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The Teal Revolution describes how six independent female candidates took on safe Liberal Party seats and won, campaigning on issues such as climate change and integrity in politics. Your book includes interviews with key players and on the ground reporting. How did you come to cover this story and what interested you about it?
I am a journalist with Crikey and I started reporting on the teals as soon as they started appearing in late 2021. I was really interested in them because they were a type of political candidate I had rarely encountered before - seriously impressive women with no background in mainstream politics. I was intrigued by them and wanted to know more.
The Liberal Party ran a lacklustre campaign in these highly contested seats, despite their money, resources and institutional knowledge. Your book also suggests that leaders such as Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison sowed the seeds of their party's downfall by being so polarising and responding poorly to allegations of sexual assault within parliament. Even with all the above, were you surprised by the scale of defeat?
Yes, I was! I thought that maybe two or three would squeak over the line so all six of them winning was a complete surprise. You could tell from the reactions of the people on the election panels on the night that they were all a bit shocked. If you weren't on the ground during the campaigns it was really hard to predict what would happen. I spent a lot of time in Wentworth so I did think that Allegra had a very good chance of winning.
Do you see the teal revolution as a blip on the political landscape or has it changed elections forever?
It's probably too soon to tell. I would like to think that it has permanently changed the electoral landscape but we probably won't know until the next federal election.
The book raises interesting questions about poverty and democratic access. The teal challengers were educated, professionally elite and well connected. They won in wealthy conservative seats. You quote teal campaign strategist Kos Samaris as saying, “These campaigns could not be run in working-class communities...They lack time and money, and certain skill sets.” Do you think this is true?
I'm only a journalist so I defer to Kos on this question. When he was Labor's Victorian Deputy Campaign Director he won 19 elections, so I assume he knows what he's talking about:) I did come to realise that very few people can afford to give up their jobs for 6-9 months to run for parliament, unpaid, with no certainty of winning. I certainly couldn't! Only a candidate with plenty of resources would be able to run.
What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I'm reading Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens' Quarterly Essay, Uncivil Wars, How Contempt is Corroding Democracy, which is really interesting. Last week I picked up a copy of How to be You, Simone de Beauvoir and the Art of Authentic Living, by Skye Cleary, which I'm enjoying. I love David Sedaris and have his new book Happy-Go-Lucky. Apart from those, I'm getting back into cooking and relishing making meals from the new cookbook from Nagi Maehashi, Recipe Tin Eats Dinner. Her slow-cooked beef ribs with gochujang is sensational.
The Teal Revolution: Inside the Movement Changing Australian Politics, by Margot Saville. Published by Hardie Grant Books. $24.99
Hard Labour not only exposes widespread employee underpayment by some of Australia's biggest names in business, but also the story of how workers' rights and wages have been eroded over the last forty years. Today's underpayment scandals seem to have been a long time in the making. What surprised you most in your research?
I really started working and researching in this area in 2015 focusing at first on temporary migrant workers and on pay deals involving supermarket and fast food workers. What surprised me over time was the depth of the problem as I assumed, at first, this would likely be an issue just on the margins of the labour market.
Instead it was across hospitality, retail, the franchising sector; it was basically endemic. By 2019, 2020, some of the biggest names in corporate Australia were “self disclosing” they had underpaid their workers including hugely profitable banks, even the ABC. By that stage the business press and lobby groups claimed this was because the system was too complex. It was an almost desperate argument. If complexity was the main issue you’d expect to see a corresponding problem of people being overpaid. That, of course, was barely happening.
The most telling example of how widespread this problem was is that we started to see proposals and laws to criminalise wage theft (as has occurred in Victoria and Queensland). Even the Morrison government proposed it (although it was never legislated). It was unimaginable in 2015 there would be laws such as this in Australia by the end of the decade.
Your book shows how shareholder capitalism has demanded ever bigger returns, continuing to strangle wages. With so much of our money invested in super funds, have we all been somehow complicit?
I don’t think complicit is the way I’d describe this. Superannuation is of course compulsory and as a fund member you have extremely limited ability to influence the operations of the fund, what it invests in. I remember hearing after the catastrophic 2019/20 bushfires that many people wrote to their funds asking that they divest from all resources companies or give them an option to do so. Even many “ethical” fund options still had exposure to mining companies with coal as part of their portfolios. It’s a problem inherent to the superannuation system as it was set up in the 1990s.
When the primary goal of superannuation is to maximise returns we are going to see this as an ongoing tension between issues such as workers rights and the environment and investment returns. To change this would require a significant shift in how superannuation operates in Australia; it requires a systemic response.
We learn that both Labor and Liberal governments have followed the same policy script, implementing neo-liberal economic ideas that were taking hold around the world during the 1980s. Why did Labor, the traditional party of the worker, follow this path? Did they have a choice, or were global economic forces unstoppable?
