Six Degrees from the City is a podcast about writing in Western Sydney, hosted by the writer and critic Fiona Wright. Each episode features a writer based in or hailing from the western suburbs of Sydney, one of the most diverse – as well as most maligned – areas in Australia, and the site of some of our most interesting and challenging literature and conversations. This episode features Luke Carman, a novellist and essayist from Mount Pritchard.
Luke’s collection of stories An Elegant Young Man won the 2015 NSW Premier’s Prize for New Writing, and was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and Queensland Premier’s Prize for short fiction; it also saw him named one of the SMH Young Novellists of the Year in 2014. His essays have been published in Meanjin and The Sydney Review of Books. Luke’s work is largely set it and around Mount Pritchard and Liverpool, and is known for its caustic, quick-fire humour and expansive worldview.
‘Shame is the theme of everything I write in some ways, and you know…as silly as it sounds, as you know I did my doctorate on the subject of shame in relation to Australian literature. And I think in a lot of ways it’s a classically, canonically Australian approach to literature, is to be… it’s not quite the same thing as a cultural cringe, but it’s related, and it’s an uncertainty about the project of literature in the first place. How do you begin to…I think of some great popular novels, say, Eucalyptus, which begins, to me it’s almost funny, Eucalyptus begins with this long, what would you say? Encyclopedic introduction to… native flora? You know, it’s going into, essentially, this love story, but it has to begin with this really analytical, clinical throat-clearing in order to get into intimacy! And I think that’s, for me, a great example of how Australian literature works. You have to fend off these imaginary accusations before you even get started! Or this kind of baroque internal critic, always hanging around the corner, or leering…
I’ve changed my mind a lot about how shame works in Australian culture, and I go back and forth… But I know it’s there, and it’s also been, it was actually a big obstacle to getting started, when I was young and I was writing, because it was just an immovable object in the middle of everything I wrote. And my editor early on, Ivor Indyk, when you and I were first starting out, way back when, in 2007, we had that writing group and there was a point where I’d been coming for about a year and Ivor eventually said to me, look, you’re not getting it, you’re always aborting the story only moments after getting into it. And his argument was that it was out of a kind of shame. I was attempting to make these, as you say, big gestures, and then out of absolute embarrassment, bailing on it and tearing the narrative apart and never developing anything. And he was trying to explain this to me week in, week out, and eventually he just said, look, you’re not getting it, I think it’s best if you don’t come back any more [laughs]. And so I really panicked. I really tried to understand what he meant, and I saw that structurally, how shame was working in my writing. And it was that… I think shame is the incomplete withdrawal of attention, I think that’s one way of talking about shame. And what was happening was, sensing my exposure in the text, whenever anything starts to develop, I would, and you know, rationalising it by saying, I’m trying to be experimental with structure, I would just tear everything to pieces and I’d just sink out of it and I’d say, oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway. And who cares about stories? And so it was a really hard thing to overcome in the beginning.
Acknowledgements and links
Six Degrees from the City is supported by the Crown Packer Foundation, the Sydney Review of Books and the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. Music is by Phil Faddoul. Special thanks to Ben Denham for production assistance.
Fiona Wright: Hello, and welcome to Six Degrees from the City, a podcast about writing and Western Sydney. I’m your host, Fiona Wright, and I’m delighted to be talking in this episode to the novellist and essayist Luke Carman.
Luke’s collection of stories An Elegant Young Man won the 2015 NSW Premier’s Prize for New Writing, and was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and Queensland Premier’s Prize for short fiction; it also saw him named one of the SMH Young Novellists of the Year in 2014. His essays have been published in Meanjin and The Sydney Review of Books.
Luke lives in Mount Pritchard, near Liverpool, and almost all of his works are set at least in part in this suburb. He joined me to talk about self-effacement and shame, the strange public nature of publishing, and his affinity for the writer Gerald Murnane. Here’s Luke reading from his recent essay, ‘A Northern Rivers Romance’.
[Luke Carman reads from ‘A Northern Rivers Romance’.]
FW: I’m so glad you read that piece!
Luke Carman: Thank you. I didn’t hate it, reading it back again. That’s good!
FW: That’s a great start! But I love it because I think it’s such an interesting piece, technically. All of that first section is set in an office, or a bedroom in the suburbs, but you kind of draw on all these dreams and memories and speculation, all the ‘paranoid fantasies’, as you call them. And the whole piece works like that, this kind of weaving together of different times and places.
LC: That was the real trick of writing that essay, and it was in some ways the whole point of doing it. I found that… it’s an interesting thing, I think this will relate in some ways to discussion of Gerald Murnane as well, but I find that there’s a really strong limitation to my imagination. Or maybe it’s not necessarily a limitation, but it’s something obsessive, maybe, in my imagination. And I always come back, as a starting point, to the room that I grew up in. When I’m trying to begin a narrative internally, when I’m sitting down or when I’m taking a walk and I’m thinking, what’s this narrative going to be, how do I begin to tell this story, say, of going to Byron Bay for a week, meeting all these different authors, being in front of people every single day, and performing the persona of a writer and seeing how other people do it? And balancing all of these different concerns and my own affinity, very limited affinity with Byron Bay itself. And how do I get all of this across? And so I did what I always do, which I generally consider to be a fictional approach to things, is I start to draw some images together. And I don’t exactly know how it happens, but I’ve read a lot about it from other writers, but you have this fictional series of images, and they somehow take a shape in grammatical form on the page. Or if you like sometimes you speak them out loud, or think them aloud, so to speak.
