KYD: Thank you for catching up with Kill Your Darlings this afternoon. I’m looking forward to chatting about all your work, and particularly your new book, The Coming of the Whirlpool, which is the first in a new YA-fantasy series. So I thought we’d begin by talking about the book, which marks a departure from your previous books in some ways, and in others there’s definite continuity.
Andrew McGahan: There is, as someone else has pointed out to me recently. It’s there in the last three or four books, The White Earth, Wonders of a Godless World and this new one – that there’s always a young mind being crafted by an older, embittered one. Which I hadn’t really been aware of, but I guess I had in other ways – it’s quite clear-cut when you look at them like that.
You can certainly weave that thread, particularly through your more recent books, as you say. And fantasy is now a reoccurring genre, which we read in Wonders of a Godless World. Within these stories is also the idea or concept of individual consciousness, collective consciousness, the freedoms of the mind.
I read somewhere that you had a real love, as a child, of sea tales and sea lore. Can you talk a bit about that, and how it’s informed your new novel, and the series?
I did. It just came out of love of bizarre tales, like ghost stories. And in those collections of tales, you’d often find ones about weird happenings at sea, like ships would disappear, and in the case of this there’s an Edgar Allen Poe story, which I’ve mentioned plenty of times before, called ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’, which is about two guys who get caught in a whirlpool off the Norwegian coast. That sort of stuff as a kid I just adored, so I’d seek out more and more the weird, sea-story type things, just for fun (it was never a major compulsion or anything). Even up until now I’ve been collecting them – if I saw a collection of sea stories, I’d grab them. Not the real ones, not the stories of what sailing’s really like, but stories of myths and weird things at sea. In my novel Wonders of a Godless World, there’s a passage where the guy [a character named The Foreigner] gets stuck at sea for a while, and I can indulge in a bit of that sea weirdness to an extent. But when I finished writing this passage, which only amounted to one chapter, I thought I’d really like to get into a bigger sea adventure. And it couldn’t be a sophisticated sea adventure, I wanted just a fun story. Not young-adult fantasy necessarily, but I thought fantasy would be the way to go – a simple, classic sort of fantasy, which naturally enough the publishers thought would suit young adults. So that’s where I ended up with Whirlpool.
Would you agree that the key to a successful fantasy story is that it has to have some foundations in truth and reality?
I think so. It’s got to feel real. Internal reals have got to be consistent. You can’t just have magic out of nowhere. In fact, there’s no magic in Whirlpool; I wanted the magic of the story to be the sea. But it has to obey rules. If people think you’re just making it up, chapter-by-chapter, it’s not going to be very convincing. The ocean in this book – it’s not really evident in this book, but it develops over three or four books – has quite different physical properties, which enables all this weird stuff to happen. But they’re explained, and they’re quite rational. So I’m not just saying, ‘Oh, weird stuff happens for the sake of it’ – it happens for a reason.
You can’t just have magic out of nowhere… If people think you’re just making it up, chapter-by-chapter, it’s not going to be very convincing.
As is so often with fantasy, as you’ve just mentioned, there are lots of intricacies with the plot and character. How much planning went into the formation of this first book, and the series, compared to how you’ve worked on other books? Was there much of a difference?
Yeah, far more planning. By the time I sent it off to the publishers, I thought: ‘Okay, it’s going to be a series of four books.’ Then the publishers want to know what those four books are going to be (at least roughly). And in that sense, that I sat down and plotted three books that followed this one, and even, you know, re-wrote this one so it could follow series events, was not how I’d normally work with a fiction book, where I launch off and see where I end up. Wonders of a Godless World and even The White Earth… I had a vague idea, but nothing as settled as this. But that’s part of the fun of this.
And did you find that way of working, in terms of the plotting and planning… Do you enjoy it? Or was it frustrating at times, holding back, being more structured and strategic with your writing?
