Perilous Adventures
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Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


Patrick Holland

in conversation with n a bourke

Patrick Holland Manuscript PageWould you like to start by talking about your first book?

Any book you like? Well, there are only two, but there’s a third coming, and a fourth next year as well.

So, you’ve been really productive lately?

It’s the result of around fifteen years of writing, and only now it starts to reach publishers; it’s not as though I’ve written a whole bunch in the last two years. The book of stories that’s coming out with Salt is the product of about eight years work. I think the oldest story in there is maybe seven years old.

Were you writing all that time and unable to get much published, or was it a conscious decision to hold back the work until now?

I guess it was just a case of not having a collection together, a collection I was happy with, really. I basically sent no work out. In a really rudimentary stage I sent it to UQP, but it was really only this year – maybe late last year – that I sent it to Salt. And they liked it. It won the Scott Prize, which is the first year they’ve had that.

What kept you going all that time, before you got published, before you won the Premier’s Award for The Long Road of the Junkmailer?

And in between? I really don’t know. Before The Long Road of the Junkmailer writing was always a big part of my life, but it wasn’t the complete focus of it. You always expect that, when you do eventually have a book, you’ll publish it, it’ll be a massive hit, then you’ll just go from strength to strength. The reality of the publishing industry here is that the chances of that are slim. You publish a book and it’s not a massive hit. I continued to write all the time, but I just didn’t put that much stuff out there anymore.  I didn’t get the same kind of thrill from just seeing my name in print, as I did when I was nineteen. So, I continued to simply work, and basically work for myself. Just trying to perfect the works that I had, often thinking I’ll be the only one that will ever read them. You might say it was a kind of meditation, or even a prayer. It’s a kind of communion with yourself and whatever else is out there. That’s the way I approached the writing for a long time, rather than having any audience in mind.

So, you didn’t do – even before your first book was published –any training or courses, or anything like that?

No. I’ve tried a couple of times to go into Honours. I’ve done that three times. I did a Bachelor’s degree in Languages and Film, and Literature, but reading, you know? Not writing.

Which languages did you focus on?

Chinese, and Linguistics. TESOL education. Although I’ve dabbled in a bit of Russian and Japanese, and Vietnamese after studying in Vietnam a little while ago. I though, as a career, I would pursue Languages and Linguistics.

Have you done that –pursued that career?

Yes, I teach now at TAFE at Grovely. My students are mostly refugees. I do it on and off; Brisbane North TAFE are really good. They let me go and travel and then whenever I come back I just give them a call and they say, yeah, we’ll find something for you. It’s brilliant.

You must be good at your job then, at teaching?

I don’t know about that. Maybe I’m good at bluffing them, but they’re very nice there. Very good to me. It’s a brilliant job. Some of the people that you meet there… the stories they have are just incredible.

Have they influenced your writing, your own stories?

The Mary Smokes BoysThey haven’t yet, because I find that there’s almost a five to even six, or seven year gap between when I experience something and when I am able to put it in context and write about it. So, for example, in The Mary Smokes Boys, almost all of that is real. Very little of it is actually made up. Only in the sense of who did what. All those events didn’t happen to one small group of people, but they all did happen in my teens and early twenties, growing up in the West. I started writing that book, admittedly, when I was about 19, but it’s taken this long for me to be able to do the material justice, to put it together in a book that I was happy with. I just sat on that book year after year after year – I’m sure that I would never have sent it anywhere, because I thought, well, this is the book that will justify me if anything does. I thought … it’s too important. It’s not ready. It’s just not ready. I can’t send it anywhere; I’d be terrified to publish it, because the next year I’d think, Oh my God, I didn’t do it right. But Beautiful Kate came out. I’m sort of hyper-sensitive, and because that film was set in the outback and there was some sort of less-than-conventional relationship between a brother and sister I just panicked. I thought, my idea is … is gone. So I threw the book out there and said, quick, publish it, so no-one thinks I’ve ripped off this movie. And then, you know, I got good responses. I got good responses from a couple of people.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it, that gap between experience and the ability to write about what’s happened. I’ve just been reading Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, in which he talks about being in Paris, and writing about Michigan, and vice versa. It’s something of a familiar thing to hear from a writer, but what is it, for you, what happens in that gap – what is the necessary movement?

When you get something raw, you can never really understand it. You never understand anything that’s flashing before your eyes. You have to put some time between yourself and experience. You have to grow up, too. As you get older, you lose some of the childish enthusiasm, which is useful when you’re writing first novels. You can probably see that in The Long Road of the Junkmailer. But you get more perspective, and my writing, at least, becomes quieter, more observant, even though there’s a lot of violence in this new book. The kind of writing in The Mary Smokes Boys is something that I feel I need. I only want to write about things that I have serious experience with, because I think there are enough cooked up books out there.

You’re not interested in that kind of book – or easy success – what is it, then, as a writer, that you are interested in creating?

As far as the writing goes, I’m interested in the art of writing. Principally, to investigate truth through the art of arranging words. Literary technique. Just the beauty of language, is the thing that I strive for. In a whole composition, I guess, but even just sentence by sentence, I try to make every sentence justified. The Long Road of the Junkmailer is actually pretty aberrant in terms of what I do.  My first stories, which were published something like seventeen years ago, in The Age and a few other places, were much more like The Mary Smokes Boys, and The Source of the Sound – the stories that are coming out next.  They’re not so – not so humorous, not really magic realism at all.