FW: It’s funny to me that… it just struck me then that that’s a narrative, you call it a fictional device you use, but it sounds like a really poetic way of thinking to me. I always think that poetry is about drawing images or sounds together, and then just leaving them to resonate…
LC: Ok, well that’s really interesting. I often… I consider myself to be a fiction writer, but I would love to be a poet.
FW: Yeah, really?
LC: I don’t know what I mean by that exactly. I’m always jealous of poets, let’s put it that way. I always think, god, I know poetry’s more technically demanding, at least that’s what I suspect it to be, and my attempts to write poetry have proven that whatever technical expertise is required I am lacking. But I often think, god, I desperately wish I had the freedom, whatever it is that I perceive that poets have, that just lets them take images, make shapes, in the most pure way. I don’t know if it’s pure, but that’s the way it appears to me.
FW: Do you mean in the sense that you don’t have to then go somewhere with it?
LC: Yeah. For instance, the essay, the Byron Bay essay, the ‘Northern Rivers Romance’ that we started talking about, in some ways I know the novel, for instance, can pretty much do anything you need. And short stories, to a lesser extent, can also do the same thing. And in essays you can use whatever you want. I can’t remember you said it, but one definition I came across of what an essay is, is it’s a form in which you are obliged to use every available resource. And that’s the way I think of essays. But at the same time, there’s a weird tension for me when I’m writing an essay where I’ll be doing something, and I think, is this essay what I’m attempting to do now, or has it gone way off course? I read an essay a little while ago, and I can’t remember anything about it, except that it was written by César Aira, and the other thing I remember about it, I suppose is, that it was completely insane. It just seemed to go everywhere, and it leapt from one image to another, went on these bizarre tangents, changed grammatically halfway through. I have no idea how I would ever find it again other than googling his name and searching through all of his essays. But it was… I took that as permission, I do this often, I see somebody else has done it and I think, shit, I can do that too! That’s what I wanted to do! But I still feel like I’m walking on a tightrope, and I suppose everybody is whenever they write, in terms of failing in the face of the form, or by the mandate of the form. But I was thinking, god, as I was writing that essay I had no idea whether what I was doing was just hoarding words together. And just… being completely, what people call pretentious. You know? So I was very nervous about it. And I sent it away, and I got a phone call from Ivor a little while later – because he’d seen the draft – and he said, listen, I’m just calling you to talk to you about that essay that you wrote. And I remember I was sitting in the pub in Newtown, on Australia St, the Courthouse, I was sitting outside in the Courthouse, I was drinking a beer…
FW: That’s so funny, the number of times Ivor’s called me and I’ve been at the Courthouse! He’s like, are you at the pub again? Yeah, so?
LC: Exactly! I’m stood there, I’m by myself, drinking a beer for no reason in the middle of the day in the Courty, and he said, I’m calling about that essay. And I fully expected him to just say, that’s a real piece of shit! [laughs] What was that? You know? That’s not an essay! But he said, no no, it’s good. Thank god! I remember thinking, it worked! And I’m sorry to go on this long ramble about it, but at the start we were talking about the technical aspects of it, and I was like, shit, I did it! It worked! So in some ways I think, for whatever it’s worth, it’s probably the only thing I can think of that I’ve ever written that I… still feel pretty good about, afterwards. It doesn’t bring me any shame, let’s put it that way. Not much shame, anyway.
FW: Interesting that you should use that word – I was obviously going to ask you about shame. Because one of the things that I noticed a lot in your work, and I think it kind of crops up a little bit in that essay where you talk about your ‘slim square volume having long ago exhausted’ its ‘modest readership’ [laughs] there always seems to be these movements of kind of undercutting things that are going on. And sometimes, in An Elegant Young Man, a lot, it’s kind of, I don’t know, don’t trust me, I could just be talking shit here, where your narrator kind of steps back and says, don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. But then also often it’s these gestures towards the big myths about what being a writer, or the writing life is supposed to be, and then cutting them back down again. And then of course they butt up against the suburban and the banality of that small room and the ‘examination table’ bed, or you just say, I don’t know, this could just be delusion, this is just paranoia. But I think it’s a really interesting, the tension in your work to kind of gesture out to these big things and then just go…nah. [laughs]
LC: It’s the theme of everything I write in some ways, and you know…as silly as it sounds, as you know I did my doctorate on the subject of shame! In relation to Australian literature. And I think in a lot of ways it’s a classically, canonically Australian approach to literature, is to be… it’s not quite the same thing as a cultural cringe, but it’s related, and it’s an uncertainty about the project of literature in the first place. How do you begin to…I think of some great popular novels, say, Eucalyptus, which begins, to me it’s almost funny, Eucalyptus begins with this long, what would you say? Encyclopedic introduction to… native flora? You know, it’s going into, essentially, this love story, but it has to begin with this really analytical, clinical throat-clearing in order to get into intimacy! And I think that’s, for me, a great example of how Australian literature works. You have to fend off these imaginary accusations before you even get started! Or this kind of baroque internal critic, always hanging around the corner, or leering…
FW: Kind of saying, why are you even doing this?
