Rodney Hall is one of Australia’s finest writers. He has won the Miles Franklin Award twice for Just Relations and The Grisly Wife and many of his novels and poems have been published internationally. His acclaimed memoir popeye never told you was published in 2010. He lives in Melbourne. Here he chats to gr about his new collection, Silence.
As a child, you moved from your home in England to start a new life in Australia. How did this experience affect your life and your writing?
We arrived from England when I was 13. But this was not a new idea—all through my childhood it had been the plan. My mother’s determination to return here (her family had had a farm in Kangaroo Valley before the war) was always a powerful factor. Australia became my magic land all through the bombing: it was the place I imagined escaping to. And well before setting foot here my great hobby was collecting information, pictures and stamps about Australia. All but one of my novels are about understanding Australia and Australian history . . . absorbing and embracing this as home.
After starting out life as a musician, actor, painter and writer, what led you to becoming an author?
I knew I would make a life in the arts, the question of which one ended up being decided by chance, really. At 16 I was introduced to John Manifold and his wife Kate. I went to their house on the outskirts of Brisbane, armed with my clarinet, to make music. The moment I stepped into that house I knew my life had changed forever. Although Manifold was an accomplished musician—he introduced me to baroque music, for a start—he was principally a poet and essayist. His encouragement when he offered to read my stories and poems was what set me on the path to becoming a writer.
Having written extensively over your career, what are some of the ways in which you find ideas for your work?
I find my ideas in society and social values, in issues that may arise locally but have wider and deeper implications. I always conceive of my characters in social situations. It’s the interconnections and interactions between people that fascinate me.
Who or what have been some of your greatest inspirations for your writing?
Patrick White changed everything for writers of my generation. Suddenly he set the bar way higher than it had ever been before. Overnight we knew Australia was on the world literary stage and that somehow we had to measure up. Near enough was no longer good enough.
Your latest book, Silence, is a collection of fictions. How did you approach the writing of a number of short stories as opposed to a longer novel?
The 29 short prose fictions that comprise Silence were accumulated over a period of eight years. I wrote individual pieces while engaged on other book projects (Love Without Hope and Popeye never told you). In fact there were 50 of them when I finally called a halt in 2010. I then had the enjoyable task of crafting the sequence—teasing out connections and echoes—and reducing , reducing, reducing till the collection came together as a coherent unit. This coherence is one of ‘feel’ rather than rigid structuring. The decision to settle for two sequences of 14 pieces each with one central piece about God only came to me right at the last minute, really.
What should your readers expect to take away from Silence?
Well, the best I can do is quote a few sentences from the reviews of the book that have begun coming in.
‘Silence should be approached with senses attuned to the sounds, images and emotions that are evoked so vividly . . . I came to this book unprepared, and I was completely overwhelmed by the tapestry of its imagery and the echoes of its stillness.’ (Bookseller and Publisher Magazine)
‘Silence is the recurring theme: so many different types of silence; sad, spiritual, contemplative, angry, frightened, a silence inspired by awe and more. I particularly loved the dreaming bird, a haunting piece which almost had me in tears.’ (Timeless Books)
‘Landscapes and characters are painted with economy and yet with such vivacity that the words will linger in your mind long after you have finished reading.’
(Good Reading Magazine)
Are there any central themes that work to connect the fictions within Silence?
Yes, there are themes. One is that our human qualities and vices play out differently in different people, leading sometimes to heroism, sometimes to cruelty. Another is that silence can be a statement of the conscience or, equally, an admission of cowardice. Another is that history finally catches up with us—even if we think we have got away with something the truth will surface. Above all, you cannot stamp out ideas. Other pieces are comic, such as the satire on so-called intellectual property rights (which is another means by which things of value in our lives are reduced to money and commerce).
Silence contains some famous historical voices. Who are some of these voices and what led you to the decision to write in this style?
As a novelist I am always extending my voice by speaking through my characters. In this book I actually use real voices from the past—by imitation—as a means of reconceiving and enlarging the meanings of my material by imaginging how other writers might have expressed it.
What have been the most rewarding experiences during your time as writer?
The most rewarding experiences have been when people tell me about their experience of my books. This has been particularly encouraging when the enthusiasm has come from major writers whose work I admire—such as Salman Rushdie, Shirley Hazzard, Angela Carter, Robertson Davies and so on. Encouraging, because you never can be quite sure you have achieved what you set out to say until somebody shows you that you have.
Having won the Miles Franklin award twice, you’ve obviously led a very successful career as an author. Looking back on this career, what’s one piece of advice that you’d like to offer to aspiring writers?
Look, I don’t think of writing as a career. It’s what I do. It’s like a vocation. A calling. The money is never the thing—and just as well, because there hasn’t been all that much of it. My advice to young writers is to decide what you value and write about that . . . write as intensely as you can . . . put your whole self into it until you forget you are there at all. Don’t worry your head about whether you will get published until you have finished and made your work as perfect as you can. Literature is not a business—it is the expression of what is deeply true in us that we share with others. And we all have depth. We all have the language. The knack, the techniques, can only be picked up by reading. The greater and more challenging the books we read the better our models are and, hopefully, the better our own writing will be.
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