Whitlam is about to lose the federal election, and things will never be the same again.
Acclaimed writer Steven Carroll, winner of the Prime Minister's Literary Award, Commonwealth Writers' Prize and Miles Franklin Award, discusses his latest novel with ABC radio presenter Louise Maher.
Forever Young is set against the tumultuous period of change and uncertainty that was Australia in 1977. Whitlam is about to lose the federal election, and things will never be the same again. Radicals have become conservatives, idealism is giving way to realism, relationships are falling apart, and Michael is finally coming to accept that he will never be a rock and roll musician.
Forever Young by Steven Carroll
25 June 2015
National Library of Australia
Speaker/s: Cathy Pilgrim, Assistant Director-General Executive & Public Programs National Library of Australia, Louise Maher ABC and Steven Carroll, author
Cathy Pilgrim: Good evening, everyone, it's lovely to see you all here this evening. Welcome to the National Library of Australia, my name's Cathy Pilgrim and I'm the Assistant Director General of the Executive and Public Program's Division here at the library. As we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their Elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home. I'm delighted that you've joined us this evening to hear Steven Carroll in conversation with Louise Maher. It is wonderful to welcome Steven back to the library. Some of you may have heard him speak at our writing The Australian Landscape conference in August 2013. Steven is one of Australia's most awarded literary writers. Before becoming a fulltime writer Steven taught English in Melbourne high schools, spent the 1970s playing in bands, writing plays and then reviewing them as a drama critic for the Sunday Age. He can now boast nine successful novels including the most recent, Forever Young. Last year, perhaps somewhat notoriously, he was joint winner of the Prime Minister's Award for Fiction. Steven is joined tonight by ABC 666 Louise Maher. Many of you know Louise as a presenter of the Drive program for over eight years. Louise is now the ABC 666 online and field reporter, sharing her love of telling true stories about real people. Tonight, of course, we are celebrating the publication of Steven's novel, Forever Young, the fifth book in Steven's Glenroy Series. Forever Young coincides with Gough Whitlam's election defeat at the end of 1977. And so to begin the conversation, please join me in welcoming Steven Carroll and Louise Maher.
Louise Maher: Well thank you so much for coming out on a cold winter's night to the very warm hub of the National Library, it's lovely to see you all here and lovely to see Steven back in Canberra as well. I had the privilege of interviewing Steven a couple of times when I was presenting the Drive program upon the release of different books and it was always lovely to talk with him but this opportunity's even better 'cause we can good long chat rather than have to worry about the news intruding. As Cathy mentioned, the Miles Franklin Award, the 2015 winner was announced just two nights ago, so I want to ask you about that, The Eye of the Sheep, the winner this year by Sofie Laguna. Have you read it?
Steven Carroll: No, no. I don't get much chance to actually do a lot of reading of contemporary fiction, it's not 'cause I don't want to but I just don't get the chance 'cause I'm writing and also I review for the Age and the SMH and that requires four reviews every fortnight on fiction books, it's pretty relentless. So I rarely get the chance to actually sit down and read a book so I haven't read it, no, sorry.
Louise Maher: If you did ... no, you don't have to apologise. If you did have the chance to sit down and read a novel what would you go for, do you think?
Steven Carroll: Well I usually go for the books that I think are going to be useful in what I'm planning. And sometimes ... see this time I ... normally you get about four or five months off in between a book, you know, there's a lag of about nine months before a book is published and by the time it's actually published you ... I really like to be actually onto something else. It's just an old habit I've had, just in case you get a complete shellacking by the press, you know. You can go back on Monday and you can go back to the book that you had faith in before you got the shellacking so nothing's changed. I'm a superstitious person. So, but this time I actually didn't get the chance 'cause there's been a fair bit going on. And I haven't had the chance to actually indulge myself in reading this time at all, it's ... but mostly I look for the stuff that I think will be helpful but often I'll just ... in between books as the saying goes, I just ... I'll go anywhere in terms of literature and this sort of, just indulge myself. But it's long time since I've read just like a reader, and I will get back to that habit eventually but ...
Louise Maher: We'd rather you keep writing ...
Steven Carroll: Yeah (both laughing).
Louise Maher: ... actually, I think (chuckling).
Steven Carroll: I tend to be actually constantly either on duty writing a book or looking for ideas.
Louise Maher: Mm, or talking about your books.
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: You won the Miles Franklin for The Time We Have Taken in 2008 and of course you were the joint winner, as Cathy said, of the Prime Minister's Literary Award last year for a World of Other People. So what do those sort of prizes mean for you? Obviously there's the financial reward, as Sofie Laguna, this year's winner, said, it buys you time for writing, and she said it gives her young family a sense of security for a while at least. But what else does it give you?
