Where Do I Come From?
A talk given at Melbourne Writers Festival, August 2004

I think as writers we all carry our own imaginative landscapes around in our heads, into which we then let loose our characters and ideas. It’s what helps differentiate us as writers, both these imaginative landscapes themselves and the degree to which they look-or don’t look-like real landscapes (existing or remembered) in the world.

My own imaginative landscape is, I’ll admit, on the surface at least, a particularly unprepossessing one: it took me some time to accept that the world in which my characters and ideas moved was not in fact, nor ever would be, the Left Bank of Paris, but the outer suburbs of Melbourne. That’s where I’m from, the edge of the known universe, the place where the new houses and big furniture showrooms fall over into dead paddocks and scrub. It took me a long while to understand that that’s the landscape my head most often went walking in, and that from there I would come back with my most resonant ideas and imagery.

I say ‘my head walking in’ because that’s very much-for me anyway-what happens. The landscape of your first independent experiences-the first time you really start thinking for yourself-becomes the imaginative landscape into which you then, as a writer, go rambling.

Those long walks home from a friend’s house through the deathly quiet streets, those long train rides back from the city looking out through the window into the dark and watching the houses thin. This outer suburban landscape formed me as a writer because it gave me too much time to think. The wide streets, the big sky, the long journey to the shops and back: out there on the fringe there is simply too much physical and metaphysical space. And just as Nature abhors a vacuum so too does the human brain not like too much Nothingness: it wants to fill up those blank spaces with thoughts, ideas, speculations, imaginings.

And so this physical, existent landscape, the landscape of low-rise brick veneer houses and concrete footpaths, of nature strips and driveways, of Saturday lawnmowers and Sunday televisions, a landscape of stretched distance and warped time, became the stage scenery on which I could play out my inventions. It became for me an allegorical place-allegorical in the sense that I was probably trying to make it mean much more than it actually did. I found myself, as a writer, walking a recognisable landscape but at the same time wandering in the realm of possibility. I was neither realist nor fabulist but something else, something weird, in between.

And it is precisely this in-between-ness, this conjunction (in my mind at least) between the spread landscape of the outer suburbs and the concept of possibility that seemed to offer so many unexpected riches for me as a writer. Because it is precisely that state of in-between-ness, that strange marginality, that neither rural nor quite yet urban landscape, a place of hope, dream, possibility, that became in my mind a metaphor for who we actually are, we fucked-up white settler Australians with our Lucky Country baggage trying to make a home faraway in the arsehole of the world: tame the landscape, fence it up: dream home, dream wife, dream kids, dream life.

So, like many before me and many I’m sure who will come after, I don’t really like where I come from, I always wanted to come from somewhere else, a place perhaps of cobbled streets, ivy-covered walls, village squares, smoky cafes, old men drinking; not this place of wide bitumen, clean concrete, pale brick, shopping malls, food courts, women eating donuts-but in the end you’ve got to work with what you’re given.

And who knows - who knows? - maybe Joyce for example in fact dreamt of a car-park at Southland; Beckett of a furniture showroom in Epping; Dostoevsky of a 711 in Canterbury Road; Kafka of a green tin garden shed in the backyard of a mock-Georgian in Melton…? They dreamed these things, but in the end they had to settle for the less exotic, more quotidian landscapes of Dublin, Paris, St Petersburg, Prague.