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Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

My literary remake of Kuranda

There’s something about Kuranda in the far north of Queensland that draws me back every few years. It’s a green jewel of a town up on the Atherton tablelands, peopled by Aboriginal Australians, potters, painters and pie makers. The tiny railway station nestles in a culvert draped in rainforest trees and vines. The miniature St Saviour’s church is built from logs, its delicate stained glass windows recording its history and benefactors.

It’s here that I staged the eccentric romance at the heart of The True History of Jude which reimagines the story of Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Kuranda couldn’t be more different than Hardy’s Christminster (a thinly disguised Oxford), where the naive working-class stonemason Jude travelled to find his cousin Sue and to study theology. My Jude and Sue are part of a remnant population in an Australia wrecked by climate change and abandoned to mineral exploitation. My Jude escapes a government-controlled refugee camp at Orange that has evolved into a matriarchal society with its own creole language; Kuranda is an outlaw community ruled by a patriarchal religious sect. And like Hardy’s Sue, my Sue is married to an old school teacher.

I’ll leave the back story here to focus on my literary remodelling of Kuranda. The BP service station on Coondoo street is now the Blessed Prospect Church where divine singing mixes with the tropical breezes; you can just discern a petrol tanker among a tangle of vines out the front. There’s a train rusting on the railway station tracks, which are boarded over to form the yard of Slab, an odd-job man who employs Jude. He’s the nearest Jude can find to a stonemason, a New Zealander librarian once press-ganged to be trained as a drone operator protecting mine sites in Australia. And there’s the seedy end of town beyond the contemporary Foodworks store, where I located the public latrines and a bar. It’s here where Jude, drunk and despairing, was reunited with his first wife Arabella and his twin daughters Sorry and Anger.

Those familiar with Jude the Obscure will recall the tragedy that took place in the closet-room in Christminster, but I’ll avoid a spoiler for those who aren’t and just mention that I found an excellent location at the Barron Falls lookout.

A friend put me on the spot the other day: Why did you choose Kuranda of all places? I can concoct half a dozen post-hoc rationalisations, but in the end it must have been a mystical intersection of two emotional planes – my inexplicable obsession with Hardy’s novel and my instinctive attraction to Kuranda. The idea just fell into my mind six years ago. And when I sat drinking a coffee in Coondoo Street in June this year, I looked around and knew it was right.

You can find The True History of Jude in ebook and paperback here.

The best or the worst novel I’ve written?

This question has dogged me since I brought the first pages to my writing critique group six years ago. The True History of Jude endured restructures, abandoned endings, a complete change of tense, and deep puzzlement from some of those who read drafts along the way.

The question is perhaps irrelevant. This was a novel I wrote for myself, ignoring advice to cram it into a genre box. I categorise it as ‘coming of age tale’ and ‘dystopian thriller’. I could just as well say ‘epistolatory confession’ and ‘satire on Australia’s elites’. Or even ‘reimagining of a nineteenth century English novel’.

The True History of Jude is now out in ebook and paperback. I’m nervous.

I’m planning six or seven blog posts over the next few months, talking about various themes and motifs in the novel. These are some of the topics I’ll cover:

  • The potential for a tsunami that renders Australia’s east coast uninhabitable.
  • The Macfarlane family, who lease Australia to the international community as the exclusive supplier of uranium for a thousand years.
  • The development of a new creole language among climate change refugees abandoned in Australia.
  • The secession of the southern states of the USA.
  • The community of religious fundamentalists who have taken over the North Queensland town of Kuranda.
  • The fate of a royal historian in the post-truth era in England, where computer generated language technology has eliminated fiction.
  • A main character who believes he is Jude in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

If that hasn’t convinced you that The True History of Jude doesn’t fit a genre straitjacket, then I’ll try a little harder: Most of the book is supposedly written on an old typewriter, which is fine in the paperback edition where a suitable font replicates typing; but the robotic flowing text of the ebook neuters the aesthetic effect—technology eliminating art!

