Toronto-based writer Jonathan Bennett is one of those literary finds that makes a book critic sit up and take notice. At the relatively tender age of 33, he's a full-blown talent, with two well-received books to his credit: the haunting novel After battersea Park in 2001, followed by the recently-published short story collection Verandah People.
The novel traces the lives and struggles of separated twin brothers, one in Australia and one in Canada, giving us a clue as to the geographical and psychological territory Bennett will cover. In Verandah People, this promise is richly fulfilled in subtle but compelling tales that exhale the very atmosphere of Australia, that vibrant and mysterious country on the other side of the world.
The cover of this stunning book depicts a typical Australian verandah, the sloped roof almost suffocated by densely clustered foliage. The backdrop of achingly blue sky evokes flies buzzing, heat waves rising, and leathery men slapping each other on the back and exclaiming "'Strewth!" But don't be fooled. Bennett gets so far past the stereotypes that we can never quite see Australia in the same way again.
While he acknowledges the rather cartoonish take most of us have of the place, his "down under" is way under, probing deeper layers of culture and sensibility, not to mention the vulnerable hearts of his often tough-talking, rough-edged characters. These men share a certain "peculiar kind of egalitarian male love, bound, loyal and cheerfully trapped in a gorgeous oblivion."
"Keith often made forgivable mistakes," he writes in "Glass Paper", a probing story of a once-close couple coming apart, "and these errors had become compacted in her memory -- ancient forests turned into seams of coal. She thought of her love like this. The very stuff of life: as elemental as carbon."
Here Bennett might just have come up with the perfect description of his own style. Elemental, yes; and he does so much with so little: "You notice the shape of her beneath her swimsuit. How all-of-a-sudden she looks." "Around him the bush is alive. Cicadas and birds, trees smelling of hot eucalypt." "Heat waves shimmer as if Australia is having a migraine." "Being right was something he'd lived with all his life." Worlds within words, compressed but never crowded, and nary a false note.
Certain recurrent themes haunt the stories: urban life in Sydney juxtaposed with the steaming menace of the bush; men and women striving to be close, but striking fierce sparks of antagonism; young men trying to figure out just what their world demands of them, and whether they can live up to inhumanly harsh expectations. His characters go surfing alone and meet life's potential threats and triumphs with every wave. They love fiercely, jealously, but often unwisely and imperfectly. Some of them wander off and get lost in that dense and frightening bush.
Bennett was born in Vancouver, but moved to Australia at age four, and his bank of potent sense memories shows through in stories that are clean, uncluttered and deeply evocative. I sat down with Jonathan Bennett for a nice chat, and came away with a sense of tingling revelation.
Though his speech bears the broad vowel sounds which evoke the large-spirited spaciousness of Australia, his personal vibes are an interesting mixture of both countries; he's sure of himself and his talent, with no false modesty, but refreshingly lacking in arrogance or swagger. Many of his statements on the writing life chimed deeply in me and made me wonder how he can know all this at 33. One thing seems clear: this man knows writing, and has a long and vibrant career ahead of him.
Margaret Gunning: You were born in Vancouver, then went to Australia, then came back. What's the story there?
Jonathan Bennett: My father's Canadian, my mother's Australian. I was born in Vancouver, and we moved when I was very young, then lived in Australia until I was 16. I finished high school in Canada, and went back to Australia. Dropped out for a while, then came back to Canada where I finished my degree and met the woman who became my wife.
It seems to me you've always had a foot in each territory.
Oh yes. I became a writer here in Canada from the get-go, though I was writing about Australia.
Do you think that's easier to do after you've left?
I'm not sure it's easier, but you do get a different perspective. I think that there's that sense when you're away, of trying to figure out why you left. One of the difficult things in writing about where you live is that your life is constantly evolving, which can distract you from where you are. And I think writers often go back to the places where they grew up. I don't think it's necessarily nostalgia, although it is in some cases. But I do think writers do try to go back and understand where they have been, and to understand themselves as well.
One of the things I noticed in your writing was the striking sensual detail that seems to come from sense memory. Do you think of this as part of your style?
