Paul Mitchell is the latest writer to join the MidnightSun family. Here he is talking about ideas for his novel We. Are. Family. which is due out in September 2016
Ideas – guest post by Paul Mitchell
My friend D. asked me a question I hadn’t heard for a long time: where do you get your ideas? We were sitting at a Castlemaine pub’s outside table. The night was almost freezing, we were dressed in great coats and beanies, and avoiding the trad jazz playing in the main bar. We were drinking pints of beer that were offering no assistance to our hangovers. We’d spent the previous day drinking in pubs and, when night fell, singing Australian rock anthems with our wives as I strummed guitar. Because, well, D. is from England, he needed schooling, and we hadn’t seen each other for too long.
I don’t take my guitar work seriously, but I’m humbled when someone takes my writing seriously. After D. asked his question, he sat back and gave me room to answer, as if I were being interviewed. Which, I suppose, I was. It’s just that writers, if we’re honest, often fantasise about being interviewed in front of a large audience with its palms open to grasp our tiny hosts of insight.
But there was only D. And he was enough. Because as soon as I began to answer him, I felt embarrassed. I sounded like that worst kind of human being: a wanker. Waffling on and making little sense. Thankfully, I kept my voice down so it’s unlikely the two 30-something women sitting at a nearby table, whom statistics would suggest could be part of my potential audience, would have heard me.
I can’t repeat the nonsense I came out with. That’s why I’m writing this piece. So I’m hopeful D. is scouting the internet right now and has a pint of beer at the ready.
In the past, as crazy as it sounds, I used to get a lot of my ideas for fiction when I experienced the quality of light in a particular environment. ‘In the Shell’, a story from my short fiction collection Dodging the Bull (2007), anthologised a number of times, had its origins in staring too long at a Shell service station on the horizon while driving one night from Geelong to Melbourne. The Shell sign’s orange mixing with the greens and blues emanating from the building itself and drew me into what I can only describe as an ennui-fuelled reverie. That experience produced two characters, Jason and Tony; their lives, their times; their failures and their hopes.
When it comes to my new book, We. Are. Family. (MidnightSun Publishing 2016), the writing and the ideas have a much closer relationship. It’s as if so many of the situations, concepts, images and settings have been born of a previous situation, concept, etc. The work is episodic and cyclic and layered. There are ideas looping around ideas and creating what I hope is a reading experience like no other . . .
. . . whoops, let’s hope no one at a nearby table can hear!
Seriously, though, I wrote the work episodically with strange links and ellipsis because, to me, it reflects the way we experience contemporary life and, especially, contemporary family life.
But back to the ideas.
The ideas in We. Are. Family. often came from personal experiences that I manipulated into fiction. Not the newest trick for a book, but certainly one of the most reliable. For example, I went on a Daintree River cruise looking for crocodiles that wouldn’t show up and extrapolated a passage of writing from that; the words ‘stick with what you know’ wouldn’t get out of my head one day so I started a piece of writing to try to get them out; and my footballer uncle was renowned in my family for knocking out an opposition team’s tough guy, proving to the opposition – and two towns – that his team and his family weren’t going to get pushed around anymore.
To say anything more about the ideas in the book would be to give away too much. But, suffice to say, it’s not the quality of light but the quality – or lack thereof – of family relationships that brought about many of the ideas that became We. Are. Family. Along with my ideas about what it is that makes Australian masculinity interesting, foolish, peculiar, strong yet vulnerable, half-witted and possibly, ever so slowly, transforming into a model better suited to the 21st century, an era in which we are making a concerted effort to end family violence.
The great comedian John Clarke once said a key to being a successful artist was understanding the difference between an idea that is worth making into a feature film and one that’s best just shared with your mum over the phone. He said it in an interview and he probably wasn’t at a cold pub in Castlemaine. But, if he had been, I’d have sat back, sipped my pint and taken notes.
When it comes to ideas, I live by John’s advice. It has saved me a lot of typing time and conversations on the phone with my mum (it’s all right – she gets hold of me via email anyway. And she’s full of ideas so I’m always ready to cut and paste).
The Melbourne launch of We. Are. Family. is at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (Beer Delux, 1pm) on Saturday 27 August 2016.
The Adelaide launch is on Friday 9 September 2016 at the SA Writers’ Centre at 6.30 for 7pm.
Both launches are free and everyone is welcome!
Books will be available in all good bookshops from 1 Sept 2016.