Are these stories – your old and new ones – more realist?


Is this your Miles Franklin novel?

Let’s hope so! That would be great. There’s a kind of ecumenical spirituality that is in my writing now, and also Catholicism, because those are traditions I know, but the book is also informed by where I’m moving, probably towards Eastern Orthodoxy, like the Greek Orthodox view of the world. That comes into it, but at the same time I really try and steer away from any kind of ideological program, or propaganda for any cause. Even if it’s one I think is a wonderful cause. For me, It’s always about the language, and trying to order the experience of life. To make it mean something, because, in life as it’s lived, that quality is not always apparent. You live your life, these chaotic events just seem to come up, and you wonder, Does any of this string together, does any of it have meaning? and obviously when you write fiction you can start to line things up and say these things click together, they start to generate meaning.

Do you feel, then, that when you write you’re constructing meaning, or applying meaning, to things that are essentially meaningless?

Actually, I think that I’m discovering it. In a pattern that’s too broad and complex for us to understand at first. When I write badly, I think it’s me. I feel that I’m doing it. It’s all my reason that is constructing these characters, it’s all my reason that’s making them move where I want them to go, and when I feel like – as sportspeople say – I’m in the zone, I feel that it’s not really me at all. I’m just discovering the work. Say for The Mary Smokes Boys; the first germination of it was just an image that I had. It was a dream of a girl, and a boy, in a paddock. Western Queensland, but near some hills. Standing near a sorghum field. And the girl was crying. I just had this vivid image of the scene and it was central. I mean, central, to the book. Even in terms of it being kind of halfway between the beginning and the end. I wondered what brought the boy and girl there, and where they were going. Originally I tried, probably twenty times, to write it as a short story, and it didn’t really mean anything. I could never figure out what this kernel event was all about. I wrote it a bunch of different ways. Eventually I thought, well, I’ll try and expand it, either side of it, and see what I can come up with. As you know, you don’t really know until after you’ve done it what the purpose or what the meaning of the thing is. I’ll make a character move somewhere, or make them say something. You don’t know why you do it. But then you think: yes, that’s right, or no, that’s wrong. You try and compile as many yes, that’s rights as you can until you’ve got that whole thing together, and you feel like it is a sustained unity.

There’s an interesting tension, then, between those intellectual and intuitive impulses there.

I just don’t trust my reason. I feel like I can reason myself into anything. Absolutely anything. But I always do trust my intuition. Later on, in the editing process, you switch on your reason a little bit more. Even then, I find that it doesn’t necessarily help, although I do it automatically.  But the intuitive stuff I do trust. That’s the way I write. It’s obviously not the way everyone writes. I’m sure it’s not the way – say – Borges writes, or G K Chesterton or someone like that, where you can see their reason applied all the way through. You can read one of those books, and you can sort of … Say, Borges, you can read it – and I’ve probably read him as much as I have any other writer, except Hemingway – and I enjoy it immensely, every time, but I feel like you can come to the end of his stories. You can say: I understand that story. It’s stopped generating meaning, whereas with a simpler writer, who I don’t think uses reason nearly as much, but is more intuitive, like Hemingway… I feel like I never come to the end.

In his early work, perhaps especially?

Yeah, yeah. I’ve read Farewell to Arms so many times – I don’t know how many times – and each time it shocks me with how good it is.

What is that that you see in his work – that shock of goodness?

With that book, I think his prose is just so unique. I mean, it’s just creates these rhythms. It’s the relationship between what he’s describing, himself, and you, the reader. I don’t know how you hear the printed word, but you feel that rhythm almost internally. It’s not a case of flowery language: anyone can just throw a bunch of adjectives together and make things sound pseudo-classic. It’s also the fact that I don’t think Hemingway ever closes meaning down. You can write, say, a little propaganda piece and whatever it’s for – the welfare of some sort of minority group or something, which could be a magnificent cause, or your grandmother’s plum jam is better than anyone else’s – Eventually, if you have this ideological point to make, you’ll shut meaning down. And your characters will implode. Constrict around that point. It’s cliché to say they won’t live, but the prose won’t live. Nothing in the story will live. It won’t get up off the ground. It will please people who think the way you do, and displease the people who don’t think the way you do. But with writers like Hemingway or, say, Kipling, it’s very different. I mean, Kipling is a guy who I can’t imagine sitting down with for more than twenty minutes. We’d disagree on just about everything, every ideological point, but his writing –for me – is just magical. It’s transcendent. And he was one of those writes who said that a writer rarely understands what they are writing. Every petty, political – well, they’re not always petty, some of them are quite violent and destructive – every political conviction he has just gets thrown out the window in his best fiction. It completely transcends Kipling the man. That’s the yardstick that I shoot for. To write something that transcends our time, our politics.

Transcends yourself?