The True History of Jude is available here at a promotional discount of $0.99 until the end of July 2022.

Advance review copy request

A man flees through a rain forest. A condemned woman pounds a typewriter …

Six years in the writing, The True Story of Jude is nearing publication. This is my most ambitious novel to date – part coming of age story, part dystopian thriller, part future-gazing on the post-truth era.

If you’d like to receive an advance review copy, email me at stuartcampbellauthor@gmail.com Let me know which format – epub or PDF.

Constructed language note

Note: This post deals with one of the constructed languages in my upcoming novel The True Story of Jude. Alongside Arg, the novel also includes a constructed Creole from the Australian town of Orange.

Introduction

Arg is a variety of English spoken in the Kingdom of England and Wales, which differs markedly from The King’s English to the extent that it can be classified as a dialect. The name Arg can be traced back to a paper published by the Cerebrum think tank in 0012 that advocated the banning of ‘unauthorised dialects and argots of English’. The term ‘argot’ was ridiculed by campaigners for language liberalisation outside the Kingdom, and was widely disseminated in the graffiti meme ‘hands off my Arg’.

Unverified sources claim that 22% of English speakers in K.E.W. understand Arg ‘well’, 67% ‘moderately well’, and 11% ‘not well’. Some 34 % of the K.E.W. population are claimed to speak Arg at least once a month.

Arg exists in a code-switching relationship with The King’s English. It is typically used for in-group conversation, e.g. intimate peer speech, non-professional workplaces, among boy bankers and girl bankers, and among criminals. It is not unusual, for example, for a manual worker to speak The King’s English in a workshop but to switch to Arg in an encounter in the washroom with a colleague. Using Arg in certain contexts can be interpreted as an implicit act of opposition to the rule of law in K.E.W.

Arg is rarely written except in the captions of some samizdat graphic novels, for example, the notorious Zak and Zina msorta fool around.

Loris Hacker’s book Arg: The Future of English, now proscribed in the K.E.W., argues that Arg is ‘the vanguard of English’ since it progresses language change features that were largely halted with language standardisation and the introduction of printing in the sixteenth century.

Grammatical features of Arg

The grammar of Arg differs from The King’s English in several ways:

1. Loss of inflection in nouns.

Nouns in Old English (sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon) bore inflections, i.e. endings to indicate their role in a sentence or to indicate plural number. For example, the word for ‘angel’ had the forms engel, engles, engle, englas, engla, and englum. In The King’s English today, those inflection are lost, except for the plural -s and a handful of ‘irregular’ plurals such as -en in children. Arg has taken the final step of losing even the plural inflections.

Example: Two rouble, nine girl [Two roubles, nine girls]

2. Loss of verb inflections

Old English had a rich system of verb inflections to convey such things as subject and tense, e.g. lufielufast, lufath, the present tense forms for ‘love’ with the pronouns I, you and he/she respectively. The corresponding past tense forms are lufode, lufodest, lufode. In The King’s English, we see a weakened system of inflections, with just a few vestiges of the Old English system, e.g. -s-ed and -ing in ‘loves’, ‘loved’, ‘loving’. However, Arg has lost all verb inflections.

3. Verb modifiers

To compensate for the loss of verb inflections, Arg has developed a set of verb modifiers that have the status of independent words rather than endings. Examples include:

Past tense modifier did

Unlike The King’s English, which uses inflected forms of do to form questions, tags and ellipsis, e.g. Do you like tea? He wrote the book, didn’t he? Yes, we do., in Arg, only an uninflected form did remains. It is used optionally to indicate actions in the past, e.g. He arrive, he did arrive [He arrived.]

Progressive modifiers ‘msorta‘mlike and ‘mkinda

‘msorta has developed from ‘I’m sort of’, e.g. ‘I’m sort of talking to my sister’. The inflected forms, e.g. ‘he’s sort of’ and ‘you’re sort of’ have been lost. At the same time the progressive inflection -ing has been discarded in Arg, to yield examples such as:

He’msorta eat dinner. [He’s eating dinner.]

