At the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club event in July, Oliver Mol will discuss his debut memoir, Lion Attack!. Read an extract from this funny, energetic and original coming-of-age story, which interweaves stories from Oliver’s childhood in Texas and his young adulthood in Melbourne in a narrative that is part romance, part tragicomedy, and part social critique.
Hello. Welcome to my author’s note. Thank you for making it this far. I just want to say that you don’t need to read this note first. You can skip it and come back to it if you want.
Because it contains spoilers. But you can also do whatever you want. Because maybe you love spoilers. Because maybe you haven’t been spoiled since you were a child. In that case, prepare yourself. I’m ready to ruin you.
When I left Australia and moved to Texas, I guess I was like any other nine year old: terrified and excited generally by the world. We’d moved at the beginning of summer, and when the summer ended I went into Year Four. I didn’t understand why we had to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the United States of America and to Texas every morning. I didn’t understand why the bread tasted so sweet and why everyone was talking about God so much and why the church looked less like a church and more like a fortress or some expensive and intimidating compound. I didn’t understand the words ‘prep’ or ‘jock’ or ‘goth’ or why everyone seemed so interested in fitting themselves and me into one of those categories. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand.
But I wanted to fit in so badly. Mum bought me a basketball hoop one year for my birthday and we put it in our driveway and then that was all I did: dribble, shoot; dribble, shoot. I’d play for hours in the afternoon heat while my little brother skateboarded. And at school, at lunchtime, we’d play this game called ‘knock out’, which was basically just a group of people shooting the ball from the free-throw line, trying to make it in before the person behind them did. I wanted to make friends, and sport seemed as good a way as any. All the kids had been playing since they were old enough to walk, and I’d sort of just taught myself. The first time we played, a couple of the bigger kids teased me because my shooting form looked ‘retarded’. They said, ‘Your shot looks all retarded. What are ya trying to do? Catapult it in?’ I just grinned because I didn’t want confrontation. Because I didn’t know what to do. After that, I went into the bathroom and cried. Imagine that: crying because of the way you shot a basketball.
Looking back, I guess I developed a fairly extreme amount of anxiety at a young age because of the way American society — or my perceived view of that society — worked. It seemed to me that what mattered most was being a ‘man’ and being ‘tough’ and being ‘wealthy’, all of which made you cool. Prior to leaving Australia, my limited knowledge about the United States had come from film and television. And the very things that had seemed ‘cool’, that had made up the core of my knowledge — brands, professional sport, muscles, prom, sex, the idea of becoming whatever you wanted — would become the very things that alienated me most. I guess that felt a little like failure. As if I’d been studying for some large and unspecific test since I was old enough to understand television, except that when the time came, it was as if I’d never watched television at all. It was as if I didn’t even know what television was.
This book began as an online series titled ‘34 Memories of Growing Up in Texas’. When I began writing it, I wasn’t specifically trying to address any of these issues. I wasn’t thinking consciously about anxiety or depression or how writing could be used as an effective tool to try to understand myself or the past or the country/ society/system I grew up in. I’d been inspired by people such as Heiko Julien and Steve Roggenbuck, who had posted poetry or short narratives online. I liked that their work was dark and funny and uplifting. I liked that they were of a similar age to me. I liked that they paid attention to syntax, to the sounds of their sentences. I liked how they made their words work.
I was interested in social media: in its immediacy, and in the way it could be used as a platform to self-publish work. I’d seen a lot of poetry and short fiction posted online, but I hadn’t seen a lot of nonfiction. So I thought I’d try to write and publish some.
Each morning, when I woke up, I thought about growing up in Texas and wrote down a memory. I tried to start from the beginning of my time there. I wrote these memories in the notes section of my iPhone, edited them a little, and uploaded them to Facebook. It wasn’t until I finished the series, nearly a month later, that I noticed a certain darkness to them. And more than that: it wasn’t until I read them in their entirety that I noticed a narrative arc — this growing sadness, specific instances of feeling lost, the feeling that my emotional default setting was ‘scared’ and ‘unsure’, rather than ‘scared’ and ‘unsure’ being temporary emotional states that could be positive and facilitate growth. At the beginning this idea was sort of quiet, but by the end it had grown, at least for me, into a roar.