Steven Carroll: Oh, that's ... should never be underestimated, that it gives you money to live off 'cause it's ... TS Eliot called writing a mug's game in, I think he was about 70 and he had all the acclaim that he had, and he said you've called ... the interviewer said to him, you've called writing a mug's game, you've called it ... about 10 years beforehand. Would you still say that? He said, oh yes, absolutely, it's a mug's game. And to an extent it is, there's no money in it. And I was writing for about 20 years before I started to make any money at all, and I had to write for about 12 years just to get my first novel published. There's nothing in it for a long, long time so when you actually get these windfalls, when your ship comes in, be it the Miles Franklin and the Prime Minister's Award, it does give you that sense of stability, you know, oh, the electricity bill comes in, oh, what the hell, you know, it's ... it gives you a sense of security that you don't normally have at all.
Louise Maher: So that's the main thing, that sense of security.
Steven Carroll: Yeah. Oh, also confidence because it's obviously been noted and writing's a confidence game. You've got to actually really believe in what you're doing, and it's very hard to get confidence and it's extremely easy to lose it. So it gives you confidence as well.
Louise Maher: What did you make of the controversy when the Prime Minister intervened, to say that you had to share the prize with Richard Flanagan, because one of the judges, Les Murray, made it quite clear that he wanted you to be the sole winner, that the panel wanted you to be the sole winner.
Steven Carroll: Well look, I can't really say too much about that 'cause you're on a hiding to nothing whatever you say. But basically the reality is that I walked out with a damn sight more than I walked in with. It was a bit of a surreal night.
Louise Maher: Tell us more about it. What was happening?
Steven Carroll: Oh no, I just meant that just ... it's quite surreal to suddenly find yourself standing up there with no prepared speech whatsoever.
Louise Maher: You didn't prepare a speech?
Steven Carroll: No, no, again I'm a superstitious person. I never prepare speeches for these things 'cause I figure that the moment you prepare a speech for a prize giving ceremony you'll ... you won't be called upon to give it. So I'd rather give a rambling poor speech rather than give no speech at all. So I had nothing prepared whatsoever and suddenly I was talking to Tony, who looks a bit surreal, I've got to say. He's the tiredest looking person I ever saw, really, up close, you know.
Louise Maher: Did he tell you whether he ... what he thought of you book?
Steven Carroll: Oh, no, no (chuckling).
Louise Maher: I mean ...
Steven Carroll: He wouldn't.
Louise Maher: He didn't mention that he read it.
Steven Carroll: No, no. I didn't know anything about all the kafuffle until the next day.
Louise Maher: No, was that ... yeah, it was a day or two after, yeah.
Steven Carroll: It was just ... I just felt pretty happy walking out with 40,000 grand, you know, I was very pleased.
Louise Maher: Forever Young, your new novel, is the latest instalment in what's become known as your Glenroy series.
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: Glenroy's the Melbourne suburb where you grew up and it's a place very similar, if not the same place, as to where you first set the story of Vic, the engine driver, his wife, Rita, and their son, Michael. And in this book, in the new book, Michael is now 33, he's about to embark on a new chapter of his life, which he starts by dumping his girlfriend and selling his guitar. Now your father was also an engine driver, you once sold a guitar when you decided you'd rather be a writer than a musician. I'm not going to ask you if you dumped your girlfriend (both chuckling). But where is the line, Steven, between the fictional family you've created, including Michael, who's actually a bit older than you really, and your own life?
Steven Carroll: Yeah, you can't walk away from the biographical aspects to all of this. I think the most honest book is The Art of the Engine Driver, that's the one that was actually pretty close to a lot of things. But at the same time as the books went on, I suppose when I was writing The Art of the Engine Driver, I could see the image of my dad who was an engine driver and my mum whose dresses were too good for the street. And I'd see their faces when I was writing The Art of the Engine Driver, but as it went on, their faces started to go blank and I was less conscious of the models of my parents and more aware of the fact that they actually ... they'd started to become characters in their own right and I didn't think of them in terms of my folks, they just became characters from about the Gift of Speed onwards. But at the same time you still draw on that ... the raw material and often it's quite raw and that's why engine driver's the most honours, that's the one I was least aware of artifice in writing the engine driver.
Louise Maher: And you said before that that came to you in a dream, that image of your ...
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: ... parents and the young Michael on the dusty street, on the dusty road really.
Steven Carroll: It was, it was a gift of a dream. I was going to write a novel about TS Eliot, and it was the late '90s and I woke up at about, I think it was about 1997, '98, or something like that, and I woke up about six o'clock in a morning and from an extraordinarily vivid dream and I could see my dad, who's now dead, and my mum and myself, around about probably the age of 12, and I could ... and we all have our best clothes on, and to a ...
Louise Maher: You were going somewhere.
Steven Carroll: We were going somewhere, and we were standing in front of a vacant paddock and I remember that vacant paddock in my old street in Glenroy. It was a vacant paddock for a long time. And I knew it was probably a Saturday night and it was summer and there were words going across the film of the dream and I remem ...
Louise Maher: What words?