We’msorta wait. [We’re waiting].

Baz ‘msorta fish. [Baz is fishing].

The other progressive modifiers, ‘mlike and ‘mkinda, are interchangeable with ‘msorta, e.g

He’mlike eat dinner

He’mkinda eat dinner

Modifiers can be combined, (with the proviso that did is optional) e.g.

I’m did sorta kiss her [I was kissing her]

He’m did like sit on the bench [He was sitting on the bench]

4. Nominalisation of complementizers

The -ing inflection is preserved in Arg in order to form nominalisations that correspond to to-infinitives and to-less infinitives in the King’s English, e.g.

I want eating chips. [I want to eat chips.]She ‘mlike help me chopping

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To find out more about my novels, click here.

Creating a fictional human language – a beginner’s experience

 

 

Most people are familiar with the idea of constructed languages like Esperanto, Tolkien’s Elvish languages, and Dothraki from Game of Thrones. As a novel-writing linguist, I was keen to get it right when I invented two languages for a novel Patria Nullius I’ve just finished writing after a six-year slog.

Constructed languages or conlangs is a serious business. The Language Creation Society brings together experts like co-founder David J. Peterson, language consultant to Game of Thrones. Oh, by the way, people who invent languages are called conlangers, and I guess I’m now one.

I took the easy road in my twenty-second century world – inventing a Creole for a mostly depopulated Australia, and an English ‘underground’ dialect in a dystopian England. I anchored my creations in existing languages, and used linguistic theory to make them plausible.

My languages are mere fragments, nothing like Jasper Charlet’s extensively constructed Carite which even has its own opera Heyra. I have a skeleton vocabulary and basic grammatical rules, but no phonetics or phonology.

Orange Creole is named for the Australian town of Orange, where I located a climate refugee camp of speakers of Fijian, Fijian Hindi, Tongan and Vietnamese whose progeny created an English-based pidgin. This developed into a full Creole in the second generation.

Using Derek Bickerton’s Bioprogram Hypothesis, I was able to invent plausible basic grammatical features for a Creole. Vocabulary was adapted from the base languages and English, e.g. nowrotu ‘> an hour of two, meaning ‘in the near future’; the word for stomach – zazzy > Vietnamese.  Dạ dày.

Here’s an Orange Creole fragment: miyanim spisi yu ‘we are your fruit’, where miyanim (we excluding you) contrasts with miyanyu, (we including you), and spisi is derived from SPC, a brand of Australian canned fruit.

And here’s a bit of Arg, my English dialect spoken by a criminal underclass, which has developed progressivemodifiers ‘msorta, ‘mlike and ‘mkinda, as in we’msorta wait ‘we’re waiting’. My professional future gazing suggests that this is a plausible development.

Patria Nullius is starting its search for an agent right now, so Orange Creole and Arg are under wraps for a while (maybe a long while!). Meanwhile I’d be glad to hear from other linguist-novelists about how you deal with literary challenges. I promise a thread soon on how I incorporated an Arabic ‘feel’ into my Siranoush Trilogy.

Frozen creative muscles thaw after lockdown

The sun’s shining in Sydney, lockdown is over. I’ve eaten in restaurants, been shopping in real shops. The memories of Click n’Collect are fading fast.

After ten years of writing novels and a lifetime of reading them, I found myself emotionally stalled for eighteen months. My sense of humour disappeared. Writing seemed futile, irrelevant, pointless.

Three weeks into freedom, the urge to read and write fiction is back.

The pleasure of reading was the first to reappear. As vaccination rates soared in Sydney and a date for the end of lockdown was announced, I happened to be staying in an AirBnB with a well-stocked bookcase. I knocked off a Richard Flanagan a Christopher Koch and a Gwendoline Riley (my delicious first) in short order.

I knew all along that I had to keep my writing muscles in order, and I’d spent three months of confinement revamping my backlist, including unpublishing a debut novel that I now find mortifying. I regained my rights from the publisher of Cairo Mon Amour and made it the first book in The Siranoush Trilogy, followed by Bury me in Valletta, and rounded off with a new work The Sunset Assassin. I designed a new set of covers and independently published the trilogy in August 2021.

