The following is an extended version of the conversation between KYD Publishing Director Hannah Kent and Liam Pieper, author of The Toymaker. An abridged version of this interview appears on the latest episode of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast, alongside interviews with Maxine Beneba Clarke and Catriona Menzies-Pike. Listen to the full interview on SoundCloud, or read the transcript below.
HANNAH KENT: Liam Pieper is a Melbourne-based author and journalist. His first book was a memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, shortlisted for the National Biography Award and the Ned Kelly Best True Crime Award. His second was the Penguin Special Mistakes Were Made, a volume of humorous essays. He was co-recipient of the 2014 M Literary Award, winner of the 2015 Geoff Dean Short Story Prize, and the inaugural Creative Resident of the UNESCO City of Literature of Prague. The Toymaker is his first novel. Liam, congratulations on the publication of The Toymaker.
LIAM PIEPER: Thank you kindly.
HK: For those listening who have not yet read the book, do you want to give us a very brief synopsis of what it’s about?
LP: Oh, wow, OK. I have one handy, I have a blurb by somebody called Hannah Kent.
HK: Oh yeah? Who’s she?
LP: ‘Hugely memorable, The Toymaker is an unflinching examination of the dark instinct for survival that lies within us all.’ I think it’s a testament to perhaps your superior abilities as a writer that that is a far greater precis of the story than the… the 400-odd, 300-odd pages.
HK: I very much doubt that, it’s very kind of you, you’ve got me off on the right side, but thank you very much. Let’s start with the beginning of the novel. You have what I might say is one of the more shocking openings to a book that I’ve read, probably in the last ten years. The opening of The Toymaker leaves us with very little doubt as to the kind of man one of your characters, Adam Kulakov, is. Do you want to tell us a little bit about him, before I go on to describe what he’s doing in those first three pages of the novel?
LP: Sure. Plus the tension is thrilling here. Adam Kulakov is an archetypal type of Australian male, which I set out to interrogate in this book, in many ways. A certain kind of, I guess, alpha-ish male, who’s very sure of himself, but perhaps shouldn’t be. He’s, you know, bold and brash, and maybe overestimates his own intelligence, he’s misogynistic, he’s sexist, he’s quite sure of his path in life, but underneath it all, deeply insecure. Basically the type of man you’ll often see anywhere in this country when you turn on the television or the radio or the news, or walk into any office of governance or parlance.
HK: Well you draw his character perfectly, and I think you summarized all those qualities you’ve just articulated then, when in the first three pages…
LP: I kind of embody them!
HK: (Laughs). Well, I wouldn’t go so far to say that, Liam. But we begin the novel with Adam speaking to a classroom of fairly bored and disinterested teenaged high school students, and he is telling them all about the company he runs, the Mitty & Sarah toy company, which was begun by his grandfather Arkady Kulakov, who was an Auschwitz survivor who made toys for the children that he had, that were basically detained in the Auschwitz concentration camp, who then immigrated to Australia and began his own toy company. And then, shortly after giving this speech, we find Adam in a KFC parking lot receiving oral sex from an underage high school student, and taking a selfie of himself at the same time – which, of course, then goes on to lead to disastrous consequences. Why open the book with such a confronting passage and sequence of events?
LP: That is an excellent question. I would like to plead drunkenness. But… I wanted to grab the reader’s attention straight away, and make it quite clear that the character we were going to follow maybe wasn’t the hero of the story. Perhaps I overdid it in retrospect, it is rather a confronting aspect, but also it’s… It’s not an unrealistic scenario, I think. There are far too many men for whom that is an aspirational situation to be in. And so, when I wanted to communicate to the reader that straightaway this guy was perhaps not a good man – one who played by his own moral code, but perhaps that moral code was deeply flawed – this was the scenario that spring to mind. There are certain cases of, similar cases in the media at the time when I was writing it, and I just kind of shoplifted it, you know, those little bits of reality that you take out to string together into your fantastical world. And it was also, I guess, my way of… of marking him as the villain in the piece. You know, wrapping him up in a big black cloak. I didn’t have the option of going the Star Wars reboot option and actually giving him Darth Vader’s mask and wrapping him in black robes, but it’s the next best thing.
