Talking with Jock Serong
Today is a day of celebration! Not only are we sailing into Spring with a clear and breezy day, but it's also the day to crack the champagne over the bow of the Moonbird, as Jock Serong's latest novel, The Burning Island, begins its voyage out into bookshops and readers' hands Australia-wide. This novel follows on from his previous book, Preservation, but of course it can stand on its own two feet (though why wouldn't you read all of the Serong novels regardless?). We had a little chat with Jock this morning about - well, all kinds of things, but mostly books.
So Jock, we’ve sailed into Spring this week, and you’ve launched another boat - the Moonbird - with the release of your brand new novel, The Burning Island! Can you give us a bit of a teaser about the book?
I'll try - there's a lot going on in this one. It's the story of Eliza Grayling and her father Joshua, set in 1830. Readers of Preservation will recognise the surname, and Burning Island is a kind of sequel to Preservation, albeit 33 years later. But it's an entirely different story: a journey from Sydney to the Furneaux Islands in eastern Bass Strait in a beautiful Danish schooner called the Moonbird. Eliza and Joshua are in pursuit of Joshua's old nemesis, Mr Figge, who is believed to have a caused a shipwreck in the islands and looted the cargo. The story of the wreck is based on a real wreck called the Britomart: people in Sydney believed at the time that the sealers in the straits had deliberately wrecked it.
So there's that voyage-story, but I've also looked in detail at the sealing communities in the strait, and the Aboriginal women who lived with the sealers, known as tyereelore. They were extraordinary people, and the historical reasons why they were there are still controversial. It's part of Australian history I wish more people knew about, because it's fascinating and it tells us a lot about the dynamics of early settlement in Victoria and Tasmania. And I guess the other element to this novel is the natural world. I love writing about the sea, and sea creatures and weather and coastlines, so I've really indulged myself here... You’re a bit of a master at creating the most heinous characters. Are there other literary villains who have inspired you along the way? I'm not sure what it says about me - you can't even describe yourself as "stable" anymore without sounding Tr*mpian, but I'm quite a stable person. It's just... I have a fascination with reading and writing villains. There are some narrative conventions that have built up around them: they generally have a backstory, and a reason for being such bastards, but you can also bend the rules and take a villain in unexpected directions. You can hide them, you can let them win when they clearly don't deserve to. The possibilities are endless. Some of my favourites are the Devil and his retinue in The Master and Margarita [Mikhail Bulgakov], Judge Holden in Blood Meridian [Cormac McCarthy], and Henry Drax in The North Water [Ian McGuire].
The interesting thing about writing Australian history is that there's an implied, collective villain hovering over the whole thing: the colonisers. There's an atmosphere of ruthlessness and a dreadful inevitability about any given situation - it's almost impossible to be light-hearted about our history. Will we see more ships (sorry, books) from you in the future? There's one more tale I want to tell about the Furneaux Islands, and then that will close out the trilogy. After that I'm considering rom coms: I've sketched out an eight-part series about a charming but hapless HR executive from Potts Point who falls for a beautiful quantum physicist but can't overcome his adorable shyness. It's early days. What are you working on this week? This is probably a sketch of ordinary days for lots of Australian fiction writers: I've got some commercial copy to take care of (aquatic parks in southeast Asia); some work on my PhD, which is getting dangerously close to its use-by; a piece for Meanjin on what I'm reading; one for Surfing World about the Aboriginal culture at famous surfing spots; some editing on Great Ocean Quarterly; an interview for a building company's internal newsletter, a podcast launch for Burning Island and some work on the new novel. And the kids are making home-made pasta, so there'll be some eggs headed south. You have recently claimed the garage as your writing studio - how’s that working out for you as “a room of one’s own”? It's been brilliant: more room for the kids to home-school in the house. The labrador insists on coming in here and loudly, erm...cleaning himself, which can be a little off-putting. There's a view into the house and the garden, which is starting to do its spring riot. I'm surrounded by all my favourite books, a few surfboards, a tray of whisky bottles. I'm very bloody lucky. You and Tim Winton are both known for your love of the surf. Should all ambitious writers surf, do you think? I think everybody should surf. And then I go surfing and I think, why the hell does everybody surf? It goes very well with writing because it disengages the functional gearing of your mind and lets the wheels spin. Ideas turn up, it gives you moods, and it's a perfect window on the natural world. It's very good for you, but I'm sure I'd keep doing it anyway if it wasn't. Having said that, a lot of other activities serve writing very well: walking in particular. Anything that has you half-concentrating while you exercise. And anywhere that the damn phone can't follow you. Those things are the enemies of creativity.