Stylistically, I'm a writer who avoids helping the reader too much. Something that I was initially drawn to as a reader was being made to work quite hard. When I started to write, in some early short stories I'd try and punish the reader, capture them and then hold them. Needless to say, that could be a disaster if you fail at it. But I still have that impulse to manipulate the reader a little bit and make them work quite hard for what I'm going for, but make them not able to put the book down at the same time.
You do that in your stories. There's something strong in each of them that pulls, or even menacing things that jump out of nowhere. Is that consciously done?
Yes, it is. The method of my madness is that I concentrate very hard on producing fiction that's tangible and concrete. I try and build through repetition. What other writers might come out and say, I try and make readers figure out for themselves.
The first few stories I read, I had the thought: this is challenging reading. But by mid-book I was completely hooked. There's considerable shock, there's violence...
I think to create an accurate portrayal of Australia you need to write about the kind of culture that has a certain level of brutality, both on the surface and as an undercurrent. It has a long and relatively -- oh, what's the word -- it's got a hard history. I mean, a lot of places do, but Australia's is sort of brutal and short. And I think there's such an overbearing male culture in Australia, so to write about it as an Australian male would be pretty disingenuous. The physicality of the place, the actual environment, and also the sociocultural history has led me to write stories that portray those kinds of struggles.
In this part of the world, the pop-culture image we get of Australia is the Crocodile Hunter, Paul Hogan's movies, all that sort of thing -- almost cartoonish figures.
Probably like most stereotypes there's some truth in it. I don't think it's untrue, those clichés that get thrown around about Australia, though it's a pretty reductionist way of looking at it, of course. But it's a complicated multicultural society with struggles that are both very similar to Canada's, and unique to the culture. The story "Lyrebird" very much addresses head-on Australia's quite brutal history in their treatment of aboriginal people. It's a very short story, but I got right to the point I think. It was a story completely out of Australia's past, and in titling the book Verandah People, it was a sneaky way of titling the book The Australians.
Do you think there's more tolerance for quirkiness or difference in Australia because of that rough-edged history?
There's a paradox in that Australians are fiercely individualistic, and this came out of the culture of one man battling the bush, and that has lasted to a degree. But then the other side of it is a pretty strong sense of the collective. Australia's individualism is much stronger than Canada's. But at the same time, patriotism is on their sleeve a great deal more, with all the good and bad that implies.
Is there an island mentality? Countries that are geographically set apart can develop in a unique way.
Yes, that's fed into its history, but I think that has changed a great deal in the last while, especially in the last 20 years. It's not the same place it used to be, I think anyone would tell you that. It's everything from mass media to the fact that it's much easier to travel. Lots of Australians now do spend some time overseas, and when they go, they typically go for a long time. They go home, obviously, but they stay away for a year or more at a time. It's a really common thing for young people to do. Vancouver, for example, is full of Australians traveling and skiing and carrying on. I think the world has both become more informed in a grassroots way about Australians because so many of them have left, and also Australia has become more plugged-in because of mass culture and globalization.
What was the very first thing you had published? When did you first have the unmitigated thrill of seeing your name on something?
I wrote some poetry in university that got published.
Scratch just about any fiction writer, and they're poets, though they don't always want to admit it.
You've accidentally stumbled on to something. I'm putting out a book of poetry next year [HERE IS MY STREET, THIS TREE I PLANTED, ECW Press].
Great, I can't wait to see it. But tell me about that first experience. What was the process?
Well, there was certainly that initial thrill of when I first started to get things published. I think I'm unusual, and I don't mean to say this as bragging, in that I have basically published everything I have ever written. I didn't publish it contemporaneously when I wrote it. Some of the stories in Verandah People I wrote ten years ago. And I can assure you they have benefited from the time between when I wrote them, and when I rewrote them, then finally edited them. Thank goodness for that. But looking back, there were many years where I was just like everybody else, struggling, getting lots of rejection letters and all that sort of thing. I certainly paid my dues. I felt many times that it would never happen. But then I hit a critical point where it became pretty evident that every time I put my pen to paper, it was for an audience. Before that it was "will this ever see the light of day", and I wasn't worried about readers beyond me. I think that's the shift that you go through when you become a professional writer, realizing that whatever you're going to be doing, and if you're going to finish something, that it'll be seen. We all go through a kind of apprenticeship, and I did mine in short stories. Although I published a novel first, and am now about to publish poems, and put out short stories in the middle. Canada's full of poets who have turned novelists.
