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North Melbourne Books:
The Contrarian traces Peter Thiel's rise to billionaire and dabbler in hard right politics, from Stanford University's culture wars to co-creating Paypal and donating $1 million dollars to help elect Donald Trump. He's a puzzling figure, one could say a dark prince of the tech and investing world, playing markets and people ruthlessly to his own advantage. At one point in the book he's described as a nihilist. What drew you to write his biography?
Max Chafkin: There were two big things. The first: Thiel's centrality to what I think is one of the most important stories of our lifetimes, which is the rise of Silicon Valley as an economic and cultural force. I’ve covered tech since 2005, and in that time the tech industry has gone from being a minor curiosity to a major power center, rivaling Wall Street and Washington in terms of influence. Big tech companies not only are generating huge profits and concentrating wealth in the hands of a small group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers, but they’re dominating our lives. They are increasingly influencing (a critic might say: controlling) what we think, how we think, and even what we desire. Thiel’s career is tied up in that rise; he’s been connected to almost every company of any consequence that has been started over the last twenty or so years—including PayPal, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp, Airbnb, SpaceX, Lyft, and on and on.
That would all be enough, I think, to justify a book about Thiel and tech power—but of course, that’s only half of Thiel’s impact. The second reason I pursued this project was that in 2016 Thiel became one of the first business leaders to back Donald Trump’s candidacy. I felt, in some sense, that Thiel was attempting to pull the same trick he’d pulled in Silicon Valley—when he’d essentially approached the industry as an outsider and then taken it over. Thiel’s Trump support also raised interesting human questions: How could a self-proclaimed futurist, a gay immigrant from California with two Stanford degrees, come to support a nativist reactionary, from a political party that has historically been hostile to the rights of gays and lesbians? That struck me as a question that might reveal something about Thiel’s character, and also about his approach to power.
NMB: The story of Peter Thiel, as written in your book, also reads as a history of Silicon Valley - its ethos, drive and energy. Do you see some of Thiel's characteristics reflected in the tech industry in general?
MC: Thiel is sometimes portrayed as a man apart – as Silicon Valley’s token conservative – but that’s a really misleading portrayal. He is, in so many ways, Silicon Valley’s ideological avatar. More so than his conservatism, Thiel’s worldview is defined by his feelings about tech. In particular, my sense is that Thiel believes that the founders of tech companies are a privileged class and that they should be elevated above the rest of us, given more power and allowed to run their companies (and, ultimately, our lives) with complete freedom. He believes that these companies owe no particular responsibility to existing institutions and rules; and in fact that they should seek to break rules and destroy institutions whenever possible. This sense of tech supremacy, that tech companies should break the rules – or, “disrupt” them – is core to Silicon Valley, and can explain a lot of the questionable behavior by tech companies over the past decade.
NMB: The book raises so many questions about technology and power. The early years of Silicon Valley seemed to promise a more utopian future, but the power that behemoths like Google and Facebook acquired have led us to some dark places. Both companies have even courted authoritarian China. Is the endgame of technology more power unto itself, rather than an equal distribution to all?
MC: Tech companies get painted as being overly friendly to China, though I’m not sure that’s entirely fair – especially as it applies to Google and Facebook, neither of which operate in China. And lots of non-tech companies, like Nike and Disney, are deeply enmeshed with China. That said, I agree with the premise of your question: Tech utopianism has turned into something much darker than what was promised. I think some of that is baked into the world view itself. The belief that tech would solve our problems sort of lead us to start giving our power to the tech industry. We told ourselves that news algorithms were better than the old media, and then acted surprised when local newspapers started folding and were replaced with highly profitable crap on Facebook.
That said, I’d argue that Thiel himself is responsible for a lot of this. It’s not just that tech companies are overly idealistic about what they can achieve; it’s that Silicon Valley has followed Thiel’s ideas about monopoly capitalism to their logical conclusion. Thiel encouraged tech founders to—by his example, through his investments, and in his writings—to create companies that sought not to build useful products but to dominate markets. He told Zuckerberg and those of Zuckerberg’s generation that the goal of business should be monopoly. They believed him—and set about buying market share, destroying competitors, and, when that failed, acquiring their competition. Thiel’s worldview helps explain how Facebook went from being a democratizing force to being the amoral, destructive empire that it is today.
NMB: There now seems to be an appetite to rein in the big tech companies. Australia recently introduced laws that compel Google and Facebook to pay for local news content. Are you hopeful that more governments will step in to regulate?
MC: I think it’s encouraging that we’re starting to have debates about what regulation of the tech industry might look like. This seems necessary and important—and it seems like even many of the companies have resigned themselves to being regulated going forward. That said, I’m not especially optimistic that these efforts will do what regulators are hoping. Many of the proposed regulations seem like they may entrench the power of Facebook and Google rather than take it away. Facebook and Google, of course, can afford to pay for local news while nascent competitors cannot. So you could imagine a situation where these Australian rules help entrenched media businesses but don’t do much to dent tech power. Basically the rich: Big media and big tech, get richer.
The other thing is it’s not clear that consumers even want to reign in tech. We still like many of these companies; and we’re still using them in huge numbers. They’re part of our lives now, and many of us still enjoy their services. There are a lot of people who rail against Facebook and then say, “Well, I still love Instagram, and I use Whatsapp all the time.” That’s profoundly strange! People talk about Facebook’s “big tobacco moment,” but the company is not going to have a big tobacco moment if we’re all still smoking.
NMB: What books are you enjoying at the moment?
