T HE ROUGH-CAST DRIVEWAY that his Body Surfers TV royalties paid for is a steep introduction to Drewedom. The real killer, though, is the 90 wooden steps above that. By the time the house is reached, you're vowing to give up smoking, eat right, take up jogging. Robert Drewe regards my city-boy melt-down with Elysian amusement. "Some people can't talk for 15 minutes after they arrive," he consoles, steering my collapse towards a fireside sofa. Only 15 minutes, I think - he must mix with bloody Olympic athletes ...
Drewe and his wife, writer Candida Baker, bought the house because "basically it was the first we could afford closest to Sydney". They also liked the area. And why not? The house, wood and glass with Scandanavian overtones, squats on a sharp crest, with tree-framed panoramas to east and west of boats anchored in postcard-perfect bays. North and south, bush laps at the building. It's an urbanite's dream of what a shack up the coast should be. In a curious way, it could also be construed as an apt symbol of Drewe's own place in the literary scheme of things.
I first met Drewe in January at a Sydney Writers Festival reading, although I already knew his work well and had seen him at many literary functions over the years. That day, he had been ebullient, brandishing his manuscript like a trophy from the stage. He'd received it from the printers that morning, and his euphoria was tangible, his 53-year-old's boyish enthusiasm disarming the audience. Later, sharing champagne with friends after the reading, he'd been expansive, wry, amused and amusing. Astute anecdotes had a droll edge. But with the book's launch imminent and the realities of the pr trail manifest, he had become increasingly edgy. Some authors thrive on the attention, that Warholian plucking from solitary to spotlight; others nurture suspicion. There's too much at stake.
Negotiations over our meeting had at times resembled a complicated gavotte of uncertainty. Nothing personal, he assured me when we finally got together at a publisher-brokered, pre-interviews round-table. It's just that he had been burned in the past by people "antagonistic to my books because they were journalists writing about an ex-journalist" who'd got above himself. Or that they were writing from an agenda. (The irony here, of course, is that at an Adelaide Writers Festival, Drewe was cited by one disgruntled author as an example of journalists coming to literature and getting an easy run from their mates in the press. That impressed Drewe not at all.)
It's true he did not endear himself to former colleagues when he first made the literary leap by insisting on defining himself thereafter as "Robert Drewe, journalist and writer". It was seen by some as a distinct slight, a put down with an airs-and-graces tinge. That was 20-odd years ago, and the misconception was more to do with Drewe's own determination/desperation to succeed in literature than a repudiation of peers.
"It was never a matter of deciding journalism wasn't writing," he tells me now as he struggles to balance an armful of broken-up, broken-down garden furniture he's using as firewood against the banging door letting in the rain and letting out his mini-horselike German short-haired pointer, Ella. "It's just that I was desperate to determine what I was going to write. It was a switch in control. I'd ceased to be satisfied with being a reactor to things rather than the initiator. And living in a country with not many people, it had begun to feel like I'd interviewed everyone three or four times."
It's an old war now, but undercurrents linger. He's never shucked the daily habit of cover-to-covering the papers before beginning a day's work, and he still follows media mutations and gossip with an insider's fervour. "I really like journalism," he reiterates later, almost as a confidential aside. "My whole way of thinking was, in a sense, trained by that. But there came a point when cynicism for its own sake ... look, it's a closed culture, like the police force, and outsiders are regarded suspiciously. That gets tiring - people are not always hiding something, sometimes things really are as they are. A sensitive person can tell the difference. And it really pisses me off that even today in Australia, striving for excellence is seen to be pretentious, that trying to do really good work is considered as acting beyond your station."
He'd been a hotshot hack who'd risen from teenage cadet at The West Australian to 21-year-old Sydney bureau chief for The Age to literary editor at The Australian before he switched from facts to fiction. (Twice winner of Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism, he's never fully divorced himself from the profession: between books and plays, he's had several returns to magazines and papers and was recently a film critic for the Sydney Morning Herald.) "I can pin it down to the actual second: I was in a park playing with my then little boys and I was struck by a feeling - it sounds bizarre in the retelling - that I had to stop the journalism part of my life and write novels. I was actually swept by an emotion almost sexual ('this,' he tells me with a wry delivery, 'was at a time when one was swept by sexual feelings. Or, rather, more swept'). I knew physically, psychologically, absolutely that I had to be a writer. And I also knew I wouldn't let anything stand in my way."
