For the past 20 years, Steven Carroll has been a respected fixture in contemporary Australian fiction. In 2001 The Art of the Engine Driver was published, the first in his acclaimed Glenroy series, which are partly based on his own experiences growing up in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
Defying the entrenched realist tradition when writing about the suburbs, the Glenroy books (of which there are now four, with a fifth in the works) cemented Carroll’s reputation as one of our most unique literary voices. His prose is elegiac, a study in deceleration, exploring the sublime in mundane events of ordinary lives.
More recently, Carroll’s novels have cast a wider gaze, taking identifiable literary mythology and meditating on the artifice of writing. The Lost Life, his novel from 2009, took inspiration from TS Eliot’s iconic poem, ‘Burnt Norton’, reimagining Eliot within the poem’s narrative. Carroll’s new novel, A World of Other People, is similarly inspired by Eliot’s poetry. Set during World War II, it explores the cataclysmic aftershocks of war.
– Rebecca Starford
KYD: Thanks for meeting up and congratulations on the new book, A World of Other People, which is coming out this month. I was wondering if we can begin talking about the influence of TS Eliot on your writing. This is the second time now that he’s appeared in your fiction. When were you first inspired by him, as a reader and then writer?
SC: I suppose it all goes back to when I read him in high school. Poetry had been the sort of thing you had to do up until then. But when I read Eliot – when I read Prufrock – I thought, ‘This is really something else.’ And I still think, all these years later when I read Prufrock, that it’s still fresh; it still does its job. From there I got interested in him, and read most of what he wrote. That includes the criticisms. Though there weren’t any, early on. Wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the biographies started to be published. I think he was pretty strong on not having any biographies published.
KYD: He objected to that, in his lifetime?
SC: Yeah, yeah, he didn’t want any biographies written. But I can understand that too. I mean, really, strictly speaking, the writer’s works are enough, let’s just be satisfied with them and leave the writer alone. But I’m not like that – I found that the more I found out about the writer, and this is courtesy of biographies by Lyndall Gordon… The more I knew about Eliot, the more I felt I could understand the poetry, especially things like The Waste Land. Because he always said it was a very personal poem. And what he always did was seem to take something that was personally urgent and take it up to another level where he could actually work in a more objective way.
KYD: There’s a line in your new novel, A World of Other People, where Jim observes that Eliot seems like a neutral or unmoving figure, but beneath him teem so many emotions. Which is also, I suppose, emblematic of his poetry: that he’s seemingly removed, but he isn’t.
SC: Yeah, that’s right. I suppose in lots of ways that pretty much goes to the heart of the book. We all know that literature is artifice, and that it is actually ‘ordering’ of the messiness of life into some sort of coherent whole, or fragment, whichever the case may be. But what this book is, I suppose, is a kind of speculation on the messiness of that world – and the real world – on the other side of artifice, so in that sense a kind of exploration of the sources of books, and the sources, in this case, of a particular poem – ‘Little Gidding’. Because I suppose that, in a nutshell, is what’s going on. It’s a bit like an atom: it explodes from there, and leads you into all sorts of areas. But its chief preoccupation is probably aesthetic. And, of course, the focus is the poem itself, and how it affects the lives of two people and, in a more general sense, the way literature enters our lives – and can change it, better and worse.
KYD: We’ve got two characters here – Iris (who is quite similar, I think, to Catherine from The Lost Life) and Jim, the Australian pilot. And they meet, again in a garden (and again, similar to the previous book…).
SC: I haven’t thought of this [laughs].
KYD: A moment passes between them where Iris asks whether Jim is alright. He isn’t, in so many ways, and that’s the catalyst for the story. Almost, actually, like the explosion you describe. Iris recalls those first feelings of love in the sound: BOOM. On the periphery we have the figure of Eliot, who is about to publish ‘Little Gidding’, which is of course a scene they experience together, he and Iris, and it transpires that it actually involved Jim too. Could you talk about Iris? She is a writer herself, a lover of great literature, but she’s also intimidated by the figure of Eliot.