MC: I recently read Margaret O’Mara’s The Code, which is an excellent general history of the tech industry, and American Prometheus, the wonderful Robert Oppenheimer biography. I’m about to start reading Duff McDonald’s book, The Firm, which is about McKinsey and its influence on American business. There’s a pattern here, I guess. I’m super interested in books about tech and power.
One book that doesn’t quite fit into this pattern that I’ve found myself recommending over and over again over the past two years is How to Survive a Plague, which is David France’s history of the AIDS epidemic. It’s amazingly moving, and also has much to say about Covid and our current moment.
The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power, by Max Chafkin. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Author photo credit: Matt Horspool
North Melbourne Books: It's 1932, Northern Norway. Ivanna “Wanny” Wolstad longs to enter the male dominated world of hunting and trapping. When she meets a trapper heading out to the Arctic Ocean, she manages to convince him to take her on as a partner. Cold Coast is based on the real life of Wanny Wolstad. How did you find out about her and what inspired you to turn her story into a novel?
Robyn Mundy: I spend several months of each year working as a tour guide on ship-based expeditions to the polar regions, north and south. This includes Svalbard, an archipelago in the High Arctic, way north of Norway. A favourite site we visit is Hornsund in the south-west corner of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island. At the inner end of the fjord sits a pint-sized trapper’s cabin at the foot of a mountain with cliffs and ledges alive with the shrieks of breeding seabirds. When I learned that the cabin was used by Wanny Woldstad (pronounced Vonny Voldstad) in the early 1930s, and that she was Svalbard’s first female trapper and hunter, I wanted to know more. How did a woman—a young widow—break into a fiercely guarded male domain? What was the experience of months of winter darkness in bitterly cold conditions? Those questions set me on a course to writing Cold Coast.
NMB: Your novel has a wonderfully realistic feel, especially the descriptions of the tough natural environment, the cycle of life and death. How did you go about researching the book?
RM: Part of the research rests on a solid foundation of general knowledge of the Arctic region, having spent 20 years as a polar tour guide. Just as importantly were weeks spent in Tromsø in northern Norway, the trappers’ gateway to the Arctic and the place where Wanny lived and worked as the town’s first taxi driver. Wandering Tromsø’s docks and streets, checking out the trappers’ local beer hall, interviewing a Norwegian hunter, soaking up the feeling of the place, all felt as vital as days spent in Tromsø and then Longyearbyen’s excellent polar museums, with exhibitions dedicated to the trapping and hunting eras. My investigations took in researching genealogy sites, and visits to Norwegian libraries to learn more about Norwegian history and culture. Wanny published a memoir in 1956 which I had translated into English. It provided invaluable background information about the day-to-day life of a trapper, as well as insights into Wanny’s determination and gutsiness.
NMB: Wanny Wolstad was Norway's first female trapper. How hard would it have been for a woman at that time?
RM: As a young woman, Wanny regularly attended competitions and won championships in target shooting. Her ability with a rifle was her primary ticket to the Arctic world. Then, working as Tromsø’s first taxi driver in 1930 (a role remarkable in and of itself), she would ferry trappers to and from Mack Ølhallen, the town’s local beer hall, when they returned from their Arctic season. It was the stories of the trapping life they shared with her that inspired Wanny to want to experience Svalbard for herself. When, in 1932, trapper Anders Sæterdal found himself short of a trapping partner, he reluctantly agreed to take Wanny on. Without that happenstance opportunity, it would have been an impossible dream for a woman craving wilder freedoms.
NMB: There is some breathtakingly beautiful prose in Cold Coast. Who are the nature writers that inspire you?
RM: Thank you for saying this about Cold Coast. While I’ve been researching and writing Cold Coast, I’ve focused on Norwegian authors, as much to get a feel for the people and way of life. In any novel or movie set in rural or remote Scandinavia, a strong sense of nature and place are inevitable. I so admire Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen, in particular his gem of a novel The Unseen. Both The Summer Book and The Winter Book by Norway’s Tove Jansson fueled my inspiration. British author Georgina Harding’s The Solitude of Thomas Cave is a stellar story set in Svalbard in the 1600s. When I read Harding’s prose it draws me right into the raw and fetid setting of a summer whaling camp amid the wilderness. Closer to home, who can go past Hannah Kent’s remarkable Burial Rites, not only for its tragic tale, but its evocation of the bleak Icelandic landscape.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Katherine Scholes: The Beautiful Mother
Ruairi Murphy: Two Set of Books
Diana Reid: Love and Virtue
Melissa Manning: Smokehouse
Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy. Published by Ultimo Press. $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Tasmania's Black War was fought from the mid 1820s until the final surrender by the remnants of the Oyster Bay – Big River clans in 1832. One of the leaders of this group, Tongerlongeter, was an extraordinary strategist and resistance fighter. How did you learn about Tongerlongeter and why has Australian history overlooked such an important figure?
Nicholas Clements: My PhD research looked at both black and white perspectives of the Black War. Previous research had been more zoomed out. The Aborigines tended to be just that - ‘the Aborigines’ and not individuals with stories of their own. My research zoomed in, allowing me to see just how significant Tongerlongeter was. What’s more, today’s Aboriginal community in Tasmania is descended solely from northeast peoples, Tongerlongeter’s traditional enemies. Had he and his nation had living descendants, it’s likely more attention would have been paid to him.
NMB: The reader learns much about First Nations beliefs and culture in the book. For example, the fact that Europeans on first contact were thought to be returned ancestors. What struck you most in your research that you didn't know previously?
