Perilous Adventures
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Gary Crew

interviewed by n a bourke

Gary Crew's Study

[Gary Crew's study]

People say to me, 'Did you always want to become a writer?' and the answer is simply no. As people grow, or breathe, I just always presumed that I could write. That was the only thing that I could ever do. Write and draw.

One day I went to the school library and they had six or eight books out. I said to the librarian, 'Why are they out there?' And she said, 'They're the shortlist for the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year.' Of which I had never heard. In my life.

They were Australian. That's the way it was then. You would only ever – this was early 80s, late 70s – you would only ever look to England, or America. Susie Hinton. Aiden Chambers. That's who you taught. There was no Australian writing that we were aware of. Especially not writing that was accessible to young adults.

There was stuff in this collection that was like – literally – The Life of Jesus and things like that. So I took a couple home and – it's not meant to be arrogant, it's not meant arrogantly at all, because no one's as flummoxed as me by what happened - I read a couple that weekend and I thought: I think I could do this. So, literally, as God is my witness, I got off the girls – I've got three children – joel's 30, Rachel's 38 – I got old notebooks and exercise books, and I just started to write this thing. I couldn't type. I had no computer. Eventually I got my sister to type it on an electronic typewriter, and then I had no idea what to do. Not a clue. Sat it on my desk.

Not of anything. So, it sat on my desk. A rep came to the school selling books from William Heinemann and I said we didn't want any. We didn't use textbooks; we'd use novels as a basis for study. I said, 'But I have got one here that I've written,' and literally – his name was John Stibbs – I remember because of the visual. He ran out of the room, and across the parking lot and hurdled the school fence. NowI know now you don't show people manuscripts.

I thought that was the end of my writing career. So I went back to picking my nose. Two or three days later he rang me. I thought I’d never hear from him again. He said, 'Our managing director is here from England, and he’s in Melbourne, coming up to Brisbane for a day or two for something and he’d like to meet you.'

I thought, yeah, pigs fly.

I was at work one day - my office was at the back of a big staffroom - and as you can well imagine there wasn’t a single other man teaching. There were seventeen women, who were the English teachers. It was morning tea and everyone smoked. It was just a fug. They were eating cream buns, as everyone did in those days. Suddenly, this gaggle just fell silent. I looked around the corner and here was Sidney Poitier. Handsome, obviously Afro-American in a kind of zoot suit of grey shot silk. With Winklepicker shoes. There was kind of like this orgasmic sigh. I said, ‘Can I help you?’

He said, 'Sure, I’m Ron Norman.' I can’t do it. He had three balls, obviously. He said, 'I’m from Heinemann.'

I’ve never been one to muck around so I said, 'Tell me about your colour.' I didn’t say, you know, you’re black, but tell me. He had  a Canadian father and a Jamaican mother. He said, ' I grew up in Jamaica.'

I said, 'Don’t. you’re lying to me, because I did my thesis on Wilson Harris.'

He said. 'Holy hell. '

So we were best friends. He really took me under his wing. He took the manuscript off my desk, where it was still lying with cockroaches and coffee stains.

Ron was a beautiful person, he really was. Straight. Two lovely kids. He was killed by AIDS. Before blood transfusions were tested. He just got sick and he couldn’t work out why. About four years later he just was over. He had contaminated blood. It was instant. He was gone in six weeks.

Shocking. No one knew what it was. He came over, later, and he had these lumps, and I said, 'Ron, what is wrong with you?'

He said, 'No one really knows. This thing. This AIDS thing.'

I thought he was talking about teacher’s aides. I mean, we didn’t know. I kind of knew that it was about being gay or something. He certainly was not. Worse, Penny, his wife, got $15,000 compensation for her dead husband.

He went back to Melbourne. Ron could talk the leg off an iron pot. On the plane he sat next to a girl who was about thirteen, apparently. I don’t know, I never met her. They landed in Sydney - something happened, they had to change planes or something - by the time they got to Melbourne they’d finished the book. Of course, he was a talker. Really personable, very handsome. You know, he was a sharer. And very assured. He said to her, 'What do you think?'

And she said, 'I love it.'

Thanks whoever you are, darling, because two days later he rang me and said, 'We’re offering you a contract both here in Australia through Heinemann Australian Writers series.' It had Mum Shirl. An Aboriginal woman wrote that. It was very prestigious. And they also sold [my book] through Heinemann UK. So, without doing anything, or having an agent or anyting, this high school teacher had an international publication. And I thought, 'Well, that’s it, I’ve written my book.'

They came back, they asked for another one and I did House of Tomorrow, which just went ballistic.

Ron used to come up and down to see me, before he got sick, and I said, 'Look, I don’t want to do this. I want to write something different. I want to have a go at something.'

And he said, 'Do what you like; we don’t care.'

So I did Strange Objects, which was like mental.

Because I was so so so so infused with the postcolonial. So infused. Postcolonialism and poststructuralism are very similar concepts. So when I read someone like [Richard] Flanagan, it’s nothing to me. I don’t mean he’s nothing. I mean, I understand how he’s working, shuffling historical cards. And my whole purpose was to say: history is not something that happens in chronological time. History is not narrative. History is an investigation of things. Objects of every shape and form. Every kind of artefact, written or otherwise.

[Strange Objects] came out in paperback, and went [snaps his fingers] like that. All of a sudden they saw something was happening, so it came out in hardback, after it came out in paperback, which is mad, and then it won Children’s Book Council, then it won NSW Premier's, then it won Victorian Premier's, and my whole life just turned about. It was around that time that Helen [Tiffin] said leave the PhD. I think maybe she saw I wasn’t focusing. Massive author tours. Money that I’d never seen in my life before. Ever.

Crew Says: this page "helped me maintain the complex multiple and over lapping plot lines of the novel, lasting from 1629 to the present"

[ GC: This page helped me maintain the complex multiple and overlapping plot lines of Strange Objects, lasting from 1629 to the present ]

I taught for eighteen years.

I never ever got transferred. I never did bush. The only reason I think is because I was a male, and we were rare, and I was a male with a Masters, which was unheard of in teaching in those days.