It is an important question. Was there an alternative approach? There were debates among the unions and Left in the 1980s on this, with some wanting Australia to transition to a more interventionist Scandinavian-style economy. An important policy document to that end called Australia Reconstructed, was produced in the 1980s.
That approach did not win out. Instead we got what I’d describe as a muted form of neoliberalism. Much like the countries we compare ourselves too, the US and United Kingdom, we experienced privatisations, economic liberalisation and a reduction in union influence and over time significant increases in inequality.
But in Australia we also got a ‘social wage’ of Medicare, superannuation and the like. It was a more contradictory process than what occurred under Thatcher and Reagan or even in New Zealand.
It is always worth noting that when Hawke took power in 1983, Australia was in an economic crisis of high unemployment and high inflation. The model of Australia in the 20th century was falling apart, something needed to change. Did it have to be the Hawke/Keating model as it was implemented? No. But some sort of significant change was both needed and inevitable.
What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
For my sins, I’m deep in a phase of reading about organised labour. I just read Sam Wallman’s Our Members Be Unlimited, a terrific book about the history and possibilities of collectivism and struggle. I’ve just started the late Stuart Macintyre’s The Party which I can't wait to get into. The Communist Party, despite its controversies and small size in Australia, had an outsized and under-recognised influence on labour politics and social movements in the post war years. I’ve also got to get to The Story of Work by Jan Lucansen which is staring at me from my bedside table. I also recently read Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru, an important book on frontier violence deep into the 20th century. I’d strongly recommend it.
Hard Labour: Wage Theft in the Age of Inequality, by Ben Schneiders. Scribe Publications. $32.99
Release date 18th October
First published at Books + Publishing. Author photography by Alana Holmberg
This Devastating Fever has an original, even unusual design: part autofiction, part travelogue, part Bloomsbury history. How did you decide on the style and format?
It took a lot of years to find the right shape for this novel. I never explicitly set out to achieve any particular design but I certainly realised (after a few years and drafts) that it wasn’t going to work as a traditional novel so I leant into the fracturing that seemed to be occurring—something I’ve been doing with my nonfiction as well. These fractures, and connections, seemed to be falling along the fault lines of fact and fiction, life and death, the past and the present.
I also thought it was important to acknowledge some of the difficulties with writing ‘historical’ fiction. How do you write the story of two people, people like Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who have been so thoroughly documented? How do you allow yourself to play around in the way you have to to make a book work without losing your nerve? How do you write fiction rather than get bogged down in ‘facts’? I’d also say that one of the games I play in this novel is with the idea of autofiction. While Alice might have some things in common with me, she very definitely was not me. I’m not married to a librarian, I did not lose a loved one to Covid, and I don’t talk to ghosts—just for starters.
The research in your novel is superb. It’s a smorgasbord of quotes, footnotes and lists, all woven into a page-turning narrative. How much work did you have to put in to get everything right?
Well, it took about 16 years to get it half right, and then almost no time at all to pull it altogether. Finally, in the last draft, which only took a few weeks, it did just go: click! But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been mucking around and getting it wrong for all the years beforehand. Basically I (finally) stopped trying so hard and I stopped worrying about the rules for these things. I leant into the weirdness. And one of the things I had to do was let go of the research being the driving force. The narrative was drowning in research in earlier versions, and that made the writing stiff. That said, the research was endlessly fascinating. Delicious even. I had to share the joy (and pain) of some of the things I discovered with my readers. Thus the footnotes. I also wanted to indicate how hard it can be for a writer to stay on topic. I think there is a lot of emphasis on smoothing over the cracks in novels but to my mind the cracks can be the most interesting bits.
Today we think of Virginia Woolf as an acutely literary writer, read by aficionados and fans. How popular a figure—if it can be put like that—was she in her day?
It took her career a while to find momentum, but she started to become considered a writer of some significance in the 1920s and by the time she died in the early 1940s was being widely read. The Years, published in 1937, was the most popular of her novels during her lifetime, but the novels published in the 20s, such as Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Orlando, are more widely known and read today. She, and her husband Leonard, were also extremely well regarded as publishers—they started and ran Hogarth Press, which published many major writers of the day.
The sections that deal with Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s marriage are very moving and intimate, showing the couple’s vulnerability. Did you find yourself becoming emotionally involved during the research and writing? What effect did it have on you?
Oh of course—I could only have persisted with This Devastating Fever if that had been the case. In fact I think a person can only write any novel if they become emotionally involved with their characters. I had read so many books and articles which made various pronouncements about Virginia and Leonard but they often felt abstract and not totally convincing to me. One of these was the discussion of Virginia as a ‘lesbian’ which is a word that doesn’t accurately capture, to my mind, the complexities of Virginia’s sexuality.
As well, being a carer, as Leonard Woolf was for much of his relationship with Virginia, would have been extremely demanding. Of course he didn’t always get it right. Who does in these situations? As well there has been a lot of focus on what the Woolfs did or didn’t do in bed with each other, which struck me as an extremely limited way to understand love and relationships. I was keen to engage with these issues but also to put then into a broader perspective—the perspective of interesting lives, well-lived.
