Interview by Samuel Elliott
Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars won the Age Book of the Year Award, the Betty Trask Award (UK), the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn-Rhys/Mail On Sunday Book of the Year Award (UK) as well as for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Elliot Perlman also co-wrote the screenplay for the film of Three Dollars, which received the Australian Film Critics’ Circle Award for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as the A.F.I. Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, a collection of stories, was a bestseller in the US where it was named a New York Times Book Review ‘Editors’ Choice’ and received the Steele Rudd Award for the best Australian short story collection in its year of publication.
Perlman’s second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was a bestseller in France where it was described as ‘one of the best novels of recent years, a complete success'(Le Monde). In Germany it was called a ‘literary sensation’ (Deutschlandradio), ‘an impressive, iridescent all-encompassing view of feeling’ (Der Spiegel), and described as having “the virtues of the great modern European novel’ (Süddeutsche Zeitung). It was a bestseller in the United States where it was described as having ‘traces of Dickens’s range and of George Eliot’s generous humanist spirit’ (New York Times) and named a New York Times Book Review ‘Editors’ Choice’, a New York Times Book Review ‘Notable Book of the Year’ and a Washington Post ‘Editors’ Choice’ as well as one of its all-time dozen favourites ‘on the pain of love’. In the UK it was described as ‘a colossal achievement….a tour de force…(in which) at the end, in a comprehensive, an almost Shakespearian way, Perlman picks up every loose thread and knots it’ (The Observer) and named a Sunday Telegraph ‘Book of the Year’. In Australia it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award as well as for the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction.
Elliot Perlman is the recipient of the Queensland Premier’s award for Advancing Public Debate and has been described by the Times Literary Supplement (UK) as ‘Australia’s outstanding social novelist’, by Le Nouvelle Observateur (France) as the ‘Zola d’Australie’ and by Lire (France) as ‘the classic of tomorrow’, one of the ’50 most important writers in the world’.
About ‘Maybe The Horse Will Talk’:
What if the only way to keep your job was to antagonise your boss?
‘I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.’ Stephen Maserov has problems. A onetime teacher, married to fellow teacher Eleanor, he has retrained and is now a second-year lawyer working at mega-firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche. Despite toiling around the clock to make budget, he’s in imminent danger of being downsized. And to make things worse, Eleanor, sick of single-parenting their two young children thanks to Stephen’s relentless work schedule, has asked him to move out. To keep the job he hates, pay the mortgage and salvage his marriage, he will have to do something strikingly daring, something he never thought himself capable of. But if he’s not careful, it might be the last job he ever has…
Warm, dramatic, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, with the narrative pull of a thriller, Maybe the Horse Will Talk is a love story, a reflection on contemporary marriage, and on friendship. It is also an unflinching examination of sexual harassment in the workplace and an exposé of corporate corruption that taps directly into the pulse of our times.
‘Australia’s outstanding social novelist’ (Times Literary Supplement), Elliot Perlman ‘…has many things working in his favor as a novelist: curiosity, erudition, daring and a gift for seducing readers into going along with him for the ride. He’ll get you where you want to go…’ (Washington Post)
Where did the concept of Maybe The Horse Will Talk stem from? Was it the titular fable? Was it the MeToo climate? Or something else?
It was definitely before MeToo, because I started writing it before that movement. It really comes from the fable. I was told that fable by my dad growing up and the moral and the message in the fable is clearly – if you can’t solve a problem in the time you’ve got available, how about coming up with a solution that buys you more time, to solve the problem later?
And that always seemed like a clever idea. And it occurred to me that, these days, I’ve got the character of Betga saying to the character of Maserov, ‘buying time is the new state, because there is no real state anymore.’ If you’re a freelancer you probably know this and in a way, so am I. We’re out there fighting for our next job, for our next gig. We are in a gig economy. Supposing you’re a freelancer only, it’s a tough life. Everybody is just trying to buy themselves some time.
We’re living in the time where people with full-time work are getting asked to be contactable 24/7, they’re being set kind of crazy targets that don’t really have any bearing or basis in reality. You’ve got to make these targets, and then if you’re lucky enough to make them, somebody above you just increases them, quite arbitrarily. This has to stop eventually. You can’t possibly keep doing that exponentially and then of course, you fail, because you can’t meet that target. And then you’re subject to, periodically at least, psychotic managers, who feel that they can get away with all sorts of appalling behaviour, because they’ve risen to a certain point in the institution of the company, or government department.
