:: Article

Eight questions for Gerald Murnane

By Tristan Foster.

Gerald Murnane
For this interview, I sent off a document of eight questions directed at a writer by the name of Gerald Murnane. More than a month went by before I received in my inbox a scanned facsimile of complete answers to those questions, typewritten by my vague idea of this man.

Despite the impersonal, disjointed process, I don’t think I’d have had it any other way. In many ways, this is exactly how an author interview should take place: not eye to eye, but in slow-delivered written exchanges, and from a distance – that distance between reader and writer, a distance that may as well be infinite.

In his responses here, Murnane spends some time undoing any ideas this or any other reader might have about another possible Murnane: the Australian writer, notorious for his reclusiveness, with eleven books to his name. Indeed, he makes it clear that it is his work – not another version of himself – which sits apart from him, distinct. Yet it remains entirely appropriate that this interview could have been conducted across the galaxy – any reader of Gerald Murnane’s books will be aware of the secret worlds of his writing. They are at the borderlands of literature, its great plains – a realm he has, in his writing, made his own.

3:AM Magazine: In your letter to Teju Cole in Music and Literature, you wrote: “Most of my books were hard to write.” In a recent interview with Ivor Indyk for The Sydney Review of Books, you said: “Writing isn’t much fun for me.” Several years ago you decided to stop publishing your writing altogether. The story follows that Indyk eventually coaxed another book out of you for Giramondo Publishing, and here we are, a decade later, nearing the publication of your memoir Something for the Pain (October 2015, Text Publishing). In publishing terms, you’ve never been so prolific, and while there was at one time a decision to stop publishing, you have always written. Your fabled archives, if not your eleven published books, would suggest that writing has nothing to do with ease for you, or fun. What, then, is it?

Gerald Murnane: Writing is, to put the matter plainly, a relief. I can go for weeks or months without writing, but during many periods of my life I’ve written as if my very life depended on it. I’ve had months, perhaps years, when I wrote only notes for my archives, the time and again the need has come back – the need to put into words some complex pattern of feelings and imagery. They comprise my Holy Trinity: images, feelings, words. Those three are the basic components of my universe, the sub-atomic particles of all that matters – images, feeling, words. The writing itself is painful, because images and feelings belong in the invisible world and have to be translated into words, which are part of the visible world. The writing itself is painful, but a worse pain comes from not writing. When I first conceive a work of fiction, I try to put off the writing of it because of the pain involved. But then the pain of knowing that the feelings and the imagery will never be expressed in words – then that pain becomes unbearable. And then I relieve the pain by writing.

3:AM: I want to speak about one of the most astonishing elements of your work. The idea of everything being at least two things is considered perhaps in the most depth in Inland, but this theme has been with you from the start. Tamarisk Row, for instance, is a marble, a horse, the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the imaginary family who live below the tamarisks in the Killeatons’ yard. By no means is the trajectory of your artistic project predictable, but the steps have been logical – as if planned from the beginning. Maybe this is misleading, and it’s the connections in your work that make it seem as if this is the case. Can you tell me about this?

GM: In fact, I haven’t explicitly stated what you refer to. The statement was made by the narrator of Inland. My theory of narration is a simplified version of the theory devised by Wayne C. Booth, which would require you to say that the first-person narrator of Inland made the statement in question. Given that the narrator of Inland is a reliable-seeming narrator and is by his own admission of the same gender as myself and of the same age, then you can justly believe that the narrator and the implied author of Inland are near enough to identical. You can never, however, be justified in supposing that the implied author and the breathing author are identical. So, the statement that interests you was made, you might say, by a part of myself or by a version of myself. Do I, the person typing these lines – do I believe the statement? I don’t swear by it. It’s no article of faith for me. In my daily life I need few, if any, such beliefs as that everything is more than one thing or that everything is connected with at least one other thing. When I’m writing, things are wholly different. The writing part of me is likely to adopt any position needed for the sake of his work. I mean, I’ll become the sort of narrator needed for the fiction under way – for its acquiring its true shape and meaning.

You ask me to tell you about my remaining concerns throughout my career with the same matters. What can I tell you except that I have indeed been thus concerned? Well, I can tell you that I don’t find this at all strange. I sometimes declare that the subject matter of my writing is what matters to me most. Is it surprising that what matters to me most today is little different from what mattered most fifty years ago? I have no time for those writers of fiction who find their subject matter in the news headlines; who turn the so-called issues of the day into fiction.

You speculate that my body of work seems as though it was planned from the beginning. This is my opportunity to complain against another item of foolishness that occurs often in discussion about writers, especially those such as myself, whose books sell few copies. Often, the expression occurs “He published his first book in …” Or, “Fours years passed before he published his next book…” Such expressions bring to mind a powerful figure of the Great Writer choosing when and where and in what order he’ll deign to bestow his books on the world. There may well be such authors, but I can assure anyone interested that I’ve never published any books. That task was performed by publishers, and until I was taken up by my present publisher, Giramondo, they had the upper hand. Given the praise that my books have received in recent times, persons such as yourself must find it hard to credit that Tamarisk Row was published as a result of a stroke of luck. The typescript was lifted out of a huge slush-pile of unsolicited stuff after an acquaintance of mine mentioned to the publisher that my stuff was worth reading. A Lifetime on Clouds was half a book – the publisher cut in half the long four-part work that I first submitted. The Plains was an expanded version of a section of a long work rejected by several publishers. I could go on. The first seven books of mine to be published, if they weren’t mutilated versions of what I originally wrote, were, to a certain extent, compromises. I was never unaware while I wrote that a publisher was going to assess my work from a viewpoint quite unlike my own.

