True North: An interview carried in Bookseller and Publisher

From “Bookseller and Publisher” May/June 2009, on The Red Highway and fictional form, the questions put by David Cohen

Q: The Red Highway begins with a detailed account of Czech artist Karel Kupka’s explorations in Australia’s Far North. How did you come to use Kupka’s story as a starting point for the book?

A: Kupka stands as the precursor figure at the opening of this book for a number of reasons: much in his experience seems to mirror what later artists and seekers in the landscape and amidst the societies of north Australia have found: the beauty and the grief of the life-worlds there, the air of complicity that seems to spring up around their travels, the sense of freedom to think and feel deeply, edged by a persistent conviction that the realm they aim to grasp remains elusive. Kupka, I now realize, has served me as a means to focus my own thoughts and sensations, and he has done this because of several elements in his biography that call out to aspects of my own life: he, like me, descends from Prague in Central Europe; his impossible aim is to see and appreciate remote Australia but not do harm in the act of looking and classifying; and the burden of his own being weighs on him very much. He is also a representative of a particular time, an era in the history of the modern world that seems to me to have set and determined our collective fate as a civilization.

Q: The book contains many stories of people struggling to capture the essence of northern Australia’s landscapes. The book itself seems similarly elusive, in that its blend of history, memoir, travel narrative and philosophical inquiry defies any neat categorization. To what extent did this question of landscape dictate the formal composition of The Red Highway?

A: ‘The Red Highway’ contains elements that are fictive, documentary, speculative and transcriptive, but at its heart it is a linked set of tones or moods of response to landscape and life. For some years I have been haunted by the obvious problems of conventional artistic form: specifically by the difficulties of the modern novel, which seems to me to have lost its preeminence as a persuasive vehicle for the portrayal and examination of experience, if it ever had that status in Australia. As a form, it strikes me as something borrowed from elsewhere, and played out, stamped by its time. I have found myself driven to seek out new ways of structuring experience: it is hidden connections that often seem most real to me, and this, I tend to feel, is the lesson of the remote Australian landscape. And so the search for the form and link-system of a narrative is equivalent to the search for the fault-lines in the country. I could offer up other methodological accounts of how the fictive lines in this book operate, but the core, I think, looking back, lies in the act of pursuit itself: this is a truth-narrative arduously sought out, where the narrative is a journey embarked on by the writer without any certainty as to where he will come out: and only a willingness to walk into the shadow can bring one to the light of the close of the book. So I agree: the category of ‘The Red Highway’ is hard to fix: I would say it is a category dictated by the landscape – desert, northern tropics – in which it is set.

Q: Describing the explorer Lawrence Wells’ expedition into the Great Sandy Desert, you remark that his actions seemed pre-destined. As your own personal journey unfolds, there is a sense that your decisions and encounters are part of some greater design. How conscious of this were you – or was it something that became apparent later, as you were writing the book?

A: I feel myself strongly in sympathy with the spirit of this question. I do feel there is a higher way that we can be and feel, a way in which we are more in touch with the demands life makes on us: with a calling. Often, the characters I fix on have to follow certain paths, or have to betray them; often, they have appointments in the future, or they see or know things they cannot know. Perhaps predestination is not quite the right tone here: perhaps it’s more that there’s a kind of obligation, or duty, that hangs over some of these characters. ‘The Red Highway’ is obviously a book that is very much about “the world behind the world” – a realm much more patent out in the echo chamber of the bush than in crowded cities, where quiet for reflection is the enemy. I have a sense that our lives, in all the welter of meaninglessness that surrounds us, do have meaning, and do demand to be lived in a certain way, and this is not just about the physical journey one makes: there is a kind of right path, for the character, and for the writer too – a path that avoids self-betrayal, that seeks the light of truth, that masters and turns away from the surface self. And doubtless all this is rather ideal and very far from the characters in ‘The Red Highway’ and their writer: but just to be aware that the world is not simple, or straitforward, that it has buried veins of beauty and horror, and the acts of one man or woman can change that world, may be enough to begin with. So I am a long way from having any sense of an all-controlling, overshadowing fate: but perhaps there’s a kind of freedom lurking there: freedom in the responsibility such a picture of life gives.

Q: A significant theme of ‘The Red Highway’ is the nature and purpose of art. Kupka, a devoted collector of aboriginal artworks, declares that art’s function is ‘to communicate experience directly; and that the trappings of Western existence serve merely to obscure this drive.’ Do you share his viewpoint?

A: Kupka’s view is not mine: I think that was a kind of glib phrase he fixed on, which reflected his own dreadful desire to reach out and know others: other people, other realms. I come to believe art is connected to our responses to beauty and sacred fear, and everything descends from those responses. So I would not be an advocate of the idea that art, especially literary art, can be seen as a communication vehicle: I would prefer to think that words of a certain kind might set us free, a moment, to escape from the grids of our selves, to glimpse an order that may be present in the world, and to share the intuition of that order written down by a fellow creature. I also have the view that our experience of life, of consciousness, is so filled with grandeur that we have an obligation to try to describe it, to match it, to build up some slight recompense for all the depth and intensity of inwardness we have been given: and so the attempt to weigh and describe life and penetrate into its shadows has a quality of accounting to it, as if in requital of some obscure debt.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: ‘The Red Highway’ completes a writing cycle: I have a set of further projects: one involves desert biographies, one Central Europe. But there is also a case for an author to recognize the virtues of silence.