‘We’ve all had that feeling where the ground has shifted when you weren’t quite paying attention.’
Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction with the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For April that debut is Ronnie Scott’s novel The Adversary, out now from Penguin Random House.
After a long winter in a creaky share house in Brunswick, a young man is pushed out of his comfort zone in search of friendship and love. This is a funny and exhilarating debut novel about sexuality, sociability and sticky summers at the pool.
Ronnie Scott writes essays and criticism for newspapers, websites and magazines. In 2007 he founded the Lifted Brow, an independent literary magazine. He’s a Lecturer in the Writing and Publishing discipline at RMIT University. The Adversary is his first novel.
Our May First Book Club title will be Please Don’t Hug Me by Kay Kerr (Text Publishing). Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of The Adversary in our April Books Roundup.
Read Ronnie’s Shelf Reflection on his reading habits and the writing that inspires him.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Alice Cottrell: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m KYD publisher Alice Cottrell, and today I’ll be bringing you our April First Book Club recording. Our April First Book Club title is Ronnie Scott’s The Adversary, out now from Penguin Random House. After a long winter in a creaky share house in Brunswick, a young man is pushed out of his comfort zone in search of friendship and love. This is a funny and exhilarating debut novel about sexuality, sociability and sticky summers at the pool. Our First Book Club hosts Ellen Cregan spoke remotely with Ronnie Scott to ask him a few questions.
Ellen Cregan: Hello and welcome to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. My name’s Ellen and I’m the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club host. Today I’m here with author Ronnie Scott on the phone, whose book is The Adversary, and it’s our First Book Club pick for the month of April. Welcome Ronnie, thanks for…for calling me on the phone, in these strange, strange times.
Ronnie Scott: Thanks so much for having me Ellen. I love the phrase ‘these strange, strange times.’
EC: I’ve heard it abbreviated to TUT, for ‘these uncertain times’. So we’re going to start our conversation with a reading, and I’ll let you go ahead with that. Okay, cool. I reckon I’ll just read a few minutes of a scene that starts on page 45 of this novel The Adversary, because it’s set at Fitzroy pool, and even though it’s on page 45 it still kind of sets up some of the characters and the dynamic. So I guess all you need to know before we go into the scene is that the book has an unnamed narrator, he’s kind of 21, he lives in a house with his best friend Dan, and he’s a very, like, reluctant person. He doesn’t like to do almost anything. He would just like to be friends with Dan and be by himself and hang out his house, but Dan has a boyfriend named Lachlan and Dan is kind of dragging him out and trying to get him to meet other guys—whether that’s kind of romantic possibilities or friendship possibilities or a little bit of both. And they’ve met a couple of people the previous night, and the narrator is about to run into them again at the Fitzroy pool. Okay, so this is from The Adversary.
Before I’d let my membership to Brunswick Baths expire, a trainer had written on the whiteboard: ‘Remember, summer bodies are made in winter.’ It sounded like an old saw trotted out by some Scandinavian detective, waiting for the lake to thaw and divulge its many bodies, creating a grisly wealth of summer overtime.
Now though, climbing the bleachers at the Fitzroy Pool, I saw it had a troubling meaning of a different kind. While I had been imagining this Scandinavian detective, other boys had been taking the advice as it was meant, girding themselves against sagginess and scrawniness and readying their bodies to greet the sunny world.
Dan and Lachlan were already up there on the bleachers, perched on towels and gazing at me through their sunglasses eyes. Neither of their towels looked particularly beachy but instead seemed lifted from some fancy hotel, in the same thick royal green as their dressing gowns. I couldn’t imagine how warm and lovely it would be to cover myself in these towels in dead of winter, nor how awful it would be to do this after exiting the water on a too-hot, windless day, sweating and chlorine and sticky with sunscreen, squinting up at the gym complex that hulked over the pool. Like many aspects of Dan’s life under Lachlan, the towels seemed like souvenirs from a weird other life.
