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A S Patric took out the Miles Franklin award - Australia's most prestigious literary prize - last year with his debut novel, Black Rock White City. Here the Melbourne-based bookseller tells Good Reading about his new book, Atlantic Black. The story plays out on the deck of a real liner, the Aquitania, and follows 17-year-old Katerina who must fend for herself when her mother has a psychological breakdown.

A S Patric

You've said that you hesitate to describe Atlantic Black as historical fiction, even though it’s set nearly 80 years ago. What about your book resists the label of ‘historical’?

New Year’s Eve, 1938 ticking over to 1939, is the world at the precipice of our greatest catastrophe as a species. That propensity for total annihilation we saw rage across the planet for the five years following continues to reverberate today. If the last 80 years hasn’t seen us stumble back into the same catastrophic violence, it’s only because as a society we’ve kept it vividly alive. When we let that experience slip away into ‘historical fiction’ I fear we will find that our present moment will fall again into that horror story.

The RMS Aquitania was a real ship. How did you come across the liner, and what compelled you to set your second novel on its deck and throughout its corridors?

The Aquitania never sunk like the LusitaniaAndrea Doria, or most famously, the Titanic, so I don’t think Aquitania has ever featured in fiction before. Even so, she was important enough that research wasn’t too difficult. The Aquitania was in service from 1914 to 1950, sailing through both world wars, so to me she had an air of fortitude and grace.

Atlantic Black by A S Patric

 

What pieces of research were most useful or startling as you wrote Atlantic Black?

There are books and articles I read that were useful but your question makes me think of some footage I found on a British maritime museum site. Black and white footage on Aquitania’s sun deck. An abandoned camera left to run its entire reel as a storm comes in. The immensity of the ocean, not desert flat like we usually imagine it, but a rapidly moving mountain range crashing onto the deck again and again—for fifteen minutes! There was a power to that footage because it came without commentary, without sound. I found myself slipping inside a dream, perhaps a nightmare.

Can you tell us about your character, Katerina Klova?

Katerina Klova was born in Leningrad but grew up in Warsaw, Lisbon and Mexico. She is seventeen years old, yet since she was raised in a series of embassies, her perspective on the world isn’t typical of her age. She finds herself alone on the Aquitania during the New Year’s celebration after her mother has a psychotic break.

"It’s torturous to think despite all that pain and effort a book will often receive a cold reception, if there is any reception at all."

Katerina attempts to navigate a course for herself amidst the turbulence of her disintegrating family and the rush of disaster on the European horizon in 1939. Despite everything her chin is up, her eyes are always wide open.

Has winning the Miles Franklin Award changed the way you view or approach your work?

Atlantic Black was well under way when I won the award. From the perspective of this novel it represented a storm through which my novel had to pass—appropriate enough for a story set on an ocean liner. The award changes nothing in regard to the writing, which is always incredibly taxing on mind, body and soul. It’s torturous to think despite all that pain and effort a book will often receive a cold reception, if there is any reception at all. What’s wonderful about winning the Miles Franklin award is that even if there is no guarantee of success, after all that struggle a book will at least be given a chance. That’s a consolation during those agonies of composition.

How does the photography of Bill Henson influence your work?

Bill Henson's landscapes can be actual, even commonplace, yet draw us into a deeper, mythic reality. One that is prior to the various religions and their doctrinal perspectives. So we can still find a sacred presence even in an empty road at night. His portraits of youth at various points of transition between childhood and adulthood can be particularly poignant—overcome by the inheritance of a world that is broken and perhaps fatally wounded. There was a female figure in one of his photographs (perhaps seventeen years old) so evocative that the image was a catalyst for Katerina Klova.

Were there any films, books or music that influenced the writing of Atlantic Black?

A great deal of literature was influential of course but more prominent in my mind was the work of Stanley Kubrick. He made superbly crafted films which were also often raw and brutal, in which every detail felt considered, finely tuned to one pure intention. Historically engaged and politically astute, innovative and brave, Kubrick found ways to go into the darkest parts of the human experience and find a clarity of light and vision otherwise impossible. He had a diamond-edged aesthetic that cut through the glass of the lens that separates performance and audience.

Black Rock White City by A S Patric

 

What themes or events in Atlantic Black do you think reflect the current happenings of our time?

In Black Rock White City I explored the aftermath of social disintegration and violence and in Atlantic Black I’m looking at the same elements, yet from before the cataclysm. I found the ocean liner powerfully evocative and Katerina Klova opened up a compelling perspective into a nuanced world, as much a floating city as a floating prison, but as the my work progresses I found the novel was driven by the same crisis that we see in the disintegrating European Union and America’s fragmentation.

Atlantic Black and Black Rock White City are published by Transit Lounge.

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