Steven Carroll: Pitch glow of sunset, I wrote the words down as soon as I woke up. You'll have to go ... they're in the first paragraph of The Art of the Engine Driver. I think about a half a dozen words survived from the dream and I wrote them down. And then I worked from that dream because it was so urgent, it was virtual in its reality, a tableau vivant. And it was quite interesting because it's what dreams can actually unearth. 'Cause I'd forgotten that I'd had a favourite shirt with a button down collar but the dream ...
Louise Maher: Is that what you were wearing in the dream?
Steven Carroll: Yeah. The dream retrieved and I woke up ... well I will also say to myself, wow, what a dream, where were we going? God, I'd forgot about the shirt. And the dream brought it back. It was vivid, it was extraordinarily vivid.
Louise Maher: And did you start writing the novel the next day?
Steven Carroll: No, I waited and waited and I ... it's one of those ... I knew something had to happen there 'cause it did feel urgent. And that was when I started asking myself, well where were we going and that was when I remembered a party at the bottom of the street given by an Englishman for his daughter, an engagement party, and that was when I hit upon the idea of taking the three of us to that party. And I'd no sooner thought that than I thought well why not take the whole street? And so it became a procession and all the people I grew up with just stepped out their front gates and into the book. But it was rejected by every publisher in the country just about.
Louise Maher: How did it get published?
Steven Carroll: Oh, luck, I reckon there's a lot of luck involved in this game. It took 18 months to get a publisher for The Art of the Engine Driver and if ... I reckon if there was an award for the most rejected manuscript in contemporary Australian literature, Engine Driver would be right up there as a contender. It ... eventually Harper Collins came to my rescue and I'm still with them. There's a woman comes in on, I think she still does it, a woman of a certain age, I gather, I've never met her, and she goes through the unsolicited manuscripts, and she took a shine to my ... she comes in every ... one Monday a month and took a shine to it and then she passed it on to somebody else and somebody else and somebody else and it went up through the chain. And they eventually took it on. But it's luck, you know, that was pretty much the end of the line. It had been rejected by just about every publisher in the country.
Louise Maher: Even when it was being rejected, after you'd written it, did you have in mind that it would be part of a series?
Steven Carroll: No, no. I never lost faith in the book actually, 'cause this ... I reckon the first three novels I was still learning how to write a novel. I was write ... like I say, I was writing for 12 and a half years before I got published and then I was still learning as I published Remember Me, Jimmy James and Momoko and The Love Song of Lucy McBride. Remember Me, Jimmy James, I still feel a bit kind of, you know, awkward about that book ‘cause I think the first third is … I don’t think it’s particularly good, I look at it and think, ugh. The second third I think is a bit better and the final bit gets better. Momoko, I was so keen to actually get a second book out there ‘cause I thought, Christ, this might … I might be running out of chances here, and I underwrote that book and then determined not to underwrite the next book, I overwrote the third book.
Louise Maher: Can you explain what you mean by underwriting and overwriting?
Steven Carroll: I was still getting flashes of Momoko even when it was published and I thought, oh there was that scene, I didn’t wait long enough.
Louise Maher: For it to gel?
Steven Carroll: Yeah, to … everything to really settle. I was a bit rushed on that one and then I put too much into The Love Song of Lucy McBride and that was overwritten, but by the time I got to The Art of the Engine Driver and did that, I felt like I knew how to write a novel then.
Louise Maher: That you’d nailed it?
Steven Carroll: Yeah, I’d actually got it. Oh, that’s it, right. And I … so I never actually lost … even when it was getting rejected all over the shop I didn’t actually lose faith in the book ‘cause I figured it was the … up until then it was the best thing I’d ever done.
Louise Maher: So at what point did you decide that you wanted to continue exploring the lives and the world of Vic, Rita and Michael?
Steven Carroll: Well certainly it wasn’t when I was doing The Art of the Engine Driver, I thought that was just a one-off book, but it was … I think as I got … I think when it was published and I started thinking about it and I … and the idea of … see the idea … a lot of things … that went through about three drafts and actually half of it was written in France, in a little place called Pont-Aven in Brittany and that was really quite helpful, a lot of distance involved … it helped a lot. The old …
Louise Maher: In geography as well as time?
Steven Carroll: Yeah, yeah, that’s right, yeah. And when it was published I started to think about the suburb as a continuing idea and now the suburb’s not a character, it hasn’t got head or legs, but it’s a central symbol or image in …
Louise Maher: Of change in society?
Steven Carroll: Yeah, well no …
Louise Maher: Change in Australia?
Steven Carroll: … that’s … I think that’s when I started hitting on the idea of a series of books about the evolution of a suburb, a post-war Australian suburb and the … and the people living in that suburb and I think that was after it was published, I can’t recall exactly, but then I started thinking in terms of a trilogy and when I finished the trilogy, I thought, well that’s it, good. And then I read …
Louise Maher: And then you couldn’t stop (chuckles).
