In Smoke in the Room (Aus), three characters end up in a share house in Sydney. Katie works on instinct and is weighted by an overwhelming empathy. Adam, an American, is grieving and needs to save money to get home. Graeme, an aid worker, has rid himself of possessions and simplified his existence. In this novel, what each character will notice about the others tells as much to the reader about them as does their individual actions.
I caught up with Emily Maguire one afternoon in Melbourne to ask her about the book. We sat in the corner of a pub and listened to the kitchen staff belting out 60s rock & roll. I’ve always thought Maguire looks a bit like Christina Ricci – her eyes are large and warm, very deep, and she has the same sort of edge. She is someone whose writing and talks (I have seen her at a few writers’ festivals) indicate that she is one of those people possessed by an honest knowledge about both the sadness and the beauty of the world, and I expect this has been the case since she was very young. She is also often touted, quite truthfully, as a ‘voice of her generation’, writing in both fiction and nonfiction about young people, particularly women, in contemporary Australia.
Smoke in the Room began with the character of Graeme, Maguire says. She had coincidentally been reading a lot of biographies with a similar theme. ‘One of them was of the Aboriginal activist Rob Riley, who committed suicide in ’96. And then I read a long article about Iris Chang, an American writer who wrote a historical account of the rape of Nanking. She was only 36, I think, and she committed suicide, after that book. The book is devastating.
‘So, I was thinking about the toll, that being really engaged in social justice or foreign correspondence, can take. And then I also happened to read a biography of Graham Greene, who’s my favourite twentieth-century writer, and he liked to tell this story – and I wonder if it’s a little bit of an exaggeration – about how when he was a teenager he’d feel depression coming on and he would play Russian Roulette. He suffered from depression his whole life, but he said that he found the best cure – rather than psychotherapy or anything – was to travel to really dangerous places. And so you can track the worst places in the world in the twentieth-century by looking at where Graham Greene went. He went to the most terrible places. And he said that’s when he felt best.’
The character of Graeme in Smoke in the Room is named, then, after Greene, and he too, has travelled to dangerous places all throughout his life. It’s only the young character Katie who has insight into this behaviour, in the book. Maguire wondered whether ‘someone like him is drawn to that kind of work as a way to stave off depression or apathy’. And if not, ‘is this something that will have this cumulative kind of effect when you stop?’
The other part of Graeme came about through people-watching. ‘I would see just around the area these men in their 50s or 60s who look very neat and put-together, not homeless or anything, but just look so lonely and isolated’.
Katie’s philosophical outlook on life – living honestly, emotionally, for-the-moment, no matter how hard-hitting the truth of the moment is – contrasts her new friend and lover Adam’s outlook. Adam prefers to distance himself or step back, or divest his energy in something else – pick up the pieces, despite the weight of his grief. Katie is more inclined to let it in and go with it. Maguire says: ‘Part of it is this kind of context of who you are in relation to society, because Adam is someone who has always been really privileged, and lucky, and his worst complaint is that his mum never felt sorry for him. So when this terrible thing happens to him – to lose someone – he’s almost offended by it happening, and he doesn’t really have any kind of inner resources to cope with something like that happening to him. Whereas Katie’s someone who’s – whether it’s in her nature or related to her experiences in life – a lot more accepting of the fact that shit happens. And that’s all part of life, and she doesn’t take it personally in the same way, so she’s able to kind of roll with it’.
Katie really reminds me of that line in the movie Adaptation: ‘You are what you love, not what loves you.’ She’ll go on loving, believing, feeling, expressing – whether or not it is reciprocated.
Part Two of this interview can be found here.
You can find more details about Emily Maguire and her books on her website.