NC: The research that culminated in this book began in 2007, and before that I, like most others, knew almost nothing about Tasmania’s Aboriginal history, so basically everything was new.
NMB: First Nations Women received especially brutal treatment during the Black War – abduction, rape, enslavement and murder. Why were they treated so poorly?
NC: The answer is basic human nature: desire + opportunity – restraints = an epidemic of sexual violence. But let’s look at these factors in more detail.
Desire: there was a massive gender imbalance in colonial society during this period, and on the frontier there were virtually no available white women for the largely young, largely convict population. Some slept with each other, some with animals, but a significant minority took to preying on Aboriginal women and children.
Opportunity: most of the men populating the frontier were armed, unsupervised and in remote situations. They could wait around until they saw the fires of a passing band and then launch an ambush.
Restraints: morally, few felt guilty about victimising ‘naked savages’. Socially, there was little to condemn it either, at least not on the frontier. And legally, there was virtually no obstacle at all. They had only the wrath of Aboriginal warriors deter them (though this could certainly be an intimidating deterrent).
NMB: Could the violence of the Black War have been avoided? Or reduced?
NC: A glance at colonised societies elsewhere suggests that there was no way to avoid violence. Reduction would certainly have been possible, though, had a treaty been negotiated and honoured with the various nations.
NMB: Tongerlongeter's grave on Flinders Island lies virtually unmarked. Should he be given a more fitting memorial?
NC: Even though he and his people left no descendants, I would like to see Aboriginal Tasmanians decide how and where Tongerlongeter and others like him are honoured. If it seems they do not have the desire or initiative to do so, I’m unsure what would be the best way to proceed, though I feel strongly that the current situation is an insult to a great man, and to the resistance of all Aboriginal Tasmanians.
NMB: What books are you enjoying at the moment?
NC: The first two books of Jock Serong’s trilogy about early Bass Strait – Preservation and Burning Island…incredible!
Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader and Tasmanian War Hero, by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. NewSouth Books. $34.99
North Melbourne Books: Set in North Korea in the late 1990s, The Last Exiles is a love story centred on two young university students, Suja and Jin. Suja’s family is well connected, while Jin comes from the rural north, where poverty and hunger are constant. The two make for an unlikely couple, but their futures look bright. They have plans to work hard and serve their country. Then suddenly everything goes horribly wrong. Jin tries to right a wrong in his village, only to find himself accused of the worst kind of betrayal. He is sent to a brutal labour camp. Suja, determined to be reunited with Jin, risks everything and soon finds herself descending into a living nightmare. Their experiences will change them forever.
The story is a real page turner, with so many extraordinary twists and turns, yet it is so believable. Did you base the novel on people you have met? How much did the stories of real exiles inspire you?
Ann Shin: As I was researching the novel, I met with many North Korean defectors who inspired me deeply. They had risked their lives to escape their country by foot, embarking on a 3,000 mile journey across China to find safe asylum in South East Asia. I remember telling one of them how brave she was, and she replied simply, “I’m not courageous, I just had no other choice. I had to do this.” I was struck by her stoicism and her modesty, and realized how desperate she had been to see that risking her life was her only option.
A couple of the women I met were inspirations for my character Suja, and most notably, a human smuggler called ‘Dragon’ was a person after whom I modeled ‘Sarge,’ the smuggler character in my book. Dragon had a larger-than-life personality and was the kind of guy who owns three cell phones, not counting all the burner cell phones he got rid of. He had served in Kim Jong-il’s personal army cadre and then went rogue, turning to ferrying North Korean defectors out of the country. I had mixed feelings about this man who made money off the backs of defectors, and yet had also helped them find freedom. I learned a lot about how to navigate the North Korean and Chinese underground from this man.
NMB: Suja and Jin make some incredibly dangerous journeys. The book captures the gritty atmosphere and sense of place so well. What kind of research did you undertake to get all these details so right?
AS: I ended up getting embedded in a journey with Dragon and five defectors and the experience of that journey left its indelible mark on me. The details in the book come from these first-hand experiences like travelling with them on public buses, private vans and trains, all the while fearfully keeping silent so that the authorities would not discover that we were not Chinese nationals. We ended up in safe houses, eating instant noodles together, sharing many stories. I learned about where each person came from, the hometowns they longed for, and why they were each undertaking this perilous journey. Living, eating, and travelling with the defectors gave me an intimate sense of their lives, as well as the terrain they had to cover to get to freedom. All these experiences went into the writing of the novel.
NMB: Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the book is to learn of the trade in women, sold as wives and slaves, often sexually abused and raped. The trade seems more widespread than many in the West might realise. Suja makes some fairly pointed remarks about women being sold into slavery and how some men can be complicit almost by default. What needs to be done to combat this terrible trade?
AS: It was heartbreaking to meet women who were trafficked in China. In 2019 it was estimated that the business of trafficking North Korean women transacted $105 million dollars annually.* Approximately 60% of North Korean refugees are trafficked and sold into prostitution, forced marriages, and cybersex. Because North Korean women are not recognized as refugees by China, they can’t flee their traffickers to seek help from officials because they would be deported back to their country where they would be sent to prison camps and subject to torture and abuse. China needs to be pressured about their human rights abuses – and as we know, there are many, including the tragic situation of the Uyghurs. We should lobby our governments and the UN to condemn China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors, and to lobby for alternatives; for example, providing safe passage to a third country. We can also support NGOs like Liberty in North Korea, Crossing Borders, and church groups who are actively working to help North Korean defectors today. Many help them find asylum as refugees.
