In a month long two-way email interview with award winning Melbourne author Alec Patric, I uncover writing craft inspiration and a mutual love of beautifully crafted guitars. Patric is the author of Black Rock White City (2015), acclaimed novella Bruno Kramzer (2013), Las Vegas for Vegans (2012) and The Rattler & Other Stories (2011).
Caroline Barron: Tomorrow is Saturday, the beginning of the school holidays. We’re heading off as a family to Lake Rotoiti, which is in the middle of the North Island. Maori legend has it that a young warrior was hunting for delicacies for his pregnant wife when his dog ran off chasing a Kiwi through the forest. When the dog returned a few hours later, wet and sicking up half-digested fish, the warrior realised there must be a lake nearby and searched the forest until he found Lake Rotoiti (and Lake Rotorua). So, tomorrow, I have no work commitments and it’s looking like the perfect day.
Saturday, no work commitments; how does the perfect day look?
Alec Patric: A perfect day, while you’re in the middle of a Melbourne winter, isn’t easy to imagine. The perfect day for writing is even harder. Unless it’s any day, every day you manage to find a page of writing that feels alive—a page that didn’t exist the day before.
I heard Bruce Dawe speak once about how he never had a desk for most of his career, that he wrote every poem at the kitchen table as the life of his family went on around him. I have a desk, and it’s in my study, but I prefer to keep my door open. I want the sounds of my daughters and wife to filter in and out of my consciousness. I enjoy the silence of the house when they’re gone, but only because it reverberates with the noise of our existence. Which is to say, I don’t think writing can happen in perfect isolation, perfect silence.
I read an interview where Toni Morrison said she used to wake at 4.00am every morning to write because she had children and a whole host of obligations that would erupt when the light of day broke though the windows. Perhaps her perfect day would have been everyone staying in bed until she’d found that page of words that struck her imagination as imbued with heart/mind/soul. And I can guarantee that Toni Morrison didn’t need an alarm clock to wake up at 4.00am, that it was her inner need to create art that forced her to find the one crack of possibility in her busy day. Now she’s a very wealthy writer and her children will have grown up and she would have many a perfect day for writing. And yet she will never write as well as she did when the predawn hours at her kitchen table forced from her such indispensable pages of words as we find in Beloved.
It took over five years for me to write Black Rock White City, 2000 days more or less, most of them imperfect.
CB: Much like you, my perfect day of writing is one where the words gush intrepidly onto the page. And one where I am stoic in my decision not to open Gmail. I write at a borrowed desk at my husband’s design agency—my writing is done against a viscous film of white noise: phones ringing, client meetings, Dexter (our 13-year-old Labrador) snoring.
Then, of course, there is The Process. Some plan and some write freestyle. I plan. My novel is spread across generations and so I have to plan. Small goals help me reach larger goals, for example ‘1000 words today’ or ‘edit chapters 1-3 today’.
What is your process?
ASP: For a writer process means preparation and performance. You might put down a 1000 words in a day but find that only a sentence makes it into the eventual performance, which is to say, the book—so most of the 1000 words were merely preparation. The better your process the less waste. I’d rather write 200 words a day with the focus and presence of actual performance.
CB: Ben Okri told me that formless writing is irritative—there must be freedom between tension and discipline. I love that ‘here we go’ feeling when, despite (or because of) meticulous planning, the story diverts to some other, more interesting place.
I find inspiration for stories in people, places and objects. Most of the things in our home have a meaningful story behind them. For example, the table where we share our meals came the Hawkes Bay orchard house where my husband grew up.
Tell me about an object you treasure?
ASP: A guitar turned up one day. Could have been from a friend who didn’t want it anymore. I was nearly thirty. I’d never learned how to play an instrument. I should have started when I was in my teens if I was going to start at all—ridiculous to think I might become a guitarist so late! I picked it up a few times and it felt good. I took some lessons but for months wasn’t convinced I could learn how to play. Eventually I gave it to a friend moving up to Queensland. That guitar was never going to be an object I treasured. It was just something that was passed around. I was working as a bartender. Trying to write. Wasn’t making a lot of money. Yet I’d found a way into music with that old guitar.
I saved what I could. Borrowed money from family. Bought a Martin OM-15. I had spent less money on the car I owned at the time. I was struggling to get by and I didn’t have much but that Martin guitar was a fine instrument—strikingly incongruous in that cheap apartment. A guitar is an instrument you bring close, place on your thigh, put your arm around. The notes sound from your body. Listening to music is one thing. There’s a deeper sense of necessity when you feel music emerging from your being. That Martin guitar has been with me now for fifteen years.
CB: It makes sense that you are a musician—your writing has a rhythm that helps the reader feel their way through it. I have a beautiful Landola guitar, made in Finland. It rests silently in its case while I concentrate on writing.
I was lucky enough to meet Willy Vlautin (The Free, Motel Life, Lean on Pete) an incredible writer, but also front-man for alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. He told me ‘my records are soundtracks to my books’. I wonder if you write songs?
What is the one thing you’ve always wanted but don’t have yet?