Patrick Holland's Working PageDefinitely. Completely. I’ve been really influenced in this by Greek Orthodox art. Not too many years ago, at St George’s Greek Orthodox church, I used to sit-in while the icon painter, who came down from Sydney, was repainting the icons. We’d go to cafes just around here [West End] and talk. He was basically instructing me in the difference between Western expressionistic art and Eastern instrumental art, where the artist tries to efface himself entirely. It’s not about the artist. So no one will ever sign an icon. It’s not about you. It’s about the work. Every icon artist will take the tradition and reproduce it almost identically. Once in a hundred years, someone will change something. It might be accepted, it might not. That kind of approach really attracted me. We have this massive cult of the author, in the Western world, and it’s all about egos and personalities. It seems to me distracting. Not very useful. It’s not the reason why any real writers are in the business. Definitely, it’s not the reason why anyone sincerely reads: to be caught up in some sort of celebrity game, or feel like you’re somehow imbibing the image of your favourite author, in the way people consume pop music, say. The thing that sustains literature is something very separate to that.

How do you reconcile that urge to transcend yourself – obliterate your imprint on the work – and what you were talking about earlier: your need to understand something in order to write about it, which is surely about your impact and insight on the work?

There’s definitely a tension there. Perhaps if he or she writes truly, every writer’s experience turns out to be universal at the deepest level. At the bottom of all individual experiences lie the same big questions of life, death and the cosmos. It’s a funny thing, but in medieval times, the monks who reproduced books in the monasteries would alter things. They would add their own ideas and never credit themselves. They would just put the book away and the next scribe might accept those ideas or not.  A book was like an organic investigation into truth. It wouldn’t just close and ossify.

A book as part of – a record of – an ongoing dialogue?

Yeah. It’s so different to what it’s ended up like. They probably wouldn’t have been able to conceive of the way we consume and produce books. This cult of the author. It’s useful for marketing. It’s useful if you’re a fan of a certain writer, I guess. Maybe there’s something natural in it, but it’s something that I try to look away from. Technically speaking, my harking back to former ages plays out in that I’m not really afraid to borrow anything. I’ll take from a variety of sources. I won’t necessarily borrow plots or characters, but phrases. If someone describes the sky. A sky that I recognise. Even if it’s a sky in Germany, for example, by Heinrich Boll, I might take it. I’ve taken a few things from his short stories – they’re in The Mary Smokes Boys. Mainly just descriptions of rivers. He’s describing German rivers, but the way he describes water, if I think it’s good I might rework it, but I might use as many as five words of a given sentence of his in one of mine.

Do you think the context changes those words, that phrase?

Yes and no. It does, but when you talk about those essential things, like the way water moves. Seeing that is an experience that almost everyone has. Everyone knows what it is for water to purl around a rock. Not everyone is conscious of what that means, or what’s beautiful about it, or tranquil or anything. You could make that purling water seem joyous, mysterious or threatening, depending on how you worked it… but finally there’s just the water, the mystery. I think there probably is a universal set of triggers – that could be found in every language –  that you could set up to recreate that image for someone. If you do that, I don’t think you need to worry about the exact words that you used or what your sentence finally means. If you achieve the image, the visceral effect, I think that’s the job done.

You spoke earlier about starting The Mary Smokes Boys with that precise, but enigmatic image, which has that sense of universality – of iconicness – about it. Do you always start with those universal or essential images? Or is it the sentences – the language – that triggers the writing process for you? Or something else entirely?

I don’t know how it is for you – I’ve always wondered this about other writers – but for me it’s like a storm building up. You just collect little things. You collect an image here. A sentence there. A description of landscape, something like that. Usually, for me, a lot of it comes from the place. I’ll be inspired by the geography as much as anything else.

That’s strongly evident in your description of that image that began The Mary Smokes Boys – the sense of a specific location, with hills and sorghum wheat in the field.

The Source of SoundWith The Mary Smokes Boys there are a lot of things that begin with something real. For example, the girl, Irene, is loosely based on a girl who was killed in my hometown. A friend of my little sister. And a friend of my present girlfriend. When we are all going to school together, she was murdered on a creek not far from my house. I guess that’s the kind of thing that stays with you. That’s informed this book, and at least one of the stories – the chief story – in The Source of the Sound. The things that happen to you in childhood form the pattern of your life. Almost everything I write has exactly the same pattern: there’s some sort of innocent figure, or pure thing, that someone has to try to protect, and they almost invariably fail. Sometimes its landscape. For example in my story ‘Integrity’, people fail to protect landscape. In The Mary Smokes Boys it’s the girl: the chief male character’s little sister. It’s the same in ‘The Source of the Sound’ where I use basically the same characters. They even have the same names. In the new novel I’m working on, which is set in Vietnam, it’s the same thing again.

When you write about these things – these patterns – again and again –are you seeking a new understanding of them? A new meaning?

It’s just a compulsion to write. At first you would think it’s commercial suicide to write the same thing again and again, but it’s certainly not the same book. It comes out it in different ways. It’s always in different places. The essential idea is that there are things that are good in this world and you need to be vigilant to protect them. I usually identify with the principal character, even if I’m using third person, I usually have that character fail in his duty.

Are you aware, when you start, that it will fall into that pattern – that your character, and perhaps some extended part of yourself, will fail?

