The big one took its time to ma­ture into an epic

Matthew Con­don is be­tween a rock and a hard place, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Sorensen

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’

Pic­ture: Pa­trick Hamil­ton

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