Fans of the Bloomsbury Group will find much to enjoy in This Devastating Fever. Following the group’s crisscrossing sexualities—gay, straight, bisexual and quite a few unknowns—is a dizzying experience in itself. How was it that such an unconventional group found acceptance? Are they in some ways more liberated than us in 2022?
I was interested in the idea that no one really knows what happens between a couple in the course of a long-term relationship. I certainly think there was a broader public understanding back then, that while marriage as an institution is the norm, what happens within marriages tends to be incredibly variable—both between different couples but also over the lifetime of a relationship. That said, loyalty was deeply valued even if fidelity was not. (Though fidelity was important to Virginia and Leonard.) These days romantic love is valorised in a way that deep friendship is not. People don’t need to be married, or even have much sex, to have an intensely intimate and at times physical bond. (I’m thinking here of Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, Virginia Woolf and Vita-Sackville-West, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.) Perhaps it was useful that sex and love were separated for many members of the Bloomsbury Group? Perhaps it made these negotiations easier to manage?
Gender presentation was particularly fluid in the 1920s I would argue—something that Virginia captures beautifully in Orlando. That said, homosexuality for men was illegal until 1967 and gay men like Lytton Strachey took very serious risks by being relatively indiscreet on these matters. E M Forster on the other hand was discreet but gave up writing novels because he found the double-think of writing heterosexual romantic plot lines fairly soul-destroying. Another comment I’d make is that while we talk about how broad-minded the Bloomsbury set were it was still considered quite shocking when books such as Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey were published in 1967–1968 that had many ‘revelations’ regarding Strachey’s sex life. Leonard Woolf himself was no prude, but he too was shocked that these matters were finding their way into the public domain. That is, there was a very clear line between private and public lives. That line is less clear today, I think. Which is probably a good thing.
This Devastating Fever, by Sophie Cunningham. Published by Ultimo Press. $32.99
Author photo credit: Michelle Danno
North Melbourne Books: Growing up on a rural cattle farm, nine-year-old Parker Davis is having a bad time. He fights with his mother and under the malign influence of his cousin, Ruben, does something terrible to a local boy. The act remains a secret, but the guilt never goes away. Many years later all these unresolved feelings dramatically come to the fore on a camping trip with his teenage school friends.
Denizen is a brilliant debut, with totally believable characters and a nail-biting suspense that never flags. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
James McKenzie Watson: Thank you so much! When I was a teenager, my medium of choice was filmmaking, and I enlisted (read: forced) my family and friends into starring in feature length films whose epic productions are why my high school attendance was 40%. A lot of my early manuscripts were based on these films.
Denizen has its earliest origins in a movie I made when I was 15 called The Creek, about a group of teenagers whose camping expedition to a dry creek bed goes horribly wrong. However, once I started writing it, it quite organically evolved into something different – an exploration of the unique forms mental illness can take in the bush, and the singularly terrible outcomes this can lead to. I grew up in regional NSW and struggled a lot with mental ill health as a teenager – writing Denizen was an incredibly cathartic way of exploring my feelings about that time.
NMB: The story moves back and forth between childhood and young adulthood, offering an often bleak portrait of life in rural New South Wales. How did you go about creating such an atmosphere?
JMW: The honest answer is that that bleak atmosphere is what I remember pervading the bush throughout my own adolescence. I tried to make the landscape almost a character in Denizen because that’s how I remember feeling as I was growing up – that the land was a vast and powerful entity, ruggedly beautiful, but utterly indifferent to the people living on it. I think most country Australians are familiar with the ways in which this can manifest – drought, fire and flood, but also mental illness. The isolation of the bush can be hypnotic, almost possessive. I tried to instil that sense of indifferent omnipotence into the book, and in doing so, took a lot of inspiration from the way authors like Cormac McCarthy and David Vann do this for the remote and rural United States.
NMB: Denizen deals with a lot of timely themes, especially mental health issues in rural Australia. Was there a conscious effort to try and address some of these issues?
JMW: Not in the early drafts. Back then, it was just me writing what I knew, what interested me and what I felt I had things to say about – which turned out to be mental health issues in rural Australia! I’m a passionate believer in the idea that you don’t know what you’re writing about until you finish a draft and that was definitely the case here. It was only once I had a first draft that I realised it was a story about mental illness in rural Australia and that I could more robustly weave those elements through it.
NMB: Who are the crime writers that really inspire you? Are there any that particularly helped you in writing Denizen?