It hasn’t been so far. I mean, I’m not wedded to the structure. The plans I’ve made for Book Two, for instance, which is more or less finished by now… It’s stuck roughly to the outline, but it’s changed in significance quite a bit. And so what I think Book Four is going to be won’t be, it’s close enough so I know where I’m going, but it’s open enough so it can change too. So it’s not a bad thing. And all the little side bits are just icing on the cake. For your own benefit, I like to sit down and make up all the town names and imagine all the landscape, even if it’s not going to appear in the book. It’s surprisingly enjoyable. It’s just like daydreaming, all the while you’re writing it down.
It seems that there’s been a rise, zeitgeist-like, in the fascination with fantasy worlds recently, look at Game of Thrones, for instance…
Yeah, it’s boomed, insanely, hasn’t it?
What do you think it is that makes this genre so popular – is it typical of the times? Why are readers, and viewers of television in terms of Game of Thrones (though it is, of course, based on the books), seeking out these types of stories? Fantasy has obviously existed for a long time in literary forms…
Though it’s now crossed over into some pretty massively mainstream stuff… I honestly don’t know why that is. For the TV, it could be that it’s cheap and easy to do now. Special-effects are so affordable that you don’t need a big budget to do them well. Whether it’s something to do with some deeper movement, I don’t know. But if it is, I’m a product of it myself, because I’m writing fantasy at the same time everyone else is [laughs].
Your writing is very eclectic. But reading your work, I also found some commonality between the stories. While not existing at the surface of the work, there are definitely undercurrents of religion and faith running through your narratives. Would you agree? If so, how much do you think you own background contributes to these themes and concerns (as I understand it, you had a Catholic upbringing)? And is this something you’re more or less interested in now, twenty years into your writing career?
I wouldn’t have thought that I was interested in religion. And I’m often surprised when people say they can see religious themes in the books, or thoughts about religion. Yes, I had a Catholic upbringing, and I left Catholicism when I was about twenty-odd. Without any particular angst, I just said, ‘No, it’s not for me,’ and that was that. I don’t regard myself as any sort of spiritual person. But, at the same time, Catholicism leaves a lot of imprints on you, there’s no doubt about that, your psychology is largely formed by it [laughs]. So, maybe that’s all it is, my mind just poses things as moral dilemmas and that’s the way it is, as that’s the way I was brought up to think. But it’s not a conscious decision. I’m just thinking about what appeals to me as a story, as to why that appeals to me as a story isn’t something I necessarily go into that deeply.
Other common threads, up until recently, at least, are stories built around flashpoints in Australian history. And now you seem to be moving away, at least location-wise, from Australia. Again, is this deliberate, or are you simply running with the stories that present themselves to you?
It’s mostly the latter. It does feel a bit like a nice relief to not be writing about Australia for the time being. Having gone into complete political satire with Underground, and not feeling very comfortable there [laughs], I thought I’d stay away from commenting on Australia for a bit. But that wasn’t why I wrote Wonders; that was a story I was working on anyway. But I did think, ‘Well, it’s good it’s not about Australia.’ Not that I wouldn’t ever again write about Australia. Underground felt like a bit of a step too far, in that regard. To be directly addressing Australian politics as a novelist didn’t really seem to work.
I also think masculinity is so integral to your novels, as well.
I think it was there in the first few books – in Praise and Last Drinks. Whether it’s so much so in the later books, I’m not so sure. Again, it wasn’t that I set out to write a book on masculinity, but Praise was by default: it’s about a young man stumbling around trying to find himself; all that stuff comes up.
And, too, questions of individuality and personal freedoms. Particularly, when you look at a book like Praise, and even Last Drinks, with protagonist George really struggling to be free from both his past and his addiction to alcohol… How important are these questions in your writing? Is this something that’s important to you personally, outside of your work?
