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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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For an academic turned novelist, the habit of acknowledging my sources is one that I find hard to discard. So ingrained is the habit that my last novel included endnotes. That story was rooted in historical events, while my work in progress is set in alternate worlds. There’s no history to guide the story, no need to get the dates and facts right. Or is there?
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With my manuscript half finished, I recently found myself reflecting on how the work has been shaped by an unlikely miscellany of writers over the last eighteen months. The book is a dystopian novel set in Australia and England more than a hundred years into the future. There are two dystopias: A post-apocalyptic Australia, and a post-Enlightenment England, by which I mean a society in which most people have given up thinking for themselves.
A major challenge of writing dystopias is that they must be plausible: My invented futures must contain the pathways by which they have come from their pasts. In the early stages of imagining the novel, I consulted Futurevision, Scenarios for the World in 2040 by Richard Watson and Oliver Freeman to get an idea how professional futurists think, which pretty well confirmed my plausibility theory. Some time later, I read Rhonda Roberts’ Gladiatrix (Kannon Dupree: Time Stalker), a terrific lesson in the importance of making alternate worlds coherent. Rhonda gave me some feedback on an early draft that got me repairing holes in the back story. Around the same time, I spotted Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die at my local library, thinking that it would give me some clues about how my dystopias got where they are. It was broadly useful, but its main impact was its persuasiveness: Ferguson is way to the right of me in his political views, but by the end I was eating out of his hand. I wriggled out of his clutches in the last chapter (no spoilers). The last word goes to Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. It’s a lumpy compilation of a book in my view, but it answered a question that had been plaguing me: Why do my dystopias echo The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other works in the canon? The answer: This is a genre with its conventions and tropes. Get over it. (At least that what I got from Atwood; I’m not sure she actually said that.) I had a quick detour through H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau to wrap things up.
My book has multiple voices, one of which comes up in fragments of a popular history written decades into our future. I originally drafted these as (fake) academic history, but my friends in our writers’ group in Sydney got a bad case of lexical indigestion. One or two of them suggested I try using a popular history approach – that odd variety of writing that turns dry history into page turners. While not exactly history, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism gave me a useful stylistic model. Paul Ham’s The Target Committee showed me how much historical content you can load up into a paragraph without it turning to sludge. In the end, I found my own style of fake popular history, which turned out to have a satirical thread in the weave. Bonus.
Reading Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, it struck me that dystopias can be defined in terms of their relation to the rational thought that is the hallmark of the Enlightenment. If I imagine a bell-curve where the top of the curve represents the pinnacle of Enlightenment thinking*, then the two tails are post-apocalyptic Australia (where people are slipping back into the Middle Ages) and post-Enlightenment England (where other people do your rational thinking for you). But the main lesson of Pinker’s book is its stunning optimism: It’s packed with graphs to convince the reader that we’ve never had it so good. Sometimes I wondered why the world needs dystopian novels when we’re already in Utopia.
Now for some specialist influences. I’m a linguist by profession, so it’s not surprising that I have a lot of fun with language in my books. My dystopian Australia has creole languages, and I turned to Derek Bickerton’s Roots of Languageto check the authenticity of the speech I was putting into my characters’ mouths. I rank Bickerton’s book among the top five scholarly works I have encountered in my entire career. Vale Derek Bickerton, who passed away in March 2018. Another Professor, Ted Bryant, was my source for technical detail on tsunami. Bryant’s Past tsunami in Australia gave me the idea of a tsunami triggered by a piece of the continental shelf slipping off the east coast of Australia. The New South Wales State Emergency Service tsunami web pages filled in more detail. And let’s throw in some religion: My two dystopias handle faith in quite different ways, and I had to read up on vernacular religion to get a sense of how an isolated post-apocalyptic society would handle these things: Marion Bowman’s journal article Vernacular Religion, Contemporary Spirituality and Emergent Identitiesgave me some directions, but I shied away from going in too deep into what looked like a controversial field. On the question of freedom of speech, I carefully read The United States Constitution; my specific question was the extent to which the First Amendment could be used to constrain artificial intelligence. And many hours were consumed in following – and not properly documenting – leads on such subjects as accounting, climate change, pre-industrial economics, and post-polio syndrome.
I should also not forget three books that are in a sense characters in the novel: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the King James version of the New Testament, and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
Perhaps the sweetest hours of my background reading were spent during a balmy trip to Far North Queensland, where I visited Cairns and Kuranda, two of the locations of the novel. My unlikely reading material was The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, edited by Janet Croon. LeRoy was a teenager, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, who spent the war years crippled and suffering from spinal tuberculosis in Macon, Georgia. The diary is an account of daily life as the Confederate cause slowly collapses, and LeRoy’s health deteriorates. As I read, I realised that living conditions in 1860’s Georgia were not unlike those I was trying to depict in Kuranda in 2126: Constant sickness, extreme summer heat, intermittent supplies of basic commodities, plagues of insects. This, by the way, was by far the best book I read in 2018.
And of course, walking alongside Atwood, Bickerton, Shakespeare and all the others are the members of the Write On! writers group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre here in Sydney – Sarah, Garry, Karen, Michele, Nore, Julia, Rhonda. Stick with me till the last page, my friends!
*I place this at about 1975, but I’m happy to argue the point.
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The Yom Kippur War has its novels – Herman Wouk and Tom Clancy both weave stories around it. But I wanted to do something different – my novel set during the Yom Kippur War Cairo Mon Amour, is set in Egypt – not Israel.
I felt especially well qualified to write this book: I was a student at Cairo University when the war broke out in October 1973, and I had a ringside seat – or sometimes a seat under the kitchen table when the air-raid sirens went off.
If you can’t remember the main points about this particular conflict, Egypt invaded Sinai to reclaim land lost to Israel in 1967, and Syria attacked the Golan Heights. The conequences of the war included the 1978 Camp David Accords and the final withdrawal of Israel from Sinai in 1982.
What compelled me to write this book was the extraordinary lengths that Egypt went to in concealing the date of the attack. How did President Sadat keep preparations for a massive ground and air attack secret? And how could I spin a story of espionage and romance around this?
Details have emerged in memoirs and works of research: Hospital wards in Cairo were emptied under the pretext of epidemics in anticipation of floods of wounded troops; a military sports carnival was scheduled for the day of the attack; false stories were planted about the attack date. When I did my research, I found so many events that I could dramatise: The sudden evacuation of Soviet families just days before the outbreak of war; the last ship to leave Alexandria, crowded with Americans desperate to get away.
I also wanted to write a very human story, so I created a handful of flawed characters who all have a personal stake in finding out – or concealing – the date when the attack will be launched. We have a Cairo private eye of mixed Armenian and Coptic background; his childhood sweetheart who is now a notorious actress; a Soviet diplomat with divided loyalties; and two British spies who happen to be former lovers.
I made a decision to stick closely to the historical record: The chapters in the first part of the book follow exactly the days just before and after the start of the war. When the Soviet diplomat Zlotnik, drunk in his flat, hears the rumble of the huge Soviet aircraft flying in armaments, it is real; I heard them on that very night myself.
And I tried to capture the day-to-day atmosphere in the streets of Cairo, when, as a British student taking Arabic courses at Cairo University, I found myself in the midst of a populace that swung between elation at the first flush of victory, and distress as the wounded began to stagger home.
An earlier version of the blog article appeared under the title ‘The Middle East conflict that inspired Cairo Mon Amour’.
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