NMB: Suja and Jin, being patriotic North Koreans, revere Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader”. But their experiences make them gradually realise they’ve been fed a steady stream of lies. How do you think power is maintained and entrenched in North Korea?
AS: The North Korean government has maintained their power through a regime of terror and by controlling all media and telecommunications within the country. The average North Korean has no access to outside news, entertainment, or even books. All information is created by state news agencies and state presses. Even the cell phones in North Korea are geo-blocked and cannot make calls outside the country. With this absolute control, the regime is able to shape people’s worldviews, and terrorize any dissenters.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
AS: I recently finished The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and really enjoyed that. I'm re-reading Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry - mainly for the brilliant voice in that novel. And I'm also re-reading some short stories by David Means. I love his spare, poetic style.
The Last Exiles, by Ann Shin. Published by HarperCollins. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Golden Book tells the story of two childhood friends, Jessie and Ali, growing up in the regional town of Bega in the 1980s. Jessie is adventurous and a risk taker, getting the two girls into their fair share of scrapes. Then one day a terrible accident changes everything. Many years later, when Ali is a mother with a daughter of her own, she hears of Jessie’s death and must confront much that is uncomfortable from her past.
The novel has a very realistic feel. Did you rely much on your own experiences for the story?
Kate Ryan: I have always been fascinated – and remember – the intensity of childhood friendships, especially those between girls on the cusp of adolescence. This intensity can almost have the character of a love affair, though no physical attraction may be part of it. I think we can romanticise what it is to be a child, to simplify it too, to forget that the emotions which exist in adults are there in children too – love and hate and fear, for instance – and rivalry between children may run deep. Children are complex beings – and I wanted Jessie and Ali to reflect this. I am interested in the way our childhood best friends are often complementary selves, possessing traits that we would like to have. A best friend’s family, its strangeness and difference, may be part of their allure too.
This preoccupation was sparked again when, eight years ago, on holiday with my partner and three children, I visited Mumbulla Creek Falls near Bega on the south coast of NSW.
I arrived after a meandering drive through the bush into the blue-green mountains. On the path leading to Mumbulla were signs from the Biamanga Aboriginal Board of Management explaining that it was a significant spiritual site. The Board encouraged people to reconsider swimming there. As soon as I saw it, I was struck by the beauty of Mumbulla, and an air of timelessness that seemed palpable. As I sat under a tree watching people swim and slide and jump into the pool, for some reason I felt great anxiety that someone might be injured. As a white person, I also felt considerable responsibility and guilt about the disregard for the wishes of the area’s custodians.
This interplay of emotion eventually led me to imagine two very different 12-year-old girls, Ali and Jessie, swimming at Mumbulla in the 1980s.
Both Jessie and Ali reflect something of me as a child. I was shy and quite anxious, but also an obsessive reader and physically confident and adventurous. I spent most of my spare time with my best friend Michael, usually barefoot, exploring the neighbourhood. We played elaborate games in and around the grounds of a school we lived next door to, climbing trees and onto roofs. Our friendship was competitive (at least from my perspective). I always wanted to prove, as a girl, that I could do things as well or better than Michael, was tougher and braver.
As an adult I have become cautious and I sometimes wonder, as with Ali, what happened to my brave child self. In my own life I was 12 when we moved houses and then my father died when I was 13. Both events signalled the end of my friendship with Michael and that particular feeling of childhood freedom and also brought amorphous fear. I have brought many of these emotions to The Golden Book, both directly and indirectly.
NMB: The story is beautifully constructed, slipping back and forth between the 1980s and the present. It’s a finely crafted book, one that is also a pleasure to read. What was the writing process like?
KR: The writing process has been many layered like the book, years of writing and re-writing! Although the initial idea and first draft came quite quickly, it took a long time to work out how to structure the book and the best order in which to tell it. Each time I went back to a new draft however, I felt I got deeper into my characters and understood them better and was able to deepen particular themes.
NMB: Key events in the book take place around a forbidden watering hole, a sacred Aboriginal site that has signage requesting people not to swim. Was there any comment you wanted to make about non-Indigenous attitudes, or lack thereof, to sacred places?
KR: I wanted Ali and Jessie’s obliviousness to the fact that Mumbulla is a significant site for the Yuin nation to make people think about how often Aboriginal people’s wishes have been overlooked at best, at worst trampled on. I also wanted to show how easy it is for non-Indigenous people to ignore large complex questions of colonisation. In a sense, in a different lesser way, in the battle of their friendship, Jessie and Ali seek to have, and hold onto individual power and this is a microcosm of the larger power structure. I also think that in everyday ways, non-Indigenous people choose not to take in the particular significance of ancient sacred places. Attitudes to climbing Uluru are a clear example of this. Eventually not climbing had to be mandated because people actively ignored the wishes of Uluru’s custodians.
It is not forbidden to swim at Mumbulla but the board of management gently suggests people reconsider doing so. I would understand though if, in the future, much stronger directives were given. I spoke to Glenn Willcox the CEO of Bega Land Council and he said that it is really a matter of respect. Some local Yuin people themselves choose to swim at Mumbulla, but they would like people to have respect for its great significance to their nation and act accordingly.
NMB: The Golden Book has several themes about writing. Ali is participating in writing classes, testing the waters to see if she would like to write. As a child she also keeps a journal of her and Jessie’s daring exploits. Writing is almost presented as a form of therapy, or a way to explore the past and present. What is the importance of writing for you?