It would have been a little bit, writing Last Drinks. Part of this is because that’s what makes a good story; characters struggling with their individual responsibilities is what drives drama. With Last Drinks particularly, I’d lived, up until then, a very cut-off life, just bobbing around, on the dole – Praise-world. I hadn’t given Queensland politics or any politics a second thought, I didn’t vote or anything; it meant nothing to me. And then, in the course of researching Last Drinks… Again, I didn’t set out for it to be a political novel, I wanted it to be a straight-up crime novel, but it was dragged more and more towards Queensland politics. So I was researching all that stuff, the Joh days, and I’d been there for it all, I remembered it, but it hadn’t meant anything to me then. And I was just horrified at what I’d thought was okay in Queensland, even though I wasn’t responsible for it, but I feel guilty and stupid that I hadn’t thought about this, or been annoyed about any of it when it was actually happening. So part of all the horror and guilt George in Last Drinks ends up feeling was partly my own thing. Why didn’t I know about this at the time? And since then I’ve never been able to completely ignore politics, it’s just a question of how deeply you want to get into it.
Growing up on a farm, you become really obsessed with the weather, and out Dalby way, it’s very dramatic, open-sky type weather there, and I always loved that.
I read Last Drinks for the first time recently, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the storytelling, the use of genre, and it was also really enlightening for me – not familiar with Queensland politics – it sent me back in time, and wanting to know more. I was also reading the novel right around the time that Campbell Newman had just won the election. So it was all kind of strange…
Yeah, Queensland is a strange place in that regard…
What do you make of that? There are lots of rumblings that it might be a return to the old form of politics that have blighted Queensland…
Well, when Joh went out, the National Party had been in power for thirty years. Before that the Labor Party was in power for thirty years. So if we have the Liberals for another thirty years, it’s just following history…Yeah, there you go.
It certainly has the longevity, but very much using allegory as well. I’m not sure the Australian audiences have, generally, the taste for more hard-nosed political novels…
Unless they couched it in humour; they’re not the most exciting novels to read. With Underground, I tried to make it comedy, at least to make the other [political] stuff palatable. So people can read it as anything. Like Animal Farm – you can read that just as a story in itself, you don’t actually have to delve too deeply into the politics of it. You need to have that, at least.
And were you happy with Underground, when it was done and dusted?
When it was published I was happy enough with it. Again, it’s not a book you go back to and read now. I had fun writing it; it’s got some good little bits in it [laughs]. It’s not a good premise to start a novel on: anger. As I said at the time, it’s like a political pamphlet – you send them out there and they end up in the rubbish a few days later, and that’s all it should have been looked at like.
Do you think you’ll tackle politics again?
Not as directly as that [laughs]. I don’t know. In the adult novels, I’m writing about contemporary Australian society, so I can’t avoid it in some form or another. I’d go back to The White Earth sort of distance, or Last Drinks sort of distance on the politics.
But, you know, if Tony Abbott rises to power, you might be compelled to do it [laughs].
[Laughs]. Yeah, who knows, who knows…
I came across particular interviews where you’ve talked about genre, and that you feel uneasy about having a reputation for ‘crossing genre’. Does that stem back to a more stylistic, practical aspect of your writing – that you’re inspired by ideas before genre. Or is it simply that you have an aversion to classification?
I guess there are two things I’m trying to say when I say that sort of stuff. Because I don’t look to genres to jump to, I don’t think, ‘Oh, what haven’t I written yet? I haven’t written a fantasy – so I’ll write a fantasy.’ It’s the stories themselves that suggest what kind of genre it’s going to be.
The other thing that you become aware of is it’s not such a great thing for you career-wise to keep jumping. Readers won’t necessarily follow you from genre to genre. So you’re always starting afresh, in some ways, and that’s not always the best thing. Sometimes I do think it might have been wise to just stick to one, and develop a reputation.
Tell me about weather, Andrew. It’s such an integral part of your books – especially the new book. Where does your interest in the weather come from?
