Sunday 30 April 2006

I had a date to attend a baby shower in the outer western suburbs yesterday and prepared for it by purchasing visiting rights to the new M7 Westlink motorway, which has just been completed (ahead of schedule). The satellite photo of Sydney that hangs over my red vinyl couch doesn't show the motorway, alas, but it does show the roadworks that were gouged into the landscape in preparation for its construction. They weave out from the M2 westward, take a plunge to the south, cross the M4 and head further south into the suburban heartland.

It took me about as long to reach the entrance to the M4 through the choked Saturday streets as it did to negotiate the rest of the journey along the M4 and onto the M7. But my preparations began earlier when I telephoned the road operators, who directed me to the payment Web site, where I entered my details -- such as car registration, name, and credit card details (they don't take American Express: note) -- and clicked submit. I bought access for a whole day to this new toll-based extravaganza, and for a reasonable fee of $1.50 in registration charges. The toll itself depends on the distance travelled, but would only cost about $3.00 each way.

Travelling away from traffic-choked Strathfield on the M4 was a pleasure and at the toll plaza on this much older road I forked out the $2.20 payment that is requisite for passenger cars. The M4 on a Saturday is quite crowded but the brisk pace whips you along at about 90 kilometers per hour, which is the speed limit for most of its length. By the time the speed limit clicks up to 100 kms/hr you're almost at the turn-off.

And what a construction it is. Dubbed the Light Horse Interchange, the intersection of the two motorways is an engineering marvel: concrete columns and ribbons of shiny asphalt that twist and gybe across the landscape for hundreds of meters.

Being a lover of Jeffrey Smart's modernist snapshots, and having produced works of my own celebrating the harsh beauty of infrastructure, the view of cars gliding through the empyrean across broad acres of grass appeals greatly to me. The 70 km/hr right-hand swerve in my little, 1.3-litre Echo was highly pleasurable.

I reached the Richmond Road exit in double time, having passed two intrepid bicyclers on the way, and purred into the confines of Amsterdam Street twenty minutes ahead of schedule. I was the first guest to arrive. Damn those motorways: my baby shower host wasn't even out of the bathroom shower yet.

Monday 17 April 2006

Event: DBC Pierre talks with Caro Llewellyn at The Belgian Beer Café, The Rocks, Sydney, Australia, Sunday 26 March, 2006. Ellipses either indicate indecipherable words (there was a lot of background noise from kitchen and bar) or else just the natural flow of talk.


DBC: Ladies and gentlemen, this is a health and safety warning about the stage: not to move the chairs because we’ll fall off backwards.

CL: You and I first spoke — three years ago?

DBC: Yep.

CL: You’d just won the Booker Prize, for Vernon, and you came out to Sydney and… returned. … with a martini. How is it?

DBC: Fabulous.

CL: Dry?

DBC: It’s just correctly dry. You never start totally dry, with a martini.

CL: Do you go onto dry later?

DBC: Yeah, you move on. In the same way that if you drink rum and coke, always start drinking rum and soda with a dash of coke. And then you can increase or decrease it as the night wears on. It’s the coke that gets you. … the coke is what gets you in the morning… So, a health and safety message.

CL: OK, enough of the alcohol. What we’re here to talk about is your new book and your life since you were last here in Australia. Now, I wanted to talk to you, start off a little bit on Vernon. And the theme of that book was kind of a take on the media. And you were quite hard on them. It was a pretty hard-hitter. And now you’ve chosen another big topic, which is globalisation. You’re not scared of tough topics, are you?

DBC: No, I don’t think of them, I don’t pick them as tough topics, either. So, don’t think that I set out with an agenda to shock or to make any kind of big statement, either. They just seemed such blindingly obvious things in the world around me that I, you know, felt compelled to write about them. In the same way that people in the countryside write about butterflies and nightingales.

CL: Do you think it is the artist’s duty or obligation to talk about politics or to talk about the big social issues of the day? Do you think that that’s the role of art?

DBC: Well, it’s certainly a question. I’m not sure… see art’s a funny one… I’m not sure it should have a defined role. I think it’s true that art definitely needs humanity, at least signs of thought, because artists dream up… they dreamt of flying before we thought about aeroplanes…


DBC: [To the audience] Did you enjoy that?

CL: Are you all awake?

DBC: Art plants the seeds for things to come… First of all I’m not smart enough to imagine what role it should have, or to feel a duty or anything… It’s only helpful to you, in the writing process, if you write about something that you feel compelled to do. These kind of topics surround us as much as trees and flowers these days, so I think it’s the obvious thing to do.

[background noise]

CL: … an Irish writer … and he was speaking about how he thought that — you know, he’s a deeply political writer — and he said that the moment you start a book with a message in mind it kind of is the end of that book. Now that’s interesting for someone who would be classed as a political writer…

DBC: Yeah, no it’s probably true, it’s probably true. And the message of this, for instance, and it’s easily misunderstood, I guess, as well, and Ludmila… it certainly has a lot of political characters in it, and in case you don’t notice, I’ll tell you for the first time that all the characters in here are actually political figures except for one. So that every English character is an ex-prime minister and they have prime ministers’ names, and all the Russian characters save one are figures from Russian history. So if you’re ever stuck on a desert island — including Lenin’s widow, is in there — so if you’re stuck on a desert island there’s a sub-plot about eastern and western politics, just for entertainment, on those days when the plot is hard-going you can default to the sub-plot and… But while it might appear to have an agenda, it doesn’t actually. I disagree with both the main characters in the book to some degree. And it’s just a weighing up of the arguments… I find the arguments interesting. And we’re surrounded these days by reduced, by distilled arguments, liberal and conservative and this and that, and it’s those arguments and their playing out that interests me more than what’s right or wrong.