HK: Well, I think you certainly do very good job of making him a villain, I can’t say much admired him from the outset. In fact I wanted to ask you – in many ways Adam’s qualities are things you’ve already mentioned, his sense of entitlement, his wealth, his love of wealth, his honesty, his disloyalty, obviously as we find out, to his wife, threatens to almost make him a caricature. How did you – I believe you did this – how did you avoid, sort of, lapsing into stereotype?
LP: Oh. I did, time and again, and I had to slowly from it. I guess the way you stop from lapsing into stereotype is you… And this is a very it is a very difficult thing to articulate, but you know, I became a writer not because of my great verbosity. I think you have to, the way to stop your character from straying into cliche or stereotype is to give them their autonomy. You have to let them off the leash a little bit. Which sounds like a crazy thing to say, now that I say it out loud on the radio here, but… I think if you give your characters life, and then they start to make decisions that surprise you, then I think you are on the right path. Zola, the great French… Renaissance writer?
HK: Naturalist writer.
LP: Thank you. He had this, his creative process, he described as dropping two scorpions in a tank, and then watching them fight. And he never knew which scorpion would do what, but it always surprised him. So, you know, he was a naturalist, and I suppose I’ve –technique wise, I am not doing anything new, I am taking elements from real people, and models, and from throughout history and throughout life and throughout the world see around me, and bending it towards this kind of narrative that I wanted to create – but of course, this scorpion named Adam Kulakov didn’t always do what I needed him to. But then the other scorpions were there – Tess, his wife, Arkady, his grandfather, were there to sting him where appropriate – which, to answer your question the long way round – that, if I’ve managed to successfully steer it clear of cliche and stereotype, it is because his friends, which were my imaginary friends, were there to keep him grounded, in a way that he is not at all. This is a long and insensible answer…
HK: It is not, not insensible at all. Let’s talk a little bit about Arkady, because I think in many ways, Adam’s narrative is inextricable from that of Arkady’s. In fact I would probably say that the protagonist of your novel is Arkady Kulakov, Adam’s grandfather, who started the company which is now, of course, managed by Adam. And what you do, which is both, I think, quite ambitious – and you’ve done it hugely successfully, and it makes for certainly a very interesting and compelling read – is you have juxtaposed the stories of Adam’s modern-day recklessness in Australia, and you have compared it to description of Arkady’s experiences in Auschwitz, as a sonderkommando and then as a medical assistant to the doctors who were performing experiments on detained children in the concentration camps. Was there something that you were specifically hoping to achieve by comparing their narratives side-by-side? Was there something you were hoping to illustrate about Arkady’s character by comparing it with Adam’s villainousness, or… What we you aiming to do?
LP: I was aiming for a kind of longitudinal moral comparison. Each of the characters in the book goes through their own moral journey, and moral conundrum. For Arkady, it is, he is a good man in an impossible situation, doing terrible things in order to survive, and that he may one day again become a force for good. His grandson Adam has lived with this story his whole life, it has been a formative, I guess a creation myth to him. And he has hung onto it and he has formed his character around that. He desperately wants to have the kind of, I guess, that great moral challenge that’s been denied him through his privilege and his comfort. And so when something like that comes along, he is ready – what he perceives as a challenge to his way of life, he seizes upon it, and maybe overreacts to the threat that he imagines against him. And sets into motion a series of consequences, of which he neither has control nor full understanding – which, if you’ll forgive my clumsy subtext, I think is an important issue affecting Australian society at the moment.
HK: I know exactly where you’re heading there. Before we go there, I do think that, certainly my reading of the novel was that it was asking several questions of what it means to be good, and I think is very much a consideration of morality. Adam, like you say, does consider himself to have a moral code, and yet much of his behaviour is despicable, and there’s one point I remember where Arkady remarks to Adam’s wife Tess, that ‘it would never occur to an evil man that he is evil, which is, of course, what makes him evil.’ To what extent do you consider this novel to be that exploration of moral ambiguity, and also culpability?