I love the weather. I did work, very briefly, for the Met Bureau. In my second book, 1988, I had a job at a lighthouse. So that part of 1988, in the lighthouse, that was real – I had a job up there, working, just doing weather observations. But I loved the weather before then, it’s just one of those things… I mean, growing up on a farm, you become really obsessed with the weather, and out Dalby way, it’s very flat, so if there were storms, you can see them coming for hours, building up over the plains. It’s very dramatic, open-sky type weather there, and I always loved that as a kid. But I always liked reading about it, I liked researching it. I liked photographing it. It’s just a hobby. I don’t think I’d ever like to go into full-on meteorology [laughs]. I used to get the textbooks from the library…
Oh wow, that is keen.
So it’s like the sea stories – it’s a fun thing. I’ve always liked describing weather in books, storms if I get the chance. With Wonders, it was almost all of that, and now with the new book, it’s the same – with the sea and the weather.
What kind of research went into Wonders and Whirlpools, in the way that you’re describing long passages – obviously blending with fantasy – of meteorological descriptors.
A fair bit, a fair bit. I didn’t want to say anything that was dead wrong. But just through the internet – no more deep than that. Or the odd book. I’ve got a lot of books on boat-handling, and then I went and found enough video from the web to know that, yes, I know roughly the theory of sailing…
No interest in getting out on the open waters?
No, not really. Not at all, actually. It’s just fun, really – cruising the web. It’s so much easier, these days. There was a bit of research for Last Drinks, and then… Did they even have the internet then? That was all about getting books, literally going to libraries, going through old newspapers, the old-fashioned way. Bloody laborious compared to what you can do now.
I’d like to talk a bit about character, and the characters that are found within your books. The question of the ‘resourceful character’ is something I’ve come across in writing about you and your work. You alluded to this earlier – when you come to read and then write character – you’re suspicious or don’t really like a character who is overly resourceful. You’re more interested in the faults and the inadequacies.
I don’t want to get too extreme. I’ve read books where the characters are never at a loss as to how to get out of a situation, they’re super cool… I mean, I’m not saying there aren’t people like that, I’m sure there are, it’s just that it’s so alien from my own experience that I lose touch with that. I’m interested in the flawed characters. I’ve noticed that most of my characters rarely act on their own; they’re usually reacting to something. They’re reluctant to take action unless they’re forced into it by circumstances.
I’m trying to make Dow in Whirlpool a little less thoughtful, less second-guessing everything he does, and he’s getting better at that by Books Two and Three. But yeah, it’s just a natural trait of mine. I don’t think I’m a particularly dynamic person in the way I behave, so I have trouble imagining it in other characters who are [laughs].
I’m interested in the flawed characters. I’ve noticed that most of my characters rarely act on their own; they’re usually reacting to something.
That’s an interesting revelation. Who are some of your favourite characters – if you care to share – in literature? Do they share these same traits?
Favourite characters… I can’t really think, I mean there are millions. I prefer the flawed ones, I think they’re better – but that’s how most heroes are. It’s only in the most mainstream of thrillers that you’ll find the ‘good guy’ hero, who does things right. Everyone likes a bit of complexity. It’s not a book but TV – the Al Swearengen character from Deadwood. You watch the Deadwood series?
No, haven’t watched it yet. Been told to.
What about Boardwalk Empire, where the hero of that, Steve Buscemi…?
Yes, Nucky Thompson…
He’s the sort of guy who’s evil, but you also get a sense of his struggle. Those sorts of characters appeal to me. For Whirlpool, that’s not what I’m trying to do. Dow is not that flawed a figure – he doubts himself, he doubts the circumstances he’s been put in, but he has no evil streak; he’s basically always trying to do the right thing. It’s more about how someone who has no special skills within themself can, by circumstance, be elevated to be quite powerful. How much of that is fated, how much of that is just luck? I’m trying to get away from the idea of destiny, questioning if there is such a thing.