Steven Carroll: No, then I read proofs and I thought, wow, I haven’t finished yet and so I went on and thought, no there’s more to be done here and so there’s the fifth … this is the final one chronologically, this is where it all ends, the story, but I will go back now when I finish doing things like this and I’ll do the very first part which will be set in Melbourne in 1917 during the conscription referenda and it’ll be about Vic’s … circumstances of Vic’s birth and his mother and her determination to keep her child and be a single mother.
Louise Maher: Your books do loop around and, for example, in Forever Young we also catch up with Sam, who was a young painter in The Lost Life, so he suddenly appears, it’s great.
Steven Carroll: Yeah. Spirit of Progress, yeah.
Louise Maher: Yeah, sorry, in Spirit of Progress, not The Lost Life, yeah, Spirit of Progress, and that book was based around the story … well, part … yeah, about the story of your real great-aunt, who lived in a tent on the edge of the city and was painted by Sidney Nolan, quite famously and there’s another character in Spirit of Progress who is in Sidney Nolan, but why is Sam back?
Steven Carroll: Oh heavens, I don’t know. It’s not so much Sam to me as the character of Art, he’s briefly … he has a cameo appearance in … a walk-on and walk-off appearance in Spirit of Progress, he’s one of the angry penguins. I was always thinking of someone like Albert Tucker and I knew I actually wanted to have an expatriate in this book ‘cause I knew I was going to be working around ideas of youth and age and old world …
Louise Maher: And travel.
Steven Carroll: … and new world and home and not home and I did a lot of the writing for this, in fact I wrote that whole section about Mandy, who’s Michael’s girlfriend whom he quite brutally dumps and I was … I went to a little place … I actually did go to an old monastery in Tuscany and I wrote a lot of the … that section from there and when I got there, the woman who ran the writer’s retreat said, oh that village over there that is where Amerigo Vespucci set off to discover the new world and I didn’t even pay any attention, I thought oh … I was just been flying for about 40 hours so I just went in. And when I got back, I thought, hang on, who was that guy who set off to where and it started to actually play in that I knew I wanted to have my character of Art living in Italy after the war to pick up the tale that is alluded to in the Spirit of Progress and so that actually became a setting for it and that whole business of old world and new world actually started to fit in with the business of forever young and forever growing old and all the paradoxes that were interesting to deal with.
Louise Maher: In Forever Young, Michael is 33 and about to … as I said, start this new chapter, but it’s at a point in Australian history when a chapter is about to close, a mountain is leaving the landscape, so this is Gough Whitlam leading up to the election in December ’77, which Gough lost and later resigned, and I mean, a lot of people when they think about the Whitlam years they do think about ’72 and all the hope and all the promise, there’s not much attention really on the dying days of that.
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: So what grabbed you about that?
Steven Carroll: Well it … usually when people write about Whitlam, it is those early days of 1972 or the very dramatic days of 1975, I felt they’d all been done to death, actually. Oh, they can never be done to death, of course, no, but I felt that there’d been a lot of attention given to those particular dates and I think my temperament took me to the dying days of the Whitlam era because I think I’ve got a kind of Edwardian sensibility, I’m nostalgic for the moment, even as I’m living through it, and I think I’ve got one of those late Victorian sensibilities for whom the shadows are always long on the green playing fields of our youth and I’ve got that kind of aspect. And so there was something suitably elegiac about the last days of Whitlam.
Louise Maher: Mournful even?
Steven Carroll: Sombre, elegiac, I don’t know about mournful, I actually quite like sadness, I don’t think it needs to be mournful, I think sadness has had a bad press, it can be quite exciting.
Louise Maher: Yeah, well there’s so much about happiness these days, isn’t there, yeah?
Steven Carroll: It’s the thinking person’s happiness (both chuckling).
Louise Maher: Now let me go back a bit, you sort of … you study for a while to become an art teacher, but you decided that painting wasn’t your thing. You became an English teacher, you played in a band, so you’ve practiced all these different types of creative endeavour, art and music, really, before settling on writing and in your writing you often muse of the whole creative process and you seem to love exploring the worlds of creative people, the angry penguins, TS Eliot, so what is it that particularly fascinates you about that creative process and about TS Eliot? You’ve had a lot of … you’ve had a very strong relationship with TS Eliot, you wrote a play about him when you were younger that didn’t get produced, but also you brought him to life in The Lost Life and gave us a story about what have … what might have inspired his first quartet, Burnt Norton, and then of course there’s the whole appearance of TS Eliot again in A World of Other People, so what is it about the creative process and about TS Eliot in particular …
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: … that entrances you?
Steven Carroll: I’ll divide it up in about three parts that question and I’ll ask you to actually keep me in line because I will digress. But aesthetics are … is the common preoccupation throughout all of the books and it doesn’t matter if it’s the Glenroy books or it’s the TS Eliot books, they’re … to a large extent the real subject is aesthetics. In The Gift of Speed, Michael almost compulsively bowls in a cricket net and he’s not … he doesn’t have this dream of playing for Australia or anything like that, what he wants to do is bowl the perfect ball.