KR: Writing is vital to me. It is my way of working out what I think about things and processing my life, my relationships and the world. Most mornings I write three or four pages of stream of consciousness writing in my journal as soon as I wake up, drinking coffee and looking out over our inner-city street and at the sky. Quite often preoccupations and connections will emerge in these jottings that grow into larger pieces of writing, fiction and nonfiction. When I am really immersed in a piece of writing it is a completely intoxicating feeling.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KR: Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ series: The Cost of Living, Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill and Albert and the Whale by Phillip Hoare, an incredible discursive nonfiction book about the artist Albert Durer. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place was intriguing and strange and left me puzzling over the complex intersection of gender and art. I have also just finished the first book of Jimmy Barnes’s autobiography, Working Class Boy, which I picked up in an opshop. I have never been a fan of his music but he is a very good writer and I am amazed at how he emerged as an artist (and survived) the incredible disadvantage he experienced as a child.
The Golden Book, by Kate Ryan. Published by Scribe. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Shortest History of China briskly covers thousands of years of Chinese history. How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?
Linda Jaivin: That’s the million-dollar question - or at least the 3,500-years-of-recorded-history question. My first draft was way too long. That required some tough calls about the most important historical and cultural developments, rulers and rebels, philosophers, battles, technological and scientific innovations, and so on. I was determined to make space for as many of the great women who often get left out of short histories as possible, as well as the talented quirks and non-conformists who have always been part of this diverse nation and have greatly enlivened its civilisation, beginning with the first Daoists. There needed to be a balance between the broad sweep of history and the fine details that make history live, as well as things that just tickle me, like the wild makeup trends of the Tang dynasty and how an uptight Confucian official lost his mind over an emperor welcoming a Buddhist relic into the palace. So not every one of China’s 550+ emperors gets a mention, but I don’t think lists like that are what my readers are looking for anyway.
NMB: What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions Australians have about China?
LJ: That China is a monoculture, with a relatively homogenous population. China is in fact wonderfully diverse. If Australians understood the diversity of China better, we wouldn’t be so quick to believe it when the Communist Party of China claims to speak on every topic for all 1.4 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China. China is a multiverse, big and messy, and full of every kind of person as well as different cultures and subcultures, and all the more fascinating for it.
NMB: The book has an interesting focus on women, from the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi to more contemporary feminists and warriors. Do you have a favourite historical figure who you find inspiring?
LJ: There are several. But while I’m personally committed to non-violence, I can’t help but adore the early feminist and revolutionary Tang Qunying. Born in 1871, the daughter of a Qing dynasty general, she learned martial arts from her dad, who gave her a boy’s education. She became a feminist and revolutionary, studied bomb-making with Russian anarchists, and led an all-female militia in the republican revolution of 1911. When the new National Assembly stepped back from the early commitments of the leaders of the revolution to female suffrage and gender equality, Tang led her women to the parliament, where they kicked the guards to the ground, smashed windows and boxed the ears of the legislators with, as one contemporary report put it, their ‘delicate hands’. January 6 this year notwithstanding, this story still gives me a little thrill every time I think about it. (They still didn’t get equality or the vote, by the way – the men told them it wasn’t yet the right time. Sigh.)
NMB: The Australia-China relationship is currently at a bad moment. How do you think things could be improved?
LJ: By our government understanding the difference between playing domestic politics and being a responsible and effective actor in the international sphere. We may need to be prepared for war but our politicians and public servants need to stop their hairy-chested display about the ‘drums of war’. If you study Chinese history, or even just Confucius, you’ll realise what a serious business words are in China. The government needs to take more advice based on knowledge, less on ideological affinity and to allow that knowledge pool to be built up over the long term through greater, not less, investment in the humanities. But all Australians have a role to play as well, not just in better informing themselves about China generally, but in uniting to combat racism against Chinese-Australians and Chinese in Australia in all its forms, from violent attacks to subtle social exclusion.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Kate Holden’s The Winter Road and Colm McCann’s Apeirogon. I recently scared myself senseless, in the best possible way, reading Andrew McGahan’s last novel The Rich Man’s House. And I am loving, most of all, my long, slow, mindful stroll through John Minford’s masterful translation of the Daoist classic Tao Te Ching.
The Shortest History of China, by Linda Jaivin. Published by Black Inc. $24.99
Photo credit: Elizabeth McCracken
North Melbourne Books: After discovering that his son, the puppet Pinocchio, has been cruelly thrown into the sea, the woodcarver Geppetto desperately tries to find him. He wades out to sea but ends up swallowed whole by a giant fish. Inside the giant fish he discovers a ship, the schooner Maria, and several crates of candles. With the candles slowly running out, he writes his story.
What attracted you to re-writing the story of Pinocchio? Has it always been a favourite?
Edward Carey: I was given a commission to do an exhibition of Pinocchio-themed work by the Collodi foundation for the Parco di Pinocchio in Italy. I read and reread and read the book and I was suddenly struck that Collodi put Geppetto in the sea monster’s belly for two years and says almost nothing about it. I wondered what he would do for all that long time. Geppetto is an artist (he made his son after all) and I began to make the art that I thought he would create in the belly of the shark (it’s a shark in the book). Then it seemed to me - Robinson Crusoe like - it should be his journal as well.
NMB: The Swallowed Man is richly imagined, with lots of strange happenings and curious characters. The section depicting the different women Geppetto has loved during his life is terrific. Where do you find inspiration, or do images and characters come to you naturally?