SC: Who wouldn’t be? [Laughs.]
KYD: Well, exactly. He’s an intimidating figure. And I love that description of him being like a slow moving ship… It’s wonderful.
SC: That’s actually from a Seamus Heaney poem. Seamus Heaney had a conversation with Ted Hughes when he first joined Faber and Faber. And he said, ‘Well, what was it like meeting Eliot?’ And Hughes said that it was like seeing the Queen Mary coming at you. So it was a conversation, to that extent, in the public domain. But I did also think that I really ought to write to Mr Heaney and get his permission. And he wrote back and said, ‘No problem, you have it.’ He was very generous and a thorough gent.
But as for Iris: they say you shouldn’t name your sources. But I actually find this kind of stuff quite interesting because, as part of my research, I read a fair bit about Iris Murdoch. I read her correspondence in this wonderful collection of her letters to her friends and lovers called A Writer at War. And they’re really interesting letters, really great stuff. Then I read a biography about her, by Peter J. Conradi. I was just, initially, getting background; I’m very wary about research. On one level, you can do too much of it and then it just becomes a crutch that you lean on, instead of using your imagination. Because ultimately a work of fiction is a work of your imagination. And I think, too, often research is just lazy writing. Anyone can do research, but not everyone can write the book they ought to be writing. So I was just doing a sort of research-reading, which I was really enjoying for this book. And when I started writing the book, I thought: ‘Who the hell is this woman? What should I call her?’ Then I thought, ‘I’ll call her Iris.’ I started working from there, building the character up from what I knew of Iris Murdoch (which was a reasonable amount). But then, eventually, the character takes off, and acquires an identity and a kind of feeling all of its own.
And so her nature, to an extent, came from that source. But then I just started creating her after that. She actually did work in Treasury, Iris Murdoch, and she actually did do the job that is described in the book. She was also writing during that time, and she did have a lover called Frank! [Laughs.] He was actually Frank Thompson, these things sort of all come into play. He was the older brother of EP Thompson, who wrote The Making of the English Working Class…
KYD: Which actually comes into the book, as well…
SC: Of course, Frank didn’t come back. That special job that Iris refers to was SOE (Special Operations Executive), these are special ops behind enemy lines, and he was actually killed in Serbia somewhere. But I brought Frank back… You use these things up to the point that you need them, then you just take off by yourself. So there’s all this background that came into the book.
Iris comes, to an extent, from the reading. But she also just comes from… Well, who knows?
KYD: I guess all writing is influenced, whether directly or indirectly, by specific literature, like you’re talking about. Was Jim similarly inspired by a real-life figure?
SC: No, not really. I just built him from the ground up. The whole time I was writing the previous novel, Spirit of Progress – I’d write in the morning – and I’d be thinking about this one. You write, don’t you?
SC: Well, you know that when you’re writing something, you can’t wait to get on to the next project at the same time. You know you’ve got to give what you’re doing your very best, but at the same time you’re thinking, ‘Oh, that’s the book for me, I can’t wait to get on to that.’ So I couldn’t actually wait to get on to A World of Other People, because I’d had such a great time writing The Lost Life, and it came in a flash. This one did too. It was kind of white-heat writing. The other books, the Glenroy books, take a long time to build up; you’re not dealing with literary mythology or just mythology. You haven’t got a lot to lean on when you’re doing these books, you’re actually having to create your own background.
KYD: And that takes time?
SC: Yeah. I feel like I have something to lean on now, but when I first started on The Art of the Engine Driver, it felt like I just had to build a sense of where the book was coming from, and how it was working, from the ground up.
KYD: So when you talk about that building, was that all – just like you say – thinking about it, letting it all tick over in your imagination?