JMW: I actually don't at all think of myself as a crime writer or Denizen as a crime novel. In fact, I think I'm especially poorly read when it comes to crime – it's something I need to work on! The writers and books that inspired Denizen tended to be dark, gothic thrillers that turned on high emotion, taboo and morality – authors like the previously mentioned Cormac McCarthy (whose novel Child of God was a huge influence on Denizen) and David Vann (Dirt, Goat Mountain). I also found reading astutely introspective, emotionally insightful authors like Karl Ove Knausgard and Helen Garner incredibly helpful in writing Denizen’s internal drama.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
JMW: I recently finished Yumna Kasaab’s Australiana, which I absolutely loved. I was, of course, drawn to it because of its subject matter – Kasaab explores rural Australia in bold and unusual ways, bending form and expectation as she does. I especially loved a dark and brilliant section set in the Pilliga forest, an expanse of bush very near where I grew up, in which Yumna does to regional NSW what The Blair Witch Project did to Maryland, USA. I’m about to start Hayley Scrivenor’s Dirt Town. The buzz this novel has had is unbelievable and I can’t wait to get into it! I’m so excited by the fact that so many brilliant writers are currently tackling rural Australia in their fiction.
Denizen, by James McKenzie Watson. Published by Viking. $32.99
Author photo: Cadance Bell
North Melbourne Books: Your memoir describes the joys of an Australian childhood, growing up in the New South Wales town of Mudgee, but also the trauma of carrying a secret about your gender. There's a dramatic moment in The All of It where you decide to write your story, to set the record straight. How did your memoir grow from that moment and take its current form?
Cadance Bell: Contemplating my life as a story helped me get through tough times - which is perhaps something a lot of people do, whether they realise it or not. We all have our own internal narrative; memory is the checksum of the self.
It’s especially common for trans people to depersonalise their bodies and sometimes to dissociate. It’s a coping mechanism when your body feels wrong. There’s a moment in an early episode of the hit HBO show Euphoria when the trans protagonist is going through something awful and the narrator says “fuck it; save it for the memoir”. I had to turn the show off at that point and come back to it the next day, because it not only reflected my experience, I was writing my memoir at the time.
Storying your life as you go can be pathologised a lot, seen as unhealthy, though I think there’s a power in owning your story and being conscious of it. We are more than our bodies, and storytelling is our oldest tool - whether used in marketing or all the world’s religions, we rely on it to make sense of our place in the world.
NMB: At one particularly low point in your life you imagined a sympathetic readership to hear your story, to even become an ally. Has writing your memoir been the cathartic experience you had hoped for?
CB: Going into the memoir, I was careful not to try to seek catharsis. I deliberately didn’t want to write a stream of consciousness memoir, or something which gets out grudges or forces a viewpoint. The first draft was twice its final length, and a lot of the stuff which got left out was cathartic, but didn’t carry its weight. Or it stroked my ego too much, or it felt like self-justification.
The catharsis did come out of the surreal experiences which occurred while writing the memoir. The last few chapters were written in more or less real-time, capturing my life as I was living it. Given how huge those events were for me, I hope the reader finds as much love in them as I did.
NMB: There's plenty of great dialogue, characters and incidents in The All of It. While being a memoir about your experiences of gender dysphoria, it's also a rollicking story of growing up Australian. Did you keep a diary growing up? How did you remember so much detail and capture dialogue so authentically?
CB: I never did keep a diary, but I should have. I’m loosely keeping one now for a future project. Some of the dialogue wrote itself because of the quirky, bogan characters in my life. My Mum is a hoot! She has a silo of quips and opinions that she fires off at the regular like star knives. She’s like a machine gun with lips.
Other events were so imprinted onto me that they were hard to forget, though even then - there is a degree of artistic licence at play. Not to invent dialogue to suit the story so much as to capture the emotion of a scene. Conversation in real life can be rambling and stuttered and disconnected, and there are a few scenes I’ve deliberately stuck with that, when it suits the character or situation. But more often than not it was about summarising the emotionality of a moment, while making sure that the key dialogue which defined that interaction was spot on.
The most difficult stuff was in the court trial in the middle of the book. That was the most traumatic time of my life, and so I relied on a nearly three inch folder of notes and documents I’d kept from the time, because re-accessing it was difficult. My publisher then had it all checked over by others who were there at the time, because it was so important to get it right.
NMB: What is your advice to people - young or old - struggling with their gender identity or sexuality?
You know better than anyone else who you are, and there is nothing more powerful than that which knows what it is. It can be terrifying to embrace ourselves, because we’re conditioned to be a certain way. But fuck all that noise, because you’re dying. The each of us, is dying. Moment by moment entropy is snatching existence away from us - so make the most of yours.
CB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I just finished Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto, which I utterly, utterly adored! I also recently read my senpai Bill Bennett’s upcoming book - The Golden Bridge (keep an eye out for it next year, it’s a cracker). Right now I’m reading my friend Omar Sakr’s Son of Sin, and really loving what his poet’s mind is bringing to the novel form.