LP: That was…
HK: Was that the starting point for you, in writing this novel? Or did you start with a character, and then move towards these themes…
LP: The themes developed, the themes that you just telegraphed, which actually I was joking earlier about how I couldn’t wrap a character up in a black cloak, but I did in that sentence, now I think about it. (Laughs). The themes developed… So it started with the character of Arkady Kulakov, and his big secret – which we can’t give away.
HK: No we can’t, but it does result in one of the most wonderful twists I have come across.
LP: Oh, shucks. I’m rather proud of the twist, I think, I think I may have pulled it off.
HK: You have, definitely, I did not see it coming.
LP: Oh, thank you.
HK: It’s very good.
LP: Only two people in all of reading history, which is, at this point, many dozens of people, have seen it coming. But yeah, if the reader can spot it, please let me know. I’d love to hear it from you. Sorry, I got boasting and I forgot the question.
HK: I was just asking whether, youwere talking a little bit about how the novel began with the character of Arkady, and then the themes emerged through the exploration of… of this impossible situation.
LP: I had his secret, and from there it all just kind of spun out, you know, all the consequences and ramifications that echo down through history, and affect the modern age, or come from that one moment of revelation or not-revelation, as the case of the character may be. But the big theme spinning from that secret is the act of secrecy, the secrets we keep to… Mainly to protect ourselves. I mean, everyone keeps secrets to protect something, usually it’s yourself, sometimes it’s family. You know, this silence that we permeate, that we allow to permeate the word around us in order to make life possible, in order to go on when evil done, when something horrible has happened. This silence can be a very comforting thing, but it also is a vacuum in which further evil is allowed to be done. So that idea of the secrets we keep from each other, in order to protect our loved ones… That, that is the thing that I really wanted to explore. These characters were… The character of Arkady Kulakov in particular was modelled very closely on, well, there was a real-life historical model who was a pathologist who worked for Mengele – he died just after the war, because he was broken. He never worked as a surgeon again, and he died of a heart attack in ‘56, but my question would be, what if this man lived? If he moved to the other side of the world and became part of that great wave of European migration, which so strengthened and changed Australian society, you know, became part of that ‘Greatest Generation’ that we still reference, and that still is a great source of pride in our society now. If that man became part of that, what would happen to him? But his character is modelled on… I grew up in an area of Melbourne with a lot of Eastern European war survivors, and so all my friends were the grandchildren of survivors of the camps, and of the Shoah. As I grew older, like, I’d always had a kind of idea of – I knew what the Holocaust was, but as I grew older, and I became aware of just, the scale of the atrocity, the evil that was done… I found it incredibly hard to, to balance the image of these kind of jovial, stoic, you know, grumpy, real people – these people who weren’t caricatures, they were just Australian citizens, with accents and attitudes. They had seen the absolute nadir of humanity, and then they’d had to move across the world, to this country which was, you know, at best indifferent to their suffering at first, if not actively hostile to it. That was… The silence that surrounded that, you know, this secret at the heart of the community and the families, but also the strength to keep going in the face of that silence – I don’t know if I’m articulating this as well as I could be, but that informed the character of Arkady, and from that the rest of the story.
HK: I think you articulated that perfectly. My next question then, really, is – why fiction? I mean, you have a background in non-fiction, you have a lot of experience as a journalist, why not talk about these things – I have a theory that all writers are drawn to absences, of a kind, and I can see that in what you’ve just described, but why did you specifically choose fiction as a vehicle through which to explore these ideas of silence and morality?
LP: Well, you know, there is that old saying, nature abhors a vacuum, and a writer abhors nature. So there is a celestial game of paper, scissors, rock going on here. But I think… Like, you know, my previous books have been non-fiction, and I love non-fiction, and there are certain things you can do while working in fiction, you know, the veracity afforded by memoir or journalism has a strength which can’t matched in perhaps any other mode of writing. But fiction has strengths of its own, particularly the ability to explore a deeper truth by taking strands of all the other little truths, you know. I wanted to tell a story which exists only in a metaphysical sense, if that makes any sense at all. The things that happen in this book didn’t happen – I mean, many of them did, you know, all the atrocities, you know, everything that happens, all the things I’ve described in this book, from the events in Indonesia to the events in Auschwitz – all of it happened, but not to one person. The luxury of fiction is that you can take all the events that illustrate the particular facet of humanity that you want, and assemble them into a collage and then, like, it becomes a found art piece of – God, I sound incredibly pretentious when I am allowed to talk.
