Alasdair lives in Brisbane, Australia. His first book, Holding Patterns, will be published next month by Bonfire Books, which can be pre-ordered for Australian customers here. You can follow him on Instagram.
Conducted by Lily Hull
L: What are some of the cultural advantages of growing up in a place like Townsville, as opposed to somewhere like Sydney or Melbourne?
A: This is a question I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. In 2017 I did this program with the university and as part of that I ended up speaking with Tim Costello briefly. We spoke about Australian identity, this was in Paris as a part of the program, at the OECD conference there. I have been thinking about it for the last five years really and I think what’s unusual about growing up in Australia and Townsville is the sense of the contingency of our identity, as opposed to countries with more established histories and firmly defined nationalistic cultures than Australia. I lived in Townsville until I was nineteen and as a kid I grew up consuming a blend of Japanese cartoons and videogames, American TV, European novels. I lived in a house built in the 1800’s that is now outfitted with Korean electronics. Townsville is a former British colonial town that isn’t all that developed and opens onto this sort of vast expanse of undeveloped Australian landscape, and so I think I had this very postmodern upbringing and I had all of these different cultural imports easily accessible to me at all times, which I consumed against the backdrop of that underdeveloped landscape. To quote the kind of Mark Fisher perspective on this, I lived both at the end of history and a place where history seems that it hadn’t started yet. There’s this Camus’ quote from his novel The First Man as well where he says living in Algeria, which was a French colony at the time, he says I “had been born in a land without forefathers and without memory” and I think that kind of summarises what Townsville is like for me. Overall, I have this sense of contingency and that contingency comes from both within the culture I lived in and there was also a sense of contingency of that culture, because it’s seen as kind of arbitrarily plopped down in the landscape there. Living in Townsville I think I discovered that sense of contingency of identity more readily than I might have had if I lived in a place like Sydney or Melbourne, where I think culture tends to be more deterministic for people and their outlooks.
L: I can empathise as someone who also grew up in a northern coastal town, which you could similarly describe as undeveloped. If we then look to Holding Patterns, which I’m sure is very exciting for you, being your first published book.
L: You write about a lot of common experiences in Holding Patterns such as office work, technology, terrorism (the mediated experience of it anyway), widespread discontent with work, social life and cultural products. What do you hope to offer people with writing like yours?
A: This has been a theme of all of the writing I’ve actually done. Anti, which I submitted to Bonfire, which became Holding Patterns is actually my second manuscript and the first one, was a manuscript I haven’t yet published. Both Anti, Holding Patterns and that first manuscript all dealt with the theme of hope, so what I hope to offer people is, actually, hope I suppose. The answer I wrote down is that the principle of care animates all the work I do and its purpose, perhaps ambitious, is to sort of reveal and transform the ethics of those who encounter it and also myself as the author through the act of communicating it and my audience who might experience that through reading it. In Holding Patterns the way I tried to give hope to my readers is by transcribing and creating for the reader a performance of both empathy and introspection. I was inspired by the writings of a psychologist called Heinz Kohut who trained as a Freudian but developed his own school of psychology called Self Psychology and he has this fantastic paper where he outlines the underpinnings of psychoanalytic therapy. He basically says that empathy and introspection are the two things that give us any kind of knowledge of another end of ourself, and he also says that empathy and introspection are the things in therapy which allow us to transform the patient, to allow them to develop and to heal. When I talk about these traumatic things, like the experience of workplace bullying, or the encounter with terrorism through the media, or my family’s experience of depression in that last essay, I’m essentially trying to explore and demonstrate the emancipatory potential of empathy and introspection for myself and also to provoke that experience of empathy in the reader, and also provide empathy for the reader. I hope that when people read this they will perhaps experience that emancipatory potential of those things themselves.
L: I definitely experienced a lot of these things while reading Holding Patterns and so I think you’ve done well to bring those to fruition. Do you write anything else aside from non-fiction? Why do you gravitate to non-fiction as a medium?
A: I actually write a lot of things aside from non-fiction. My originally aspiration as a writer was, and still is actually, was to write novels but every time I try to write a novel I basically find myself diverted from my fiction by questions of philosophy, ethics and politics and those sorts of things. I usually feel a need to answer those questions before I continue to write the fiction that I’m working on. It’s now actually at the point where I’ve started lots of different novel projects and completed three non-fiction manuscripts and no fiction manuscripts. Even Holding Patterns began when I became frustrated with a novel I was trying to write and I’m currently working on a new novel at the moment. It’s one I’m hoping I’m going to finish and publish but some days I can feel that call of non-fiction again saying, “just write an essay about this, it’ll be easier and better.” I was thinking that a psychoanalyst would probably say that my work is a kind of productive failure and there’s this sense in me that at the very edge of my conscious mind that I’m unconsciously thwarting one mode of work by doing another and so in a neat inversion of the Freudian symptom that works because it doesn’t, I do not work by working.
