A Reader's Questions

What inspired you to write The Albatross Necklace?

There are a number of answers to that question but I think the most important was the desire to write a book I’d like to read myself, a book I’d consider unforgettable and wish I’d written myself, if that doesn’t sound too convoluted. Now I’ve written Albatross, I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, but at least I’ve given it a shot. Basically, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. That was a driving motive, one that kept me going once I’d started.

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How did you come up with the storylines?

When I read Phillip Playford’s book Carpet of Silver in 1997 and learned about the wreck of the Zuytdorp I knew there was a story waiting to be told. Gerrit de Waal materialised out of the wings as if he’d been waiting for his turn in the spotlight.

I was working up in Arnhem Land at the time, in the Yothu Yindi heartland when the push for Aboriginal acknowledgment and reconciliation was at its height. That gave me the social and cultural backdrop for The Man who lit the Flame. In that context Lennard Currie appeared one day out of the blue as if he’d turned up for an audition – and his connection to Gerrit made logical sense.

Building the glass memorial was a no-brainer: there was a crying need for the genuine recognition of past wrongs and the 20,000 Aborigines who died during colonisation. What better than a monumental cenotaph? Since then Rudd’s apology has gone some way towards correcting the situation. Not far enough in my view, but we can take a further step towards fixing that with changes to the Constitution recognising the First Peoples.

As for the glass art, I’ve always hankered after becoming some sort of artist, but I don’t have the talent or technical ability. In my early twenties I spent some time painting and sculpting unsuccessfully in Kenya and the Seychelles, even though I did sell one or two pieces. Lennard’s international success as a glass sculptor probably derives from my own frustrations in that regard - he’s my avatar.

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As a new and unknown writer, what advice do you have for beginners?

My best advice would be to take your own advice and not be overwhelmed by the advice of others. That said, I’m 73 next April and I go along with the suggestion that writers produce their best work in old age! They’ve learned a trick or two by then and have hopefully accumulated some wisdom along the way. Experience counts, life experience, that is. I’ve knocked about a bit and that has helped . . . from skippering commercial fishing boats to driving trucks in the Pilbara to working in pubs and High School teaching . . . not to mention preparing corpses, opening them up for a Pathologist undertaking autopsies – which incidentally I don’t recommend for obvious reasons. That was my first job when I landed In Perth in 1963, by the way.

Then there’s reading of course, that goes without saying. Read all you can. Devour books voraciously across the range and learn as much as possible about the subjects that interest you. And take notes. I’ve done that all my life, kept notebooks, jotted down quotations that catch the eye, recorded things I’ve overheard or observed and later refined and distilled, no matter how absurd or abstruse. You never know where they’ll lead or when they’ll come in useful.

Most obvious of all is to sit down and start writing. Any sort of writing . . . practice, practice, practice. There’s no shortcut to developing a voice. You fill the page a word, a sentence and a paragraph at a time. I learned the hard way over thirty years, compiling volumes of Human Resource policies and a range of bureaucratic reports and recommendations, trying with varying degrees of success to avoid ambiguities employees could drive a truck through. It was never a chore. I loved writing. I preferred doing that to anything else. And rather like Stefan, I found the shift from writing reports and policies to composing imaginative fiction not that far a leap.

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Did you try your hand at writing when you were younger?

Well, I did write a few naive and melodramatic short stories when I was about 20 or so. I vaguely recall getting carried away on some heady descriptive passages and in one story a sentimental plot concerning an unnecessary leg amputation for a tumour that was in fact benign. I was into Guy de Maupassant at the time and no doubt they were heavily influenced by what I’d read of his. I was surprised when two were accepted and published in the Kenya Farmers’ Weekly way back when.

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Were you encouraged by seeing your work in print for the first time?