CL: Did you feel the same way about the argument you were having, say, in Vernon? It seems like you did have more of an idea, more of a concept of what you wanted to say about it.

DBC: Yeah, but it still was just an observation. … I found that quite a positive book, quite hopeful, Vernon, actually. Now that’s a question of finding the love in amongst all that…


If there’s a statement in this one it is that both the arguments are equal, at the end of the day because they’re probably both wrong anyway.


It’s frightening up here… in between that and thinking about falling off the stage, I’m shitting myself.

CL: Have a drink.

[they exchange microphones]

DBC: Yeah, if the work comes from a position, it comes from what I feel is a growing third or fourth group of people, especially in terms of all the terrorism and politics and the conservative and liberal propaganda that’s going on. This one comes from a position that says: well, all of you terrorists are fucked, but your governments are fucked as well. There’s a third position saying: well, both of you can piss off now, both of you have a similar agenda that’s born of pride and not of any real concern. So I guess that’s political. But I’m not educated enough to make decisions about what’s political or not, I’m just observing the thing and running it through the tumble dryer.

CL: I remember you telling me that you were sparked to write Vernon by a very particular event: you were watching a television and you saw an image of a young boy being handcuffed and taken away in a paddy wagon. And that image stuck with you and you went home and began. And that’s where Vernon’s voice came from. Can you talk about what was the spark that lit Ludmila?

DBC: Well, it’s a funny one. It didn’t seem to have such a single trigger, but then, after I’d actually finished drafting it, I saw the spark, and it was two very recent Russian immigrants in a burger joint, that kind of sparked it retrospectively. It might sound strange but the thing grew without a single trigger, it was just born of the times around me. There was a fabulous moment when there was a young lady, come up to the counter of a popular burger bar, and went up to the young lad who was serving there, and she said: “Topermil, please, topermil?” And the lad sort of cranes his ear: “What?” “Topermil.” And you immediately knew that he was just off the boat or the plane from the east somewhere, and she was as well. And they’re standing, facing each other. And after a minute he went “Ahhhhh, Whopper Meal. Two Whopper Meal.” And they spent a couple of minutes teaching each other, he teaching her broken English for Whopper Meal, and it was a fantastic little transaction. And that was in Britain. And really that’s what it’s all about. The theme of our times is migration. And these fantastic misperceptions that we have: who foreigners are, and who we think they think we are, and who we think they think we think they think we are. All of us wrong. There’s this haze of misconception between us: what they think they’re coming to and where we think they’re coming from. And that’s governing world history at the moment. People are on the move as much as any time in history. And it’s very, very interesting stuff, so, it’s just that.

I live in a very remote part of Ireland, and now it has a refugee hostel, because they get their quota of immigrants. And rather than keep them all in Dublin, where they’re going to have fun and set up businesses and become prosperous, they send them to little places like where I live, where there’s 800 people, there’s 16 pubs, and a refugee hostel. Some of these people come from Islam as well: if you can’t go to the pub there’s nothing else to do whatsoever in the town.

CL: Do you think they’ll give up their faith so they can do something?

DBC: No. And to be honest even the ones that drink are having a hard time. It’s very hard. I’m in a very beautiful and reasonably untouched corner of Ireland, and they can’t get their heads around that. You know, a Somali family turning up and trying to make a new life there… And I shouldn’t wonder that the poor Somalis spend an hour in the morning dressing up in all their best stuff and come out onto the street. And they walk 50 yards this way to the end of the town, and 70 yards that way to the other end of the town, and then back to the door of the hostel, and look around. And that’s new life in the west. It’s amazing. It’s very symbolic of what’s going on, I think.

CL: I wanted to talk to you about Ludmila and also Vernon, because they strike me as quite similar characters, in that — obviously they’re very different, but — they’re kind of wild, they’re misunderstood, they’re fighting for their lives. And I’m wondering what draws you to such characters?

DBC: Well that’s a good question. Just because they’re real. I suppose it takes a bit of a leap of imagination because we live in such comfortable and developed countries, but with a little bit of effort, or if you travel a little bit, you could very easily see that no less than 87 percent, or some extraordinary percentage, of world population, is having a really, really hard time on many fronts. If you meet someone who’s lost three generations of their family to a bomb, or to something that’s happened, or people dying from some or another kind of neglect or poverty… It’s tricky, we have such a sweet perception of the human condition, and we’re so lucky… And so I attempt to, although Vernon for instance is from within our culture, that’s still an example of hard going and how hard things can get. And it just seems that the human condition is hard, generally, and that we’re bloody lucky… The other thing, too, is that if I wrote a book that started off nice and got better and ended wonderfully, then nobody would want to read that.

CL: I’m going to ask you to read a short passage here because I also wanted to talk to you about… I mean I think that this is one of the themes of your work, is that your heroes do struggle in the world…

DBC: I struggle in the world, that’s the other thing. Fuckin’ hell. Excuse me. You know, it’s a hard life. You must as well…

CL: So can I get you read a short passage here from Vernon?

DBC: [Reads from Vernon God Little in an American accent]

CL: Do you think the world is harder for people who don’t quite fit the mould?

DBC: It’s funny, you know, I’ve never made a decision about what I think the world is… but I got it all wrong. And then I decided that I wasn’t qualified to make any decisions. But you do get an instinct that… I’m still trying to figure that one out. I certainly don’t think that your loose cannons and your explosive people roaming outside the herd are any danger at all to society. In fact they’re probably the mixers that keep the rest of us in some sort of cohesiveness. But I’m still wondering what the relative benefits are of sticking with the pack and just having a nice life versus … not quite getting things together and staying outside the edge of it. And it’s interesting… we need both of them anyway, really. Especially, if you’re a bit of an outsider you need the herd to come and pick up the pieces when you hit the wall. And they probably need something to look at on TV every night.

