. We can go back, dig that over, have a look in
there and see what we can find out about these people; who they were,
how they lived their life, and also maybe where they went wrong. What
happened? Why? Did they screw it up or were they sacked by invaders
or...? For me that’s the perhaps tenuous thread between some place that
rose up out of the desert, out of the flat landscape 4000 years ago and
an estate in some time roughly concurrent with ours that springs up on
the northern plains out of Melbourne.
Ramona Koval: Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe,
this story of an urban nightmare, begins with days of pelting rain and
the discovery of the washed-up remnants of a canoe and the body of a
young woman called Jodie. Later, the narrator Bram is given a leather
satchel. Inside is a piece of writing that gives the novel its title.
Here’s Wayne Macauley reading what his character, Bram, has discovered
in the satchel:
Wayne Macauley [reading from Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, pgs 104-106]:
sure you’re sick of life, say to yourself: I’ve had enough. Take a roll
of rusted barbed-wire and some pieces of nail-infested wood and shape
it into a canoe. Choose a moonless night, a night with no moon, the
darkest night; you are the only witness, the only one who should
see.Take your canoe down to the filthy creek when the stench is at its
worst, tighten the chin strap of your hat and button your jacket up
hard—the journey will be long and fraught with danger. You will use no
paddle, you will need no paddle, but will carry a big jar of salt with
you and throw handfuls from the stern. This will propel the canoe away
from the dark unfathomable ocean, of which the salt is a cruel
reminder, upstream towards the pure crystal waters at the source.
Recite the prayer: Nothing Matters, I Don’t Care—three times every
hour: this will give you strength. Hold your head up high. Never doub
tthe wisdom of your journey, do not ask Where or Why; the canoe is a
sensitive one, it may turn on a pinhead and rush you back to the ocean
or drop like a stone beneath you. All night you will travel and well
into the following day. When the salt runs out do not despair, the
waters will be clearing now and the canoe will know it has safely left
the muck behind. Dip the empty jar over the side and hold the contents
up to the light; you are looking for water so clear that it seems not
to be there, that the jar itself appears to dissolve in your hand. If
you do not find it onthe second day, do not despair, go on, if you do
not find it on the third, repeat the prayer more often and hold your
head a little higher. If you do not find it on the fourth or fifth,
don’t worry, go on. If after a week the jar does not dissolve and the
water in it is still putrid and thick, take heart, go on, the second
week may yet see you safely to your journey’s end. When in the third
week the canoe starts leaking, bail it out, be brave, go on, and when
in the fourth week you find yourself becalmed and feel it slowly
sinking beneath you, bail harder, keep faith, don’t worry, go on. It is
then, and only then, as your carefully thought out and well-constructed
vessel sinks slowly towards the muddy bottom that you may allow
yourself to cry out: Help! But do it softly, don’t make a big show of
it, you are the only witness, the night is moonless again and you are
miles away from home; do it softly, sweetly, and as the waters engulf
you don’t whatever you do forget to keep your head held high...'
So the way you read that, of course, there is a bit of whimsy in that
too, and then you say, ‘don’t forget to keep your head held high’, but
actually that is when the person is actually drowning, isn’t it?
Wayne Macauley: Yes.
And it’s a kind of ‘never give up’, ‘keep your head held high, no
matter what’s happening to you, don’t lose your dignity’... but this is
a suicide not.
Yes, it could be thought of as that, but it’s also in some ways a
summation of the thread that runs through the book which is precisely
that. Maybe it’s a little folksy and homespun but, yes, keep trying,
things might get better, if not today maybe tomorrow. And that’s, in
fact, the core of belief amongst, I must say, these very ordinary
people who go to this place with a dream. So it’s not unreasonable for
them to keep hanging on to the dream, and really the blueprints, as
articulated in the book, the blueprints for a barbed-wire canoe are in
some ways a statement of fact of how these residents have lived their
But then it starts saying, ‘Be sure you’re sick of life. Say to
yourself, I’ve had enough, and then take a roll of rusted barbed-wire
and some pieces of nail-infested wood and shape it into a canoe.’ I
mean, that’s the suicide bit, I think.
Wayne Macauley: I don’t know, I’m not going to necessarily agree that is a suicide note.
Ramona Koval: It’s a recipe for suicide.
Well, life is a progression from birth to death and in that sense it’s
one long walk to suicide if you want to think of it like that. I
actually think those blueprints are more (in that sense) philosophical.
The saying—to be up shit creek in a barbed-wire canoe without a
paddle—is something that I think expresses…what is it? It’s a way of
saying how dreadful life can be, how appalling the situation is,
whatever, but ah whatever, you know? I’ll go on, I’ll keep going. So
it’s a fine line, as you say, between darkness and humour. But I don’t
know if it’s a suicide note.
I suppose I thought that because we see this woman getting quite dead
in the beginning of the book from following exactly this blueprint.
Wayne Macauley: It’s true that the canoe doesn’t work and that’s a fact, that you can’t actually sail upstream, up a creek...
Ramona Koval: With a jar of salt.
Even with a jar of salt. You can’t, you’re not going to make it. But,
again, the philosophy expressed in that, and perhaps again in the book
as a whole amongst these ordinary people, is that should that stop you
from trying? If you start from nihilism it’s all up from there, you
know? I guess that’s, to some extent, what we’re talking about.
The book is going to have a young readership now. It’s been set for the
2006/2007 Victorian certificate of education English and English as a
second language curriculum, which is marvellous for you.
