A few years ago I was invited to speak at the Elizabeth Jolley Forum at Curtin University in Perth on the above topic. Below is an edited version of my talk. Maybe it might stimulate a little discussion.
ELIZABETH JOLLEY FORUM
I suppose I should say that I don’t think it’s necessary that writers of books, songs, screenplays need to have anything local in their works for them to be good but, as a general rule, intimate knowledge of the local enhances. This was a profoundly important in how I approached my music. Most songwriters and musicians came at their music from musical influences but while I had musical influences too, The Fugs, The Doors, The Kinks, I came to the conclusion when I was about 19/20 that the best songs summed up a generation in a micro snap. Chuck Berry got America of the 60s, drive-ins, youthful sex. “Can you imagine the way I felt, I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt”. The Who and The Kinks portrayed swinging London and the rise of working class culture, “People try to put us down, just because we g-get around”. So I set out to do what a couple of years earlier I would have thought of as impossible and certainly un-artistic – to make art from mundane suburban Australian life. Before Howard Arkley or Neighbours I decided to celebrate my ordinariness as a young white middle-class Australian male, not using the fake iconography of Meat Pies and Holden Cars, or an outback I had never known but Football. Bus Stops. Rejection. My life. For me the key was to make it really local – There was Australian Heat, there was Living in WA but even more locally songs about Bicton: Bicton Breezes, Bicton versus Brooklyn, Vignettes, which was about Fremantle, Old Stock Rd and so on.
This is my contribution to Australian culture, a deliberate attempt to create an art from the everyday. I wanted my music to be as passionate as the Who and as ironic as Frank Zappa’s but it had to be about my world. This was met with a lot of resistance and after a promising start failed to make a lasting impression. Today Australian recording artists generally attempt to sound as North American as possible.
One thing I would say is “Local” isn’t just weather and architecture, it incorporates an aural landscape. The chatter of Horse Racing every Saturday from the kitchen radio, the scream of footy commentators, the lapping of the Swan River were essential elements to my early life and have found their way into my books, films and songs. The local even more importantly, includes the psyche of the population. People give a place its feel as much as geography or architecture.
Nowadays among other things I write detective novels and I think this literary form especially reflects the power of the local. One of my favourite authors is Sweden’s Henning Mankell. Each page has you tasting frost on your tongue, the scent of fir trees in your nose, and you can feel yourself bowing under a pervasive Lutheran melancholy. I’m guessing this is the Swedish personality. I love it. It’s very different from the colorful, heavily scented almost narcotic prose of James Lee Burke’s New Orleans series of detective Dave Robicheaux. That evocative series always seems to deal with core ingredients of a collective southern psyche, slavery, class distinction, the river, civil war. The great Californian crime novelists Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler delved into the worlds of drugs, arcane religious cults, and water scarcity. Not much has changed there!
When I wrote my first novel City of Light, I consciously tried to use the same themes and language I employed in my most popular songs like Mugs Game and Half Time at the Football. I tried to capture a languid rhythm of heat, sea-breeze, and the unending boredom of my suburban Perth youth. A brick and tile, single-story kind of novel I felt Chandler’s style would suit City of Light – after all Perth in 1980 was probably a lot like Los Angeles of 1940. On the other hand my second novel Big Bad Blood was set in Sydney. It needed a more muscular, taut tone, just like Sydney is when compared to Perth. I quite unashamedly borrowed from James Ellroy’s super tight, prose. I thought it suited Sydney’s violence and testosterone. Exxxpresso, largely set in Kalgoorlie needed a roguish feel, a dash of humour, a low ball hero. And of course you can’t divorce a story about Kalgoorlie from heat, open roads and burning steering wheels.
So when I write I am conscious of Character having not only to do with antagonists and protagonists but the character of the locality, the attitudes of the people, the collective unspoken unconscious. For me, these elements are what give the writer his unique voice. Read my novels and see if you agree. They can be ordered from my website at www.davewarner.com.au