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Interview

David Malouf on Johnno and writing

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips.For this issue I went along to see David Malouf speak at the Brisbane Festival.Writers might pick up a few tips from this story.Also I emailed Simon Singh, particle physicist turned broadcaster and science writer, about his writing methods.His entertaining books on science and mathematics include The Code Book, Big Bang, and Fermat’s Last Theorem.So read on.

An audience member at the recent Brisbane Festival told David Malouf they found growing up in Brisbane boring, and nothing like the Brisbane in Mr Malouf’s books like Johnno (1975).

“I suspect you were just not watching closely enough,” Mr Malouf said.

David Malouf saw Brisbane as exotic.

“As long as you live in a place, you take it for granted this is the way the world is,” he said.

He said if you’d always lived in Brisbane you wouldn’t think anything was different about the moisture in the air, the quality of light, life “under the house”, the storms in the afternoon, and rain on the tin roof at night.

But while teaching in England, living in Birkenhead where he wrote his first novel Johnno (1975), it was obvious how different Brisbane was.

Living in such a different place, he said, you could realize that where you came from was exotic.

All you had to do was get to a point where you could see that.

David Malouf has a good eye for the Brisbane image, too.

At a Brisbane Poetry Festival once, I heard David Malouf talking about how Brisbane was a place where trucks towed away Queenslanders (large, wooden, colonial houses) in the middle of the night.

It’s a fairly common sight in Brisbane, but not many people would have latched onto it as an image, or maybe even a symbol, of the city.

David Malouf’s novel Johnno was recently adapted for a stage play, and he spoke about the novel, the play, and writing in general, at the Speigeltent in King George Square, Brisbane, for the Brisbane Festival, on Thursday afternoon, July 20.

Johnno is full of images from 1940s and 50s Brisbane, like the tramways, brothels and gardens.

In Johnno, the semi-autobiographical narrator Dante is going through his recently-deceased father’s belongings when he finds a photo of Johnno – a friend from Brisbane Grammar School.

This starts a reminiscence about their friendship and Brisbane.

Mr Malouf based Johnno on a school friend who died in 1962.

Mr Malouf spent about 10 years trying to write the novel, finishing the manuscript in 1972.

Other David Malouf novels include The Great World (1990), about two Australians experiencing two world wars including imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Remembering Babylon (1993), short-listed for the Booker Prize, is set in a community of Scottish immigrant farmers in 1850s northern Queensland, into which arrives a white boy raised by Aborigines.

Mr Malouf has also written books of poetry and short stories, and libretti for three operas, including Voss, an adaptation of a novel by Patrick White.

At the Brisbane Festival he made some interesting points about writers and writing, and I’ve listed a few of them.

He said he remembered riding on trams as a child in Brisbane and being told by his mother to stop staring at people.

He said children were absolutely puzzled by the world, and would stare and eavesdrop, trying to make sense of it.

Writers were people who had retained this habit.

He said that by observing other people and things, writers were trying to learn something about themselves, and not about what they were looking at.
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