The All of It: A Bogan Rhapsody, by Cadance Bell. Published by Viking. $34.99
North Melbourne Books: The Natural History of Love recounts an extraordinary story. Set in Brazil, France and Melbourne, it tells the story of a passionate yet complicated love affair between a teenage Carolina Fonçeca and a middle-aged French naturalist, François, the Count de Castelnau. Amazingly, the novel is based on real events and real people. How did you discover this story and what inspired you to turn it into fiction?
Caroline Petit: My novel The Natural History of Love tells the nineteenth century story of Brazilian Carolina D’Araujo Fonçeca and her French lover, the Count de Castelnau. I found their story while touring their about-to-be demolished country house Mayfield in Mordialloc to make way for a concrete plant.
During the tour everyone talked about the Count de Castelnau’s fascinating career. He was a naturalist, explorer and diplomat; but it was Carolina Fonçeca’s role in François’s story that fascinated me. Many dismissed her because she was only his mistress, his paramour. But she was so much more than this because she stayed with François as they travelled the world together from the wilds of Brazil to the salons of Paris under Napoleon III’s Second Empire to the early settlement of Melbourne and she bore him two sons, Charles and Edward.
Carolina like so many other women was written out of history and left no written record. I wanted to give her a voice.
NMB: François and Carolina have two children, Charles and Edward. There is a complicating factor, however, in that François is already married. He applies to the Catholic Church to have the marriage annulled, but is unsuccessful. This has huge implications for the legal and social status of not only Carolina, but her children. How far reaching was the Catholic Church’s power in controlling the fate of women and children?
CP: In the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament and a blessing. You couldn’t break the sacrament of marriage. And because Brazil and France were both Catholic countries, these countries followed the teachings of the Church and passed laws making divorce illegal. If an unmarried couple had children, the children were illegitimate and were stigmatised. They were considered to have a defect because their parents had committed an immoral act. In law in Australia, such a child was nullius filius, the son of nobody.
NMB: It’s interesting how François and Carolina end up settling in Melbourne. We think of Melbourne in the 19th century as being predominantly white Anglo-Saxon, but was it more cosmopolitan than that?
CP: During the gold rush years of the 1850s people came from all over the world to Melbourne to make their fortunes including the Chinese, Germans, Americans and other Europeans. There was a very small French community too. In part, I wrote The Natural History of Love because I wanted to write an Australian story. And it is an Australian story because unless we are Indigenous, we all came from somewhere else and found a home here in Melbourne just as my characters did.
NMB: The story is vividly told with a great eye to detail. How much research did you do for the novel?
CP: The easy answer is a lot. I discovered fragments of my characters’ lives in the dusty legal files of Blake & Riggall kept in the library archives of the University of Melbourne. For example, how they lived in adjoining terrace houses in East Melbourne—one was the French Consulate and François’s residence; the other was Carolina’s and her sons. The houses were connected by a secret interior door. I metaphorically opened that secret door and parted the curtain of time by researching what it was like to live in colonial Brazil, Napoleon III’s Second Empire and the settlement of early Melbourne at the State Library. I also was lucky enough to go to Paris and read original correspondence about the Count held in the library of the Natural History Museum there.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
The Serpent’s Skin by Erina Reddan
The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II by Judith Mackrell
The Natural History of Love, by Caroline Petit. Published by Affirm Press. $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Alice is a regular swimmer at an underground pool. The pool is a broad church, welcoming all sorts of different personalities. Once in the water, worries and anxieties melt away. So does above ground status; everyone becomes equal. But these are Alice's last days of swimming. She has dementia and is losing her way in the world. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Julie Otsuka: A broad church, I love that. About fifteen years ago I sketched out a few loose paragraphs describing a community pool and the regulars who swam there. People who not only loved to swim, but lived to swim. There’s something intriguing to me about fanaticism, obsession, the life of the body. I was also interested in the anonymity of the pool. On dry land, someone might be an astrophysicist, a janitor, a diplomat, a cook - you don’t know. In the water, all you know about a person is “which lane?” Fast, medium or slow?
At a certain point, I got the idea for a character who was beginning to succumb to dementia. The other people at the pool are watching out for her. They’ve known her for years, they’ve seen her in her prime. We see this character only peripherally in the pool chapters—she’s one of many—and then, in the second half, we suddenly zoom in on her and watch the end of her life unfold. For many readers, this sudden ‘swerve’ is a bit of a shock, but that was intentional. I wanted it to be a bit of a surprise, which, I now realise, I’ve just given away.
NMB: The first two chapters concentrate on life at the pool. The descriptions are very authentic and any regular swimmer will recognise themselves in these pages of the story - the devotion to routine and the calming effects of the water. Are these sections of the book written from personal experience?
JO: I grew up in Southern California, very close to the beach, where I spent a lot of time in summer. So I’ve always felt very at home in the water. Years later, when I moved to New York City, I began swimming recreationally at a nearby pool, which was a very different experience of being in the water. Lane lines, chlorine, no waves, limited hours. Lots of rules. But I loved it, and found lap swimming a very calming, meditative experience.
