The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - VEN­ERO AR­MANNO

ONE of the ques­tions read­ers of­ten ask writ­ers is, where do you get your ideas? Ven­ero Ar­manno can an­swer with un­usual pre­ci­sion where he got the idea for his most re­cent novel, The Dirty Beat . It was at the funeral of a friend he hadn’t seen for a quar­ter of a cen­tury.

When Ar­manno was a teenager, liv­ing with his Si­cil­ian mi­grant par­ents in Bris­bane, he dreamed of be­ing a rock mu­si­cian. He could play a bit of gui­tar; not par­tic­u­larly well since his par­ents had re­sisted his en­treaties for mu­sic lessons, fear­ing he would be dis­tracted from his stud­ies. Veny was go­ing to get a real job and be a lawyer or a psy­chol­o­gist.

But, alone in his room, he was lis­ten­ing to Deep Pur­ple and Led Zep­pelin and mak­ing up songs like the ones he heard.

‘‘ At the same time as I was writ­ing my first short sto­ries, I was writ­ing songs, hun­dreds of them,’’ Ar­manno says. ‘‘ They were the usual thing: teenage angst; apoca­lyp­tic.’’

In his sec­ond year at the Univer­sity of Queens­land, he de­cided he needed a band. Putting an ad in the lo­cal pa­per, he trawled for mu­si­cians, but found no likely lads un­til fi­nally Cyril and his mates called him up.

‘‘ They were a bit older, al­ready do­ing gigs, but they had lost their singer.’’

The band was called Para­dox, but don’t go look­ing for any men­tion of them in the thick and rich an­nals of Bris­bane rock. The para­dox was that this band liked to play to­gether but didn’t much like per­form­ing, at least not un­til they’d de­vel­oped their sound. Then, they hoped and even half- be­lieved, the world would hear some­thing mirac­u­lous.

Cyril, the drum­mer, would con­nect in­tensely with the songs Ar­manno had writ­ten, turn­ing his sim­ple ideas into full- blooded thumpers that sounded pretty good, de­spite the fact the singer ( ac­cord­ing to Veny) wasn’t quite up to scratch. When the band broke up af­ter four or five years, un­able to sus­tain the con­nec­tion as their lives went off in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, Ar­manno felt the loss sharply.

He was re­mem­ber­ing that pain of dis­il­lu­sion­ment 25 years later as he stood be­fore Cyril’s cof­fin. Cyril, a man just a cou­ple of years older than 48- year- old Ar­manno, had suf­fered a heart at­tack, and a phone call out of the blue from one of the other for­mer band mem­bers gath­ered Para­dox to­gether again for the funeral.

‘‘ I was look­ing at Cyril’s cof­fin, think­ing what a waste, and the sit­u­a­tion was also ter­ri­bly con­fronting,’’ Ar­manno says.

‘‘ There were peo­ple there I hadn’t seen in 25 years, and time is cruel. Some of them I couldn’t recog­nise. I couldn’t see the young man or wo­man they had been. I thought, this is what hap­pens to the rock ’ n’ roll dream when it goes wrong. But I also thought about Cyril and how he was one of the best drum­mers I ever saw. He gave us the kind of beat we needed. He gave us a re­ally great dirty beat.’’

A dirty beat, he ex­plains, is not crisp, not that sharp, clean rat- a- tat that sounds like bub­blegum pop­ping. A dirty beat is a sleazy slid­ing sound, ‘‘ slow and sexy, slinky and grimy’’. The mo­ment he heard the words in his head, that day at the funeral, Ar­manno was seized by an idea for a story. Within weeks, he would have the first draft of a new novel.

This is most un­usual for the writer. One of his nov­els, The Vol­cano , took 10 years to com­plete and none of his other six books had the al­most un­can­nily easy tran­si­tion to the page that he found with The Dirty Beat . This one, he be­lieves, came gush­ing out of him as though the two words, dirty beat, had opened a dam he’d closed up all those years ago, when he turned away from Para­dox.

‘‘ It came out so fast be­cause be­hind it was 25 years of not talk­ing about it, of not want­ing to con­front the thing,’’ Ar­manno says.

‘‘ We had ac­tu­ally thought we were build­ing some­thing and when it be­came ap­par­ent we


Big break: Get­ting my first pub­lish­ing con­tract af­ter 14 years of try­ing, with 10 un­pub­lished ( and un­pub­lish­able!) nov­els. Ca­reer high­light: Win­ning the Queens­land Pre­mier’s Best Aus­tralian Fiction Lit­er­ary Award for The Vol­cano in 2002. Ca­reer low­light: ‘‘ Sure thing’’ film adap­ta­tions of five of my books all fall­ing over at roughly the same time. Favourite quote: I’m para­phras­ing, but V. S. Naipaul said the writer’s ideal should be to trans­form the essence of events or life into fiction. Guilty plea­sure: Vinyl records. weren’t get­ting any­where it hurt so much. We had tried hard with that creative thing, and I gen­uinely loved the guys, but af­ter the end of the band I didn’t see them again. I don’t think I could face it, so I had to deny it all.’’

Now the book is writ­ten, Ar­manno sees a par­al­lel be­tween his youth­ful de­sires and his even­tual ca­reer as a nov­el­ist. The band, he says, pre­fig­ured his writ­ing ca­reer: ‘‘ We liked the cre­ation of it but weren’t all that keen go­ing out to do all the pub­lic re­la­tions stuff. And so that band was like this ex­ten­sion of me, what I went on to do as a nov­el­ist.’’

The Dirty Beat is not the story of Cyril and the band, al­though there are par­al­lels. At book’s open­ing a drum­mer lies in his cof­fin, dead from a heart at­tack, and it’s through his eyes that we see the lives of a band of young men yearn­ing for the mu­si­cal dream. It’s the feel­ing of be­ing young and hope­ful, young and vi­tal, young and in love, that Ar­manno wants to cap­ture in his novel. The mu­sic, more jazzy than the hard rock that is his own taste, pro­vides more than a plot de­vice; it’s part of the tone and even the rhythms of his story. ‘‘ Lis­ten­ing to mu­sic ef­fects the writ­ing 100 per cent,’’ Ar­manno says. ‘‘ Usu­ally, when I’m writ­ing a book, I know the mu­sic ( that) ac­com­pa­nies it, not in the sense that, if there were a film, this would be the sound­track. What I mean is that there is a mood in the book that is en­com­passed in a par­tic­u­lar song.’’

Th­ese days Ar­manno lis­tens to much the same mu­sic as he did when he was a lad just start­ing out on the path that would even­tu­ally lead him back to the univer­sity, as a teacher. When he leaves his home in a leafy outer sub­urb of Bris­bane to head to the Univer­sity of Queens­land, where he is head of creative writ­ing, his is the loud­est car on the road, he says.

He’s a lit­tle frus­trated that, al­though he has to nur­ture young writ­ers with firm ad­vice about plan­ning and plot de­vel­op­ment, his own books tend to write them­selves.

‘‘ The one I’m writ­ing now, which was orig­i­nally to be called God Bless but now is called Black Moun­tain , I thought it was one kind of story when I started and now it’s turn­ing out com­pletely and ut­terly dif­fer­ent,’’ he says. ‘‘ But it’s 100 times bet­ter. In a way, the book found its own story and I’m happy just to go along with it. You lead, I’ll fol­low, no prob­lem.

‘‘ Some­times, and this is true for young writ­ers, you just need to let go a bit, let the cre­ativ­ity flow.’’ The Dirty Beat by Ven­ero Ar­manno is pub­lished by Univer­sity of Queens­land Press.

Pic­ture: Pa­trick Hamil­ton

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