Rodney Hall: A Stolen Season

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At the gym – working on the gun show.

Rodney Hall is one of Australia’s greatest living writers. He has been nominated for the Miles Franklin Award seven times and if he wins this year, it’ll be the third time he’s gone home with the prize.

I have known him for eighteen years and he never fails to deliver on the subject of literature. He has been kind enough to wax lyrical at the Theme Park on matters literary and a few others that happen to intersect within his purview. 

T.P: I’m guessing that if the Miles Franklin Award was predicated on biceps, you’d win that.

R.H: Well, you were the first to show me the ropes at the gym. And you know my belief that the life of the body is not separate from the life of the mind. My view of exercising the imagination is very similar to my view of exercising the body; we need to challenge and stretch it. And put it under stress. If things are too easy, they’re boring.

You said to me once that all good art has two things – energy and risk. What’s the risk with A Stolen Season? 

It begins by throwing out the usual, expected story structure. It isn’t there at all. What you get instead are three separate strands that don’t necessarily connect with each other. It’s presented not as a story sequence, but as a single living experience that reader is invited to participate in.

The book begins by taking the reader into the world of Adam and Bridget. He has been mortally wounded in the Iraq war, suffering burns to ninety-eight percent of his body.

He’s delivered back to wife [in Australia] as a life-long invalid. When he discovers that war was declared on the basis of a lie – the non-existent weapons of mass destruction – he has to question why he sacrificed his life.

So, I ask the reader one thing: how would you cope? What would you think? That’s all that strand really does. Lots of things happen, but it stays with that material.

[The book] goes into the second strand with no warning: a woman in Belize, in Central America. We know she’s on the run. The police are working to track her down (she’s an Australian) and she’s come here by accident because she picked up a book that explained the Mayan calendar.

To her great surprise, the book predicted the world’s end ‘the day after tomorrow’. In real time. So, she goes to the Mayan temple to climb up the top and wait for the world’s end. That’s how she gets away from the Interpol police.

The third strand is about a sixty-year-old man whose life has been ruined by too much money. His family have had the cash for five hundred years – they’re a family of bankers and financiers. Because of money, he doesn’t know what anyone thinks of him, or who he is. He is given the chance to find out in the only comic section of the book.

The risk lies in relying on the reader to be willing to think about these three strands, and to see that they are deeply connected. But it’s not a story that connects them – it’s a theme.

The theme is that, in any period of history, the working people are sacrificed to an idea, and the idea may well be too big for them to recognise what it is (in the Mayan times it was the building of stone pyramids – in modern Australia it’s the ‘pyramid’ of international finance leading to the GFC).

Sounds like you have to work.

I hope the reader enjoys putting the bits together and seeing what echoes what, what reflects what.

This is at the heart of what fiction is. A work of fiction takes two, and only two people to create. The writer gives the reader the material, but because it’s fiction, there’s no right or wrong; no external subject (like in a non-fiction book). This is about the reader participating in the human interactions that the writer gives them.

So whatever the book, whatever book we’re talking about, it’s deeply different in every individual mind for every individual reader.

This is not to do with the book [A Stolen Season], this is just an illustration that I’ve used in writing classes I’ve taught. If I tell you that the story begins with a cow in a field, and the farmer in the open door of his shed, let’s say, I can get all the students in that class to write down where they’re standing to see this scene.

Are they up close or far away? Is the cow near the fence or near the shed? Is the cow black and white, or brown? Does the farmer have a hat on? How big is the shed? What’s it made of? How long is the grass, what’s the fence made of? You get the idea. In the class, I can get everyone to read out what they’ve written and there are never two alike.

If you transfer that model onto an adult work of fiction dealing with complex and searching ideas, you can imagine how much more that is true. And this process… the more challenging it is, the more stimulating it is to the reader.

So, this particular novel sets out to deal with very big issues and I want it left to the readers themselves to discover what they are. I don’t tell you… I don’t tell my readers what to think. I want them to find out for themselves.

Clues are there, parallels are there . . . they’re just inviting the reader to find them. The reason for doing this, the reason for not using story . . .

There’s two things about a story. The first thing is, story is always a simplification. We don’t live stories. We extract the story from our experience by ignoring almost everything else. The second thing is, in telling the story, the writer takes power. The reader is waiting to be told what happens next.

I don’t care what happens next. What I care about is that the moment – every moment – of the book is as full and real as possible. So, if I’m successful, it’s not the case of a page turner (with the reader eager to turn the page), it’s a case of the reader wanting to stay on the page they’re on, because it has triggered something in their own life that means a great deal more to them than a sequence of events; a sequence of happenings.

When I’m writing a book, I don’t plan it. It evolves as I go. And what I’m always looking to do is to put myself in the uncomfortable position of soul-searching. And that’s what I invite the reader to share in, something that is not a comfortable succession of cause and effect, but the sudden surprise of a meaning opening out that the reader didn’t see coming.

How has your reading evolved over time? How do you find things that hold your interest?

I do suppose that as I get older, I’m more willing to engage with risks. Because when I was younger, I thought there were right and wrong ways to do things. And I wanted to be sure that the writer was kind of living up to my expectations.

Whereas now I’m only interested in what the writer wants to offer me. And that could be a full book with only 20 full stops from beginning to end which is a vortex of repetitions and luxuriant detail, or . . .

Are you thinking of anything in particular?

 That’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Autumn of the Patriarch . . . or it can be George Saunders, say, satirising political power by reducing the state to an area so small it has room for only one person. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

In each case, books like these take me somewhere I’ve never been before. And drop me in at the deep end like they’re saying, ‘Now, swim!’

Autumn of the Patriarch… I couldn’t get with that book at all.

Life changes and we change as readers. Things that at some ages we can’t approach… I had that with Ulysses. I thought that book was total and utter rubbish. I think I was about eighteen when I tried it [for the first time].

I seem to remember throwing it across the room. As a reader I couldn’t get my bearings; I didn’t know where I was expected to be, what I was expected to think.

When I came back to it in my forties, it was all so astonishingly clear – and clarity is exactly what Joyce is so brilliant at – because, by then, I wasn’t asking the writer to take me by the hand. I was willing to go into what he showed me, not needing to know what my bearings were, just accepting what was there.   

There’s another factor too, and it is that we can’t be shown things we don’t already know. If we don’t know what the book is about, in some form, it may as well be in a foreign language.

So, I fully accept that there are many books that are not addressed to people like me. They may be great; they may be really good, but I can’t reach them. I can’t get there, so I don’t try.

The corrupt world of a South American dictator is right up my street. Tropical and decadent, luxuriant and… wild.

So, there are different ways to approach different books?

I think there’s only one way, and that’s to be open to them. But if they’re not speaking to you, then don’t force it. It’s not for you; it’s for somebody else.

A Stolen Season can be purchased here. The Miles Franklin Award will be announced on July 30.

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