SC: Well, the thing about The Art of the Engine Driver was that… The big challenge with that was getting away from… It was stylistic. You see, I’d had this dream about my family, growing up in Glenroy, and it was really, really vivid. And I was going to do a book about TS Eliot, about 12 or 15 years ago, but I had this dream, which was just about my mum and dad and me, walking down the old street, and that really kick-started that book. It was surreal, too, and it gave me, stylistically, a way in. Because the challenge all the way through those books was to get away from the kind of social realism that is traditionally associated with the subject matter, and to an extent, reinvent it. And I wasn’t aware, when I first started, that any kind of literary fiction about the suburbs, about the suburban street… It was very much the subject of TV sitcom or social satire, but not what we would call literary fiction. So I didn’t have a great sense of what to lean on, in terms of creating a book. I had a bit of George Johnson in me, but that stylistically could lead me down the wrong path. So in lots of ways I had to find sources that I could bring to the book that actually aren’t normally associated with the subject, and it also gave me a way to write the kind of writing I knew I wanted to write. So often it’s hard to articulate what that writing actually is, but you know what it is.
When I started the Glenroy books, I didn’t feel like I had a great deal to lean on. It was great fun, but it was hard work too. But now I’ve got four behind me, it’s all started to acquire momentum, and there’s cross-referencing going on, characters referring to each other, and it’s becoming easier now, because it’s like the ball is rolling. I’m pushing it, but I’m also rolling with it.
With the Eliot books, they came so quickly in part because I had the whole works of TS Eliot, I had the whole history of modernism that I could play with and work with.
KYD: Do you think it was maybe that distance from your own personal experiences that influenced the earlier works that you describe? Maybe an element, too, of freedom?
SC: Oh, with the Eliot books there’s definitely that. Especially with the ideas involved. Because I’m looking at Modernism and the movement, and how it is exemplified in Eliot, one of its high priests.
KYD: There’s obviously a lot of ideas, and interplay, teeming beneath the surface of the work. Let’s go back to what you were talking about earlier in relation to style. Your prose is unique; I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it in terms of the musicality and rhythms. And the way that you use repetition as well. Have you always written fiction in this way, or is this something that has been cultivated and crafted over the years?
SC: It’s just something that came along. You see, I’m not even aware of it being it being different. That’s just the way it goes. You see, there weren’t any creative writing classes I was aware of when I first started writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and so my teachers were Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Proust, and I simply read them. I still go back and read Hemingway’s short stories – I don’t think the novels are particularly good, but I think the short stories are just superb, the best that Hemingway is.
KYD: I agree. I do love his short stories.
SC: They’re just extraordinary. ‘Hills Like White Elephants’. It’s an amazing story.
KYD: And incredibly sad. Concise, yet devastating.
SC: And one of his inspirations was Paul Cezanne, the painter, who he said he learnt about writing from. It sounds a bit like bullshit, but you can see it – all those clean edges. The uncluttered plains that make up the whole. You can see that in the writing
When I first started writing, it was very much in that Hemingway style. And gradually, it started to change, as I knew it wasn’t me. And there were at least a dozen other writers writing in the same style [laughs]. But it wasn’t a conscious thing to find another way of writing. I think Proust was important in that. I took time off to read all of Proust.
KYD: Wow. That’s an undertaking. How long did that take? [Laughs.]
SC: [Laughs.] It was. Well, I think the first half took a few years. But the second half only took a few more months, as I’d got rolling with it. I deliberately slowed down for the last 500 pages, because I thought, ‘Nothing is going to come anywhere near this.’ By the time you’re actually closing in on the end of Proust, you’ve just entered this universe. He’s a universe unto himself. What’s he’s done is just extraordinary. The musicality and rhythm in his writing is infectious. I’m reading the biography of Virginia Woolf at the moment by Alexandra Harris – she’s the daughter of Robert Harris – and she’s a fabulous writer. And in this biography she quotes Virginia Woolf saying, ‘If only I could write like Proust’, because Proust blew her away. Proust just opens up his scalp and lets you in.