LC: Yeah! It’s like, I’ve changed my mind a lot about how shame works in Australian culture, and I go back and forth and I found once I completed my doctorate I pushed all that aside in my mind and I don’t even have anything articulate to say about it any more! I need to go back and look at my thesis [laughs] in order to remember what I thought about it when I did think about it. But I know it’s there, and it’s also been, it was actually a big obstacle to getting started, when I was young and I was writing, because it was just an immovable object in the middle of everything I wrote. And my editor early on, Ivor Indyk, when you and I were first starting out, way back when, in 2007, we had that writing group and there was a point where I’d been coming for about a year and Ivor eventually said to me, look, you’re not getting it, you’re always aborting the story only moments after getting into it. And his argument was that it was out of a kind of shame. I was attempting to make these, as you say, big gestures, and then out of absolute embarrassment, bailing on it and tearing the narrative apart and never developing anything. And he was trying to explain this to me week in, week out, and eventually he just said, look, you’re not getting it, I think it’s best if you don’t come back any more [laughs]. And so I really panicked. I really tried to understand what he meant, and I saw that structurally, how shame was working in my writing. And it was that… I think shame is the incomplete withdrawal of attention, I think that’s one way of talking about shame. And what was happening was, sensing my exposure in the text, whenever anything starts to develop, I would, and you know, rationalising it by saying, I’m trying to be experimental with structure, I would just tear everything to pieces and I’d just sink out of it and I’d say, oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway. And who cares about stories? And so it was a really hard thing to overcome in the beginning.
FW: It’s interesting, because writing is such an exposing thing to do.
FW: When you publish, you’re putting something out in public, that’s the nature of it.
LC: Yes, that took a long time to get used to, too. I know we’ve both talked about this before, but publishing is… it’s literally about making something public, as you say. And most writers, emerging, training, young writers, I don’t think they think about that. It’s just a goal, it’s just what you are meant to do as a writer. But you never talk about that when you are in training, so to speak, or apprenticed, you don’t even think about what happens afterwards…
FW: Because you can’t, in a way, can you? Because you’ve never done it before you don’t have a way of conceptualising it.
LC: That’s right! And even after you’ve done it, you’re really not sure what’s happening, you know? Or what’s happening to you. When my collection, An Elegant Young Man came out, I think it virtually sent me around the bend. I mean, I think it did. I completely lost my mind, I’m not sure how much of it was due to the book. [laughs] But I remember there were points where I was calling up my editor saying, this has been a terrible mistake, and he was saying to me, relax! And he kept saying to me, look, it’s not like it’s meteoric, it’s sold, like, 2000 copies. And he was right. But to me, I swear I just… it never occurred to me that anyone would have it and read it, it was just going to go on to the Giramondo label and sit in an office somewhere, that’s where my concept of it was!
FW: This is where my ambition lies!
LC: Exactly! And the fact… I’m not bragging when I say it, but the fact that your face ends up in a paper, or that you’re on a panel or whatever, was just absolutely unbelievable to me and I was in no way prepared for it. And my psyche, which is obviously pretty frail, went down the gurgler immediately. And in some ways, that’s why I’ve really enjoyed coming to the essay form. Because it’s been a way to deal with the fall-out from the, the minor fall-out, from the minor attention the book got! And that’s one of the big themes I’m hoping to look at.
FW: Well I definitely don’t think you’re alone in that, I know a lot of people who… it’s an adjustment. When something comes out and there’s a response that you’re not expecting. You know, I don’t think that I lost my mind after Small Acts, but it took a good year for me to wrap my head around what was happening and what to do next…
LC: You must have been…
FW: Yeah, and I think the weird thing with that too was, you know, I wasn’t expecting it to do anything at all, and… I mean, the book’s about disappearance, right? And it suddenly makes you much more visible in the world, I was like, oh, I don’t know what to do about this! [laughs]
LC: I love the story where you’re… suddenly it’s on the Stella shortlist, and you’re scooped up as part of the Stella tour and you’re going and speaking to all these people and people in the crowd are holding your book and it’s got your face on it!
FW: And it’s just staring back at me!
LC: I mean, that’s the ultimate festival panel scenario! [laughs] That is just so surreal! And as you say, it’s like, you don’t realise as you’re writing it that essentially you’re asking for it! [laughs] I mean, it’s not like you want it, but you’re daring it to happen in some ways, because you’re being, you’re giving, you’re selling this intimate thing. I know it’s crude talking about it like that, but it’s your consciousness in some way. Or at least you’re responsible for it, and it becomes very, very easy to confuse the two. Confuse your own thinking and what you’re written. And who you are on the page and what the page represents of you.