I do have a tragic vision. I know something bad is going to happen somewhere down the line in most things I write, but I’m never exactly sure what it is. Even in a comedy, like The Long Road of the Junkmailer, there’s the innocent girl. In that book she’s an angel, but she still drowns in the river because he gives up on her. That’s a comic take on it, but even then those same patterns are there. They’re there in basically everything I write.

There seem to me to be a lot of writers who repeat the same gestures in their writing. Chuck Palahnuik does it.

I guess Kafka did it. It’s just a compulsion to understand something mysterious. There’s a composer from Georgia, I think he lives in Germany now, called Giya Kancheli and he has about five or six musical phrases that appear in every piece that he writes. He’s one of my favourite composers. I just love him. He just uses these phrases again and again. People say it sounds recycled, and he says, those are my phrases; they’re the ones I understand. So I use them. And every time he uses them it’s just beautiful. Every time, you hear the phrase again in a whole different light. I don’t have that many stories to tell. I’ve been to a lot of places, but I think you have to really experience things in a deep way to be able to write about them meaningfully, rather than produce a mild interest piece, or airport novel or something. To really understand something you have to experience it, in depth, and probably for a long time. I can write stories – and I do write stories – about China and Vietnam, Eastern Europe, but even then they’re focused around these things: landscape, purity. Even spirituality. Those are the things that I write about all the time.

Can I ask you some questions – some basic questions – about your process? About how you work up a story or a novel? Are you a constant reviser and editor, or do you write a rough early draft? How do you move from that initial set of collected fragments – and that large-scale interest in threatened purity and landscape – to a particular form?

I basically just write a draft, and I usually do it in pen, on paper. It’s pretty slow. I love to write that way, but it causes a lot of pain, because there’s nothing worse than having to take those words and put them onto a computer. I write fairly messily.

You don’t get someone else to do the transcription?

Once I tried to rope my girlfriend into it, but she gave up.

Do you work through from the beginning of the story to the end?

Usually from beginning to end. I’ll draft something to completion, then I’ll pick up another project and work on it. Maybe some short stories, something like that, then I’ll go back and do a second draft with pen on manuscript paper, through from start to finish. Then type it up again with the corrections. Then I’ll print it out and go through it again, and then type those corrections back into the computer. Then I’ll print it out and do it again. The Long Road of the Junkmailer probably went through ten edits. The Mary Smokes Boys probably thirty. Forty.

That’s a lot of drafts. Are there structural edits going on there, too, or is it a lot of attention to style, to sentences?

Both. Toward the end it’s mainly style, and making sure the physical world of the story is as real as I can make it.

Do you ever give up on a work, put it away and move on?

Very rarely.  I’ve had stuff that I’ve just thrown away. A couple of early novels I threw away completely.

What made you throw them away?

They were written when I was in my early twenties. They just didn’t mean anything. They were full of tricks. I guess I purged every good trick that I ever had in The Long Road of the Junkmailer: postmodernist tricks, comic tricks, fantastical word play or whatever. I basically threw everything in there, and that enabled me to start tabula rasa. To write in a purer way. I think you need to write those early works, and just get them out of the road. Not that I don’t like Junkmailer. I do. I’m one of the few people who do. I still think it’s funny, but then I have a strange sense of humour.

I like it!

Some people seem to. It kind of split people down the middle.

People you know and have spoken to, or are you referring to reviewers?


Was that hard, to have that reaction to your first book? Were you surprised by it?

Not really.

You talked earlier about how for a long time you felt the work – the writing – was just for you. That you might be its only audience, so having – almost suddenly – an audience, is a huge shift in your own relationship to the work.

It ‘s interesting when it starts to garner reviews, for example, and you see the way that reviewers approach your novel … I mean, I’ve been a reviewer myself, although for music generally, and you don’t have a lot of time to really get to know what you’re reviewing well. Sometimes a reviewer will give themselves away completely – not having read the book.

And sometimes things you get to review just don’t speak to you in a way that you can talk about, or articulate, whether they’re good or bad…

That’s right. Exactly. So, I don’t put a great amount of stock in it, but I think the ideal thing to happen is for some people to love it, and some people to really hate it. I think if you’ve done that, then you’ve probably done the job. The most frightening thing would be that kind of well-mannered praise. This is quite good. Then you would know that you’ve written something that’s just not going to matter. Anything that’s really good will upset someone. It’s going to have to, because a lot of people have fairly rigid ideas about what a book should do and if you’ve done anything at all, then you’re going to upset a few of them.

If you haven’t just filled in the form?

Yeah, and we can all do that. I’m sure anyone, given six months’ preparation, could write a book that would be completely well-received. You just have to do that Booker Prize genre thing. Home and Away and Neighbours probably have some reasonably attractive plots, so you just glean the best out of those. Go to the library, do your research, get your historical detail, pick a war to magnify the events so that they look super-significant. Bingo!

Do you think you could run a writing class based on that model?

You could, and I think it would be successful. I doubt my ability to do it, to write that way, because I doubt that I’d have the energy. As a writer you have to discipline yourself. No-one’s standing over you. I just think it would be very hard to do it day in and day out. Recently, when I’ve had to do final edits on The Mary Smokes Boys , I basically had to write night and day, trying to work through it. I couldn’t muster that energy for something I wasn’t that passionate about. I would just toss it. That’s my personality. Even if there was a lot of material gain to be had. It’s probably why I’m where I am today. Destitute. No, not destitute. Not quite. But if I don’t love it, I just can’t muster the energy to do it.

