Football & figuring out: Paul D Carter on Eleven Seasons

This is cross-posted from the Melbourne Writers Festival 2012 blog.

Paul D Carter’s debut novel Eleven Seasons was the Australian/Vogel Literary Award winner for 2012. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the ’80s/’90s about Jason Dalton—Hawks supporter and burgeoning player—struggling to find room to breathe and grow and be himself. I asked Carter some questions about the novel:

Jason Dalton is a great character. His searching, his anger, his passion—all very believable. How did the character form in relation to the novel’s focus on both AFL and personal history/identity?

Jason appeared in earlier drafts of the book, at which stage the narrative focused on his entire family unit, including his mother and father (he was also following Footscray, and the novel began in 1980, not 1985). After writing some 40,000 words of this draft, I felt that the characters were being welded to the themes I wanted to explore, as opposed to the narrative emerging organically from the fears and desires of the characters themselves.

In my second draft, I focused on Jason, and moved the narrative forward so that it encompassed the era dominated by the Hawthorn Football Club. I wrote the opening chapter in a week, and felt I was onto something much better—I cared more for Jason, and I could see more clearly the correlation between his football ‘dreaming’ and his life outside the game as a socially invisible boy.

I like how the novel interrogates different cultures around the game—good and bad—through Jason’s encounters. Was it important to you to shine a light on both the positive and negative aspects?

My greatest aim with this novel was to write a book that dealt with football but which non-followers of the game could appreciate. I wanted to get the reader to think of football as a sphere in his life that was interdependent with the other spheres in his life: his relationship with his mother, his relationships with his friends, his relationships with girls. Football is something he uses for a sense of selfhood and direction, in the same way that other people might embrace music or dance to provide themselves with these things.

This said, I felt it was important to look at the way the way football culture might inhibit him as much as it provides him with solace. I think it can be easy to escape the hard work of growing up and figuring yourself out if you are part of a club or institution that does this figuring out for you. I think this issue extends to cultural pursuits outside of football as well, but in football it is quite explicit.

You were writing a PhD at the same time as writing the novel, well done! Did any of your research feed into the novel, or was it unrelated?

Much of my PhD research informed the novel as I ended up writing a review of creative writing about football and the ways this writing has reflected Australia’s recent social history. This said, I wrote the novel mostly from the gut.

The best things about completing the novel as a PhD were that it created a window of time in my life that I could devote exclusively to writing, and it also gave me a timeline. Without this structure, I’m not sure I would have found the self-discipline to see the project through.

Eleven Seasons won the Vogel this year, and was subsequently published by Allen & Unwin. What was that road to publication like? Has your writing life changed much since then?

I had a very intense summer of 2011-12 rewriting the novel in line with the suggestions of the editors. They read the novel very closely, and very critically. I’m still unsure that I was able to deliver a revised manuscript that answered all of their criticisms. This said, the pressure to push myself above and beyond what I’d already done proved a terrific learning experience. It seems to me that one of the best ways to learn is to have someone believe in you and take you to task at the same time. As an English teacher, it’s a lesson I’m trying to take on board when working with my students.

On the subject of teaching—I’m in my second year as an English teacher, and most of my mental space is still occupied by it. It’s one of the most complex and taxing jobs there is, and my writing has taken a back seat for the time being. But I’m taking notes on a book that will deal with teaching and teenagers. This time around, I’d like to write more about women. I feel like I’m done writing about guys for now.

Carter will discuss what it’s like to be a first-time novelist with Chris FlynnEowyn Ivey, and Ruby J Murray on Saturday 1 September at 1pm, and he’ll be reading from his work at The Morning Read session on Sunday 2 September at 10am. Both sessions are free.

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