Alumni Feature February 2013

Varuna Alumni Association: the craft, the writing life




FEATURE: February 2013

Alumni Interview: Mark O’Flynn

Interviewed by Alumni News Editor Diana Jenkins

Diana Jenkins Mark O'Flynn I had the pleasure of spilling a cup of tea all over Alumnus Mark O’Flynn at the refreshment table during Varuna’s Strategy Day. Flinging hot beverages about the room is not how I ideally meet people for the first time, but it turns out the threat of third-degree burns is a great conversation starter.

With his new non-fiction book False Start already on the shelves and his next novel due out in 2013, I’m sure you’ll agree Mark’s the obvious choice to kick-start the Alumni News year...

Grassdogs DJ: Mark, welcome to the interview suite. Your 2006 debut novel, Grassdogs, was a HarperCollins Varuna Award winner; please tell us about that manuscript's creation and gestation, including the experience of working with a HarperCollins editor at Varuna.

MO: That novel was born of an anecdote I heard, namely that of a man taking his pack of dogs into a supermarket. Everything came from that image. Then I had to create a history and a family for him.

Because the character was based on one of my students (within the prison system) I knew that's where he would have to end up. But then what? Working at Varuna with the HC editor was a wholly positive and exciting experience. It was great to have an editor 'on tap' as it were. The general flow of that process moved from the big, general picture to the more specific, finally to the meticulously forensic.

DJ: What's your favourite Varuna memory?

MO: Curry nights.

The premiere of my play, Eleanor and Eve, in the lounge-room, was very special.

DJ: How significant was the residency aspect of your time at Varuna?

MO: I've stayed at Varuna 3 times. The first 2 were very positive, constructive times. Got a lot of work done. Met some great people who have remained friends. The last time was less so. I probably didn't take enough work with me.

DJ: Animals and the natural world - specifically Australian country - are major characters in Grassdogs; to what extent does the Australian landscape continue to inform and/or challenge your creative world?

MO: For a city born boy it's quite surprising how such imagery figures in my work. Nature appears regularly in my poems and stories. I don't know why; perhaps I'm not particularly inspired by urban environments, which isn't to say I avoid them. My new novel The Forgotten World is full of the Australian landscape, especially the [Blue Mountains] landscape. [There’s] not quite so many animals, but some.

Blue Mountains DJ: How did the publication of Grassdogs affect you professionally, personally and creatively? How did things change?

MO: They didn't change greatly. The bills still have to get paid. The feedback was lovely. I got invited to a few festivals and to contribute to a number of journals, so in that respect it generated a little work, which was nice. My sister-in-law thought I was a sick puppy, until I told her the gaol stuff was all real and not made up. Creatively, it gave me the confidence to understand that I had the stamina to tackle another novel, when the idea came along. And when it did HarperCollins happily remembered who I was.

DJ: You live in the Blue Mountains, Varuna's beautiful backyard – was this a conscious tree change for you and your family? You're originally a city boy, so tell us about the challenges and rewards of living far from the madding crowd.

MO: We originally planned to stay in the mountains for 2 years before going back to Melbourne. That was over 20 years ago. I had never seen anything like it. They don't teach you about the Blue Mountains in Melbourne. And then to discover there was this strange thing called a writers’ centre that had just opened up...and then to find work locally, well, everything just fell into place. And then kids come along and put down their own roots. I go back to Melbourne 3 or 4 times each year, but it doesn't feel like my hometown anymore. And Sydney, well...I never tire of the mountains. It'd be pretty sad if you did.

DJ: Let's talk about your new book, a non-fiction work entitled False Start. I'm something of an expert in the false start department myself (False Starts and Faux Pas, perhaps...?!). It's a very relatable experience, failed and/or wildly misjudged careers; how did you create a unique spin?

MO: I think by leaving so much out. By which I mean as a memoir I don't start at the beginning of a distinguished career. Everyone has had a childhood, good, bad or indifferent. The book is very specific about 3 jobs, times or moments where things went horribly wrong.

Without being highfalutin’ about it, I read somewhere that Beckett was inspired by impotence, and I thought, what a strange thing to be interested in. In this regard I thought embarrassment, humiliation, even shame, were also interesting points from which to try and launch a narrative. When I told people the stories of each of my 3 failed enterprises, I thought there might be enough there to weave a story around. Also, in [the book] I don't pretend to take myself, or anybody else, very seriously.

DJ: Please give us a brief glimpse into these three ‘occupational hazards,’ as it were, and why they went so awry.

MO: Mistaken identity, really. Masquerading under false pretences. In each situation I was somehow mistaken as someone other than what I was. In the first section, SCIENCE, my credentials were mistaken for those of a scientific expert, in a very harsh environment: an accidental expert. In the second section, ART, I was mistaken first for an actor, then – less clearly – for a farmer, while trying to write a play that was essentially not my story. In the third section I was conscripted to go on a religious pilgrimage on behalf of someone else, when really I was not up to the task. Why, you well may ask? You can guess what the last section is called.

