What is your new book about?
Sullivan Moss is a charming no-hoper who decides to become a useful person by donating his kidney to a stranger. He has to sober up and get fit enough to pass the physical and psychological tests to be a donor, along the way becoming entangled with a restless radio producer and her son, a movie star, a Colombian asbestos remover and reconnecting with some old mates. In the process Sully transforms into a man he never expected to be. But just at the point he is almost giddy with confidence, even vanity, about his quest, things fall apart. What or who inspired it?
I’ve always been interested in the struggle to be useful in the world. This particular story was sparked by the image of a person about to jump off a building, contemplating smashing their body on the concrete below, wasting all those healthy organs. Once I had that spine – Sullivan’s quest to donate his kidney – a whole lot of other story flesh grew, bits of character and story that have existed as scraps in my notebook for a long time. What was the biggest challenge, writing it?
It was important to me to manage the shifting sympathy for the characters – hoping the reader will regard them with a clear-eyed, tough gaze but also with tenderness. Also, I wanted to the story to feel satisfying and whole but not too neat and predictable – sometimes it’s tricky to do that and remain emotionally true. When did you start writing?
Writing at all or writing this book? I started writing what I blithely called ‘novels’ when I was 10 and starting writing plays when I was 12. I began work on this book about 3 years ago and relished any blocks of time I could grab to work on it, when I wasn’t busy with ‘Offspring’. Are there any parts of the book that have special personal significance to you?
Because I come to love my characters as if they were my family or friends, the entire novel ends up having personal significance for me. At another level, there are various details drawn from my life – for example my father died 8 years ago, like Natalie’s dad (although my dad didn’t die in the same way!); I have a 14 year old kelpie so the Mack scenes have a special edge for me; my partner has worked for ABC radio for more than 15 years and during that time, I’ve observed his amazing producers working, being so quick-witted and smart – so the passages about Natalie’s work life are my homage to those producers. And I suppose my years working in the worlds of theatre and TV are soaked into various story details along the way. What would you like to think people can get from reading your book?
I hope readers would feel they’ve engaged with these characters and their dilemmas in a thoughtful, visceral and satisfying way. I’d love people to come away from the book thinking about the idea of usefulness. Of course, every human being is precious and has value for their own sake, with no measurement or conditions. But personally I feel the urge to justify my existence, to feel that I’m a useful addition to the planet – whether it’s through the work I do or parenting or being a good friend or whatever. Sullivan wants to feel like a useful person – even if his quest to be useful is initially a bit immature and misguided. The only thing he can think of to offer up is a chunk of his body. At the same time, other characters in the story are dealing with their own struggles around this issue – how does the world value you, are you useful to other people in a way that makes you feel hemmed in and exploited, have you devoted your life to things of true value? If you’ve had other jobs outside of writing, what were they?
During school years I worked as a kitchen hand and cleaner in a nursing home. Through university, I was a waitress and barmaid. But since university, I’ve made a living as a writer. As research for ‘Useful’, I did a 2-day TAFE course in asbestos removal (the same course Sullivan does in the book). I passed the test and now have an official certificate in asbestos removal – my first ever employable qualification! What do you like to read? And what are you currently reading?
I read a bit of non-fiction but mostly fiction. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed a range of things - smart, tender relationship novelists like Anne Tyler, Patrick Gale, Charlotte Wood and Carol Shields; historical novelists like Hilary Mantel, Geraldine Brooks and Rose Tremain; wonderful contemporary US writers like A.M. Homes, Curtis Sittenfeld, Lorrie Moore, Dave Eggers, Siri Husvedt. I don’t read much crime fiction but I do love the occasional hard-boiled yarn – like Daniel Woodrell and Elmore Leonard. I just finished reading Joan’s London wonderful novel ‘The Golden Age’ and rereading Wallace Stegner’s exquisite ‘Crossing to Safety’. I’m currently making up my pile of books for summer reading: ‘Merciless Gods’ (Christos Tsiolkas), Colm Toibin’s new novel ‘, ‘Nora Webster’, Hilary Mantel’s stories ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, Nick’s Hornby’s ‘Funny Girl’. Can’t wait to get stuck in. Describe a day in your life when you are writing.
Cup of tea and the newspaper in bed. I would try to be at the computer by 8.30 or so. I’m besotted with my height-adjustable desk and I spend most of the day standing up to work. I usually write until midday, then take the dog for a walk. If I’ve got any creative juice left in me after lunch, I might press on with writing. Or I might devote the afternoon to rereading and fiddling with whatever I’m working on or deal with emails, administration, research, visiting friends and so on. If I’m really fired up or facing a deadline, I might work after dinner but I’d be more likely to read or watch a DVD or go to live music or bother my partner by making him listen to me rambling about whatever story problems I’m wrestling with.Download: Useful Bookclub Notes