Louise Maher: Perfect, yeah.
Steven Carroll: That’s the thing he’s pursuing. In The Art of the Engine Driver, it’s about … it’s not … I knew all along it wasn’t just about engines, it’s about aesthetics as well and that whole notion of the aesthetically satisfying entering an ordinary life, not in an art gallery, but in the very things that you do, interests me. The whole notion that somehow aesthetics can enter what you do in your life and in being aesthetically pleasing, it also gives us a sense of meaning as well. And that is a really strong, I suppose, existential theme that runs through the books, that it’s through what you do in discovering the aesthetically pleasing in what you do that your life can be invested with a sense of satisfaction and the touch of the sublime can almost enter it.
Louise Maher: Your books exist so much in the mind of the characters too, there’s not a lot of conversation, we’re with them as they think …
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: … and as they understand as they process.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, that’s right and …
Louise Maher: Or just feel.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, I used to … I started writing plays because I thought dialogue was my strength and I spent a long time writing plays, but eventually when I was … started writing novels I lost faith in dialogue or I lost interest in dialogue, it always felt a bit fake to me to have people speaking, I was far more interested in actually going into their heads, but it’s not as though they’re internal monologues.
Louise Maher: No.
Steven Carroll: It … you go inside their head, but it’s actually always orchestrated by the authorial voice and I prefer the third person omnipresent authorial voice, you know, the God-like figure who can go anywhere and so that’s the voice that goes into the minds of the characters and so you’re getting their dialogue, if you like, or their monologues, but filtered through the author’s voice. I find that far more interesting, you can actually be far more expansive and you can actually explore what a character is actually thinking and doesn’t say in that way and it’s a way of writing dialogue without having the characters speak, but also articulating the things that they don’t say because the great thing about a dialogue is that it’s the tip of the iceberg, it’s by no means what somebody’s really thinking because when we speak there’s about … as I’m talking now, you know, there’s so many different things going through your mind, you know, what I’m going to have for dinner and …
Louise Maher: And different filters (chuckling).
Steven Carroll: Yeah, that’s right, you know …
Louise Maher: And what is it ab …
Steven Carroll: … and you’d only get a touch of that when someone speaks, you don’t …
Louise Maher: And what is it about the repetition in your writing too?
Steven Carroll: Ah. Well see the …
Louise Maher: Coming back to the same phrases or …
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: … tweaking a phrase.
Steven Carroll: The constant challenge the whole way through with all of these Glenroy books was not to fall back into social realism, now I like social realism, some of my favourite writers are social realists, I love the … Alan Sillitoe and in fact when I was trying to come up with a title for The Art of the Engine Driver, I was harking back to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and I thought, gee, I’d love to have a title that had that kind of unlikely lyricism, you know, the sort of … that had that element of paradox to it, of … what did Johnson call it? You know, the metaphysical poets opposing ideas heterogeneously linked together or yoked together, you know, and in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner had that aspect to it and so I went for something similar to that and that’s how I eventually wound up with The Art of the Engine Driver ‘cause you don’t normally think of engine driving as having an art to it, but getting back to aesthetics, now my dad was an engine driver and I can recall when he’d come back from work and his mates, his driver mates would be around and they would talk about their job, they would talk about it in artistic terms. They would talk about so-and-so’s style of driving, there was a strong awareness that everybody had a different way of doing it, that it was their touch, almost like a painter’s signature on a painting and the one they all deferred to was the Queen’s driver, the chief commissioner’s driver who drove the Queen when he was out here ‘cause my dad was what they call a big wheel driver, they mean, the big wheel refers to the passenger trains because the engines that drew the passenger trains had six foot wheels, whereas the goods have only got two and a half foot wheels, so they’re called big wheel drivers. There weren’t too many of them, so he actually did pretty well and … but the number one driver was a guy who, his big trick was that he would put a mug down, of tea, beside him with a spoon in it and if the spoon started to rattle during the trip then he’d realise adjustments had to be made to actually restore the smoothness of the ride, either slow down or speed up.
Louise Maher: Such a fabulous image.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, that’s … it’s … I remember my dad telling me that and like I say, I can recall him preparing to go to work and he’d shave once and then twice and he’d say, before you drive you need a clean shaven face, he’d be explaining it to me and he’d say that when he was driving he would … he’d say, this is why, because when he was driving he’d put his cheek out the window and it wouldn’t matter if it were steam or diesel and he could tell the speed of the engine from the rush of the wind on his smooth cheek and he’d look down at the sleepers and he’d combine the both and he would actually have a really good sense of how fast the engine was going in relation to how fast it ought to be going at that stage to provide, again, the smooth ride, which is what they all aspired to. So these things all came into play, but they all have that connecting thread that they’re about aesthetics, but it’s not in the art gallery, in everyday life, the way aesthetics can ennoble an ordinary life.
