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North Melbourne Books: Sixteen-year-old Ford McCullen lives with his mother and maternal grandparents, Noonie and Pop, in a block of flats in Coburg, near Pentridge Prison. It’s the early 2000s and the suburb is gentrifying, with the prison being turned into boutique apartments. Ford has a lot on his plate. He has been sent to school in posh Toorak, causing feelings of dislocation, his mother is emotionally fragile and in need of help, and to cap it all off, his relationship with his father is strained to breaking point. The novel is narrated by Ford and uses the unvarnished language of sixteen-year old boys. It’s often emotionally raw and deals with the hurt caused by unstable family life.
Was it a difficult or perhaps cathartic book for you to write?
Tobias McCorkell: The answer is, of course, both. The book was difficult for two reasons: On the technical side of things, one of the trickiest aspects of writing a book of this nature is trying to render things accurately – the “unvarnished language” and “emotional rawness” of the teenage perspective, as you rightly point out – while knowing there’s a chance you’ll alienate the prudes and the people who make demarcations between the high and the low, particularly when I aspire to bridge the high with the low. Threading together the confluence of influences – which included things as various as The Catcher in the Rye, the novels of John and Dan Fante, Anita Brookner’s characteristic introspection, as well as gold standard Melbourne texts, Loaded and Monkey Grip – was a hard job, but I like to think I pulled it off, if only in part.
Emotionally, it was a difficult book to write, too. I’d spent years trying and failing to write a memoir, and that process nearly killed me. When I was shaping the novel, though, it was quite hard digging into some of this material and from that trying to craft scenes, where I was distilling so much raw feeling into only a few pages, especially some of the smaller/quieter moments, the intimacies and ponderances that come after the more explosive scenes, which, even reading them now, leave me a bit fed up with the world. Facing up to that kind of vulnerability makes you vulnerable, and the process left me pretty exhausted at times. (For those interested, you can read about my experience writing the novel at leekofman.com.au.)
But yes, it was cathartic! It was good to vanquish some of the material, and finishing any novel is always a triumph!
NMB: There is quite a bit of humour in the book. The scene where Ford is bashed but worries about losing his “Caravaggio boy” looks provides an unexpected laugh. And the descriptions of some of the dingy houses and décor are brilliant. Do you find humour can spring naturally from otherwise bleak and grim scenarios?
TM: It has to! You can’t have the funny without the sad, the light without the dark. Meanness and cruelty are often essential to humour, not that I’m intent on being mean or cruel as an author. Personally, I’d say I have a healthy sense of humour – I like to laugh and I’ve long been obsessed with stand-up comedy – and I can’t imagine writing without getting a giggle from the reader from time to time. Life is funny, after all.
It’s a bit like sex. Writers, particularly those who want to be seen as “literary” or “serious”, too often avoid venturing into the places where you’re most likely to be humiliated, where an audience might be induced to cringe. But ultimately, it’s cowardly – nobody wants to risk not having someone laugh at their joke, or to be thought of as being a little ‘pervy’, yet avoiding certain areas does a disservice to what I believe writing is for, and that’s responding to life. How can you write about life without humour or without talking about sex? Frankly, I don’t want to read a novel written by somebody who doesn’t wank or chuckle (at least, occasionally).
NMB: Ford goes through a lot in the novel – shame, guilt, confusion – to arrive at a tentative resolution of his life and family problems. Do you think Ford triumphs in the end?
TM: I have no idea. And I like not knowing. The novel’s resolution, I think, is open to interpretation, and ultimately it will come down to whether you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty type of person to determine what you extract from the final moment of the novel – there’s a reason I’ve employed a non-literary device with which to end the book, after all. I didn’t want for there to be even so much as a last word, I just wanted the reader to be left with a feeling, whatever it is to them, and for that feeling, hopefully, to echo for a moment or two after they’ve closed the cover.
NMB: The novel is also a love letter to Coburg. How much has the suburb changed since you grew up there?