S ince The Savage Crows, his first novel in 1976, Drewe's output has not been an outpouring. He has never wavered in self-belief nor in focus, whether working on fiction or plays or scripts, yet his subsequent two novels, one novella, two collections of short stories and an anthology have been judged by many as too sparse by half. That's marketers' talk for brand identification and assembly-line commodity equalling economic happiness. It's also fallacious - Jane Austen, for instance, produced just six novels in her career.
For Drewe, adroitness has probably been the biggest handicap. Each book has been psychologically and thematically diverse, pushing new boundaries. The trouble with that is that you never know what to expect, which dislodges easy-readers seeking Body Surfers II
... One thing became obvious when I canvassed widely among the literati. Every one with whom I spoke, including the usually most tart-tongued, had the same refrain. "Rob Drewe? A great bloke, a kind man, very generous, very dedicated." As a character reference, a resounding endorsement. But grist for a profiler's millstone? And the few who had (mild) grievances would not go on record.
One rival publisher, who wouldn't be named "because it's too small and unforgiving a scene to tread on toes", believes Drewe has "always been a fantastic commercial writer who's never quite come off in the big league. He was badly served by his publishers with Our Sunshine, for instance. Critics loved it, but readers thought it looked tacky - it didn't get the sales it deserved when he should have been making a breakthrough."
An academic mentioned that he thought Drewe was handicapped by identification with the 'Grant Generation' - those writers who came to prominence when Whitlam kickstarted the Literature Board. "Together with Rodney Hall, Frank Moorhouse, David Malouf and others, he was at the leading edge for a short period. They all promised a great deal but most had difficulty sustaining production. Only Malouf, Peter Carey and Helen Garner have really kicked on; the others have done the hard yards without real rewards. Mind you, any publisher would love to have him on their list."
And a literary critic who'd "rather not be identified because I would be mortified to upset him" believes Drewe has suffered flak because of others' false expectations. "In the early days of grant giving, he was one of the first to deliver a significant novel. The Savage Crows was so unexpectedly and terrifically polished. In a curious way, it broke new literary ground in defining Australianess - and the Australian voice and psyche - as a source for approachable literature. Then Body Surfers really excited the wider public. But while he continued to write consistently well, the market seemed to catch up then zoom by. There was a plethora of new Australian voices around, which only made the pressure greater."
But his longtime friend, Sydney academic Don Anderson, believes Drewe in fact suffers most from Australians not realising just how good he is. "Few people combine the traditional skills of journalism with such panache in storytelling and the creation of such effective characters. The only comparison I can think of is American Joan Didion."
H ow shall we do this, I ask, lulled by the hearty pasta he'd prepared for lunch and the accompanying bottle of red into disingenuousness. "I'm in your hands completely," he answers, equally disingenuous. Not so - for a man of 1000 interviews, on both sides of the questions, Drewe is no easy subject. Once the tape is running, watchfulness rides shotgun. It's as if every phrase is computer-checked before passing go; comments are carefully phrased, and if not exact enough, rephrased. "Rob's difficulty," one friend confides later, "is that he is very, very analytical. That, and his own media experience, make him preternaturally wary when he is called upon to perform. It's as if he's censoring himself - that's a shame because when he is relaxed, he's an excellent raconteur."
"This is a critical juncture in your career," I suggest by way of friendly fire. "Body Surfers captured popular imagination, Our Sunshine didn't but deserved to: the onus is upon you to produce the big one, to take the next step. Fair comment?" He gives me a sharpish look, then grins. "How can I say that? What I can say is that I have never spent more time or effort, or given this level of intensity to something before. It's the book I wanted it to be.
"Obviously you can't write with one eye on pushing the buttons for best sellerdom. You can't think, will this make me Malouf or Carey or sell lots of copies? If you do, you're fucked from the start. So much comes into it - luck, good marketing, a myriad things. Besides, a lot of people who have the fame you have alluded to I don't think are actually very good."