Louise Maher: Let’s go back to a connecting thread and looking down from a machine and an image, let’s talk about that image in A World of Other People where we have an aspiring young writer finding herself on a roof in London, on the roof of Faber and Faber, the publishing house with a couple of middle aged blokes in the middle of The Blitz and one of those blokes is TS Eliot, who actually was, who knew, a fire spotter during the Second World War. So they’re up on the roof watching out at night, all night, to see whether any of the German plane’s bombs have started fires and as they’re standing there, this is such an incredible image, as they’re standing there a plane comes through the clouds above them, only a couple of hundred feet above their heads, one engine is on fire and there’s a white dove painted on the side of the plane and Iris, the young writer, is watching TS Eliot watching that plane and getting the spark of an idea that would later be transformed into the fourth of his quartets, Little Gidding. How did you come up with that?
Steven Carroll: (Chuckles) I thought about that book for 12 months before I wrote it, I was writing Spirit of Progress and I’d finished writing it about midday or so, I mean, I’d … I write from around about 8:30 to about midday and I handwrite and I aim for a thousand words and I get them, it’s fun, it’s not a problem, touch wood. But in the afternoons I’d be reading for that book and I went through about four or five different scenarios and none of them actually satisfied me and I remembered that when I did the lost life, I actually got the idea for the opening of the book from the poem itself, you know, The Children in the Garden.
Louise Maher: And for those who haven’t read The Lost Life, this is …
Steven Carroll: Burnt Norton.
Louise Maher: Yeah, this is a book that features TS Eliot as a character and what might have happened in his life, which may have explained why he wrote the first quartet, Burnt Norton.
Steven Carroll: Yeah. Yeah.
Louise Maher: In a nutshell.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, in a nutshell (both chuckling) yeah.
Louise Maher: There’s much more to it, there’s two love stories.
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: Or at least two.
Steven Carroll: (Chuckling) At least two. And so I went back to Little Gidding, the poem and I saw the line about the dove descending and I remember reading that at university when I was studying it and the tutor pointing out that of course, well that’s a German bomber and I thought, oh really, a do … and then I thought, you wouldn’t pick it, you wouldn’t think that he’s referring to a bomber in flames coming in well to crash land, actually. And as the years went by I started to think about that line and thought, well, what he’s done there is he’s actually taken a really tragic circumstance and a … quite a dramatic one as well, but he’s turned it into poetic totem, I mean …
Louise Maher: Can I read just the two lines that …
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: … the dove descending breaks the air with flames of incandescent terror, of which the tongues declare the one discharge from sin and error.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, yeah, so it becomes a central motif, you know, the Pentecostal fires. But what intrigued me there is that he’d actually taken something like that and turned it into poetic totem, which is kind of comfortable for him to do and this is what poets do, you can’t blame them for that, you know, there’s got to be a distance established in the way you actually deal with experience in life. But I also started to think, well inside that poetic totem, inside that bomber there would have been dead people, there would have splattering blood, teeth, bone, everywhere, it would have been messy and ugly and you don’t get any of that in the poem, you get neat, poetic totem instead and so what I wanted to do was work that idea and that’s where Iris comes into it, Iris is actually the one who actually, if you like, dismantles the neatness of the poetic image with her version of events. She actually gets to know the pilot who was actually in that plane and was the sole survivor of it. Now, what I wanted to do in that book, I suppose, was provide a kind of … a novelistic lang … image of what it is to walk through the no man’s land between experience and messy experience being turned into the order of art and the book actually occupying that middle ground before it is turned into the neatness of art.
Louise Maher: There’s a little passage actually …
Steven Carroll: So that’s why I came to that image.
Louise Maher: Sorry, there’s a passage in it, which I think sums it up when … well we’ll talk about coincidences in a minute too ‘cause I love …
Steven Carroll: Okay, yeah.
Louise Maher: … the coincidences in your book.
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: But do you remember this, where … just from here, will the applause you know, will the applause, will it sting you? That was my plane, that was my kite, just down …
Steven Carroll: Oh, yeah, this is where … this scene in the book, and I actually … I think I wrote this, it’s a long chapter, I think I wrote it in one day or possibly … he’s in Eliot’s church, St Stephens in London and he’s … he hasn’t gone there to hear Eliot read, but Eliot is actually reading from Little Gidding. And when Eliot passes him by at the end of the reading and he’s in quite a sorry state ‘cause he’s actually just had a repressed memory unearthed, retrieved for him and it’s quite devastating.