ASP: I turned 43 this year. It would be awful to get to my age with one thing having always been out of reach, yet with desperate hopes that it would one day be mine. I already have my home and family, my wife and daughters. I’ve published four books since 2011 and I’ve got another novel coming out next year called Atlantic Black. I teach creative writing and work in a bookstore, both satisfying ways of making a living (nigh impossible for a writer to live from published works). The secret to happiness, I’ve heard it said, is always having something to look forward to. And yet, if you look too far forward, loss is all you’ll find. To answer your question, I’d say I’ve got what I’ve always wanted and I feel grateful to see it and know it—to be present in the experience.
CB: In a world where communication is instant, we begin to expect an instant response to, or gratification of, our yearnings. In the increasingly rare instances where I have the opportunity to long for something over a period of time, and have to work hard for it, my feeling of gratitude and satisfaction is exponentially higher. Like writing a book.
What is the album, or song, that altered your world forever?
ASP: Music altered my world when I was a child and has never really stopped altering me—eventually there’s so much alteration, and the changes are so fundamental, you might as well call it a revolution. Music gave me a sense of what it was possible to feel—the range and depth of experience. It generated a sense of connection, both within my own experience of self and of the larger self of humanity. The most vivid experience I ever had in that regard was with The River by Bruce Springsteen when I was twelve. It had all the elements I’ve just mentioned but it was also my first literary experience. Twenty songs that flowed from the same source propelling the words of Steinbeck, Cheever and Carver. When that double album came into my life I was reading Choose Your Own Adventures. The River arrived with a Niagara roar and it swept me away and down a great waterfall. When my head stopped spinning all I wanted to know was where the source of the river was and I was willing to do anything to feel that sense of living energy—the colossal force of life. Music was the sound of the river. The water was a substance made of ideas, and the foaming rapids was what happened when words turned into stories or songs.
CB: Today I’m full of a sinus cold, so thinking (and writing) feels like digging for thoughts inside clouds. The Queen Victoria Markets piece was so vivid. I saw you as a little boy, tugging at your mother, wearing her down.
My love of music came through my father. He played guitar and had a voice like a low cello note. When I was ‘home sick’ from school I’d spend hours recording songs from the radio to tape, recording myself singing, playing recorder and guitar, and—when it all came together—marveling at my three-track rendition of Sloop John B. Mum couldn’t sing a note but made sure Santa put a tape in my Christmas stocking each year: Solid Gold Hits, Wham (ahem), Madonna. I was a pop girl but in my bedroom on my own I’d listen to soulful female song-writers such as Jenny Morris, Tony Childs, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant—women who told stories in their songs.
As for books, the first ‘proper’ book I ever read was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. My father read Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Wilbur Smith, so my intermediate and high school years followed his lead—I’d stand on a chair to reach the top shelf of his wardrobe where he kept his library books and slide out The Stand or It or Watchers and read cover to cover, in a state of absolute terror. I still love Stephen King.
My early university days in the 90s blew my tiny literary world apart. I read about places and people I never knew existed, written in complicated and beautiful ways. I was Captain Cook sighting Poverty Bay for the first time. I cannot sum up that period in one book but in these: The Famished Road (Ben Okri), The Secret History (Donna Tartt), The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy), The Shipping News (Annie E. Proux) and All the Pretty Horses (Cormack McCarthy).
In my early thirties I was obsessed with the Jazz Age and the American ex-pats in Paris between the wars: Hemingway, Fitzgerald (both Scott and Zelda) and Dos Passos.
The last two years of study have me amid a revolution (to borrow your term) of reading. I now read as a writer, mining books for structure and technique. Amongst my favorite authors from the current period are: Flannery, Carver, Grace Paley; memoirists Jackie Kay, Frank Conroy, Vera Brittain; novelists Paula Morris, Martin Edmond, Elena Ferrante, Willy Vlautin, John Williams and William Maxwell.
The grand finale: The one book you can trace it all back to?
ASP: A writer’s life is a history of books. Even books that weren’t particularly good are part of a continuum of words, ideas, stories, characters, details, mistakes, agitations, laughter, resonances, distractions, insights, passions, and more than can be easily defined. All of it feeds into a reader’s life, and if that reader is also a writer, then life itself becomes a literary experience. The ‘one book that I can trace it all back to’ becomes a complicated question to answer because when I read Homer’s Odyssey I was struck by how elemental that story felt to me and how powerful, original, and vitally present (not historical) Homer felt in the pages. There’s a similar experience with Shakespeare. Judy Blume might be just as significant to me because before Superfudge I didn’t know I could read and enjoy a novel. I grew up in working class immigrant suburbs where almost all the people I knew, adults or children, never read, so the discovery of literature was a minor miracle. I read a lot of Science Fiction when I was young, so the Foundation series by Asimov was indeed foundational for me. I entertained notions of becoming a writer but that’s a very common daydream. It doesn’t mean much. The answer to your question is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The effect of that novel was more radical than Homer or Shakespeare, more fundamental than Blume or Asimov. It was intimate and immediate, a story about love, choices and sacrifices. A tragedy that was brutally relentless and really did break my heart. But it was Tolstoy’s vision that acted as a propulsive force. The profound depth of his understanding of the human condition and the vastness of his perspective of life, the ecstatic poetry of his thought, changed how I understood my self and what was possible. It was so explosive, it brought so much light and heat into the world, I couldn’t return to the comparative shadow and cold of regular life. The aftermath of that explosion was feeling like a ghost before I was dead. The only way I could feel alive after Anna Karenina was to write.