Maybe they want to get noticed.
I think a lot gets said about that, but there's nothing wrong with changing forms, changing genres. You use different muscles when you write in each form, from poetry to fiction. Not many people go the other way, and I'm not sure why. I wasn't writing poetry before I published my novel. In the period following the novel when I was writing stuff, I had about a year and a half in between, and all that seemed to be coming out was poems. I hadn't written poems since my undergraduate days. I thought, I might as well go with it and see. But four or five initial poems into it, I realized I was writing a book. I was at the same point I've always been, which was, I wasn't writing for me, even though I began that project thinking I might be.
Do any writers really write for themselves? There are writers who claim they don't give readers a thought. But why put words on the page, why send them out? And then there's all the crafting. Surely that's a performance.
And it's an acknowledgment of the readership, real or imagined.
But isn't it interesting that writers are accused of ego if they want an audience. We don't expect a dancer to dance alone in her living room.
But it's a very private thing, reading. The contract between an audience and a dancer is that it's going to be a performance, and there's going to be applause, or not, at the end. Whereas though writers have a readership, what it comes down to is several thousand or million individual contracts between individual people, and it's much more private. There's very little awareness of other readers. Though a reader may talk about it to friends or belong to a book club, for the most part what they feel or think is quite personal. So I think that when a writer begins to talk about a larger readership, readers react saying, "But you're mine." You can see it when you're reading at a festival or something. If I'm reading with a really senior writer, you can just see in people's eyes, when they come up and want a book signed, they're tongue-tied. This reader is there thinking: you climbed inside me. That's why readers feel so strongly towards writers. It's so intimate.
In your title story, we have an example of something I've come to call the "wham effect." Here is Marcus, a very bitter man coming out of a failed relationship, with his son taken from him. The ending is horrific -- in fact, he literally nails himself to a tree. He turns his anger on himself, and it's shocking. Right to the end, I didn't know what would happen with this guy, would he open fire in a shopping mall or what.
I'm resistant to explaining myself, but I'll try. I think he's a man that's broken, and he's stuck. I think that men and women read that story very differently. Many men I've talked to, friends and readers, found that story to be quite true for them, about the sense of being powerless. Men aren't used to being powerless, especially Australian men. I guess I wanted to leave the reader with a question, which was: to what degree did Marcus figure out that he was to blame in large part for that relationship failing? There's very little realization that he did anything wrong. In his mind, he always worked, he provided.
I've heard men say that: I was a good provider, I don't understand. Even men saying: but I thought we were happy, when the wife suddenly says: That's enough. Is it lack of awareness of deep unhappiness, or it could be that the partner hasn't communicated it?
I think there's a sophistication of language that many of us have grown into in this world of psychobabble. We talk about communicating with our partners and all this stuff, but that doesn't necessarily permeate into the lives of some ordinary people. People still don't have words to talk about what they're going through. He knew that she was having dreams about moving on, he knew it was coming. Yet he was completely inarticulate in his ability to stop it from happening, though one might assume there may have been things he might have done along the way. I mean, she slept with him right to the end. There's a scene where he's lying on the grass and just feels this wave coming down on him, and he can't quite breathe. To me that's the physical manifestation of what's happening to him.
You've already mentioned "Lyrebird." This is a story set in the bush, in which a young aboriginal woman has the magical ability to appear as a lyrebird. But it also has a horrific ending, in which she is disemboweled, killed like game by white hunters.
That was based on a true story, actually. Australian writers like David Malouf have been exploring the idea of first contact. In Malouf's view there wasn't first contact. There was a continent full of people, individuals who spoke different languages, whole nations unto themselves who had sophisticated communications in place. So what there was, was hundreds of first contacts. "Lyrebird" is a story that has some element of aboriginal myth, but I was extremely cautious not to appropriate it. It's not my business to write from that perspective, and that was certainly not what I was doing with this first-person white male voice. He was articulating the idea of the unexplainable in his world, and how literally he might have taken their changing into lyrebirds, or not, when he was a kid. It sort of sits on the fence between what we might call magic realism, and just dirty realism. They can sit a lot closer in bed than most writers believe, I think.