Louise Maher: His legs are like jelly.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, well it … the effect … what … it’s … what it is … what, I suppose, what I also wanted to do here was to show not so much the background story of the poem as The Lost Life was, I wanted to actually show the impact of a poem on someone’s life and in this case the poem has a terrible secret, the poem contains something awful that the character of Jim does not want to recognise, but none the less it forces him to recognise it anyway and so he learns that terrible repressed secret through the reading of the poem, but as Eliot’s going past he says, yeah, that was my kite, you know, that was my plane, that was my crew and these crew, they were like family, they’d been together for such a long time and his crew, he lost his family, he lost his crew, he lost his kite that night and he’s looking at Eliot and saying, and all you could do was take notes, when you should have cared all you could do was stand back and take notes. Well yes, there is a kind of inhumanity involved in that, in that sort of impersonality, but at the same time that is the kind of inhumanity that is required if you’re going to create artistic order out of the messiness of life, it requires that as well. So I’m not condemning Eliot, I’m just saying, this is how it happens.
Louise Maher: It’s what he did, yeah.
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: It’s what he did. Coincidences.
Steven Carroll: Yeah.
Louise Maher: Because writers argue about coincidences in novels, some say it’s too easy, it’s cheating in a way, you’re trying to wrap things up ‘cause you haven’t got to a certain place where you should have been and others say, which I agree with, coincidences happen all the time in life, why can’t they be used in novels, but you use coincidences to a great degree in this book, A World of Other People, but also in Forever Young, in the sense of who is Michael’s mother seeing when she’s staring out at the horizon that day, who does Trix meet at the party in Melbourne, they’re fabulous coincidences.
Steven Carroll: Mm. It’s … I’m … when I was drama reviewer, a theatre reviewer for The Sunday Age for about 10 years, I got to speak to a lot of my favourite writers and I got to interview Tom Stoppard and that was … it was [unclear 40:19], but it was really good ‘cause I’ve admired him for ever and we talked about coincidence and I … and he said … and I’m with him, but coincidence happens far more in life than it does in fiction, that I think creative writers are a little bit timid when it comes to coincidence, so I’m never … I’m certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to actually throwing in a bit of coincidence ‘cause it’s … it happens all the time in life, far more than it does in created art, you know, we … so often things happen to us in life and you think, oh God, if you read that in a book you wouldn’t believe it.
Louise Maher: And it’s exactly what Rita says when she’s in the square in Italy, that’s a gorgeous little passage.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, that’s right. So the … it’s a kind of almost a reflexive element in there about the whole sort of nature of the scene itself, this is a far-fetched coincidence, but they happen. I mean, there’s quite a … when I was talking before about finding a way of doing these Glenroy books that didn’t fall back into social realism, as much as I like it, it definitely had its day by the time I was writing these books and there were all sorts of things had to come into play to actually do that and that kind of reflexive element, that started to come into play with The Gift of Speed. And you were talking about repetitions and whatnot before, I mean, that’s actually quite deliberate …
Louise Maher: The bus winding down the hill, yeah.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, yeah, but also the repetitions in the lines and the recurring words, you know, like when I started writing there were no creative writing classes, I mean, my teachers were Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Eliot and they’re very, very good teachers. They will tell you a lot in their essays, not just their creative writing, but their lectures and their essays and their interviews and … Hemingway had this wonderful trick of having a repeated line going through his dialogue and I … look, I think the best of Hemingway is in his short stories, I think his novels are not particularly good, but his short stories, I think anybody who really wants to learn how to write ignores Hemingway at their peril. His short stories are just brilliant. And he has these dialogue and it’s … I don’t think of Hemingway as a realist, either, he’s far to mannered to be a realist, I think of him as a … as … I think of Fitzgerald as being far more realistic a writer, but Hemingway, very, very mannered, modernist writer in his short stories. But he has this trick, often with his dialogue where there’ll be a connecting word running through the whole lot that might be joke, you know, and a character will be saying, is that a joke? No, I don’t joke. You joke? No I don’t joke, hey he’s joking me, he says he doesn’t joke, and this could be a whole page of dialogue with the linking word joke and it might be used about half a dozen times and its quite deliberate, he’s not just repeating himself and I can recall at one stage thinking, I’m going to take that little trick, but not use it in dialogue, use it in prose and so … and I started to fall in love with really long sentences when I started doing The Gift of Speed and flowing through into the others and I found that it was actually … helped me a lot to have a kind of recurring word running through sentence, it might go for a half a page or even more and that’s quite deliberately there and it …
Louise Maher: It has quite a mesmerising effect on the reader, I think.
