ROBERT DREWE in Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors

At the time of this interview in August 2009, Robert Drewe had published six novels: The Savage Crows (1976), A Cry in the Jungle Bar (1979), Fortune (1986), Our Sunshine (1991), The Drowner (1996), and Grace (2005). His publications also included three short story collections, The Bodysurfers (1983), The Bay of Contented Men (1989), and The Rip (2008); two non-fiction books, Walking Ella (1999) and The Shark Net (2000); and two plays. I began by asking him which of the forms he’d written in was his favourite.

I like them all – at different times – sort of equally, I think. At the moment I’m very keen on the short story, and my most recent book is a collection of short stories, called The Rip. I started off as a novelist, and I didn’t actually write any short stories until I’d published two novels. But increasingly I find the short story more interesting and more contemporary and of the moment. I get more pleasure from writing them.

You started working as a journalist from your late teens and twice won a Walkley Award for excellence in journalism. When and why did you decide to begin writing fiction?

I always wanted to be a writer, even when I was at school. I didn’t know how you went about it. I didn’t know who you applied to be a writer, and growing up in Perth I thought the nearest thing to being a serious writer would be to be a journalist. And I thought as a teenager I’d be paid to have adventures and to write. And to a certain extent, although there’s a lot of boring stuff like shipping news and weather and all those sorts of things, it was good training for a writer. It taught me how to write simple declarative sentences, it took me out of a normal Australian middle-class background and showed me how the other half live, it showed me how courts work and crime and how people at the struggling end of the spectrum live. It was really a fascinating background for a writer.  

Your writing has been acclaimed for holding a mirror to contemporary Australian society. Do you think that’s possibly a reflection of your earlier career as a journalist?

Possibly. I mean I didn’t set out to try and reflect contemporary Australian society. It’s just in a way that’s what happens if you are interested in it. I’ve got a wide range of interests.

Your short story collection The Rip is evidence of this awareness of contemporary Australian society in that some of the stories deal with the sea and tree change phenomenon.

Yes, that’s right.

And your novel Grace is a novel that is a quintessential reflection of the Howard years.

[Laughs] Yes, that’s true, that’s right.

Grace looks at the refugee situation and how they were treated then – possibly not much different now; you also pick up an issue you had already featured in The Savage Crows, the taking of indigenous skeletons for scientific purposes; and the protection of the environment. So it almost seems like an ideal recipe to be a journalist first?

Well, when you say it like that, it does seem like I’ve covered a lot of material in that book. I am interested in various contemporary issues, obviously, and the novel is the perfect place to deal with those, because you’ve got so much more time and space. I’m interested in ideas, which I try to get across in a novel, but I’m interested in more succinct, shorter forms like relationships and so forth, and conflicts between people are easier to deal with in a short story, because the short story is in a sense like an anecdote, it’s as if someone said to me ‘What happened yesterday?’ and that’s like a short story, as if you’re talking to someone one to one, and you’re intimately describing an event or a conversation or whatever.

One of your main themes is indeed relationships, and a focus appears to be male confusion. In A Cry in the Jungle Bar, your main protagonist Richard Cullen is trying to make sense of society in the Philippines, but more often it is men trying to make sense of women and the resulting difficulties in relationships. Do you think Australian men are confused by women?

I think men in general are confused by women [laughs]. I don’t think Australian men are any more confused than American men or English men or German men. I think men are confused by women. But that’s what’s interesting. In the end, if you’re dealing with any sort of drama, whether you’re dealing with the theatre or writing or films or anything, the main story is relationships between men and women.

One of my favourite stories in The Rip is the first story ‘The Lap Pool’, which begins with a wonderful sentence: ‘Naked and forty-seven, Leon K backstroked steadily up and down his lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake.’ Do you work particularly hard at your beginnings?

Yes, I do. I try in the first paragraph to capture the reader’s interest, so they want to read on, and I think you actually owe it to the reader to engross them, if you can.

What do you think is the essence of a good short story?

I’ve judged a lot of short stories and I’ve collected a lot of other people’s short stories in various anthologies that I’ve put together. The thing I look for is if you immediately identify with it or it makes you think Yes, that’s exactly right. In a way a good short story makes you look at something about your own life or experience through the prism of what you’re reading. So a sense of identification or recognition is what matters, really.

Do you see any differences in your writing when you were younger, such as in your famous short story collection The Bodysurfers published more than 25 years ago, and your most recent collection The Rip?

The same sorts of things interest me. Then I was looking more at relational concerns, and relationships within the family, say.

They still feature in some of your stories in The Rip.

Yes, they do. Just a slight difference in focus in that I was more interested in generational differences and change in The Bodysurfers, and in The Rip, while still interested in that, I’m interested in, generally, the differences between men and women and break-downs of relationships, still trying to understand the eternal quandary.

I wonder how you get your ideas. For short stories I think it’s easier to figure that out, because as you say you focus on a particular incident or the like. But how about your novels, because they need to be so much more intricately plotted?

Yes they do. Well with novels, they require a great deal of mapping, and what I generally do is – as with a film – I work out a sort of story board of chapters on little notes which I pin on a wall on what I want to happen. But once I’ve done that, I don’t really look at it again. You need to convince yourself the whole time with a novel that you know what you’re doing when in fact it’s basically guesswork and you don’t know what you’re doing until you actually do it.

How long does it take you to write a novel or a short story, if you think of the first draft?

Well, it varies. The Drowner, one of my novels, took ten years from thinking of the ideas and finishing it. I did other things in between, obviously, but it was ten years. Whereas a short story might occur to me and I might write it in a day or again it might take longer. There’s no set time. Our Sunshine only took me about five months, which is quite short for me. Often the ones that take less long end up working better, maybe because it’s just a sheer burst of creativity, and it often works better than something that’s laboured or that you spent too much time on.

