gr's loving this author right now
Born in Northern Ireland, NICK EARLS was nine years old when he emigrated to Australia. He started his working life as a doctor, but the prestige of that career paled in comparison to the thrill of making a living as a writer. The author of Zigzag Street and Analogue Men, he is now in the process of publishing a series of five novellas called ‘Wisdom Tree’. We asked Nick to tell us about the books that formed him into the person he is now.
What were some of your favourite books as a child?
From my first school jotter (it actually says ‘jotter’ on the front – what a British childhood) it seems I started off reading Dick and Dora.
At home, around the age of five, I started reading ‘Biggles’ books pretty avidly. Plenty of derring-do, shooting and fly-boy repartee (in the early 20th-century sense). I remember not too many years after that being really struck by Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
What are you reading now?
Short stories by Alice Munro, because when I’m not on holiday it often suits me to read something short, without compromising on quality. She’s a master of short fiction, but I’m trying to appreciate her as a reader first, before letting myself think about it all as a writer. She didn’t write it for me to pull it to bits and try to work out her tricks.
Which books have made you laugh out loud?
Chris Flynn has made me do that with A Tiger in Eden. We’re both from Northern Ireland, so I heard it in the right accent, which made some of it even funnier. There’s a lot more to him than laughs, though. Evidence by Emma Tom (now known as Emma Jane). I wish she’d write more novels.
These two smart writers can be very funny. They really know how to tell a story and they really understand how language can best be used to make a sentence. They can write smart, funny lines and create a context for them.
To be honest, not many books make me laugh. A lot has to be right to get a laugh out of me.
Which books have moved you the most?
That’s an entirely reasonable question – a really good question – and it should be easier for me to answer. What kind of flawed, immovable human am I? In lieu of the instinctive heartfelt response that I should have, and that the question calls for, I took a look at my nearby bookcases and I might opt for Junot Diaz’s Drown and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Border Trilogy’. In both cases it’s spare writing that artfully reveals what the characters are going through and are up against.
Is there a famous book that
you didn’t like?
George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Would I rather have poked my eye out with a stick? It would have been a close-run thing.
But you can put that down to me and not Mary Ann Evans. I was 11 and showing off my readingprowess.I’d read all the medium-challenging books available to the class, and then the more challenging, and this was the most challenging, down the far end of the shelf. I can’t honestly say what it’s like as a book, but the 11-year-old me in 1975 shouldn’t have been its reader.
More recently, I haven’t finished famous books that didn’t do it for me. Sometimes the voice simply doesn’t click and I’m out of there in a paragraph, so it would be unfair to name the books. They clearly work for some people.
If you could choose only one, what would be your most treasured book ever?
One? Seriously? That’s as artificial as the ‘choose six people, dead or alive to invite to a dinner party’ question ... Oh, wait, I see that’s coming up. Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter.
Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is also a contender. But let’s go with The Sportswriter. It’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. And I’m not choosing it because, following a mixed review for The Sportswriter, Ford took the reviewer’s book out into the backyard and shot it. I’d put it top of my list, even if there wasn’t the vague underlying threat of book violence. It’s so minutely and perfectly observed, and the rhythm of it feels effortless, though it surely can’t have been.
What inspired you to be a writer?
I had always loved storytelling – playing around with characters, making things up – and then when I was about eight I had a revelation. The person whose name was on the front of the book hadn’t just written it: THEY GOT PAID MONEY FOR IT. MONEY FOR MAKING THINGS UP. It sounded like the perfect job. That part of it still is. And it never gets old. Every new story is a fresh puzzle to solve.
Parts of the job are a slog, sure, but parts of everything are a slog. And this can be a demoralising time to be a writer, if you allow it to be. But those moments when you’re deep in there, discovering your story – they’re still great. For instance, working out with Gotham (the first of the ‘Wisdom Tree’novellas) the extra dimension I could bring by threading in a family story to collide with the rapper interview story, or working through Knut’s physicality in the past and present in Vancouver. I realised that I could create a kind of realist fable by putting a giant under a kid’s house, then having the kid grown up and meet the giant years later, discovering that he’s still hugely tall, but a tall picture of human frailty, while inside a giant mind keeps ticking. It’s a joy to be allowed to create a character like Knut, and another to witness him and be changed by the encounter.
What was it like as a child to emigrate from Ireland to Brisbane?
It was way more different than some people realise. They thought I’d be okay, since I looked like most other people and spoke English. But it was a very different dialect, with many different words and a different accent, and the cultural differences were profound. A city to me meant an army on the streets, getting searched going into shops. Brisbane made no sense.
A housemate from the 80s just reminded me of when we first lived together and he came home to the smell of bread frying. It’s only now that I can see that fried bread isn’t normal everywhere. It was so normal for me; not being normal for him made no sense at all.
Do you use an e-reader?
I’m platform agnostic. Make it a well-told story and I’d read it if you’d written it on a wall in blue crayon. Yes, I use an e-reader sometimes. I still use a lot of repurposed tree though. (This is where we could segue into all that talk about book smell, the feel of the turned page etc, but I’ll spare you that, because it really is about the words themselves for me.)
If given the opportunity to have a dinner party and invite six people – dead or alive – who would they be?
I had lunch with Gough Whitlam on his birthday once, and it made me realise I go mute in front of minds that are a bit too great and a bit too self-confident for me to match it with them. So no-one who would intimidate me into silence, which probably means no icons and idols.
Perhaps I should just stipulate that I would go for people who are alive. Even if just one of the guests at the table were dead at the time, it’d really bring down the mood.