Interview by Magdalena Ball
What was your inspiration for Everyman’s Rules?
I’m an agricultural journalist by trade. I was doing some research on the history of agricultural science in Australia when I came across some old photographs of The Better Farming Train in an agricultural journal. The pictures were very enigmatic. An idealistic band of scientists traveling around the country with the belief that science could solve the problems of the world. I was especially taken with a photograph of one of the female experts on the train – a young seamstress with dark hair and an earnest gaze. That was when I started to write…
Tell me about the photos.
I love photographs in novels. I’m a huge fan of WG Sebald, and also the Australian writer Brian Castro who used photographs and documents in his novel, Shanghai Dancing. The pictures are from various sources – some from farm clearing sales where I bought old photograph albums, others from the State Library of Victoria. The photographs are mainly of animals and landscapes and this was calculated. I didn’t want to use images of people who could have been main characters. This is because the imaginative process that takes places whereby the reader makes/creates character is too important to interfere with. It has to happen inside your head.
Do any of your characters stem directly from your research? (in other words, did you come across Robert or Jean type characters from your historical examinations)
The characters of Robert and Jean are completely fictional – although many people want to argue with me about this! The only character based on a real person is Sister Crock. She is based on a Sister Peck who travelled on The Better Farming Train and dispensed advice on the scientific raising of the infant. She was too good to ignore.
There’s certainly a historical element to this book. Were you tempted to write this as nonfiction or was it always a fiction for you?
No. I’m surprised that a history of The Better Farming Train hasn’t been written, but it was never my intention to do this. My interest is fiction. The Better Farming Train was merely the vehicle that I used to investigate some of my ideas about the impact of science on the Australian landscape through fiction.
You’ve described the novel writing process as painfully difficult (Melbourne Writer‘s Festival). What was the most difficult part of writing Everyman’s Rules for you?
An idea can seem quite beautiful in your mind, but as soon as you start writing you come across the difficulty of how to express it. There is so much room for failure. It can be very disheartening. I don’t remember any parts as particularly worse than others but, that said, my memory of having written anything at all is pretty hazy. I suspect this is a kind of trauma response where your brain makes you forget the car crash so you can get back into a car again…
Describe the process from winning the Vic Premier’s Award to publication. Did it take longer than you expected?
The Premier’s Prize included 20 hours of editing so I completed a further draft of the novel with comments from a terrific freelance editor called Marian McCarthy. My agent then submitted the novel to an agent in the UK and several publishers in Australia. Things moved very quickly in the UK and the book sold there slightly before Australia. It then sold in the US in a pre-emptive offer from Scribner. I had a further round of editing for the Australian and UK edition, and yet another round of editing in the US. It took a very long time, but I was pleased with the attention to detail.
Has the success of Everyman’s Rules changed your life? Has it changed the way you view your writing career?
I can’t imagine anything I have written, or might write, changing my life – although certainly my life has been changed by what I have read. I still have problems describing myself as a writer. Another ‘w’ word comes to mind whenever I say it. I am though, trying to take my writing career more seriously.
Talk to me about the narrative structure – the two voices. Who is narrating “Robbie’s” sections?
I think this is the major flaw of the novel. I had hoped the reader would assume Robert is telling Jean the story of his childhood, but in a later chapter (in the pub), the switch to a third person voice is never explained. I knew it was a problem, but I just couldn’t see how to fix it. Various suggestions were made. One was to put this section in the past tense. This didn’t work as it destroyed the tension and the sense of narrative time. I struggled and struggled with it, eventually admitting defeat and hoping that the reader was comfortable enough in the story that they just accepted what they were being told.
Before you won the Vic Premier’s Award, you received quite a few rejections about the novel not being commercial enough. Do you think that publishing has become too commercial?
It was upsetting to receive rejections that said the novel was highly original and beautiful written, but probably wouldn’t sell. Publishing is a business, and I’m not naïve about what that means. That said, I would always encourage a writer to write about what matters to them, not what they think a publisher might buy. In this way the writers of the world will control our literary culture, not the marketing experts.
Is there another book in the works?
I’m afraid so.