CL: I wanted to talk to you about being an outsider because you’ve really lived a life as an outsider in a lot of ways. When you were five or six, I can’t remember, you left home, which was Adelaide and went…

DBC: God bless it.

CL: And you went to Mexico where you obviously were an outsider, then you went to America, now you’re in Ireland. One of the things that people say about your work, and I think about your work, is that you have an unbelievable eye for going to truth, and that you…

DBC: That’s ironic.

CL: It’s true. You know, you see, through Vernon you saw it, and through Ludmila you see it as well. Do you think that that’s because you have always been kind of an observer, and how important is that position for your work? From being an outsider looking into.

DBC: It’s probably very important. I don’t think about it. But it’s a hell of a thing when you’re a kid, not really belonging to anywhere. And I went through the process, I mean Australia’s mixed up in there as well, because I left here very young, almost too young to really remember much… And going to a place where I was clearly a foreigner and going through the process of really clinging onto what I thought was my identity, which was this one, and then coming back here after a while and finding that my accent had gone all American… and I had to abandon this self-identity, if you like. And then England came into the thing, which is where I spent probably more time, but I was still foreign there. I’ve been foreign everywhere. And it took me till I was about probably in my late twenties to just abandon the whole search, and just shrug and decide not to really be from anywhere.

And since writing I have found that that’s really helpful, actually. It’s good. You’ll notice that Vernon — which is about a much earlier part of my life — it’s set in Texas which I haven’t been to for a long time. I wrote that in London. And it was much easier to sit outside of Texas, because you get a distilled sense of the flavour; everything sort of distils into a single set of colours, which is easier to write about. You don’t get distracted with the details of everyday life in a place. Likewise, the British setting of Ludmila I wrote in Ireland. So that that London setting kind of distilled in my mind. And I think that’s pretty helpful. Though, strictly, the jury’s still out. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing. I guess it’s something you have to work through. But it’s good to, definitely, to observe it from the outside.

CL: So, how did you, I mean a big section of the book is set in a fictional town in the Caucasus, which I think you based on Armenia, is that right? You went there, is that correct?

DBC: Uh huh. Yeah, it’s based a little bit… Actually, I researched it as much as I could on paper and on the Internet, whatever. And once I’d drafted the setting, then I went there, just to see how accurate I was.

CL: And were you accurate?

DBC: It’s interesting. My editor, actually, my Faber editor and the chief of fiction and the next Prince of Wales, is here.

CL: Put your hand up, John.

DBC: And he asked me… He’s just arrived now from London to let me buy him a beer. And I actually went to the Caucasus once the book was drafted. And he asked me when I came back what changes that visit might suppose upon the work. And the only thing was the severe downgrading of Ludmila’s lifestyle. People say ‘that’s a bit harsh,’ because she gets raped by her grandfather and, you know, that’s in the first chapter. And that wasn’t originally in the work. It’s only when I’d been there and come back that I discovered I’d written a far-too benign a place… desperate, desperate… especially some of the border regions in the Caucasus are absolutely extraordinary. And there are towns up there — robust towns — where we found no less that half the population were mentally retarded due to neglect and… incest. And there was a tradition, or there was a custom, of belief that if you were touched with a handicapped child the best remedy was to marry them to another handicapped child, to set them free together, so they’re actually breeding a new race of mentally handicapped. Very, very hard to take. And it’s not as if there is any kind of social network, any care for them at all. Really desperate.

And there are refugees, if you take Armenia’s situation… it was very important to go because this book, the setting is in active conflict, and there are all those little cultures up and down the Caucasus that are trying to secede from a mother state, and become independent republics. But when you go there what you find actually is just festering aftermaths of war. It’s almost less active conflict than there is just an aftermath of something that’s gone before. And nobody has come to help them, there’s really no hope. And so, in Armenia’s case, on the borders, they’ve technically had a cease-fire now for at least 11 or 12 years. Their hostilities were about 15 years ago, and people that fled on the first day of that war, 15 years ago, are still in the hostel they came to that first day in 1990 or 1991, waiting for something to happen. And nothing has happened, and literally, you know… there’s a scene in here where a woman has an unexploded RPG — a rocket-propelled grenade — in her kitchen, which is inconveniently left, and, actually, I saw that in the town I was in. There was a man, who took me to his house — a lovely, stone, two-storey structure — nice and big, and really nicely constructed. And he had a family of six, but 13 or 14 years ago an RPG came through the ceiling and embedded itself in the cellar but didn’t go off, and it’s just got the shaft sticking up. And it still hasn’t gone off. And he and his family, 13 years ago, moved into the garden shed. So seven or eight of them live in the shed, still, today, because they don’t want this thing to go off in the night. And there’s kids playing with it. I mean, he took me in to see it, and he kicked it irritatedly. We all jumped for the floor. Frightfully, it’s just a reality, you’d think, well, you know, somebody must be able to come and take that out or defuse it or something… it came over the mountain one day, and that’s it. It’s just abandoned there. And the amount of aftermaths that we’re ending up with… Iraq could be one in many areas. There’re just all these places that had a conflict. And that was it. That’s where it ended. And they’re still stuck on that first day of war and that’s an amazing idea. The same way with deforesting places for wood: we’re sort of deforesting cultures and just going and messing them up, and they’re just staying messed up.

CL: How did you get the voice right?