It’s fantastic, it’s great, for two reasons; one is that it’s a first
novel, so that’s obviously a nice pat on the back, but also it’s by a
small publisher, Black Pepper, who are a small independent publisher in
Melbourne. So on both counts I think it’s a real statement of faith...
Ramona Koval: About nihilism?
Wayne Macauley: And humour. Nihilism and humour.
Ramona Koval: What do you think young people will make of it?
I look forward to finding out. I mean that really sincerely. I’m
excited about that idea. I do think it’s a book that will stand up to
more than one reading, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why it’s
been selected, that there are a lot of things to think about in there,
contrary perhaps to the picture you were painting—it’s not all bleak
because it’s leavened by humour a lot and also some characters that I
think you can empathise with. So, again, those things are attractive to
people who are perhaps engaging with literature for the first time. I
think the main thing is that it feels that it’s got stuff to say and be
discussed, which is a great thing to know that your book will be talked
about. It’s also a great thing to know that your book will be talked
about (perhaps hated, who knows, it doesn’t matter) by people at that
very formative point in their lives, because I can remember that moment.
Ramona Koval: Oh yes, and bleakness or nihilism or passion or... it’s all very much part of the make up...
It’s all that moment of time and I remember that time vividly, and it
shapes you as a human being, no question, those years. So, look, I
think it’s a great privilege to have your work read by people of that
age and discussed by people of that age and argued with or whatever the
case may be. It’s a wonderful thing.
Ramona Koval: What sort of a young person were you?
Wayne Macauley: I was a bit rebellious and I kind of took a while to get my head straightened out.
Ramona Koval: Where were you living?
I was living out in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Mitcham,
just the burbs. But I had that epiphany that everyone has to have, and
it was HSC (as it was then), year 12, and I chose to do English
literature and this drop-dead gorgeous teacher walked into the room. We
did Joyce, we did Hamlet, we did Voss, we did Eliot’s The Waste Land...
bang! It all went off in my head, and I was a changed man. I was a man.
Ramona Koval: She made a man of you.
Yes, that was really the moment where I discovered what writing was,
what you could do with it, why it was there and how it could just blow
your mind compared to the thrashing around I was doing. Something went
clunk in my head.
Ramona Koval: And then what happened?
Then I left school and worked on a market garden, and I saved some
money and I travelled around Europe. Then I came back and I did a year
at university, which was good, and then I applied to go to a drama
school too, the Victorian College of the Arts drama school... out of
nowhere. I saw an ad in the paper and saw ‘arts’, and extraordinarily I
got in. I was in my early 20s. I went to drama school, dropped out of
that too, travelled, wrote, travelled, wrote... and at some point, when
people asked me what I did, I started saying ‘writer’. And it takes a
long time to arrive at that point. No matter how long you’ve been doing
it, it actually takes a long time and it is a statement of faith. It’s
a moment where you (even if you don’t have a lot of work out there) say
‘this is what I do’. I guess that is who I am.
Ramona Koval: What had you written then, when you were calling yourself a writer? Were you published by then?
No, I hadn’t been published. I’d been writing for theatre and that was
initially what I was doing. I was writing for theatre and having it
performed. I’d been writing short prose, stories, none of which I think
I’d even tried to place. It was a very internal world I was working in.
But then I guess it was not long after the morning that I woke up (so
to speak) and called myself a writer that, yes, I did have my first
story placed, and then had progressively stuff that I had written
previously and maybe reworked and worked on and redrafted... then I
began to have my stories published. Then I knew I was writer... well, a
writer of fiction anyway.
Ramona Koval: The book is dedicated... it’s for your father ‘as promised’. What was that promise?
It’s emotionally complex. It’s a promise as much to myself as anything,
but partly to him as well. My dad died quite young. In fact my dad died
the same age I am now, which is 47, which I consider quite young
because I am 47. That was around that upheaval time, really, that we
were talking about before; I was 20 when he died, so I was only just
discovering this thing called literature, you know? And he passed away,
and I don’t think he knew what the hell I was on about, what on Earth I
was doing with my life...
Ramona Koval: What did he do?
He was a builder. He worked on big building sites in the city, and
contracted early-onset emphysema which was actually related to his
work, breathing the stuff. So he was sick for a long time, not a well
man for a long time. So obviously, me having seen the drop-dead
gorgeous literature teacher and had my epiphany, we were obviously
going in separate paths at that time. So obviously that, as I’m sure it
does for a lot of people who lose their parents young... it stayed with
me and affected me in many ways. I know that progressively over those
lost years, before I called myself a writer, that I was trying to work
that stuff out. So I knew that one day I would have a book published
and that when I finally did it would be dedicated to him.
Ramona Koval: There’s a lot of building in this book actually. There’s a lot of building, there’s a lot of constructing.
There’s a lot of building in my work generally, as a couple of people
have pointed out recently. So, yes, how much of that is conscious I
don’t know, and how much is subconscious. Yes, there is, that’s right,
and the idea of the house, the home, the great Australian dream... my
dad... actually his dad too was a builder and they built our house, the
house I was born in and brought up in, out there on the edge of the
known universe. So that also is something that runs very strongly in
what I do and who I am, but also how I see myself in this place.
Somehow that strange collusion between my father, what he did, his
death, me becoming a writer, being an Australian, being a Melbournian
even more so, all those things somehow are coming together in my work.
I guess they have come together in Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
in that sense because it’s about the great Australian dream, building
your house on a block of land and living a happy life.
Ramona Koval: Wayne Macauley. And Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, his first novel, is published by Black Pepper. And another novel by Wayne called Caravan Story will come out early next year. That’s Books and Writing for now, which is produced by me, Ramona Koval, and Amanda Smith.