We were just absolutely galloping working class. Dad shoveled coal, that sort of stuff, which is in First Light, absolutely true. Chris’s dad worked for the post office. She lived in West End. She’s a West End girl. Before it was groovy. So, we were just classic 40s and 50s Brisbane kids. And that’s a serious statement. I had no idea how serious that statement was.

I was born in 1947. I was a very young nearly-40. This [gestures at himself, his body] was all different. I was - in old money - eight stone. Jet-black hair. I was a boy. Ignorant. Absolutely naïve.

I was learned, academically. I could always speak, that was never an issue. But I was ignorant of the way of the world in sexual politics. Anything that we would call sophistication like food, clothing, wine. I knew what knife and fork to use. But we didn’t understand. I had no understanding of how to use my time, when I retired, because I went to work at fourteen as a draughtsman. That was my trade. Our heads were reeling. The trips started to come. Things that really taught me stuff. There are some people in publishing and writing who are really not nice.

When I went to Sydney I didn’t know anybody. Nobody at all. And Heinemann had an apartment in Kings Cross. This is a cute story. I was told by X – I had no idea who anybody was – but X would be pick me up. So I went downstairs and stood outside the apartment. I smoked. I was having a fag. All these people, these men, were saying, 'Hey, what are you doing?' And I said, 'Getting picked up.'

I was dumb. Mental. To cut a long story short we went to the awards and I got the award and this person, who – a woman of considerable sophistication – said, 'I’m me,' whoever she was, 'and I’m taking you out to dinner because you won the award, and I’m from Heinemann.'

I said, 'Look, I haven’t got a lot of money.'

She gave me a look as if I was retarded. This is the level I was at, you know? What did I know. I knew nothing. So we went to this restaurant, and all of a sudden all these other people came and there were like eighteen people at this gigantic table. I didn’t have a clue who anyone was. I was at the head of the table because I was the winner. It was a huge thing.

So, I sat next to Louise and all these people I’d never heard of. I was just dying. I was shitting my pants. I kept thinking, I’ve gotta pay, I’ve gotta pay. I had a bankcard. People were saying, I’ll have this liquer, and I’ll have that aperitif, and I was just gagging with terror. At the end of it, naturally, the waiter came and gave me the bill, because I was the man at the head of the table. I opened it, and it was $3800.00. I was just pissing myself. And then a hand just came across and she said, 'I’ll do that.'

I never saw any – except for her – I never saw any of those people ever again. I went on to the next stop. To Melbourne. I had a cheque in my pocket for, I think, $7500.00. It was just singing. It was just singing.

We went on to Melbourne, for the Victorian Premier's award, and here was this little grade 9 teacher from Albany Creek High School. Things occurred like: the cover of the hardback, which I had not seen, they put on a cyclorama. It was just amazing. My head was blowing to pieces. And then it won the Book of the Year from Children’s Book Council and that was the end, of course. The Opera House. I had to walk up on the stage of the Opera House.

That life continued for many, many years.

Ron [Norman] said, 'We invested in you because you have a good appearance and you can speak. You’re the dream writer. You’re a good speaker.' I had black hair and stuff. I could dress up. I was thin. A cute bundle, do you know what I mean? I can’t do that now, because it’s grotesque. I owned really nice suits and I had different – it’s all part of the game – different jewellery that I used to wear. Stick pins. I collected Victorian stick pins. And that’s the way I used to present.

Anyway, it went on and on and on and on, and then in the 90s I had a very big one. Brisbane, Western Australia, Adelaide Writers Festival and I was flying back to Serena over the top to Townsville. I won’t dwell on this because the message will be received. I was in Mt Gambier, alone. I didn’t have an agent then, you know.

I found myself. I don’t like that expression, but  I found myself on the back fire escape of the Mt Gambier pub. I had a a half-bottle of Scotch and I was just crying.

No, I didn’t. I had no idea. This was Angel’s Gate, which also won, and First Light [illustrated by Peter Goldthorpe] had won, in the picture books, at the same time.

There are a couple of things here. It was the shock of the whole being-catapulted thing, but equal to that was the fact that no-one at home really cared. Because, why should they? There was no way to manage this information. You see, Christine married a draughtsman who had no qualifications at all, and then crawled his way up to get a Masters, which meant something in those days. It doesn’t now. You had to do that procedure. I had the goods, I now know, to go to PhD from undergrad but Helen [Tiffin] said, 'Don’t do that because if ever you go to academia you need to be able to show your track record. The only people who go straight to doctorate are not proceeding in a firm way.'

Those were the times. What I want to say is that I had gone to some other space than the intuitively-agreed upon way that things were going to go. And Christine was bringing up three kids alone. Teenage years.

Then Mt Gambier occurred and Fran Kelly, who was a human being, bailed me out. She said, ‘I’ll be there in the morning, just meet me in the foyer.’ She got on the phone and wiped all my appointments. I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t understand what was happening. She took me home to her house, with her husband, and we went for walks and so on. Three days later I’d gotten over it. I had told Christine what was going on. At least, just the loss and the crying. She had the nous to hook me up to a shrink and when I got home we went straight in. Obviously, I was clinically depressed. That lasted through the 90s.

I know now it was probably in the family. But no, I had no understanding, and it had no co-relation to anything. And it was … I lost massive tone … it went … blah blah. That was a big shake-up. I had to crawl out of that.

We realised we had to make a move. Joel was 17 by this time. The girls: one was overseas, the other one was married or something. Christine had had it with teaching, so we left Brisbane, and bought Maleny.

We’d been there maybe eighteen months when Karen Brooks rang – I’d never heard of her in my life, but she had read Objects, I think – and asked if I’d come down here [to the University of the Sunshine Coast] to start Creative Writing. This was very important to me, because it meant that I could say goodbye to traveling. I took a sessional appointment for a semester, wrote and introduced the first subject, because I was too stupid to know I should be paid to do that. At the end of one semester the Dean came down and said, 'Listen, cancel everything I said, it’s not a boutique subject. You’ve got a queue.'

Later, I was advised to do the doctorate, which I did. This place really embraced me. They’ve really looked after me. I got researcher of the year. They’ve always recognised creative research. And then, I went to Senior Lecturer and then to Associate Professor. The writing stuff has gone on underneath that. All the time.

