Friday, October 13, 2006

UNDERGROUND - A Talk with Andrew McGahan

IT may say more about the taxi driver than the place itself, but when I ask to be taken to the western Melbourne suburb of Yarraville – home to expatriate Queensland novelist Andrew McGahan – my request is met with bemusement.

Yarraville? A directory is consulted, a map studied and swivelled around on the console between the two front seats. The driver scratches his head. And eventually we are heading out of the CBD and over the great, towering West Gate Bridge with its view of the city’s one-time industrial heartland.

Yarraville and neighbouring Footscray, it turns out, were settled on the old stock route into the city, and the villages once bristled with tanneries, abattoirs and places like Henderson’s Ham Curing Establishment. And sitting on the western banks of the Maribyrnong River, they quickly became Melbourne’s industrial hub in the late 19th century.

The place had high death rates from typhoid, and, according to official reports, stagnant pools of sewage under houses, alongside roadways, and waterways “unspeakably polluted”.

Today, Yarraville is a mere 15-minute drive from the city centre, and the curing works and factories have been turned into arts centres and warehouse apartments. Census reports deem Yarraville as being “under gentrification”. In contemporary parlance, the yuppies are moving in.

Embedded in this, amidst the narrow streets and refurbished worker’s cottages, the organic food stores and funky cafes, is the Dalby wheat farmer’s son, McGahan.

“There are still cobbles under the bitumen here,” says McGahan, when we finally meet, strolling the short distance from his home to the village centre. He is keen to point out, it seems, at least some vestiges of the suburb’s gritty past. “It was a wintry, foggy day when we came down here for the first time,” he says. “It was so cheap. It’s still a working class area, just enough but it’s fading. It got discovered. Now it’s a young, yuppie suburb, and kids. The endless bloody prams. Everyone’s got a pram.

“All the people I know live here now. That’s why we’d never leave the suburb. It’s like being in a little country town.”

McGahan, 40, is one of the more curious figures in Australian literature. He offers, time and again, an apparent nonchalance towards aspects of his chosen career, and yet he has blossomed, surely and steadily, into one of the finest writers of his generation.

He gives very few interviews, and yet he is well known as a writer and his books are popular for literary fiction. He has decided to cease making appearances at writer’s festivals, citing that he has “nothing to say that would be of interest to anyone else”, and yet the demand for his time and presence has never been greater. None of his friends are from the “book world”.

Furthermore, he is an Australian novelist and yet has read very little Australian writing, and almost none by his contemporaries. His work, beginning with the “grunge lit” novel Praise, winner of the Vogel prize in 1991, looked set to follow a predictable pattern charting the woes of our disenchanted youth, yet after his book 1988 he produced the superlative post-Fitzgerald Inquiry thriller Last Drinks (2000). He followed this with yet another stylistic body swerve in The White Earth, a gothic meditation on Australian race relations and land ownership. It earned him the Miles Franklin Award last year.

Indeed, McGahan’s work is broadening in scope, book by book, and yet he likes nothing more than staying at home and watching television, or cooking. The bigger his world view and narrative thematics, the smaller his playground. He likes it in this little country town of his.

“I don’t do much, really,” he says. “In fact, when I think about it, I’m surprised at how little I do. I’m a house husband. I like cooking. I make curries. I find it satisfying. Or I come up to the pub and meet friends for a drink. That’s it.”

His rare public appearance, on this occasion, is to talk about Last Drinks, which has been adapted for the stage by his good friend, the Brisbane playwright Shaun Charles, and will have its world premiere on August 17 at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre.

“Yes, Last Drinks,” McGahan says. “I’ll be going along to opening night and I’ll be keen to see it, but I don’t know who any of the cast are, and I’ll be going along to none of the rehearsals. It’s not my play, it’s Shaun’s.

“I’ve gone over some of the drafts of the adaption, and it’s been so long since I wrote that book I’ve had to be reminded who some of the characters are.”

He smiles. It’s impossible to see his eyes behind his large, dark sunglasses.

“So,” he says. “Will we go to the pub?”



*


IT sits on a table at the side of La Boite’s cavernous rehearsal space at Kelvin Grove, and for a moment resembles a black, somewhat sinister, steamer trunk from another century. In fact, it is a miniature of the set of Last Drinks.

La Boite theatre director Ian Lawson is peering down into the black maw of the tiny set. He indicates a structure that looks like a minimalist oil rig, with a human being strapped into it, crucifixion-like.

“It’s symbolic,” he says, “of what was done to Queensland during the period. And there’s the past, or blood, or wine, spilling across the stage. It could be George’s inner life.”

The George he refers to is George Verney, the former alcoholic journalist and primary protagonist of Last Drinks who, since the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption, has lived a quiet life in Highwood, a mountain village on the border between Queensland and NSW.

George has fled his past, and left behind in Brisbane a string of friends, lovers and acquaintances who became entangled in the corruption inquiry. Some were jailed. Others should have been jailed, but weren’t. Almost all of them are physical wrecks, courtesy of the booze.

