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.

The 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.

Ramona Koval: 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.’

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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 the book.

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ur 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.

And 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?

Ramona Koval: But then again, how can we expect that anything will last forever, because things have always diminished after they’ve been built up.

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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]:

'Be 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...'

Ramona Koval: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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 lives.

Ramona Koval: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Ramona Koval: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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...

Wayne Macauley: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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?

Wayne Macauley: 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.

Wayne Macauley: 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.