Aside from that, I think more charitably than the analytic interpretation, I think one of my strengths as a creative is that I’m quite good at allowing myself to be seized by my creative compulsions and have fidelity to those compulsions, whatever form they take. For the last few years that compulsion has been for non-fiction, and I think that’s partly because our culture has become so intensely political that it would be hard to say something true about my life and the lives of those around me without speaking about how real subjectivities in real environments respond to real political events. There’s also the sense as well that, the form that your creativity chooses is something that you have control over. Like when I speak, I speak in English by default and my intention to speak is captured by the language I know. It’s a similar thing, I try to write and it just comes out that way. There’s a quote from a poet that I read recently where he says about his poems “If I could have written them differently I would have” and that’s the sort of feeling I have about why I write non-fiction.
To give you a short answer, I would love to write fiction but I keep getting distracted, and maybe that’s a good thing.
L: It definitely is, I think that you can find some of your best work by getting a bit distracted from other things.
A: Definitely, I think that we are always guided to the right place by our unconscious minds when we’re doing creativity. As an artist I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences about starting one project and then ending up doing something entirely different, that’s better than your original idea.
L: Absolutely. You’ve spoken about some authors that inspired your work and others that I can see have found their way into some of your essays. Can you give me one living author that you admire?
A: So I’ve broken the rules and I’m going to give you two (laughs).
L: (laughs) Go for it.
A: Absolutely and without hesitation, Don DeLillo. His book Underworld in particular is just unbelievable, just sentence after sentence of brilliant insight I think and yeah, there’s not another novel that has been written in the last thirty years that I think is even close to it. With that being said, of more contemporary writers and of more young writers, I think Ben Lerner’s first two works are pretty unbelievable. 10:04 I think, that’s a novel written about the interplay between what the author often refers to as the virtual and the actual. Every single paragraph of the novel resounds with that theme and is written with the intent of developing that theme. I just think the construction of it is unbelievable and almost perfect. You know, there are very few novels around that you can say that about.
L: Is there an author that people would be surprised to know that you like? Guilty pleasures and the like.
A: I had to think about this one for a while actually. This is definitely a kind of guilty pleasure, I think it is going to sound a bit perverse but some of my favourite experiences as a reader usually begin with this flash of critical insight. It’s kind of the moments where an author’s ‘entire intellectual edifice’, to quote Alan Greenspan, appears before your eyes and promptly collapses. I find the critique of work, particularly when it’s a work whose logic is duplicated throughout our culture is kind of like a dark delight for me I suppose. The books I most enjoy are the ones I most disagree with or that provoke me to think long and hard about my own assumptions and then abandon what I once thought. In that respect some of my favourite books are Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, that furtively religious text which pretends that it’s not, as well as The Way of Transformation by Karlfried Graf Durckheim, a former Nazi turned Zen-Christian-Jungian spiritual leader whose book made me feel very uncomfortable about the links between liberal and fascist ideologies. Both books I found incredibly enlightening but not at all for the reasons the authors intended. Basically, my favourite book is by a fascist I guess (laughs).
L: I guess we’ll summarise that answer into that last line then (laughs). Let’s return back to the musical instruments on your wall, which we spoke about briefly before the interview. Where else do you draw inspiration for your work from?
A: As a creative my original intention before I started writing was to be a musician and I took that very seriously from about the age of sixteen to about twenty-five or thereabouts. I got incredibly into song writing and composition and recording and all that kind of stuff. I think my most recent work, I’ve released about twenty-two tracks in the last five years with an artist called Ozi Jarel whose a Ugandan poet and rapper and I’ve produced those beats. We’ve had a few tracks played on Triple J and that’s been a lot of fun. My heart does lie in more sort of, I’d say more sort of indie art rock kind of stuff, like David Bowie, LCD Soundsystem. They’re huge favourites of mine and have been for a long time. Musically, those sorts of people have definitely inspired me and in terms of film, I’m very inspired by Adam Curtis’ work as a documentary maker. I could go on about him for an hour, what he does both aesthetically and politically is very cool.
L: It’s incredible how visuals and sounds can inspire writing in such a profound way.