DBC: Ah, the voice! [In a thick, East-European accent] Because, I not myself speak not correctly English. [In normal voice] I love foreign vernaculars.

CL: You can do just about any accent, can’t you?

DBC: Here’s another big, big concept behind this novel. Even as much a globalisation, is this fabulous thing — which just completely escapes us now, because it’s too basic, because we’ve forgotten the basics of life — is that each word that we use is a concept, it’s like a little treasure chest, and it’s filled with a structure, which is a whole idea. And the idea has a format of maximum and minimum and, you know, volume and tone and base. It’s extraordinary. And each word is laden with meaning. And we forget that, because we speak for convenience, and we just forget how beautiful it is that not much has to change in the meaning of a word to render it useless. And then, I’m trying to deal with foreign places, especially where the meaning of words is very different and the syntax will be very different, subject and object will be inverted, something will be different that renders the concept backwards in a certain way. The margin for error, the possibility of misunderstanding there, I thought, was a fantastic thing. And I’m sure that’s half the reason that there is conflict at all anywhere. Is that we go, we translate… we might say, right, we’ll sign this treaty with Upper Volta or whatever, and they sign the treaty, but there’ll be a word or something in there that they’ve added with a little more colour to it because it’s customary. You know, there is no literal translation, and that’s a beautiful idea, and that so fascinates me.

And the idea behind this language came from the old, bollocksed-up signs that you see in foreign hotels sometimes. There’ll be [in thick, Eastern-European accent] Don’t please to put in the, don’t never…

[first side of tape ends, and there’s unfortunately a delay before I notice this, sorry]

DBC: … that attracts that lie there and nobody seems to have picked up on it, but the thing is, the lie only appears once for 30 seconds, and then there are eight months of very intelligent people talking it to death and turning it into a reasonable type of thing and arguing around the edges of it. And I thought that was a very interesting phenomenon, and I didn’t know if I’d written this book as I had started out to — with a single, English character having an internal argument between two sides of himself — and taking a lot of trouble to make it very plausible, whether I was abetting this delusional quality that — the habit we now have — of taking the unbelievable and making it believable.

CL: You’re talking about the twins here, Bunny and Blair…

DBC: For instance, yeah.

CL: …for those of you who don’t know, are — and I can’t remember the medical term that you use — co-joined at the waist, and they are separated… Do you want some more of this? [indicates the martini]

DBC: We did this last time.

CL: Now, their story is a fascinating one, too, that you use that as a metaphor for the bigger picture about — and which you wrap up very nicely towards the end of the book — (it’s a metaphor for) the globalisation discussion that’s going on within the novel.

DBC: Yeah, I had endless pain doing that, though. I had so much pain that I can tell you, it was the afternoon of the 24th of August, 2003, down by the river next to my house, where I finally decided that I had to avoid two things. First: working to make the thing plausible, when I lived in such an obviously implausible world, in terms of its plot. And secondly: to not do what I thought was the traditional labour of burying the symbol, making the symbol subtle, but to rather make the work about the symbols and celebrate the fact that they were purely symbolic, and stuff like that. Because it’s just, you know, you can only really write what you see, and if the media is such a puppet show, such a children’s program now, the world agenda, the way things move really is big, you know, bright blue and yellow and red fluffy creatures as opposed to the … and intelligent type of movements that we’re given to believe they are. So, the answer is, yes, whatever you said, the answer is yes.

CL: Can I get you to read another couple of pages for the first time from Ludmila?

DBC: OK. These pages here? Alright, without giving the ending of the book away it’s the story of a girl who ends up becoming a Russian Internet bride, and two soft Englishmen, one of whom desperately needs to get laid and, through the novel, how these two cultures come together, and what happens when they finally meet. So, there’s a moment after they’ve met where the English characters find themselves held captive: they’ve fallen into the middle of a secessionist conflict in the Caucasus. And one of these twins is called Blair and the other called Bunny.

[Reads from Ludmila’s Broken English in his normal voice]

Now a song, a quick song. We’ll sing the national anthem of the Caucasus.

CL: Now, I am going to open up to questions from you all in a minute, but I wanted to talk to you… because the twins, you know, they’re together but there’s a couple of things that also run through your books, and one is self-interest, certainly in Vernon God Little everybody is acting with self-interest except, well, probably Vernon in a way, and now in this book as well, everybody’s kind of out for their own, and I just wanted to ask you why that’s such a part of the work. Do you think that’s the way of the world?

DBC: In a way. It’s curious. I think we do, certainly, our cultures do, definitely, and we’re encouraged to do that, we’re encouraged into the selfishness because… it keeps the economy moving. And so long as the economy’s the number one factor… then obviously that’s the smart thing to do, to make sure that we believe we deserve this. And in Vernon’s case it was that I seriously… it seemed to me plausible that the children that were falling through the net, children that weren’t rich and weren’t athletes and weren’t academic and were storing all these stresses until they popped and exploded and maybe had to do without. Maybe they were living in a world of unfulfilled promises, a world where you had to succeed or die. And so it was much clearer than for this one but, it’s interesting that you bring it up, because I think here and there in an area as poor as Ludmila comes from, there is probably an authentic kind of self-interest which is just fear and hunger where, you know — it’s one thing to be poor for a few years — but when the generations are poor and the whole body and mind is betrayed to safeguard and to take resources, then I think the mechanism becomes much more anthropological and the mother will, the correctly-calibrated mother might, deny herself to feed her children, but beyond that people do have to look after themselves, really. Things like friendship are a very luxurious thing, we’re privileged to be able to develop relationships where you can actually give little things to others. Not to say they don’t exist…

CL: We’ve talked a lot about the darker side of the book, but it is also very funny and… hilarious in parts. And I read that you said once, you said there was truth in humour. I just wanted you to talk a little bit about that.