I was also fascinated by the whole pool culture: the rules, spoken and unspoken, the regulars, their oddities and quirks, their maniacal devotion to the act of swimming. For some people, it’s almost an addiction. If they don’t get in their daily swim, it’s as if the earth has spun off its axis. Also, the locker room scene greatly interested me. It’s one of the few gendered spaces that exist in ‘real life.’ People have these really intimate conversations there about their health or their marriage or whatever in a state of semi or full undress, as if this were totally normal!
What I also found touching was how people looked out for each other. If someone hadn’t been around for a couple of weeks, inquiries were made. Have you seen so and so? Is she ok?
NMB: The style of The Swimmers is often quite surreal and quirky. There is plenty of humour, too. And yet the book is about grief. How did you come to write the book in such an unusual manner?
JO: I think humour and grief are flip sides of the same coin. Humour helps us cope with the things that are most difficult in life. Lessens the blow, somehow. It’s also very much a part of my own natural sensibility, which may surprise people, as my first two novels are serious works of historical fiction. Those novels, too, though, are laced through with humour, but the humour’s much quieter. With Swimmers, I didn’t make such a conscious effort to keep the humour in check.
Much of what I describe in Swimmers—a mysterious crack, a somewhat malign care home—is just inherently surreal. So all I had to do was describe things as they are.
NMB: Despite the sadness of Alice's decline, the story is very celebratory of her life. What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
JO: I hope I’ve communicated the sheer joy of being in the water and the power of community, as well as the pain of watching a parent slowly descend into dementia. Alice has led a full and rich life, and, in many ways, with the exception of her childhood during the war, a very ordinary life. And I wanted to celebrate that ordinariness, the pleasure we take in everyday small moments. I think we often forget, when confronted with a person with dementia, that they were once like us—and that it is not unlikely that we will one day be like them. Compassion is in order.
I also wanted, through Alice, to keep the memory of what happened to the Japanese Americans during WWII alive. She is representative of an entire generation—the last to have been sent to the camps—that will soon no longer be with us.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
JO: I just started Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, the third book in her “living autobiography” trilogy. I admire her work the same way I do Rachel Cusk’s. They both seem to be treading similar ground - writing about women in crisis in midlife - in their own very particular ways. I reread Cusk’s Outline trilogy during the pandemic and was blown away yet again. One of my favorite recent reads is Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, about a translator who’s moved to The Hague to begin a new job. Kitamura’s prose—cool, sleek, seductive—is absolutely stunning. Just one perfect sentence after another. I think she’s one of our finest writers working today. Another recent read is Rumaan Alam’s Leave The World Behind, a brilliant send-up of race and privilege in the guise of a quietly apocalyptical thriller. It’s very very funny, and scary as hell. I also highly recommend Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, an extremely moving memoir about the author’s experience growing up as a Korean adoptee in a white family, and what happens when she eventually meets her birth family. Next up on my to-read list are Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police - I’m a big fan of her work—and Natasha Brown’s Assembly
The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka. Publsihed by Fig Tree. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Genius Under the Table is about growing up in Communist Russia. You must have had plenty of interesting experiences to put in the book. How did you approach turning this material into something suitable for young readers?
Eugene Yelchin: There must be as many approaches to writing for young readers as there are authors who write for them. I often tend to think of my writing approach as a performance, particularly when I’m using the first person’s voice as I did in my memoir. But writing in your own voice as a young person is tricky because accessing my thought processes at that age is impossible now. I couldn’t remember what I thought at the time about this or that situation that I was describing in the book, but I surely remembered how I felt. And so, it is from those remembered feelings that the book is constructed. The feelings of being puzzled by the world around me and being astonished by my discoveries of its secrets. These feelings created a bridge to young readers because those kinds of feelings are familiar to them. Who at that young age is not puzzled by the world? Who is not astonished by learning of its secrets? No matter where you live or what language you speak, most children have similar emotional experiences as I had growing up in the former Soviet Union.
NMB: Your novel is for the most part a warmhearted story about a tight knit family, but there are some creepy characters. The KGB spy that lives in the family's apartment block, Blinkov, keeps everyone vigilant so they don't say the wrong thing. Was it scary growing up in Russia at this time?
EY: It was very scary, not that I had known the extent of the danger at the time. I had no idea that only a short while ago, our country had more concentration camps than Nazi Germany, camps in which millions of innocent people were tortured, starved to death, and executed. The grownups were still terrified by what happened under Joseph Stalin, but I didn’t even know who Stalin was. My parents had never talked to me about Stalin’s crimes against our own people. After all, silence was the means of self-preservation. However, children do not need to be told. They can feel when something is wrong. So as a kid I did feel that something was wrong, I did feel that certain words and certain behaviors were best avoided, but I did not know why. And yet, I did know. I knew it intuitively. It was in my DNA.
NMB: We learn from your father that there is a high price for telling the truth in Communist Russia. Poets were executed for doing so. How did this atmosphere of denial affect you as a child?
