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Talking (new) fiction: Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks

It’s a pleasure to introduce my first international guest in the Talking (new) fiction series. Sue Orr’s second novel, Loop Tracks, has been a bestseller in her home country, New Zealand, since its release last year, and has just been released in Australia, to acclaim, by Terri-ann White’s Upswell Publishing.

Loop Tracks was recently longlisted for New Zealand’s premier literary honours, the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Sue Orr is also the award-winning author of two books of short stories, Etiquette for a Dinner Party and From Under the Overcoat, and the novel The Party Line. She teaches creative writing at Victoria University in Wellington, and has for some years been involved with programs teaching creative writing in prisons and women’s refuges in Auckland and Wellington.

Sue took time out from Adelaide Writers’ Week to answer a few questions…

It’s 1978: the Auckland abortion clinic has been forced to close and sixteen-year-old Charlie has to fly to Sydney, but the plane is delayed on the tarmac. It’s 2019: Charlie’s tightly contained Wellington life with her grandson Tommy is interrupted by the unexpected intrusions of Tommy’s first girlfriend, Jenna, and the father he has never known, Jim. The year turns, and everything changes again.

Loop Tracks is a major New Zealand novel, written in real time against the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic and the New Zealand General Election and euthanasia referendum.

Voices from sisters past

AC: Sue, you’ve spoken about Loop Tracks having been inspired by a conversation some years ago—a moment you’ve described as ‘a tingle, like shorting electrics desperate to earth’ when a friend spoke about ‘a plane delayed on the tarmac at Auckland Airport for hours, with anxious pregnant girls and women on board’. The plane’s destination was Sydney, where the women and girls could go to have a safe, legal abortion, something they could not do in New Zealand at that time (1978).

The first question I want to ask about this concerns the issue of teenage pregnancies in the late 1970s. As you show in Loop Tracks, the choices available to young pregnant girls were limited—abortion or adoption—both involving a great degree of secrecy and hypocrisy. And those so-called ‘choices’ were often made by others. What floored me was the cruelty meted out to so many young girls in the name of ‘respectability’. Were you able to access formal, as well as anecdotal, research into the long-term effects of these practices in developing your story?

SO: Yes. As an ex-journalist, it was really important to me that the backdrop to the fictional narrative of Loop Tracks was factually correct. I obsessed over the accuracy, to be honest, and now on reflection I think it was also because I didn’t want to give anti-choice lobbyists any grounds to challenge me on sloppy research, diverting the conversation away from the issues at the heart of the book.

Dame Margaret Sparrow, with others, set up Sisters Overseas Service, the clandestine network that enabled women from the far reaches of New Zealand to travel to Australia for abortions during 1978. Margaret went on to establish Family Planning in New Zealand.

She has written three texts on the history of abortion law in New Zealand. One of them, Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980, was my key formal resource for the researching of Loop Tracks. It contains many reflective accounts of the long-term effects of the practices you mention.

Margaret launched the New Zealand edition of Loop Tracks. The novel is dedicated to her, and to my friend who was on the delayed flight at the beginning of the story. Loop Tracks could not have been written without the generosity of these two women.

Someone else’s story

AC: I’m also wondering about the process of developing a narrative from that initiating conversation into the rich terrain covered by the novel. Was it difficult to transform the experience of a friend into fiction? Were you conscious, for example, of the need to de-identify your friend? I imagine this might affect all manner of creative choices—characters, settings, motivations…

SO: Unlike Charlie, my friend who was on the flight stayed on the flight. So it was never a question of transforming her specific experience into fiction. But she was able to gift to me the essential details of what it was like to be a very young woman pregnant in 1978, not wanting to have the baby. What it was like to have to find a doctor (and they were rare) who would help her navigate the system that had been established by the Sisters Overseas Service. What it was like to raise the small fortune needed for the flight and procedure. What it was like to turn up at the airport and be shepherded on to a commercial flight with others in her situation. The condescending air hostesses. The dash to Sydney, or Melbourne, and the return home two days later to take up her old life, pretending none of it had ever happened. And, of course, the delay that occurred on her particular flight. That delay was the genesis of this book.

I have always protected the identity of this friend. It was the promise I made to her, when she agreed to talk about all of those things I just mentioned. I’ve written an essay about this here.

‘The girl that was me’

AC: I love the way you play with tense and point of view with your protagonist, Charlie. Although the novel is essentially a first-person narrative, the world through Charlie’s eyes, you also give us third-person sequences that tell the story of ‘the girl that was me’, and which slide between past and present. What advantages did this narrative sleight of hand give you in conveying Charlie’s story?

SO: It felt as though I had no choice but to offer Charlie the sleight of hand as a way to confront her traumatic past. Charlie has never dealt with the shocking circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, the father of the baby, or the birth of her child. Rather, she has developed mechanisms for shutting down that period of her life; shutting down any conversation that looks as though it might be drifting towards these traumas. As a result, she’s disassociated herself from ‘the girl she was’.

The disassociation starts to crumble when two things happen—her grandson Tommy gets an inquisitive girlfriend, and the pair of them summon Tommy’s father into all their lives. Charlie’s forced to confront those events, all those years ago. She is so far emotionally and mentally estranged from them, the only way she can cope with revisiting them is via a third-person perspective. The distance she creates between her adult self and the girl she was enables her to face the past, fearfully crack it open, and eventually create the possibility of moving on from it.

Joys and challenges

AC: Charlie’s grandson, Tommy, is a wonderfully drawn character, and I found my response to him vacillating between protectiveness and exasperation, affection and outright horror. Can you please tell us a little about Tommy and how you developed this character?