DBC: Well humour, you see they’ve never been able to figure that one out, have they? They’ve said that dogs have a sense of humour. Dogs tell jokes, apparently. They can pull stunts and do things just for fun which… puts it in a whole new category of life force. And I think humour is that bit where you put things that you cannot figure out by any other system. And we’re burdened with this old, Platonic logics and reasons, the sense of reason that we’ve inherited from thousands of years that we’re still using, it’s like trying to run Windows XP on a Commodore 64. Incredible things happen. We’re still using this old, vertical, you know, if, then, else, these different mechanisms of mind to figure the world out. And, increasingly, the place we put stuff that you just cannot understand is into humour. If you’re lucky. And the tragic, unfortunately, falls into that category, I think. Stuff that’s just too big, it’s so horrible that you really have to laugh, goes in there. And there is an extraordinary truth in it but stuff that’s impossible to sum up. There’s extraordinary power in the punch line of a joke, especially when it’s about something quite horrible. It’s a cathartic power. You immediately understand how absolutely pointless it is to stop smoking or to eat salad, because a piano has just fallen on a man or something. And it’s tragic to have a grand piano fall on you from a 20-storey building. But when you tell that to someone, that will bring a laugh. And there’s something in the moment that that connects to the brain which I think is still beyond us to describe scientifically. And it is probably an all-encompassing truth… These situations are too tragic to describe in any other way. And I would be unqualified, as well, really… for a native of these countries, to write, if it weren’t comedic. Does that make sense?

CL: Yep. Do you know a joke about a piano?

DBC: No, I’m not telling it to you.

CL: Now, I will ask if there are questions from… Yep?

Audience member: Hi Pierre.

DBC: Hi.

Audience member: I just want to know… You’ve had very mixed reviews for Ludmila. How do you feel about that?

DBC: I haven’t seen any of them. It doesn’t matter. Well, first of all, I just feel lucky to have a job, anyway. So I’m not that fussed, but if those reviews came out when I was still writing it, that would be problematic. But there’s a timeline -- and it’s easy to forget -- that once you deliver a book it walks on its own feet, and I’m just not responsible for it. There’s nothing you can absolutely do any more, you can’t go back in and shift anything… it’s all after the fact. I don’t know, I learnt with the first one all I could do is: best foot forward and not take them so seriously. You know, I had to take risks and try and become a good writer, as best I could. And that’ll take a while. You know, people come out of Cambridge University that learn how to do all this, I haven’t done that. So I’m just figuring it out from scratch and playing it by ear. And it’s probably not healthy for me then to look at the reviews at all… powerless, powerless.

Audience member: [indecipherable]

DBC: Yeah, I heard it. The movie rights to Vernon God Little. Well, they were optioned very early on. So I don’t know if anything will happen. It’s a tricky and very different industry, that, so somebody’s very interested to make it but I don’t know if they will or not. So, good luck to them… How many Siamese twins are there in Hollywood?

Audience member: [indecipherable]

DBC: Do you know what happens? That’s a good question. I plan all the story in great detail and then do something completely different. What I do is write a chapter-by-chapter game plan, for exactly what’s going to happen, because I think that’s sensible, to have a road map. Because, especially, they’re long works, and stuff like plotting isn’t a subject of inspiration or art really, that is a craft like carpentry, is what I’ve discovered. I think, anyway. You have to build the framework. It’s a very different thing from having big ideas about things. So, I sit down and plan the thing very precisely, and within the chapter at most: completely off on some other tangent, and just let it happen, and then I’d spend a furious six months trying to reconcile the plan with what… Somewhere in there it works out… The characters strike in different directions… and as you get to know them you see that they’re… It’s interesting, the characters want to do things that they’re not supposed to do. And so they sort of lead you elsewhere. I’m trying to plan.

CL: …that idea about character because you, I mean they are part of your life for many, many years. How hard is it to let them go at the end of the process?

DBC: No, it’s easy in the end. It’s easy. If you had these people as roommates for three years, you’d be happy to see them go. You’d have one, last big night and send them off. It’s funny, you know, they mature. There is a natural end, is what I’ve found. People always say ‘when do you know when the book’s finished?’ You know, there’s a moment when you can’t go through it again, you’ve been through it and through it. And there’s a moment when the life is complete within the confines of the book. And that’s, then, the way. You’re not responsible any more. And, suddenly, you’re just a reader. I feel very much like a prophetic reader. As a writer, you’re not that respons… I don’t believe that, you know, autonomous creativity being responsible. It’s like you’re instrumental in a thing. Because you’re using bits of things that happen around you and throwing them onto pages, that doesn’t make you 100 per cent responsible for it. You reassemble a thing and put it out, but at the end of the day you’re just a reader, a reader with a… And, so it’s easy to let them go, yeah, they come to you sort of retrospectively fully-formed and just pass through.

CL: Now, this book comes with a CD that you have compiled…

DBC: [With a thick, eastern-European accent] But you don’t get it, if you pay 30 dollar you don’t get CD. Talk to me for that. Pirate CD.

CL: The music is, well it’s not so much a big part of this book other than you get the CD with it, but in Vernon it was, certainly, the country-and-western music… very briefly because we’re almost out of time… the sound-track of your life. What are the…

DBC: The sound-track of my life? You’d have to break it into what I would like it to be and what it probably is.

CL: OK, start with what it is and then you can get onto…

DBC: Start with what it is? Do I just get one song to pick?

CL: No, three.

