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Taking care of busyness ...
An interview with NICK EARLS 

 "I thought I would be left alone, in splendid aesthetic isolation, to  get on with taking care of business," says Nick Earls in  explaining the attraction of a writing career. Ironic  then that this Brisbane-based author has found  himself so diverted by "irresistible offers" that they  have made his business more a busyness. Like  collaborating as vocalist cum librettist on a hip-hop  album, "espousing my inner thoughts on Gigantor and  paper clips". Or sitting for a local painter as a potential Archibald Prize portrait. Or interacting via email with enthusiasts creating Internet websites on him and his work. Or co-writing the screenplay for the movie of his novel Zigzag Street, "in development" for a mooted production in mid-year. Then there's "the show" he's developed for public performance, taken from his works but scripted as episodes and character voices "rather than a straight reading with scattered one-liners".

It all comes with the trade, he says, but no matter how intriguing they are, "you can't let peripherals distract you too long from the core business". Essentials, like finessing his next book, 48 Shades of Brown, a novel for young adults slated for publication later this year. And traipsing around the bookseller traps with his publicist, (re)introducing himself and his work. And taking his daily 7km jog, "a chance to think away from the computer, to let ideas percolate." And working the workshop/festival circuit – this weekend he's a guest at the Perth Writers Festival, which dovetails nicely into a March national tour to promote his latest book, Headgames (Viking, rrp $22.95). That tour, however, will be interrupted in the middle by a trip to London to promote the European publication of last year's novel, Bachelor Kisses (with performing side-trips to Delhi and Paris for the reopening of the Australian Bookshop there).

It's a program of astonishing intensity, even for someone who understands only too well how competitive it is out there, and that professional writers must take responsibility for marketing themselves if they are to prosper. For few are more professional than the media-savvy Earls, an astute observer of the condition social, with a seductive line in self-deprecating humour and a sharp eye for youthful foibles. And few have more campus cred, for their work or performance routines. Which possibly raises as many points as it praises..

A child of Donaghadee on Northern Ireland's scenic Ards Peninsula, he was 9 when his medical mother and management consultant father accepted that their homeland was ''too troublesome" to live in and settled on Brisbane as an alternative. He's there still 26 years later, a professional "Brisbane Boy", living in riverside Toowong with Sarah, his wife of 8 years, a housemate and a collegial cat, Doug — the latter his 'sounding-board work mate' when Earls dons the mantle of Shed Man. That's the persona he claims when he locks himself away in a purpose-built studi for "anti-social bursts of unhygienic mania" to complete a work.

Writing is an obsession he owes to his mother, who "created bedtime stories using a formula of witches and colours. It obviously impressed me because when it came to news time at kindergarten, I never had any news but I did have a burning desire to be 'on stage'. So I made up my own formulaic story based on a bird called Tommy who was flushed down the toilet and had adventures in the Land of Poo. Even then I was a sucker for an audience." Later, he and his sister Alison (now a scriptwriter/director) would devise radio plays complete with home-utensil sound effects. But "ever since I wrote a novel-sized story at 14, writing was the dream".

Medicine, however, became the reality. "I was wise enough at 17 to realise it would be many years before I'd be good enough to live by writing alone. I'd had my mother's example of practising medicine part-time, and it seemed a reasonable way to earn enough to live on while allowing time to pursue the writing." After graduating with honours, he spent two years as an intern, a further six in practice as a part-time GP, then did intermittent stints as a pen for hire, writing advertising jingles and scripts for corporate theatre and videos, theme-park comedies, a song recorded by Normie Rowe and articles for Medical Observer.

"I don't miss it at all," he says now of medicine, "but I'm glad I did it. It was a challenging degree, and I learned a lot — it exposed me to fields and people I would otherwise never have met. And both medicine and writing are largely problem-solving exercises that involve bursts of inspiration and dogged application."