When I moved to Melbourne at the beginning of 2011, I’m embarrassed to say I had very little idea about white male entitlement. From my limited perspective, everyone was reasonably equal. Feminism and misogyny and homophobia and racism were ideas I was familiar with, but also seemed little part of my world. It wasn’t until I met writer and editor Kat Muscat that I began to look at the world, and specifically Australia, differently. It wasn’t until then that I realised the reason I hadn’t been able to see these social issues was because I was white, straight, and male — was because I was ‘lucky’ enough to have been born into a world where, due to my privilege, many of these issues didn’t affect me personally. And while certain things had seemed ‘wrong’ to me in the past, suddenly I found the country I lived in deeply disturbing. Three boys at the beach lying on towels, talking about two girls in the ocean and whether they’d fuck them with or without paper bags. Someone I didn’t know at a party talking about how he ‘used to throw “No Asian” parties back in high school’ but would invite Asian girls if they were ‘hot’. Hearing a customer in David Jones ask his friend if the guy at the cashier was checking him out and then saying, ‘I’d fucking bash him, but he’d probably like it.’ The more I looked around, the more fucked-up everything seemed. It was hard to believe that it was 2013 and that a large proportion of the people I encountered were failing on a moral/human level. And the more I looked around, the more I realised that ugly things were happening everywhere. But I also realised that I had been complicit with my behaviour as well.
When I moved to Melbourne, I had one goal. My goal was to write a book. I wrote a thousand words every day for three years. I didn’t go out and stopped going to parties and just wrote. And it probably contributed to the downfall of several — both romantic and platonic — relationships. Sometimes it felt lonely, but mostly it was okay. Or it was okay for me. Something I didn’t realise, though, was that I was ignoring the people closest to me: my family, and specifically my brother. A lot of our phone conversations, when we had them, would consist of me reading parts of the book I was working on, or talking about myself, with little regard for or attention to what he was doing or feeling.
The reasons why I wrote Lion Attack! seem so clear to me now. It seems so obvious that I wrote this book as a way to understand my youth in pre-9/11 America. That I wrote it to understand modern-day Australia and my place within it. That I wrote it as a love letter to my family — specifically my brother — and to the very things that make me happy, that make me excited to be alive. But at the time I had no idea that was what I was doing. Because if I’d planned to write about my youth in America in a format other than Facebook posts — which I didn’t even know were going to make up a section of the book initially — I would have written about how scared and deeply unhappy I was with life up until Year Nine. That would have been the whole book: how I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone. How I had no confidence. How, sometimes, or a lot of the time, I thought about disappearing, about what it would be like to disappear. If I’d thought about stuff like that I would have told you how, if I’d stayed there and if things had continued on the same or a similar trajectory, I might not have been writing to you today. It would have been personal and honest and true, but it also would have been tired and familiar and ultimately self-indulgent. I’m glad I didn’t do that.
I have a lot of problems with Australia — with the general mentality of a lot of people who live in this country — but at the same time I can’t help thinking that returning here was what made me feel happy again: the people I met and the way I felt made me want to stay, made me not want to disappear. A lot of the time I still feel really up and down, but I think that’s normal. I feel lucky to be here, in this nation and in this life, to be able to experience and laugh and cry.
So now let me say this. Come close because I’m going to whisper. Turn off your music and put down your phone because I’m whispering: I wrote Lion Attack! because I wanted to have fun and, hopefully, to make people think as they are reading. I wanted to imagine someone reading and laughing and then thinking: wait, that’s kinda fucked up. I wanted to write about Australia as it is today. I wanted privileged Australians such as myself to think about their privilege, to reflect on how shit things can be for other people.
I also wanted people to read my book and tell me that they liked it. That they liked me. I wanted to feel appreciated, to have a sense that what I was doing mattered. I wanted to feel loved.
Maybe that seems selfish. Or fucked. I don’t know. But it’s the truth, and I want you to know that.
Reproduced with permission from Lion Attack! by Oliver Mol, published by Scribe.
Kill Your Darlings First Book Club: Lion Attack!
Thursday 30 July
6.30 for 7pm
Readings Books Carlton
309 Lygon Street