Do you love The Mary Smokes Boys? And The Source of the Sound?

Yeah, I do. It probably sounds vain. Having said that, I don’t know where they stand in the grand scale of books … I don’t even necessary think of Mary Smokes as a novel… it contains so much of me… I almost think of it as a kind of testament. And I think it bears true witness. I don’t try to pull of a single ‘Hollywood’, pop fiction trick in the book… and they’re easy to do… for example, drop little hints at the ends of chapters to keep readers in suspense… things like… If only the girls knew how a stranger was about to change their lives forever. Whatever else that book is, whatever any thinks of it, it’s a document with integrity.

I’m not sure a writer’s affection for a book is equivalent to a readerly response.

I think if you don’t love your own books, then you’re doing something wrong. You should at least be writing for yourself. That’s what I do. I try to understand the things that happen to me, and I try to understand the language that I speak. Those two things: I put them together. I fall out of love, sometimes, with works that I’ve written. The Mary Smokes Boys has been such a long, long process. It’s been the work of my whole young life, which has basically come to an end now that I’m 34.

Is it time, then, to begin the novels of your middle age? What will they be like?

I don’t know. I really don’t have that many more books to write. I’ve got The Source of the Sound coming out now, and then a Japan book coming next year, and I’ve got two more novels, and one more volume of stories that I already have in my mind. Basically, I’ve written them.

You’ve written them in your imagination?

Actually on the page. Drafts. One of the novels is up to second draft. I really think that after that, that will be it. [sorry Nike, it’s second draft… my mistake]

That seems like a lot of things to have already going, all at the same time.

I know. It’s to the detriment of my worldly existence, that I do so much writing.

Do you spend a lot of time on your writing, then?

Most days. I’m working now, three days a week, and sometimes travelling, but when I’m really writing it’s a blue collar job. I wake up; I’ll settle down to work about eight o’clock, then I’ll finish lunchtime. Have lunch, then work till about three, then I’ll go for a run, walk around the park or something, have dinner, then start again around 6:30 or 7:00 and write through to around midnight.

So, you have no personal life?!

I can break that routine, if someone’s having a party or something, but if left alone, that’s what I’ll do. I just feel compelled to write these words that I have. I always think that I’ll one day finish them, and then I’ll be able to be like a normal human being.

You’ll re-enter the world at some point in the future?

Yeah, and I’ll get a nice job and I’ll sit around and read, drink whiskey, and maybe have a little place. A couple of horses and cows, like you have. That’s the dream.

Do you read a lot now? You’ve mentioned Hemingway, Boll, Chesterton and Kipling. Do you read contemporary fiction as well?

A little.

More early twentieth-century writing?

That’s basically my period. Hemingway and Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Cheever. But also Kipling. A writer that no-one has ever heard of: Julianna Horatia Ewing. She was originally an English woman, but she moved to America. She wrote children’s books, but she also wrote a few stories for adults, and she was an influence on Kipling. She’s just the most amazing stylist. She’s got a story called ‘The Dandelion Clocks’, which you can still get in a book. I read it probably once every three months. It’s the most beautiful, minimalist composition. That’s the kind of composition I want to influence my stuff. I’m always moving towards more and more minimal work. I think that The Mary Smokes Boys, and everything that’s come after is minimalist.

Very unlike the quite dense writing of The Long Road of the Junkmailer.

It’s exactly the opposite. Junkmailer is almost the antithesis of the way I normally work. In that book I was thinking … basically, I was really poor, and I thought, I wonder if I can write something that will win one of these $20,000 awards. And it did. At the same time, I didn’t think it was rubbish. I liked it. I still like it, but it was very different from what I usually do.  I thought, well, I’m not having any luck with what I feel really is my work. I didn’t have the experience. I didn’t have the technique to pull it off, so I thought, I wonder if I can do this magic realist thing, but with a twist. I’ll make it kitchen sink magic realism. Really poor kids, delivering junk mail, something that I had been doing, and make it comic. Try and crack some jokes along the way. So I did that. I think that the result was … I’m still happy with it. If I had it again, I would change things, like every writer would.

But they are the works of the past, aren’t they? They are of their time.

That’s exactly it. So, I read her – Julianna Ewing – and Kawabata, the Japanese writer, Tobias Wolff and Hemingway. I’m really interested in the minimal kind of prose. Also Barry Lopez. He’s amazing.

I love Barry Lopez’s work – but I wouldn't have thought of him as a minimalist; he is a precise describer of landscape – is that where the connection with his work lies for you?

I think Winter Count is minimalist. Lopez understands landscape so well. He was out here not long ago. I didn’t get to see him. I’ve written to his agent. I said, can I send Barry some books? Because, particularly the book of stories, particularly Winter Count: I just love that book. That’s another book I read once a year. That book has really influenced my short stories. And everything else. For me, he’s the best writer around right now. He sounds like a lovely guy.