FW: And do you think that’s especially the case when… a lot of An Elegant Young Man was drawn from your world and your life and places that you know…
LC: Yeah. Yes, and I was in a technical sense, as a writer, I was aware of what I was doing, but I didn’t understand the… what it would be like to have that reflected back. And so, you know, the narrator has my name and all that sort of thing, but I was doing that deliberately, thinking, oh well, this creates an interesting technical tension, and it’s, again, to bring up Gerald Murnane, it was this is a kind of Gerald Murnane thing. I mean, it’s an extremely old technique, I think it’s as old as Balzac, to use your name as a fictional version of yourself, an avatar or whatever. But I have people speaking to me about it as if it’s an unusual thing to do. They’ve said, oh, you call your character, you gave your character your own name? And so it’s a whole mix of different reactions you get. One is, people are like, well, it’s autobiographical. And other, people look at it from a technical point of view. But it doesn’t matter ultimately, it’s all your responsibility and what people…
FW: And at the same time you can’t control that.
LC: Exactly. You have no control over it. And it has an effect. It’s very difficult to work out what the effect is, even when you’re in the middle of it. I know that… and it’s also like, now what? Like I still want to keep writing, and I had an idea before I wrote An Elegant Young Man, this is the direction I want to go, this is the kind of writing I’m interested in and so on, and one thing I didn’t really think about was, once you start going down this path, in some ways there is no turning back. Like I’ve picked this approach and I’ve just… it sucked me in and there’s no way to turn back and do things differently.
FW: Because you feel skilled in that, or you think it’s expected…?
LC: Not because it’s expected, but it’s more…it’s not skill, it’s like a habit. It’s habitual. It sort of calcified around me. It’s like I was at the beginning of the essay, I say, how do I begin, well, I begin the same way I always do. Beginning back in my room, back in my home, back in Mount Pritchard. And to do otherwise now would basically require me to force this huge… it’d be like excising part of my mind.
FW: That’s interesting. I like that, you know, to go back to beginning in that room and heading out, one of the things I find really interesting about that though is what it does to the suburb, that it brings it into contact with all these different places and different ideas, different worlds. It kind of reminds me a bit of what Jennifer Maiden does, her TVs in the George Jefferies series, they’re always in a room in Penrith, but on the TV is George Bush or Iraq or… a Brazilian slum in one of them. I feel like it’s such an interesting dynamic…
LC: I love the way Maiden does that, it’s a very strange way of thinking about it, but I often think about, you know, the persona in Jennifer Maiden’s work as sort of oracular, sitting over this crystal ball..
FW: In Penrith.
LC: Exactly, and kind of seeing, astral-travelling out into the world and seeing these things. It doesn’t prevent her from being in the house in Penrith, or from walking down the street with Christopher Brennan, or shaking hands with Paul Keating, or Donald Rumsfeld or something like that. I love that. It’s the way my imagination I think is geared as well. I have to go from the local, the original, in order to get anywhere else. And I can’t… it’s in a weird way I can’t think about anywhere else without starting there.
FW: Might be a good point to ask you about Mount Pritchard! Tell me about Mount Pritchard!
LC: Wow. Mount Pritchard is where I grew up, it’s a suburb on the outskirts of Liverpool. It’s a mountain! They call it a mountain! I suppose there’s probably some technical reason why it’s not, but if you stand at the end of my house and look out the window, you can see all the way to Sydney, you can see Centrepoint, you used to be able to see the Harbour Bridge, but all the trees got in the way, though! I’m trying to cut them down! It’s a long way away from the city, but I can see it from there. I can see the heart of the city from my suburb, and growing up I never thought of myself as anything other than a denizen of Sydney. It wasn’t until a long time later that I became aware that there is a separation in most peoples’ minds. And that there are people, for instance, who think that Sydney ends at Leichhardt, say, or whatever.
FW: Yeah, I was at a pub in Marrickville a few weeks ago, and there was a guy there who… he was coked off his face, but that’s a different story. He gave me this big lecture at the bar about how he doesn’t normally come this far west. And I was like, dude, you’re in Marrickville.
LC: Yeah. It’s amazing that those… I can’t relate to them, obviously. It’s amazing they persist, even now. And so, you know, that’s part of it, for me as a writer. And you and I, you know, I consider your book to be the first of… I know you’ve heard me say this before, but I consider your first collection, Knuckled, to be the beginning of a kind of Westie push, if you like.
FW: But it’s what we were all doing at the time.
LC: Yeah, we were all part of the one group and we were all doing it. We weren’t the first Western Sydney people to write, that’s not at all the case, but it was a new group and a new energy…
FW: And we had the support of the publisher too, which helped.
LC: Yes, Giramondo published pretty much everyone in that group. But, you know, it was sort of… nascent. And in order to get it going you had to come at it with, or at least, the publishers felt they had to come at it like, This Is Western Sydney Literature! And so you would end up talking about Western Sydney a lot, and boring the shit out of people! Like, you read reviews of certain books, and they start with…
FW: So-and-so is from Western Sydney!
LC: And demographics: there are 2 million people estimated to live in Western Sydney by 2018! Or whatever. It’s like, who gives a shit about all this stuff! Why are we talking about it! But it was necessary at the time. Or at least it seemed that way to the people who were doing things, but it’s had, I think, it’s in danger of becoming… or collapsing in on itself. And I don’t like a lot of what’s sort of ancillary or the effect of that being somewhat successful that the movement is…the creation of a kind of Western Sydney territory which is completely hermetic and absolutely unique and interesting, every bit of it is interesting in its own right and deserves to be, to have every aspect of it communicated to every Australian, really. It’s just… it’s not that different, it’s not that unique that there’s an actual boundary around it, you know? But I see that kind of attitude, I know I’m talking very abstractly about it, I see that kind of attitude even with other parts of the country. It’s like, when I wrote ‘A Northern Rivers Romance’, it came out and, very stupidly, I should never, ever do it and I try not to do it, but I went onto the Twitter feed of SRB to see, did anyone read this shit or what? And I went on there, and one of the very first comments was by someone saying, keep your grubby hands off my childhood! And I go, what the hell? What the fuck’s this person talking about? And I had a close look, and this person was from the Northern Rivers. And I thought, what the hell? This has nothing to do with your childhood, what are you talking about?
