Nicolas Rothwell: Award-winning Australian author and journalist

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Nicolas RothwellNicholas Rothwell is an award-winning Australian author and journalist. In the 1980s and early 1990s he was a foreign correspondent for The Australian newspaper and continues to write for the paper from his home in the Northern Territory. In 2006 he was awarded a Walkley Award for his coverage on Indigenous Affairs. He has written six books and his latest is Belomor.

Belomor is only his second novel (the first, Heaven and Earth, was published in 1999) but he is known for a writing style that resists definition as strictly fiction or non-fiction. In Belomor, he meditates on art and life, travel from Eastern Europe to Northern Australia, and through time from WWII to the present. Described as “the frontier where truth and invention meet”, the novel has garnered considerable critical acclaim since it was published.

In 2003 his book, Wings of the Kite-Hawk, was awarded the Courier-Mail Book of the Year Award, and in 2007 he published a collection of his extraordinary journalism, Another Country.

Click play to listen. Running time: 27.38



* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Thanks for joining us Nicolas.

Thank you.

First of all, just tell us a bit more about the latest book, Belomor.

I’m not convinced I have it very clear in mind. I’m struggling to answer your question. It seems to me that books take focus in the mind of their writer, Danielle, for a certain amount of time when they’re just newborn children. And, hard really to see, you can’t really tell what futures they have.

And, let me not push the metaphor too far, when you write a book what you have in your thoughts is very much, let me tell you my experience from it, I don’t want to speak for anyone else, what you have in your mind is a scheme or a plan, an idea, a blueprint, which you then seek to realise. And, what you actually write departs at times from that blueprint and fulfills it perfectly, and others over fulfills it, and topples on to something else in other cases.

So, it’s only really in the rearview mirror that you have some sense of what you might have done. So, if I say something about the book it is by acknowledging other books which I have written, which I feel it’s quite similar to. In fact, I have a sense that, as is very often said, every writer who is not subtle and cunning, literately simply rewrite the same book again and again, and tells the same message again and again, really visits the scene of crime, trauma, joy, enlightenment, lightening bolt.

And so it is I think in some degree with this book and its predecessors, that this book is called Belomor. And the title is an abbreviated version of the word ‘Belomorkanal,’ which is the name of what was once the most popular and strongest brand of cigarette consumed in the old Soviet Union, and it translates out as ‘the white sea canal’. The cigarette was introduced by the state tobacco company in the 1930s, to commemorate the great achievement of the slave labour construction of this canal, the first great Soviet project, which cost the lives of many thousands of convicts, and obviously caused indescribable suffering for the oral point the canal is scarcely used today, however, it has given us the cigarette, and a book.

And the cigarette, the brand of cigarette figures quite prominently in what passes for the plot of the story. So, despite that Russians seeming thematic, it is a book which is set largely in remote Australia, very substantially set in remote Australia. And it’s to a certain degree about the parallels between the European domain and the remote Australian domain, which are structurally the two halves of my own life.

As one advances through the world and through time, the need for subterfuge goes away. You just end up writing what you know, what you are to try better to know what you… to understand yourself.

You’re basically reusing an idea that you’ve used in previous books which have been nonfiction. Was this originally conceived as a novel?  Because it feels like it straddles sort of memoir, fiction.

I know what you’re asking. Look, I would say it’s very hard to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction in the current world, and indeed it probably always has been, but let me come to a couple of points which I find useful to have in one’s mind right now where we stand in this strange world where words just blow away in print, eBook, pod, whatever. The notion that seems safe and precious to me is to have the considered the word, the worked over word, the word that don’t just blurt into the wind and not mean. What is the function of the plot and the fiction and imagination and artifice in this world?  What are we doing when we make something up? I think when we make something up we’re abstracting from what we know, we’re trying to get away from what we know and fantasizing. We’re trying to pin down in a more precise way, but by generalising. So, there are a number of different strategies.

But, what you say is true, I’ve written – I don’t know – six, eight books, and one of them had been a fairly conventional novel which started off from very clear, factual events and interwove in those factual events was a story of many things, including ghosts, so it had non-documentary elements.

