"GETTING irony" has been his biggest cultural adjustment, says the six-year Australian-resident American author Jack Dann. And learning the national jokes. "On a car trip recently, I asked the roadside garage attendant where the toilet was. And he said 'you'll need a compass and a cut lunch'. And everyone fell around laughing except straight man Jack I had no idea what he meant. But I'm learning quick." Learning too that where "Americans look inward, Australians constantly look out and that's got to be positive, especially for a writer."
New York State born in 1945, he grew up in Johnson City. His father was an attorney and judge, his mother a woman with an adventurous attitude to life (at 89, she's "still wearing mini-skirts and driving a car the size of half a city block"), his younger brother ("the sane one") became an Alabama psychologist. Dann himself "was a troublesome child in a very small town who in my early teens travelled with a gang. There was difficulty when some members exploded fireworks and people got hurt I was given the choice of reform school or military academy, which is how come I learnt useful life knowledge like how to strip and reassemble an M-1 blindfolded."
It was a feeder school for West Point, but after two years "I was so de-militarised that a military career was never an option." He thought theatre before his study in NY City was interrupted by a botched appendectomy. In hospital with peritonitis, he was given a 5 per cent chance of survival and "put in a ward with Mafiosi survivors of a gang shoot-out they looked after me ("hey kid, ya gotta take ya medicine and pull through" he Brandos). Thinking I was not going to survive, I made a deal with myself that if I did pull through, I'd always follow my own choices. The rest of my life has felt like a second chance, a freebie."
Since then he has lived, he says, "very hard. If I could get an extra 100 years to explore, study medicine, be an astronaut, do the thousand things I want to, I'd be very happy. We all have regrets although I have few sounds like a song lyric but in my 50s I feel I'm living faster than most 20-year-olds. When people look at me, they see this grey-haired chairman of the board type, but really I'm just a 14-year-old in boxer shorts playing at being a pirate and winging it."
Healed, he settled in up-state Binghampton, graduated, started writing short stories, became "as tied to a region as anyone could be". But like "an old hippy who keeps stumbling into things", the Hermit of Binghamton (as friends called him) also found a peripatetic niche in "the hustle of corporate life". He created businesses (advertising, cable, insurance etc), "turned them into entities", became a high-flying commercial gun-for-hire. Yet his focus, his "sense of self, was always to write. The other stuff was on the side. I'm identified as an sf writer but I've been more of a speculative writer critics have trouble categorising what I do."
What he does with compulsive urgency is write inventively. And edit. And anthologise. A multiple award-winner (Nebula, Australian Aurealis and Premios Gilgamés de Narrativa Fantastica awards among many), his publication career began in 1974 with an anthology of Jewish fantasy and now stands at 50 books, including such lauded works as Junction, Starhiker, The Man Who Melted and The Memory Cathedral. His work has drawn comparisons of the Borges, Dahl, Lewis Carroll, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick kind.
First married at 38 "when I still felt too young for such a step'', he was by the early '90s separated, "jaded and too experienced for anything other than throwing myself completely into writing". But in 1996 his life "suddenly turned upside-down". At a conference in San Francisco he met university lecturer/writer Janeen Webb. "It was love at first sight. I didn't believe such a thing was possible, but three months later I'd sold up in Binghampton and had moved to Melbourne."
Australia has been a liberation "in so many ways not the least because I stopped giving into corporate temptation. I'd always enjoyed the adrenalin, couldn't resist commissions but that diverts you from the creative work so now I retain business interests in the US but I've given up starting up businesses, no matter how tempting the opportunity." Coming here also clarified what "my friend, cyperpunk innovator and Canadian resident William Gibson, told me: 'Everyone should be an expat.' I now have more of a presence in the US than I had when I was living there."
That presence has increased with his latest book, the Jerzy Kosinski meets Mark Twainish American civil war novel, The Silent (Flamingo, 287pp, $22.95). Tough, allusive, engaging and revealing, it has a magic realist edge yet is more real than most history texts. "Everything is taken from original sources, and the tools and craft learnt from sf were invaluable in determining how that historic world was different. In sf, you create a new world where time and the landscape become characters, but most American civil war literature read like costume dramas. How people then sensed and understood what was happening around them was profoundly different from how we understand our world. I determined to inhabit that sensibility, to place myself in that time through research and through a year spent revisiting all the sites."
In the Shenandoah Valley, he "kept hearing whispers and, believe me, I'm not really crazy as if the character I was creating [the 14-year-old traumatised, "feral" Mundy McDowell] had become real. His voice was so strong and authentic I just had to accept it. It determined the first person structure of the book as well. In a way that's the job of the writer, to operate as if in 'a waking dream'. Yet I knew virtually nothing about the civil war when I started. And I made it difficult by being a 'Yankee' writing from a southern perspective, in a southern voice. I learnt to look through Mundy's eyes, and it became like double vision." With noticeably singular success.
The Silent is an extraordinary achievement, more 'extrapolative fiction' than speculative "in this cloistered room where I work, you get to play god in a very constrained way, with what you've learned as the characters guide you - they come up with the unexpected, demand you follow them, resist your efforts at control. To write successfully, you need some sense of control but you must be able to cede it at times to your subconscious, to allow the 'art' to stretch beyond itself. That can be uncomfortable when it exposes truths; but then that's also its value." And that's the truth.
This article appeared in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999
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