Hi Susan, welcome to Café Cala,
I’m delighted to have you visit Café Cala. I Ioved The Landing – couldn’t put it down – and I’m now looking forward to reading your other books. Since Halloween is looming, I’ve been making some pumpkin pie this morning. Would you like tea or coffee with yours?
Coffee thank you – it goes better with pumpkin pie I reckon! And thank you so much for your generous remarks about the novel.
1 Where did you get the idea for The Landing?
Well, I’d wanted to write a novel about Queensland – although I was born in Brisbane I moved to Sydney as a baby, and grew up there, and I haven’t lived in Queensland for about twenty years. So I was coming back as an outsider really (I’ve been living in Melbourne and London and Hong Kong and France for most of my adult life – most recently ten years in London till I returned to Australia in 2010). I wanted to write about the huge changes that have taken place and one weekend a couple of summers ago, a friend invited me for a weekend to his beach house. Driving into town he pointed out that house over there as belonging to the town drunk, in that house, the daughter ran off with the neighbour next door, and so on. It was a tiny community, and it struck me that it would make a perfect setting for a novel – enclosed, contained, everything brightly lit, as if on a stage.
2 What have you found most rewarding about your writing?
I’m one of those people who seek meanings or patterns in life – my first novel was called Messages From Chaos from a quote from the late Doris Lessing, referring to the chaos that is life, and the art that can be made from it. I don’t necessarily think there is any meaning to life, but humanity is always striving towards meaning, and I am no different. Writing is a deeply satisfying spiritual and I suppose metaphysical experience for me – moreover, I would go as far as saying it was the means by which I defined my adult self.
3 How did you start writing?
I started writing by reading. No writer gets to writing without being an avid reader. I wanted to somehow replicate the feeling I got when reading – that there was some logic falling into place, some deep recognition of existence, of felt life. I started writing poems first, then short stories in my early twenties. I wanted to write a novel but couldn’t write one until I was about twenty-eight. Only rare geniuses like Truman Capote and F Scott Fitzgerald do it much younger I think – for most, you need to have some lived life under your belt.
4 What would you say has helped you most?
Reading, definitely reading. You get to understand how books work – and the best advice I ever got (from John Braine’s How To Write A Novel) was that you can take the basket of a book – its bones, its structure – and use that. You are not stealing the contents; it’s not plagiarism, but you can use the basic structure. Books taught me how to write.
5 What are you working on at the moment?
I always take a break between books. There is the writing of it, then the endless editing, then the publicity and promotional stuff. Only when that is all over do I feel swept clean, and ready to start.
6 What advice would you offer aspiring writers?
Read John Braine’s How To Write A Novel. Listen to the feedback you are getting – be clever enough to know the difference between something that gets rejected because it isn’t quite right, and something that gets rejected because it is a work of genius not yet recognised (Catch 22, Confederacy of Dunces etc). Not every publisher/literary agent is wrong: is it them or your work not being up to scratch? Be your own best critic – and write because you need to, not because of fame or money or applause. You will be very disappointed if you are writing for anything other than the work itself. And – if you are serious – you will keep going, whatever.
7 Which authors do you enjoy reading?
Richard Ford, Helen Garner, Marilyn Robinson, Jonathan Franzen, Joan London, Saul Bellow, Nancy Mitford, Charmian Clift and numerous others.
EXTRACT FROM THE LANDING
A NEW WIFE
If a separated man—about to be divorced—is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife? Jonathan Lott was fifty-five years old and almost a free man, despite his reluctance to relinquish the phrase ‘my wife’, which he had continued to use throughout the two sad years of his separation, even though that nominal wife had run off with a woman. What woman suddenly decides she bats for the other team at the advanced age of forty-six, two children behind her? When Jonathan thought of Sarah now, he thought of her not just as a loss to himself but as a loss to men: her crooked mouth, her tawny loveliness, still tawny, still lovely, though no longer young. He recalled the first time he entered the grandiose dining room of the Brisbane Club, that tall-ceilinged, hallowed place, after Sarah left him—silencing the room or else causing it to erupt into titters or whispers and sotto voce alerts, he can no longer remember which—as one of the bravest moments of his life. Everyone was talking about him, everyone, and yet he walked in. Which senior partner of a prestigious city firm specialising in construction law ever endured such a public humiliation? Blokes either got caught with their pants down or their wives cuckolded them with their business partners or else they went broke or ran off with inappropriate young women—like Paul Raymond, who left his wife for his neighbours’ daughter, nineteen-year-old Scarlett Collins, the prettiest girl in The Landing, that modest settlement by the great natural lake where Jonathan had a holiday house. Jonathan thought perhaps the only thing Sarah could have done to scandalise the good citizens of The Landing or the Brisbane Club more was to run off with a pretty nineteen-year-old boy waiter.