When I had my heart issue I had to have a little think. I don’t know anything about teenagers and I care less. I realised I don’t want to write for that audience any more and what I was seeing was either hugely patronsising or horrendously egotistical. Copy, copy, copy. Catcher in the Rye. Do you know what I’m saying? "I’m fourteen, got no penis, blah blah blah … " Just awful.

The other ones are the most dreadful ones: where girls, particularly, are not complete until, as A D Hope says, ‘the heavenly bowser boy puts the bowser in’. You know the poem? The brides? It just makes me sick. And it happens all the time. So I’ve had it with that genre and also I’m not 17, I don’t know anything about 17 year olds, my youngest is 30. I don’t care. So I realised that was over.

Illustrated books I cannot let go. What is happening is just too amazing and wonderful to let it go. The work I’ve done with Shaun Tan. My friendship with Shaun, which is very dear to me. My friendship with people like Matt Ottley, who’s won down the years. The quality – I’m thinking professionally and objectively – and the innovation of what I’m putting out in that area. I can’t let it go. The articles that have been written about it. How people are now recognising the genre. Calling it postmodern picture books. People are writing big papers and I find that very interesting.

There have been horrible, dreadful tragedies. Steven [Woolman] did The Watchtower with me, which won Book of the Year, then he did Beneath the Surface, the sequel, which won the NSW Premier's. Success after success, it just doesn’t cease. Touch wood. But Steven died of AIDS. That was a dreadful loss, because he was a dear friend and that was horrific. So there have been ups and downs, but I never want to let the genre go.

Lothian, who had been my children’s publisher, sold to Hachette. Hachette was very commercial and wasn’t into what I wanted to do. I wanted to do innovative stuff.

Helen, who's been my editor for 25 years is a genius and wonderful. I love her. It was just a different, massive corporation. Whereas Lothian was small and Australian-owned, big corporations like commercial work. The smaller ones are risk-takers and will innovate.

I’ve never been popular at a commercial level, like John Marsden. Not remotely. Anyway, she got a bit snowed under and I found it necessary to look elsewhere, to Lisa Berryman, who was at Harper Collins. Lisa had been at Heinemann and went to Harper Collins. I’d done some kids stuff with them. I said, 'Look, Lisa, I’m going bats; I need to change and grow up. Before I die I want to write for adults.'

Crew Says: the very first page written in which I asked myself (tried to sort out) what I was trying to prove.

[ GC: the very first page written in which I asked myself/

tried to sort out what I was trying to prove in writing Strange Objects. ]

I never found the need. I was quite happy where I was. But as I proceed, particularly through here [USC] and when I go to AAWP conferences and whatever I still feel like the kid on Reading Corner.

I can’t pin this down. I can’t pin it down because either I’m from Brisbane, or I’m little, or I’m a Queenslander, or I write for kids. I Can’t give you an answer, but the outcome is the same. For whatever reason, for all of my international success and sales, and for all of my academic success I still have a very, very deeply entrenched inferiority complex.

It’s a good word because I think - and I don’t care for words like healing - the healing is taking place at a great rate of knots. I said to Lisa, 'I need a hand.' She said, 'I’ll do that.'

She took a pile of previously published stuff. Maybe that was three or four years ago. I am 62 now, so I was approaching 60. I knew the YA stuff was over. I had tried as hard as I could but I knew I was an anachronism. I had written Lacemaker’s Daughter and The Diviner's Son for Pan, and I know they hated them.

Work it out. They publish Matthew Reilly. They publish Andy Griffiths. They didn’t want me; I had no place in their list.

I loved those two books; I thought those two books were among the best I’d ever done. No one cared. They didn’t care. CBC didn’t care. All I knew was that I had to go somewhere else.

One day the phone rang at home, and this voice said, 'I’m Linda Funnell and I’m the publisher for Fourth Estate, Harper Collins’ literary imprint. I’m in Brisbane for a couple of days and I’d like to see you.'

I said to Christine, 'This is a fucking waste of time. I hate driving to Brisbane. I hate Brisbane.' But I had to do it, so I drove down: it was a really miserable, rotten thing. I had to meet [Linda] at 4:00 in a hotel foyer and being in Brisbane at 4:00 is just not my bag. I’m used to driving down to Maleny. You know, you just park sideways. In my tracksuit pants. I’d never met her before in my life. I felt deflated.

After about an hour and a half I said, 'Look, I’ve actually gotta go, and I’ve gotta drive home, back to Maleny.'

She said, 'But we haven’t talked about what you came for.'

I said, 'Well, I didn’t know what you wanted to do.'

She said, 'What sort of books do you want to write for us?'

I said, 'I’d like to write literary fiction for adults.'

She said, 'Give me an example.'

As God is my witness I have really been very, very blessed. It happens to me. I can’t say where it came from because I wouldn’t say it now, for sure, having taught it, I said, 'Like Year of Wonders.' It really isn’t literary fiction. It’s kind of crossover. It was popular, historical. And also I’m really not blind to a buck. I really do like money very much. She said, 'Goodness gracious. I’m the publisher.'

I had no idea. I played right to her court. I had no idea.

She asked me about March. Of course, that was Geraldine Brooks’ other one. I said I really didn’t like it, I thought it was pooh. I didn’t say that. I thought it was muck, but it had won the Pulitzer. Mercifully, I hadn’t read it so we didn’t talk about it. Things were kind of sweet and then about 6:10. I was going mental, because I couldn’t drink, I had to drive home. No scotch and it was well past Scotch-time. She said, 'Ok, give me three proposals.'

I had thought about stuff and one was the concept of The Children’s Writer, and the other one was the concept of The Architecture of Song, and the other one, which I really did prefer, which was the story of Omi. A very handsome young Fijian who was taken back to England by Cook for two years and then taken back and dumped in Fiji.

She said: 'When you get home I want proposals for one and two.' I did that. I hated it. I knew it would never happen and I kept saying, 'This is just a waste of ink. I don’t want to do this.'

Just didn’t believe it was credible, or possible. Look, you can only cop – please God, don’t kill me on the way home for saying this – you can only get so many good things. And I have not suffered. You know what I mean? I had depression. Blah. But I haven’t suffered. I’ve always had money and prestige.