He does, but it can be disconcerting to discover how different a writer is, in real life, to how you think they will be based on their writing. You talked earlier about Kipling – about writers who’ve written humanist works – who turn out to have been quite different, to have held quite different morals or politics in their everyday life. Günter Grass is one of the most striking recent examples of that public shock when a writer and their work don’t readily align.

Sure. And Kipling wasn’t a bad man, he just had some strange ideas. What we call strange ideas now. That said, he would probably make the case that his kind of Imperialism was kinder than the sort of post-Imperialism we have now, where we just go in and take the country’s resources, but don’t worry about, at least officially, affecting their societies. We don’t overtly take control, but do it underhandedly. Which is probably the most malicious kind of imperialism.

It’s a strange presumption, in a way, isn’t it, that writers of fiction can be known through their work, or that writers – people who write about important issues in a ‘good’ way, must be ‘good’ people.

I guess it’s because there is a moral element in any writing. It’s almost impossible to get away from. Sometimes I’ve thought about trying to write something that’s as pure as a piece of music, but as soon as you put words on a page, and have people acting things out, you can’t help but take a moral direction.

Because they’re necessarily located in the medium of the human, of experience, whereas music more readily exceeds or – in your words – transcends personality?

I think so. I mean, it’s easy enough to think Wagner’s music is immoral because we know the guy was anti-Semitic. Then, it is very loud. It feels offensive.

But that’s a reading into, isn’t it? I don’t know that there’s a way to argue that the music is intrinsically ‘evil’, is there? It’s an expression of something, and perhaps something deeply personal, but can it really be argued that it is, for example, an expression of Nazism?

Well, the loudness and atonality might be construed as a kind of evil. Maybe that’s immorality in music. Breaking nature’s harmonies. Not respecting silence. Certainly anti-Semitism needn’t always produce bad art. But maybe there’s a certain upset of the spirit in an artist who truly ‘hates’, that comes out in their work. Like I say, I hope the things that I write transcend my petty grievances and ideas, everything like that. I think every writer – every decent writer – aims for that. If you just wanted to reproduce yourself – your opinions – you’d get a soapbox and start shouting.

Or write memoir? Or pedagogic books, I guess. Is it really fiction you’re talking about there?

Yeah. Yeah. Fiction will die if you try to pin it down with your own ideas, with your own ideology.

Somewhere in all of this – this ramble of a conversation we’re having – one of the things that keeps coming up is your interest in the spiritual, and your sense of a connection between that and your practice as a writer . You talked about Lopez, for example, and there’s a sense in his work of a quasi-spiritual encounter with people, and with landscape…

The thing about Lopez is that he’s not prejudiced against any form of knowledge. What he respects, I think, is knowledge based on experience. So, if you have experience of a landscape, whether you’re a farmer, a scientist, a Navajo hunter, or a Catholic priest. Anything. If you’ve lived and worked in a place, he respects your knowledge. He’s a guy, I think, who addresses the problems of our time in the way they should be addressed. You’re always going to get the polemicists to shout themselves into arguments, say, for example, your crazier Ayatollahs, or pastors jumping up and down about the evils of homosexuality, and then on the opposite side of the same coin, Richard Dawkins or somebody like him saying, I’m right. This is the way we will move forward. Everyone who doesn’t think the way I do is an idiot. All of this just further divides people against each other. No-one is ever persuaded by that. No-one who doesn’t believe in God hears a pastor saying homosexuals are going to hell and suddenly starts to believe what he’s heard. No-one who belongs to the church hears Richard Dawkins saying Catholics are ideologically diseased people and suddenly thinks, Maybe I am; I’ll change. These people just create enmity. But Lopez – the way that he takes from everyone – takes the best of every sort of tradition… the best of everyone’s thought, rituals and work practices and brings it all together in a world view. He presents this holistic picture of nature, like in Arctic Dreams. That’s probably the classic example of how you can understand place, take all these separate fields of knowledge, synthesise them and make something larger. I really admire that. I don’t have a science background, so I can’t bring that in. I have experience in the landscapes that I write about. Walking and working in them. And I can’t help but bring a Catholic spirituality to that.

Patrick Holland ManuscriptAre you conscious of the ways your Catholic spirituality permeates your work?

It permeates everything. The idea of inherited guilt in present in The Mary Smokes Boys. Original sin plays a part. Most characters, certainly most male characters, in my work are seeking some sort of redemption. At one point in The Mary Smokes Boys, a girl says to one of the lead male characters, You should come to our church. There’s a rock band and café. He replies, don’t you think sometimes we’re meant to suffer? That the sin is in us, and it’s just a trick of time that means we have to wait to commit it? And, you know, it’s true for him. Eventually, he’ll leave his sister all alone. I’ve felt like that, too. That’s my experience. It’s part of Catholic theology, but it’s also something that I feel is true. You’re just waiting. The sin is in you. The first chance I ever got to really do something bad, I did it.

What was it?