I nodded to them, saw a space on the tier below them, reasonable man-sized, and made my way towards it. To spread a beach towel on these bleachers was to perform an art. It required a keen eye for towel shaped opportunity and no undue squeamishness for disadvantaging others. As I dropped my own scrappy blue-green-spotted towel and kicked at it to spread it, the shape beside my towel rolled over and revealed itself, inscrutable behind—you guessed it—its own pair of sunglasses, these ones dramatically large and bug-eyed.
I paused mid-crouch. ‘Hey,’ I said.
A pause. ‘Hey,’ Chris L said.
I looked up at Dan and Lachlan. We had already said hi to each other, but I was getting into the groove.
‘Hey,’ I said.
‘Hey,’ Lachlan said.
There was nothing left to say, and nothing left to do but take off my shoes and shirt so as to complete the sense of exposure: my sunglasses were always cheap and the last ones I’d bought had broken several months ago. There were more gaps on the bleachers than it looked from below, but it was hard with noise and dense with sizzly bodies; I was lucky to have found a space at all.
Only when the American was halfway up the bleach ers did I realise my terrible mistake. As if to reintroduce the idea of his Americanness, he was holding two burger shapes in Lord of the Fries wrappers, obviously having left the bleachers in order to pick them up, his towel draped off his shoulders in a pretence of modesty. He was flip-flopping up the bleachers in a pair of thongs,
I held my hands out, palms up: sorry.
‘Hey, no friends in the towel game,’ he said.
‘This is Vivian,’ said Dan.
‘We’ve met,’ said Vivian.
‘Yeah,’ I said, rolling over and squinting up at Dan.
‘We are friends in the towel game.’
So his name was Vivian, which I vaguely knew was one of those names that was actually old-timey masculine, like Shirley or Evelyn, and only in the present world did it sound slightly deranged.
I was trying not to think about my view of Vivian’s crotch, which was encased in smooth white trunks that somehow revealed both everything and nothing. It looked like one of those socks that people fill with sand when they want to smack you but don’t want you to prosecute.
Dan was in one of his unimpressible moods. ‘What’s the towel game?’ he said, when it was extremely clear what we were talking about. It was interesting how that idiom, no friends in the X game, was something they must have had in America too, which only made it seem particularly pointless that Dan was pretending not to know what it meant.
‘It’s this,’ I said, and said, ‘Chris L, would you mind moving your towel?’ Chris L swooped his mirrored lenses over the bleachers, over the day. ‘I don’t mind at all,’ he said.
I smiled at Dan. ‘Thank you, Chris L,’ and when he’d done so I moved my towel, which made it kind of bunchy, but the towel and I were both still dry, so bunchiness was fine. ‘There,’ I said, and Vivian set his own towel down next to me, stretched it out as far as possible, and sat down where he could.
I was very impressed with Vivian and Chris L for going along with me, although I was unsure what I had been trying to demonstrate.
EC: Thank you, that was great. So I actually forgot my copy of the book, when I came to do this interview with Ronnie, and that is the exact passage that I had picked out too.
RS: Yes, excellent! Snap.
EC: It’s so good. So, can you give me an elevator pitch for The Adversary?
RS: Yes, I can give you an elevator pitch for The Adversary. It’s a story that takes place over eight weeks, and it’s the story of, as I said before, these two best friends, the narrator and Dan, who have met each other I guess at the time in your life when you have finally, what feels like finally kind of found your people, and because you’ve found your people you sort of throw yourselves at each other really hard. And when we meet them at the start of the book—Sorry, this is kind of a long elevator ride—they have kind of exhausted each other, but they, you know, they still mean a lot to each other. So they just need to change their friendship. And I guess the story of the book, the action of the book, is towards them changing their friendship in whatever kind of bumpy way they go about it.
EC: There’s a really wonderful quote that’s, I think it’s on the inside of the book’s jacket actually: ‘I was an agent of Dan, a captive of his really. I went where he wanted me, and I did as he wanted, and for a long time in this way, I was happy.’ So it’s like a pretty specific friendship dynamic, especially between two housemates. What made you want to write about a relationship like this?