DBC: I get three songs? Thanks. God, what would I pick for the sound-track of my life. It’s probably broken into sections. Probably starts with Imelda Marcos singing Feelings, which was… I’ve spent many years trying to hunt that down. She actually recorded that on a CD, back in the days when she used to serenade on the Malacanang Palace balcony. And she did a cover of Feelings which was so… I mean, obviously it’s appalling but… it falls in that category of art that somebody who has such self-belief… and there is truth in that that they’ve such self-belief and they believe that they’re absolutely shredding their heart to give these feelings out to the… That completely justifies itself. That’d have to be the first one. The second one would have to be Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, it’s a little bit grandiose, but… And the third one without question… I don’t know if you still… on TV here, but it would have to be the theme from Humphrey Bear: ‘What a funny old fellow is Humphrey, he gets in all manner of strife. He really is an amazing bear, and honey’s his favourite fare.’

CL: ‘It’s hardly so very surprising.’

DBC: What’s the rest?

Together: ‘He’s a really amazing old bear.’

DBC: What’s the rest of it, then. I think in Ireland they banned him because he didn’t wear pants, is that right?

Audience member: What writers do you think have been influential in your life?

DBC: Not many of them, because I haven’t read that much. I get too deeply lost in books, but I reckon… Now someone asked me this before and I was forced to think about it, and I reckon: Miller, Death of a Salesman, it’s a play that influenced me a lot and I actually turned into one of the characters as well, that’s how much it influenced me. Evelyn Waugh. You know I only read, I think, one or two works by him but I was absolutely captivated by that, especially the recurrences and that, sort of, the magical, the coincidental way that the work fed on itself and the characters kept interconnecting. That was it. And, probably, Kerouac for the way he’d just go on and on and on. I grew up in Mexico and Kerouac wrote the most instantly, well I’d say the most impressive piece about Mexico in On the Road.

Audience member: I’ve read it. Yeah, it’s good.

DBC: Yeah. Well, having grown up in the place, I thought, he’s absolutely nailed it on the head just in a few words. And that convinced me… it was as if… I felt like the only man in the world who knew he was absolutely right. People have looked without seeing… Just, you know, a really good take on that. So they were influential.

CL: I actually think we’re out of time, although we have… DBC will be available to sign books over there, from the bookshop. And I’d like to thank, again, the venue, thank you all for coming. We’re going to be back in full swing in May, for a full festival and our program will be out on April 8th, and I hope we’ll see you again. But I’d like to say, Pierre, it’s been a pleasure, the martinis were great, thank you very much.

DBC: Thank you very much.

CL: Thank you.

Sunday 16 April 2006

Review: Otherwise Pandemonium, Nick Hornby (2005)

Nick Hornby’s short story ‘Otherwise Pandemonium’ appeared first in 2002 in McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. This time it appears in a Penguin paperback along with another short story, totalling 56 pages. It’s a nice little edition in the publisher’s 70 Years series, put out to celebrate the milestone — Penguin was founded by Allen Lane in 1935. Other authors in the 70-book series include Nabokov (‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’), Jorge Luis Borges (‘The Mirror of Ink’), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (‘Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen’) and Kafka (‘The Great Wall of China’). This volume is No. 3 in the series. I bought it recently at an Angus & Robertson bookshop along with two others in the series — all for $5.

The title story is about a 15-year-old and it’s narrated in the first person; he buys a $50 VCR that has magical properties: it can fast-forward and rewind network TV. This means that he can see into the future. He bought it in a Berkeley, CA, second-hand electronics store to record TV sports shows while he participates in the Little Berkeley Big Band. The story starts by saying that it will describe how he lost his virginity. It’s humorous and light. But the new-old VCR doesn’t bring him any joy at first:

And none of it was any use to me. Who wants to know stuff before it happens? People might think they do, but believe me, they don’t, because if you know stuff before it happens, there’s nothing to talk about. A lot of school conversation is about TV and sports; and what people like to talk about is what just happened (which I now can’t remember, because it was three games back, or the episode before last) or what might happen. And when people talk about what might happen, they like to argue, or make dumb jokes; they don’t want someone coming in and squashing it all flat. It’s all, ‘No, man, Shaq’s not looking so young any more, I think the Pacers can take them.’ ‘No way! The Pacers have no defense. Shaq’s going to destroy them.’

While fast-forwarding he finds out something important, however. He decides to go and see the guy in the electronics store, who had used the machine before him — there had been something weird about him.

He tells Martha — this girl in the band, who he likes — about the VCR. They watch. They make love. They plan to spend more time together.

He’s writing for the future where we — his readers — are, after the Time of the Static. It was something really important.

The second story in the volume, ‘Not a Star,’ is about a family with a 23-year-old son who, they discover, is acting in porn films. The narrator, Lynn, is the mother. She’s seen the video, which had been dropped in their letter box by a meddling neighbour. Dave, her husband, is disgusted and won’t watch it. An amusing story with a quiet, goosebump-making thrill at the end.

  ‘What about AIDS?’
  I got up, put my dressing gown on and hammered on Mark’s door.
  ‘What about AIDS?’
  ‘Go to bed.’
  ‘No. Not until you’ve talked to me.’
  ‘I’m not going into and details. But I’m not daft.’
  ‘You’d better give me a few more details than that. That’s not enough.’
  ‘Thanks a bunch. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever to worry about.’

