First published in the October 2007 issue of BOOKSELLER + PUBLISHER magazine (c) 2007 Thorpe-Bowker (a division of RR Bowker LLC) http://www.bookseller+publisher.com.au/
I hadn’t been to the Snowy Mountains since I was a child, and on the visit that sparked The Trout Opera in 1996 I was overwhelmed by the stark physical beauty of the place, the yellow hills and purple skies, the whole muted and ancient feel. The minute I drove into Dalgety, on the banks of the Snowy downriver from Jindabyne, I was instantly struck by the ghosts. This was a town where a lot of life had been lived, once upon a time. I guess I felt obligated to examine that, and ultimately bring it back to life as best I could. Near the end of writing the book I went back to Dalgety (population about 80) for one last visit, and stayed in the ancient Buckley’s Crossing Hotel for a night. I didn’t sleep much that night.
The radio announcer in the novel is always cut off while ironically expressing the view that what is being seen and heard in the press is essentially one-sided. Do you think literature is something that can reclaim this ‘other voice’?
I think literature can take and hold a moment in time better than a newspaper, magazine or other media outlet. By the very nature of it being held, it can pose deeper questions than the press can offer day to day. I wanted to have a character in the book who could express opinions on the period – the 90s, leading up to the year 2000 – and figured a late night radio host would be ideal for the times. He is that ‘other voice’ you talk about, and his opinions are offered up not as a definitive treatise on Australian cultural and political issues, but as moments held in time. Readers can choose to take questions out of that if they wish to do so, or not.
You’ve created such well-drawn characters. I can imagine it would have been difficult to leave them behind. Who was the most challenging to write and why?
Of all the characters I’ve ever created, this cast was the most difficult to let go. I felt from the outset, for some reason best not explored, that I was akin to Wilfred Lampe, and felt all the joys and sorrows of his life. The friend who inspired the character Tick died just a few months before I finished the manuscript. But I think Wynter may have been the most challenging to write, in hindsight. He physically repulsed me, yet I felt compelled to dig deep into that feeling and understand him. I think I ultimately did, but I wouldn’t invite him around for dinner.
The motifs of trout, fishing, and nature are solid and persistent from the first glimpse of Wilfred in the strange trout suit. What kind of effect did you hope this would have?
When I began writing the book I became interested in the art of trout fishing, especially in relation to the Snowy River. I had reported on the strangulation of the river – our great, mythic, celebrated river – over time, and began to understand how important it was to so many communities along its banks through history. In the end, the metaphor of the river, and more importantly, the essence of trout fishing – the lure, the fly fooling the fish – sat perfectly with the themes of physical and emotional addiction, and the resilience of nature, and people, that began to emerge as the novel progressed.
That’s a complicated question, but I would hazard a guess that when we look back we both redeem and inhibit. This is one of the primary frailties of Wilfred. His habit of looking back at life to redeem a future for himself has the opposite effect. His looking back keeps him inert. He never moves forward. He lives a whole life in his head, and another in the actual world. As a human being, I suspect he’s not alone. The eye of a trout sees both its own river world reflected back to it off the underside of the water’s surface, and simultaneously through the surface to the outside world. Wilfred only ever sees the reflection. History has shown this can also be a collective condition.
Who are some of your favourite authors, and what kind of readers will enjoy your book?
I’m a great fan of Patrick White, Thea Astley, John Cheever, Graham Greene, R K Narayan, and on and on. I didn’t really discover, until I’d finished The Trout Opera and could get a sense of its shape, that I had actually written what might be considered and old-fashioned novel in the current climate, a book that has very few strong storylines, a rich cast of characters both major and minor, and a narrative scope that covers a century. I think readers who enjoy a good ‘old0fashioned’ epic, something you can luxuriate in, and who are prepared to spend time with characters that they just might fall in love with and care about, will enjoy The Trout Opera.