He has, he says done things he's prouder of than others, and some of the ones he's less proud of have sold better. "But that's just the way it goes. Strangely enough, my two best received books, critically and commercially, were both written very quickly." An ill omen for this one then, I tease. "Not at all," he retorts, not very amused.
Still, this book has been longer in the baking than any other he has written. Ten years from conception to execution, dating from his 1986 pilgrimage to ancestral Wiltshire and the serendipitous discovery both of the ancient craft of drowning (loosely speaking, the irrigation of rural lands by selective inundation) and the discovery that the first Drewe to reach Australia in 1848 was a young Baptist labourer who dabbled in it. After he returned to Australia, he did other books and projects.
"Life went on but in the way of novels I have done, other things suddenly started to fit in. You don't constructively go out to look for topics - things just start to occur to you and then in a strange alchemic way events happen that seem to fit. As a kid in WA I was fascinated by the engineer in chief who built the pipeline to the goldfields and designed Fremantle Harbour and was in charge of an area as big as central Europe. CY O'Connor, a fascinating almost operatic person who carried water uphill to the goldfields. Water appealed to me as another continuing dramatic motif, aqua vita ... over time all the elements coalesced.
"I decided to create a character who conveyed the European experience but who was tired of the old Europe and was seeking a new world. At the same time, going through a romantic phase in my own life, I was anxious to take a traditional romance - not a Mills and Boonish piece of pap - a bit further than usual: I wanted to give my heroes a difficult path that was historic, technical and physical and to write about areas of Australian life that are untapped. There's this heroic, foolhardy, apolitical, wrongheaded, romantic, fascinating but undiscussed edge to our history - like the WA gold rush where people battled typhoid and extreme physical difficulties and through that wrought a change in how we became who we are."
In a way, then, it's a variation on the usual Drewe drive of subverting and readdressing great Australian myths, this time with technology and sensuality added in. "Part of the reason for writing novels is to find out how it all fits together. The older I get, the more intrigued I am about the way things are, and the less I seem to know. I find that strangely encouraging.
"This is a big novel - I know the sort of things I want to read and am interested in, and I wrote this in a sense for people like me, whoever they are. I gave it my best shot: the big issues, relationships between men and women, between humans and the environment, the troubled relationships between generations, between fathers and daughters, for instance, and ... dogs that flap their ears as they spring into action," he adds as we are distracted by Emma racing to bark at some bush turkeys that have strolled into sight. "All the big issues," he laughs.
He's adamant he wants the book to be one of discovery, and is chary about discussing detail on the record "because it will lessen the surprise and dramatic effects. I will say that the elements are very central to it - I grew up in the west and knew no different, but when I went back there later I tried to imagine just what an alien experience it would have been for Europeans. It's so physically intrusive. At 13, for instance, I got meningitis - I'd grown up loving the white sand beaches, used to swim, was a lifesaver, but for five or six years after I recovered, if I walked along a white sand beach or saw fields of white daisies, I would get an instant headache, feel sick and vomit. It was solely to do with the glare of the environment. In any novel, you draw on your own experience then imagine that times ten ... which is what I did in trying to invade the mindset of a man and a woman arriving a century ago."
Invading the mindset is a key phrase. Drewe, more than most, is capable of seducing a reader into accepting a character's view as autobiographically accurate. To men at least, his female characters are strong, have verisimilitude, as if they were written by someone who unashamedly likes women. "I can't tell you how delighted I am to hear that, especially because a couple of testy women writers over the years have said that women are ciphers in my stories.
"I've never believed that for a second - I think that's part of the attack they give generally to male writers. I have always tried, to the extent of my imagination and knowledge, to get the women right. I've lived with women since I was 18, I've always been an observer of women and the way they behave. And I don't understand them at all, of course. But in my work I try to get that lack of understanding down, the honest limitations. "The women I find most attractive in real life are intelligent, bright, funny women, just like Candida in fact; bimbo-ness has never been as much a turn on as humour and intelligence. So I write of women who would attract me. In life, though, I'd much rather have lunch with a woman than go to the pub with the boys. No contest. I enjoy male banter and humour, but given my druthers I'd spend time with an amusing woman any day."