TM: A lot! I’m actually back living with my mother right now as a result of the pandemic having added more precarity to an already precarious work-life. The simplest summary of the changes is to look at the real estate: houses that were worth about $350,000 when I was a child are now going for well over a million, and in many cases they’re being knocked down to accommodate multiple units (or “dog boxes”, as Mum calls them). On our street, three doors down, a gorgeous weatherboard was knocked down and three “dog boxes” were erected in its place, each one going for $1.2 million. That’s crazy money; it’s hard to reason why people are paying so much more for so much less. It seems inevitable to me that the type of person moving into that kind of house is going to be a pain in the neck.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I’m about to dive into the new Martin Amis, and I’ve recently gone and read all of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing back to back. Mostly, though, over the last two years I’ve been on a long streak of bleak, romantic novels – affairs that don’t work out, that kind of thing – as well as on a quest to read more ‘campus novels’.
But I’d like to recommend, if I can, Relatively Famous by Roger Averill, a fairly recent and underrated Melbourne novel. Get on it!
Everything in its Right Place, by Tobias McCorkell. Published by Transit Lounge. $29.99
Photo credit: Phil Timberlake
North Melbourne Books: Skunk and Badger is a classic odd couple story, with a couple of twists. Badger is a rock scientist, and when Skunk suddenly turns up to move in, he brings a flock of chicken friends that create a lot of chaos. Badger gets exasperated with Skunk and his eccentric way of living, and decides he can no longer stand it, but then soon realises his feelings for Skunk are more complicated.
How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Amy Timberlake: By daydreaming when I was supposed to be working on another book project! For research for this other project, I re-read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and thus, a daydream began. I started to wonder what kind of story I would write if I wrote a story in the style of those Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I didn’t want to make another “Winnie-the-Pooh” but what would happen if I wrote something episodic with animals who say, wore sweaters and lived in a gentler world? What kind of story would I tell? I also thought it would be great to write something that appealed to a wide range of readers so the story could be read aloud and everyone in the room (age six to ninety-six) could enjoy it. Eventually, I wanted to try it. So I set that other project aside and wrote Skunk and Badger.
NMB: In the book we learn how complicated our emotions can be, and that when we get irritated with people, we can also be growing fond of them at the same time. Did you have a particular theme in mind for the book when you wrote it?
AT: When I’m working on a story, I don’t have themes in mind at all. I let the story go where it needs to go. I will say that I wanted the emotional life to be as true as I could make it. I like emotional complexities in my books.
NMB: There is a scene when Skunk lets loose with his spray. You describe in vivid detail what a skunk’s spray smells like. Have you smelt it yourself, or did you write from imagination?
AT: Oh yes! Skunk spray is a smell we know well here in the United States. Open your window on a summer evening and it may waft through your window stirring you from sleep. Skunks are forever trying to teach dogs to back off. Dogs seem to be slow learners.
NMB: Jon Klassen’s illustrations are as wonderful as you would expect. How close did you work with him in deciding what needed to be depicted visually and were there a lot of conversations about chickens?
AT: Ha! Chickens! Yes, I can see how it would seem that we’d need to have a lot of discussion about chickens given what’s in the text! Hmmm... I may have passed along the title of a chicken breed book, but that’s it. The truth is, Jon and I didn’t speak until the project was near completion.
I did see illustrations through my editor, Elise Howard. And the illustrations were gorgeous — every single time. Jon always got the emotion, the style, the feel of these scenes exactly right. Sometimes the art was so good it felt eerie — for instance, I thought I’d seen his illustrations before I’d actually seen them. I don’t know how he did that. All I can say is that Jon Klassen is really good. Wow.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
AT: I’m doing this thing where I read all the novels written by a writer I love. It’s been great! So for instance, I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s novels (and just read Big Sky, the most recent Jackson Brodie to keep up-to-date). I’m finishing up Margaret Atwood now with Life Before Man. (I don’t read in order published. This one is from the late 1970s.) Next up to finish? Paulette Jiles, my favorite writer of North American historical fiction. If you haven’t dipped into her work yet, I recommend News of the World, The Color of Lightning and Enemy Women. And after Paulette Jiles, I’m going to work on a writer from your continent, Tim Winton. I cannot wait to read more of Tim Winton’s writing!
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Published by Allen & Unwin. $22.99