You can read that interview here.
Back then I asked you about Book 3 and you said:
“The third one will be set back in Australia, probably about seven years into their relationship. I want to explore who they are by then, of course, and how they work together. But I also want to explore some more about Dave’s relationship to the Dreamtime site at the waterhole they (re)discovered. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of Charlie, and Denise and her family. I think I’ll have Nicholas’s nephew Robin pay them an extended visit as well, so we can find out a little more about who he’s growing into.”
Now The Thousand Smiles is complete, I can see that's what the story is all about! Thanks for agreeing to another interview so I can some of those issues in detail.
JB: I think that the notion of a similarity between the two cultures is actually a rather cool idea, and it might help explain one of Charlie’s more ‘left field’ suggestions. I won’t say what it was, so as to avoid spoilers – but it was sheer instinct to let him be the one to voice the notion, out of the four people involved in that conversation. I questioned myself over it, but it felt right, so I went with it. I’m not sure what kind of feedback (if any!) I’ll receive on that choice.
I am currently reading a book about EM Forster and his work. It quotes an interview in which he is asked about how conscious he is of his ‘technical cleverness’ when writing. His rather impatient reply was, “We keep coming back to that. People will not realise how little conscious one is of these things; how one flounders about.” I do not claim to be as clever as Forster, of course, and neither would I characterise my writing process as floundering – but it did bring home to me how often the ‘clever’ bits seem to happen almost despite an author’s conscious efforts.
JB: I guess that’s inevitable, as you finally have something else to compare it to. Also, I lived in Australia for 34 years, which is quite a stretch! Plenty of scope there for change.
Some things were as I remembered, and in many ways I ended up appreciating them all the more for having been without. The green countryside, the ruined castles and Tudor mansions and quaint villages, the sense of a living history: these were things I rediscovered and loved. The fact that I could visit (and even work in!) the places where John Keats once lived and worked is just marvellous to me.
Other aspects of living in England were a little less welcome, but that’s OK. It was good to also rediscover and reflect on a few things that make Australia such a great place to live.
AB: Class difference has always been a big factor in Britain as exemplified in films and television, eg Downton Abbey. Is this dying out? Most Aussies resist any hint of class distinction. Is it something British people cling to or encourage because of the glamour associated with it? Seeing this as welcome colour in otherwise drab lives. Social butterflies.
JB: Class distinctions are something I don’t encounter in my daily life. Which may only mean that I circulate within a narrow segment of society! So it’s something that I’m far less conscious of than I would have anticipated before I came to live here. Class was certainly something covered when I was studying social sciences with the Open University back when I first returned to England, so I can’t pretend the whole issue has gone away.
On the other hand, perhaps there is more of a sense of meritocracy these days… Prince William has married a ‘commoner’, and Prince Charles at last married his long-term love, a woman who wasn’t considered ‘high class enough’ for him in his youth. If all goes according to plan, our next two Queens will be women who wouldn’t have made the grade not so long ago. Maybe that all helps take the value judgements out of the class equation.
I think the great inequalities in wealth is more of an issue – but these days it’s not only the upper class who are rich, and the rich certainly don’t include all of the upper class. I think that’s where the divide is now.
JB: It’s interesting that you mention the tempo and the colours in this regard, as they are certainly things I’m aware of as being different between the two countries. However, I can’t say that I was overly conscious of this. It’s more instinctive than that, I suspect. It was a part of the process of thinking/feeling my way into a new setting and a new part of the overall story.
AB: Now onto the third book. The other type of Dreamtime. What interested you most about Aboriginal mythology?
JB: What interests me most is that it’s a completely different way of thinking about the world and about time. It’s so very different that it’s a real struggle to even describe that difference in the English language – and despite much mental wrestling, I am sure I don’t entirely grasp it even now. My main character Dave Taylor is likewise interested and he tries to understand, but he’s very aware that he is often seeing things through a ‘white fella’ filter. An element of a Dreaming ‘story’ will make logical sense to him in terms of how the Western society views the world and its history – but he tries to always remember that this is only his interpretation, and it’s not the reality from an Indigenous Australian point of view.
I hope that I have done some justice to this in my story. I certainly approached the whole issue with every last ounce of respect in me.
JB: I have been reading books – though probably never enough! The Indigenous culture was (and still primarily is) oral, and many of the books I have read are very much trying to understand that culture from a Western perspective. There is one book in particular that very much focuses on trying to bring the genuine stories into the modern-day written culture, trying to expand the oral into the written. The book is Australian Dreaming, compiled and edited by Jennifer Isaacs, and produced with the assistance of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board. That has been very useful, though unfortunately I feel the idiosyncratic voices of the storytellers have been lost in ‘translating’ them into ‘proper’ English.
I am also a member of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia, and their journals and conference proceedings often include material on the Indigenous culture, and the Western relationship with it, so that has been a good source of thoughtful and challenging perspectives over the years.
I can’t claim to have very much direct personal experience, but I must give a shout out to my parents. When we first emigrated from England to Australia, they were very conscious of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants, and deliberately set out to educate themselves and us. We had items such as clapsticks in our lounge room, and not just for decoration. An aunt and uncle also worked on a mission in West Australia. We weren’t allowed to forget or overlook our fellow Australians, and those who had arrived a long time before us.