Well certainly that was reflected in the fact that Our Sunshine was adapted into a movie: Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger. Were you involved in the writing of the screenplay or the making of the movie?

Not really. I chose not to take any part in the writing of the screenplay. But I went on set and I met the stars. If you see the film, Heath Ledger was given the book to read as a voice-over. He reads through the book over the film, which in a way, I guess, is quite flattering, but it would have been nice if they’d stayed closer to the book in the actual script.

Would you allow any of your other novels to be made into a movie from that experience?

Oh yes, I’d certainly allow it. In fact The Drowner is in pre-production at the moment, so I hope something comes of it. But just because someone says they want to make a movie doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

As you mentioned earlier, you have edited several anthologies of short stories, including The Penguin Book of the Beach (1993), The Penguin Book of the City (1997), and the 2006 and 2007 Best Australian Stories collections. Talking about the Best Australian Stories collections first, as editor, how do you choose the stories to include, because some of the authors’ names may not be known to readers initially?

Exactly.

So how do you find these people?

Well, what I do is advertise in all the magazines and the columns in the various literary pages of the newspapers and so forth, and I ask for people to send stories. And I get a post office box and you don’t have to ask twice, the stories arrive in their thousands. And I also read all the literary magazines, and I select stories that I like that have already been published, for about half the content, but the rest is made up of new stories, often from people who are unknown, and that’s where the fun is for the editor, discovering new people.

That’s what I think is so great about your collections because not everyone does that. A lot of people just seem to approach the writers that are already well known. And so you kind of think, well okay, but I know these authors.

Yes, exactly. Some other editors choose slabs of novels and so on, too, which goes against the whole point of short story collections.

Yes. The Penguin Book of the City and The Penguin Book of the Beach have stories by Australian, American, English, Irish, Canadian, Indian, and Japanese authors. This suggests that you read an enormous range of literature or were some of the stories suggested to you by others in terms of the topic, like beach or city?

With the first international book that I did, which was The Penguin Book of the Beach, I generally chose stories from books that I already owned, that I liked, that were favourites. So I didn’t really cast around that much. And of course some of the names like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John Updike, Alice Munro and people were famous people whose work was known to me. But it narrowed it down a bit because of the topic, which was the beach or the coast. So it didn’t make the search as difficult as it might seem. And the same with the next one, The Penguin Book of the City, I had to think of stories I knew of that were set in an urban environment. And I enjoyed doing it. What was really interesting was that every single famous person said yes. I was then twenty years younger and they had never heard of me, probably haven’t now, either. It was nice. Some of the Australian writers said, ‘Oh, I don’t know whether we can do it.’ So I said, ‘Oh, that’s alright. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said yes.’ And then they all said, ‘Oh, I’ll be in it then. I can find my way clear to be included [laughs].’

Do you have any favourite authors, since you do obviously read a lot?

Yes I do. My reading has mostly been 20th or 21st century. I’m not hugely authoritative on the classics. But Gabriel Garcia Marquez is obviously one, a brilliant writer who has done some sensational writing. I like Raymond Carver’s short stories, Alice Munro’s short stories. In Australia I’m a fan and a friend of Helen Garner’s, and I like good crime stories. I like Peter Temple’s crime stories, all set in Victoria. I’ve got a pretty wide range of likes.

The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature has just come out. It includes you with an extract from The Shark Net. Is that what you would have chosen for inclusion from amongst your work?

No, probably not. I would have chosen fiction as an example of more imaginative writing. I mean while I’m quite proud of The Shark Net, I tried to write it in a very matter of fact, no nonsense sort of way, in a clear way, but I didn’t pay so much attention to the actual words. I probably would have included something from Our Sunshine, if I was doing it.

You have also been a judge on literary award judging panels, including The Australian/Vogel award, and for writing competitions at the Northern Rivers Writers Centre. How difficult is it for you as an individual to decide – especially when it’s something like a literary award – a longlist, a shortlist, and then a winner? Or do you know the winner straight away and it’s hardest to choose the long-list?

It’s easy enough to get the shortlist; it’s easy enough to get the first list. But it is difficult. I generally tend to go for the more imaginative ones, the ones that strike me as being less like another story that I’ve read before. The more original, the better, really.

Do you have any central tip for people who want to write fiction? You said in a panel at the Byron Bay Writers Festival yesterday that for beginning writers it’s often therapy, instead of actually writing, and I think that’s true for many. But once they get over that therapy writing?

I wasn’t meaning to be discouraging, I really do feel encouraging about new writing, especially young people’s writing, and I’ve mentored lots of people in a private way without being part of any organisation. What I would say is read widely. Read what other people have written. A lot of the entries you get in competitions up here, they’re obviously not even particularly interested in writing other than their own. And you’ve got to know what’s out there. It’s like if you are a painter, you’ve got to be aware of all that’s happened before. You’ve got to be aware of every master that’s gone before, and it’s the same thing with writing. You’ve got to be aware of what good writing is, so you can model yourself on that and then find your own voice. So reading widely is more important than anything else I would say.

Robert Drewe’s story ‘The Lap Pool’ from his anthology The Rip was included in The Best Australian Stories 2009. ‘Paleface and the Panther’, originally contributed to the anthology Brothers & Sisters, edited by Charlotte Wood (2009), was included in The Best Australian Stories 2010. Robert edited The Best Australian Essays 2010. His non-fiction book Montebello (2012) was shortlisted for the non-fiction award in the 2013 WA Premier’s Book Awards and the 2013 National Biography Award. The Local Wildlife, a collection of sketches initially published in magazines and newspapers, was published in 2013. His latest book Swimming to the Moon (2014) is a collection of snapshots of Australian life.