KYD: Which is very generous of a writer. That artifice that you described earlier…
SC: Well there’s artifice, of course. You look at those sentences by Proust, and they’re extraordinarily crafted and staggeringly controlled. Some of them go on for a page and half. So there’s always artifice [laughs]. Sometimes, though, you’re meant to be very conscious of it.
KYD: Let’s come back to Eliot, and his position in the new book. As I read, I assumed he acts as a figure representing your own explorations of artistic inspiration. There’s a great scene where Iris observes Eliot standing on the balcony, watching the plane, and it’s almost like she can see the inner ticking of his mind, that spark of inspiration. And it just made me wonder how stories develop for you. I read somewhere about The Lost Life that the germ of that idea came about when you were reading Eliot’s poem, ‘Burnt Norton’ from Four Quartets, and the idea of the children in the bushes. Did you have a similar idea for A World of Other People, stemming from Four Quartets, or was it just a continuation of the Eliot in your imagination?
SC: With The Lost Life, I was stuck for an idea for a story, so I thought I’d just go back to ‘Norton’. And I thought I’ll find the story in the poem. And I came across those lines, which we all know – ‘There rises the hidden laughter / Of children in the foliage.’ But I thought, ‘Well, what if there actually were children in the garden.’ Because he’s talking about the metaphorical children, the children of innocence, symbolic of innocence. And I thought, ‘What if they do oversee something that is a sacred ritual being enacted in the garden, but they’re not children, they’re grown up children, and their laughter isn’t innocent but sniggering laughter. And in that laughter they profane that sacred act? And why not use that as the beginning of the book.’
So that gave me the first 60 pages, and I didn’t know what was going to happen after that. But I did have my structure. And that was the easy thing about writing The Lost Life – the poem has five scenes, and so I gave the book five sections, each one corresponded thematically with each section of ‘Norton’. So I knew exactly what my themes would be, and that each one would mirror and correspond with the poem. I didn’t know what the story was at that point, but it didn’t matter – it was more important to have the themes.
I didn’t do that with this book, because, well, I couldn’t – it just didn’t work that way. But I did go back to the poem, ‘Little Gidding’ for the story. Initially, it was going to be that line, about ash and an old man’s sleeves. I went through about four or five different scenarios, trying to find the plot for this one. Initially, I was going to have Graham Greene as a character in the book, because he was working for MI5 at the time, and as a way of getting into the life of Eliot, I was going to use this real figure, but I thought no… [laughs]. Luckily, I thought twice.
KYD: That could be for another book!
SC: [Laughs]. Possibly, it could be. But I don’t think it will be. But you see the Graham Greene thing actually lingered, especially since I’m a Greene fan. So when Iris is in the small church in Maiden Lane, that church exists, and it’s in Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, where Sarah, the character who is having the affair with the Greene figure, makes a pledge to God that after a bomb…
KYD: That she’ll give him up, if he survives…
SC: And, of course, he bobs up, he lives, and she has to keep to her pledge. So that Graham Greene aspect actually stayed with the book, as did the epigram from Browning. But the actual story came from the line: ‘The dark descending breaks the air.’ And that is a bomber, and he’s using the dove as a metaphor in the poem.
I was looking at this line, thinking, ‘That would be a bomber, in flames, low across the ground, probably about to crash.’ And yet – and Lyndall Gordon says this as well – and yet all he sees is totem, poetic symbol. Where was the human being? And to an extent that’s what the book’s doing: taking you inside that totem, inside that bomber, and saying, ‘Well this, on the other side of artifice, was what it was really like.’ There are particles of blood, bone, flesh all over the inside of the plane. People were dead, dying. But the poet sees the dove… Now, it’s a beautiful line, and he’s just doing what poets have to do to condense their experience, but at the same time there was a whole other reality involved in that moment.
I don’t think Eliot ever actually had such an inspirational moment – who knows, he might have. He was a fire-watcher for a long time. But I thought, ‘Let’s have him as a fire- watcher. Let’s have him experience this as a fire-watcher and let’s put this character up there with him.’ And together they experience this moment.