I guess that again creates those tensions, when you’re working within genre. Like you say with Dow, he has to – to an extent – be virtuous, and he can’t be corrupted…
Well, he can be. In adult fantasy, he’d certainly be. That’s why, in Game of Thrones for example, there are no heroes. They’re all rounded, complex characters. That’s what I meant when I talked about fantasy, where you’re not getting into the complexities of character and politics, and you’re just getting into the sheer adventure of the world. It’s just about an everyman character battling through those adventures.
Did you set out to write an adult fantasy series, rather than YA?
Well, in terms of it being classic and not complex, as well as its character development and its politics, I thought if adults are going to read it, they’ll be ones who enjoy those sorts of fantasies. You can read both. It’s an older style of fantasy – it’s in the Tolkein era, if you like. Simpler politics, simpler world. Or The Earthsea trilogy, if you’ve ever heard of that – it’s one from the 1970s – which is set in the sea world, and was a bit of an inspiration for my new novel. Where it’s all about the difference of the world, the magic of it.
Thinking that I wanted to write about that, without necessarily thinking I wanted to write for young adult, I sort of knew I’d end up there, because where else would you put that sort of fantasy. At the same time, I knew there’d be adults who’d read it, and wouldn’t think there was anything strange about it. So if you were in the mood for that kind of fantasy, then you’d be in the mood for this.
When you were writing, and I guess editing too, was there any consideration that it would need to be held up to two potential audiences?
A little bit. The only thing we really changed, in terms of making it suitable for young adults, was that Dow was a slightly darker character in the first draft, and in that, when things go wrong, he turned to alcohol a little more than he ended up doing in the finished book [laughs].
When you’re writing, are you writing first and foremost for yourself? Would you write if you didn’t have publication as your end point?
I would still make up the stories, though I don’t know if I’d ever end up finishing a novel – because you need some motivation to finish a whole novel. I’d still sit around and think up stories, plot different characters, because that’s the fun part. The actual getting the book done is the chore of writing.
‘Who do I think of when I’m writing?’ I tend to reflect on what have I really enjoyed reading – if I went back to when I’m fourteen, fifteen, or even older. I think, ‘This is the sort of book I would have liked.’ So I’m thinking of myself in that regard, but as a reader, not a writer.
Going back to the beginning, with Praise and winning the Vogel. How integral was that award to kickstarting your career?
I would have kept writing, I think. But I might well have gone back to poetry and would have never been published. I’d been drifting around doing all this poetry, thinking I was Bukowski, the hard-drinking lifestyle, blah blah blah. I probably wouldn’t be published until I was forty, like he was. Then Praise got published. And it forces you to be a bit more serious about it. And yes, it kickstarts everything, getting published changes everything. Especially with that, with an award, and it sells well. Then you think, I’m going to stick with novels. But you don’t feel like you’re a writer after one book, it’s not till three or four books that you’re confident you can actually do it.
You’ve remained with Allen & Unwin for your whole career. Obviously it’s been a very positive, nurturing, successful relationship. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with your editors – perhaps from your initial experiences, through to how you work now? Has it changed, and if so, how and why?
I’ve mostly been under the guidance of Annette Barlow, the publisher of the adult fiction list, but I’ve almost always had different editors on each of the books. Two of them might have been the same. But I don’t know them. It’s always been by email or letters. And the one time I did meet the editor, that was Michelle de Kretser, and she worked on The White Earth. And we only met once, and that was to say hello.
I don’t actually think I’d like to meet the other editors, or get to know them too well. I prefer keeping a distance. That way, if there’s stuff that I hate or disagree with, I don’t have to take it too personally. And vice versa. I’d struggle a bit – with the limited experience I’ve had working in person with an editor – I find it strange; I get too defensive talking about things. Whereas, if I read it, I can get defensive, and five minutes later I can think about it and say, ‘Actually no, that’s right.’ All the editors I’ve worked with, of course, have been great.
It’s so interesting. Different writers have such different approaches to the editing process.
