RALPH WESSMAN

An interview with Geoffrey Dean

 

Ralph Wessman: Some years back, I remember reading an article of yours in The Australian in which you said you’d given up writing – though you’re still at it, I see.

Geoff Dean: Oh yeah, I remember when I gave up writing. (Laughs). It’s like the smoker, you give it up regularly because there’s nothing in it for you, it just makes you ill in the end. Yet you realise that smoking – or writing – makes up most of your life anyway so you can’t really give it up. I’ll probably go on smoking and writing till then end.

Your writing life has been varied….

Yes, I guess I’ve held more than fifty jobs in my lifetime, I do all kinds of things to support my addiction to writing. For thirteen years I was a farmer. I’ve been a social worker, a furniture salesman, a ladies shoe salesman. You know, nobody knows what it’s like to be an assistant shoe salesman in an emporium: it’s bloody awful! And who writes about someone going from door to door selling sewing machines. Not many people, do they? I did that for a long time.

What was it like?

Well I was in Vancouver working on a fishing boat at the time. When the fishing season ran out the owner went into his winter business of selling sewing machines, and I thought oh well, may as well go along with it, fisherman to sewing machine salesman, didn’t seem to make a lot of difference, it’s one way of getting around Canada. We worked up through Queen Charlotte Sound visiting isolated communities, Indian settlements, power stations, all the way up the coast towards Alaska representing Jaguar Company Sewing Machines. They were manufactured in Usa – though not the Usa you’re thinking of, they were made in a small Japanese town called Usa. Before the war the Japanese used to make crap that’d fall to pieces within a few weeks, but afterwards they began turning out a product the equivalent of anything being manufactured in the rest of the world at about half the price. An American business called Jaguar imported the machines.

We employed gimmicks such as dressing up in white overalls with the words ‘Sewing Machine Services’ written on the back – salesmen, in other words – and saying, look we’re from the Jaguar Sewing Machine Company, we’re here to service your sewing machine. We’d check the machine out … a bit of a rumble usually meant it’d been running a bit dry so we’d oil it, but invariably there was nothing really wrong with the machines we serviced. I mean, the sewing machine is an amazing, mighty instrument, a well kept sewing machine will last more than a hundred years.

That was what kept us going when the fishing season ran out. A casual sort of bastard, was our skipper. There was the time we ran through the Yucatar Strait – don’t ask me how to spell that … you had to get the timing just right because it was x number of miles through the islands, the boat did x number of knots, and because of the effects of the turning tide you had x number of hours to get through. The skipper edged out a hundred yards past the rocks with half an hour to spare, then began telling me the consequences of not making it through in time. If you’re caught inside the strait as the tide changes, he said, you’ve got to go back the other way; at which point the tide rushes through at something like twelve knots and the boat does eight so you lose all your steering. I mean … nothing much, you know, just complete disaster.

Another time I remember, we were tied up alongside a breakwater, in a part lake, part estuary. The weather was bad, we were tossing and rolling all night, but when I woke next morning it was really calm. I said ahhh, I think we’re out of the worst of it. But looking outside I found it was calm alright because the estuary had frozen over, the boat was locked in solid. It didn’t last long though….

I worked in a Canadian lumber mill for a time too. Everyone spoke French, you had to learn a rough French if you wanted to eat … ‘passez la potato.’ One time, the victuals were being stolen on a regular basis, and everyone was suspicious of each other. I woke one night to hear shots being fired and someone cursing in French. It was bears stealing the food. As I arrived, out the window came this small bear – a baby, you couldn’t have shot him – and he carved an exit straight through the lot of us. And never once let go of that pound of butter and one loaf of bread, what’s more he had it tucked up like this (demonstrates) under his arm. (Laughs).

Did many of your Canadian experiences find their way into print?

No, just one.

You’ve written far more about your farming experiences….