As Last Drinks opens, Verney is told by the police that his one-time friend, the restaurateur Charles Monohan, has been found tortured and murdered. In a remote electrical substation. In Highwood. After a decade of self-imposed exile, Verney is drawn back through the emotional nettles and complications of a past he thought he’d left behind.

“It’s exciting,” says Lawson. “We’re at a point now, in Queensland, where we want to hear our own stories. It’s time to do that now.”

It is the first rehearsal for the cast on this day, and there is a tangible excitement in the room as the actors takes their seats and form a semi-circle in front of Lawson.

There is George (played by Peter Marshall), Kelly the Cop (Chris Baz), Brisbane’s Old Money establishment figure Sir Jeremy Phelan (Chris Betts), corrupt former Minister of the Crown Marvin McNulty (Steven Tandy), the ghost of Charlie (Damien Cassidy) and George’s former lover May (Helen Howard). Shaun Charles is sitting in the semi-circle, a pencil at the ready.

“Let’s jump straight into the read,” says Lawson.

“I shouldn’t be standing here,” says Marshall as a distraught George. ”This was all supposed to be over. Finished with. Everything ended in 1989 after the Inquiry. It’s over. It ended ten years ago…I was asleep when I got the call. It was the police.”

George is interrogated by Kelly. Then on page six of the script the inscrutable one-time National Party “Minister for Everything”, Marvin McNulty, bellows for a drink. There is laughter amongst the cast and other observers. Actor Tandy’s raucous, Queensland twang is so familiar, so frighteningly recognisable from a not-so-distant era, that it engenders not just surface humour but a deep nervous response. It’s the same with Betts’ creepy, slithery exposition of Sir Jeremy. Even during the first rehearsal, you’re taken back to a Queensland that seemed to exist so long ago, and yet, eerily, could still be just around the corner. The whole room feels it.

As George laments: “So where else but Queensland would a man like Marvin end up in government? It was bizarre. The public couldn’t get enough of him. They lapped him up. Queenslanders didn’t like sophisticated types. They liked their representatives to be awkward, and incoherent. They mistook it for honesty.”

And later, May launches a heated attack on Sir Jeremy and all he represents. In fact, she is savaging Queensland’s past. “The sight of you makes me physically ill,” she says. “You and your kind want the people of this state to be satisfied with less, be satisfied with backwardness. Worse, you want us to be proud of it. And don’t listen to those southerners, you’re tougher here in Queensland, it doesn’t matter if they laugh at you. You make me sick. The worship of ignorance is the excuse of rednecks and backwaters and corrupt governments the world over, and people believe it, they get used to it. And you and your kind just keep scooping the heart out of the place.”

Charles, 32, later discusses the difficulty in adapting the novel to the theatre. He directed a version of McGahan’s earlier play, Bait, and even starred in a second version, and has since collaborated with McGahan on sitcom and movie scripts. (They are presently at work on a horror flick with the tentative title of Bloodnight. It features two characters called Shaun Charles and Andrew McGahan.)

“I was too young when the Fitzgerald Inquiry was all happening,” Charles says. “But I’m fascinated by it. When I tell people I’m adapting Last Drinks, it fires them up. They want to tell me they’re stories.

“People like to hear their own stories, to hear on stage the streets they live in being mentioned and the places they know. Brisbane is becoming a big city and our stories are pretty good, they’re as good as anywhere else.

“Andrew has been contributing to the adaption. I think we’re up to draft 11. He emails copious notes and suggestions. I think he likes the social side of the theatre. It’s an outlet for him. He thinks it’s all drinks after the show and lots of fun. If only.”

Charles confirms that McGahan has not met the director of the play (Lawson), nor any of the actors. The vast bulk of communications about the production have been carried out via email.

“Andrew is a formidable intellect and he plays the recluse really well, but it’s also the real deal,” Charles says. “One of his favourite things is to sit down and watch TV. (He is partial to DVD boxed sets – Deadwood, The West Wing, Buffy.)I know some of his friends and not one of them are from the literary world. They’re from IT, or banking or law. He still has friends from when he worked in the public service. I would say he doesn’t take himself too seriously though he does take his work seriously.

“Naturally, he wants to get this right. And I’m a bit terrified. People love McGahan’s work. It’s been a delicate balancing act.”

Near the end of the first rehearsal, George talks to the ghost of his mate Charlie: “Anyway, it’s over. Ten years too late, but that’s Queensland for you, always ten years behind the pace.”

The reading ends. Lawson looks happy. Charles is thinking of even more cuts he might have to make to his umpteenth draft. And the little bloodied and naked figure in the set model quivers, strung up on wires. Emasculated.



*



“What’ll you have?” McGahan asks.

We have come to his local pub – The Blarney Stone – an Irish-themed watering hole in the heart of Yarraville. It might have an Irish flourish to it on the outside, but inside it bears all the characteristics of a classic working class Australian hotel.

It is early afternoon and the clients include workers grabbing a beer and a pub lunch, and elderly men reading newspapers in the dim winter light through the windows and sitting for hours on a single ale.

