W ITH THE BROODING GOOD LOOKS of a slightly dissolute, '50s matinee idol, Roger McDonald is a man of quiet, almost stilted dignity. For an urbane veteran of OzLit, he's also surprisingly uncomfortable with his intrusive role as author-in-the-spotlight; as we watch a school of surfers manoeuvre for a ride on the rock-flanked beach below his Sydney HQ, we agree a caffeine hit at his local Bondi cafe is called for.
Much later, after an ambling, amiable chat, plus detour to collect books on order at the bookshop, we're back in the tastefully cluttered townhouse he shares with NZ artist Sue Fisher. He's more relaxed, open for business. And I've ascertained that the shy, cravat-and-cigar demeanour disguises a quirky, questing intelligence: no-flies astute, he's a benign observer whose serious mien obscures an instinctive humility, humanity and humour.
Next week, his latest book, Mr Darwin's Shooter, hits the shelves, and he's trepidatious. After all, there's a lot riding on this novel of scientific breakthrough. After 22 years of full-time writing, it's also McDonald's own breakthrough bid to attain a wider international audience. "I've wanted for some time to move outside the Australian rural/colloquial experience, not so much to prove I can write away from that but," he pauses, "I want more readers ... I wanted a book that could remain serious by my own estimate but also connect to people outside Australia." (Anchor, his UK publisher, is confident he's suceeded: they're flying him over in September for a full-on, launch pr blitz.)
Back in 1979, such international acclaim seemed inevitable. His first novel, the Gallipoli-based 1915, won auspicious sales, the South Australian Biennial Literature Award, the Age Book of the Year, became a seven-part TV series. Since then, though, his career has been solidly laudable rather than spectacular: four well-crafted novels, the Canada-Australia Literary prize in '81, a Banjo non-fiction Award for The Shearer's Motel in '93, multiple commissioned works (including bios of Melba and Flynn), a sequence of TV scripts.
In the process of "surviving by various shifts and stratagems", he's somehow become a first-class literary journeyman, a fuss-free, discerning narrator with a loyal following but without tapping the Maloufian mainstream.
Mr Darwin's Shooter should change that. An evocative, historical novel based on the true story of Covington, an uneducated butcher's boy born in the heart of non-conformist England in the John Bunyan city of Bedford and a creationist who became the manservant of evolutionist Charles Darwin, it is rich in drama, personal observation and humanity.
Covington was a "footnote in history" who maintained lifelong contact with the scientist, even after becoming a postmaster in the NSW south coast. And delving into the Darwin story was an open sesame of literary opportunity. "It's an adventure story, a scientific mystery, a saga of human character up against the vastly non-human," says McDonald. "This is the moment in history where we break away from the idea that nature is at our disposal."
Although historically based, the novel rings of contemporaneity ... "The Origin of the Species still has the shock of the new, still feels like a great work. I found reading it that after a few pages I could look out the window and see things differently in the way you do after looking at a great painting or listening to an extremely moving piece of music. It is not just a great work of science but in a strange way also a great work of art."
And beyond all that, "at this stage of my life I am interested in spiritual longing - not in the sense of religious faith but in the desire for a connection to as many aspects of life experience and understanding as possible."
That aim is reflected in the character of Covington, who must reconcile his religious belief, his considerable human appetites and the scientific picturing of creation. "It's easy to forget," says McDonald, "that it was not so many years ago that everyone had a creationist world view. Including Darwin. It was only at the very end of the voyage of The Beagle that he began to change, to his own extreme discomfort. He had a vision that became a theory that could explain everything. Yet when he published that idea, it was almost universally rejected.
"I want the reader to be sucked back into the world of biblical creationism, so that the full impact of Darwin's revelation can be experienced."
Country born in 1941 to a historian mother and Presbyterian minister father, McDonald grew up in Temora and Bourke. He remains by inclination and instinct "seriously country". (It was at Bourke that the first literary stirrings were felt when a teacher told the class to go outside and sit under the gum tree "and Roger will read us his latest composition". Not since, he smiles, "have I had an experience as a writer to equal that moment of sheer centrestage exposure".)
Transplanted in his teens to Sydney, he never fully adjusted. He had stints as a high-school teacher, ABC producer (in Hobart and Brisbane), and as a professional editor for the University of Queensland Press, which "I went into in the mistaken idea that publishing and writing were two things that somehow went together," he observes wryly.
Nevertheless, in the incestuous world of Australian poetry, he was strongly influential. An incorruptible arbiter and poet, his seven years at UQP largely shaped the New Australian Poetry of the 70s.
But when in 1976 he won a writing fellowship, he hightailed it for rural Braidwood. His intention was to "write out of the Australian character, in the Australian accent", and he did. "In the country, you get to know a much wider range of people, make the most unlikely friendships ... that's fed my writing to a large extent."
Which, of course, makes his present incarnation as city boulevardier even more ironic. He's been Sydney-based since 1992, and is surprised at "how much I've grown to love living here" (although he has retained a country hideaway to escape to). The change came after a crisis in his late-40s when he gave writing away, trained as a cook and left his family of three daughters to head off to work with Maori shearing gangs.
"I don't think life is isolated from writing but I think the biggest danger to writers is to isolate their writing from life," he says. "Our greatest obligation is to daily living - if a decision is taken for the sake of the book rather than for the sake of family, that is to live badly ...I am talking from experience."
The Shearer's Motel became an autobiographical record of that experience. "Before then I had been obsessive with my work, with feeling that every moment I wasn't working was a lost moment. After that, my family life in many ways disintegrated, but in that process of disintegration, I was able to put my values back together again, and restablish real relationships with my children."
A former chair of the NSW Writers Centre and five-time The Australian/Vogel Award judge (including the notorious Demidenko decision, of which his judge's report warned of anti-Semiticism and the need for stringent editing), McDonald has also been an ASA and PLR committeman. "I guess I've paid my professional dues in a modest way," he says. "I've also learnt I'm not suited to committees - I get too impatient and overheated, and once my anger abates my attention wanders on the detail."
Not so on the page. He writes, he says, because in conversation "I feel inadequate when it comes to expressing myself. Words never seem sharp enough, have enough shades of meaning to express what I want to express." Every time he starts a novel, "I think this time I am really going to get there; and when I finish, there is always something else I need to do.
"Once I was a poet and although I haven't been so for almost 25 years, I still feel myself drawn to the poetic underpinning of life, the way life turns back on itself and throws up images for us to adhere to as we live.
"To me, writing is reflection of that - if it doesn't evoke the mysteriousness of life patterns, the elemental truth, I am not so very interested."
Mr Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald is a Knopf publication. This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1998
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