Yes, I was on the land for thirteen years. That was a good time of my life but in the end I had to get out. What farmers don’t realise is that within the present economic system as it’s so structured, farming is a no-no. It’s get bigger or get out. The idea of the family farm is a beautiful idea, it’s what Australia was built on, but economic circumstances won’t allow that sort of thing any more, it’s gone by the wayside. Hence the National Party is out in the wilderness, you’ve only got to listen to them to know that. Not that I’m interested in politics anyway – it disillusions me. Once I’d listen to everything that was going on, but not any more. There’ve been times when I’ve become involved at a grass roots level in particular political issues, putting up different propositions and going along with them only to find them completely ignored when they reach the top. So what’s the point? My attitude towards politics has reached the stage where I vote for the individual rather than for the policies.

What sort of reaction have you had to stories of your experiences on the land?

It depends on who’s read the stories … whether it’s been a publisher or critic, or your average reader. I’ve had people who’ve known my work come up to me and say, God, it’s so good to read a decent story again. But I think there’s this great hiatus between the publisher and the reading public, publishers have a huge editorial barrier about publishing Australiana these days.

Something that’s possibly disadvantaged me is that when I’m writing short stories I try to have as little author intrusion as possible, so that the characters that emerge during a story are really an identikit of many many people put together. But writing in this style can be a disadvantage because publishers seemed fixed on the idea of continuity, of flow. They like to have stories that interconnect with other stories – the same characters and the rest of it – and immediately that pushes you into the position where you start writing semi-autobiographical material. As far as I’m concerned that’s one way to bore the tits off readers. Too much I I I I I. If I write a story in the first person, the I’s have no greater connection to me that if I write something in the third person. The most compelling thing about any writing I think is the characterisation within the stories themselves.

I’ve had differences with reviewers too. The whole idea of writing is such an involved, personal thing that any criticism from the outside is not taken to heart so much, rather you’re thinking ohhh God! What are they going on about? I sometimes think a lot of reviewers, especially the academically trained ones, are really talking about themselves and not the bloody thing they’re reading; not the story. One guy actually started his piece by saying ‘As inadequate and inappropriate as the short story form is….’ and then went on to review a book of short stories for Godsake, I mean what can you expect from somebody like that? It’s an incredibly bad juxtaposition of the reviewer and writer.

How did you write a story like ‘The Homing Instinct’, from your third short story collection. Was it the result of research or of personal experience?

I suppose with all my stories there’s a solid basis of fact around which the fiction is written. That one developed from an intimate association with pigeons. And it’s true, I actually ate my pigeons. We bred them as kids, and like guinea pigs they multiplied fast. In this case the pigeons we had out in the other end of the chook house kept on multiplying until there were about forty-five of them shitting all over the roof. And flying next door and shitting all over the neighbour’s roof. So unbeknowns to me, my old man went out and despatched several of them. And since he’d grown up with a pioneer attitude that said you ate everything out of the landscape you possibly could – well, parrot pie or pigeon pie, there wasn’t much difference – the pigeons turned up on the kitchen table. It wasn’t till I’d eaten the meal that I realized what it was. My bloody pigeons! And the terrible part was, he’d picked the best pigeons.

It was as a result of breeding pigeons that I worked out my first schoolboy scam. I used to sell them to classmates for a shilling each. They’d keep ‘em for weeks, for months sometimes and then the birds would fly home again. After another while went by and if no-one came to collect the birds, I’d sell them to someone else. It was a racket picked up very early in life.

I had a real feeling towards pigeons. I still do. Whenever I see one I think gee now, that’s a blue bar pie, very nice kind … blue chequer, ah lovely pigeon that.

Could we discuss what’s been happening in local writing circles in recent months? As you know, there’ll be no Salamanca Writers’ Festival this year. In your Sydney Morning Herald article some months ago you talked of the difficulties surrounding the festival. What do you see as the problem?

I believe that since the middle eighties, the Tasmanian Writers’ Union – who’ve traditionally been responsible for running the festival, though not any longer – has been characterised by a rather exclusive decision-making process. The argument over Salamanca being claimed by some to be almost their … province … was simply an expression of whether or not the Writers’ Union was a democratic organisation. The reason in the end that the general membership of the writers got really pissed off about it was the fact that they realised they weren’t able to provide any input, both the Writers’ Union and the festival were becoming less and less of a benefit to local writers, more and more distant from what they needed.