FW: You should never read the comments, you know that!
LC: I know, I screwed up big time! But you know, that to me is a really weird attitude, a really weird way of thinking about literature. That it’s territorial, to that extent.
FW: But that’s what I mean about your stuff too, that if you’re starting from this place and then heading out, and bringing all of these other places in, then surely that’s the very opposite of territorial?
LC: Yeah, well…
FW: That kind of blending and switching.
LC: Absolutely. I can’t see how there’s any point in… you know, Small Acts of Disappearance, your essay collection, or Lachlan Brown’s Limited Cities, I mean, both of those collections are globe-trotting. They go everywhere. And the subjectivity is the thing which is rooted in a place, and so on, but if there’s a territorial limitation to that subjectivity, then…I can understand someone saying, look, you are the product of this particular subject, you are this particular subjectivity, therefore your imagination has its limits, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to be me. Fair enough. I can understand that argument, but if there’s no point in taking your subjectivity somewhere else, crossing boundaries, then there’s really no point in writing anything down in the first place, because what’s the point of sharing, what’s the point of externalising language at all, if we’re not trying to cross those kinds of boundaries. If you’re not trying to go from one place to another. I just don’t see what the point of literature, of fiction, of poetry is, if it’s not about…
FW: If you’re just going to stay in one place? Interesting.
LC: Absolutely. Otherwise it’s all diary.
FW: To change tack a little bit, I wanted to ask you about humour as well, because I think your work’s really funny. An Elegant Young Man was funny, the Northern Rivers essay I find really funny because of the leaps of exaggeration and the gentle ribbing of the other writers that are on the bus. [laughs]
LC: I told a lie a moment ago, when I went onto the Twitter thing and I was looking at the reaction to ‘A Northern Rivers Romance’, I did see a couple of other tweets before I bailed out, and one of them was, why is this guy being so mean to the other writers?
LC: You know, like, I understand where that’s coming from, but that’s how… I became very close very quickly, which I didn’t expect, with the other writers that I mentioned there, and…
FW: Yeah, when you described it to me, that it’s five people on a bus for five days? My immediate reaction was, oh hell no.
LC: Yeah! I couldn’t think of anything stupider for me to do than to place myself in that situation. I thought it was going to be an absolute nightmare, that I wasn’t going to be able to handle anybody, they were going to look at me with contempt as this screwball jerk that somebody invited on this fantastic literary tour. It ended up, I loved them all! They were great! And I became friends with them. And that’s what you do with friends, you take the piss out of them! In terms of sense of humour, I think that there is, I have a very Australian sense of humour, I think. Very dry, and a little sarcastic.
FW: That’s the word I was just about to use.
LC: And I cannot take anything too seriously for too long, or… that feeling of shame will creep on in. And I remember, I think it was in John Hirst, The Australians, a book on Australian culture, where he said that Australians are, that taking the piss out of things is just an Australian way of life and that’s the way it is. And although our jokes sometimes seem incredibly racist or sexist or homophobic…
FW: Oh, great.
LC: Yeah. It’s just our way. And I think there’s…
FW: When was that written, do you know? Years ago?
LC: I think it was, it was at least ten years ago, I think it might have come out in 2005, or somewhere thereabouts. And so I know that it can be used to justify a whole lot of things, this idea of the Australian sense of humour, and taking the piss out of everything, but … and I have to point out, what John Hirst was saying was, that’s fine, but we’ve got to be able to laugh at ourselves, which I think a lot of time we absolutely suck at. We are so senstivite, so thin-skinned, and it’s very hard for us to…
FW: Do you mean people in general, or writers, or…
LC: I think that’s why Australian writing is sometimes considered to be humourless. If you’re going to go into it, you have to go all the way out and be as serious as you possibly can be, because you’re completely isolated from the general culture anyway. That’s the idea. But I don’t know, I think our sense of humour… I remember hearing Nick Cave in an interview describing our sense of humour as, we don’t really know whether we’re joking or not. And that’s how I think of it, I don’t know whether I’m making fun of things or not half the time. And that gives you certain… it’s permissive to think that way, you can get away with things, in terms of style. You were talking before about the grandiose elements, that’s why I love people like Thomas Bernhardt as a writer, obviously he’s not Australian, but I’m reading his books, laughing all the way through. It’s because they’re so ridiculous. And the same with Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky’s one of my favourite writers, I remember reading Nabokov saying about Dostoevsky, whom he claimed to despise, that the only redeeming quality he had was his unintentional ridiculousness! But I think it’s funny on purpose, it’s silly, it’s farcical. But I think a lot of it comes out of self-consciousness, you make fun of things because you’re self-aware. And it eases the pain. It’s an old comedian’s trick, if there’s something wrong with you, you’ve got to make fun of it the moment you step on stage…
FW: Before someone else does!