That was that. [Christine and I] went away to Berrima on a driving holiday buying plants. Came back and there were the letters. I’ve never seen – I keep saying that, because it feels like that – I’ve never seen such a thing in my life. She gave me a contract for both. A double contract with Fourth Estate.

No, no, no. Let the healing begin. I just felt worthwhile. Grown up and important and it really put the thesis to the test. With all my awards, why did I never feel like a writer? Because I wrote for children. All of a sudden I got two contracts for unwritten books. I hadn’t written a word. I had not written a line. So I did Children’s Writer.

I’m a very fast worker. I think the stuff is hived, to use a Judith Wright term. I think the stuff is hived up in me and I’m very much a writer over Christmas. I find it very hard to write while I’m here, while I’m teaching.

For the first time in my life I felt empowered to apply really sophisticated structures without having to apologise or justify them. The most wonderful thing that happened was that even though I knew the story in raw plot terms, it had no thematic resonance. And I didn’t really think about that terribly much and then, about halfway through, I thought holy hell, this is about me.

I always thought it was about him. The Children’s Writer is told in the first person by a man who's about 21 or 22, doing a degree in literature at uni. He’s a blob. He’s a slob. He’s fat. Really big and fat and gross and his girlfriend is so petite. Almost elfin. Blonde and svelte. They’re doing it hard, like students do. She’s doing education. Really wants to be a teacher. One Sunday after they wake up and do the normal things people do: make love, blah, she looks at the paper and says, 'This writer Sebastian Chanticleer' – tosser name, on purpose – 'who was my childhood favourite, is speaking at Redmond Barry theatre at Melbourne uni and I’d really like to go.'

He loves books, and he wants to be a writer, but he says, 'He’s a kids’ writer.' But he loves her, so off he goes. The guy is a tosser. He’s an absolute tosser. Affected. The kind of children’s writer I’ve seen all my life. With a bow tie and odd socks. Kind of Edwardian in presentation. The wavy grey hair going back in folds. And the central character loathes him. They get some of his books and he loathes him even more because they’re absolutely hideous: bronze dragons with scales. The most awful level of fantasy. I loathe fantasy.

Low fantasy, I think. Dungeons and dragons. He realises little by little that she is taking an inordinate interest in this man. Little by little he sees this reciprocated. And the guy actually meets her at a signing and little intimate things take place and ultimately the central character – whose name I forget – thinks: I’m going to do some homework on this turkey. There are no books in the bookshops. Nothing Chanticleer wrote. He looks him up, and none of these books are in print. What he’s been buying are remaindered copies that are being humped around by the author. He’s won the awards but is a has-been in every way.

It all unpacks. There’s subliminal stuff. There are mothers in each case. I realised the book was about me, but I thought that I was the children’s writer. I wasn’t. I was the other one. I was the fat boy. That was the big epiphany. I was the one who hated the ponce.

I could write about him - the ponce - because I’ve been that ponce. But I was really the younger one who was kind of envious but kind of hateful. That’s when the book got balls and I felt I had written a book. Anyway, as one does I sent it off. Just sick. Sick to my guts.

Shocking. I was beside myself. Because I was taking my pants down in front of the public. Exposing myself.

I had had one children’s book rejected. That’s not meant to be pretentious, but it only happened once in all that time. That was through Pan MacMillan, of course; they didn’t like what I wrote. They wanted something more accessible. They had rejected Raft, which I quite liked. I couldn’t give a rat's. It didn’t worry me, but this terrified me.

This is pus. That’s what I thought would come back: this is pus. And I would never be able to write anything again because I’d shot my bolt.

I think The Children’s Writer is an apprentice novel. I don’t think it’s going to win the Miles Franklin, but I don’t think by any means that Architecture of Song is an apprentice novel. Linda Funnell was up here for some reason. I met her in Maleny. She came home and spent an afternoon with Christine and I. I said, 'You know, I don’t want to be a dick, you gotta answer the question; what is happening?'

She’s not remotely an actress. She said, 'What are you talking about?'

I said, 'Well, are you going to publish it?'

She said, 'Of course we are.'

It was like saying: Stroke me, tell me it’s ok. She said, 'Look, we just think it’s Christmas. It’s literary, it’s accessible, it has an irony within an irony within an irony. A successful children’s writer is writing about a successful children’s writer who is writing about a successful children’s writer. Triple irony. There’s the magical realism, cos he has visions and things. it's everything that Fourth Estate is about, as an imprint. We’re thrilled.'

Another notch on the healing took place. All of a sudden this sign said: You Are Empowered. You can do this.

Different in the gaps. For a start I had always gone through with people I had worked with over the years as with Helen for a quarter of a century. Except for Pan, I had known the people I was working with, and they knew me in the context of ‘winner’. This was just raw. These people had no idea who I was.

Well, they say they did. I don’t know. I have trouble with these things. I’m still not holding the artefact here. I might still have trouble if I’m holding it. The editorial stuff was different in that it was far less intimate. Nothing would happen for three months and then something would come in the mail. And that’s the way it’s been. I fretted. Desperately. And I don’t fret anymore because the healing has started. You should never have said that. I feel assured, and satisfied.

[Gary's Desk]

There is nothing more I could say. I couldn’t stick stuff in. I couldn’t twiddle. I think it’s an apprentice work. You know there are certain novels that can never be adjusted. Nothing you can do would fix them. Even tearing it up and starting again wouldn’t make much difference. It would still come out much the same. I think I exploited the concept. I think I exploited the voice of – whatever his name was – Charlie! Charlie Bloom! - I exploited the concepts. I exploited the characterisation. There’s things I’m really pleased about like the girl, who was a really delicate issue for me because she was moving closer and closer to the older one in a platonic, creepy, creepy way. I mean, as Charlie said, if they had been banging he would have understood, but they weren’t. It was creepier than that. It was some sort of intellectual seduction she was falling for. She believed the odd socks. She believed the bow tie. She believed he needed her. He did need her, because no-one else gave a rat’s arse. The thing at Redmond Barry, the thing that triggered Charlie’s awareness, there were only six people there. No one else knew who he was. So what it does is show the shallowness of awards. Many people win awards that are banged on about, and banged on about in ABR or some other thing, that no one reads. They have no readership. I distinctly remember when [Peter Carey's] Oscar and Lucinda came out and when it won the Booker. I was seconded to the city. I was catching the train into town. The number of people with Oscar and Lucinda on their laps. I never saw a single person read Oscar and Lucinda for good reason. It was the most excruciatingly boring book I ever looked at in my life.