This story is set in the U.K. and even Little Britain gets a mention! It’s a funny story, so it’s apt that the best British comedy show should pop up. Lynn is talking with her sister, Helen:

I wanted to laugh at her, but I couldn’t laugh at that, because I knew what she meant. It was sort of what I felt when I saw the cover of the video: that there was something about the photo that wasn’t in my language, or wasn’t aimed at my age group. I feel that way sometimes when Mark’s watching that comedy programme when some man dressed as a woman says ‘Yeah, but, no, but…’ and he just starts laughing.
  Now I think about it, this whole thing with Mark is like an episode of Little Britain, because I don’t know whether it’s funny or not.

Their mother comes back from the shops and the conversation turns to her dead husband, his death four years previously, and her distraction at the thought of it. Lynn realises that there are worse things in life than finding out your son is in the porn business.
Review: Theft: A Love Story, Peter Carey (2006)

Bellingen is a small, quiet town located between Armidale and Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales north coast. The bush is lush and tropical up there and the area is known for its high rainfall. Situated on the Waterfall Highway and the Bellinger River, the town is a few kilometres from the coast. I drove up past the turn-off along the Pacific Highway in December. In fact, I bought petrol in Macksville, about 40 kilometres to the south. The place is surrounded on all sides by national parks.

The novel opens in a rainstorm. A dog drowns. A strange woman comes to visit Butcher Bones in his hideaway, his refuge from an acrimonious divorce. She’s attractive and bedraggled, leaving her rental car at his studio so she can inspect a Jacques Leibovitz painting at Dozy Boylan’s place across the raging creek. Butcher is curious, she knows all about Leibovitz, and he never expected to hear all this stuff here, in the middle of nowhere on the NSW north coast. He’s intrigued and attracted. He takes her to Boylan’s house. Boylan telephones him during the visit. He insults Boylan. But Bellingen is a temporary lodging and Butcher and Hugh, his mentally-challenged brother, are soon driving off in the ute to Sydney. Butcher wants money. The rest of the book is about how he gets it and what, in the end, he is prepared to do to this end.

So I did not call him. I would do it later. I would get over it. He would get over it, or so I thought. I was wrong, wrong about almost everything, and I would wander on blindly for the next few weeks before I finally discovered the real source of Dozy’s upset, and in the meantime there developed one of those strange silences between friends that, like a torn shoulder muscle left unattended, grows hard and lumpy and finally locks into a compacted knot of injury that no amount of manipulation can undo.
  He spoke to Hugh, I know, and sometimes gave him lifts in his Land Rover, but although I saw Dozy many times upon the road and although he quietly returned my slasher after dark one night, I never actually spoke to him again. I would see that Leibovitz within the year, but by then Dozy would be dead.

Such sudden endings are commonplace in this book. In fact, in the whirl of action, amid the tensions of the main characters, the final separation of Butcher and Marlene is accomplished in similar fashion, almost improbably. But it happens. Carey has no time for drawn-out conclusions, liking his short and sweet. No time to muck around with rationalisations and arguments. His characters speak and act with aplomb, if not always to best advantage for themselves. This almost spastic jerking to and fro is trademark Carey. It’s visible in all his books. He plans his moves and executes them. Period.

There can be something thin and watery about the narrative, however, as the brothers proceed to Sydney’s central business district to take up residence in an abandoned dance studio. Carey is trucking in his old tricks; the pace is vicious and un-centred, with shifts happening all over the place and the main characters just coping with it all. Hugh’s contributions are a godsend, however, giving us a wry take on the action as Butcher attempts — to do what? He sells a new painting to Jean-Paul Milan, his sponsor, whose studio they had been inhabiting until evicted by the local council.

Always about, all my life, whether on the chair in front of our shop or in the pony cart taking orders. In Bellingen always on the road, the air in summer thick with floating thistle seeds and spiders travelling miles like balloonists on their webs, and in the city too, I would rather be outside during the hours when it was safe to be so, and I took a folding chair down to the footpath and witnessed all the human clocks passing me, pumping, sloshing—there is one, there another, and each one the centre of the world. You can go half mad looking at them, like gazing at the stars at night and thinking of infinity. What a strain it is. Our mother suffered it, always looking at eternity with her watery eyes, poor Mum, God bless her.

Butcher’s current bedlam of a life contrasts strongly with the life he led as a father and husband, when his works were still in demand. And Carey can write about calm and contentment with as much conviction as he can write about disappointment and rage. Between Butcher’s bouts of insanity there’s the under-burdened monologues of his brother Hugh — mentally retarded but not enough to dim the quakings of his earthly life. Life is full and provides its own scenery, in Carey’s novel. While Hugh is wistful about life in Bacchus Marsh, Butcher is sentimental about life before his wife became the Plaintiff.

Even at four years of age, my son was very serious about his duties in the studio and you could give him a pair of tweezers and set him to picking up dust and hairs and finally he would leave the paint as slick and unperturbed as melting ice. Children raised on Space Invaders and Battlezone will tire quickly of this stuff—no enemy to destroy, no gold coins to collect—but my Bill was a Bones deep to his bloody marrow and he worked beside his dad and uncle, solemn, freckle-faced, with his lower lip stuck out, his tongue half up his nose, and there were many days in East Ryde when we had been all three silently engaged in the sweet monotony of such housekeeping, hours punctuated by not much more than the song of blackbirds in the garden or a loud friarbird with its wattles hanging like sexual embarrassments on its ugly urgent face. Of course my apprentice was also a boy with his own employment, climbing the jacaranda, falling, howling, hooked by a branch stuck through his britches, suspended twenty feet up in the air, but Bill loved Hugh, and me, and the three of us could labour side by side sustained by nothing more than white sugar rolled in a fresh lettuce leaf and never called to dinner until we called ourselves, our stomachs sounding like the timbers in a clinker boat finally riding at anchor for the night.