Meanwhile, the old urge to create was nudging. I had in my files the unfinished draft of a complex speculative-cum-dystopian novel Patria Nullius I’d been working on for six years. I’d pestered my writing critique group with it, putting it away for six months and then dragging it out again and again. The problem was the conclusion, or lack thereof. With the thawing of my spirit, the ending leapt out at me. I finished the ms. with a sense of satisfaction rather than despair.

I made myself a promise with Patria Nullius – that I’d spend a year trying to find an agent or publisher for it. I’ve been happy to independently publish my books in recent years, but there’s something special about this book. After six years of struggle, it deserves a chance! So Patria Nullius is now sitting in the slush pile of an Australian literary agent, no doubt one of many I’ll be querying in the next year. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Eminent Professor Susan Bridehead works for a university in New Canberra, an enclave of Oxford that houses the Australian government in exile, now evolved into a monarchy ruled by a mining dynasty. As she completes a flattering history of the dynasty, she works on a parallel story, typing on an antique Remington to avoid electronic surveillance. The story recalls her early life in a largely depopulated Australia and her marriage to Jude, a naive mystic. As Susan’s health falters, she struggles to finish the story of Jude and to reconcile herself with the ghastly prophecy that haunted him.*

The Sunset Assassin is set in Manly, my adopted home town. I set the novel in 1978, and loved the challenge of recreating the atmosphere and language I encountered four decades ago fresh from London. Manly’s an intriguing place with its famous Corso connecting the ferry wharf to the surf beach, and the back streets and alleys that the tourists tend not to penetrate – a setting perhaps for an Australian Brighton Rock.

And that’s where I’m headed with my next work – a historical thriller set in Manly. It’s still in the planning stage, and I’ll be submerged in the New South Wales State Library archives for a while yet.

Happy reading!

Stuart

*For the odd Thomas Hardy tragic, you might guess that this book is partly scaffolded by elements of Jude the Obscure.

YOU CAN FIND LINKS TO MY BOOKS HERE

Stuart Campbell tells how culture shock inspired The Sunset Assassin.

A few weeks after I arrived in Australia in 1977, I was taken to a sporting club in Sydney’s inner west with some of my wife’s Armenian cousins. The men were sharply turned out in shortie leather jackets and collared shirts. Fresh from England, I was wearing the kind of gear a would-be intellectual would wear for a pint at a London pub—Levi’s and a denim shirt over a roll neck sweater. When my turn came to sign in, a bouncer stopped me.

“Jeckut?” I thought he said.

“Sorry, didn’t get that.”

“Jeckut.” No upward inflection this time. “Follow me, sir.”

My wife and her relatives had already crossed the ginger-carpeted entrance hall and were weaving their way through the flashing pokey machines.

The bouncer took me by service lift to a room with a rack of blazers in the same ginger tone as the carpet, with the club’s emblem on the breast pockets. I put on a jeckut and went back to the sign-in desk amid smirks and nudges. I might as well have had pommy git chalked on my back.

Well, that is how I felt at the time. Perhaps the staff smirked, perhaps they were just cheerfully following regulations. When I found the Armenian relatives, they shrugged and went back to enjoying the floor show and seafood-in-a-basket. I backed my chair into the purple drapes, fuming at my humiliation.

What was really ailing me was culture shock: Not the jarring shock of a Pom freshly arrived in Egypt or China. No, Sydney looked easy for a Londoner to slide into—until you actually tried: The class categories of home didn’t align; people came across as superficially affable but unreadable; accents were no guide to working out who was who. It was impossible to know where you fitted in.

Canberra, where we spent our first year, was even more mystifying. Like many newcomers, I spent hours driving around looking for a non-existent city centre. I was studying at the Australian National University, and a fellow student invited me to a barbecue at the farm where he lived outside town. OK, so I didn’t expect a thatched cottage, and ducks in the pond, but I wasn’t prepared for sitting on a stump eating charred sausage and ketchup in sliced white bread while my new chum blasted vermin with a rifle.