KYD: And Jim is obviously the antithesis of the figure of Eliot, because he is subjected to the reality of the situation. And his fate seems to be already determined. I felt a great sense of doom for him, and it seems to me that your books do hinge on small moments like these – where a single decision basically informs the rest of the life of the character. Like Michael in The Gift of Speed, when he puts on the batsman’s shoes instead of bowlers’ shoes, and bowls a bad stint during the all-important cricket match. It’s such a small decision and yet it has such a profound effect.
In the new book, it’s again not such a big moment but so much rests on it: when Iris tells Jim about her relationship with Frank, which has now paled into insignificance for her. For me, that spelt the end of their relationship – and the end of Jim too, in a way. How many of these concerns are you aware of when you’re crafting the story? I don’t want to use the word ‘destiny’ – but how the small moments have such an enormous impact on the character? Do these arise organically, or are these moments of drama already there, in your imagination?
SC: The short answer is, I don’t know. Look, I’m not a fatalist. I’m actually pretty optimistic about life.
KYD: You like sadness in writing, I read somewhere…
SC: Yeah, I do. I think it’s a sort of… I think that sort of thing – of lives being fated – appeals to me more because there’s something aesthetically satisfying about it, in terms of telling a story, in terms of structuring a story. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what I think about life. But at the same time I do think I do have a kind of Edwardian sensibility, I do kind of like sadness. And I think sadness has had a bad press, really [laughs]. It can be quite thrilling, it can be quite uplifting.
KYD: I feel like Iris, on some level, appreciates these sentiments too. For her, she was in-tune with ‘fate’, because she had already made her bargain, of sorts, with Frank, and she knew what she was getting into. Her thoughts were that way inclined. Obviously, I was disappointed with the ending, and I was hoping for a different outcome! [Laughs.]
SC: I was too. There was going to be a happy ending…
KYD: I don’t think that could have been. I don’t see how
Jim could have recovered from all of that…
SC: Yeah, come back from that level of devastation. There were soldiers who came back walking around Dover, who couldn’t remember how they got there.
KYD: And they weren’t ever told by the military?
SC: There wasn’t a great deal of follow-through. I think, unless they were severely impaired, they just went back into war. But getting back to fate and destiny – I’ve just been thinking about it as you’ve been talking. It’s almost as if Iris has arrived at a point where she has actually broken through that. It’s purely the left over suspicion of the believer, and the superstition of the aesthetic manifesting itself… I’d like to think, by the end, that she’s actually broken free of that.
KYD: Well, when she meets up with Frank again, and that bond – that unusual, tenuous bond – now means nothing to him anymore, either. Perhaps she is now aware of how ridiculous, presumptuous, even arrogant, to think that she had control over anyone’s life, even her own.
SC: And she’s nonetheless liberated by that experience. It’s hit that deeply. And I like to think that we can be hit that deeply.
KYD: As I was reading, I was struck by Iris so often asking herself, ‘How is she – and society at large at the period of time during war – going to move on from this catastrophe?’ And, of course, she is a character who moves, who has a level of contentedness in the present, and can happily look to the future, whereas someone like Jim seems stuck: he can’t live in the present, he can’t live in the future, and he doesn’t want to live in the past, and that seems to me the great tragedy of the story. We’ve seen this in some of your other characters in your other books – Vic is such a character, from the Glenroy books.
War, and the catastrophe of war, looms so large in our history and in our national psyche today. I wondered what your thoughts are on a contemporary story, and how you’d depict these kinds of sentiments – about moving forward. Do you think there’s another catastrophe that looms large in a similar way?
SC: Maybe. I’m working my way to the present [laughs]. Don’t rush me – I’m getting there [laughs]. But I’d really love to write a contemporary book, one that’s set in the here and now. And the Part Five that I’m doing for the Glenroy books may very well… Well, it’s in 1977, but it might have references that go all the way up to the whole Howard era. It’s going to be tricky to try to incorporate that; I’m going to have to use tricks to do that, and I don’t know if I can.