SO: Tommy came into Charlie’s life at the age of four—dropped off at the gate when his father became unable (or unwilling) to cope with him. Tommy needed Charlie, and Charlie needed him. She needed someone to care for, a purpose in her life.

As I grew this character—as he grew into a teenager—I realised that his relationship with his grandmother had to become more mutually reliant rather than less, as would normally happen. I also needed a character who would interpret the world in a very literal way; someone who would be vulnerable to the conspiracy theories in 2020 New Zealand.

I have friends with sons on the spectrum—I have watched these boys grow up, watched how they interpret the world around them, watched how their loving families have accommodated their views and celebrated their difference. One such friend read an early version of the manuscript, and pointed out that I had painted too rosy a picture of life with a child on the spectrum. Where’s the anger? she asked me. Where are the unreasonable, vicious, hurtful outbursts towards the people that love them and care for them the most? The next draft was more honest. It captured the challenges, as well as the joys, of raising a child on a spectrum.

Another crack at reckless joy’

AC: Loop Tracks could be thought of as a multiple coming of age story. Tommy’s passage from adolescence into new adulthood is one thread; Charlie’s earlier, very different experience of that journey is another. Is the older Charlie also undergoing another kind of ‘coming of age’ in the narrative present of the novel?

SO: She absolutely is.

As Tommy gains independence, Charlie recognises that she’s becoming irrelevant to him. (There’s no feigning denial of this on Tommy’s part—he says it like it is!) So where does this leave Charlie? Who is she, if she’s not Tommy’s provider and protector?

Her second coming of age—her opportunity to reset her life, bump the looping patterns off track—occurs against the backdrop of the extreme lockdown conditions of the first wave of Covid-19 to hit New Zealand in March 2020. For Charlie, already cast adrift from the responsibilities of the last 20 years, this weird new world presents opportunity for another crack at reckless joy, this time tempered with wisdom.

Characters first

AC: Loop Tracks is a novel that foregrounds the political. Issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the rights of individuals are woven into the story in ways that make it clear that rationalisations and doctrines don’t hold: the political is personal, it affects lives, it has consequences. Is this an abiding concern in your work or did the original inspiration, the experience of your friend, dictate this direction for the novel?

SO: Characters always come first for me. I started with a girl on a delayed flight: she’s pregnant, naïve, and makes a crazy decision that makes sense to her in that moment. That’s all I had to work with. I knew the circumstances of her pregnancy, and little else.

But if you’re willing to inhabit the hearts of your characters—be your characters—then the story unfolds in its own surging, organic way. This feels like the only way to write, to me. This is the source of the joy of writing. The excitement of discovering what happens next, at the same time as your characters. Jumping on their shoulders and experiencing their lives with them.

The issues—the themes, whatever you want to call them—they emerge in a natural way, as a result of the character’s development and decisions. I’m there for the ride, documenting the fallout, the consequences, the joys and despair of human fallibility and resilience.

Loops interrupted

AC: The stunning cover for your Australian edition features an image by Greg Simpson that brings to mind Charlie’s, and then Tommy’s, love of the 1960s design toy, Spirograph. Could you please talk about the way this works as metaphor in Loop Tracks?

SO: I always imagined the cover being a Spirograph image (it was my favourite childhood toy) with a big smudge across the page as the pen was bumped off course. The final cover was so much better—less literal, less obvious, while still clearly referencing a Spirograph design. The geometric loops have gone haywire, just as the rigid routines in Charlie’s life get knocked off course in the novel. The image also alludes to Tommy’s discovery of loop track music and his natural gift for mathematics, and the beautiful loop track bush walks in Wellington city.

The C word

AC: Yours is one of the first wave of novels to draw Covid into the story—and the pandemic atmosphere brings so much to what is happening. What influence, if any, did Covid have on the way the novel ends?

SO: The novel ends in spring 2020—after the General Election which saw Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government return to power. By early October, Covid had been eliminated in New Zealand for the time being. The return to a normal way of life gave agency to all the characters—they were free, finally, to make decisions about how they would live their lives, for better or for worse.

Loop Tracks is published by Upswell Publishing
You can follow Sue on Twitter and Instagram

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Talking (new) fiction: John Hughes’ The Dogs

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.

Magnetic energy

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.

Across generations

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…

John Hughes’ grandmother with his aunt and mother (front)

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!

The Dogs is published by Upswell
Follow John on Instagram @johnhughes185

Photo credits: author photo by Tim Derricourt; family photo photographer unknown

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Rising up…

It takes a courageous person to establish a new publishing imprint during a pandemic. Even more so when the venture is based in Perth. And even more when the publisher announces her interest in

books that elude easy categorising and working somewhat against the grain of current trends…books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.

The publisher is Terri-ann White, writer, arts aficionado, former bookseller, teacher and researcher, and until June 2020 Director and Publisher of UWA Publishing. In this last role, she published the three fiction titles among my four books, and I have many times credited her publicly with having changed the course of my life in the process.

Upswell published its first three titles this year: Imaginative Possession: Learning to Live in the Antipodes (narrative non-fiction) by Belinda Probert, The Sweetest Fruits by American-Vietnamese writer Monique Truong (fiction) and The Dogs byJohn Hughes (fiction). All have been widely reviewed.

And the Upswell 2022 catalogue has just been released—a list that gives a fascinating insight into the curatorial hand behind it. It features new writers alongside established, and includes a wide range of genres: fiction (though there are surprisingly few titles in this category), narrative non-fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art.

Good luck and best wishes to Upswell—an exciting new addition to Australian publishing!

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