In a very real way, he says, he is also fortunate to have had such a long apprenticeship and a supportive wife during the "droughts" – he's now more confident in what he does if never complacent. "It's also why I grab the chances when they happen." His first "official" publication was a short story collection, Passion (1992), although Near and Far Away was released by a Nick Earls in 1985 ("that's my evil twin (who) keeps doing things in my name to discredit me. In this case, a collection of angst-ridden adolescent poetry that I've denied several times in public, and don't plan to stop denying now."). Passion was "on the grim side, not a laugh-out-loud-book" which left audiences and reviewers torn between praise (the pseudonymous Rosser Street called it "one of the most unjustly neglected … in recent years") and condemnation of the "this book should not have been published" kind.

"The response was so strong," says Earls, "that I was invited on to panels to defend myself, in the hope I'd be contentious and argumentative. But I realized I had a choice – I could be serious or I could play it for laughs. I tentatively tried the latter, and the audience responded. And I liked their response." He was hooked, both on the idea of using humour as a basis for his writing and on performing. "I love the immediate feedback of an audience — so much more rewarding than sitting at my keyboard and laughing at my own jokes."

Earls' "incremental steps in learning the trade" transmuted into a productivity in the past three years that has been nothing less than prodigious. In early '96, UQP published After January, a novel of adolescent anxieties and wisecracks that was shortlisted for the National Children's Literature Award. Later that year, Pan released Zigzag Street, six weeks in the life of a twentysomething suburban misfit thwarted in love – reprinted 10 times, it's still selling strongly here and in Europe. Last year, Bachelor Kisses was reprinted three times in the first three months and is selling more than 1000 copies a month. Now comes Headgames, 18 stories that range from comic "realism" through psychotic explorations to the surreal. And back. There are recurring characters a la Moorehouse, the familiar hapless male gets a guernsey, there's a new edge of tough-cookie sensitivity. Some tales have a medical substructure, in others sex and singularity get a sardonic workout.

While the collection will certainly appeal to confirmed Earlsians, it may not convert the unconvinced – there's a familiarity of tone and little of startling originality, even if it is all deftly handled: in the bumbledom of life, losers can be winners in unexpected ways or confirmed as losers. "I wanted it to combine past stories with new works expressing a broader range of idea," he says, "to play with any head involved—mine, the characters and any reader — to cover lots of territory without a compass." The stories are not continuous yet they are contiguous – individual pieces stand alone but "I wanted an overall integration, a mix of loose or tangential comedy, over-lapping histories and jarring realities … to ensure I was not operating in a comfort zone by taking the comedy of awkwardness and playing with it, vigorously. Which is why you get a story of a unicorn who is not the noble beast of legend but an intolerant nicotine-stained bastard, for instance."

The key was to fade the boundaries, to reinforce that the line between the real and the surreal is very fine, "that the central characters' perceptions of a normal world are actually abnormal". Besides which, it was a project he could complete in a relatively short time, a chance to push limits and a liberating change from the obsessive pull of novel writing. "Novels come about from the compulsion to commit large amounts of time to an idea – they are not market-driven or economically sensible but they are what happen when an idea, and a character, hijack me."

His authorial rationale is to "explore the places where science, comedy and ambivalence overlap" and he places his personal emphasis more on characters than construction. Comedy, of course, can be a very potent medium for getting serious points across. "It should be taken more seriously," he agrees. "It's a challenge to write but if it succeeds it can be memorable. In Headgames, the comedy exists in context, up against the less droll and the more dramatic ... but really, my writing is always influenced by life. A lot of crappy comic things occur in people's lives, and I may as well go with them."

Nationally, critics have littered the Earls CV with jacket blurb material of the "brilliantly observed, comic masterpiece" ilk, and his listed among the contenders "most promising". In the tight-knit Brisbane literary circle, however, matters are more problematic - there are mutterings of arrogance, elitism and self-centredness, particularly over the agenda-setting factional friendship he until recently enjoyed with fellow novelist Venero Armanno and former state writing and publishing manager Stuart Glover.

Nevertheless, his career is developing a momentum that is both rewarding and seductive. And he appears to have recognised the dangers of dallying in a Carry On comfortableness of sex jokes and slacker heroes. The task as he moves from young writer status to mid-career — especially if he aspires to the international respect of a David Foster, say, or the more localised satirical sureness of a Ross Fitzgerald — is to carry his "smart young thing" audience with him. The literary mainstream demands more sustained substance than lifestyle sign-postings. If Headgames is any indication, it's a challenge he has begun to accept.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999

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