Well, you’ve worked with novelists – how do you find it? Do you work with them directly?
Yeah, generally I like to meet them, in person. I can see why that could create the complications you’ve mentioned. But I do like to meet the writer so they then get a small sense of my personality, as sometimes that personality can get lost or misinterpreted in email correspondence. I think it really depends, though, on how people work.
It didn’t hurt meeting Michelle. I guess it’s more the idea of working constantly over the book. Do you ever sit with the author, and go through page-by-page?
Yeah, I’ve done that a few times before. Some writers want that, though, and essentially you – as an editor – have to respond in that way. I was most interested to know, since you’ve remained with the same house, whether there’s an important, ongoing relationship there. And it sounds like it is very much with the publisher, Annette Barlow.
We were talking about Praise before – going back to the beginning, and there was mention of the prequel, 1988. Do you ever think about Gordon? Is he someone who has stuck around with you? How do you reckon he would have fared, twenty years later? Would he be kicking around, doing what he’s always been doing?
There’s a play, actually, that’s Part 3 of the Gordon stories, called Bait. Which was written between the two books. After Praise came out, I was commissioned by the Queensland Theatre Company to hang around, become a writer-in-residence, see if I liked the world of theatre (which was quite fun), and to write a play. They never produced it, but another company – a little one in Brisbane – took it up, and did it. And it’s been published as a play since then. And that story follows Gordon after Praise. At the end of Praise, he’s getting a job in the public service. And so Bait is about this job (at a very low level), sorting mail, and it’s all about the tedium of low-paid, mindless work, and what that does to you.
And that’s where I’ve left him. Because that’s where I was, I was doing that job, sorting mail, when Praise won the Vogel and booted me out of that life and into a different life entirely. So I don’t feel much connection with Gordon after that. For me, he’s stuck in a dead-end job somewhere… [laughs]
He’s still there, sorting the mail…
And you were involved with the film of Praise – you wrote the screenplay. What was that like?
It was good, great to do. It wasn’t a world I fell in love with. I mean, I was happy with the film. I couldn’t have had a happier relationship with the director or the producer. But it’s a hardcore world. The money involved was so high, there’s no spontaneity. In theatre, it’s all in a rush, it’s chaos and panic, as the play is going to be on in two weeks and there’s no money. Whereas with film, everything is thought out. And as a writer, you’re very low down on the list of importance.
In the end, it was interfering too much with getting the novels done. I was always mucking around with other things – plays or film – which take up immense volumes of time but don’t necessarily go anywhere.
I read that you were feeling burnt out after your second novel, 1988…
Yeah, I knew I couldn’t write any more Gordon novels as I’d stopped living that lifestyle. There was no more reality in that for me to work with. The screenplay filled in a couple of years. Eventually, I thought I had to decide what I wanted to do. And at the time I was reading lots of crime, because my partner, Liesje, reads lots of crime. And I’d read them, and was thinking, ‘Oh, they’re quite fun, surely I could write a crime novel.’ And Last Drinks was what came out.
Many of our readers are budding writers themselves, and I’m sure they’d be interested to know how you, day-to-day, write. Can you take us through your process? Is it project-specific?
In the old days, back in the Praise days, it really was the myth: I’d write at night, I’d have a cask of wine and I’d get drunk writing. And, as people do, if you write drunk you have to edit sober at some point. But, you know, for a book like Praise where the characters are drunk for most of the time, it actually works. As I got older, the books changed. With Last Drinks, I stopped drinking when I was writing. By White Earth, I was writing during the day, pretty much. Sort of 9-to-5 hours. Before that, I was fairly irregular – if I didn’t feel like writing I just wouldn’t. And so days and weeks would go by where I didn’t write anything. I’m more organised now. Especially now, when I’ve agreed to do four books in four years. That’s actually a deadline, when it usually takes about three years to finish a book! I just drink less, my lifestyle’s much more relaxed than it was back then, and it feels good.