RS: Right, well, I think because—okay, I don’t know that I’ve ever been around a relationship exactly like this—like it’s called The Adversary because they like, again, they kind of push, they push-pull each other. Like, I think that you get a sense when they talk to each other that they’re challenging each other and kind of, you know, giving each other grief, but also trying to like, to help each other drill down into their experiences and figure out things about the world, and figure out things about who they are. They kind of hold each other to account in this really, I think, like, rewarding but unfair way. And I am interested in best friendships, I guess because it’s it’s not the model of friendship that I have. I think that I, like, I have a friendship circle that I love, and you know, and close friends, and I have professional relationships that I value a lot, but I have often been around these kind of best-friendships which are um, I think they require a lot of people and I think that they give a lot to people, and they require management, you know, and really kind of careful thought and careful consideration, in the same way that, I guess, family relationships do, or you know, not that other kinds of friendships don’t, but there’s an intensity and a proximity and a constancy about them that I think is really fun to think about. And it just puts them both under pressure really, like when they’re around each other all the time. When they, as I said before, they’re accountable to each other in ways that we’re not always to friends, or maybe we always are, but it’s often not on the surface. You know, they can be really rude to each other as well. And yeah, I thought that was an interesting thing to kind of imagine and, and investigate.
EC: Because a lot of the conflict between the protagonist and Dan sort of comes from the fact that Dan has changed and the protagonist hasn’t, and you do see these sort of before snippets of Dan, and he’s a very different person just a couple of years before the action of the eight weeks, I suppose.
RS: Yeah, the narrator thinks that Dan was cooler, I think, even though he never really says, articulates that. I think because he has come from, from a coastal town outside of Melbourne, and he has come to university and he has met this guy that he, you know, he has kind of, before the action of the book, sort of had a crush on, and kind of tried to, you know, to think about dating or sleeping with, but it ended up being a friendship, and, and he’s really kind of committed to this idea of Dan and Dan’s principles, and ways of living, which I think are not actually like that unusual, his principles or ways of living, he’s just a really critical person. And the narrator is now in the situation with Dan, who has this boyfriend Lachlan, and he’s, Dan is probably a couple of years older—I sort of don’t really say what what age they are, but I think of the narrator as being 20–21, and Dan as being, you know, 23 or something like that. And he’s got a job and he’s he’s thinking about slightly different things, and it’s not necessarily true that these outside circumstances in his life are changing him, it could be that he has changed and has kind of gathered circumstances around him to match and meet that change. And yeah, I think the most telling thing about their relationship in the face of change is that the narrator isn’t just kind of uncomfortable with the fact that Dan has changed, he’s like appalled, he’s angry with the fact that Dan has changed. Yeah, and I guess we’ve all had that feeling, whether it’s in a friendship or something else where, you know, you get the sense the ground has shifted when you weren’t quite paying attention. I think that we meet him in sort of a bewildered state.
EC: Absolutely. And what about the dynamic of the wider friendship group that Dan is sort of pushing the narrator into, that you talked about in the passage there?
RS: Right, yeah, I—so there’s only six characters in the book. It’s like a very, very limited range. And I mean, when I started the book it was even more limited, there were three characters and then one day there were four and then eventually there were six, and I kind of, that seemed like the right number. But they’re pretty similar to Dan and the narrator, like they’re similar age-ish group, and they’re gay, they’re male, they’re white, they’re middle class, and I really kind of treated—this isn’t quite fair to say—but I mostly treated the narrator and Dan as like the ‘round’ characters of the centre of the story, and I thought the other four characters were a way of kind of highlighting different options of, of building a friendship, of building a relationship with someone. And there’s, there’s kind of two characters who are a little bit closer to the narrator and Dan in in the general vibe, and their general make-up. There’s a guy named Chris L who, he’s more feminine, he wears shawls, that’s how you know. And he, he’s, I guess when I think of, like, Dan being kind of critical and brittle and…and higher energy, and then the narrator being kind of disaffected, and also really anxious in that way that he shares with Dan, sometimes—Chris L is kind of sulky and low-key. So he’s a different energy to the energy that the narrator and Dan have. I’ve never, I haven’t kind of thought about it like this before, but they are, their characteristics sort of meet in the middle of the, with the narrator, between Dan and Chris L. And then there’s Lachlan, he’s Dan’s boyfriend. We don’t know a lot about Lachlan. There’s a guy that lives in Richmond, who doesn’t have a name. Or the narrator doesn’t know his name, just like we don’t know the narrator’s, and then there’s an older American guy named Vivian, who we probably know the least about, but he…I think the narrator kind of latches onto him as maybe a substitute for Dan, that ends up being a bit of an imperfect substitute.