I t's time to touch on the funding facet. You seem to be a chief referee, I mention, when politicking and discussion over grants comes up ... It's a tentative cast, but he can't help rising to the lure. "In my 20 years of producing, any grant I've received has been followed by a book," he says with some feeling. "And in between times, I've gone back to journalism, supported families, got through all sorts of financial imbroglios. The thing is, if you're any good, you'll do anything you can to get the money to keep going. And if you are received internationally well, and I'm not talking the Chatswood Times but the TLS and the New York Times telling me I'm okay, then that helps form your opinion of yourself as a professional writer."
Then the trusty controller cuts in. It's difficult, he says quietly, to talk about yourself in this way, particularly given the Australian obsession with needing to be ultra humble at all times, "but I actually do feel I'm worthy of any grant I've had. In the local context, to win prizes (he collected an NBC Banjo Award in '87, a Commonwealth Literary prize in 1990, and is an habitual shortlistee for Premiers Awards, etc) or to receive critical acclaim internationally ... if that's not justification I don't really know what is."
We stare at a log which has slumped onto the hearth. Drewe has become contemplative. Suddenly he leans forward. "I wonder if it isn't time to shift all grant discussion off the agenda. In any other country it wouldn't even enter the conversation. But it does here. And that's because in Australia the funding system is of a different order because private enterprise pretends not to know about it. In the US, for instance, you could be a Nobel prizewinner and still exist on Ford or Rockefeller Foundation grants ... maybe we should be asking ourselves why journalists seem so fixated on this? They seem unaffected by other artistic grants but they are worried about writers getting grants ..."
B orn in Melbourne but raised in Perth where he went to school with "half of Australia's failed entrepreneurs", Drewe was the eldest of three. His father was an executive for Dunlop and a Baptist; "my mother came from a Catholic family and they brought us up as Presbyterians. That was hardly the middle ground but they were very strict about rationing pleasure. In fact they were very strict about most things - even though we were typical WA kids with blond hair, peeling noses and freckles we were told to go out in the sun at all times, and not to loiter around the house.
"We were allowed to go to the movies once a fortnight, for instance, which was the bane of my life. I loved the cinema but I only ever saw one episode of the serials they ran then and would miss the next. No matter what, they would never give in like we do to wheedling and cajoling." His father he remembers as changing from being benign to suddenly fierce - "I only recall going to anything with him twice - to see On the Beach and to watch Herb Elliott, a distant cousin, run a demonstration race; he never saw me run in an athletic carnival, for instance."
His mother died suddenly immediately after his first son was born; he had married at 18 "against both families' wishes - she was pregnant but in marrying we were acting as we had been brought up to act." The ghost of paternal distance and the circumstances of his mother's death mean, he says, that "I am very serious about being a good father. I am very close to all my kids, always have been both emotionally and physically." He has six from his three marriages, and made a point, he says, despite a propensity for travel of always living "close by all of them as they grew up. I've remained close friends with all my partners, which has made it easier to be civilised about the children."
H e has always specialised in precise texts of straightforward but expressive prose, tinged with traces of black humour. In literature, his world is one in which characters barely comprehend what is happening around them, where life and nature verge on the malevolent, where shards of sudden insight illuminate the confusion. One strength is an ability to pin down the fine detail of how people interact, socially and emotionally, to capture the nuance and undercurrents that exist beneath conversations. In The Drowner, he has added an extra dimension of sensuality to his work - it is both lush and pared to the basics, finessed just short of over-finessing. It repays perseverance through what is a laid-back opening.
"A lot of writing," he tells me as we settle back in a truceful afternoon, "is actually an amazing con game you play on yourself: you have to be confident you know best, even though part of you knows you don't. If not, you'd never do anything. Every part of the process is a means of bullshitting yourself that you know what you're doing. But if you can stick in and you have got it, you will prevail. And you also have to tell yourself that very few people famous for the right reasons have ever been truly popular in their own time. Most of the real heavies, the Flauberts and the like, were condemned by their illustrious colleagues. If it happened to them, why are we worried?"