The Landing was a slender tip of a finger of God’s earth extending out into a magnificent lake, part of a pleasing system of waterways made up of beaches, rivers and fresh and shallow saltwater lakes one hundred and fifty kilometres north of Brisbane. With a population of two hundred and twenty souls, it was a small but proud part of that lucky corner of south-east Queensland, the part growing faster than any other place in the country, attracting newcomers as if there were a gold rush or a mining boom. (As it happened there was a mining boom, but way out west, in that unglamorous sun-baked country where the questing residents of Toorak or Point Piper never ventured.)
Only a few of these newcomers knew about The Landing, nestled as it was in the hinterland of the more glamorous coast, down a perilous bit of road, slightly too far from the restaurants and bars of Noosa’s Hastings Street. It was hillbilly in comparison: a few streetlights and a couple of bitumen roads, kerbed and guttered, but slow and erratic internet and mobile phone coverage and definitely no reticulated water and sewage. There wasn’t even a fashionable coffee shop roasting organic coffee beans exclusively hand-harvested from Honduras Monte Escondido Estate or from the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea. The only place to go at The Landing was the Orpheus Hotel, built during that other mining boom, the gold rush of the mid-1800s, and once famous as Nash’s Orpheus Philharmonic Music Hall Hotel.
Jonathan did not like to think of himself as winded by love, but he sometimes thought of those first days after Sarah left him, when he lay gasping in his bed, his heart trying to leap free from the cage of his body. He supposed these were panic attacks, these wild thrashings in the night, when the pump of his own blood seemed to wake him. He could hear the circuitry of his own animation as it were, the tracery of artery and nerve, which only the net of his own skin seemed to prevent from exploding. He had a vision of flying apart into pieces like one of those science experiments, released from the laws of physics and the motions of bodies, his own humbled workings and all the celestial bodies in space, blown, torn, scattered. Sometimes, back then, even when he was wide awake and walking, he had a physical sensation of listing to one side, and had to lean against walls to steady himself. In those early days he suspected a brain tumour or motor neurone disease, some lurking malignancy, trying to fell him. Now, in the car speeding north, Jonathan was loosening his grip on the grief of his impending divorce (which, Sarah had declared the day before, they should get around to finalising), on the pile of building reports and investigations into toxic waste on the Cardwell site, on the emails from women who had designs on him.
Already he could see the Glasshouse Mountains in the distance, named by that homesick Yorkshireman Captain James Cook for their resemblance to the glass-making furnaces and kilns of his native shire. The monstrous hulking mass of Mount Tibrogargan rising still thrilled Jonathan, as it had as a small child. One of his few pleasant memories of his irascible father was driving along the old highway and his dad telling him that the mountain was all that remained of an ancient fossilised gorilla and Jonathan being young enough to believe him. Jonathan could still make out the shape of the ape’s great shoulders and head every time he passed it. On a whim, he turned off the new highway onto the old, just so he could see it again. The mountain’s glacial patience rarely failed to induce a quietening of the incessant chatter and clang within his greying head. Who has not wished to quiet the clatter, to start afresh, renewed, awakened? Who hasn’t yearned to have one’s life spread out once more, a ribbon of endless hope? The great mountain and the ranges behind, the white sand beaches beyond and the tempting dream were upon Jonathan now, the feeling that somewhere, sometime, he would find a beautiful sanctuary of infinite joy and rest.
The good citizens of The Landing—and even the not-so-good—were universally agreed that The Landing was indeed a peaceful refuge in the wake of relentless life. Jonathan felt it on the curving, impossibly long winding road off the highway that lead into The Landing, at the moment when he flicked the switch to lower the Audi’s four windows, when the smell of lantana and gum trees and salt air rushed in, together with the squall of white cockatoos and grey and pink galahs, kookaburras, crows, butcherbirds, cicadas, so noisy, so clear, so freeing. He felt it at the first sight of that wide, sweeping view over the trees and across to the The Landing and the vast lake fed by the river, in its turn fed by the sea. Beyond, beyond, ancient sand dunes and, finally, the great swell of the Pacific Ocean, its endless depths spreading halfway across the earth.
Jonathan took his eyes off the road for a moment to take in that first sight of the ocean. He felt his body unclenching and noticed the slow spread of ease down his neck and across his shoulders. Might he—after all—survive the failure of love? And had his love really been a failure? He wasn’t ready yet to think of suitable candidates to replace the love that had for so long been at the heart of his life, despite the apparently endless stream of women figuratively offering to mend his socks. His mind turned to Rosanna, the cast-off wife of Paul Raymond, who ran off with Scarlett, but immediately veered away. He pictured Penny Collins, Scarlett’s embittered, once-beautiful mother, who might be awakened by a kiss—as, indeed, so might he. Did he even need a new wife when he was so stupidly and mistakenly attached to the old?
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