I’d have thought you’d be hard pressed to find a reader less likely than me to fall in love with a novel about a boxer. But it’s 2022—unpredictable to the marrow—and here am I, smitten, and urging everyone who appreciates superb literary-historical fiction to read David Whish-Wilson’s captivating new release, The Sawdust House.
Mind, this novel is ‘about a boxer’ as much as Oliver Twist is about a greedy boy—something that will become abundantly clear when you read David’s generous responses to the questions I’ve put to him.
David is one of Western Australia’s most prolific and versatile authors, having published six crime novels, four in the Frank Swann series, which explores the seedier aspects of 20th-century Perth; three works of non-fiction, including a stellar contribution to the NewSouth Books City series, Perth; and a historical novel, The Coves, that traverses some of the ground covered in his new novel. A much valued teacher and mentor, he coordinates the Creative Writing program at Curtin University, and lives and writes in Fremantle.
San Francisco, 1856. Irish-born James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan is being held in jail by the Committee of Vigilance, which aims to rout the Australian criminals from the town. As Sullivan’s mistress seeks his release, and as his fellow prisoners are taken away to be hanged, the convict tells a story of triumph and tragedy: of his daring escape from penal servitude in Australia; how he became America’s most celebrated boxer; and how he met the true love of his life.
AC: David, the present of the narrative is San Francisco, 1856, at the time when citizens had formed a Committee of Vigilance to deal with Australian gangs of criminals who had dominated the city—the setting also for The Coves. Was it during the course of your research for that novel that you happened upon the story of James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan?
DW-W: Yes, I came across his name several times while doing archival work in San Francisco on the story of the wild Australian men and women who so rapidly established themselves in that city, and whose reputation as ‘hard citizens’, formed in the crucible of the Australian convict system, gave them such a bad reputation. One such citizen was Yankee Sullivan, as he was known, considered a leader and something of a celebrity due to his once status as the US boxing champ, but also his ability to roguishly engage with the local media. He was caught up in the second great purge of Australians from San Francisco in 1856, arrested for being a ‘shoulder-striker’ for the Democrat party, which led to him being locked up in a makeshift vigilante prison while others arrested in the same purge were being lynched.
Contemplating an extraordinary life
AC: What was it about Sullivan’s story that caught your interest initially?
DW-W: The fact that Yankee Sullivan was a colourful figure and a boxer, strangely enough, didn’t initially draw me toward him as a subject. I was curious as to why this man, considered by some to be the father of American boxing (which is now of course a multi-billion dollar industry), wasn’t better known in Australia, but that wasn’t enough for me to consider dedicating researching and writing about him for a couple of years. I did a bit of digging and learned about his time as a convict in Australia, where he was a serial escapee and was sent to Moreton Bay as a sixteen-year-old (then the worst prison in Australia, under the notorious Commandant Logan—the subject of the terrific Drones song ‘Sixteen Straws’). It interested me that he’d been able to escape Australia, and reinvent himself so thoroughly (and quickly) in the milieu made famous by the Scorcese film Gangs of New York, where he became a significant figure, but it wasn’t until I found some words written by his wife following his death in San Francisco that I really felt like I wanted to explore the parts of his life absent in the historical record. She’d noted his vulnerability, and his melancholy, and his fears, which is the starting place of the novel—the human story of a man who’s lived an extraordinary life but is now facing an imminent and humiliating death, using storytelling as a way to distract himself from his situation but also to communicate the things most important to him.
‘Letting the language wash through me’
AC: As someone deeply interested in structure and point of view, I am in awe of The Sawdust House as a masterpiece of both, with two main characters—Sullivan and the reporter Thomas Crane—in conversation with each other while Sullivan waits, in a cell, for his fate at the hands of the Vigilance Committee. Were there challenges in using this device?
DW-W: I felt like I needed someone for Yankee Sullivan to communicate with in his prison cell, someone who Yankee not only trusts, but can see himself in, had his life been different—had he been blessed with some of the opportunities that we take for granted now. But I also wanted Thomas Crane to see something in Yankee that he himself lacked, as an introvert, a certain flamboyance and courage, so that they reflect one another on an emotional level. So the novel proceeds by way of this conversation, and by way of internal monologue that reflects Yankee’s gradual fracturing self as a product of his distress, melancholia, and lack of food and sleep, and Crane’s observations of Yankee and thoughts about his own situation. I haven’t told a story this way before, and so it proceeded slowly, and in fragments, and in a non-linear fashion, moving backwards and forwards in time, with abrupt switches from the present to the past. As a process, I found it intriguing, surprising, and pretty enjoyable, in that because both characters were keen to speak to one another (and to me), I was able to proceed intuitively, with minimal anxiety about where the narrative might be going, instead just letting the language wash through me.
AC: Your research for the novel, as outlined in your Author’s Note at the back of the book, was wide-ranging, including archives, informal sources and site research. Is there one that stands out for you now as the most valuable of these—a photograph, a document, a feature of the landscape?
DW-W: I think the two most important research moments involved the discovery, in the archives, of details about Yankee’s transportation to Moreton Bay as a sixteen-year-old, which was a bland record providing dates only, plus a small note to say that he’d also escaped from Moreton Bay before being recaptured. Knowing how harsh that penal colony was in turn linked to the second most important research discovery, which was a portrait of him as a young man in New York, where he looks so calm and healthy. Knowing how many times he’d been flogged in Australia, how scourged his back must have been, made the portrait (which was used to advertise a tobacco brand) extra poignant to me, and helped with his characterisation, and the development of his voice.
