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Monday, 8 October 2007

Andrew Hutchinson has a face like an axe and he utters advice rapid-fire. The room contains perhaps 25 souls including Sydney Writers' Society president Julianne Wargren and his Random House editor Julian Welch. Many are undergraduates, all want to write, some will succeed but possibly very few as well as Hutchinson himself.

"I have a responsibility to be honest with the subject matter," he says when asked about the nature of the book's theme -- date rape. "Every little thing needs to be exactly right." He spends a long time thinking about a book or story -- of which he has had many published -- before putting pen to paper. The first draft is always in longhand.

"American films make violence too comical." But most Australian literature is long-winded, he opines. He admits there is "some confronting stuff" in Rohypnol and that with his publisher he prepared at length for some tough questions. It was compared with A Clockwork Orange (which, he admits, isn't such a bad thing) and there were some who didn't like the content. "There's no justification for violence," he adds.

The book began three years ago when he read about Bilal Skaf and the gang rapists perpetrating violence in Sydney's west. "It was terrible," he recalls. "I couldn't understand that." He wonders why the others who took part in the crimes didn't refuse to do so. "Who's doing this?" he asked himself. "I wanted to look at the history behind it," he says. Asking the question as to why things happen, he thinks, really drives his writing.

As he talks his hands move rapidly, sketching out the line and length of a story or novel. Whichever he is talking about. His hands chop at the air and carve out volumes of possibility that he has filled with words. He writes, leaves the draft for three weeks, then reads it again. This permits distance, from where he can asses the true quality of his production. He may have thirty stories "on the go" at any one time. A novel, he points out, is just like having thirty short stories that are connected.

Growing up in Kinglake, a small country town in Victoria, there was no lake. So he made his own comic-strip books and wrote "stupid things about beetles". Asked to write two pages for a school assignment, he would turn in ten. "I was trying to write Robocop," he remembers in his deadpan manner, stringing his sentences together so as not to disappoint the audience, who are hanging off every word.

"I've always been OK at it. I was always good at writing at high school. But bad at maths." We all laugh. In year 11 he wrote a poem about Sandra Bullock that was published in the school magazine.

"At the end of year 12, I was a bit of an activist." He objected to the notion that you are forced to choose your career at such an early age. "I don't know what I'm doing on the weekend, let alone what I'll be doing for the rest of my life." He almost got into RMIT. Almost. So he worked for a while and tried to write a novel. After 20 pages he realised he'd exhausted the subject matter.

A stint at Box Hill TAFE allowed him to "get into what makes the writing work". He spent his spare time watching arthouse films. They made him think about something the next day, he says. Entering short stories in competitions led to some wins. "I never got a letter saying 'this is absolute crap'," he laughs. We join him. He knew he was on the right path.

Getting a mentorship with Christos Tsiolkas was the bext big break. He got to a certain point with the manuscript and then knew he needed help. His confidence in Tsiolkas was buttressed when he read that the older writer liked Palahniuk's Fight Club ("everything since has been crap," he reckons). Over 10 months they met about 10 times at Tsiolkas' house in Melbourne.

In the process they both read the draft out loud and compared the two points of view. They would try to see if their opinions, expressed in the delivery, matched. The process enabled him to "tighten it up" and he sent it to Jane Palfreyman at Random House (since relocated to Allen & Unwin, who will publish Tsiolkas' next book).

Hutchinson's next book is "also extreme" he says. "It's about a guy who's so in love with this person nothing else matters."

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