I’ve been critical in the past of the Writers’ Festival not having all that much Tasmanian input, but basically I don’t even agree with festivals at all. Especially when you consider how much money and effort’s put into them. One of my main problems with festivals is that they’re usually academically inclined, the majority of people are discussing literature rather than actually creating it or presenting it first hand as it were.

Is this your view of most literary festivals?

Yes. All of them. Talkfests. Everybody goes there to chat and talk round in circles, and in the end I say yeah, so what! As a mate remarked, don’t ask me I’m just a storyteller. But the storytellers are becoming – as Graham Greene once said – the artisans of the professionals. They who discuss literature and those who create it, and never the twain shall meet. I suppose what we’re talking about here is the division between writing and talking about it. I’d rather write it than talk about it.

For years, you’ve been a proponent of the establishment of a Tasmanian publishing venture akin to the Fremantle Arts Centre Press …

Yes. Because of its isolation, I think Tasmania needs a local publishing house … the strait is not much different from a desert in many ways, it’s equally as isolating. The thing that would have helped me most throughout my career would have been a local publishing outlet through which I might have had my books and stories published possibly ten years earlier.

I don’t envisage a Tasmanian publishing house being a major mainstream publisher, but a small regional publisher interested not only in fiction but in many other forms of writing. There's a lot of writing that could be published in a commercial way by a properly run small publishing house with a fair input of voluntary labour – which would probably have to happen. And when you think of what Peter Carey did for UQP, and Albert Facey for Fremantle Arts Centre Press – if you hit one book that was really popular you’d be well away.

When you think for instance how much money is handed out to a magazine like Island every year – with that amount of money, you could almost have had a publishing industry here anyway. And the money that’s put into Salamanca Writers’ Festival each year … if the same amount of money and effort had been put into a local press I think it would have been of far far greater benefit to Tasmanian literature. There’s a huge proliferation of people seriously writing, there are a lot of books waiting in the wings, and I feel now is the time. It’s not the same as back in the early sixties when there were less people wriring, when living in Tasmania was even more isolating, when you dropped your stories in a post office box and it was like dropping them in a great big black hole, never to be seen or heard of again in a lot of case.

The early sixties. More than thirty years ago …

Yes. I’m getting old.

Does that worry you?

No, but one of the things you notice as you get older is that your body takes longer to heal. My leg gives me hell. I think when it reaches the stage you can’t turn off from the physical and tune in to the mental that you’re in for a very rough time in old age.

Has religion played any part in your life?

Oh yes indeed. I had a grandmother who was a very very strict Methodist. Everything was sinful to her, even table legs. Yes, table legs. If they had shape to them they had to be covered in case they were mistaken for human legs. Buildings had to be a particular configuration of curves and soft features rather than stark outlines and modernism. I remember driving along the road with her and she’d suddenly stop and exclaim, ohhh!! What’s the matter grandmother? I’d ask. Look at that building there, look at those corners on it.

I always had problems wondering what the problems were with corners on buildings.

And in the background was my father who always said that religion was a lot of rot. Yet whenever he’d fill in a form he’d always write that he was Church of England. Hang on a minute, I’d say, why write that when you reckon religion’s a lot of rot? Because they’re the best of a bad bunch, he’d say.

I’m not an atheist, by any means, but as far as I’m concerned Christianity is ninety per cent bullshit and ten per cent reality. It’s the ten per cent I’m hanging in there for, the ten per cent dealing with spiritualism. The whole idea of a mechanistic world is very dull and boring as far as I’m concerned, I like to think there’s something in what Shakespeare wrote, ‘there are many things in heaven and earth Horatio that are beyond our understanding’, or words to that effect. But I’m not a Christian. When it comes to filling in forms, I write ‘undecided’.

I suppose this is the crunch, that you’ve got to discover your own way – and if it comes to the crunch then I guess the idea of undecided is as good a way to go as any. I suppose, to be a bit pompous about it, it’s following an individual path rather than any particular path.

Thank you.

[This interview with writer Geoffrey Dean appeared in Famous Reporter 9 in 1994].