EC: Did you ever have a moment of panic, thinking you were going to release a book in 2020 where all the characters were middle class, white and male?
RS: I think I had more panic probably about race in the books than I did about gender in the book. And I think that, like, the simple answer for that is that probably because I am myself a gay man, you think a little bit—um, again, maybe this is unfair, but my sense is that you think a little bit more fluidly about gender than you think about race, because I guess growing up, like, in any way queer, and in my case gay, you…you are kind of thinking about about different gender roles, even in the back of your head when you don’t realise it, but also growing up as a white person, being a white person, there are lots of invitations around you, at all times, to not think very carefully about race. So when I started the book, I actually made the decision super early on that they would be, like, a primarily or totally male cast, because I kind of just knew from writing early scenes that I could say interesting things about gender by doing that. Like, I remember thinking, okay, if I had a book with a range of different gender expressions, I could say something interesting about gender, but I was pretty sure that I could do it this way as well. So that was like, kind of an early natural decision, and certainly, like, I did worry about it at different points as I went through, and I tested it with different readers, and there were times when I thought that I would make it a clearer statement by having, like, the rest of the book be this, this slightly strange vacuum, like where there wouldn’t be kind of even like incidental occurrences of female characters throughout the book. And then sometimes I thought, well no, that’s, like, just incredibly bizarre. So, like, there were moments where I had kind of female characters pop into different scenes, and that just felt like a way of showing that there were females in the world of the book. So there were, there were lots of different kind of missteps and things that I had to do by trial and error, and then I have eventually, I hope, kind of landed in the middle where it looks purposeful, and hopefully if you read it you think oh, there’s probably a reason that these characters are this kind of limited world that we’re experiencing. I think that there was a challenge in thinking, well, over this eight weeks, like the narrator starts off so, so narrow, right? Like this is a super, super myopic view of the world—or I don’t know if you’d call it myopic if he’s fixed on one person, which is Dan. And then over the course of the book he gets kind of prised open, and he gets like a slightly wider view of what it is to be a human in a society. And you kind of can’t have a character and their circumstances change completely over the course of that time, but you have to gesture towards it, and I think that, it was quite fun to have this very, like, resistant, very reluctant character slowly dragged into experiences that were a little bit more different than the ones that he knew over the course of the book.
EC: I think what it does—I think it definitely does that, and what it does really well that you possibly couldn’t have done with a wider cast of characters, is sort of show those platonic queer relationships really well, and the way that it is, it is a kind of masculinity, but it’s not one that necessarily crops up a lot in fiction.
RS: Right, yeah. I think that I really, really wanted to have a friendship at the centre of the book that wasn’t—like, that was between gay men, but that wasn’t to, like, to a majority majority extent, if you can say that, sexual. Like, I know there’s little elements of sexual attraction in there, but I mostly really wanted to have them, yeah, to have them like each other platonically and to have that be the thing that they had to wrestle with. Yeah, and I’d like, I think that I could have done that with female characters, but I also think that, so because his worldview is so narrow, and he’s so, like, intense about things, and has no perspective, I think that the less, like, the less perspective was in the book the more kind of made sense, and I think that was one of the reasons that it had to take place over eight weeks as well. And also even characters like Vivian who, you know, are really demographically similar to the other five characters, but a little bit different, like, you kind of have to keep them out at the edges of the story, because the more perspective anyone in this book can offer the narrator, I think the less emotional sense that he makes. So you kind of want it to feel a little bit like a hall of mirrors, I guess.