Truths of fiction
AC: You speak, in your Author’s Note, of having ‘changed names and dates and amalgamated characters for dramatic purposes and to better suit the truths of fiction’. Could you talk about the ‘truths of fiction’ as they apply to The Sawdust House?
DW-W: Yankee Sullivan was a much-mythologised character in the US, and some of that reputation was the product of self-mythologisation. This is natural, to a certain extent, for an escaped convict whose worst fear (according to his wife) was to be returned to the chain in Australia. It looks like not a single person in the US, including possibly his Australian wife, knew his real name, for example, or that he’d begun his boxing career in the dusty streets of Sydney, New South Wales. I explore some of that concealed history in the novel, working with the main features of his life that were known (and including some of the newspaper reports written about him, verbatim, as well), but where appropriate I also felt like I needed to streamline some aspects of the narrative by designing devices (such as Yankee’s being chained to Leggo on the transport ship) and by changing dates while keeping to the emotional truths of the events as they played out, and as they affected Yankee’s reputation. This reputation was cemented, for example, when he cheekily sailed back to England and challenged the British middleweight boxing champion, Hammer Lane, to a bout, which Yankee won, despite the risk of his arrest and potential execution before sailing back to the US. In revolutionary America, this was a big deal, and I explore this in the novel while having slightly changed the focus of the return trip, to one where he’s in fact there searching for what remains of his family.
When a character begins to speak
AC: Is the fictional newspaperman Crane (I’m assuming he’s fictional) based on a real journalist of that time, or is he perhaps one of those ‘amalgamated characters’?
DW-W: Thomas Crane is an entirely fictional character. In fact, I met him for the first time just as the reader first finds him, as a disembodied voice addressing Yankee in his prison cell, before he proceeds to colour himself in, so to speak. Without the benefit of much planning or foresight, all of his personal aspects appear to the reader as they appeared to me, too, as Crane becomes a key figure in drawing out Yankee’s story, but also in exploring some of the aspects of Mormonism that so interested me in researching The Coves, such as how violent and chaotic the early history of that religion was.
‘The way he sees the world…’
AC: Sullivan’s narrative, though it carries stylistic characteristics of an untutored 19th-century voice, is frequently poetic. To give one example of many:
…I barely have recollection of what I have said from one utterance to the next. Since my incarceration here I am like a taper whose wick is my voice and the flame has been lit but the wick consumed as it goes—
Did the Walt Whitman connection—which came as a surprise—give you opportunities for developing Sullivan’s voice in this way?
DW-W: The link to Whitman developed later, when I was excited to read that he was a contemporary of Yankee’s in New York City, and when I came across some fascinating anecdotes about him in different texts. The development of Yankee Sullivan’s voice, on the other hand, which of course is an approximation, or a hybrid version of a 19th-century voice shaped by a life in several different countries, was one of the great joys of writing The Sawdust House. As an aspect of this hybridity, perhaps, and of the need to let him speak freely, I was fortunate that right from the beginning, Yankee expressed himself in imagery and metaphor, which is something I hadn’t anticipated, but which is important, because without it I don’t know if I would have been able to sustain the narrative. I was frequently surprised and delighted by the way he sees the world, and while I wasn’t doing any contextual reading at that point, not wanting to complicate the language with another’s voice, it seems to me in retrospect that Whitman’s expansive and enthusiastic style might be an unrecognised influence.
The power of white space
AC: I found the physical layout of the novel fascinating, with each question and each answer of the interview beginning on a new page, even if they occupy only one or two lines. White space speaks eloquently in The Sawdust House, and it contributes to the way you control the pace. But, as white space also = page extent = money, I’m wondering whether there was any discussion surrounding this aspect between you and your publisher.
DW-W: Fortunately, because it’s quite a short novel, the white space, which like you say is there to control pace but also to serve as an absence/presence, or a silence/voice, wasn’t mentioned as a significant issue. Essentially, I think I’m very blessed to have a publisher willing to take a risk with a non-traditional kind of narrative, and an editor who was able to see the merit in this kind of approach. I don’t know if the two things are related, but perhaps it’s significant that Fremantle Press is one of the last publishers around who still publishes terrific poetry.
Title as talisman
AC: The title is immediately intriguing, but I also found it to be one of those titles that was even more resonant after I’d finished the novel. Was it always your working title, or one that came to you in the writing process, or later?
DW-W: It was always my working title, acting while I wrote as a kind of talismanic aspect of Yankee’s yearning, both during his difficult years of captivity, and then, after he’d achieved his parents’ dream of owning a public house/saloon with that name, as an aspect of his recognition that the very things he’d done to achieve that dream had diminished him and his ability to value this achievement—something which becomes significant toward the ending of the novel.
Photo credits: boxing image—James S. Baillie, 1849, black and white lithograph of Thomas Hyer, American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of 1841, fighting Thomas Sullivan on a snowy day in Baltimore; Yankee Sullivan image—Lorilliard’s Mechanics Delight Boxing Card