Once in Japan, the plot seems to thicken, but the full implications of the Leibovitz thread of the story haven’t been elucidated. Butcher is happy to find his show has gone well, but feels dislocated by the knowledge this gives him. Marlene tries to educate him — and us — on the machinations of the top end of town where art is concerned, but we don’t get the full wrap yet. It’s only half-way through the book and there’s plenty of time for the wrap-up.

That morning, after breakfast, we both returned to the scene of the crime at Mitsukoshi. I expected I would feel better when we entered. We both expected it, I think. But instead my work seemed lost and alien, almost meaningless, like wretched polar bears in a north Queensland zoo. What did these punters think? I asked a fellow with a blond streak on his head, but that was later, after lunch. I had been drinking, and Marlene shooshed me and we went out in the streets and walked a little, not stopping at the bars.

Carey has a store of apt and humorous lines. Travelling to New York is like “being bounced through the heavens like a ping-pong ball inside a gumboot.”

In New York, the plot starts to thicken. We are, after all, in the centre of the cultural world. After getting rid of Hugh, Marlene and Butcher do the galleries, including MoMA. When Marlene goes off to do her art business, Butcher goes off to sketch.

Did I love New York? I loved her. If she had been with me every day, I doubt I would have picked up the ink sticks, but the business of the Leibovitz dragged on. So when my genius little thief went out like a pooka playing tricks, I put on my twenty-dollar coat and took my ink sticks and sketchpad, first down the block onto Canal Street, then onto Chinatown, East Broadway, then the deep charcoal shadows beneath the Manhattan Bridge, and from there to an awful place beneath the FDR at 21st Street, the undercarriage of a crashed machine, abandoned, scabs of rust and concrete falling as I worked.

As the facts are revealed, our interest mounts. While Hugh flutters grimly in the background, Marlene’s revelations come as a release, propelling the narrative forward. The reappearance of Amberstreet, the skinny detective from Bellingen and Sydney, in New York, makes the novel almost appear as a cross-genre novel: literary and crime fiction rolled into one. And while the crimes are finally high-brow, the influence on Butcher of these secret dealings is catastrophic. He turns in on himself. Having already spent time inside as a result of his behaviour after his divorce, Butcher appears to have assimilated some of the cunning of a crim and goes about his work with customary gusto.

The novel is successful and worth reading. The alternation of the narrative focalisation between Hugh and Butcher is nice. Hugh’s comic take on life is a relief from the concentrated despair of Butcher, who flails around situations without ever coming to grips with their reality. Marlene is a smooth operator, a model for a movie villainess, all skinny agility and purposeful talk.

The nature of the art world is here revealed, but the movements and doings of art dealers is not adequately gone into, although it is frequently decried by Butcher in his normal abrupt voice. He doesn’t like much, but he likes Marlene a lot. He’s almost a tragic character, like a wounded tough guy, a bit of an outsider who is wasted by life but loves deeply. This would make a good movie.

Wednesday 5 April 2006

Gleebooks has mailed me a copy of DBC Pierre's second novel, Ludmila's Broken English. Because I had advance-ordered my original copy by telephone, and no doubt due to the fact that they had a bunch of copies left over after his visit to Sydney, I get a free, signed hardback. He signs his name 'Peter Finlay' and has sketched a little beer mug showing a good head of beer, plus the word 'Cheers.' I collected it from the post office this afternoon.

I telephoned Gleebooks to thank them for the gift. They were pleased.

On Monday I collected my copy of Peter Carey's Theft: A Love Story from Gleebooks. I like doing business with them because they get books earlier than other vendors. They really are a quality outfit, and stock a great range of books, including most of the small, local magazines that are hard to get anywhere else.

Sunday 2 April 2006

Review: The Whites of their Eyes: Profiles by David Leser, David Leser (1999)

Dewey Decimal Classification: 080 17

Leser's 1999 book often seems dated. His profile of John Howard is wildly out of date. The 1998 election, won with a diminished margin, is ancient history now, and nowadays Howard seems bullet-proof: a major player both internationally and domestically.

His profile of Pauline Hanson is better, and that of Kim Beazley even better yet. Beazley is nowadays beleaguered by party squabbles after four losses to the Liberals. His popularity rating is declining and his soft-spoken earnestness seems at odds with the aspirations of the wider community.

Andrew Denton, too, has moved on but, in his case, to greater things, becoming Australia's first interviewer, the equal to Britain's Michael Parkinson. Denton's subtle technique and his ability to draw out the best from his subjects has earned him the applause of the nation, not just that of more dutiful ABC watchers.

Other Leser profiles are of forgotten quantities. Who knows Petrea King or Michael Kroger? Big names in their time, perhaps, but the past decade has effaced even the last trace of these individuals from the popular consciousness. Same goes for Michael Gudinski and Richard Wherrett.

Alan Jones continues to fester in the body public, a thorn in the side of intelligent journalism, and a source of enervation for the great unwashed, spewing out torrents of matter that serve to excite but not question. Jones doesn't come out of the profile looking very good at all. A bully in private and a bully abroad, he seems to embody everything bad that you can say about shock jocks and talk-back radio. Who listens to this crap? Obviously some people do, or he wouldn't be on air at all.

Leser is a good journalist, that's clear enough, but it is surely a criticism of his style that the pieces about people who have disappeared from public view make your eyes glaze over and wish it would end, so you can get onto something more substantial. While he is trenchant in his questioning and broad in his coverage, when the material is out of date he is not compelling. The updates at the end of each piece only take you up to the publishing date, and so much has happened since 1999 that it is not enough to whet your curiosity.

Worth an afternoon on the couch but not the most compelling book available.