DJ: I can imagine that each of these experiences produced hilarious results, but the expectation of expertise also sounds stressful. How much were you writing during these years? The necessity of earning a living drives many a writer far from the desk, sometimes for years at a time; I'm always interested in how writers either manage to keep going, or how they get back to work after an extended hiatus.

MO: I've always managed to keep writing, even though I have to work full time. How this balance works out I don't rightly know, but I generally have some idea, big or small, on the go. If I have an idea, 60 seconds and a pen in my hand, I can sketch out the bare bones of an idea, which I can then work on later. This works particularly well with poetry, and so I’m adept at snatching moments of time.

Weekends, an hour or two at night, and residencies are also where I can work an idea up into something more substantial. The bulk of False Start I wrote while on a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. Once I happen on an idea then I guess I'm pretty disciplined and work methodically. Often they lock my workplace down without warning so that I am occasionally faced by a day with no students to teach. After all the marking and preparation and administration etc, well, I hate to see that time go to waste. I also find that I work well away from my desk. So sometimes I like to break the routine and write away from home.

In Cold Blood DJ: I'd love to know more about your job teaching inmates. What is it like, and how much do you share with your students? How did they respond to Grassdogs? I loved Capote's In Cold Blood but it gave me nightmares - how troubling do you find the custodianship of some of these tales?

MO: I did not show them Grassdogs, although I have shown one or two of them (the ones who are interested) some of the poetry. They seem to respond pretty favourably and it works well as a teaching tool.

And no, I don't get nightmares (anymore). I look at my colleagues and see that they are often pretty jaded and cynical. However, if I go into that environment wearing my writer’s hat then it's a never-ending source of rather amazing stories. You did what? You're here for how long? The stakes are always high, and usually interesting. People in extremis.

I'm mostly over using their stories as 'material,’ not that I feel I've ever been exploiting them. Far from it. I've been there too long for that. I rather think that I've been trying to give them a voice that otherwise does not get heard. Similarly, I don't regard it as my job to judge them. They've been judged: by a judge! I see others continuing to do this, to make their lives more miserable, and that seems to me to be a great waste of energy. Nor is it my job to forgive them. I don't have to like them. And I certainly don't fear them, even though some of them are horrors. All I have to do is deal with them. Within that middle ground I find a great sense of liberation.

All I have to do (remembering my writer's hat) is listen to their stories, and that is often all they want. We have a saying that a murderer is much easier to teach than a teenager and, frankly, that is true.

I have one project at the moment where I record the inmates reading a kids’ book, which I then burn to a CD and send home, with the book, to the child so they can hear [their] dad reading to them. That's pretty satisfying

Any unwanted kids’ books out there? I could make use of them!

DJ: What a fantastic project, Mark (albeit bittersweet). I’ll donate a book* - that sounds like something a publisher might consider sponsoring, too...

Back to the new book, False Start 'questions the nature of memory,' so it's not just a lighthearted romp through a miscast youth. If the book probes deeper concerns alongside exploiting the comic potential of professional disaster, how aware were you in the writing that you were exploring Big Ideas?

MO: Mostly aware. In recent years I have become increasingly conscious that the slight and trite are often metaphors for some more meaningful representation of the essential idea. The plot is smaller than the theme. However, there is nothing wrong with the slight and trite for a laugh. Grassdogs was a fairly serious book, some people called it a sad book, and so I deliberately [wanted] to engage with the material in a lighter way. But lightness does not necessarily exclude a more profound examination of it.

Forgotten World DJ: I couldn’t agree more. I’m rabidly against the idea that humour is superficial. Now, your new novel The Forgotten World is coming out later in the year. What can you tell us about it?

MO: The Forgotten World is a novel about the early history of Katoomba. (Plot). I heard that out at the Ruined Castle (one of the popular and challenging walks of the mountains), there used to be a village from the 1870-1890s. If you look at it now it's just a wilderness, but it got me thinking of ways I could populate that village.

Ruined Castle This timeframe coincided with the hey-day of the Carrington Hotel, and between these two institutions I thought there was an interesting story in the origins of Katoomba to be found. It's very much a fictional history, with real people interfering with my characters; again, a mixture of the comic with the more serious.

Carrington Hotel DJ: I am just wondering about the kind of writer you've become thanks to two decades in the Blue Mountains and the type of writer you may have been had you stayed in Melbourne... You're clearly influenced by your environment; do you think your writing may have evolved very differently had you remained a 'city boy'? I realise it's impossible to know what may have attracted your interest in an urban existence, but I still think there's something there in terms of this place confiding its secrets to you over time - perhaps because I find the Blue Mountains so mysterious and epic myself.