And at the end, we jump from lyricism to horror.
At the end the rest of them escape in a way that is almost Thelma-and-Louise-esque, and it's a kind of suicidal act. But it's between certain death and certain death, and they chose death in their own way, which is a romanticized version of what happened. That man was romanticizing what happened in his retelling of the story. I don't think most readers would pick that up, but rather would read it as a kind of sad beauty. But that's not true, it's not the way I wrote it, it was murder. It was based on anecdotes that existed at the time. You can't get into absolute truths, I'm not a historian, that's not my job. But we can remember, to say nothing of apologizing, and convey the knowledge of a hundred years of invasion. No one in Canada talks about the British invading North America. It's not a word that we use. I don't know how Canadians would react if I said: When are we going to stand up and apologize for the invasion that happened between France and England and Spain, and North America. It's just not the North American mentality.
How is it different in Australia?
There's a very difficult cultural conversation that's been happening in the last 15 years. It's that country trying to come to terms with just an awful past. But, of course, a great many of the people were sent there. So you're asking people who were sent for petty crimes from countries like Ireland and from inner city London -- that's the ancestry there, people who didn't want to be there. These are the most complicated things to unravel.
We now live in a pretty sophisticated world, and we understand that there are power structures in place, and that the aboriginal people in Australia just have so much to live with. I think all you can do when you're writing a collection of short stories set in Australia is to make sure they're a part of it somehow, and do it in a way that's true. I mean true to the spirit of what happened. I don't claim to have any special relationship or involvement or claim on that story, other than the fact that I'm an Australian, and I think that in itself gives me a right, and makes me feel that it needs to be part of a book of Australian stories.
Tell me about "The Slow War Cry of Grammar." A young boy in a military college is dragged into the wilderness and sexually humiliated by a higher-ranking classmate. It gave me a sense of horror and disbelief that he had to be subjected to this sort of sadism. Was it based on a true story?
No, in fact it was completely fictional. One of the bigger themes in the book is the idea of leaving the boundary of the city, written large, or the boundary of the verandah, a kind of sheltered space, and going out into the bush. This is a place where white men suffer madness. There are many kinds of madness that happen when you're out there alone. That theme replicates itself in different stories, in a completely different way with a different outcome in each case. In "The Slow War Cry of Grammar" there is a sense of the homoerotic, and also a kind of abuse. But the story hinges for me on the very last line or two, right at the end -- the little boy was stuck with trying to decide whether to be a victim or a future abuser. He's stuck between that moment of thinking either he should suck it up and think of it as a form of hazing, and that he is going to pass this on and be a part of that power -- in other words, he's going to choose to be powerful by having been victimized -- or if he's just going to be a victim, and possibly leave that school, or be broken or very damaged. People read that story in completely different ways, because I think there's more than one interpretation that's valid. The point of it is violence, and it's about men -- there are absolutely no women in that story. It's brutal, but other people felt that that story was going to be more brutal, that the little boy was going to be raped.
I was holding my breath and wondering what was going to happen.
I think from the reader's perspective, what happens is a kind of sigh: Oh, that wasn't so bad. The underlying thing is that the abuser RSM Irish had it done to him, and his father had had it done to him, and that their sons would have it done to them. Men hurt men, and then those men hurt more men. It's a culture of toughening yourself up, and there are things in life that happen beyond our control. If we're tough enough to withstand them, we can be more helpful to those around us. I don't think it's a moral kind of story. I'm just sort of showing that there's a moment of choice in it.
My favorite story in the collection is "About Walking." There's a moment in it, when Devlin and his sister are getting ready for her wedding, and then, something really bizarre happens ["The body falls from the sky accompanied by a spray of glass shards and a single, baritone scream"]. This story takes so many emotional turns -- the happy preparation for a wedding, then -- thump -- this scream, this body on the ground out of nowhere. Then Devlin wanders off in the bush, which is never explained.