“They’d be factory workers, dock workers,” McGahan says, indicating a group of men across the room. He is clearly at home in this place. He has known dreary, soulless work. He has known unemployment. All of this has been chronicled through his semi-autobiographical anti-hero Gordon in his early novels and the play Bait, set in a mail sorting room.

“It’s where I left Gordon,” he says. “I wanted to look at the nature of work - is it worth working at any cost? Is it more soul destroying to do shit work for no money than not working at all, which is supposed to be ultimately soul destroying.

“I had that job in the mail sorting room. That’s where I was when I heard Praise had won the Vogel. If it hadn’t won that prize I’d probably still be there myself. It was where our life separated.

“It was a cruel way to end it. It was a black ending for Gordon. I can’t write about Gordon anymore; there’s nothing left to say about him. As much as he was me, my life’s been happy since then. There’s not an unhappy situation to put him in.”

Last Drinks, the novel, was McGahan’s fictional bridge from self-reflective writings to a more complex and imagined narrative. The White Earth, set on the Darling Downs, completed that journey. McGahan may have tilled memories of his Queensland childhood, but in it he produced a powerfully realised epic novel of place and ideas, which revealed his maturation as a writer.

He was naturally pleased to win the country’s greatest literary accolade – the Miles Franklin Award for 2005 – but not for the public attention.

“There was a sense of freedom the award gave me,” he says. “With The White Earth I believe I did as good as I could do with that sort of style. After the award it felt like I could try anything.

“I have a little bit of money in the bank now. But I have never been terrified of not having money; I’ve always had enough. As long as I had money for tobacco (he’s since given up smoking) and alcohol, everything was alright.

“And I’ve never really thought about ‘things’ before. About buying material ‘things’. My partner Liesje (a veterinary scientist) and I have been renting the same house since we moved to Melbourne six years ago. We moved here for Liesje’s study and work. There was no other reason than that, and by chance a lot of our friends from Brisbane were moving down at the same time. Yet everybody we know now is buying property. This property thing, it’s everywhere and it gets in your head.

“Should we be doing this? I don’t know.”

McGahan’s next novel – Underground – will be released in October. It will be his first book without a primary Queensland context. It is also a natural follow on from McGahan’s engagement with politics in The White Earth.

“Think Australia, some five or so years from now,” his publishers, Allen & Unwin, state in their promotion blurb. “The war on terror is dragging on and on. Canberra’s been wiped out by a nuclear bomb detonated by unknown terrorists. All citizens have been issued with identity cards. Fuelled by a gleeful, anarchic energy that takes a chainsaw to political neo-correctness, white-picket-fence thinking and Australia’s new ultra-nationalism, this book goes straight to the heart of the country’s future – and it ain’t pretty.”

Underground is, in short, McGahan’s meditation on the not-too-distant future of Australia. Moreso, it’s his way of venting his thoughts and feelings about what has happened to his country over the past decade.

“Don’t get me started on this,” he says. “What’s annoying me about the country at the moment? I don’t want to rant. It’s in the new book. I’d rather not go into talking about it. When Underground comes out I’m going to have to do this same interview over and over. There’s no point just getting mad.

“Even after ten years, the Howard Government – it’s just getting into the swing of things. Can the country get back to what it was? Can it get back?”

Does he feel, as an Australian novelist, that he has an obligation to voice his opinions? To speak out?

“I have less an obligation as an opportunity,” McGahan says. “It’s useless to sit around, get drunk and rant and rave. You’ve got to do something. What do you do? Do you join a party? I have the option of writing a book and some people might read it.

“This book – some people will love it, and some people will think it’s crap. That’ll pretty much be the political divide I think.”

It’s getting dark outside. McGahan’s phone starts ringing. Slowly, steadily, his Yarraville tribe are beginning to mobilise. Friends are on their way down. For drinks. For dinner.

He is at home here, in Yarraville. I think back to earlier in the day, picking him up at his house, and noticing an extraordinary but bleak picture that he has as his screen saver on his computer. It is a grey industrial landscape, taken by McGahan himself in the local area. (“Yes, I took it,” he says. “I’m getting into digital photography.”) It’s a long way from the wavering wheat fields of the Darling Downs. From his days in New Farm and the Gabba.

Interestingly, if you were to take a bird’s eye view of McGahan’s career, its surface randomness has a logic, a pattern to it. There was the Brisbane period of Praise and 1988. His farewell to Brisbane book, Last Drinks. The homage to childhood and the beginnings of a broader, national view in The White Earth, completed in Melbourne. And with Underground, the futuristic satire. For someone who doesn’t move about much, he manages to cover a lot of territory.

What’s next? Living outside Australia?

“Who knows?” he says. “Liesje and I are going to the UK in October. I’ve never been. But my closest friends are here. You’d be surprised at how little I get out of Yarraville. I just potter around the house. I finish a book, then I sit around. It doesn’t sound like much does it?

“But I do feel I have a job. And it’s not a bad job.”

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