Another was a kind of journey of discovery and experience in remote desert landscape, which had a component of imaginative reconstruction of the past in it, and a component of reportage of experience, and a strong component of interior self journey, self modulation. The successor to that book had some thematics and narratives, but was probably more fictive, or there I think it was marketed in a quasi-memoir sort of condition.

And this book, and yet for you, you never know what’s going to happen when you get to the end of the distribution, you just never know. This child is, I think it would be fair to say, that it has strong fictive elements. There are elements which are made from whole cloth, and there are elements which are absolutely straight, factual, there is a whole chapter which is essentially true, if I can use that loaded term. But, it’s true about the dreams and fantasies of other characters, and it has flatly implausible things happening.

So what are we left with?  A novel, a tale, I kind of like the word ‘tale’, but I think that I would suggest to you this, it’s interesting to do a thought experiment, before we get too carried away with these very fun categories. It’s interesting to do a thought experiement, what will people think in the future? In the future –

Do you mean about the book, or –?

This book, or any book written, if they look back in time – maybe they will look back, because there’s going to be so many more people in the future then there are now, they’ll have to have something to write their PhD’s about, so we may be lucky. You look back, and you think, “I wonder what the structure of this book is?” “I wonder what its ideas about the world are?” “I wonder what emotions are moving in it?” “I wonder what the tonal notes is hitting?” And you probably won’t think, “Gee, I wonder if that, you know, 7-11 on page 320 actually existed or was made up.” Or, whether this person said that.

And similarly, if you were to take a great quasi-realist novel in the 19th century, let’s say of War and Peace, let’s say Flaubert's Sentimental Education, David Copperfield, whatever it may be, you now don’t ask the question, “Was there a historical David Copperfield?” “Was there a historical Napoleon,” because you kind of know the answer, and it doesn’t matter if, how the thing hangs together, it’s not the important thing. I’m not, sorry please go on.

I was just going to say, speaking about how it all hangs together, so you are interweaving quite a lot of fact with fictive elements, as you call them. How did you plan a novel like this? How do you make sure all of those threads come together as one at the end? Or is it planned? Is it more organic?

No, there’s certainly not any plan. If I can put it this way, I would tend to begin writing a book with a shape, or an idea, or an emotion, as a kind of guiding thesis, as something which I’m sort of exploring in each book I write, a kind of thesis about how the deeper structure of the world works, what it is, where we are, what the nature of our cage is. And, I can only say to you that each of these chapters, I knew what was going to be in them, and I knew how they were going to move and work from the very, very early stage in the writing of the book. Indeed, I had them with me for some time. If you like this entire writing project which I’ve been engaged in, which comprises several books, coheres, and each of the story flows is necessary for me. They’re necessary there, they have to be the way they are, and they have to have the components of truth and fiction that are in them.

The one paradoxical, but strong element to me is this notion that you write to crave, you write to admire and adore the world. You write not because you want to complain or carp, or because you don’t accept the way things are. You write to express your appreciation for your consciousness. And as well as that, you also write to praise the way things should be, just as much as the way they are. So, I don’t, I know this sounds completely intolerable, but I don’t really like the way we make a difference between what is and what is not, because when time’s flowed by, what is will no longer be, and so I feel a kind of right to this promiscuity. And I think that there is an artistic beauty in making what is seem unreal, and making what is not seem real in this little baroque man endeavour.

I feel that this would have been a ridiculous and defensive thing to say to you if we’d been speaking ten years ago, but I take hope from the notion that we now live in such a virtual world that these hard rules have begun to erode, and it’s possible to make one’s way, have one’s little backpack of semi-fiction on one’s back and get by without being stopped by the mob of police.

Yes. Is that why you feel that you’ve been able to come back to essentially fiction? Because your first novel was written in 1999. So that’s, what? A 13-14 year gap between that and this.

What prompted you to go back to the writing a novel?

Truthfully, although I may seem a reasonably rational person too… I’m not sure I’m that clear or controlled on the things that make me go here or there in the writing life.. and I look back on the novel that you’re referring to, which has got, it’s full of strange, supernatural events, as it the book that I just finished. And it occurs to me that I didn’t intend for that to be the case, it’s just these things surface like lava coming up from underground, and we really don’t have that much control over them.