It's again back to the theme of bush versus the urban setting. There's a great tradition in Australian literature of the bush inducing madness. I try to rewrite it in some ways, and in some ways I try to perpetuate it. "About Walking" may be the most difficult story in the book, I think. I've been accused of gross manipulation of the reader by a friend of mine, because I did something so unexpected that readers are completely unprepared. But I put it near the end of the book for a reason. There had already been enough stories that I felt prepared readers for the kind of story "About Walking" is. There's a double-entendre in the title: walking down the aisle, and the aboriginal walkabout. What happens when white man goes walkabout: well, he gets lost and dies. It would be a kind of madness that would need to come on for somebody who didn't have a history or tradition for doing that. It's also a comment on modern Australia and the relationship with the bush, the fact that it's there and informs their consciousness, but it's not something that they can spend time with in a very urban place. Devlin lives on the very edge of the bush and it has views and it's a gorgeous place, but as soon as he stepped away into it, and became lost, he was really lost. You don't need to be more than a few kilometers from your house to be completely lost.
So it's another example of powerlessness. But shouldn't he know better? Why does he do this?
I think there was a confluence of events that led to him doing this. One would be a completely unarticulated sense of loss with his sister, the woman in his life, moving on. There was nothing abnormal about the relationship at all, just that he felt he was losing her. Then this total accident happens, which ignited something in him, the fact he was completely unable to protect her from this, or even protect himself. He went for a walk to clear his head, quite literally. He would have been past the point where he was able to realize the danger he was in, so his walking was not unlike falling. It's also a story about language itself. Sue, his sister, teaches English as a second language to immigrants, and Devlin himself can't use the language well enough to express what he is feeling to her.
Is all this subtext worked out in advance, or does it just come in the process of writing?
In that particular story it happened pretty organically. That story was pretty much first draft. I do rewrite pretty ruthlessly, but that particular story I didn't do a lot of work on. I did struggle with my editor over breaking the point of view. It was already a pretty risky story.
One of your strongest characters is Riley, who shows up in two stories, "Light Sweet Crude" and "Alaska." He seems quintessentially Australian in many ways. He's not exactly a villain, but there's a ruthlessness about him. I was also very interested in the character of his girl friend, Jack, whom he uses. She's so beautiful, so strong, competent, yet can be just taken for a ride in her emotional life. Where did she come from?
"Light Sweet Crude" started with the title. It was just three words that I heard that struck me as too good to be true. I thought: my God, I've got to do something with this. Then I got this idea of Riley as the CEO of a company. One thing that many often don't understand is that people who run companies are bloody, bloody smart. They leave very little to chance, and they didn't get there accidentally. He's an asshole -- I mean, there's no two ways about it. He's just completely horrible to Jack. But he's horrible to women everywhere in his life -- his secretary is over-loyal, his wife is over-loyal and smart enough to know better, but she stays in this relationship for whatever reason. He's lethal. Nobody calls him on anything. It became apparent from the get-go as the story started to unwind that he was going to get away with it all. People like that don't get busted.
It causes shudders in your readers, because we've all known a person like that. Is he sociopathic?
If he's a sociopath, then God help us all, because he's everywhere. He's every person who gets to the top anywhere. I don't think we can define a guy like that as sociopathic, though he's terrible. And he thought he did a good thing for Jack [sending her to Alaska when she became pregnant by him], that he did what he should have. She made choices along the way, too. But that doesn't mean he didn't behave badly. So there are a whole lot of complicating factors here, which makes the story worth writing as opposed to something where a bunch of people dealt perfectly well with their challenges.
I wanted to shake Jack, because I really liked her, she's very competent, she knows she's beautiful. But like so many bright women, she's obviously choosing poorly.
And young, and naive. I'll tell you what was really fun, and I think I got into trouble with my wife, because it was really fun to write an unbelievably sexy character. This guy would have been a challenge to her, some kind of conquest as well. She wasn't powerless at all, but made some bad choices, maybe was unlucky.
Did she think she could change him?
No, I don't think so, and I don't even think that was what she wanted.
All this subtlety feels very carefully worked-out. Do you consciously think about technique?
I think you learn about the way that stories work and the framework of stories, and later you get it so cold that it just exists in you. You know the basics are always going to be right. So when I sit down to write things now, I know that I'm almost inevitably going to get most of it right. In the beginning, you have to learn all that stuff, that craft. Until you've kind of got that cold, you can't have one without the other. I don't think a lot about craft. I'm starting to feel pretty confident that things I write are going to sound like me, and I guess that's the elusive matter of finding your voice. | January 2004
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.