In the late 1990s I had a vivid dream about my old street in Glenroy where I grew up. In the dream my father (who is now dead), my mother and I were standing on the street, pausing in front of a vacant paddock and staring at the swaying grass. I knew, the way we know things in dreams, that it was summer. That it was a Saturday night in 1957 and from the colour of the sky that it was early evening. We all had our best clothes on: my father in a starched, white shirt, my mother in her best summer dress, and me in a striped shirt with a button-down collar that I’d forgotten all about until the dream retrieved it.
The dream was what we would now call virtual in its reality, the three of us a kind of tableau vivant that I felt I could walk around as I would a sculpture. The vividness and the urgency of the dream prompted a novel that, over three drafts, eventually became The Art of the Engine Driver. I was convinced it would be a one-off book and would finally get this Glenroy thing off my chest: that my old street and my old patch of Glenroy, a rectangle of land about two kilometres long and one kilometre wide, could yield only one book.
Almost 20 years and five Glenroy novels later I am halfway through the sixth and final novel in the sequence. When finished the six novels will span 60 tumultuous years of Australian history, from 1917 to 1977. E.M. Forster talks of different types of time in his classic Aspects of the Novel. There is basically everyday time that watches and clocks measure, and something that he calls time measured by value: by which he means those intense experiences that blur our sense of passing time and defy the clocks. The 60 years that the novels cover—the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the tumult of the postwar diaspora, the Cold War, the Menzies ascendency and the rise and fall of Whitlam—is time measured by value.
They were written in no particular order and, I think, can be read in any order. I started in the middle, went forwards for the next two, doubled back to 1946 for another, then jumped forwards to 1977. The novel I’m writing now, although the last of the six, chronologically speaking is the first in the sequence.
It is set in Melbourne in the last months of 1917, during the second conscription referendum. We call them referendums, but they were plebiscites. The central character is a woman called Mary-anne. She is 40, single and seven months pregnant. The child she is carrying is Vic, the engine driver and pivotal character in the whole sequence.
It is, like much of the series, drawn from family history. Or, more accurately, family mythology. My grandmother was Mary-anne Carroll. She brought up my father, her only child, by herself. My father never knew his father. The family name, Carroll, comes down through the matriarchal line. Strictly speaking, our name should have been, and the spellings are various, Deuschke: my father’s father, as best we understand, being German, from a small town in Prussia. He was an absent father, a common phenomenon at the time. He was for many years an absence in the family history and to a large extent still is. Although modern ways of tracing family history are continually shedding new light on things.
The task of fiction, however, is not to replicate the past but to reinvent it. One’s loyalty is always with the novel itself, and the hope that what you create, although diverging from history, will contain a truth of its own. The constant challenge throughout all of the Glenroy novels has been to re-create the past and to find a style that does not simply repeat social realism, the style so often associated with working-class, suburban tales.
This novel, however, like Spirit of Progress, is set before the suburb was born. So it not so much taps into the history of the suburb as into its pre-history. The events I describe in this novel take place in a Melbourne that existed exactly 100 years ago. In The Art of the Engine Driver I knew the place and time intimately because I lived through it. The place and the time were at my fingertips. Not so the Melbourne of 1917. That place and time are as foreign to me as revolutionary Paris or Dickens’ London. And I made the decision right from the start that I would not even pretend to enter Melbourne in 1917: not even pretend that I was leading the reader into anything resembling a faithful creation of that place and time.
It would not only be false, it would be boring. Let the reader know right from the outset that this is an imagined Melbourne and an imagined 1917, and hope that it all rings true as fiction—not as social history. The novel is, above all, a work of the imagination. Martin Cruz Smith had never been to Moscow when he wrote Gorky Park. Borges never went to London; the London he writes about is drawn from Dickens. Novelists need to trust their imaginations and take those flights of fancy that are intrinsic to creating what you hope is a resonant imagined world that may as well be what it pretends to depict, and hopefully contains a kind of truth all its own.
For this reason, and because this is the way I work, I have chosen to do virtually no research while writing the first draft. I have done some, but very little. Research at this stage can be confining and deadening. The mind and imagination need to be free, not weighed down by facts—most of which will prove to be irrelevant or unimportant in the end anyway. It is far more important at this stage to get the story rolling and the characters taking shape. Story, character and one informing, overarching idea will hopefully give you the first draft. After that, I can go back and mine the history books, letters and newspapers of the age: when the story feels like it’s taken on a life and the characters are standing.