EY: Denial, secrets, whispering behind closed doors, looking over your shoulder, keeping your mouth shut, the constant dread of persecution; how could such an atmosphere not affect a young person? Particularly, a person with a curious mind and a vivid imagination. In such people prohibitions tend to stimulate imagination. In fact, the lack of freedom is essential to creativity; allow anything, and the artist is lost. Allow only a few things to work with, and the imagination kicks in. I can’t complain about my imagination and creativity, but often, as a result of my Soviet upbringing, I lack courage. I’m a great deal more courageous on paper and canvas than I am in real life.
NMB: One of the themes of the book is the importance of having talent. Is there a message you'd like young readers to take away with them?
EY: Having talent is a touchy subject in the contemporary American culture. We are raising our children as if each one is talented, as if each one is a winner. It’s lovely, but it is often overdone, which has a potential to create disillusionment and frustration when real life kicks in later. In my book, having talent is a practical tool one needed to do well in the USSR. I don’t think that it is much different for my young readers in the West. Most of us are talented at something; the trick is to find out what it is. If there’s any message at all in my book, it is this: you cannot find out if you are talented at something unless you work very, very hard at it.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
EY: For about a year or so, I haven’t read a book that had held my attention long enough. Either my bar is too high, or at 65 years of age, time is too precious, or my choices were poor, I don’t know, but I have a stack of unfinished books on my desk. When this happens to me, and it does happen fairly regularly, I go right back to the usual suspects and re-read the classics. Presently, I’m reading Brothers Karamazov by Fedor Dostoevsky, a collection of short fiction from the 19th and 20th centuries, and Dead Souls by Gogol, but also, I’m reading a non-fiction book on craft (The Artful Dickens by John Mullan), and two books by Timothy Snyder on history and contemporary politics.
The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin. Published by Candlewick Press. $27.99
North Melbourne Books : For close to three decades, Colin Manock was South Australia's chief forensic pathologist. He got the job almost by default. There were no other promising candidates at the time (it was 1968) and reluctantly the job went to Manock. The only problem was he had no training in histopathology – the practice of taking tissue samples from various organs to discern more complex signs of disease or injury. This lack of expertise, coupled with Manock's hubris, meant his forensic evidence was often of questionable quality. Many went to prison for long spells based on his court testimonies.
What drew you to this story?
Drew Rooke: I was initially drawn to the story after learning about the case of Derek Bromley who was convicted of murdering a young man named Stephen Docoza in Adelaide in 1984. Bromley claimed to be innocent but Manock’s expert scientific testimony, delivered with his trademark confidence, helped ensure the jury reached a guilty verdict.
When it was reviewed by several forensic experts many years later, however, Manock’s evidence was found to be riddled with major mistakes which threw serious doubt on the validity of Bromley’s conviction. As I started looking into this case more, I discovered that it was just one of many which legal experts like Dr Robert Moles were deeply troubled by because of the questionable quality of Manock’s forensic evidence.
My interest in the story grew as I learned more about how Manock secured his job in the first place — and how he managed to retain it for so long. It seemed to me to be a story that, at its heart, was about a disastrous systemic failure which also served as a reminder of the danger of hubris — and of the importance of humility — in science and in life more generally.
NMB: It's taken many decades, but Colin Manock's work is now being reviewed and found wanting. In some cases where his evidence sent people to jail, their convictions have been overturned. Why has it taken so long for the deficiencies in his work to come to light?
DR: The small group of people who employed Manock actually knew about the deficiencies in his work at the very beginning of his nearly thirty-year career; the issue was that they decided to keep it secret because they had no one else to fill Manock’s position — and because they hoped he would undertake further training to address the deficiencies. Manock did not fulfil their hopes, and the more years that passed with him as South Australia’s chief forensic pathologist, the more power he obtained, and the more reluctant people became to openly question his work.
Since he retired in 1995, the deficiencies in his work have been more widely publicised, thanks to the work of a few local journalists and advocates. But many within South Australia’s political and legal establishment have been — and continue to be — opposed to a more formal and thorough investigation into Manock’s career, which is the only way to know the full extent and impact of his deficiencies. It is hard to know for sure why this is so, but I suspect the associated political and financial cost may have something to do with it.
NMB: You tried several times to set up an interview with Colin Manock, but he didn't want to participate. His only message to you was to “proceed with caution when dealing with his name”. How did you feel about meeting him?
DR: I was very eager to meet Manock — I really wanted to speak with him about his life and career and to give him the opportunity to respond to the many criticisms levelled against him — but I quickly discovered that although he was once a very public figure in South Australia, he is now a very elusive one who is very difficult to contact. When I finally managed to contact him via his current wife, I was hopeful of meeting him, but his message to me ultimately dashed my hopes and forced me to assemble the puzzle of his life and career using the fragmented pieces of information that live in the archives and in other peoples’ memories about him.