HK: I know exactly what you mean. It’s almost like a distillation of all these other separate, these true events which are occurring around the world, which are linked, we know, we can see the cause and effect amongst them. However to write that as a non-fiction book it would have no structure. So fiction allows us to pool all these threads together in a narrative that is in many ways a concise and distilled way of still telling the truth.
LP: Precisely. Thank you.
HK: Oh, good. I wanted to ask you – the Holocaust, I think, is a subject which obviously has been written, a huge amount of material which has been written about it, there is also, you know, some very real ethical questions to be considered when writing about it. To what extent where you preoccupied with the ethics of writing about the Holocaust, particularly in fiction?
LP: Oh boy.
HK: You know you are going to get asked this question at some point or another.
LP: Yeah. The answer is, you know, I am primarily concerned with it – and still are, to this day, I was… Some reviews have called this a bold story, or a confident one, which is a nice thing to hear, but I was terrified of it, you know. I was very cognisant of the fact that I was at best, treading on something that – when you write about the Holocaust, it is not new territory, and it is also sacred ground, in a profane kind of way. So at best I was sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, at worst, I was terrified that I would be in any way disrespectful to the victims and survivors of the Shoah. And, you know, that is a fear that doesn’t leave you. I was shit-scared, and still am. But, and you know, a lot of scholars of the Holocaust believe that it shouldn’t be written about by those who weren’t there. And that, and further – which I have already ignored, forgive me – and further, that it can’t be understood, that we should never try to understand, because it was a historical event of such magnitude and cruelty, just pure evil, that it defies human reason and it can never be understood. I don’t disagree, that could be correct – but I think we have a duty to try and understand, to constantly interrogate, it and other atrocities throughout history. Because, you know, as the old cliche goes, you are doomed to repeat the past if you forget it, that is one cliche I don’t avoid. There is… There is a tenet of survivors, a catch cry, kind of – never forget. And it is one I heard again and again, whenever I spoke to survivors as part of the research, I spoke to as many survivors as I could, from as many countries and as many walks of life, to ask them about their experience, and to kind of plead with them to give me permission, I was just, ‘give me a big stamp of approval so I can write this thing.’ And one of them was like, he was like, ‘this is not up to me, it’s up to you, do it.’ But he… In particular, a lot of his observations informed the character of Arkady as well, towards the end of the book, some of the revelations there. He… He was, you know, quite prosaic about it. He was, he said, ‘Well, we will never learn anything from the Holocaust, except that it must never happen again. And the way, the only thing we can do is to keep telling the story, and to never forget, never forget.’ And sadly, there are less survivors every day. And so, it falls, the responsibility to never forget, falls on others – of course, it falls on their descendents, and the greater diaspora, but I think… While the suffering belonged primarily to the Jews and the other victims of the Holocaust, the complicity rests on the world. These things, I say they don’t happen in a vacuum, but they do happen in a vacuum, they happen in that silence we discussed earlier. I think it’s up to all of us to constantly interrogate and to try and understand it, even if we fail, and to never forget.
HK: Do you think writers have an obligation to the past, for the benefit of the present?
LP: I would hope so, otherwise I have just wasted a lot of time writing this book. You know, the past… we ended up here, on this rock, at this moment, by a series of decisions that were made before we are… We are all puppets to a fate we will never be cognisant of, which sounds grim and paranoid, and overly deterministic, but I think it’s true. And I think the best way we can hope to understand where we find ourselves and how we can best navigate into the future is to understand the past, and is that not a writer’s job? Primarily – I don’t know. I am from fairly pop school of writing. I think my primary goal is to entertain, like, you can be as didactic as you want, but if you are boring someone, then you’ve done something wrong. So I have tried to write something that people want to read, and then jam as much preachy didactic subtext into it as I possibly can without it bursting.