JB: Well, to answer for myself, it all comes down to a random comment from a reader on Goodreads, who kindly said I could write about two guys chasing butterflies, and she’d still read it. She meant it as an example of an unlikely subject for dramatic treatment. My Muse decided to take her seriously.
The question then became why Nicholas would be so interested in butterflies. Anyone who has read the first book will remember there are two answers. One is that the transformations undergone by butterflies – from egg to larva to pupa to fabulous adult – are equated to him coming out, not just as a gay man but also as the person he most wants to be. The second answer is related to the first, in that he’s very aware of the short lifespan given to adult butterflies, and that relates to the fact that his health means he might not survive for his allotted ‘three score and ten’. He might finally, truly emerge from his chrysalis, only to find that his days are numbered.
In relation to this last book, I think there is a third answer, and that is (as expressed so eloquently by Sting), “Lest we forget how fragile we are.”
JB: One of my formative experiences was a long camping trip through Australia when I was eleven. An extended family group, including my parents and me and my sister, travelled west to Adelaide and then up through Coober Pedy to Alice Springs. We’d been planning to come back the same way, but unexpected flooding meant we had to continue on north for a way, and then drive back down through Queensland instead. I still have vivid memories of the dawn sky, and the Milky Way at night, and the wide flat landscape, that you’ll recognise in my stories.
I haven’t done anything very similar since, but we lived inland in Canberra, and my mother-in-law lives in western New South Wales, so I suppose I actually spent most of my time on the far side of the Sandstone Wall.
AB: Did you base your characters on anyone in real life? Especially Charlie?
JB: No, I didn’t – though I did ‘cast’ Dave and Nicholas in my head, as that helps me to get to know them in three dimensions, as it were. I did have someone vaguely in mind for how Charlie looks, but basically I made him up as I went, drawing on my reading about Indigenous Aboriginal people and also perhaps on a dash of what a white fella once called Negative Capability.
JB: I should think that Nicholas as a naturalist knows just as well as Dave – perhaps even better! – what the threats are, and what the actual risks are. The risks tend to get exaggerated, when little more than cautious common sense is required. After all, if it were true that ‘everything can kill you’, Australia would be no more successfully settled than Antarctica. I lived in Australia for over thirty years, went camping regularly with my family as a kid, including the long trip through the Outback – and in all that time, I saw one harmless snake in the wild, and one rather sedentary red-back spider. Oh, and a plague of mice, one night outside of Coober Pedy! I do have a horror of crocodiles, but Dave and Nicholas weren’t going anywhere they would be an issue. Dave talked about the safety precautions that were sensible for the sort of areas they were travelling through, and that reflects what I believe to be the realistic approach.
JB: Yes, and I also pretended that flies don’t exist, and that the hot weather in Queensland is bearable! I’ll happily admit I idealised the setting somewhat – and Butterfly Hunter was my first proper romance, so maybe I took that a little too far. I didn’t want anything too significant to get in the way of a happy trip (and al fresco sex).
JB: The idea didn’t even occur to me, thank god! LOL! No, that’s a fun film, but I wouldn’t have wanted it hanging over my head as either a positive or a negative example.
AB: Family was an important part of Book 2, and the main fly in the ointment in Book 3 is the arrival of Robin on the scene. He had some interesting theories on life and love and celibacy. Was he based on anyone in particular?
JB: No, he wasn’t. Again, I made him up! I was very interested to explore something of another ‘letter’ in the wondrous GLBTQIA quiltbag, and I did some reading and browsing, thinking and mulling… There are a whole spectrum of sexualities, and I am interested in writing beyond the expected – as long as I feel I am simpatico enough to do justice to the characters and their ‘real life’ counterparts.
AB: Another theme that was important in this book is encapsulated in this paragraph: “Things are generally a little more complicated than that,” Nicholas replied in somewhat softer tones. He’d had the mercy to not even glance at Dave through all this. “I think you’ll find … there are infinite varieties of men and women and those in between.”
JB: I’m really glad that idea stood out for you, as it’s something I believe in wholeheartedly. I would like to think that I bring that notion to everything that I write, though I suppose it is more obvious in this story, where Dave and Nicholas have to try to at least accept if not entirely understand an identity and experience that is quite different from their own.
JB: Interesting question! I never consciously put it that way to myself, but I suppose it’s inevitable from a storytelling perspective. As the third novel in a trilogy, it feels right to challenge or threaten each significant aspect of the whole shebang, and see what results. After such a narrative earthquake, as it were, I certainly consider things settled by the end of the story, though, and I hope readers will feel that way, too.
AB: There are times in the last book when the outside world intrudes, threatening the waterhole. How do you explain what protects it?
JB: This is the ‘mystical’ element of the story, that runs through all three books, which can’t be explained away with science and logic. I’ve made my ideas of what was going on a little more explicit in this book, but still it’s up to the reader to really interpret it. I am a pretty sceptical person, and an ardent atheist, but for some reason my writing tends to include hints of ‘more things in heaven and earth’. Maybe I just wish there were. But then one of the aspects of this story that interests me is having Dave, a sceptic and atheist like me, thrown into the midst of a situation where there really might be something more going on.
May I finish by saying, AB, that I really appreciate all the careful thought and analysis you put into these questions. It is rare to have romance novels treated as respectfully or seriously as other literary work, and I am very grateful. It is delightfully affirming!
Julie has kindly donated a copy of "The Thousand Smiles of Nicholas Goring"
The winner will be chosen on November 11th from those who have left a comment.