I don’t think we’ve had anything as cataclysmic as that period during the 1940s, and the sheer upheaval of the post- war world, and the Cold War. That styled us and defined us – and it still does. That sort of stuff takes decades to adjust to, and in lots of ways, I can write about it because I have distance on it. I know it’s a cliché, but it does allow you to get a sense of your 1940s. No one is saying this is how it was, but I’ve got my 1940s; this is the way I imagine it. And the time lapse gives me that distance on it, and I think we are still recovering from it in lots of different ways. And I don’t know that we’ve had something on the same level as that. I mean, the sheer… You speak to people from that time, and the common thread running through all observations about those times, that they came out of it with just a blazing desire to live, the very beingness of us was something you could never take for granted again. And yet we so easily do that.
That’s what the Glenroy books are about, to an extent: the sheer wonder of being, in that Heideggerian sense; the sheer wonder that there is something that is apart from nothing. We can take that for granted, but after what they went through, they didn’t.
KYD: I’m often struck by that, in fiction. We’ve never been so fascinated by the wars; it’s such a strong part of our national mythology. I wonder whether we will see any novels that explore the repercussions of the Vietnam War, Iraq or Afghanistan. But then there seems to be a strong aversion to these kind of novels, as there seems to be strong aversion to political fiction in Australia, too – well, overt political fiction, anyway. I find this increasingly intriguing – it’s not like there’s not enough there, and it seems that either there isn’t the appetite for it, or we’re using the past to tell a story about the present, which is of course a function of historical fiction.
SC: It’s something that I hear a bit. That we tend to set the books in the past. Like I say, I would love to write a book that is contemporary, in the here and now, and I’m continually thinking of a way of doing it, but of course you have to come up with a story. And I don’t think it requires something cataclysmic to actually hook it up with. Because, in some ways, what we’ve been through is a very gradual revolution – a technological one – that has made massive changes to society.
KYD: I’m interested in your writing day. Perhaps we can talk a little bit about your process there? Is this something you’ve refined or changed over the years?
SC: Mm, no. I’m lucky. When I first started writing I was teaching: I used to teach in the afternoons and write in the mornings. I could do that four mornings a week, in the early 1980s. So I got into the habit of writing in the mornings. But I never used to – I used to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and I was famous for sleeping in and missing the bank at university. That’s when banks used to close at three o’clock…
When I started writing, things changed. I knew if I was going to get my writing done, I was going to have to get up in the morning. So I used to write before I went to school. Eventually, I left teaching – I used to be a playwright before I wrote prose. I wrote a play about TS Eliot.
KYD: Yeah, I read about that. And that you thought there wouldn’t be a great deal of interest in TS Eliot and his wife at the time, and then you got pipped to the post by Michael Hastings and Tom and Viv.
SC: Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t like it much [laughs]. And the Eliot estate hated it.
KYD: Who are notoriously difficult, I hear. They don’t give permissions out for anyone?
SC: I wouldn’t even bother with them. When I did the Eliot play, the ABC – or I did, actually – sent the play to the Eliot Estate saying can we use this. And I got a letter back from a Mavis E. Pingall, of the Eliot Estate, saying, ‘Dear Mr Carroll, sorry to tell you you have 64 lines of Mr Eliot’s poetry in your play and we cannot give you permission to use any of them. Very sorry. You’ll have to take them all out.’
KYD: Not one?
SC: Not one. They’re very strict, that’s why there are no quotes from Eliot in the books. And that’s why Eliot, to an extent… He’s not a character in either of those books, he’s a presence. He’s actually observed from the outside by other people.
KYD: Thank you so much for talking with Kill Your Darlings, Steve. Good luck with the new book.
SC: No, thank you. And I appreciate you reading the earlier works, too.