LC: Yes, you’ve got to get in! You’ve got to get in before the punch, so to speak. I think that’s what I’m doing at times. And I think that’s why… a long time ago, Peter Polites, the author of Down the Hume told me, I think what you’ve got to try and do is write something that isn’t full of jokes.
FW: Like he can talk!
LC: I know! I thought that was absurd, because his writing’s hysterical.
FW: It’s funny, you know, I think a lot of people missed that in Down the Hume. Missed that it’s so funny because it’s also so dark.
LC: People have said that to me about his work, that they find it cruel, that they find it really vicious, but I don’t think…
FW: It’s all tongue-in-cheek, though.
LC: That’s right, it’s funny! I think it’s a really hard thing, it always surprises me how bad some readers are, I mean serious readers, at detecting irony.
FW: I’ve got to say, it’s one of my weaknesses. I often don’t get irony the first time around. I just take people at face value.
LC: That’s… people are out there! [laughs]
FW: But I’ve trained myself! The more you read the better you get at it.
LC: Yes! But you can get yourself in a whole lot of trouble real quick if you’re being ironic, and nobody knows.
FW: What could you possibly be referring to, Luke? [laughs]
LC: Yeah, well! You know, it’s mentioned in the beginning of that Northern Rivers essay, but ages ago, I was sitting around at the Bankstown office and the editor of SRB comes out and is like, we need someone to do the guest editorial, 500 words, you want to write something about festivals? I said, yeah, no worries, so I wrote it up in a couple of minutes, sent it and then… didn’t think another thing of it. And then next thing you know, people are contacting me, what the fuck have you done? Why did you do this? Why did you shit on everybody’s festivals and what’s your problem? And I was like, what? It was very, very weird to me. It seems like a… what would you say, a cop out, to say, oh, I was just being ironic, you know? Because I think being ironic, it’s not necessarily that you don’t mean what you’re saying, it’s just that you don’t necessarily mean it to the extent that you’re expressing it in print! But I can’t help that. My natural inclination in some ways is… I wouldn’t be able to write if I couldn’t exaggerate. And I think there’s a line in Thomas Bernhardt where he says, the only justification for life is exaggeration. [laughs]
FW: That’s so good!
LC: And it’s true for me. When I start writing I can’t help but take my… write what you think, write what you imagine, write what might be. Not exactly what you know things to be. That’s the way I work. There’s got to be room for that in literature. There’s got to be room for people who aren’t sensible. And I know I’m not a sensible person and I’m not a coherent person, I’m not concise! [laughs] I don’t know what I think most of the time. So when I’m writing I’ve got to take those risks or I wouldn’t be able to start, I wouldn’t be able to get going.
[Luke Carman reads from ‘In the Room with Gerald Murnane’]
FW: On the point of non-concision, it might be time to talk about Murnane [laughs]. There’s a line from, I think it’s from Barley Patch, that I always think about with Murnane, where he’s talking about, I think I mentioned this to you before. He’s talking about a picnic lunch, or just a lunch with his mum and his aunty, and he refers to a dish of chopped lettuce and cold vegetables that is commonly referred to as salad [laughs]. The thing is not the thing.
LC: That’s what I mean! That’s one of the things that I loved, that I felt that Gerald Murnane gifted to me when I first encountered his writing. There’s a hell of a lot of a gulf between my writing and Gerald Murnane’s, I don’t mean to suggest that I think I write like Gerald Murnane, but when I read his writing I see the things that I want to do, and he does them in a way that I think, far out, the balls on this guy, to do it this way! [laughs] When I picked up Invisible but Enduring Lilacs…
FW: I loved that book!
LC: It is an amazing book. You turn to his essay on Kerouac, and you get about halfway through, I may be overblowing it, but you get about halfway through before he even mentions Kerouac, and when he does, he focuses on Kerouac’s marble-racing, when he was a kid. That’s the thing that mattered to Murnane, so that’s the thing he talked about. He didn’t try to even it out. He didn’t try to make it balanced and sensible, I don’t think that even crossed his mind. He just… what he was drawn to write, what spoke to him, and he’s very articulate about that, and insistent about working that way. That’s the way he did it, no compromise at all, it seems to me.
FW: But I love those sorts of essays, where it’s like, this is something that’s probably been written about a lot, but this is my way into it, here’s my specific attachment to this thing.
LC: Yeah, absolutely. And I had the great good fortune to get invited recently to a conference out at Goroke, to meet Gerald Murnane, who gave a paper, and be a participant in the conference itself out at Goroke Golf Club. It was incredible. And so, you know, you’ve got to get out there to start with, so you’ve got to pass through the terrain which Murnane writes about, the plains, and it’s incredible. And I thought, you know, it’s a long way out, it’ll be the conference itself that is the audience. But I get out there, and the maximum capacity for the Goroke Golf Club is fifty people, so there was fifty people there, and they were all…Murnanaphiles? They were absolute fanatics. And it was terrifying because I’m not a Gerald Murnane expert by any means, I’d read a couple of his books, and some of his essays…
FW: But what I love about that piece though is that what you’re describing is what I think of as the reason why we read. That every now and again you come across something that reflects yourself back to you, and there’s such solace in that, and it’s electrifying.