HK: Look, I don’t think you are at risk of sounding didactic at all. In fact I would argue that’s… You mentioned about the reasons that you turned to fiction, to explore things like this. As much as you might want to draw on real events and distil them into a single narrative, I think non-fiction is much more prone to lapsing into didacticism… why can’t I say this word?
LP: The didactical!
HK: Yes, then non-fiction is much more prone to the didactical than fiction. Liam, I wanted to ask you, what role – you’ve mentioned speaking to Holocaust survivors; what role did research play, and how crucial was research to the development of your narrative?
LP: Well, research was everything. It’s something I have been… It is something I have been researching, in some ways, for decades. I had the character, and everything else from there stemmed from research. I researched toymaking, I researched Russian history, German history, the history of the pink triangles, the jazz clubs of the Weimar Republic, I have all this esoteric knowledge, which is utterly useless to anyone but myself, now. But it just, it is collecting – I mentioned earlier shoplifting, I think I stole that from David Mitchell.
HK: You shoplifted the term shoplifting?
LP: I did. I think he in turn shoplifted it from, maybe even Zola, although I am sure there was a fancier French title than shoplifting. But like we were saying earlier, the distillation of an idea. When I had a kind of narrative framework that I knew I wanted to work with, if I just read deeply enough, one of the good things about… Just the sheer amount of historical work that has been done on these incidents and the records that have been kept, is there is far too many stories, and most of them horrible, but there is always something that really happened, that perfectly illustrates what you want to say. So if you just look far enough, it is like… Kurt Vonnegut said that unexpected travel invitations are dancing lessons from God. I prefer to think of it as a kind of divine game of Pokemon Go, where, you just… I was very fortunate during this book to – I just always seem to be at the right place at the right time, you know? When UNESCO gave me the chance to fly over and write most of in Prague, I did, and I was there, standing here, you know, on the cover – you can’t see the cover, it is very pretty. But I could stand in this square where my characters would stand, and I could see what they were looking at, and what the air was like on the day, so these kind of… You know, there was a lot I could do in the library and on the Internet, but there was also the very visceral research was incredibly important, just being able to go there. Plus this state of creeping hatred and paranoia, which I have tried to tap into at various stages along the line, that was incredibly… Just being, you know how if you go in deep on a book, you get a bit weird, it starts to take up all your cognitive space? When that was happening, I was in the middle of Europe in the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis, I was catching – right-wing sentiment was on the rise in Europe, and I would catch a bus to the next country, and they would stop the bus and check, pull off all the brown people and check their IDs. When I went to Krakow to visit Auschwitz, they burnt an effigy of a Hasidic Jew in the town square, just when I was walking by, it all felt very surreal. You know, like, ‘so that’s what it looks like to burn an effigy of a Hassidic Jew.’
HK: Goodness me…
LP: ‘That’s handy, for the book I’m writing.’ I began to become quite paranoid that I was a genie and I was ruining the world, because the things I needed just came to me in terms of research. One… You just had to be, you know, I read everything, but then I started to follow those weird leads, you know? One of which was… After my first book came out, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, which is, this is not an inelegant plug, I promise… It was a story about being a drug dealer, and a gentleman called Werner Pieper wrote me, and he, he was like, ‘I read review of your book in a German newspaper. I am Germany’s biggest LSD dealer, do you think we are related?’ And, you know, I was like, ‘Possibly?’ And I looked into it, and it is possible we share a relative from like, the 1860s, before – Pieper is a German name, we emigrated in like 1890s, I think – So possibly we are very distantly related. But this guy was an interesting fellow – he was a big LSD guy, he’s like a talking head for drug legalisation in Hamburg now. But he, he grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich, his parents were devout Nazis, and after the war they retreated to Bavaria and opened a hostel for wounded Wehrmacht troops, where they would, so that they could have jobs, and the miners would come from the Rhineland, and they would stay, and they would all sing the Nazi songs, and he would serve, when he was a little boy, he would serve in the kitchen, in a literal Nazi house of horrors, you know, the guy on the drinks trolley had no legs, you know, there was a guy who had been blinded on the Western Front – sorry, the