This interview was done in 2009 but never published.
"What do you think are the main features of your body of work?"
One's own body of work is probably as hard to get perspective on as one's own body. Too close, the angle is wrong, and you can never get a proper look at the back. I can say, though, what I've always tried to do.
One is to use the microcosm of fiction as a way of working through bigger puzzles about human behaviour. The most puzzling aspect of human behaviour, of course, is bad behaviour – so there's a dimension of moral enquiry to the stories.
Another is not to preach or to use fiction simply to illlustrate ideas. My characters don't "stand for" abstractions and I don't want to convince the reader of any particular view. What I hope will happen is that I create an experience for readers in which they're drawn into the same puzzle and exploration-without-destination as I experienced in the writing. Writing the books for me is a way of coming to understand a little more. I hope that readers let themselves go through a similar journey, from puzzlement or simplistic responses to something more nuanced.
In choosing, often, to write about people who are "the other" in some way, I hope that the fiction enlarges readers' idea of their own selves. If we can recognise in "the other" some part of ourselves – perhaps a hidden or unrecognised part – our understanding is deepened. It's much more difficult to fall back on simple (and falsifying) categories of "good and evil" or "them and us", if we've come to see that we also contain both good and evil without ourselves and that we are also both "us" and "them". It's something stronger than intellectually understanding it, and it's not the same as "compassion" – it's about making the leap into empathy, into finding "the other" in oneself.
Making that leap can be difficult and confronting. It requires a suspension of the simplifying structures we assemble to make life manageable – our ideas, our stories about ourselves, the opinions we think are unquestionable truths. There's a lot at stake in making that leap – on the other side of it you can find that all those safe certainties have evaporated. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable place to be, so familiar ways of thinking have a powerful inertia.
It's not a leap that can be made by "thinking". Some other, less defined experience has to take place – as it does when you look at an astonishing painting or hear a piece of music that speaks to you so that you have a moment of intense recognition. In my view, art isn't about "communicating". Part of the point is that you don't quite understand what's happening to you in that moment of intense feeling (and the artsist may not fully understand what he or she did in the making), but you can acknowledge that it's happened, and something in you has shifted slightly as a result.
(Which is not to devalue intellect. There's a place for abstract ideas, for logical argument, for rational understanding. But I don't think they belong in the moment of either experiencing or making art. They belong, if you like, to the afterglow, when you try to understand, retrospectively, what the art did to you.
For me, fiction's job is to take you (by which I mean both reader and writer) out of your comfort zone into the deep space of the new. There's a natural resistance to that. That means that the texture of the prose, the moment-by-moment experience of reading, has to do everything it can to sneak past that resistance. In one way or another it has to amaze or delight or intrigue the reader enough to shake cracks in the wall of certainty. It's not enough for the prose to get the reader from A to B. Every sentence has (ideally!) to carry a little jolt of energy that can't be resisted, propelling the reader out of old habits of thinking and into those dangerous new places.
"The Secret River brought you to the attention of an international readership. Why do you think it was that book, rather than any of the earlier ones, that achieved that?"
The Secret River is about puzzles that people all over the globe are having to deal with in one way or another – who belongs where, what does the idea of belonging mean, how do we share this slightly-too-small planet? The history of humanity is the history of people moving from one place to another, frequently displacing another set of people in the process. It's a painful process and one with no simple right and wrong. If we're truthful, we should all be aware that our sense of belonging is fragile.
Dealing with that puzzle in a direct way can activate our protective shields – the "position" we take on, for example, asylum-seekers or Palestine. But a novel, safely set in another time and perhaps another place, is a way of slipping around behind th shield and coming to it freshly, beyond the deadlock of political debate.
"Some commentators have seen moral ambiguity in The Secret River and feel that you've let William Thornhill "off the hook". Can you comment on those readings of the text?"
In my view, morality is usually "ambiguous". Life must be gloriously simple for those lucky souls who can be sure of what's "good" and what's "bad". But that kind of tidy polarity isn't my experience of the world.
Moral polarity, in any case, doesn't get you very far in trying to understand, and understanding is the only thing that might possibly change things for the better.
In the cae of Thornhill, and all the early colonisers he typifies, to declare him simply a bad man would be to evade the hard task of understanding what happened on the Australian frontier. Seeing him as simply "evil" is as false as the idea (as taught in my schooldays) that the white colonists were pioneer heroes who did no wrong. Neither of these crude positions gets close to the reality. Both of them shut off any possibility of further explorations or understanding.
There seemed no point in writing a book about a monster, an unequivocally bad man. That would let us off the hook. Oh, we could smugly say, I'm not like that, I'd never do that. Then we turn away and there's been no enlargement of understanding.
But the reason for writing the book was to delve into exactly that tricky area: us: that is, white Australians like me, who've benefited from what our ancestors did. Where can we stand, morally?
Exploring that question takes us far beyond easy labels. It takes us into understanding why a man like Thornhill might do what he does. That's a complicated knot of many threads: his own past, his feeling for right and wrong, pressure from the culture around him, love for his family, self-interest ... In the end, I felt he was a man neither better nor worse than most, but had been acted on by all those factors to do somethiong that was deeply wrong and which, in his heart, he knew to be deeply wrong.
It also takes us right into the present, back to us, where there's no simple way to accommodate the wrongs that our ancestors did. The more I explored this troubling subject, the less sure I was of any simple answers. One thing I could see, though, was a moral imperative to try to tell the story of what had happened on the frontier – to tell it as truthfully as I could ( within the necessary shapings of fiction) and to tell it as fully as I could ( not leaving out the parts we flinch from). Acknowledgement seemed a necessary first step, without which nothing better was likely to happen.
I don't think of myself as writing "historical novels" but as writing literary novels that happen to be set in the past. I'm not interested in the past per se ( the way a historian might be). I'm mainly interested in the present and its puzzles, and I'm trying to use the past as a prism through which to see those present puzzles in a new way.
This interview was with Susan Errington for Wet Ink, the Magazine of New Writing and took place in 2008.