Drewe, though, is far from unknown, even if he is not known well. Body Surfers was a genuine phenomenon, anchoring his name in the public mind, while in literary circles he has a reputation as a cause and effect man, someone identified with what's shaking on the scene, particularly in Sydney, a "networker extraordinaire" I was told. "Not so," he responds. "I'm actually not a good networker, it's just that if you're on the spot, time passes and you tend to know people. I do know a lot of people and am friendly with them, but I don't go to many events and I never work the phones. If anything, my friends tend not to be in the business - although I see Tim Winton and David Williamson and I'm good mates with (director) Ray Lawrence, (cartoonist) Bruce Petty and my publisher James Fraser. Then again, Australia is a small place and you can't help bumping into the same faces."
Despite his all-due-modesty demurrals, Drewe is more of a player than he acknowledges. He's relatively high-profile (his agent is Jill Hickson) and he's well abreast of what's going down. He's been associated more than peripherally with leftish causes, he's a regular on literary judging panels (most recently the NSW Premier's fiction awards), he's assessed grant applications for the AC, is a sought-after speaker at festivals. "You're asked to do it and you do as part of the spirit of putting something back in," he concedes, "but it's essentially time-wasting stuff ... I do quite enjoy the judging aspect - I've done the Vogels, things for young writers. I'm proud to have discovered Winton, for instance, and Brian Castro ... I get a charge out that."
T he day takes a philosophic turn as the dusk draws in. "You know, the only real satisfaction from writing is the one you get when it's over," he tells me. We're talking Brick Wall Syndrome? "Not exactly, but ..." Nature interrupts. Again. The rain has gone, the lorikeets have come, lined up on the balcony rail and squawking for a feed. "There is that terrific feeling when you've just begun something," he says as he wanders off in search of bird victuals, "when you're three weeks into a novel - that's the best time because your ambitions are not yet tested. You're still buoyed by the grand idea and not worn down by the necessity to get everything down. The most disappointing thing is always the huge gap between your intentions and ambitions and what you finally come up with. Whether its writing novels or plays or films, the difficulty is always in getting it within the limitations and boundaries of the form."
What about the belief that electronics has made the novel an irrelevant or dead artform anyway? "They've been pronouncing the last rites for 100 years. It is probably dead if you think of it in terms of a sensible financial career move, but in those terms it never lived." So it's essentially a Don Quixote profession? "Probably ... of the arts, it's possibly the stupidest in that you have all the financial worries without accruing any of the strange mystique that surrounds a painter, for instance. And there's always the unbelievable anxiety you suffer between a book coming out and those Saturday mornings you spend tossing the reviews across the room ..."
This time, I suspect, any tossing of reviews will probably be from elation. Whether stung by criticism of the Our Sunshine packaging or impelled to "reclaim the knight" after it looked as if Drewe was drifting from their ambit, his publishers have spared no expense with The Drowner. It's a bells-and-whistles hardback production, complete with evocative cover, embossed titling and pages rough-cut in the American style. It echoes the era of the novel's text, and smells of instant collectible.
Captain Ahab had his white whale; Australian publishers and writers have the Great Australian Novel. Both are equally elusive. At this stage of the year, though, there is always a perception (probably publisher-driven) that one book will take off to become (itals)the big Christmas seller - and maybe, just maybe that slippery GAN. There'a Melbourne Cup field of class performers lined up this year, with Malouf, Hall, Thea Astley, Janette Turner Hospital and Drewe all stable tips to come through on the sales front. That result is measurable but a combination of often unpredictable factors - it doesn't necessarily equate with enduring merit. And the GAN? That's something for publishers to claim, academics to debate, history to bestow. In the context of Ozlit, it will always be for the future. But in delivering The Drowner, his best book by far, Robert Drewe has unequivocally announced his presence.
* The Drowner by Robert Drewe is a Macmillan publication. This article was first published in The Australian magazine.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1996
Murray Waldren's latest book The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins) is available from all good book stores, including: Gleebooks Shearers Bookshop Readings Better Read Than Dead Dymocks Angus & Robertson Borders The Co-op Bookshop Australian Online Bookstore Booktopia Seekbooks The Nile The Book Abyss
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