I feel that the procedure of the writing for me is essentially to be a kind of radar, where you put out your periscope, you put up your radar, and stick to one. You put up your radar, and it revolves slowly, and you wait for signals from the ether around. And then something comes in, that’s an idea which resonates with me, which was meant for me, which I should not turn aside from, which I shall go towards. And then the radar keeps revolving over time, over the months and years, and you discern a pattern, and you know that is what you are fashioned to respond to and bring out and meditate on. Consequently, I’m some what of a realativist with books, actually there’s a book for everyone to read, and to gain pleasure and joy and instruction from, and what works for one person isn’t going to work for another. I know that sounds very modishly democratic, but I really mean it.

I know there are great books that I can’t appreciate, that just don’t work for me, they mean nothing. I don’t wan to read any Henry James, I don’t want to have a character being maltreated by some creepy old sadist.

I want to read books of a different kind, because of my own, because of what I want make myself, and what I am by nature. And that, it seems to me, is the joy of writing, not matter whether you’re a rock star, or some struggler without any published work. That you get to work on and make yourself, and direct yourself and hone yourself, and seek to know yourself. That’s the procedure, really. And everything that follows after that, you know, your book, finished book, that’s all secondary to me. Does that make any sense to you?

It does, and it kind of ties in a little bit to what I was going to ask next. I hope I got this right, I actually took this from a review on the Journeys book. And, this reviewer said that you’re claiming that fiction writing is primarily a European conceit, and Australia really can’t be captured in the written form.

It’s not a million miles away from what I meant. This is something of a expiration of an idea, rather than a concept I’d go to the stake for. I don’t know that I’d go to the stake for anything, but I’d like to do a little bit more preparatory work on this idea before going too far. But in essence, the argument I was making in the essay lecture to which that is referring to, is something like this, that the novel, as opposed to the tale, the novel, the character-obsessed novel in which people go through time and interact with each other and have fates and things happen, you know the classical early 20th century novel, it represents or stems from a certain stage in social development, it’s essentially a bourgeois form, or a form of illiterate and mass culture. It’s not epic, it’s not tragedy, it’s not Jacobian drama, it’s something which is in our recent past, but past. We’re now dealing with the kind of later developments of novel form, which are in their own way interesting. It’s fascinating to see how genre and fantasy come to the fore now. The novel is infinitely malleable, and it survives very well.

I have close friends who are dedicated novelists who would be appalled at this heresy. Nevertheless, I was suggesting several things, that the notion of seasonal progress and social progress, and indeed to some extent religious salvation, all of these things constitute the thought world of the novel. The novel does not stay still. Things happen in a novel, good or bad. There’s progress, there’s resolution, you know the principles of normal writing. And people have now dissected them so much, they teach it, the structure.

And people know how to write novels, because it’s a reducible form, which reflects the social conditions. So in your novel, the protagonist comes to a discovery and grows, or doesn’t grow, in modern novels and that’s it. That’s the setting, the setting is social, and the setting presupposes a sort of propulsive motion and a change, and a lifetime. Now, this strikes me as a very European, northern hemisphere sort of notion, it’s tied in with Europe and seasonality and the notions that were alive in the foundation of Europe and the novel, and it’s also a very American kind of notion.

Now what do we see in Australia which is not a great novel province? Australia was settled after America in a time when Christianity had not really bitten as strongly as it did America. If you go through America, every town is named after the bible – every town, Corpus Christi, Texas. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania…

And what do you see in Australia?  A different sort of religious face, different country, country that does not have seasonality where it’s draught and fire. Different rhythms, different sense of progress. Do we have progress here? Of course, we have development, of course we have colonization and settlement and economic growth, but I would be tempted to try to argue that the prevailing notions in Australia are subtly different. And, this has something to do with the weakness, comparative weakness of the novel in this country.

And what I would be inclined to suggest is that here we have a different kind of literature to the fore, the tale. The favorite, the yarn – the yarn is a very, shaggy dog stories, stories that don’t go anywhere, stories that don’t obey conventional forms. Of course, there are famous and great Australian novels, and there are publishers reissuing them by the cartload, however there is another Australian literature, with which I would love to be brave enough to align myself with, which is the literature of the place-based idea that is sent out to the story that floods out and goes nowhere, the story that has multiple characters an no necessary heroes.