Of course I was pleased, even more so when the cheques for forty shillings or whatever the payment was arrived. Those stories didn’t mark the start of an illustrious literary career, however, and I have to say that minor success was a far cry from my earlier experience at school. I was sent off to boarding school in Nairobi when I was 8, as were most European children in Kenya. We slept in dormitories under mosquito nets and I remember making it a practice to tell stories to the other kids after lights out . . . until one night one of the housemasters doing his rounds heard me droning away, crept up to the bed in the dark and screamed at me to ‘Shut up!’ I almost shat myself: ‘You want this hand or this hand? Too late! Have them both!’ Whack! Whack! A slap across both cheeks put an abrupt end to my ambitious impersonation of Charles Dickens. And it was no better at High School. I remember once concentrating for days on a composition describing a Jesuit monk losing his faith and committing suicide in the monastery chapel - all the bells and whistles - and the teacher demanded to know where I’d plagiarised the piece from. He refused point blank to mark it. That was a Scotsman we nicknamed the ‘Beer Barrel’. I’ve never forgotten how mortified I was at his refusal to acknowledge that I’d written it. If that experience taught me anything very early on, it was to take my own counsel and flavour the critical judgments of others with a pinch of salt.

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How did you actually begin the novel?

I worked on the first sentence the week I arrived in Tabubil in April, 1997. I had three of the characters: Lennard Currie, Stefan Novak and Gerrit de Waal, all of whom were taking vague shape in my imagination. And I had two broad themes – the dispossession of the Nyungar Aboriginal people after British settlement in Fremantle and Perth in 1829 and the survival of the Zuytdorp crew on the cliffs in Malgana country after the disaster in 1712.

Both themes presented major questions that called for examination and drove the novel’s development. How should non-indigenous Australians deal with issues around the injustice of terra nullius as a justification for settlement on the continent, the ongoing impacts of Aboriginal dispossession and the need for acknowledgment and reconciliation? And how different were the dilemmas facing those first Europeans thrown up on the continent in 1712, who were forced to settle among the Malgana and depend on them for survival? These questions lent themselves to scenes of conflict and crisis and opened up areas of deep historical interest.

As for the opening sentence, Lennard was intending to construct the gigantic glass sculpture as a memorial commemorating the Aboriginal struggle against invasion and he needed a technician to assist him in the glassworks on Bather’s Beach, the site of the British landing. So the first sentence virtually wrote itself: it was Lennard’s invitation to Stefan to join the project. I remember the first attempt at the opening lines went something like: ‘The first time Stefan heard Lennard’s voice over the telephone he failed to recognise it, though it sounded vaguely familiar when Lennard said he had a question for him and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.’ Over time, as the first scene was further developed, the opening changed and those original lines shifted further down the page, carrying with them the subtexts hinting at the strength of Lennard’s character and Stefan’s alerted suspicions.

I find it interesting that in a sense Lennard’s invitation is one that all non-indigenous Australians are being asked right now: Will you join us in making sure that Australia’s First Peoples are recognised in the Constitution? And it’s their refusal to take no for an answer that drives Aboriginal and Torres Straits people to find a positive resolution to the situation.

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How did you go about researching the novel?

One thing I was determined to achieve at all costs was accuracy. I remember once reading a novel that had its principal characters attend the Melbourne Olympics in 1955, in which case they would have sat in the stands for a full year waiting for the opening ceremony in 1956 . . . and then in his descriptions of the city it became obvious the author had never been to Melbourne. The accuracy of the facts and the genuine authenticity of the sensory details — they make or break a story.

So I made certain that I'd been to every major fictional scene before working on it and setting it into the story's sequence. I travelled — to Zeeland to investigate the archives and walk the VOC trails in Middelburg and Vlissingen, to visit Domburg and the beaches beyond the dunes and to photograph the ruins of Fort Rammekens; to Amsterdam to check out the building of the Batavia replica; to Prague to visit the Moser glassworks, the Lidice Memorial and the Terezin Concentration camp; to Cape Town to visit the Castle, the location of the VOC hospital, the gardens, Table Mountain, the Groot Constantia estate and the old slave quarters. Besides that, I lived in Fremantle and used to spend my leave breaks in the boathouse on Lake Macquarie . . . and my brother owns a property at Kalbarri so I was able to explore all the places in which I set Gerrit and Sunil. As for the shark attack, when I was working aboard the Kenilworth Castle and we were anchored off the Fort in Galle Bay, a Rhodesian friend and I were foolish enough to accept the challenge to swim the 400 metres or so ashore. I remember we took a break when we were half way across, hanging onto the anchor chains of a Norwegian tanker and got ourselves covered in thick black grease — but the terror I felt when we were committed to swimming in the blue-black water was palpable and unforgettable. I'm sure we were both praying that the shark would take the other swimmer first!