As I write I am 34,500 words into what I suspect is about a 70,000-word novel. I have blocked out, on paper, the key chapters and scenes in the second half of the book. I like to work like this; there is no substitute for knowing where the story is heading and why. This doesn’t mean that the story will go in the direction I have mapped out or that the characters will behave themselves and do what I think they’ll do. It’s good to have narrative foundations, but they must be accommodating. They must be flexible enough to incorporate all the changes that happen along the way because fiction, especially fiction works of novel length, is organic: the conscious and the unconscious, the planned and the unplanned, are constantly interacting. Things go to plan, then all of a sudden things change.
For example, last week I started writing a section I had been looking forward to writing and building the story up to for some time. But the moment I started writing it everything changed. Mary-anne, the central character, was meant to confront the towering figure of Archbishop Daniel Mannix at the front gate of his house, Raheen, in Kew. I even drove out there and studied the place in preparation. But nothing of the sort takes place. The moment I started writing the scene the next morning it swerved off in a totally unexpected direction, and it is not Mannix who steps outside that gate on his daily walk from Kew to St Patrick’s, but another character altogether. A character that had not even appeared in the book until that moment. But when I looked back I could see that her appearance had been written into the story. I’d plotted it without realising it. The unconscious had been one step ahead of me the whole time.
It’s not entirely true to say that I’ve done no research so far. To an extent, it depends on what we call research. The times were tumultuous indeed, the city in the grip of a kind of madness. When Bob Santamaria complained to Mannix one day during the ALP split of 1955, which led to the formation of the DLP, that he couldn’t take the constant pressure of the moment any more, Mannix apparently scoffed, saying something like ‘This is nothing compared to 1917.’ The city and the whole country were divided down the middle on conscription. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that this is the closest the nation has ever come to falling apart or falling into a kind of civil war within a war. Fights raged on the streets, rallies for ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ faced off against each other on opposing corners. It was an upheaval. So, how to depict this madness? Where to go to find the images I needed? Not history, I decided. I went to fiction. My preparatory reading was Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Balzac’s tales set during the revolution, Milan Kundera’s Prague both in 1948 and during the Soviet invasion, as well as Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair about the mayhem and misery of the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. They gave swaying crowds, massed madness, mob movement and individual lives swamped by the waves of history in progress.
But, more than these books, there were two other key works that offered an entrée into my Melbourne, 1917: Sigmund Freud’s brilliant essay Civilisation and Its Discontents and Dante’s Inferno. Freud’s book was written in 1929. He makes no mention of the First World War and the death-wish madness it unleashed all over Europe, and the events of the 1930s in post-Weimar Germany are yet to happen. But I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the essay is imbued with the experience of the First World War, and prefigures the outbreak of Nazism. Freud argues, compellingly, that although we may pride ourselves on being civilised and celebrate ‘progress’, civilisation and progress come at a price. We must suppress the pleasure-seeking, anarchic, primal part of ourselves or no cooperative social enterprise can be successful. Society would be dead in the swamp.
For most of the time though, with the ego and superego in charge, society holds together, and history and progress stumble and lurch, more or less, forwards. But every now and then there is a mass outbreak of the primal and the id erupts into pleasure seeking, death desiring life. For death to the id—the return of all life to indifferent primal matter—is the id’s ultimate pleasure: that something final that it craves. So Freud gave me my thematic framework and this is crucial, for we need to know not only what is happening when we are writing a novel, but why. Action, driven by idea, is the best, the most satisfying form of action. And so the crowds, the violent massed meetings across the city, day in day out, are depicted as just such an eruption. A beast, a leviathan made up of the very worst of humanity: a rampant id. Freud also gave me my title: Festival of the Id.
But just as I needed an informing idea, I also needed an informing image, one that would hold true throughout the novel. Dante gave me this. Mary-anne is seven months pregnant when the novel opens. The city around her, every day, is convulsed in an ecstasy of madness. And it is, to her, like being mad: like descending, every day, into Hell. Every circle of Hell she descends into is a variation on the one before and an intimation of the one to follow. I decided from the start to write the novel from two points of view: Mary-anne’s and, hovering above that, the omniscient authorial, god-like perspective. She thinks of herself as descending into the circles of Hell, and over time I came to see her (or the author came to see her, I’m quite sure they’re the same) as a kind of Dante, seven months pregnant, making the perilous journey through the Hell of her city without a Virgil to guide her.
I’m halfway through, I think I know what will follow, and I even think I know how it will all end. Of course, things will change: characters will transform in unexpected ways, say the most unexpected things or not say certain things; the story will take the directions I’ve mapped out, and suddenly swerve off into unexpected ones. To borrow from Stoppard, I feel like a hiker. I know where I’m going, I have my compass and my general points of reference, but what happens along the way is another thing altogether. •