Excerpt from an interview in the magazine Australian Aboriginal Art, June 2009
Darwin-based author and arts writer Nicolas Rothwell is particularly known for his interest in Australian Indigenous art and culture. His fourth book, The Red Highway, follows Rothwell’s mystical and sometimes fictional journey through northern Australia, a beautiful place strangely unfamiliar to most Australians. He travels from Darwin’s beaches to deep into the Kimberley, encountering along the way a variety of local people – from an aging priest and a cattle station “queen” to artists and art centre managers. While exploring deserted coastlines, hidden towns and the vast landscapes, Rothwell discovers how both ancient and modern Australia connect to the landscape – and to himself.
Where does the title ‘The Red Highway’ come from?
The idea is to encapsulate the spirit of a book in an attractive form and to give the reader – when they step back at the end of the book – the opportunity of saying “Yes: I understand what quarry the writer was hunting [for] and what the overall scope of the book might be”. And in this case I would encourage you to think of it not in terms of anything as literal as a dirt road that is reddish in colour. I would encourage you to think in terms of blood and mortality and life and death. There are many characters [in the book] who are interested in bringing a life to its term, or escaping from or preserving life. It would be appropriate to think of the highway of the title not purely as a road, but in terms of a vein or an artery.
Would you classify it as a travel book or a novel?
Well, it is certainly not a travel book. My feeling is that the novel as a genre has reached its term. It’s a very fluid and beautiful genre, but it’s something that is from a particular time. The literary tradition which I am emerging from and in some sense seeking to continue is the Central European one: that of the “tale” – rather than the novel – the tale as a kind of series of events that shapes and lends structure to life. For me, this is the structuring pattern of a book: the persistence or re-occurrence over time and place, and in different domains and different hearts, of similar linked emotions, and their progression. So this is certainly not a work of fact and there are elements of it that are completely fictitious, just as there are elements in it that are documentary. They are confected together like this because that’s the way they conjugated in my thoughts. I hold up the Baroque architect Borromini: it was said of him – by one of his detractors – that he loved nothing more than to make the real unreal: to make a false thing true. There is something of that aesthetic and ethical position in the books that I have been writing recently.
How do you think the landscape of Australia relates to the idea of the novel?
Australia is very much the landscape of the “tale”. And I have been inclined to regard the beauty of the tale as more important than its veracity: indeed more veridical than veracity. Fiction and form have become great concerns of mine in recent years, ever since I have been able to occupy the novel from the inside, to begin to see as a practitioner how the form works and to see what is beautiful and extraordinary about it. This experience also gradually gave me a sense that [the novel] is outmoded. What I am really driving at is a sense that the Australian landscape… well, not the part that I live in anyway…is somehow not sufficiently socialised and humanised to take the novel form. You need other ways of getting at things: other forms of connection and other structures. I always find that novels set in remote Australia are very structurally underdone, with not enough skeleton or fabric from which to hang the story. They feel somehow wrong, even the best of them. That is why in the end I have fallen back on this kind of structure, which as I say is much more “tale-like”. My point is that this isn’t some sort of structure that I have selected casually, or because of some fondness for loose structure over the rigour of a conventional novel: it has been done for particular reasons.
What was the impetus for this book? Was it something you had in mind for a while, or did it emerge through your travels?
It’s not a very opaque story. This book has a predecessor, Wings of Kite-Hawk, which presents a happier sketch of some of the same themes one encounters in The Red Highway. After I had finished that book and written other books, it happened that I went on a journey to Iraq and the Middle East for a year and a half. When I returned it seemed to me to be very important to seek to reconnect with the country I had been living in; and to go on a set of explorations into the bush and see what people I knew there might have got up to in the intervening period. That was the gestation, the beginning period of the narrative. To some extent it is a true account of that process of seeking a degree of calm, and seeking to reconnect. I guess it was written primarily for my own salvation rather than for that of the reader.
The novel talks about some of the unforgettable people you’ve met in your travels. Can you tell us about some of the artists who are mentioned?
To cast my memory back, the second chapter is essentially a portrait of a painter named Daisy Andrews, a well-known artist to whom, and to whose work, I feel very close. Through the book there is certainly a running theme: the way in which the landscape and the forces in the landscape are seen by artists from the first cultures. The cover, for example, was not chosen lightly. The artist of the painting depicted on the cover, Angelina George, is, for me, the most important artist living in Australia today. It is a great joy to have her painting on the cover, and it seems to me to say a great deal about what is going on in the book. There are parts of the book which glide over certain aspects of the Aboriginal domain, and that domain – which has its own understanding of what matters and what is power and what is beautiful – has had a lot of influence on me in the way that I think about fiction and form.