LC: Absolutely. With Murnane, that’s one of the, the number one pleasure of reading his is, in contrast to what we were talking about before about movement and travel and so on, one of the things about Murnane is that you recognise parts of yourself that you didn’t even know you had in his work. Or you re-recognise or remember it, or something. Particularly about the process of writing, of writing and reading, what they are. In his work he talks about, sort of, becoming immersed in books and self-inserting into the stories and so on, and that’s what I did when I was a kid and I read! I was always, in a sense, almost like fan-fiction, I was participating in the novels I was reading!
FW: I used to do it when I was a kid! Have these elaborate fantasy worlds that I’d take, when I was trying to go to sleep mostly, from a book, either I’d continue the story or rework the story with also a Fiona character in there.
LC: Yes! Yes I did too! And Murnane talks about that quite a lot, in the books that I’ve read.
FW: I think it might be Barley Patch when he’s writing about that…
LC: It could be in others, but it’s definitely in Barley Patch. When I was a kid, I read voraciously, because I was an insomniac, and that was the only thing I could do to resist it, to counter its effects. But the only books we had in the house were my step-father’s, and they were all fantasy. And I remember I got really caught up in this one series, and I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called, but it was a typical fantasy series, it had 14 books. And I was reading through it, and most of it, from what I remember, was this group of people wandering through the woods and cooking potatoes over a campfire, skinning rabbits and whatever.
FW: Lord of the Rings!
LC: Exactly. They were all Lord of the Rings, all shittier versions of Lord of the Rings. And I remember that there was a wizard, and his wife, who was a sorceress. And they would bicker constantly, it used to drive me crazy, and what I would do was insert myself in the stories in my fantasies, like you were saying. I’d put the book down for a second and imagine that I walked into the forest, and I’d get them to stop fighting! Stop fighting, you two! You’re at war! You’re in the middle of the war, there’s dragons fucking attacking everyone, stop bickering! And of course, I was a kid, from a broken home, and I was trying to repair their relationship in my fantasies. I mean, I didn’t think of that at all when I was a kid, but that’s what I used to fantasise about. And then at some point, the author of the series revealed that he’d written the books with his wife. They were, all of them were secretly co-written, and she had written the wife’s role. And I remember, I don’t know why, but I felt absolutely betrayed by that. That’s why all this bickering was going on! Because you two were…
FW: Having this elaborate in-joke?
LC: Yeah! I couldn’t believe…you put me through hell! And you guys thought it was cute! I hated it. And I stopped reading fantasy as soon as I found out that that guy’s wife co-wrote the book! But anyway, that’s the long…[laughs] I don’t know why I brought that up. I love that Murnane makes you remember those sorts of things. And I think that’s why… in his latest book, he’s also, for me, it’s a reminder about why, you know, they say it’s probably his last… I know he doesn’t call his books novels, but it’s probably his last book, other than old stuff that will be coming out again. And I know it’s not the last one he actually wrote, it just happened to come out last. But it starts out with this concept of ‘guarding the eye’ – they mention it in most of the reviews. And at the conference that I went to, Emmett Stinson pointed out that it’s kind of a reworking of the beginning of The Plains. The beginning of Border Districts, the latest one, is kind of a reworking of the beginning of The Plains. And instead of eyes wide open, it’s guarding your eyes. And the concept of guarding the eyes is that you can learn about things more by leaving them in the periphery than by looking at them directly.
FW: Oh, that’s interesting!
LC: It is interesting, and he literally does that. As Murnane calls himself, the real Murnane, the breathing author, also does that. There’s a certain church that he wants to write about, or that he has written about, he doesn’t look at it directly, he drives past and refuses to make direct eye contact, so to speak, with the building, in order to keep the image and the, whatever grammar that the image suggests, pure. And I don’t know if pure is the right word, but it’s something like that. And he talks about that being, the idea of the writer is, what presents itself or what summons you, what calls you, what heralds you, in the external world is important, and is your… that’s your reason for being as a writer. That’s where your focus as a writer should be. I’m not articulating it very well, but you know what I mean? It’s like, the world will call to you and you must respond to that.
FW: ‘Your vocation calls and you answer it’ [laughs]
LC: Exactly! And that for me was good reminder of first principles as to being a writer. You get into it because you think in some… or at least in my case, and from what you’ve told me in the past it’s probably similar for you, that certain… I suppose it’s kind of like the idea of the German Romanticism, the blue rose. The dream of the thing that is so, the image of the thing which is so resonant that you must capture it in some way.
FW: Yeah, or it won’t let itself be put down, it just buzzes around in the back of your brain until…
LC: Yes! I always think of an interview with Leonard Cohen where he talks about, he became a poet when his father died. He was very young, and they came back from the funeral and he went out in the backyard and wrote down something, he can’t remember what, on a scrap of paper, and went upstairs and inserted it into the collar of his father’s jacket.
FW: Oh wow.
LC: And his father was a tailor. He can’t remember what it was or why he did it, but that was the only way he could deal with the intensity of his situation.
FW: Wow, what an image.
