The big one took its time to mature into an epic
Matthew Condon is between a rock and a hard place, writes
IF he hadn’t been a journalist as well as a novelist for the past quarter century, he probably wouldn’t have had to tolerate the sometimes merry, sometimes nasty attacks of his fellow journalists. Writing books about politics or history is fine, but who does he think he is, writing novels? ‘‘ Here comes F. Scott Fitzgerald’’ was one gibe he heard in the newsroom, and he’s still smarting from the more vicious and personal attacks he’s been subjected to in print.
But if he hadn’t worked as a journalist, he may never have come face to face with the man who presented him with the story of a lifetime, the idea that Condon turned into his first big and ambitious book, The Trout Opera.
While working in Sydney in 1996, he was sent to the high country of the Monaro to write a feature on the sorry state of the once great Snowy River.
And it was right at the end of the time he and his photographer spent there, talking to locals and staring down at the choked trickle of the famous watercourse, that he happened to hear about Ray Reid.
‘‘ You want to know about the history of these parts?’’ the locals said. ‘‘ You’d better go see Ray.’’ It took only a 20- minute visit with an old man, living alone in a rough house with an earthen floor, out in the godforsaken bush near Dalgety, almost a ghost town, for Condon to realise he had his next novel: and not just any novel but an epic about the life of a man within the life of a nation and what makes both meaningful.
‘‘ It was like I knew all of Wilfred’s life immediately,’’ Condon says of the character who grew out of that brief encounter with Reid. ‘‘ That’s the first time that’s happened.’’ Seized by the resolution that he would write a novel about just such a man, Condon returned to Sydney, little knowing it would take 10 years for that book to appear.
‘‘ While I was toying with the idea of the life of a man who had never left the place he was born in, I thought, could he experience a century of Australian history by not moving? That was the initial premise.’’
Years later, when he was well into the research for his novel, Condon revisited Reid’s house, but the old man had died.
Coincidentally, Condon’s hard- working grandmother had also died that year, and he found himself connecting the two events.
‘‘ I was thinking how we neglect old people, shove them aside. I wanted to write about romance and older people, and all these ideas started rolling around together.
‘‘ Ray had sparked an interest in a character and it rolled out from there, this tiny little ghost town that was once planned to be the capital of Australia, which once had so much life.
‘‘ Then I wanted to throw a young life against that old one, see what emerged, see if that worked. I was thinking about this at the time when there was the fuss of the build- up to the Olympics, and I thought, ‘ There’s got to be something in this, how can I make this work?’ ’’
The answer to that question took its own sweet time, but Condon was prepared to wait.
It was partly a matter of life getting in the way, as it does, partly a matter of relearning his craft, regaining the confidence that had launched him, very young, into a writing career.
Condon was born in Brisbane in 1962 and went to primary and high school there until the family moved to the Gold Coast when he was 14, midway through the school year. ‘‘ It was a huge culture shock,’’ Condon says. ‘‘ I was the only kid in long pants. They all wore shorts and went surfing at lunchtime, coming back to class with their hair dripping saltwater. It was chaos.’’
The Gold Coast would later figure in Condon’s writing. A Night at the Pink Poodle is among the novels that Queenslanders recognise as part of the genre of ambivalent memorial to a not- quite- fading tawdry image.
And Condon’s early journalism, dating from the time he became a cadet on The Gold Coast Bulletin , is remembered for bringing a stylish and shrewd flair to the usually mundane descriptions of the burgeoning surf ’ n’ shopping mecca. He’s always written, he says, always intended to write, but it had taken him a while, after he completed a degree in journalism and literature at the University of Queensland, to land that job at the Bulletin .
He’d spent an interim year pumping petrol at his father’s car dealership on the Gold Coast, and that’s where he wrote, and rewrote, the manuscript that would become The Motorcycle Cafe .
‘‘ I started it when I was 21, and I had no idea of publication,’’ Condon says.
‘‘ When I came to write The Trout Opera, I think I wanted to be back in that position, when I had no expectations and people had no expectations of me. It was the freest time of all.’’
The Motorcycle Cafe made people sit up and take notice.
A couple of fragments from it had first appeared in a literary magazine. An alert editor at University of Queensland Press noticed the writer’s skill and asked Condon whether he had written anything else in that vein.
By the time The Motorcycle Cafe appeared in 1988, Condon had moved to the big smoke, Sydney, which all ambitious young writers considered the place to be if they were to get ahead in the competitive, masculine world of journalism.
It was at the launch of The Motorcycle Cafe in a little restaurant in inner- Sydney Balmain that he met Frank Moorhouse, a thrill for the aspiring young writer.
‘‘ I’d last seen Frank in person — and it’s hard to believe these days this actually happened — in 1980, when Michael Wilding, Peter Carey, Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse were on tour together,’’ Condon recalls.
‘‘ There they were, the four of them, walking across the court at the University of Queens- land, my Australian writing heroes. ‘‘ And then, years later, here ( Moorhouse) was at the bar, drinking whisky at the launch of my book. He has always been a great supporter of young authors.’’
Condon’s generation — which includes Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Nick Earls and Venero Armanno — were the first wave to benefit from the push to publish more young Australian writers generated by the success of The Australian / Vogel Award.
But Condon believes his path may have been muddied somewhat by those same enthusiasms.
‘‘ It’s taken me 20- odd years to understand writing is a bloody hard job,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s not easy to move forward and still maintain the standard of quality. People think they’re just going to bowl in and that’s it for the next 40 years, but you can’t stop working at it.
‘‘ I succumbed to the idea I had to get books out, bang bang bang. A novel like Pink Poodle was a great idea, looking at the Gold Coast, but maybe I needed to wait a couple of years to get it right.
‘‘ I was reacting to what publishers expected of me, so I drifted far from myself as a writer. I involved myself in that story, and in The Lulu Magnet ( 1996), thinking what I did was important, and that was wrong.’’
With The Trout Opera , Condon says he’s got a distance on the characters, but that doesn’t mean he cares less.
‘‘ For the first time in my writing career, I felt so close to these characters, and at the same time, I felt completely removed, and I think that’s what writing is.
‘‘ This is the first novel where the characters have really lived for me, and it’s pretty scary.’’
At 570 pages and 70 chapters, there was always the attendant risk, he says, that he had ‘‘ sailed so far from the shore that you can lose sight of what you’re doing’’.
The strands of the story — which start very far apart as characters as diverse as a late- night radio host and a dying cross- dressing drug dealer are introduced and set on a collision path with Australia’s so- called defining moment, the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony — must bind together ‘‘ like a rope’’, Condon says. It’s that rope that keeps him tethered to the shore.
‘‘ What I was asking over and over,’’ he says, ‘‘ was two questions: Who are we and how have we changed? And what constitutes a meaningful life? I concluded that Wilfred has as rich a life as anyone because he was in touch with important things: the landscape, old- fashioned manual labour and hard work, his family, his friends, the community.
‘‘ People might say that guy wasted his life, but I think he lived an enormously rich life.
‘‘ Parallel that with today’s society — where there’s this need for instantaneous gratification, where there’s the loss of community and neighbourhood cohesion — and ask: How did we get from there to here?
‘‘ Maybe the community has gone a bit mad.’’
Toughing it out: Matthew Condon says it took him 20 years to understand writing is a bloody hard job’