EC: Mmm. And there’s also quite a lot of specificity in the location. So it’s like a very Melburnian novel. Is that something that you always wanted to do as a writer, to kind of write a Melbourne novel?
RS: Yeah. (LAUGHS). Yeah, I did. Well not always, but I moved to Melbourne when I was older than this narrator, like, I had a very different experience of being 20–21 which he is. Like, I was in Brisbane, I was in an artistic community which he’s not, like, I think that these are sort of hipsterish gay men who are probably like connected to artistic communities, but that’s not the main make-up of who they are and what they do. And I was in a really sort of mixed group of people with lots of people in couples, and lots of straight people, and…and I really kind of got—maybe when I moved to Melbourne and when I was a little bit older, and when I was still in this quite different life, I…um, I guess when you’re…whatever you’re writing, you’re probably looking for, like, the right vantage, even if you’re not doing this consciously. And I think that I was in this space where I could imagine having grown up in a different way, and that made it really easy to kind of indulge whatever, um, whatever impulses lead to the writing of fiction. So for me it was, like, thinking, well, what when I, when I felt this way about, um, about people, or when I felt this way about landscape, like forming those intense, but very kind of fraught connections, like he does to different spaces like the Fitzroy pool, or like, like a bar like the Retreat or like a certain street that he rides a bike down—like I think that you have a bit of an outsider status when you have come from somewhere else, which helps you see something a little bit naively, but also like you’re close enough to connect to it in a way that, um, that helps you imagine or interrogate it.
EC: The next question I was going to ask you is about, sort of, making specific settings universal, but I think you kind of just almost answered it, because that’s sort of, to me seems like a way that you could look at a very specific city and you talk about things like, you know, how annoying it is to cross Melbourne, and as you say, the Fitzroy pool, but you make them feel universal, and I think that comes up in the passage you read actually, you know, that you’re at the Fitzroy pool but you’re also just at a public pool. But it kind of sounds like, you know, that naivety is how you’re able to make that feel a bit more universal.
RS: Maybe—I, yeah, I do think that with specificity and universality, like… I think that often the way to get to something that feels universal is by being detailed and concrete. Like I think that we, like we talk all the time about relatability, and we talk all the time about empathy in fiction, and how, you know, fiction creates empathy in readers, but I think that we’re pretty empathetic creatures anyway, and it’s not like—I think that if you understand what a character wants, or if you understand the way that they see the world, it’s, we find it pretty irresistible to connect to them, whether we like them or not, or whether we are willing to or not. So yeah, I think that specificity is one of the best things that you can do in fiction, and I tried to do it with like—I guess not even Melbourne, right, but inner north of Melbourne, and just a pretty narrow little circle of it.
EC: Yeah, that sort of inner northern life, you could call it. So as well as being a great writer you’re also a very great writing teacher, and you were once my writing teacher. (LAUGHS). So when you write, do you find that you follow the advice you give to your students? Or are you a kind of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach?
RS: I think I, you would just have to tell me what advice I give to students, because I am usually just doing this, and like, on the back foot, and figuring out what I think as I say it, and probably contradicting myself. I, yeah, I think that the best advice that you can give to students is just to try to write a lot and read a lot, because the more you write, like, the more options you give yourself, and the more willing you are to try things out that you’ll end up trashing because it’s, because it doesn’t make sense, or it’s useless, or you haven’t, like, it hasn’t done the thing that you thought it would and that’s just so much—like, I at least find that easier than thinking conceptually, than thinking through, like, what something will look like in a hundred words’ time. I would rather just write it thoughtlessly and then you know, sit back and look at what I’ve done and try to fix it. And that’s definitely the way that I worked on The Adversary, like I often had to write a whole draft and look at it and think, well, what was I trying to say here, and what did I really end up saying? And then sort of take some time away from it, and give it to different readers, and get different perspectives and then sort of go back and have to kind of start it from scratch, and incorporate bits that I’d done before. Like, I think that’s why—like, I know that there are people out there who are really quite good conceptual thinkers and don’t have to do that, like, material work to get to the end of the story. But I think that I like that method because it’s fairly foolproof, and you just, you, you, all you have to do is write. And writing can be really painful, but I also think the more you do it the less painful it is. So I definitely say, like, I say that to students and I say that because it kind of works for me. But I’m sure I say a lot of things that, like, I think it is great advice, but which I would never do.