I never finished it. I try to finish books. A better test is whether I keep it. I got rid of it. I got rid of March; I just thought it was excruciating. A lot of people are award-driven, famous for awards, but no one actually reads them. Chanticleer is one of that sort. The awards for children’s books were given by librarians in Birmingham, London. The librarians thought they were gorgeous but not readers, except one or two, and Lucy – the girlfriend – was one. I had to deal with her, and I had to make her credible and cunningly obnoxious. Because she is obnoxious. She gave Charlie no credit at all. For anything. So I had to use a way to do this. One day he comes home from uni – he’s doing uni, but she’s dropped out – and she says, 'You are such a tossser.' Words to that effect. And she reads the first lines of [Randolph Stow's] Tourmaline: 'The sky is the garden of Tourmaline.' And she says, 'What sort of crap, what rubbish, is that? Why doesn’t he just say what he means?'

Charlie then realises that she’s light years away. She condemns herself by what she appreciates in reading. There’s other things I was very pleased about. There are insights. She’s been studying teaching, so she has stuff relevant to that. Analyses of childhood. But also other stuff: children’s writers like Hans Christian Andersen, J M Barrie and Lewis Carroll. She gets rid of these books on children's authors, and when she gets rid of books she leaves them on Charlie's desk and he actually cruises through them, and so there are analyses of childhood that he does from an outsider’s point of view. Comparing it to the Wordsworthian idea of ‘trailing clouds of glory do we come,/ From God who is our home.’ [from 'Intimations of Mortality']

He picks up that tabula rasa, blank slate thing and applies it to these other writers, and looks at the kind of unproven paedophilia going on in Andersen, Barrie and Carroll. And he’s so butch, and so blobby. I really like him a lot. He rides a pushbike for an express delivery service. It never makes a difference. He’s such a porker. He has the embarrassing problem of having to wear bike pants. One day, he tries to get a book of Chanticleer’s and he has to decide: is it kosher to go into a children’s bookshop wearing bike pants? He realises that it probably isn’t. He thinks, But hang on, dads can take their kids to the pool wearing budgie smugglers; why can’t I go to the bookshop wearing bike pants? Nice stuff. He’s able to laugh at himself.

And the mothers I’m very proud of indeed. I think they were written from life, too. So I’m satisfied with the book, but I don’t think it sings. It probably hums, but it doesn’t sing.

I had to, very simply, tossy as it might sound, I had to learn to believe in myself. I had to learn to let go, and that has been the most invigorating thing I’ve experienced.

I think there’s a simple answer to that. I think that was a given. I think after you’ve won twice, not that you become self-assured, not that I didn’t still really like it, it was more the other side, when I felt I was coming down I didn’t like it. I’m really good friends with Maurice Saxby: the authority on kids books. We became really good friends during early 2000. I said to him, sititing in Rose Bay, 'What has become of people like - To The Wild Sky - Ivan Southall. Bigger than Ben Hur. Won the Hans Christian Andersen. Australian. Toured the world. First Australian to actually break it. The other is the really old woman whose probably gone now [Patricia Wrightson]. They were both icons of the 70s and 80s in Australian writing. And he said, 'They’re still alive, and no one reads them. It’s over. They’ve just fallen off the perch.'

No, no. They still write and no one wants it. No one will touch them. I just thought: I can’t live that. Ten years ago. I was thinking then that I have to build out of this; it will happen to me. You see, I don’t want to write that stuff. I don’t know any teenagers, and I really don’t want to know any. I feel grubby. I’m 62 and I don’t want to know about clubbing. Even Joel, who's 30, has grown out of that. And cab-running. Vomiting in the back of cabs. Grass and stuff. I don’t want to go there any more. I’m just not interested. And I certainly have no interest in writing for little children. I sort of tried. But never very successfully. I’ve always got to put a spin on stuff, some sort of pedagogical outlet. Not teaching as such, but writing stuff that could be used for discussion in school.

That’s where my market has always been. In being set on reading lists, and this is something I try and teach them here [at USC]. They don’t understand that. They still think it’s finding your name in a bookshop, but people don’t buy my books by ones, they buy them by 30s.

That’s right. And so, once you buy 30, and four get lost or stolen or vomited on, or the cat chucks on them, you have to replace them. They’ve gotta top up, and that gives you a very, very significant backlist of people re-buying and re-ordering.

You might be familiar with the work of Josie Arnold. She talks about a reflective journal. Unbeknown to me, I was doing that. I don’t see myself as a great academic. James often says that the funny part about working with me is that I'm using academic procedures and I don’t know I am. I’ve always used journals from day one, and I’ll give you a simple reason: it’s always been a gathering process and a way to file and keep the process under two covers.

They’re filled with articles, extracts from other fiction, maps, diagrams, pictures taken by me or found by me. This puts the book on the boil without actually writing a word. It also has another benefit: that while you can’t write anything – if for whatever reason it’s not flowing – you feel busy. Cutting up stuff, or pasting stuff in. It’s like pencil sharpening, but more productive. At the end of the day, you’ve got six to eight journal pages of potential characters or locations or something, and I muck around with that until sooner or later, quite literally, I write in fountain pen.

That’s my luxury, I have invested in Mont Blanc and Waterman. I say: this is my life, this is what I want to do. I choose the pen – the one for that book - and sooner or later I start writing prose, and eventually the voice of the book emerges. It is, as Josie Arnold says, a methodology. It’s an evolutionary process. I never write at the university.

None of my creative life takes place here. When there’s time, if I do something here, it will be in the form of a lecture or something.

Hugely. We built this house: the lovely cottage and the study was built as a study. I had the great advantage of being able to know what furniture I wanted. While it’s ramshackle, it’s got a logic, so when I go into my room every single thing is mine. All the cupboards and things, shelves I like and my favourite books.

I use them all the time. I have far too many books: thousand and thousands. I will use them to copy. I really believe in copying.