While fiction is invented, it amounts to an accumulation of truthful detail. If any of the facts are questionable or wrong, that deviation from the truth will be picked up by your readers and quickly lose their trust and interest. To develop fully rounded scenes you need to experience at first hand the sensory impressions required to flesh them out. You can’t rely on someone else’s accounts or say so. Rely on your own. Double check your facts, then . . . and dive head first into experiencing what it is you want to write about.

And be very selective. I found the research deeply interesting, challenging and absorbing; but it was also very time-consuming. It took years and I amassed mountains of data from which I distilled a few pertinent details and set aside the rest. A very active delete button sent most of my unused research into oblivion once the novel was finished. That’s the way it worked for me. For example I have Gerrit de Waal admire and buy a painting of shells by the artist Adriaen Coorte in 1711 during a walk through Middelburg. Coorte was a brilliant miniaturist working in Zeeland at the time. That moment takes up at most three or four paragraphs in the novel, but I have a file half a centimetre thick on Coorte and his astonishing paintings and pastels, including several reproductions. The same goes for the Smallegange etchings . . . and so on.

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What was your daily writing routine and output? Did you have difficulties sticking to it?

I started the first novel — The Man who lit the Flame, the story of Lennard Currie, in 1997 when I was working in Papua New Guinea. I finished it in 2011 in my retirement, along with the second novel – Survivors of the Storm, the story of Gerrit de Waal, which I’d started in 2003. For most of that period I was fully employed, which meant I could only write in the evenings after work and on most Sundays when we had time off. I was working a 6 by 2 and later a 4 by 2 fly-in fly-out roster, that’s to say 4 weeks on and 2 weeks off. Work was a constant distraction so the writing tended to be undisciplined, sporadic and laborious, except when I was out on leave when I was able to dedicate time to it and got most of it done. So no, I never had a daily routine I could rely on. I wrote when I could, quite often driven by guilt at having put the writing aside for sometimes lengthy periods to see to other priorities.

In Tabubil I keyed directly onto a computer and saved the updated pages to a USB memory stick which I took with me on leave, along with a laptop. I found manipulating the writing on screen easier than transcribing from handwritten pages. My notes however are in longhand recorded directly into notebooks.

And yes, I did have difficulties sticking to it, particularly when I had doubts as to the quality of the output and disappointment at the rate of progress. The whole project was an obsession however, and I loved travelling to carry out the research . . . new places, fresh faces, interesting languages. The travel kept me at it I think, arriving back in Tabubil with stacks of notes and renewed determination to make sense of them.

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Now you've retired, do you write every day? And if so, what are you working on, and where do you write?

Not at the moment, not while I’m trying to push the sales of Albatross, which is taking up a lot of my time. Once that takes off, as I hope it will, then I’ll settle down to reorganising my daily routines and set my sights on another book. I want to write a novella about Alice Estragon, Lennard’s partner in The Man who lit the Flame. They met in mid-1990 — at the Exmouth turnoff incidentally, when Alice is hitch-hiking to Darwin and Lennard is on his annual pilgrimage to Jandamarra’s Rock in Windjana Gorge after Rosalie’s death. I’d like to tell the story of her life leading up to that meeting. I recently arranged for permission to base the title on a line from Ezra Pound — Her name is Alice and is written Courage. I see it as a freestanding book, even though it’ll be a prequel of sorts since the two principal characters appear in Albatross. They’re both still very much alive in my imagination.