LC: Yeah, it’s a great image. But yeah, I think that’s to me where Murnane’s Border Districts is reminding… that’s what it reminds me of, that image. It’s a really interesting book and he’s a wonderful writer and it was amazing to go to the conference and be there with him, and it was totally surreal. You walked in, and Gerald Murnane is standing there, and people were walking up to him, the presenters are the first people in, and I remember one of the presenters, she goes over and she says, Hello Murnane! [laughs] And she immediately corrects herself, Oh, I shouldn’t call you Murnane, that’s…
FW: That’s just how I write about you!
LC: That’s what she’s been calling him! For years! And she couldn’t help but blurt it out to him. It was such a Murnanian thing, the breathing author is being assailed! But it was… before he spoke he had written an announcement which Anthony Uhlmann, who was in charge of the conference, read out, and it was, Gerald Murnane would like me to read a brief announcement. Gerald Murnane will be available for some of the talks, but he does not feel obliged to stay for all of them. He would like to inform you that he will be available to serve drinks at the bar until midnight tonight, or at a time at which most people have left the building, something like, just so weird and really interesting! And then between the breaks, between the presenters, Gerald Murnane stood behind the bar and serves people beers and signed books! It was just so weird!
FW: I’ll have a beer and a book, thanks! That’s so good! [laughs]
LC: It was really interesting, and it was amazing to see how many people there were fanatical about him. This really strong following.
FW: That’s so interesting. I wanted to ask you, finally [laughs] about what you’re working on at the moment. I know you’re writing essays…
LC: Yep. There’s an essay that I’ve… first of all, I have written two essays on the subject of Gerald Murnane, accidentally. And they’ve got to come out soon or else I’ll be crucified!
FW: You’ll be crucified?
LC: I will be. Because they’re overdue.
FW: Oh, because you’ve smashed your deadline in the wrong direction.
LC: Oh my god, yes. But there is another deadline that I’m even further behind. There’s a deadline, I’ve missed the deadline on this particular essay I’m writing by nearly two years [laughs] And every six months the editor writes to me and says, Hey! How’s that going? And I just, I live in fear, I write back grovellingly, thank you for not losing hope, it’s coming! I don’t know what the hell is wrong, it’s so hard to write, I think it’s possibly to do with subject matter. But what I’d like to write about is, to be really crude about it, is mental illness. And I’d like that to be one of the central themes of what I’m putting together next. Which is a collection of essays. Because I had a really intense experience of being mentally unsound a year or two ago, and I’m still sort of putting everything back together. And so I have to write about it, because I cannot clear the fog in any other way. It’s the only way I know how to deal with anything, is to write about it. So I’ve got to do that. And it’s been really difficult.
FW: Yeah, it’s not an easy thing to do. Because you’ve got to be brutal. And you’ve got to be honest or you can smell it a mile off…
LC: Yeah, and that’s been…
FW: I know in my experience sometimes, sometimes writing an essay about something with a lot of emotion attached to it, dredges all of that back up again for you [laughs]. You have fun with that!
LC: I don’t know if it was similar for you, but writing about the… really intimate vulnerabilities, it’s not as if I am uncomfortable doing it, it’s not as if I sit there weeping at the page, but it makes you… it ruins your day! Like, that took all of my emotional energy, it all went into that, and now it’s fucked! [laughs]
FW: You’re just sitting there, poking at your own sore bits, and you go, oh shit, that still hurts a bit!
LC: And even now as I’m doing it, I’m thinking, oh no. It’s a really tricky, you know, you don’t want to be self-pitying about it, you don’t want to bullshit about it, and I’m not really even sure why I’m doing it, it’s just…
FW: Because you need to.
LC: It’s just necessary, yes, that’s right. I don’t even know if it’s a good idea. Whatever that means. But it’s what I’ve got to do, and if I get it done, I will feel like I’ve, you know, thrown off a huge weight. So I’ve just got to get it done. It’s two years overdue, and so for two years, it’s just like back in the doctoral thesis days [laughs]. I just feel like, what’s that feeling, when your exegesis is hovering over your entire life, you feel sort of…
FW: I don’t know, I cope with deadlines in the opposite way, I get so freaked out that I’m like, I’ve got to get this done and I’ve got to get it done now!
LC: That’s right [laughs], you finished your thesis in three years, it took me a decade! Goddammit. Procrastination, it’s… I don’t even know that that’s the word for it after a certain point. But that’s where I’m at, and it’s interesting. I don’t know whether I would have even attempted it if it wasn’t for your collection, actually.
FW: Thank you, that’s really lovely.
LC: No, it’s true. I thought that was an extraordinary thing, Small Acts of Disappearance.
FW: But you know, everything you’ve said, though, about being driven to do that, I’ve related to one hundred per cent It was my way of dealing with these kind of huge shifts, this kind of experience that you come through and has changed everything that’s gone before it, and you’ve got all of these pieces up in the air, and it was my way of figuring out where they’d land.
LC: And how long did it take you?
FW: Four years.
LC: Ok, alright. [laughs]
FW: Your face is like, yeah, I can do this…
LC: Four years, ok, ugh.
FW: Well, I reckon that’s a good note to end on. Which seems to be what I say every single time I’m winding one of these things up!
LC: It’s good, it works!
FW: Thanks so much for talking to me, Luke. It’s been fascinating!
LC: It’s a pleasure as always, thank you.