EC: I sat in the darkness in the corner of our house and tried to think how the old man would sum up his life. I kept thinking that Pinocchio spends much of his book wondering ‘What is a man’ and how he can be one. It seemed to me Geppetto would eventually ask the question ‘Am I still a man’. I tried to imagine his whole life. Collodi - fortunately for me - gives very little information so I felt free to imagine most of it. And to link his life with objects. I’d found small lozenges of wood worn down by the sea, for example, they looked like portrait miniatures and so I painted the loves of Geppetto’s life on the wood.
NMB: The book's story is about the hopeful reunion of a father and son. Do you see the book as having a main theme?
EC: I don’t really think in those terms. But if I had to I suppose I would say, it’s about creating to keep going, it’s about faith, I hope, and resilience, I hope, and family. It could be a portrait of any human in some ways, it just happens to be Geppetto. How do we sum up our lives. How stories - and memories - can keep us going.
NMB: Both your previous novel, Little, based on the life of Madame Tussaud, and The Swallowed Man, deal with the need to create human likenesses in art. From puppets to AI, there's a long history. Is this a subject that preoccupies your thinking much?
EC: If I could paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss, I find dolls and puppets and sculptures good to think with. I carved Madame Tussaud in wood, full size, and this large doll sits at home with us. Pinocchio is perhaps the greatest doll of them all, the wooden toy who longs to be human, I think of him as the patron saint of objects.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
EC: I’ve just finished Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, an amazing memoir. Right now I’m in the last weeks of semester and so there’s not time for much beyond reading student work. But as soon as semester is over I’m going to read The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox and then Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge.
The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $24.99
Photo credit: Karin Locke
North Melbourne Books: Lapsed examines your Catholicism, from devout childhood through to reconstructed adulthood, the journey articulated with an often comic commentary. While the book is playful in tone, there’s a serious struggle that happens throughout as you try to sort out what your Catholic past meant and how it affects you now.
What made you want to write such a book at this time in your life?
Monica Dux: Although I’d stopped believing in God back in my teens, and had long since rejected the Catholic Church, I always felt shadowed by my Catholicism. It was as if being brought up as a Catholic had imprinted something very deeply on my character. When I was researching Lapsed, I often heard people comment that Catholicism is like an ethnicity, or a blood group. Something that’s quite fundamental to your identity – even if you don’t believe a word of it. And that really resonated with me.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. If you ask lapsed Catholics to describe their relationship to their former religion, you rarely get a straightforward answer. There are almost always loads of qualifications, and lingering, ambivalent feelings; feelings that people often struggle to clearly articulate.
It was on a family trip to Rome, when my 6-year-old daughter suddenly declared a desire to be baptised as a Catholic, that I realised just how unresolved my own feelings were. I’d been bringing up my children in a thoroughly secular family, and yet I felt quite confronted by her sudden religiosity, even if it was just a childish whim. My discomfort wasn’t about her wanting to believe in God, but about the Catholic Church itself.
And so I realised that a reckoning with my religious childhood was long overdue. I had a lot of unfinished business with the Church, a lot of anger, and a lot of mixed feelings, so I wanted to figure out exactly what it was all about, and what it means today to be a lapsed/former/recovering/ex Catholic.
NMB: The chapters to do with paedophilia in the church are quite impassioned. Do you see these crimes and their cover-up as making the institution irredeemable, for yourself at least?
MD: Yes, I do. I approached this book with an open heart. I wanted to look at the light and the dark of my Catholic childhood, and weigh it all up, but when I researched Church abuse, the darkness stained all the rest of it, spoiling all the good parts. For me, it became impossible to separate the crimes of the Church from everything else that comes with the Catholic institution. I started to realise how little effort the Church has made to rectify the profound trauma that has been inflicted, and how devastating and unspoken so much of that trauma is – both individually and collectively.
It struck me that all of us who were brought up in the Catholic Church are so closely connected to church abuse, even if we don’t have a personal experience of it. I didn’t want to write a book telling people what to think or believe, but I did want to explain my own journey and how I came to my conclusions. I think that, uncomfortable as it is, it’s important for lapsed Catholics to examine their relationship to their former religion in light of the Church’s history and response to child sexual abuse. Because it’s not enough, to simply pretend that it isn’t relevant to you, just because you’ve stopped going to mass.
NMB: Your close relationship with your brother Matt is lovely to read about. He came out as gay at about the same time you were claiming your own sexual independence. How much did the relationship help you when growing up?
MD: My brother was such a wonderful companion when I was a child. We used to sing at the piano together as kids, and I think those moments were among the happiest of my childhood.
He is a year older than me, and I completely adored him when we were growing up. And when it came to our relationship to the Church, we were both on a similar journey. Catholic ideas about sex and sexuality are especially constrictive, and we both felt that quite keenly, in our different ways.
I was very lucky to have his support while I was working on Lapsed. We share a lot of memories, but he was very clear in allowing me to own mine, to write my book, even though so much of it intersected with his life. Which isn’t an easy thing to do, when you’ve got your own story to tell.
NMB: There’s a hilarious episode in the book where you decide to scandalise your school. For a health presentation you dress up as a condom to instruct on the importance of safe-sex. Has the same trouble-making ethic followed you through life?
MD: My son thinks I am very embarrassing and that I am a habitual line crosser, doing extreme, provocative things, and advocating openness about matters of sex, in a way that horrifies a teenager, at least when it’s coming from his mum! So if you asked him, I’m sure he’d agree that the condom dress-up was an early manifestation of that.
You have to be prepared to be a bit of a trouble-maker if you want to write the kind of non-fiction that I’m attempting. Pulling punches, shying away from difficult subjects because you are scared of how it will be received, trying to sugar coat difficult ideas, none of that makes for good, honest writing.