EC: (LAUGHS). You’ll have to pay more attention from now on, I guess. So as well as writing, you said reading is something that helps—who are some authors that you take inspiration from?
RS: Oh, amazing. I have had this kind of cool experience in the last couple years of discovering Anita Brookner, who’s like a British novelist who won the Booker Prize once, but is still in some ways like, unknown, she’s one of those people who was known to be unappreciated more than she is not known, I guess? And I heard of her because of a great podcast called Backlisted, where the two hosts who are in Britain and a rotating series of guests, they like, they’ll talk about books that are out of print or that are classics, and often have some really surprising choices. And one of them just love love loves Anita Brookner, and spoke about her lots over a bunch of different episodes. And finally they did the book Look At Me by Anita Brookner, and the, you know, the other regular kind of host and the guest host were just blown away by how amazing it was, and it was just so satisfying as a listener to see that, like, this person had been talking about their love of Anita Brookner for a bunch of different episodes, and then to see, like, the respect this author got from the other people on the podcast. So that’s like a very kind of 2018–2019 way of discovering a new favourite author. I went and read Anita Brookner and I was so ready to love Anita Brookner and I loved Anita Brookner. Look At Me is a fantastic book. It’s, it’s a really interior, really sad book. It’s about a very lonely person who gets caught up with a fabulous and mysterious couple, and it doesn’t end well for her. But, but it’s also really, like, funny and brittle, and ah…I don’t know, critical, no, critical’s the right word, but perceptive as well. And yeah, I just love reading something that was so dark but so, um, so kind of mirthful about its darkness and so quiet as well. And I think because I got really into her a few years ago, and she’s got about 30 novels, and because I was sort of halfway through The Adversary at that point, yeah, and a lot of her novels are in first person as well, that kind of ended up infecting the voice a little bit in a really positive way.
EC: I’m gonna have to read that, because, because literally everyone I speak to says Anita Brookner is a great person to read.
RS: Yes! Excellent.
EC: I’ve got one more question for you—for people listening to this episode who’ve already read your book and loved it, what are some books that you think they should read?
RS: Oh! That’s a, that’s a really fun question. Ah, like, so if they loved The Adversary what might they… I wish I hadn’t said Anita Brookner for the last answer!
EC: You can say Anita Brookner again, that’s allowed.
RS: Yeah, okay, Anita Brookner, but, um, but-but-but-but, no, I have to think of something else. I feel like I should add value to the Anita Brookner comment. Muriel Spark, I thought about a lot when I was writing this book and trying to think of a tone that I would like to get. And I don’t think that I got that tone, like, she’s very like sort of gentle and wry at the same time, and also, like, weird in places that you don’t expect. So there’s a couple of books by Anita Brookner—ah, by Anita Brookner and also a couple books by Muriel Spark that I think people will enjoy if they liked The Adversary, but I also think that I hold them in such high esteem that I’m reluctant to recommend them right after finishing The Adversary!
EC: Well, look, I think you should because it’s a really wonderful book, and it’s such a funny book, and it’s just such a clever, well-observed novel, and I loved reading it, and I think everyone else will too.
RS: Thank you so much Ellen, this was really great.
AC: That was the April First Book Club edition of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. We’ll be back soon, but while you’re waiting you should drop in on the Kill Your Darlings website for new commentary, criticism, memoir, interviews and reviews. If you’re in a position to, please consider supporting KYD by becoming a member. As well as access to exclusive members content, you’ll receive heaps of great discounts and perks while also supporting independent publishing. Or why not purchase a copy of New Australian Fiction, our first short story anthology. During this difficult time, every purchase makes a difference. See you next time!