MO: That's a tricky one. I am certainly influenced by my environment, and I have a similar, awestruck response to the Bluey's. In fact in The Forgotten World I have included some characters and anecdotes that I first came across in Melbourne. So the type of writer I might have been had I stayed in the city I don't know. I might have stayed with the theatre. It was long ago, but I always felt largely ignored in Melbourne. Then I found this place called Varuna. People love to pigeonhole writers – Oh, he's the comic one. So I do try to bamboozle them by writing across forms and moods. That's why Grassdogs was the story it was. I might (or might not) have gone further had I stuck to only one form. It's just that I'm interested in everything.

DJ: Me too - and I’m always being advised to choose one form and stick with it, advice I’m not very willing to accept. Anyway, tell us about where and how you write: a day in the writing life of Mark O'Flynn. Favourite snacks included.

MO: See above. Snatching time. I have a new study, which I am only just getting used to. Unless I have an idea on the boil, then I'm probably not very disciplined, certainly not very superstitious. I will say that I have to wade through lots of dross before I feel that a particular idea might work. I write everything by hand, twice, before I type it into the computer. If I don't do that then I feel I'm cutting corners. I do lots of drafts. One practice I find useful is walking. If I come up against a problem or impasse or question I go for a walk, and very often when I come back to my desk, aha! The problem is solved. And rewriting, of course. Sometimes I will rework old material and find something new in it.

As for writing snacks, a cup of tea left to go cold is always a good sign that I've been working...

DJ: What are your thoughts on the state of Australian publishing today? As someone who's been published as both a fiction and non-fiction author, how did the experience of one differ from the other?

MO: From my limited experience the problems of both fiction/non-fiction publishing seem to be similar. I'm having a good run lately and so am seeing the good side of things.

A lot of people bemoan the fact that publishers only want to see a perfect, polished, finished manuscript. And that's what I thought I had submitted. However, HarperCollins was very forthcoming in encouraging me to continue writing, to see how the story might further evolve. They gave me great editorial assistance in that regard.

Speaking as a Luddite, I must say I find the shift to digital publishing a little underwhelming. The literary magazine market has certainly shrunk in recent times, which is disappointing. It certainly limits the opportunities. The long-term result, I think, is that less gets read. To draw a poor analogy, it's like saying I don't like art galleries, I only like looking at paintings on my computer screen, and then only the ones by me.

DJ: You're also a poet, with no less than 4 books of collected verse, including What Can Be Proven and Untested Cures. What and who inspires your poetry? Do you find your preoccupations across genres are much the same or do you use the different forms to explore very different ideas?

MO: Good question. Poetry will often be my first response to something I find interesting. However, it sometimes occurs to me, often years later, that a particular idea might be better represented in a different form. Aha, this poem would actually work better as a short story, a piece of fiction as a play, or vice versa. Sometimes an image, or a line, or an idea will find a home in quite varying forms. I suppose quirkiness is one of the things I'm attracted to: quirkiness of language, of character, of anecdote, of relationship and image. An eccentric story always grabs my attention.

DJ: Who are you favourite authors and why?

Lolita cover MO: A harder question. From my youth I have liked [Vladimir] Nabokov, [Margaret] Atwood, [John] Updike, [Saul] Bellow, [Bernard] Malamud, [Anthony] Burgess, [James] Joyce, [Samuel] Beckett, [Flann] O'Brien.

Fifth Business cover More recently I have enjoyed [Jeffrey] Eugenides, [J.M.] Coetzee, [Jonathan] Franzen, [Jonathan] Swift, [Jim]Crace, [Colm] Tóibín, Robertson Davies and Cormac McCarthy.

Some Australians I like are [Robert] Drewe, Gail Jones, Cate Kennedy, [Frank] Moorhouse, [Peter] Carey, Rodney Hall, plus many, many others. Why? Their take on language, to put them all in a nutshell.

Cold Light cover DJ: What really enrages you?

MO: Bureaucracy.

DJ: When's the last time you laughed so hard tears came to your eyes?

MO: Christmas...Oh, why? Well, my kids gave me a book of ‘dad jokes’ to prove what a dag I am and, well, they were right.

DJ: How do you see the role of the writer today - was it ever thus or are we entering a brave new world?

MO: A writer writes. They're not the best people to be put in charge of changing the world (unless of course it's absolute power they're given).

DJ: What matters to you most?

MO: My kids.

DJ: How do you spend your time away from the desk?

MO: I read a lot. Bushwalking. Bicycle riding.

DJ: What's your worst writing habit?

MO: Dawdling, procrastinating.

DJ: Anything else you'd like to share with us?

MO: The love in the room.

DJ: Mark O’Flynn, thank you for playing!

MO: No, no, thank you.

* If anyone would like to donate a children’s book for Mark’s prison project, please send it to PO Box 594, Katoomba NSW, 2780.

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: Check out the next Alumni interview in the March issue of the Varuna Alumni News.


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