‘The view is amazing,’ says Andrew Croome as he rearranges the furniture. We’re in the upstairs studio where he worked on his most recent novel, Midnight Empire. The view is indeed amazing: from the studio’s place at the base of Mount Majura there’s the stillness and quiet of Canberra’s well-heeled northern suburbs, the low-lying landscape border of O’Connor Ridge, and the Brindabella ranges beyond, which this afternoon are dusted in snow. Driving here to interview Croome I couldn’t help realising – yet again – how peaceful this part of the world actually is, and beautiful, despite the fact that it’s been raining and sleeting for much of the day. On this dear old Earth of ours could there be a more serene city? It’s hard to imagine.
Furniture now rearranged – Croome is adamant that I should have the comfortable bucket-style armchair – and voice-recorder set to play, we get to talking. In publicity photos, this young Australian novelist looks like a character from the nerdy TV show The Big Bang Theory, but in person he is handsome, albeit in a boyish way, and has a thick and expansive 5 o’clock shadow that looks as if it’s been transplanted from a much older man. And his clear and thoughtful way of speaking seems to come from a much older man too, as though he’s been around the world a few times, and by the sounds of it he has, in his fiction at least.
It is one of those extraordinary qualities of Canberra that we have in our midst a writer of Andrew Croome’s calibre. Described by publisher Allen & Unwin as a ‘Cold War historical novel’, Croome’s first book was Document Z which examined the Petrov affair, something else peculiar to the ACT. For Croome the book won the Australia/Vogel’s Literary Award in 2008 and the University of Technology Sydney Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. In 2010 Andrew Croome was named a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year. If all this isn’t enough, Croome has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, which examined the relationship between fiction and history (perhaps our federal politicians should have a read and learn a few things). Somewhat surprisingly, Croome’s way of speaking isn’t overly academic or highfalutin, just concise and logical and appealing, a lot like the way he writes.
The main character in Midnight Empire is Daniel Carter, an Australian computer programmer whose Canberra-based software company sends him to work at the drone program run out of the Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. There he spends his days observing pilots flying unmanned but very definitely armed airplanes over Pakistan and his nights playing poker in the casinos, all the while forming a relationship with a woman without a history. It is an elegantly structured and chiselled narrative that follows Carter as he makes a series of mistakes that will have dire consequences for more than himself.
How would Croome describe Midnight Empire? ‘It’s an espionage thriller,’ he says, ‘but it didn’t necessarily start out as one. It became one because of the subject material and the drones and the CIA involvement. The novel is about the nature of modern warfare and globalisation and technology and how that’s changing our experiences of geography, how it’s raising moral questions. It used to be that, unless you were conscripted, you made a conscious decision to go to war. My character just ends up at war through his job. His workplace becomes a theatre of war, and in a sense the whole of Las Vegas becomes a theatre of war. That’s what drones tend to do. It’s meant to be about remoteness but if anything it brings the war into the city and into the home territory and into the home society.’
Surely researching what is undoubtedly a strictly controlled operation must have posed challenges. ‘I tried to get onto the airbase,’ he tells me, ‘but they weren’t taking journalists or writers. It was around the time of the Afghan war-logs [a collection of internal US military logs of the war in Afghanistan, also called the Afghan War Diary] being released by Wikileaks, so that might have contributed to them not wanting to give me a tour. Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t a big enough name from The Guardian.’ Croome laughs, but it’s slightly pained. ‘I’ve noticed that they’re trying to do more and more positive stories about drone warfare, so they’re certainly not trying to hide it. You know, there are predictions that by 2040 the entire air force will be drones.’
What was the original inspiration? Croome says it was the remarkable fact that the United States military would choose to pilot their unmanned aerial drones from a city like Las Vegas, which is already unreal and in many ways simulated as well as geographically confused. ‘So it comes down to questions of morals,’ he says, ‘and questions of chance. I was considering a novel about poker at the same time and when the two connected I said to myself, this is the next book.’
From a writing technical point of view the main character is not physically in the thick of war, instead he watches it happen on computer screens. ‘That’s why I didn’t start with the idea of an espionage thriller,’ Croome explains. ‘I started with a question: what is the experience of drones? It’s almost an aesthetic question. They’re very interesting and evocative objects – they have a presence. So half the novel came out of Las Vegas and the other half in Pakistan, and some in Europe. But a lot of it is mediated through screens and geography. There’s this breakdown of the idea of geography and the question of how much does geography matter in a world of drones, and in a world of poker as well.’
In Midnight Empire poker forms a strong contrasting narrative thread.
Andrew Croome teases this out. ‘One of the things poker is about for the players who are very successful is a detachment from geography, because they’re very mobile in the world – they’re constantly on tour, they have cash, they can disappear off the grid. It was fertile ground for me to go in and put some concepts in play and see where it all ended up.’
Croome says that his task as a novelist is to mediate the arguments and to present them in different ways and to work through them. ‘In the writing about these questions you’re not only considering them but you follow them and you end up in places that you didn’t expect when you started. That’s always something that I’m trying to do with my writing: not consciously plan it too much. Mainstream spy thrillers are heavily planned, whereas my writing begins with a question and works through it and it doesn’t mind too much where it ends up.’
Wanting to know more about Andrew Croome the human being, I put forward something Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once said: ‘Heartland is the part of the writer that the reader gets to know well.’ At first, Croome appears flummoxed. ‘What’s that mean?’ he says, before – thankfully – settling into a smile. I reword the question: What part of him should the reader connect with?
‘A fascination with that question: where is the world heading? What is technology doing to or for humanity? How is it impacting on what it means to be in the world? I don’t consider myself an autobiographical writer, so the concerns of this book are what I’m thinking about. I wouldn’t say that I have a burning political imperative. It’s about the question of being human, that question of being comfortable or uncomfortable. That question of bending to other people’s will all the time. Daniel in Midnight Empire is constantly following the path set to him by others. That’s a question I face continually, which is deciding for oneself and not just doing things because other people would like you to. That’s courage.’
Our interview finished, Andrew Croome leads me downstairs to the front door. He asks about my own writing – like many novelists it’s possible that he’s more comfortable asking the questions. We shake hands and he wishes me well. A minute later I’m driving out of Canberra’s Inner North suburbs. Even though it’s only 7pm, the streets are dark and largely deserted. I drive past the Australian War Memorial and the turnoff to the defence complex tucked behind the back of Campbell, and past the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and, a little later, past the turnoff to the Joint Operations Headquarters south of the pretty rural village of Bungendore.
Quite suddenly I’m struck by the thought that, as Midnight Empire points out so frighteningly, this neck of the woods in the future might not be as peaceful and tranquil and serene as it is now. It may well become a place where people get up in the morning and kiss their partners and children goodbye and spend the next twelve hours destroying targets and killing people on the other side of the globe via robots in the sky. As Andrew Croome says, we will cross paths with these people in our supermarket queues and in the neighbourhood pub. For parts of the United States of America, this is happening right now as you read these words. We should thank our lucky stars that a novelist like Croome is living amongst us and asking the hard questions. And entertaining thousands as he does so.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 1 September 2012. Thanks to Gia Metherell and Alan and Unwin. Gratitude to Andrew Croome.)