I really do believe what goes through your eyes, through your head, through your hands, onto the page is a far different process from typing it. I’m not using it as a template, I’m actually scribing, like engraving the words, as it were. Some part of that fluidity, dare I say poetry, must remain.

It just resonates. I’ve found a funny thing with me: stuff remains with me. I can quote substantial pieces of poetry and prose because they just stay inside me. I find it quite easy. Whereas numbers are dreadful. I do not know my phone number. Literally. [Gary shows me the back of his mobile phone, with his own phone number written on it in heavy black marker pen].

I  have no interest in it. None. In technology. I don’t know how to save a number. I don’t know how to text. I don’t care. I can change tyres, I can do all that kind of stuff, but technology has no relevance to me, so I’m not going to fret about it. Computer stuff I understand. I use my computer cheerily, and I know what to do enough to work reasonably within that. I can send email attachments.  I have to be able to open and send images because of the picture book work. But I’m not hugely technical; I never have been.

When I find the voice of the novel I go straight to the computer.

Start again. Sometimes. I probably transcribe, or maybe that voice is still in me and I don’t need to. It’s the voice that I’ve found. Then I work, right on task, really in multiple bursts of high energy. Christine says she has no idea how I ever finish anything because every time she looks up I’m on the verandah. It might be 50 minute bursts then I’ll fart around. Then go back again.

One of my great recreations is going to the IGA. I’ll take the dog for a walk. I don’t get up and go, ‘mmmm, I’m the thinker.’ I’m in thinking mode, but I always do something and the novel is there in my head, while I’m doing whatever it is. Christine says ‘There’s no point talking to you, because I know you’re not listening to me.’

She doesn’t understand me at all. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me, or I don’t love her. It’s a good and happy marriage of 38 years. We don’t talk about books. I think that’s why it’s worked. We never talk about books. We never talk about the writing process. She would have no idea what I was working on. I could be writing a porn novel, she wouldn’t have a clue, but she’s a huge reader.

It was a kind of weird challenge, where I was studying like anything and doing my Masters and there were two kids at that time. One Saturday morning she was reading the Sunday Mail. I don’t read papers. She found an ad for what was then the Warana literary contest. She said, 'Have a go at that, so at least you’re making some money out of your work.'

Yes, it was. I wrote a couple of interesting things before it, which showed false starts or stalled things. Guard Reflects, I never pursued that, and the other one was very interesting. I’d been writing. I think I might have written Strange Objects, can’t remember. I would have. And Helen talked to me and said, 'Look, there’s a very big short story contest for The Sun, would you enter that? Spread your wings.' I wrote a story called ‘Fishing’, about a father and his son, kind of oedipal. Came nowhere. She said, 'Why don’t you do this as a picture book?' That became First Light, which won. Part of the subliminal message there was that it was written for adults but altered – not talked down, but altered – for kids. I suppose it’s been a secret obsession for a long time. It’s just taken this long to come. But with the process, the journals are huge. I don’t have them – the ones I’ve worked on – The Children’s Writer’s at home, Architecture of Song is at home, but all the rest are archived in Canberra.

I don’t know what it is, but we got paid for them, and I can get them whenever I want to but I don’t. I never, ever have any interest in reading my books again

.Gary: This map was used as a guide for me in moving the central (contemporary) characters around in the novel with some verisimilitude

[ Gary: This map was used as a guide for me in moving the central (contemporary) characters around in Strange Objects with some verisimilitude ]

I don’t do public readings. They’re horrible. What’s the point of reading a bit of a novel? No one really listens. Unless the book is written for an aural reception it’s not going to work. I’m always amused by Shaun’s [Tan] story. When The Arrival came out he was asked to do a reading. He said, 'But you’re the judges. There’s nothing to read, what are you talking about?'

I can’t type. It’s like a person with cerebral palsy. I kind of spasticise it in. The journal is going all the time. It’s never absolutely rejected. I’m moving from one to the other. Anyway, I spasticise it in and then I do a spell-check and sort it a bit. I’m a big one for printing it and going outside. I go out and read it, go through, muttering under my breath, kind of reading aloud. I’m very interested in rhythms and making a point. I love structure. I love structure on a micro and macro scale, but I’m obsessed with placement, with movements. I’m also obsessed with fluidity and the sound of something. It’s not poetry per se, but prose that has a movement and is at the same time highly logical and intellectual. There’s a dear old book called The Go-Between. Huge in the 50s. Massive. It begins: 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'. I could read that a million times.

Simplicity. Honesty. Resonance. Just a beautiful placement of words. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. It has a rhythm. That’s what I want in my own work. I’m very conscious of that sort of revisiting. I edit myself into oblivion. I edit for the sound of things, and meaning. When you’re painting, particularly in watercolour, you move down the page and there’s a thing called a wet edge, and you leave the edge wet so you can pick it up and no-one will see where it joins. That wet edge for me in writing is to read at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, and go through and just swish with highlighter what’s shit, or what’s wrong. The next day, I go back to that. That’s my first port of call. So that process goes backwards in that it corrects and makes it right, and it goes forwards in that it establishes the voice and where I want to pick up the wet edge the next day. I have found that anything I write at night is pus.

No, I don’t. Never. 4 oc’clock is it. Over. For me, alcohol and writing have never mixed. Caffeine and writing mix. I can never write and drink.

You write crap that you actually think is good. You just time-waste because you write acres of crap, because you’re half pissed, and then you look at it tomorrow and think, every bit of that’s rubbish. I just wasted my life. Revision for rhythm and movement is everything. I’ll read you a good paragraph. This book [No Such Country] I always loved, but it never came to anything.

I just liked the sophistication of it, but I just think it had no popular appeal at all. This is two sentences:

Contained by a border lush with exotic vegetation there now appeared the zig-zag backbone of a mountain range, and prominent among its peaks a solitary volcano sprouted stark and symmetrical arcs of red and orange and yellow, terminating in a sea of cobalt so dense that it appeared to support, rather than wash the shores, of this awful place. And from the surface of the sea, creatures emerged. Not primordial lizards and familiar to the inhabitants of the age of science, but monstrous things, fanged and webbed, and some were head up and some were tail up, but none were quite correct there, since all seemed stuck in or glued on to that slab of blue.

Because it moves. And it flows. I think.