NMB: The book points to the need for reform of how forensic evidence is used in court. It seems like more peer review is needed to eliminate mistakes. What kind of reform do you think needs to happen?
DR: There are serious problems with the way forensic evidence is currently used in court, and the story about Manock highlights only a few them. More peer review would help eliminate mistakes, as would more thoroughly testing the reliability of forensic evidence admitted in court. But this would not help eliminate mistakes in the past which have likely resulted in many more wrongful convictions than are presently known about. Addressing that very important issue requires the establishment of an independent investigative body which is empowered to actively perform post-conviction reviews of cases. The value of such a body has been demonstrated by the United Kingdom’s Criminal Cases Review Commission which has referred more than 750 cases from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland back to the courts since its establishment in 1997, with over 450 convictions overturned as a result.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
DR: Mainly books —old and new, fictional and non-fictional — about the environment and the natural world: The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson’s classic and very poetic portrait of the ocean; Currowan, Bronwyn Adcock’s devastating and deeply moving account of living through the Black Summer bushfire crisis on the NSW south coast; The Animals in that Country, Laura Jean Mckay’s mind-bending and mind-expanding novel about a new virus which causes its victims to understand the language of animals, and; Wild Souls, Emma Marris’s philosophical and far-reaching examination of humanity’s relationship with non-human animals which raises profound questions for anyone interested in conservation. Continuing this trend, I’m about to start reading Signs and Wonders, Delia Falconer’s celebrated collection of essays about living in an era of profound ecological change.
A Witness of Fact: The Peculiar Case of Chief Forensic Pathologist Colin Manock, by Drew Rooke. Published by Scribe. $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Adrift in Melbourne takes the reader on seven walks through Melbourne. We travel through a dazzling kaleidoscope of time, revealing our beloved city in so many different aspects. Indeed, Melbourne’s plethora of stories makes it the gift that keeps on giving. What inspired you to write another book on Melbourne?
Robyn Annear: To be honest, the idea wasn’t mine. Michael Heywood, publisher at Text, had taken a memorable literary walk in St Petersburg and came to me with the idea for an immersive walking guide to historical Melbourne. That was in early March 2020. When I took the project on, I pictured myself dawdling in the city’s back streets for days on end. But as it turned out, my exploring was all done from a distance. I was able to visit Melbourne just once, between lockdowns (live in Castlemaine), and relied instead on old maps and city directories, as well as online resources like Trove Newspapers and Google Street View. Mainly though, I dug deep into my own memories and the fund of Melbourne lore I’ve stored up over the years. Plus, the time-machine I keep in the shed came in handy.
NMB:. The book describes so many historical buildings that are torn down, often replaced with architectural monsters. Do you bemoan what’s gone, or take the march of progress in your stride?
RA: Yeah, no. I don’t bemoan, but I’m not in step with the march of progress either. Not to be too Zen about it, I try to be accepting of change. That doesn’t mean I always like it. I’m no fan of the ‘mighty erection’ school of architecture, and I’d be happy to see Docklands relegated to an outdoor escape-room. I don’t mind a bit of facadism: keeping the front of an old building can help keep things real at street level, preserving the illusion of a human-scale city. A through-line in my books about historic Melbourne is the idea that cultivating memory and stories (can) mean that nothing’s ever really gone.
NMB: A recurring lament in your book is the fact that Melbourne has never really had a city square. What would be your ideal?
RA: I feel that we’ve missed our chance, and our need, for a city square. It was something Melbourne could’ve used in its founding years. (It was deliberately omitted when the town was drawn up, a public square being a place where democratic impulses might flourish.) Now it seems like a formality the city can live without. Surely humans prefer improvised gathering spots, anyway, over officially designated ones.
NMB: Several bookshops make an appearance in Adrift in Melbourne. Once upon a time there were so many weird and wonderful bookshops. Remember Shrew women’s bookshop in Fitzroy, or the International bookshop in Elizabeth Street?, to name a few. Have you ever thought of writing a history of Melbourne’s long gone bookshops?
RA: Yes, and someone reminded me just the other day about the legendary Batman record (and book) shops. And the needle on my time-machine is permanently set on Cole’s Book Arcade, circa 1895. Bookshops have always been the lodestars by which I navigate Melbourne – or any city. But a book about them? It feels too niche to me. Though if someone else wants to write it, I’ll buy a copy.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
RA: I’ve just finished Suzanna Clarke’s Piranesi. What a blast. Weird and gripping. It struck me as a true original, but also somehow like The Little Prince, reimagined for our times. Now I’m reading The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux. It’s a history of the tie-on pockets worn by women under their clothes from (at least) the 17th century to the early 20th. It’s amazing what those capacious pockets held: tools, money, keepsakes, weapons. The Pocket opens up a whole new way of seeing how women lived in the past.
Adrift in Melbourne, by Robyn Annear. Text Publishing. $27.99