I’ve set the novel in a law firm and a construction company, but it could be anywhere. It could be in any institution basically and you see these corporate psychopaths. Just imagine, if you can for a moment, how much easier your professional life would be, if you didn’t care about leaving a trail of corpses in your wake. Then there are those people who not only don’t care if they irreparably damage people on their way to the top, but they actively take pleasure from it.
That’s at the top of the work economy, in terms of people having more hours of work than they usually get paid for and certainly that they can handle. Then you go all the way down to the bottom and you get the much maligned unemployed. But what they don’t tell you, what is not often discussed, certainly by either side of politics, is that there is an ever-growing category of people called ‘the involuntarily underemployed’ – these are people that have some hours of work, but nowhere near enough to support themselves.
They don’t have enough money to pay off, or pay for an education, or save for a deposit for a place of their own. Mostly they’re just trying to put food on the table for their kids. Pay the exponentially increasing electricity bills, gas bills and to replace all sort of things that naturally wear out. This group, the involuntarily-underemployed, they’re the ones working in the gig economy. The knowledge of this, not so much the statistic, which people wouldn’t necessarily know. But the knowledge intuitively that – I better not lose my full-time job, because otherwise I’ll slip into the gig-economy and if I slip into that the waves of economic insecurity are going to wash over me and I won’t be able to breath all the time. I’ll go under.
That knowledge is why people with full-time work put up with this treatment and exploitation and the bullying, and particularly for women, the sexual harassment, that goes with it. And I thought, this is worth writing about, how can I do it in a way that doesn’t make people want to slit their wrists? I’ll use humour and that’s what I tried to do.
Touching now onto the crux of what powers the novel forward, the sexual harassment cases. They make for very uncomfortable reading, in particular the affidavits that appear throughout, due to how realistic they are. Did you extensively research real-life cases or consult survivors? How did you find a balance of writing such subject matter earnestly and yet manage to not be gratuitous?
Yes, I did speak to victims of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, they are not difficult to find. I’m sure you know people, whether you know it or not, who have been victims of something at one end of the scale. But I do. Also, I’m a recovering lawyer and I saw things happen at the hands of men with power that sort of blew me away. And I, at least in this respect, didn’t think I was naïve, but perhaps I was. It shocked me. And then of course, I did read many cases about it.
So it was a combination of the people I knew, plus what I had seen, plus what I had read, informed the writing of it. It was very important to me to try to make the sexual harassment in the novel shocking. I didn’t think women would be as shocked as men, because there’s a category of men who are perpetrators of sexual harassment and I’m not expecting to reach them in a book and to be able to change their attitude or behaviour. But there’s a category of men, which is fortunately a much larger category, of men who don’t engage in this kind of behaviour but might be said to enable it, because in a conversation, in a social conversation, entirely made up of men, the men who don’t perpetrate it, won’t necessarily speak up, if there’s a conversation about women that is degrading to, or derogatory of women. The locker-room talk, this whole idea of boys will be boys.
You have to ask yourself, would you like someone speaking that way about your wife or girlfriend or your sister, or your mother, and the answer is almost certainly no – then you really shouldn’t tolerate that conversation being permitted even between a few men. And that might sound, to some men, puritanical, and that I’m advocating for the spoiling of their fun, but nobody’s fun should be at the expense of someone else.
If you think of it simply as a human rights issue, you think, 50% of the population, are frightened, to a greater or lesser extent, when they go to work. That’s just terrible.
By all means, you’re not going to stop heterosexual men from being attracted to women, you just can’t act on it in the workplace, particularly abusing power. And I know sometimes that can be tricky and that’s one of the reasons for the subplot with Maserov and Jessica, because you can meet someone in the workplace and really quite like them and want a romantic relationship with them, but there’s got to be ways of doing that, that don’t border on harassment. I wanted to try and make the novel as funny as I possibly could – except in that area.
There is this widespread culture of sexual harassment within the workplace and the covering up of said sexual harassment. I wanted to ask you, whether it’s through your own research, or just your general opinion, do you think places like Torrent Industries and people like Mike Mercer and others are still prevalent. Is this now a time of change? Are people and places like this being brought into account?
They’re definitely still there. You get a feeling that it’s more prevalent than we know, because it’s still, despite the MeToo movement, which is, in terms of social movements, relatively young and fairly new and we haven’t had the chance to see the full extent of its effect. So yes, it’s probably even worse than we know and these kind of people are still doing this sort of thing. A lot of women are terrified of reporting it.
In many ways, Torrent Industries and Mike Mercer and the places and people they represent is like driving a car. When you drive and park a car, you want to it within the legal parameters, park where you’re supposed to, because otherwise you might incur a fine. Well, if you had unlimited money, you wouldn’t care. So, if you thought that you could take what you wanted and that you didn’t know how much it would cost to make it go away, but you could certainly make it go away for an amount that was within your capacity, then you’d just behave any way you want and that’s the way these men behave.