No one’s ever tried to pull me up on that. Like correct rules. I think this is a disparity, too, except for Pan, who were a very different publisher. Pan came to me and made me an enormous offer, a cash advance for two unseen books. They became Diviner and Lacemaker, and I loved those books. I still do. When they got them they said, 'It’s a given you can write, but no one’s going to buy them.'

Too hard. They’d rather have shorter stuff. I’m not happy with the modern voice that suggests you knocked something up over the weekend. I did it in the 80s, but after Objects I can’t go back to it. People who are contemporary with me, Marsden and so on, I don’t want to write like them. I don’t envy anything that’s happened to those people.

PA: When you talk about the modern voice, are you talking about the tendency of some writers to favour the vernacular?.

Exactly right. Because it’s false. Even Robert Cormier is false in that. A book like I Am the Cheese. It begins: I’m writing this riding down the M2 freeway. Holy hell, you must be good! I just don’t believe it. Even Catcher, which began this, a boy with Holden’s problems, his lack of attention span, no way Holden Caulfield would go the distance of a 70,000 word novel. There’s just no way. I just don’t believe it. From all  the traveling and all the listening, there’s just no place in Australia I haven’t been. I picked up at the private schools that these peope were actually reading John Marsden because they thought it told them how common folk live and that’s just rubbish, because those kids would never stop long enough to do that. Only poofters write books. Football mentality. No one cared if you were gay, but being a poofter is a different thing. Worse. To them. Poofters are people who don’t play football, say. There’s no way those boys would stop to write. They just don’t convince me.

It concerns me that those things are lauded. That teachers are coming through now, and have been for some time, who studied that in Grade Twelve. I don’t care particularly if they haven’t read Wuthering Heights. I care that they haven’t read anything else. We see it here. I’m sure all universities see it. I’ve been to many, many towns and cities where John Marsden is taught at Grade Twelve. That’s not to suggest that I’m angry at him. I’m not remotely interested in that.

I’ll take another art. If you talk about film. They would not go back as far as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. They’d go back as far as Clueless, which I love. I’ve felt it here. If I show a black and white film, it’s just old. They just walk out of the lecture because it’s old. I tried to show - and I’m very conscious of how old this is, and how bad - but I tried to show Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights. It is dreadful. I wanted them to see it in a historical context. To appreciate connections and differences. What I’m saying is that a comparative study – what’s changed? what hasn’t changed? why is that? – I can’t do it because the blinkers come down. I’m not saying that Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon is good, but I’m saying that it’s a form and it’s part of cinema history.

There’s no depth. There is no understanding. If I gave them Jane Eyre, they just wouldn’t read it because it’s old, and stupid, and fucking boring. It might be all those things. But I’m saying we should still have a look. Why has this been an icon of literature for years? Is it worthwhile?

In Lacemaker – and this is maybe why it failed – it’s based on the underpinning literary allusion of the Lady of Shallott. The girl is trapped in a room, in a tower, and cannot ever look at the reality of the world except through the internet. Because there is no understanding of the foundation text, there can be no appreciation of the new text. This bothers me; it makes me sad, because you can’t refer outside the box.

I have a student. Nice kiid. Twenty. Smart. Loves writing. Asked if he could see what I’m doing. I don’t talk about it much, while I’m writing. I said, alright. I’ve got the first 20,000 words of Architecture of Song in a folder where I keep hardcopy and I gave Peter that. He came back the next day and said, 'I really love this. I just don’t understand the time frame. When was it set?'

I said, 'That’s established on page two when they’re saying that Melba has been there. There’s allusions directly to her words, which inform the novel, where she said, just sing amuck.'

And he said, ‘Who is she?’

You can say ok, fuck off, who cares, but ultimately it does add up. He did not know when my novel was set.

I have tried. The Truth about Emma is – and will be – the last one. The basis is Jane Austen’s Emma, so I’ve got a kind of contemporary Emma, and things happen. So, it begins:

If a man and a woman are to fall in love they must,  of necessity, understand and practice the meaning of two words: compliance and antagonism. As I am a young man you might argue that I could know nothing of such things but let me assure you, having fallen under the spell of a woman who knew a great deal about the art of love and taught me all that she knew, I would disagree. Young as I am, I have learned that compliance is vital in that lovers must learn the joy of sharing. While antagonism is equally necessary in that if lovers agree about everything, what friction will ignite the flame of their love?

Kids just stopped reading. Too hard.

Maybe it is. That’s what I was saying. It sneaks in. Perhaps if I had begun: I first interviewed Emma the weekend after she turned 21. She was working in a bookshop. Perhaps if had begun there, they might have embraced it more. It’s more accessible. I don’t know. All I know is that that kind of voice is the voice I prefer. This is what I don’t like. This is the other preface:

Emma Burton must have something going for her. I mean, by the time she graduated from high school she had slept with both a uni lecturer and a cop and been on the cover of Newsworld.

I don’t like writng like that, but I wrote it. That’s kind of what YA’s about. Naughtiness.

In a very, very lame way. People have gone further. And I think screwed YA forever. This is when I think it was over.

Have you read the end? Here it is:

Dear fucking bastards who’ve been reading these letters. I know you’ve been reading them now, you cunts. I hope you’ve had a lot of good laughs. Been making copies, have you? Been taking notes? Well, fuck you. That’s the last time I write anything just so you bastards can read it. Fucking mind your own fucking business. Fuck you all. Lots of love, fuckers. Tony.

The words don’t bother me. It’s the affected agro. This guy [the author: John Marsden] sure as hell is not fifteen. I just get bothered. As I said, whichever one of his books you pick up:

I came home when I was sixteen. Ralph picked me up at the station. It was high-stepping into the Range Rover; it looked like Ralph had cleaned out the front by chucking all his stuff over the seat. It was a mess. A jumble of jackets and tools and wire, and a chainsaw and an old drum.

I don’t want to write like that.

Like the extract I sent you. [from the beginning of Architecture of Song] I really enjoyed writing that and while I have no idea what its fate will be I’m at the point now where I have all my life stayed employed and in well-paid jobs. This has an enormous advantage. It means that I can write what I like and not rely on them to publish it. While it’s always good to be published, it means I can take risks. Because I’m not Grisham and writing to a crowd. I’m not Patricia Cornwell, who was not allowed to write out Kay Scarpetta. Don’t think I’m being precious here.