Eastern front – by frostbite, you know, peeling potatoes. And so when he was eight years old, he ran away from home, and lived in the forest for a while, and then he hitchhiked to London and he became, he discovered LSD, and he went back to Heidelberg University where they gave him the formula, and he cooked acid, and then he went back to London and he sold LSD to Pink Floyd for a while, and – he claims, I don’t know if this is true – but the record Piper at the Gates of Dawn is named after us, the Piepers, because they called him Piper back then, and his LSD was the best. I was like ‘yeah, sure, old man,’ but then he went and got a signed Pink Floyd record to show me – ‘Dear Piper, thanks for everything’ – so who knows. So I went and spent some time with him, just because I was like, how do you not take up that opportunity? He was very disappointed that I don’t smoke hash, very disappointed, but he was also integral in just helping me understand what it was like to grow up in post-Nazi Germany, that kind of – he, like his two missions in life, apologising for the Reich, and finding fascism wherever he sees it, and getting everyone high – he is still into LSD, he still believes that LSD is the answer. So he… To answer your question about research, every lead is worth following, you know, like I was a hack once – I still am, but a different kind now, I guess. But you have to, you have two follow those strange leads, those little rabbit holes, because you never know what you are going to find, you know? Sometimes it is a dead end, sometimes it is, it is an LSD-dealing Nazi escape artist. It is just, life will show you the way, if you just keep your eyes and your ears open.
HK: I am a big believer in Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which I think speaks exactly to the experience of most people who do any kind of historical research, particularly for fiction as well, because I think often the approach for research, for historical fiction, when you might not know exactly the shape of the story that it is you are going to write, just a vague idea of the time and the place and perhaps the characters, you read very broadly, and you can’t afford not to pursue the rabbits down the rabbit holes. And what you find is sometimes quite uncanny in how closely it ultimately speaks to what it is that you need to find, the strangers that you end up meeting, it is really quite bizarre.
LP: Jung’s theory of synchronicity is what I was referencing when I mentioned Pokemon Go earlier. (Laughs).
HK: I didn’t make the connection personally, but I’ll… (Laughs) I’ll take your word for it.
LP: Sorry, I’m an asshole. You are quite correct, yeah, I agree… The distillation, at a certain point the reality and the reality you are trying to shape, they will reach parity, they’ll coalesce, and they will become the story you are trying to tell. And I think, I think Jung might have been onto something, all those guys… I’d like to go back and head shrink those dudes, Freud, Jung, with the trials of modern psychology. But this is not about research.
HK: No, a conversation for another time, perhaps. Perhaps we will finish with a question that, I will ask you two more questions. Both of which – one of which I love to ask and the other which I probably know you will hate to answer. The first one, which I love to ask, is – I think probably as a writer, you know, with three books under your belt, you probably get asked all the time, what is the best advice for emerging writers? I like to ask, what is the worst writing advice you have ever received?
LP: Oh, wow! There is so much. Um… I would find it incredibly hard to narrow it down to the worst piece of advice. I once did an ill-advised creative writing degree, where, by the end of it, I was convinced that the only mode to write in was post-colonial literature, so I spend a lot of time trying to emulate a kind of writing that just really wasn’t working to me. That’s not advice, that’s just a bad choice.
HK: So no post-colonial writing then?
LP: Oh, maybe, there is still time. Let’s say anything that pops up on a Facebook feed, as like a nice little Photoshopped meme – like those pithy little sayings, that are easy to share but don’t actually mean anything? Like Hemingway: ‘Writing is easy, just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein’, or sit down and bleed, depending on which version of the quote you are going on. They sound good but they don’t mean anything. So let’s say the worst piece of advice I have ever gotten is from the internet, just all advice on the internet, and maybe paraphrased by Oscar Wilde – you know, there’s a one-liner from Oscar for everything – ‘The only thing to do with good advice is quickly pass it on, because no-one can use it for themselves.’
HK: (Laughs). I think that speaks to memes in general, to be honest. And the question that you might not want to answer – what can we expect from you next? Are you working on anything?
LP: Oh, I’m working on a post-colonial…
HK: (Laughs). Can’t wait to read it! Hope I find time between sessions of Pokemon Go. Liam, thank you so much for your time.
LP: Thank you so much.