Can you shine a light on some of your favourite reads from 2020? Stone Sky Gold Mountain. Mirandi Riwoe: utterly original, and does what good historical fiction needs to do, which is to shine a light on a part of our history that we mightn't have considered, or had seen all wrong. Beautiful, literary prose. In the Clearing, J.P.Pomare: Josh Pomare is proving quite a master of suspense and misdirection, and his evisceration of cult quackery here is some of his best work. Josh also runs the 'On Writing' podcast series, which is full of great conversations. The Rain Heron, Robbie Arnott: again, startlingly different. A powerful fable about greed and war that called to mind the dark fairytales of the Brother Grimm and Urushima Taro, or even the Studio Ghibli animations. Beautiful and scary and deeply thought-provoking. On the Beach, Nevil Shute: I'm not sure I recommend the experience of reading this in a pandemic. I found it terrifying, one of those novels that gets in your bones (like radiation, you might say) and makes uninvited visits in your sleep. The new hardcover with the Gideon Haigh intro is excellent. The Mother Fault, Kate Mildenhall: pacy, dystopian thriller with a road trip and a voyage thrown in. The divided loyalties of the eponymous mother are very credibly drawn, as are the observations about our mutant political-corporate hybrids. Bluebird, Malcolm Knox: Very witty takedown of Sydney's clifftop bohemians and boomers. Also a surprisingly tender and moral story. And unusually for these times, there's a laugh - sometimes a bitter one - on every page.
And to finish with Jock, we have some questions submitted to Jock by friend and author Michael Winkler (of Grungewick fame).
What perspective do you get writing from Port Fairy that you could not get if you were situated somewhere else?
I get the mesmerising drone of high wind in the Norfolk Pines. I'm woken in the night by masked lapwings, which are the birds the nobody tweets fondly about because they're neurotic and screechy and their territorialism - "I'm claiming the middle of Cox St and I'll defend it to the death" - makes no sense whatsoever. On still nights you get the booming of distant waves. You can forecast Melbourne's weather because it's already overhead. And the reason why 98% of Victoria's writers live in Brunswick also applies here: the combination of grotty pubs and high-end cafes is perfect for a writer's life. And do you know who is behind the fake Tim Winton twitter account?
I wish I did. It's seriously funny, and a good reminder to laugh at yourself before someone else does it for you. Could you beat Trent Dalton in a fist fight?
It'd be like pitting a heavyweight against a bantam. His book is very heavy and any of those blows would hurt, but I've got several smaller books, so I can get in & under and deliver them in combinations, like ribs ribs ear NOSE. In 2020, is it defensible to just have a crime book that is a crime book without any larger meanings or social 'value'?
Wrongfooted me with a serious one here. Yes, it is, because reading fiction is often about escapism. And there are heaps of other reasons to write crime fiction, and to read it. The beauty of the language, the ideas, the ring of truth in the characters. But to put the answer a slightly different way, there's this movement going on where Australian crime fiction, and indeed wider fiction, is tackling difficult and under-explored topics, going back over what we think we believe about ourselves and revising it. We're in the act of describing a new Australia - African Australian stories, stories of gender and sexual complexity, re-examinations of colonialism, stories of the outsiders in the Big Narratives, like war or the goldfields or early Sydney. As a writer, why wouldn't you want to be a part of these movements and stake your own claim among them?
I think you'll agree that Jock's been a very good sport with all of these questions! But, if you do have any others, feel free to add them in the comments at the bottom and we'll see if we can squeeze more answers out of him. Meanwhile, it's not the best of times to be launching new books so please support your local authors - if you wish to purchase a copy of The Burning Island please contact us. If you're local, we're more than happy to deliver fresh-baked books to your doorstep!