I think Stephen King is a serious genius. He has been able to touch the pulse of contemporary readers for a long, long time. And there are pieces of his writing that are just beautiful. Indubitably. And while he goes to the eyeballs, and the blood and guts and all that sort of shit. I know that. I mean, he’s got a Masters in literature, you know that. This is Different Seasons. This is from ‘The Body’. The boys drive past him, and he reminisces:

The important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish them. Words shrink things that seem limitless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly, only to have people look at you in a funny way. Not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried when you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think, when the secret things stay locked within, not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.

A human being wrote that. Not a Stephen King cut-out: a person.

It’s honest, it's fluid, it's beautiful. More amazingly, it’s actually second person. How dare he tell me about my secret heart? But he’s right. He’s addressing me in a most peculiar and intimate way. And I don’t feel it’s remotely mawkish or anything like that. I think Shawshank was absolutely wonderful. Yes, of course, there are clunkers. We’ve all got clunkers in the cupboard, but I'd be very interested to see if, as has been predicted, he did become the Dickens of his age. Dickens is at least as mawkish, in many ways. And the use of coincidence is just appalling and clunky and bad. But who knows, he survives. And he survived for: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'. I mean, for heavens’ sake. It’s hardly hugely intellectual. It’s just very rhythmic, kind of simple, poetry. It’s lasted. The people in modern writing who frighten me a bit are more like Chuck Palahniuk.

I think they’re trying. In Clockwork Orange, I think Burgess is trying. It seems to me to be too self-conscious. I would like to think that he [King] opened his pen and it came out, but I don’t think the others have quite done that. It doesn’t seem effortless to me.

I wanted to write the opening of Architecture of Song so that it just flows, and you think, goodness gracious, I’ve read five pages and I didn’t realise I had. That’s my aim. And a kind of resonance afterwards, like poetry, where when you stop for a breather there’s a kind of aftertaste. That effortlessness, that fluidity, but I don’t want to lose sight of this: that I also want something to remain. I don’t want it to be fairy-floss. I don’t want it to be pretty for the sake of prettiness. That’s shallow. A book I actually enjoyed was Perfume [Patrick Suskind].

I thought it was a kind of new lighter literature that was accessible to everyone, but literary. Malouf’s stuff I really liked. I loved Imaginary Life, but Conversations at Curlew Creek, I just didn’t. I don’t fall for authors and just love everything they do. There’s particular works.

Angels & Insects, Byatt. I really liked the voice, I really liked the symbolism. Wanting [Richard Flanagan]. The Road [Cormac McCarthy]. You can’t find a binding force in any of those works.

No Such Country. By far.

I like the depth of the concepts. I really like the voice. I like the empowerment of women. This hugely empowers women. And it was the first to die. The first to go out of print. It came after Objects, and before Angel’s Gate. After five years it was over.

It’s like a child dying. It doesn’t make me sad in a monetary way, because when one goes down there’s always another one. I think it’s a working class family thing. I’ve never constructed myself as starving in an attic, but I do think having been to bad places does enrich your writing. Negative relationships, or brutally tragic relationships. I understand all that stuff. I don’t understand it; I know about it.

I guess so. But why would he be heartbroken? He’s still with [his wife]. He’s been successful since his first novel. There are things we don’t know. Maybe he’s in love with his next door neighbour. There’s no sign.

I’ve never wanted to suicide but I certainly have been to the dark side. I’ve often thought: there’s no out of this. It’s all black to the end. I wish I was easier with myself. I make a very grave mis-assumption that people like the one I just mentioned have no troubles at all, yet in throwing this at me I realised he was as troubled as anybody. And I think, how can you possibly be troubled? God blessed you, and you don’t know it. I’m never sure of the source of these things. I think you have to suffer. I read an interesting article on Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities is the number two bestselling novel of all time. I always thought it was about the passion for democracy until I read Wanting, which is about Dickens and Australia and went further into his life. Two Cities was written at a time when he was absolutely in love with a 17 year old girl. It was unrequited. We can think the passion that goes into a book comes from this source, but it comes from a completely different source. Dickens’ wife was at home with the five kids, knowing she was loathed. Maybe she was a total bitch. I don’t know, it’s none of my business. It doesn’t matter for the fact that the passion was coming from the passion for this actress he could never have. And that’s where all the angst came from. I had always though he had political ideals.

Maybe it’s coming close to what I was saying earlier about how I realised what The Children’s Writer was about halfway through. The Children’s Writer was driven by an idea, and I like to think that ideas do drive a novel, but narratives that resonate actually have inspiration. A wellspring of knowing. I know what a mountain is, but I don’t necessarily understand what a mountain is. I don’t think you can put your finger on it. If I was pushed utterly I think something in childhood, some self-esteem thing, that has never quite been resolved. And maybe it’s just grown like a mushroom, from always being on the end of the row when they picked a team, or being the only kid in the class who could write, or feeling never quite in the crowd. I never did feel like I was in the crowd. Christine knows that if I could I would go into the house and lock every door, and pull every blind, and just leave me with my books. That would be a dream.

I just have the best time. It doesn’t mean I don’t want her company. It doesn’t mean I don’t want a drink. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to walk down and buy a pie, but I don’t want to go to Hobart. I don’t want to be fussed or shoved. I really don’t like writers festivals and that kind of stuff. I feel like I’m on a smorgasbord. In those days I was talking to you about I was getting shoved and pushed. They didn’t know or care who I was. That’s why I call it the Madonna syndrome; they’ve got no idea who you are and they care less. But I think maybe it’s a thing you carry from childhood. And it’s never quite resolved. I’m not a social person. I get along with people. I get along with my staff and my friends here, but I don’t go out. I don’t go looking for them. Once I’m up that hill I don’t come down.

Not to be absued. The negative is the positive. I just don’t want some airhead – some person who doesn’t know me, or has got a BA Honours from Swinburne - to do a number when they don’t know where this thing came from. By the same token I do believe that a book should stand by itself. It shouldn’t be necessary for me to unpack my tortured life or whatever.

It should just sing.

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)



issue 09:03 | archives by category | archives by author