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Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English soldier in the First World War who was also one of the leading poets of the conflict. He died a week before Germany’s surrender.

It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’

There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request.  Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency.  But still the request put me in a spin.

All was not lost, however.  I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War.  I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title.  I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.

A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea.  My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete.  Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting?  So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.  Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction.  Whatever that is.

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan.  The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences.  The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words.  But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground.  So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction.  With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.

I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction.  It’s such an innovative enterprise.  Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).

Plus I need more chook food.

There’s been a bit of activity in the world of the Blemish novellas, and, as always, I want to share it with you.  First up, last weekend I read from I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012) at Bloom, an annual ‘open door’ festival held at the Gorman House and Ainslie arts centres in Canberra.  It was a packed day with a whole heap of people checking out the enourmous range of activity that happens in these places, much of it normally behind closed doors.  However, perhaps the most exciting part of the day for me was getting to share a literary bill with a bunch of writers who are extraordinary in their ability to perform their work, including Irma Gold, Sarah Rice, and slam poets Omar Musa and CJ Bowerbird.  I hadn’t seen slam poets so up close and personal, and I was blown away; in fact I really was overwhelmed. If you ever get to see these guys perform, steal your grandmother’s purse to make it happen – the way they deliver, with such connection and understanding of how words spread out and fill all corners and crevices of a room, is something very special.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it's also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it’s also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

And then came this week, with the publication of the spring edition of Island, a longstanding literary journal out of Tasmania.  I always look forward to reading Island, but this one’s personally just a little more special as there’s an extensive interview with me, which was undertaken by Andrew Croome late 2012/early 2013.  Andrew is an award-winning Canberra-based novelist of espionage thrillers, including Document Z (Allen & Unwin, 2009), for which he won the 2008 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, and the highly acclaimed Midnight Empire (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  In a nice case of turning the tables, I’d interviewed Andrew for the Canberra Times and Verity La.  For the Island interview, we covered a fair bit of terrain, including the writing of Fall On Me (Blemish Books, 2011) and I’m Ready Now, the trials and tribulations of shifting between fiction and creative journalism, and the slipperiness of truth.  I won’t spoil the interview – you can buy a hard-copy or e-version of the journal and gobble up all the goodness by clicking on the cover image glaring at you on your screen (!) – but Mr Croome’s first question, which, to be frank, almost stumped me straight up, was this: What compels you to write? Have your reasons been constant, or have they changed over time?   Much gratitude to Andrew for getting me to think about these things, and to Island for giving our interview a home.

UPDATE: Island has now made the interview available for free.  It may be only for a short-time so get in quick, if quick is your thing, and literature is your thing also.

‘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.)

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