For those unfamiliar with your fiction, how would you describe it?
Rotten Gods is a political thriller, with a dash of adventure and romance.
I aim for a vivid, clear prose writing style, using specific detail from thorough research to bring a scene to life. I want to immerse the reader in a situation, often an exotic one, to such an extent that they can see, feel and even smell it. Visiting locations is very important to me.
I like action, conflict, dire personal choices. Sending characters out on a high wire over a dizzying height and sawing through the strands …
At the same time, however, my agent once commented that my characters tend to strive for the moral high ground, and to me a novel needs to contribute something. It has to have a pulsing, spine-tingling story, but also some higher value. That is what I reach for.
According to your author website, you have qualifications in Education, Aquatic Science, and Global Terrorism, but you also dreamed of being a writer from a young age. How did this all fit together and lead to the recent publication of your debut novel, Rotten Gods, by HarperCollins?
Edgar Rice Burroughs once wrote that until he was thirty-five, when he started writing, he was a failure at everything. He was actually in the business of selling pencil sharpeners when he wrote his first novel. I know exactly what he’s talking about. Like many writers, I have had a number of different occupations and never quite fitted into any role.
That’s not to say I haven’t had many amazing and enjoyable experiences through my work. I’ve taught Indigenous adults and children on remote Northern Territory communities, consulted with big business in the skyscrapers of Little Collins Street, Melbourne, managed rural enterprises, travelled Australia and the world, meeting some incredible people along the way.
I believe that life experience helps a writer tremendously, and the observation of human nature can be at its keenest in the workplace.
I was told as a school student that I could be a writer. I wrote better stories than the other kids and was a voracious reader. I had grown up with the belief that one day I would be an author of novels. Not non-fiction, memoirs, plays or film scripts, but novels.
When I started to write I expected instant success. It confused me when breaking through was so damn hard; that even my best wasn’t good enough. I realised that there are tens of thousands of people who have the tools to write novels, and that only the very best and hardest workers can make a career of it. Then followed a ten year slog in which I took every rejection as a spur to get better. I got an agent after five, then finally the magic moment when HarperCollins welcomed me into the fold.
How are you finding the experience of having your first novel published, and is there a highlight moment that especially stands out?
Well I love it, of course. Yet, it’s not all champagne and expensive lunches. Before you are published you tend to see publication as something akin to reaching a higher spiritual plane. It’s not like that at all. It’s tremendously exciting but having a contract means tighter, more focussed work. No time for those long short stories that come to mind occasionally, or to flit from manuscript to manuscript.
There is also a feeling of being exposed. Up until this moment your work has been a private thing, and you were able to be selective about who got to read it. Now everyone has a chance to read your little musings. Old rivals, critics, everyone. You are suddenly one of those poppies who has dared to poke its blossom clear of the pack.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I enjoy many genres, and can get as absorbed as the next person in literary fiction. However, I have always loved a kind of adventure fiction that started with H. Ryder Haggard’s African stories and then became part of the explosion in the ‘thriller’ genre through the second half of the twentieth century. I did love some of Wilbur Smith’s early books. Ion Iedress put down some good Aussie stories, though the social context can seem dated today. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a feast of a book, and a masterclass in characterisation.
James Michener’s books always stirred me. The Covenant is one of my all-time favourites, but The Fires of Spring is a stirring work, bringing mid twentieth century America to life. I have also read and enjoyed Ian Fleming, Jack Higgins, Stephen King, Colleen McCullough, Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley, Jon Cleary, early Bryce Courtenay, Morris West and Leon Uris. The latter, in some ways, best illuminates the kind of writer I want to be.
In literary fiction I particularly love F Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is fantastic. I devoured Peter Carey’s early books. I also like Anne Tyler, Doris Lessing and Kate Grenville. Current favourites are Favel Parrett, Chris Cleave, Chris Currie and Chris Womersley.
Who is one of your favourite characters from written fiction, and what makes that character so appealing to you as a reader?
Little Bee from Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand is a fantastic character. It’s incredible that an Englishman created her. She became real to me, and it was only after I finished that I started analysing just how brilliantly she was made.
I was once totally in love with Ayla from Jean M Auel’s Earth’s Children series. Such a clever girl! All those secret healing herbs, new ways of catching food, and yet she had her own insecurities and knew nothing about social interaction. I haven’t yet read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I doubt it’s any raunchier than when Ayla got together with Jondalar!
Jack Higgins had a great character; Martin Fallon in A Prayer for the Dying. Ex IRA, he had mined a road to blow up a British Saracen armoured car. A school bus blundered along at the wrong time and got destroyed instead. Fallon was the ultimate outsider. Wanted by the police and an IRA death squad, he encapsulated everything that was tragic about Northern Ireland.
Rotten Gods is set in Dubai and features characters from various countries, such as Australia, Somalia, the UK. What were some of the joys or challenges of depicting such a multinational mix of characters?
There are joys and challenges in all characters. The challenges are compounded when there are both language and extreme economic differences. In poor nations a person’s waking concerns are often more closely related to the basics than in more affluent places: Food, shelter, personal safety.
As anyone who has worked in a multinational workplace can tell you, there are some very interesting dynamics when cultures collide. For example Africans often find Australian accents hard to understand but have no such problem with Americans. Some cultures see nothing wrong with trumpeting your own strengths, while others, particularly the English, find personal boasting repugnant. Some cultures say please and sorry, some almost never do.
If you could bring one person back from the dead for a day for the sole purpose of discussing writing fiction, who would you choose and why?
Robert Graves. A scholar/author in the old school, multilingual, a writer who took endless pains with his work. I loved his books, particularly Claudius the God and Count Belisarius. His poem, The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers, offers more good sense to writers of fiction than many writing books I’ve seen of many hundreds of pages.
What advice or message do you have for writers currently hoping to get their first novel published with a major publisher?
One thing will never change whether you’re published or not published. You have to write. If the writing itself doesn’t thrill you, if it doesn’t make you complete, then give it up, because it’s all about the writing.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I have two more books in my contract. I have just submitted a second draft of the second, tentatively titled The Savage Tide, to my editor and she seems to love it. I’m also half way through a first draft of the third. Assuming they are successful I hope to write and publish many more books with HarperCollins in the future!
Greg Barron’s author website: www.gregbarron.com
The Australian Literature Review