A few weeks ago, I wrote about Upswell, the new imprint of publishing dynamo Terri-ann White. Today it’s my pleasure to feature one of the titles on Upswell’s 2021 list, the recently released novel The Dogs by John Hughes.
Sydney writer John Hughes has published six acclaimed books, including novels The Remnants, Asylum, and No One (shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award). He has won the National Biography Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Innovation, and NSW and Queensland Premier’s Book Awards.
Since its recent release, The Dogs has garnered outstanding reviews and has been described (Newtown Review of Books) as
a seductive shaping of memory and imagination…superbly plotted literary fiction, a historical-contemporary cross; widescale and microscopic, metaphysical in aims…
It’s a novel I know I will be thinking about for a long time to come.
The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.—Elias Canetti
Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?
Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?
From the Miles Franklin shortlisted author of No One comes a haunting gem of family secrets and impossible decisions.
Always further to fall
AC: Can you tell us a bit about your protagonist, Michael Shamanov, and the situation he finds himself in?
JH: Michael Shamanov is a television scriptwriter in his late fifties. He has a fraught relationship with his mother (who is suffering from dementia and whom he put into a nursing home against her will), and with his son Leo, a Gold Coast property developer, with whom he has barely kept in contact since a fractious divorce when Leo was still very young. He’s smart and articulate (and hopefully funny), but he’s also selfish and unpleasant, and a failure in pretty much all his human dealings, incapable, it would seem, of change. The novel begins with him at the nadir of his life, with apparently nowhere further to fall. Though as he remarks later, ‘That’s the beauty of existence, isn’t it, that there’s always further to fall, always something worse. Fear of something worse might even pass for a definition of what it means to be alive.’ That’s Michael Shamanov in a nutshell.
Talking ten to the dozen
AC: Years ago I read—with great alarm, as I was at the time writing a novel in the first person—that Henry James described the use of first-person point of view in any long fiction as ‘barbaric’, an ‘act of violence on the reader’. Obviously, neither of us is with Henry on this point!
The use of Michael Shamanov’s voice in The Dogs is masterful. We learn so much about who he is and the way his mind works from what he says, what he does not say, and in particular the digressions and tangents that he weaves through his narration. Did you know, from the outset, that you were going to use this perspective, and did you encounter any pitfalls along the way?
JH: Yes, James loathed the first person, he thought it was like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. And for the kind of novel he wanted to write, I take his point. But the writers of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, obviously thought otherwise.
The Dogs came to me with Michael Shamanov talking ten to the dozen, he was telling his story even before I knew what that story was, so there was no way it could be anything other for me than first person. And unlike Henry James, I think writing in the first person allows you to do two things for the price of one, because even when your narrator is telling you something about someone else, he’s also revealing something of himself, as you say: with every characterisation, he’s also characterising himself. The main problem with a narrator like Shamanov, though, was getting him to shut up, even if his ire was directed mostly against himself!
To know what has to come
AC: The Dogs has one of the most arresting prefaces/prologues I’ve read in a long time. Anna’s reference to ‘the dogs’ chilled me to the bone, and that was before I understood what she meant. What, for you, is the purpose of a preface, or this preface?
JH: I wrote prefaces for my first two books–The Idea of Home and Someone Else–because my publisher thought the books needed them. I wrote them grudgingly, after everything else was done. Yet many readers have told me it’s the prefaces they love, especially the one to Someone Else. It was my first lesson in realising your publisher always knows better than you do! But seriously, though I didn’t enjoy writing them at the time, I think now they make each book. So I’m glad I dragged myself to the task.
In this book, the preface again came at the end of the writing, though this time the impetus was mine. It wasn’t that I felt the book was incomplete, it was just that the preface could do a lot of historical work in a short space, setting up the relationship between Michael and his mother Anna, and how they’ve got to where they are when the novel begins. But mainly it’s as you write in the question, I wanted the prolepsis: to create in the reader an acute feeling of anticipation, and of terror at the prospect of it being fulfilled; to know what is to come has to come, there can be no other way.
Silence as a weapon
AC: Anna, always a determinedly elusive mother to Michael, now has the ‘crumbly brain’ of an Alzheimer’s patient. We encounter her as an inmate in a nursing home, unable to perform basic functions like feeding herself, but in spite of her apparent helplessness, what struck me when I was reading was her strength, the power she holds over Michael. Could you please talk about the sources of this kind of power?
JH: Silence, like coldness, is an incredibly powerful weapon. Michael wants only a sign of love from his mother, the vaguest idea of why she is the person she is, but she gives him neither. About herself, she will say nothing. She can so easily satisfy his strongest desire, and yet she will not. Worse even than the power over life and death—Anna destroys her son while keeping him alive. That is the power of her silence.
AC: I’m always intrigued by characters who are outright unlikeable or (as in this case) sometimes not easy to like. Michael’s narration of his own failings is painfully honest and often shocking to read—as, for example, in the following passage:
I had access to Leo on weekends. I used to pick him up early on Saturday mornings on the way across from Bondi. But sometimes, when I knew Sarah had booked a weekend up the coast with her new ‘partner’, I wouldn’t show. It’s petty, I know, but it amused me all the same. The phone would ring over and over again. It felt good hearing it ring out…I didn’t think of Leo.