So, let’s forget the idea of Young Gerald seeing his life’s work laid out in advance and progressing from book to book in an ever-so-orderly fashion. Remember, too, that apart from my struggle to appeal to publishers, I was nearly always a part-time writer with a full-time job and a wife and children around me. All I can say is that I wrote as well as I could about what mattered most to me at the time and when I could find a few spare hours. After Emerald Blue, which the publisher hardly bothered to publicise, I took a break for ten years – not from writing but from trying to write what would find ready publication.

3:AM: The Plains is widely regarded as your masterwork. How do you feel about that? Do you agree?

GM: I can think of two cogent reasons for denying the proposition. First, I did not conceive of The Plains as it now exists. Twice at least, I’ve had a vision, so to speak, of a work of fiction and have then put that vision into words. The examples that come to mind are A History of Books and A Million Windows. The Plains went through a sort of life-cycle rather like a butterfly. My second reason is this. Rarely do I wish I could have rewritten parts of any published work of mine, but I’d like to rewrite a few passages in The Plains. I consider them now too dense – even a bit contorted.

3:AM: Dalkey Archive Press has published your novels Inland and Barley Patch. In a recent interview, Jeremy Davies, the editor at Dalkey assigned to these two books, said of you, “I don’t know that he needs editing.” He went further and said that maybe you’ve earned that right. When reading one of your books, it is difficult not to notice the craftsmanship, the process of smoothing these sentences flat, the patterns that emerge as a result. What happens when you submit a new work to your publisher?

GM: The question arouses a mild resentfulness in me. Once again, the questioner seems to suppose that my career was orderly, well planned, untroubled even; that my books were finished at regular intervals and delivered into the outstretched hands of expectant publishers. But I mustn’t get started again. You mention the craftsmanship of my writing. I wouldn’t dare give myself a ranking among my contemporaries in any field other than craftsmanship. And in that field I’d rank myself first. My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime. The previous sentence is a fair average sample of my prose.

Publishers may have suggested minor changes to some or another work of mine over the years, but I can’t recall any publisher complaining that a sentence of mine was faulty.

Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Ivor Indyk of Giramondo, who has been my most loyal and devoted publisher, has been at times critical of my work after his first reading – not of my prose but of some of my subject-matter. He wanted me to make some of the sections of A History of Books less demanding of the reader. I was able to talk him around on most issues.

3:AM: I hesitate to ask you about your place in Australian literature both because it’s a discussion of categories and because you have directly or indirectly credited your influences as being almost wholly outside of it: Marcel Proust and Emily Brontë and Henry James. That said, I do feel somewhat obliged – you are Australian, you have never lived anywhere else and your writing is published into this country’s book market. Is your place in Australian literature something you think about?

GM: Flemington racecourse has a straight-six track. Certain races are run there over a straight course of twelve hundred metres, or six furlongs as we once called it. Sometimes, if the field is large, a group of horses will follow the inside rail while another group follows the outer rail, perhaps thirty metres away. Each group, of course, has its own leaders and pursuers and tail-enders. Sometimes, the outside group numbers only a few while the inside group comprises most of the field. The watchers in the grandstands, near the winning-post, are often unable to tell which group is in front of the other. The watchers are almost head-on to the field, and only when the leaders reach the last few hundred metres can they, the watchers, line up the two different groups, as the expression has it. If I try to compare myself with my contemporaries, I usually see us all as a field of horses coming down the straight-six course at Flemington. Most of us are over on the rails. I’m on my own coming down the outside fence. At different times, one or another of the bunch on the rails shows out far ahead of the others. Being on my own, I can’t be compared with any nearby rival, but I seem to be going well. Do I explain myself? In thirty years from now, we may know the finishing order. By that time, my archives may have become available to the public – a whole new body of my writing to be taken account of.

3:AM: One of things most strongly evoked for me when reading your work is a sense of place – but a place which is no place, at least not a physical place, not one that can be located on any sort of map. You have always lived in Victoria, and you have never left Australia. Is there a connection between your reluctance to travel and your writing – more specifically, the places – in your pages?

GM: I’ve written at length in ‘The Breathing Author’ about my becoming confused in strange places. I’ve sometimes said that my not wanting to travel far comes from my preference for looking into things rather than at things: for seeing patterns in my surroundings rather than mere surfaces in unfamiliar places. As for the places in my pages, I’ll repeat here what I’ve had at least one of my narrators write in my fiction: that I consider the mind a place; that I consider time to be an endless series of places; and that to write my sort of fiction is to bring into being places within places.

3:AM: Something for the Pain is forthcoming from Text Publishing later this year. It’s described as both a memoir and a book about horseracing (maybe, once again, they are the same thing?). Of course, I read this description and thought of Tamarisk Row, of Clement Killeaton – and so a return to the beginning. Where does Something for the Pain sit in your body of work?

GM: You yourself have sensibly avoided the issue, but I’m often asked how near or far is my fiction from autobiography. Although parts of my fiction may seem like autobiography, I know myself that I’ve hardly ever reported without much embellishment any part of my life-story, so to call it. My archives include a good deal of autobiographical writing, and that writing seems to be quite different from my fiction. Something for the Pain is autobiography, pure and simple. The sub-title is A Memoir of the Turf, but I’ve managed in my horsey book, as I call it, to reveal more about myself than I’ve revealed in my fiction.

3:AM: Do you still think about Clement Killeaton?

GM: I’m tired of your question after question. Here’s a smart-arse answer. I’ve thought about Clement so much over the years that I’ve turned into him in my old age. Read the second-last section of Something for the Pain when the book comes out later this year.

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is a reviews/nonfiction editor at 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 21st, 2015.