Today, my regular bike ride takes me along Manly Beach. At Shelly Beach I change down to bottom gear for the short push up to the car park, where I stop to look over the Tasman Sea. Blue headlands to my left stride thirty kilometres northwards to Palm Beach. Waves smash on jagged rocks below. I change up a gear and head towards St Patricks Seminary, the golden neo-Gothic pile that overlooks Manly. Then it’s the long sweep down past the art deco cottages of Darley Road to the ferry wharf, and through the back streets to my home. If there’s a place in the world where I fit now, it’s Manly. Which brings me to my latest book.

When I was planning The Sunset Assassin, the third novel in the Siranoush Trilogy, the theme of culture shock was giving me an irresistible itch. In Bury me in Valletta I had installed my Armenian-Egyptian protagonist Pierre and his wife Zouzou in a seedy flat in London:

“We’re out of cigarettes, Zouzou. Do you need anything else from the shop?”

“A box of sunshine, bring me that.”

Outside, a bluster of April wind chased away the sooty bus fumes and the smell of damp pavements. He waited in the Pakistani shop behind an orderly line of lumpy British in their anoraks and bobble hats. The shelves bore the packaged goods that spoke of stuffy bedsits just like Pierre’s: Kit-E-Kat, Spam, PK chewing gum, HP Sauce.

Now when an itch starts, you’ve got to scratch it. Cycling the back alleys of Manly during the 2020 COVID lockdown, I came across a knot of shabby lanes where I decided to instal Pierre and Zouou to see how they would cope in 1978 Australia. Conveniently, I’d left the couple at the end of Bury me in Valletta with airline tickets to Australia and false passports in the names of Kevin and Rhonda O’Donnell. I found Pierre a job in the State Translation Office as a court interpreter, so I could sharpen his sense of being neither insider nor outside.

His great challenge is to master Australian English:

Pierre took a mental note: A lend of you—another new expression to file away; he was fluent in Armenian, English, French, and Arabic, and could make a fair impression in half a dozen other languages. But the victory over Australian English was yet to be won.

It’s not just the language that confounds Pierre. The novel opens with his first abortive attempt to entertain work colleagues at a front yard barbecue. The day is furiously hot, and the firelighters won’t catch. The catering arrangements confound Pierre:

“Tell them to bring their own meat and grog. Just make the salad,” his colleague Hermann had said. Could this be true? It would be unforgivably rude in Egypt, laughable in fact. Why eat your own food in someone else’s home? “Keep a few snags and some booze on hand in case you’re a tad short,” Hermann had added. 

After the guests wolf down the free salad and guzzle the emergency box of Moselle, the party descends into sullen political mudslinging under the blistering sun. The incident was actually inspired by a party that my wife and I organised in 1978—our first attempt in our new homeland. We’d acquired about ten friends in Sydney by then, and we invited them all to our flat one Saturday night. Two turned up, sour at the turnout, and the sorry affair was over by 9pm.

A clear memory of my early days in Sydney is the darkness of the garden suburbs at night. Unlike English suburbia, where nature has succumbed to centuries of taming and streets are brightly lit, these Australian gardens seemed to cower on the fringes of the hostile bush. Even today I get flashbacks of desolation if I happen to drive at night through northern suburbs like Wahroonga or Pymble.

Let me give the last words to Pierre’s wife Zouzou, riding her scooter home late one night:

Broad bungalows stood in darkness, front gardens sinister with dense shrubs and trees. Her headlight picked out the eyes of a startled possum scuttling along the top of a fence. A silvery whisp strung between trees indicated the fresh web of a spider hanging at eye level, ready to tickle the face of a blundering human. The very air was alien with its blend of night aromas, some minty, some sour, some bearing an enigmatically savoury tang. A dog barked, and another replied from six gardens away — ‘Yes, I’m scared and lonesome like you!’