That last sentence!
Likeability does not, of course, equal engagement: a character readers loathe can be as compelling as one they love—or even more so. But did it ever feel like a risk, writing Michael in this way?
JH: Yes, it did feel a risk (if only because given his age, and background, he has many resemblances to me, and it’s an easy step for a reader to mistake the narrator for his author!). It’s all about getting the balance right, I think. I wanted to make real the damage that inherited trauma can do, to give it flesh and blood, and to do that I had to create a highly damaged character. So damaged, in fact, that even though he recognises what his mother has done to him, it doesn’t stop him perpetuating the damage in his son—its transmission is as irresistible to him as a virus, or the passing on of our DNA. The key was to balance this with traits the reader might enjoy—his humour, for instance, the self-lacerating nature of his criticism, but mainly, the fact that his failings may not be as bad as he thinks they are, that beneath them there is someone who loves and wants to be loved, even if he can’t help but put his foot in his mouth! I think there is something compelling about failure, and I hope readers do too, but I hope too that there’s also something compelling about the voice, and it’s this energy that’s magnetic, pulling readers in, even as it seems to drive them away.
AC: Research has shown that trauma can be transferred across generations genetically as well as by social means, and an inheritance of trauma is evident in The Dogs. As Anna’s story is gradually revealed we can see threads involving silence, evasion and withholding at work, connecting Anna’s mother, Ravenna, to Anna herself, and to Michael. I’m wondering about Michael’s son’s, Leo: is he the one to break the pattern?
JH: Without giving too much of the novel away, it’s clear that Leo too is damaged, and repeats, in many ways, the story of his father. But I like to think the last part of the novel reveals him as a different kind of man, and that even while on the surface he appears to be doing something many might consider terrible to help his father, he is doing it out of love, and Michael recognises this, and it breaks him inside and shows him that in his son, at least, he is more than his failings. Trauma is difficult to dilute, even across four generations, but I hope by the novel’s end there is some small sense of hope, even given (I might almost say because of) its final action.
A story made out of stories
AC: I was deeply moved by the piece you wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald about the experience of sitting with your grandmother as she lay dying—and I recommend it to anyone interested in ageing, legacy and honouring the past and the lives of those we love. You describe this experience as having inspired The Dogs, although the novel does not tell your grandmother’s story.
Your grandmother, as a young woman and mother, lived through a tragic time in history, the Great Ukrainian Famine of the early 1930s. It is obviously a powerful narrative, and one intimately connected with your very existence. You have used the emotional weight of that story of survival but none of the details, and I’m wondering whether you consciously rejected the idea of using the story itself. Must we always transform our own experiences and those of people close to us—tell them slant—in order to see the dogs for ourselves?
JH: In his long poem ‘Phantom’, the Scottish poet Don Paterson writes:
what kind of twisted ape ends up believing
the rushlight of his little human art
truer than the great sun on his back?
I knew the game was up for me the day
I stood before my father’s corpse and thought
If I can’t get a poem out of this…
As you say, I knew the game was up for me the day I sat beside my grandmother, who lay dying of dementia in a nursing home bed. Though I didn’t think the thought in such an explicit way, it must surely have been there. If I can’t get a novel out of this…Writers are terrible cannibals of their family and friends. Where else do our characters and stories come from? From other literature, perhaps, but mainly from those we know best (including ourselves, although there I’d say there’s no one alive who doesn’t know the self they want to be far better than the self they are—when it comes to self-knowledge, that is, all of us are idealists!).
But in this case, although the novel came out of my experience sitting beside my grandmother’s bed, and the way of its telling corresponds closely to the way her story was revealed to me, I also knew that the story itself had to be different, and not only because I needed to spare my grandmother. Because I knew when I started writing the book that it is, in one way, a story about second-hand stories. History comes to us as Anna’s memories come to Michael—fragmented, contradictory, incomplete—and we have to make sense of it, as Michael does, in his self-conscious and highly allusive stories that dominate the second part of the novel. All our stories of the time before us can’t help but be second-hand. For this reason, I needed Anna’s story to feel like a pastiche—a story made out of stories. The reader is given the source, in the fragments of Anna’s edited transcript, and then the story Michael makes of these. First-hand accounts, like that of his mother, say, ‘This is what happened.’ Second-hand accounts ask, ‘What happened? How do we know?’ Michael—who wasn’t there and doesn’t know—must build his mother’s story then out of other stories, to demonstrate his helplessness in the face of his mother’s experience. (And mine too!)
In a way the second part of the novel is really about writing itself, about being a writer, and the process of putting a story together out of what we don’t know. So yes, it made sense for me to tell the story slant, in part to respect my grandmother’s privacy, but also because the novel demanded it be told that way. And yet, it’s also true that in the way it explores intergenerational trauma and the secrets that run through even the most ordinary of families, it begins and ends with my grandmother in that bed, and the knowledge that I did ‘get a novel out of this’, one in which I hope I have done her justice, and for which my family will forgive me, and hopefully continue speaking to me, if only until I turn the spotlight on them!
Photo credits: author photo by Tim Derricourt; family photo photographer unknown