I’m not going to say. But with regard to spirituality, Graham Greene’s novels inform mine. Not that I would ever say I’m as good a draughtsman as him, or even as astute a student of theology, but I’m influenced by his idea of people requiring redemption, and – on the lighter side – people being able to transcend their desires, their failings. One of the most Orthodox Christian books I can think of is The Old Man and the Sea. Religion’s barely mentioned in it. Hemingway might mention God once or twice. I think the old man throws up some cursory prayers now and again, but it’s more like words to a not-very-intimate friend than to a divinity, but there is that idea that you can be totally materially destroyed, but not defeated. I think that, also, is present in my work. It’s a funny thing. I wonder sometimes, if I had been born in the sixteenth century France, if I wouldn’t be different, if I wouldn’t be very critical of the church in my work. I sometimes think it’s the role of the writer to take a contrary position to the trends. You get no applause these days for being a spiritual writer. I mean, that would condemn you to … I don’t know…

A new age bookshop?

Yeah! Exactly. And I don’t even go into those bookshops. So, a religious writer is no good thing to be. You have to almost create spiritual writing by subterfuge, because the traditions that I speak from are under threat in Australia, both because of their own mismanagement, and because they’re just so tremendously unfashionable. I always feel the need to take up the unfashionable cause. In the literary community, or the intelligentsia, any admission of religious faith puts you seriously beyond the pale.

Surely, however, there are significant exceptions. Marilynne Robinson comes to mind …

In America, there are exceptions, certainly. You’d have the potential to sell a lot of books. Once you get to a certain critical mass. Les Murray gets away with it here. Cormac McCarthy gets away with it, but he is quite subtle.

Is one of the reasons for this suspicion of spirituality in the literary community, at least in Australia, because we’ve come to associate it with a species of anti-intellectualism? With a perception that you can’t be both spiritual and intellectual?

When I was at University, I was devoutly atheist. It didn’t work for me. I know some people who are atheists. They’re lovely. But for me, it didn’t work. I can even remember standing in the street, outside a night club, and there was this old lady playing accordion and singing prayers, and I was saying to her, You should get off the street instead of propagating all this religious rubbish. And she’s there saying, You’ve got the devil in you. Just a really embarrassing, ridiculous thing for me to be doing. Admittedly, I was a kid. But still. The irony is that years later I would end up converting. But, you’re right, I thought that religious people were crazy and idiotic, because that’s the way they’d been portrayed. I’m at University; I’m supposed to be clever. So I distanced myself from them.

That seems to me the essential laziness in Dawkins’ argument: his assumption that anyone who holds some kind of religious belief must be stupid.

Exactly. He never takes on people like Aquinas, Dante, Maratain or Augustine, anyone like that. There’s a good reason; it’s difficult. Those guys are massive philosophers, with incredibly complex and rich world views. You can do one of two things. You can either take them on, and then risk a book that no-one will buy, because that stuff is heavy going. If you write a book, Me Versus Aquinas, it’s not going to be that popular, but if you write a book Me Versus My Silly Old Religion Teachers, you’re going to sell because everyone can reach that intellectual bar. That’s the tragedy of the religious debate. Whereas before it was a debate between Francois Mauriac and, say, Albert Camus, now it’s a debate between Richard Dawkins and whatever nutcase jumps up, on behalf of Southern Baptist TV Ministry Evangelicalism. The debate has been so degraded. I don’t know if you’ve read that series of letter between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Martini, edited by Karen Armstrong. It’s a really brilliant little book. It’s only about a hundred pages. It’s called Belief and Non-Belief. The Cardinal and Eco just write letters to each other in an Italian newspaper. Just questioning each other on why they think the way they do. What implications they think their respective views have. It’s very gracious and insightful. And then to see, in the English-speaking world, the childishness of the debate. We may as well just put gloves on and slug it out. It would be just as intellectually engaging. More so, probably.

It’s disappointing, isn’t it, that the English-language debate about religious belief has become so degraded; that the arguments we hear aren’t nuanced, but are largely framed in terms of extreme, and simplified or simplistic, positions, like that you allude to – the TV Evangelist stance.

I’m sure there are some really lovely Southern Baptists. But it’s the nature of our media, isn’t it? Whoever yells the loudest, that’s who they’re going to stick a microphone in front of. Dawkins certainly yells very loud. The guy has that website – he does a great courtesy to his critics – he manages to respond to just about anyone who has anything negative to say about him.

Do you think he employs ghostwriters?

I don’t think so. He seems to be the kind of guy who is self-absorbed enough to do it by himself. He boasted that his wife read The God Delusion to him three times, aloud, while he just sat there, listening, critiquing it, making sure it held together. I mean, I write what are basically mystery novels, and my girlfriend wouldn’t stand to read aloud ten pages of them. She’d say, go to hell. Read it yourself. It’s an extraordinary household he runs.

I guess there is a tradition in which writers, male writers particularly, have that kind of relationship with their partners, in which the partner is a helpmeet of some kind.

I guess there is, but it wouldn’t play with me, I can tell you that much.

Or with your girlfriend. It wouldn’t play, I suspect, in many contemporary relationships, but I guess historically there is an idea that that’s ok.

It says something about him, that he would think that anyone would be prepared to do that. Maybe he provides well for her.

Maybe she gains some pleasure out of doing it. Maybe she agrees with him.

Even if you did. I don’t think I could read … say, if Thomas Aquinas asked me to read his collected theology to him, I’m not sure I could do it. Repeated times.

Could you discuss it with him, after you’d read his draft?

