Applications are now open for HARDCOPY – an exciting new program the ACT Writers Centre is running where selected emerging writers will have the opportunity to develop their book-length manuscripts, attend masterclasses and workshops, and meet publishing professionals. Denise Young, one of the members of the HARDCOPY selection committee, and author of the acclaimed novel The Last Ride, was recently interviewed on Verity La. The first part of that interview is reprinted here with permission from Verity La.
INTERVIEWER (Nigel Featherstone)
Where did you get the original idea for your novel The Last Ride?
The Last Ride had a particularly long gestation period. I was working as an actor in Perth and a Theatre Arts teacher at Curtin University, writing and improvising plays with students when I began going into Fremantle Prison as a volunteer, teaching literacy and also, rather disastrously, drama. We had one session where we played one of the drama games that always went down well with students: it was called the swearing game where you had to conduct any ordinary transaction and at the end of each sentence add a swear word. Middle class students loved the licence it gave them, the freeing up, ‘anything goes’ atmosphere but in a maximum security prison it nearly led to a serious assault and closed down the drama classes. Despite this setback, I met many men in there like Kev, the anti-hero of my novel, and one in particular who was studying for his University Entrance exam to whom I taught English. I really enjoyed how strongly somebody with no formal education responded to the poetry of John Donne, for example. This man, like Kev, was part-Aboriginal but had no living connection with Aboriginality or any of his family. I became too close to this man for anybody’s comfort and the teaching and the relationship came to an end, but I never forgot the stories he told me, and how, despite his high intelligence, he seemed forced to keep re-creating his own miserable, neglected and abused past, without the resources or training to change. I hoped rather naively that a relationship with me might change things but that was not the case. For a long while afterwards I wrote plays in which this character featured, but though some of them were workshopped, none of them ever was given a main-stage production. Perhaps it was too soon. I think material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and this story needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level. Back home in Sydney, with a new partner and children, I did some emergency fostering of children whose life experience and development were often as harsh and neglected as the guy in Perth. One night the kids were watching a TV program, now defunct, with real life crimes re-enacted and a call for the public to watch out for certain wanted criminals. There was a story about a father and son on the run after a murder and the picture of the child was so angelic and that of his father so brutal that I began to ask myself questions about that relationship: what might have caused the murder, what precipitated the escape, why would you drag a kid through that, what would it be like to be a child on the run? I started to write about what I already knew of those lives. Finally I’d found a way into the material I’d been playing with in the theatre, but now I was out of the theatre for good, I decided to write the story as prose. It took a long time even then for such a short novel; I began writing it as a crime story, a police procedural, I think they call the genre, but wasn’t happy till I ended up telling it from the point of view of the ‘innocent’ in the story: the child.
The prose in The Last Ride is paired right back to the very essence, short sentences, basic words, which connect the reader to that innocent child, often with devastating effect. What was the process of getting the writing to that point?
It was hard at first to find the style for the book because I didn’t want it to read like a child’s book, but rather a book where the child’s viewpoint is in the foreground, while over his shoulder the adult can see further. I struggle anyway with lyrical writing but know that a fiction writer needs to employ words that let the reader see things in a new and fresh way. What I ended up doing was really pushing the observational qualities of the prose, where the writer regularly stops to see/smell/hear/taste/feel so that the experience comes through for the reader as a strongly sensual one. I did this as if I was an eleven-year-old-boy. I have had three children and fostered more, so I did feel quite in touch wit work hard too. For example in this passage, which I opened at random, the adjective ‘haunted h that childlike state of being. Also I came from a background as an actor, where thinking like somebody else was part of the job. Using Chook’s dreams helped to convey a lot of emotional anxiety and highlight the way he’s slowly working out a strategy to deal with impossible things. I tried to make the verbs and adjectives’ before ‘face’ allows me to draw that out in the next sentence in the way a child might: ‘When Kev has his smoke rolled, he sees him bring the match up to light it, the flame showing his haunted face. He looks as if a bad dream has come true and he needs someone to be there for him in the night.’ In the beginning there were lots of more sophisticated expressions and metaphors left over from earlier drafts and I let go some of the more hard-won of those with regret, but I ended up thinking it was more alive when I found an appropriate child-wise view. The more I wrote and re-wrote the more I found myself slipping into Chook’s voice rather than my own. I’m writing memoir now and am finding it even harder to write as myself! Read the full interview on Verity La. Go to the ACT Writers Centre Website to learn more about HARDCOPY.