These days I write in an extension to my house in a Perth suburb. It’s quiet, secluded and cool and has windows facing onto the back garden. Right now the citrus and olive trees out there are full of ripening fruit . . . and a couple of pairs of nesting doves, actually. And I’m surrounded by books I’ve collected over the years, some 1,000 of them, in several categories. And metre-wide versions of the pictures that appear at the start of parts I and II in Albatross are on the walls over my bed and above my computer desk. They were colourful reminders of the work I still had to do while I was engrossed in writing the book.

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Did you revise a lot?

Absolutely non-stop, all the time. New to fiction writing and never having been to a creative writing class, I didn’t have that much confidence in what I was producing. There were rare occasions when passages came easily and virtually wrote themselves, but they were few and very far between. Most of the time, I had to work and rework each page - which is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did, I got a kick out of changing the shape and context of the sentences, honing the paragraphs and changing the vocabulary until I was reasonably sure I’d achieved the effect I was after . . . and even then I’d go back for more polishing. But there comes a time when you tell yourself enough’s enough and the thing has to stand or fall on its own. You have to get it out to the reader.

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How much did you draw on your own biographical experience?

Hardly at all and not directly, except for a couple of incidents perhaps. You could trace the shark attack back to my swim across Galle Bay, for example; and I did attend the Igor Oistrakh concert in the Capitol Theatre in August 1963 and sat by coincidence next to a girl – Rachel, a Physiotherapist if I recall correctly – who I’d met one evening a week or so before in a bus shelter on Thomas Road. The synchronicity of that occasion has stayed buried in my long-term memory waiting to surface, I guess.

So no, the fact is I wanted to create a fictional world in which I could ask questions of larger than life characters I invented and have them reveal the answers I was after in a believable storyline driven by their actions. I find it interesting that friends who’ve read Albatross insist they can read between the lines and that Stefan, for example, shows characteristics reminiscent of me and that Catie must be based on someone I know. Neither is true — although in Catie’s case I’d love to meet her in the flesh!

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You have addressed some pertinent current political issues in Albatross. Do you see that as a necessary component in the writing of novels?

Not at all. I believe the principal component to writing a successful novel involves telling an interesting and entertaining story. You invite your reader to take an enjoyable journey out of his or her environment and into a fictional three-dimensional world you’ve peopled with larger than life characters. In following the arc of the narrative, your reader interacts with them by overhearing their conversations, observing the conflicts and resolutions in their relationships and sharing their moments of grief and joy.

That said, Albatross is set in turbulent periods of history, the 1830’s and 1990’s in Australia for example, so political discussion is necessarily front and centre – but only as a device for delineating character and never as a polemical device to convince the reader to consider a point of view. Albatross is not a text book. It tells a story. It puts the readers inside the heads of a range of characters, allowing them to experience opinions and views from different perspectives, inviting them to provide their own answers to the questions the narrative raises.

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Which writers have had the most influence on your writing?

That’s a difficult, if not impossible question to answer. If I was to list my favourite authors, I’d have to say I’m indebted to all of them in one way or another — and any list I came up with would be notable for the absentees.

When I was working in the Pilbara on the railway, I used to carry half a dozen books in the cabin of the truck with me – Heller’s Catch 22, Kafka’s Diaries, Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, Primo Levi’s If this is a Man, along with others by Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut. Those books took a hammering, the pages covered in red dust and thumbprints!

To bring the list up to date I’d add David Foster Wallace for the humour in his short stories, WG Sebald for his fluency and mastery of language, Michael Ondaatje for his imagery and structure, JM Coetzee for his tension and succinctness, Tim Winton for his studies of the dry West Australian character, idiom and incomparable scenes of the bush and the sea, traveller Pico Iyer for his sharply intelligent observations, Barry Lopez for his descriptive power . . . then there are Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Marcelo Gleiser, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jerome Bruner, Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov . . . to name a few. The list goes on!

If the house was on fire and I had to rescue a dozen books, I’d reach for Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, James Joyce’s Ulysses, F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably, Albert Camus’ The Outsider, Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s night a Traveller, Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory . . . and then I’d probably do a Lennard and run back into the flames to rescue another dozen!

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