It isn’t easy, of course. I spent a lot of time while I was writing this book, thinking about my responsibility as a writer, versus my fear of upsetting people. It can be a high wire act.
On many occasions I’ve woken in the middle of the night thinking, “oh dear, what have I done!”…but it’s too late to take it back now!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
MD: I recently finished Hamnet, which I loved. Such a gentle, graceful rumination on grief. I adored the way Maggie O’Farrell has re-imagined Anne Hathaway. My last few years have been so consumed with reading about Church history, and theology and Jesus (occasionally very dry, but usually a lot of fun), it’s often felt like there wasn’t much time for anything else. But now I’m heading into a complete Jesus-Free zone. I’m especially looking forward to reading Kazuo Ishuguro’s Klara and the Sun, and Emily Maguire’s latest novel Love Objects.
Lapsed, by Monica Dux. Published by ABC Books. $34.99
Release date 7th April
Photo credit: LJM Photography
North Melbourne Books: It’s 1960, rural Victoria. Eleven-year-old Joy Henderson lives a nightmare existence, trying to avoid her father’s wrath. George Henderson is a pillar of the community, but at home he abuses his wife and children. When local girl nine-year-old Wendy Boscombe goes missing, the police come to the Henderson house to do a routine questioning. The answer to what happened to Wendy is a story that will grip the reader from the first page to the very last.
The Silent Listener is an accomplished debut, with a superbly organised plot that never flags. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Lyn Yeowart: Several years ago, I was writing short pieces to help me process my father’s legacy, and thought they could perhaps be cobbled together into a novel. It didn’t take me long to realise that the story of my life was not exactly compelling (!), but that I could keep readers turning the page by weaving in some fiction. So I’m delighted to report, and I hope readers are relieved to hear, that there was no Wendy in my childhood who disappeared, although I distinctly remember news reports of a child who went missing in Australia when I was just nine, and it chilled me to the bone.
Interestingly, Wendy was never even going to be in the novel until Joy was eyeing off her father’s tool chest and realised that it was big enough to hold a body. Specifically, a child’s body. And that’s how Wendy was born—or to be precise, killed off before she was born!
NMB: The story moves between the 1940s, 1960s & 1980s and offers a bleak portrait of farming life in rural Victoria. The descriptions are particularly realistic - of the dinginess, poverty, money worries and general meanness of life. How did you go about creating such a menacing atmosphere?
LY: The seed of the novel was my own childhood, and indeed, the farm in the book is essentially the farm I grew up on, from the dam and the rubbish tank, right down to the wall-hanging above the kitchen table and the eel stews. In some respects, my childhood was set in what you’ve referred to as a menacing atmosphere, so unfortunately a great deal of it came to me all too easily. This meant that while I was writing most of the descriptions—visual and emotional—all I had to do was hark back to my childhood, but in some scenes, I’ve ‘upped the ante’ quite a bit. Having said that, I want to add that there are other scenes that I wound back, because fellow writers felt those scenes were not believable…even though they were entirely true.
Certainly, times were hard for many farming families I knew, all of whom were at the mercy of the land and weather, as well as government policies, milk prices, and the expectations of the community and its institutions, including the church. I knew children from families who suffered from extreme poverty and hardship, so I often pictured them and imagined their emotions while I was writing, so that I could deliver readers an authentic, if vicarious, experience of what it was like to live such a bleak, poverty-stricken existence.
NMB: One of the central themes of The Silent Listener is the abuse of children, their helplessness and inability to speak for themselves. Do you hope the book may provide some catharsis for anyone who feels their childhood was denied peace and security?
LY: Even though the book has been out for just four weeks, I have been equally surprised and saddened by how many people (strangers, acquaintances and friends) have rung, messaged, emailed, or spoken through a Zoom screen or across a café table, to tell me they experienced a similar childhood. Many have said that reading The Silent Listener has made them feel okay about the tangled and distraught emotions they struggle with, and they’re relieved to talk to someone who ‘gets it’. And while the specifics of our stories might all be different, what we seem to have in common is that we were ashamed of what happened to us (as if we were the guilty party) and consequently find it difficult to speak about it to others because of the perceived indignity and humiliation. Many people have never told their partners, children or friends what happened to them, and possibly never will.
We’ve also talked about the long-term ramifications of abuse, and agree that while flesh wounds can mend and scars can fade, the psychological and emotional trauma stays for decades. So, yes, I dare to hope that reading The Silent Listener provides catharsis for one, some, or many survivors of childhood abuse. In even braver moments, I hope that it compels others to think and talk about why and how we need to make sure that no child is ever denied peace, security and love, and that those discussions take place not only in families, workplaces and social institutions like schools and churches, but also in governments.
NMB: Who are the crime writers that really inspire you? Are there any that particularly helped you in writing The Silent Listener?
LY: I enjoy relaxing with a good cosy murder, so Agatha Christie’s at the top of the list, with Arthur Conan Doyle coming a close second. Sorry I don’t have anything more original, intellectual, or obscure (!), but I admire how both of these writers created worlds and characters that ingeniously deceive and intrigue readers, so that solving the crime is impossible…until you know the truth of course, at which point, it’s clear that we too could have solved the crime if only we had, to use Poirot’s words, “the little grey cells” of the inimitable detective character. Plus, of course, their work is timeless because it examines humanity closely and ruthlessly, which I believe is an essential element of good fiction. Some of the contemporary crime writers who I admire for their tenacity, productivity, originality and/or ingenuity include Emma Viskic, Christian White, RWR McDonald, and Kirsten Alexander. And there are a few recent releases waiting patiently on my TBR pile.