I can see you know what I mean, and I wonder to what extent when this doesn’t have an echo of aboriginal themes and aboriginal stories, which are repetitive, and we haven’t taken them, obviously. The non-indigenous tribes haven’t taken from the indigenous world, but has somehow this idea come out from the landscape?  From our nearness to the aboriginal domain, if it comes to act on us. Those are some of the ideas that are in my thoughts and have been lurking around in the background of the quote that you mentioned.

Yes. I mean this book does have a strong sense of place, especially when it’s set in the Northern Territory. Can you think of any, or can you suggest, any writers who are working in that more Australian dreamtime almost way of writing –


Today, or even in the 20th century.

I can, I would say that in his early books, Rand Austow would be an obvious contender, but Pert Lesmarry  the landscape writer, Eric Rawl these are figures who mean a great deal to me. There’s a man called Billy Linklater, who wrote a very good book called Gather No Moss, which is about life in the North. And there are a number of other modern writers. So, I think there is a sort of alternative traditional paradigm which is not very well known, but nonetheless there, and rather typically for Australian life, not joined up properly, kind of on the border, not connected.

Yes. I just want to ask a bit more about your writing process. So, you’re a journalist, as well as an author, how do you shift between writing for a newspaper and working on your own book? And do you have a process that you follow every day? Do you have a routine that you stick to?

I tend to write books, as opposed to journalism at a different time. So, I might take a year off, you then become poverty stricken and then go back to journalism, and try to rebuild the war chest so as to have the, I don’t write quickly or easily in book land. And, it’s a different sort of mental space that one has to, I think, plunge in to. Not that I’m speaking negatively about journalism, obviously, it’s a discipline which has its charms, and its companionship, and its social point, however, the aim of a journalist is to get to the bottom of things, the aim of the writer is somehow not to assume that there is a simple and reductive key to the whole cosmos. And you probably would do well to put some distance one activity and the other.

So, I don’t find it easy to go from one to the other. And in my writing life, my way is really to spend quite some time doing not very much before working up to that sort of pitch of despair, unhappiness, uneasiness where it becomes more painful not to write than to write. And then, you know, I write and in the technical sense, my way is in a writing phase, and I might write, you know, for a month or six months at a stretch. I would, you know, like every other writer, get up early in the morning, not talk to anyone, work for four hours, five hours, realise when the energy is broken. Stop, go away, and do something else.

And, it’s become my way in recent times, I write in long hand, I then put it through a filter and type it out in the afternoon. It makes for quite a long and difficult day, because you’ve got your first four or five hours and then another hour of disappointment and self-loathing when you see what you’ve actually written. And so then you’ve got, not only your very early draft, if you’ve actually had any success at the table at all, but also your first translation, first setting. And then you can go on later. See, that’s the sort of pure technical side of it.

And the other issue, which means a great deal to me, it may not be of direct interest to you, is posture, which I’m happy to talk about.

Oh. Okay, posture. Posture is always of interest to people who sit at a desk all day, I’m sure.

Is that, that physical strength and fitness something that’s really important to you?

Well, I thought it might be a useful thing to pass on. I find it quite an intriguing approach to stand, to write. And, I gather this is actually more widespread than you might imagine. Philip Roth, for example, is a stander.

Maybe that shows up in his work. But, indeed there is a little small culture of standing writers. And on websites, unsurprisingly, there’s a sub-culture of standing writer websites, and you can nowadays buy a pulpit from DX sessioned American churches, because America’s become so unreligious, that there are many, many pulpits going cheap. The pulpit is the ideal thing at which to write, because your posture is up, your muscles are held in the correct position, and your –

Everything’s where it should be –?

– grip… You’re exactly right, so you can adjust the pulpit to your height. And I found this was, and I don’t actually have a pulpit, but I do find that these boring physical aspects of the writing life are quite significant, trifling as it might seem.

Well, maybe not. Aside from trying the standing and writing, do you have any other advice for budding writers?

Be sure this is what you need to do, and be careful what you wish for, because if you wish it, with all of your being beyond everything else, it is likely to come true.

OK, that’s excellent. Thank you so much for coming to talk to us, and good luck with Belomor.

Thank you.

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