Yeah. That would be interesting. Anyway, you could point out Dawkins’s faults all day, just as you could an extreme Baptist preacher’s. Finally, their shouting doesn’t get us anywhere. It really doesn’t. It just makes us put up the barriers a bit higher.

Perhaps that’s true of writing more generally, that extreme positions, and didacticism, are not as valuable as nuanced and particular writing. That the great failing in works of that nature is to make astounding simplifications, and then build on them.

Well, I mean, Camus didn’t believe in God, and he made a point of writing about that, but his works are wonderful. I’ve read just about everything he’s written. Camus is a writer whom serious theologians deal with because they know they have to. Camus’s basic argument against God is, I can’t believe in any supremely good creator who can incorporate the suffering of a child in his plan. That is so simple; you could get that from a peasant, but it’s very hard to assail.

Is it really that simple? The notion that a creator shouldn’t be able to include a notion of evil? That a pure goodness shouldn’t be capable of generating, or creating, its opposite?

You’re right. It’s simple so long as you don’t ask too many questions of it. What can I say… it’s functional. To some degree it works. I think you could take that world view and be a decent human being with it. I’m convinced Camus is going to heaven… whatever that means. But, basically, I find Camus’ philosophy is simple; he’s quite a simple, honest man. Unlike non-believers today. It’s interesting that while Camus most certainly didn’t believe in the God of Israel, he refused to be called an atheist as he didn’t want to be lumped in with a bunch of philosophers he thought were deliberately using the designation to avoid dealing with many of philosophy’s big questions. I can’t imagine he’d feel much different today. Some of these guys today will deliberately trick their readers. I’ve seen a quotation of an atheist Graham Greene character in a volume of atheist quotes, but attributed to Greene himself. That’s deliberate deception. There was also one in there by Gandhi – a deeply religious man. But a book like that does its job on an audience ignorant of the lives of Greene and Gandhi. Those kinds of deceptions were part of the reason I began to look seriously at religion in my mid twenties. At one point, Dawkins was claiming that Dostoevsky was an atheist. For me, there are only three possibilities in that. Firstly, he read The Brother Karamazov and really did believe that (maybe the ancient Dawkinses didn’t pass on the gene that allows you to read literature of a certain sophistication.)  

Maybe that wasn’t part of his education, as a scientist.

It’s possible. Secondly, he didn’t read it. He heard someone in the Oxford tea-rooms say something about Ivan Karamazov and atheism and just said, Oh, really? And mistook Ivan for Dostoevsky. Thirdly, he knew that it wasn’t true, and yet knew that Dostoevsky was a big name …

And that perhaps a certain number of his own readers wouldn’t know either way

Exactly. He could assume that they hadn’t read Dostoevsky’s book, which is one of the distinguishing traits of the debate in English-speaking culture. That would never play in France. You could not assume that people didn’t know that book. I honestly don’t know which of those three possibilities is right, but it must be one of them.

Perhaps a key difference between contemporary debates on this issue and those debates of the past is the absence of respect for, and inclusion of, the concept of doubt. The idea that doubt can be an essential element of the experience of faith.

You see that even in my work. In The Mary Smokes Boys the girl is totally devout, but the brother is on the borderline. His knowledge is surrounded by darkness and he knows it. His mother was devout, too. His mother is a big influence on him, and her death informs a lot of the action, even the violent action in the book. He waivers between believing that the events delivered to him by life have meaning, and the suspicion that it’s all just chaos. I know if ever I feel like I’m one hundred per cent certain of something, I get scared.

There’s that suspicion of reason coming in again.

Whether you believe that we’re monkeys grown up, or angels fallen, we’re not perfect, and if you think you’ve got the perfect handle on things, then you’re wrong.

I never trust certainty.


More Author Interviews

Gary Crew interviewed by n a bourke (Issue 09:03)

Patrick Holland interviewed by n a bourke (Issue 10:03)

Belinda Jeffrey interviewed by Inga Simpson (10:02)

Susan Johnson interviewed by Sandra Hogan (Issue 11:01)

Krissy Kneen interviewed by n a bourke (Issue 09:05)

Steven Lang interviewed by n a bourke (issue 09:04)

Pippa Masson interviewed by Janene Carey (10:02)

Lisa Unger interviewed by Inga Simpson (10:01)

Charlotte Wood interviewed by Sandra Hogan (11:02)


About the Author

Patrick Holland grew up in outback Queensland. He worked as a horseman in Maranoa district and ringer in the far northwest before moving to Brisbane and gaining a BA in Literary Studies at Griffith University. He has travelled widely throughout Asia and has studied language and literature at Qingdao University and Beijing Foreign Studies University on PRC scholarship, as well as Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University in Vietnam. His novel The Long Road of the Junkmailer (UQP) won the Queensland Premier’s Award for Best Emerging Author and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Best First Book, South East Asia/South Pacific. His stories have been published and broadcast in Australia, the U.S.A, Ireland, and in translation in Japan: by the Griffith REVIEW, Best Australian Stories, ABC Radio and Red Leaves among others. He has written classical music reviews for Limelight, most recently on Arvo Pärt’s In Principio. His new novel, The Mary Smokes Boys, is set in the hills west of Brisbane and is published by Transit Lounge.


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