I’m also a huge fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca because of how she specifically uses language to irretrievably lead the reader down the proverbial garden path, only to abruptly disassemble your notions, compelling you to go back and re-read certain lines and conversations. That’s something I tried to do in The Silent Listener, and I would like to think that readers, once they know the various truths of the Henderson family, go back and re-read certain lines and conversations and say, “Aha…I see what she did there!”
When I completed the University of Melbourne’s Masters in Creative Writing some years ago, Arnold Zable and Tony Birch were two of my lecturers who were highly complimentary of my writing, giving me a huge confidence boost.
More recently, JP Pomare has been absolutely great since we met in a writing workshop a few years ago. He read early extracts, was very positive about the book’s potential, talked to me about the editing process he’d gone through with his first book, and suggested a plot change that helped me take the novel to a new level.
I workshopped many extracts of The Silent Listener with people in writing groups I belong to, and am forever indebted to them for their invaluable feedback, along with their moral and sometimes practical support and friendship.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
LY: As I’m in the very early throes of the next novel, I’m deliberately steering away from reading fiction until the cement of this one is poured and set. So I’m reading books about writing, and am halfway through James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which I first read about ten years ago. I’m also reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History because I enjoyed his Utopia for Realists (he presents complex societal issues in an extremely straightforward and interesting way), and am dipping in and out of Growing Up Disabled In Australia, edited by the wonderful Carly Findlay.
My treat tonight is reading a draft of a short story written by JP Pomare, which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, unless it has the same themes or setting as my next novel, in which case, I’ll be cursing him for breaking my self-imposed “no fiction” decree!
Mind you, taking a break from reading fiction doesn't mean I’ve stopped buying fiction, so the aforementioned TBR pile is teetering dangerously, thanks to talented Australian authors who have released stunning works over the last few months. I’m champing at the bit…but resisting temptation.
The Silent Listener, by Lyn Yeowart. Published by Viking. $32.99
Photo credit: Susan Gordon-Brown
North Melbourne Books: For two years you and your wife, Lynne, circled Melbourne's inner suburbs on foot, from working class Yarraville to posh South Yarra, researching the many weird and wonderful places you visited. Many of the buildings you write about – The ETA Peanut Butter Factory, famed for its modernist architecture and the Maribrynong bomb factory – are not that widely known. Was there anything that particularly surprised you and Lynne about inner Melbourne?
Nick Gadd: One thing that surprised us was how short memories can be. For example, Yarraville had the scandal of the ‘sinking village’ in the 1970s, when a housing estate was built on top of a quarry filled with sludge, and all the houses collapsed. We wondered, how could the quarry have been so quickly forgotten? And now the story of the sinking village itself is little known. Things that were part of daily life for many years are now gone as if they had never existed - like the Sands & McDougall street directories, amazing repositories of information that were published every year in Melbourne for more than a century. Who remembers them now? One reason I wrote the book is to recover some old stories and bring them back to light. One particularly surprising story we uncovered is that in the 1930s there was a race track in the western suburbs where monkeys rode greyhounds and people bet on the results. You can find that story, and photographs of the monkey jockeys, in Melbourne Circle.
NMB: Lynne passed away in 2018 and Melbourne Circle is very much a love letter and remembrance of her. Was Lynne the primary inspiration for the book?
NG: For Lynne and me, walking was a big part of our relationship. It was how we connected, how we fell in love, and something we continued doing for as long as we could. When we went walking together we were usually looking for things that had been lost and traces of the past - quirky old buildings, ghost signs, derelict factories and the like. The themes that interested me as a writer were change, loss, and renewal. When Lynne became sick and died of cancer in 2018, the experience of personal loss struck me in a terrible, almost overwhelming way. I found that writing the book helped me to deal with the grief, by remembering and recording our relationship and the ways that it was intimately connected with place. So Lynne, and my relationship with her, did inspire the book, but the themes it deals with go beyond us two - in fact they are universal.
NMB: Melbourne Circle is beautifully illustrated and presented, with plenty of terrific pictures. Did you and Lynne take most of the photos?
NG: I took the photos, though Lynne spotted many of the things I photographed. I also drew the maps. I’m glad you liked the presentation of the book - my publisher, Nick Walker of Australian Scholarly Publishing, was determined to do a nice job of the production, which meant printing in colour. I’m thrilled with the result.
NMB: Living in a car culture, our suburbs are not designed so much for walking. What do you think is the best thing about walking and what joys has it brought you?
NG: There are two clear benefits - one is that you can go more slowly: stroll, meander, and take time to look at the things that we normally ignore. The Situationists used the French word ‘derive’, which means ‘drift’, for this way of proceeding through a city. One approach I recommend is to raise your eyes above the ground level - you will often spot an old sign, a name, or a strange little feature higher up that can send you back into the past, or off on some imaginative journey. The other advantage is that you can wander down laneways, duck around the back of buildings, or inside them, and investigate places where cars can’t go. When you do, you will often stumble across something intriguing. “A walk is only a step away from a story” Robert Macfarlane writes, and walking is a great source of inspiration for writers. If you have writer’s block, just go for a walk!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
NG: Talking of Robert Macfarlane, I am immersed in Underland - his wonderful investigation of what can be found underneath mountains, oceans and glaciers. I’ve also been thrilled by a collection of essays on art by the late John Berger, Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible.
Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss. Published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. $29.99