How much of your own previous career of working within law and your real-life experiences coloured or influenced any of the characters in this novel?
It’s all related to this ruthless sort of competitive environment that kind of debilitates against any sort of camaraderie. Obviously, there are people that are friends. It’s sort of an environment of every dog for him or herself. A collegial atmosphere isn’t really encouraged. To answer your question, my experience was a bit like that, but nowhere near as bad. But I saw people that had experiences as bad as that and mine certainly wasn’t great, and I knew from what I could see, that this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life and I didn’t know what exactly would happen, whether I’d be a barrister or a writer or both. But I knew, I didn’t want to spend my life in one of these places, trying to crawl up a ladder. I didn’t really see partners whose lives I wanted to emulate. It wasn’t really something I aspired to. Once I saw how things really were.
Certainly, the environment, I remember so well, and I saw different responses to it, from some people I’d known since I was a student. These were really bright people, interesting and interested in so many different things. And when they got into these environments, suddenly they’d changed. They’d drunk the kool-aid and some of them had just atrophied into shells of themselves because of it.
With your writing process, since you first penned Three Dollars and a couple of short stories that got you noticed before that, has it changed?
It has changed in that since I started, I now do it full-time. When I first started, when I wrote my first adult short-story, and when I say adult short-story, I mean adult in the sense that I wasn’t ashamed of it seven days after having written it. That was when I was twenty, when I was a student and at that stage, I wasn’t even a law student, I was studying economics and politics and economic history and then I started writing short stories.
Then when I started practicing law, just like at a place like Freely Savage [law firm in Maybe The Horse Will Talk] I couldn’t possibly write anything, I just didn’t have the time. Then I got a position as an associate for a Supreme Court Judge, while that wasn’t quite 9 to 5, it was much more closer to 9 to 5 then working in private practice. So, I could then go back to my writing. But it wasn’t until I went full-time, that I could really get up in the morning, maybe have breakfast, maybe go for a walk, although now I have children and I can’t do that.
But the business of telling stories, is now my job and that is a lovely feeling. It comes with economic insecurity and self-doubt, which is always there for any artist, probably for most people actually but certainly for people in the arts. And you don’t really probably get more confident, because every book you write, is the first time you’ve written that book. So I’ve written previous books, and they almost feel like they are written by a slightly different person, because you five years ago, isn’t the same person you are now. You’re in a different state, a different frame of mind, other things are going on with your life.
My first novel, Three Dollars, came out almost twenty-one years ago, you almost use the books to remember, privately, who you were and how you were living. And in terms of my opinions and my views on the world, they haven’t changed. If anything the world’s only got worse and conformed to all my prognostications I made in Three Dollars and some of the early short stories.
The biggest way to process is that I can now write full-time and also in the very early days, this will sound really strange, blows most people away, but – I hand-wrote all the first drafts of my works. Having children changes things too. Once I had kids, I stopped writing from home. Before, I wrote a novel for children called The Adventures of Catvinkle and Maybe The Horse Will Talk are the first two novels that I’ve written not from the place I was living at. It was so tempting, previously, to go back and do more work in the evenings, but now I can’t, because I’d have to get out of my house, go to my car and drive somewhere.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors at any stage of their career?
Don’t let anyone tell you not to do it. The only person who can tell you not to do it, is you. The times that you shouldn’t do it, is when it hurts you more to keep going, than to stop. I got published in large part because I won a short story competition, which enabled me to get the attention of publishers, that I wouldn’t of got otherwise. Had it come second, it’s quite likely you and I wouldn’t be talking right now. The problem with that and this comes back to an earlier question you asked, about the role of luck in life, it’s not fair to say that the story that came second or third, is worse. Especially with something that’s so subjective as art, you really can’t say Samuel and Elliot raced each other and Elliot came second and Samuel came first by two seconds and so Samuel won.
It’s subjective, you can’t measure it, you can’t do it with art. To the extent that the same judges might’ve decided a different outcome on a different day. What if there were three judges and the third judge wasn’t able to do it for some reason and they got in a different judge and that tipped the balance – does that mean that I shouldn’t have a career as a writer?
That’s why I’m telling people – don’t let a particular decision, or a particular rejection stop you from doing it. But, if for example, if you had other things that you wanted to do, and you’ve been banging your head against the wall, trying to get published or trying to get some attention for your work and it hasn’t happened yet – ask yourself, would I feel less pain if I stopped, than if I kept going?