Steven Carroll: I’m glad ‘cause it was that kind of effect that I wanted to get, you know, I mean, TS Eliot has this theory that he calls … and it’s in one of his essays on Matthew Arnold, he talks about something called the auditory imagination, by which he means that meaning is embedded in cadence, by which he means that the meaning of something will be found in the fall and the rhythm of the words, that you might be halfway through a sentence and only have half the words of the sentence, but you’ve got the rhythm and the rhythm will lead you on to what the words are. It’s like the rhyming couplets, I think it’s a great way of coming up with the right word and that was one of Eliot’s main strakes and he ignored that at his peril. And as a kid, apparently, he would go … he’d have a line going, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah and then he’d go da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, now he didn’t know what the words were, but he knew the sentence wasn’t finished and I started incorporating that and that Hemingway trick also of having the key word running through the whole thing and having a sort of, a sense, a rhythmic sense of the sentences, so that, you know, if you take the key word as being a grunt you can have it … I can feel a sense often, you know, that there’s a uh, da, da, da, da, uh, da-da, da-da, da-da, uh, da, dah. You know, and …
Louise Maher: This is the musician.
Steven Carroll: … following it through, this is the old rock and roller, I guess, yeah, but you … I’m conscious of following the beat through the sentences, with its linking rhythms and often that gives you the words and these are … these were things that I just deliberately started to incorporate into the writing to actually get away from … as I say, social realism …
Louise Maher: Well let’s …
Steven Carroll: … and try to find another way of taking the suburbs, which are so familiar, and making them as unfamiliar as possible, so that in the end the characters and the place, they look like some sort of lost, exotic tribe, hopefully that’s the effect you try to get and at some stage the reader realises that that lost exotic tribe is in fact us, and it’s so easy to overlook the exotic in ourselves, we so often look for it elsewhere and that was the constant challenge of these books, was to actually find a way of saying … of renovating the subject of the suburbs. It’s just one example.
Louise Maher: Like something out of a dream.
Steven Carroll: Yeah (chuckles).
Louise Maher: I do want to give people the opportunity to ask some questions …
Steven Carroll: Oh yeah.
Louise Maher: … before we wrap up, but can you read for us?
Steven Carroll: Okay.
Louise Maher: Especially after what you’ve just been saying about how you write, let’s hear a passage from Forever Young.
Steven Carroll: Yes, well they say that you should never actually … I taught creative writing classes for quite a long time and they say you should never read from your own work?
Louise Maher: Why not?
Steven Carroll: After you’ve been talking about it (both laughing). But this is the very end of the book, it’s not a thriller, so it really doesn’t matter. Michael is in … and by the way, I never really thought of Michael as being me, he does things that I did, but he does things that I never did as well. And I don’t know where that comes from. But this … he’s in his room in France, which it’s pretty much the room that I did have, I lived in the top floor of the town hall in Pont-Aven and I overlooked the whole town. In fact, I was the only one there when I was living there and at the end of the day I would have to go downstairs and lock the front door of the town hall before I went upstairs to go back to bed, you know, and it was … then they’d all let themselves in, the administrators, the next day. But I had a panoramic view of the whole town, it’s a toy town and this is Michael, in his room, and there’s a sound downstairs that is actually kind of pleasant and comical almost. It’s a slapping sound of a rug being beaten by a woman down in the street. But it becomes quite disturbing as he listens to it.
Louise Maher: And it repeats the slapping of a gate earlier in the book too.
Steven Carroll: Yeah, that’s right, that’s a motif running through it. And of course, this is him sitting down to write the opening of The Art of the Engine Driver itself. He is standing at the doorway of his parents’ room all those years ago and his father is shouting at his mother in a drunken rage telling her to shut up, just shut up, and every time he tells her to shut up, he brings his hands together, making a loud slapping sound, showing her just what he could do if he chose to and in that same moment the stick houses and the dirt street that he once called home come back and clear and sharp as the cracking sound of the rug being shaken out below him on the footpath and as they do the image of three people standing on that dirt street in front of a vacant paddock one long ago summer evening returns as well. What else can we do, they say, you call us and we come every time to this spot and this place of stick houses, dirt streets and thistle paddocks, you call us and we come. His mother’s eyes stare back, a look direct and imploring, his father offering an apologetic shrug, suggesting, well, what can I say? What could we say? Only this, tell our children, all our children, if they should ever ask, that we tried in our way and that if we ever hurt them it was not for lack of trying not to, that we were damaged before we came to them and if we failed to keep our damage to ourselves it wasn’t for lack of trying, tell them how it was behind the flying ducks and the laughter, behind the quaint feature walls and shadow boxes and ornamental boomerangs, tell them how it really was if they should ever ask, that on these dirt streets and in these stick houses we lived the wrong life that they might live the right one. A sudden gust of wind lifts the bare branches of the trees just beyond the town, flinging birds into the sky, the wind comes without warning, the birds are flung upwards, float on the wind and settle back on the bare branches from which they were thrown, they are flung, they fall, clouds roll in from the sea, the forest is moving. The pace quickens on the town streets beneath Michael’s window, street vendors, shoppers and townspeople hurrying to work look up, the forest heaves, the woods in trouble, the wind is indifferent, it tosses us, blossoms, birds and lives into the sky and we are thrown back, we land and look about, earth, wind and sky before picking ourselves up. It is us. We are it. The thing itself. It worlds, it is worldling.
Louise Maher: Wonderful, thank you.