A: Absolutely, he has the intellectual script that he’s reading and the visuals and the music prompt all these unconscious emotional associations. I suppose you could make the argument that he’s perhaps a little bit manipulative with his audience but I think that if you take it as an aesthetic experience as much as a political one it’s pretty incredible.
L: Can you tell me about an early memory of yours with language? One where you learnt it could hold such power, as is shown in your own work.
A: I need to think about that this one for a moment. I had about ten different associations just then, so I suppose I’ll have to pick some of them. I started speaking when I was about ten months old and my first words to my mother were “up,” as in you know, pick me up I believe. One other early experience with language was when I was a kid I would be endlessly recycling language in my head and turning it into spoonerisms and anagrams and almost doing this sort of anarchic little poetry, like nonsense poetry in my head constantly. I’d just be taking words and folding them, turning them around and seeing how they resonated with other words in my head and it was almost a very private experience that I didn’t necessarily share with people. I just had this quite continuous and loud voice in my head that was constantly manipulating language. It has almost been a habit of mine since I was a little kid, that experience of language as consciousness. At the more poetic side of language where you’re trying to make it do things that it doesn’t ordinarily do. In terms of reading, grade two where I was six or seven, I had just started reading Harry Potter and that was sort of the first time the narrative form really gripped me and changed everything. I was obsessed with reading from thereon. The last answer to that question would be an incredibly profound experience of language I had at university when I studied economics. I had this tutor who used to stand in front of the class and just go off track and talk for an hour. There was this one moment where I was exposed to an international economics course and he outlined the logic that connected oil prices with economic surpluses and the rise of wall street and then the damaging political events that happened in Latin America later in the 20th century. Connecting all those dots just blew my little mind. That was another experience of language, and its power to link things together.
L: What are you optimistic about?
A: I think on a political level, the progressive political consciousness of those about ten to fifteen years younger than myself, so you know, age thirteen to twenty or thereabouts. That really makes me feel hopeful. When I was younger, this would have been like the 2000’s, so I guess between 9/11 and the GFC. I think how I felt about politics was a consequence of the prevailing social milieu of the time. My friends and I kind of shared the sense that political engagement wasn’t really important, we sort of, I think felt as if any of the changes that happened would be incremental things, that things would more or less stay as they were. Things of importance had been decided and it would just be technological progress and improving material consumption within a capitalistic system from there. Marc Fisher’s term for that is ‘capitalist realism’ and I think the prevalent ideology of everyone I knew was just accepting of the capitalistic society we knew as the system it was, and that there was no outside to neoliberal society I suppose. The idea that we would protest anything seemed kind of quaint and anachronistic and something that people in grainy, monochromatic film clips would do, but nobody actually really did anymore. I think any political thinking and criticism I did, and in retrospect I was doing that quite obsessively without realising it, but I would do it privately in my own mind and that was completely detached from existing progressive discourses, which I was completely ignorant of. These beliefs and habits have been challenged in recent years, partly with the whole Brexit/Trump saga, as well as the Covid19 lockdowns. The sense of impotence and disengagement people my age might have felt growing up, I think, has receded. It makes me happy that capitalism is no longer a dirty word in politics, which I think it was about ten years ago and discussions about progressive alternatives are kind of mainstream. To me, this is quite a profound shift in a hopeful development.
On a personal level, and I think this is something more akin to religious faith, but given that I give all of my time over to writing, I obviously have some sort of tacit optimism about writing as an act. Writing makes me feel as though I’m pursuing a future that I desire personally, whereas other things I had done before didn’t give me that sense. Writing for me is a place where, like I said in the introduction to Holding Patterns, a place where you can identify and break the patterns of thought and speech and behaviour and emotion that you might have been trapped in. In that sense, writing for me is a kind of space of transcendence where your imagination can mingle with your emotions and find new ways for you to move forward and to change your life and the world. Writing for me is a hopeful act.
L: That really shows throughout the essays. While you grapple with these really difficult questions and experiences, you always come back to this hopeful standing in the end.
A: Yeah, thank you. To quote Ben Lerner in the book I mentioned before, he says art has to offer something other than stylised despair and I really hope that my work does that as well.
L: Moving onto one of the last questions, what does it mean for you to be Australian? How does this find its way into your writing?
A: This, I think, relates to my answer to the first question. As many people on the progressive side of politics do, I think I have pretty complicated and contradictory feelings about my national identity and about nationality as part of anybody’s identity, but I think there’s a positive side to the Australian identity that comes with the sense of contingency that I mentioned before. Most of what we call Australian is an incredibly recent invention. I looked this up, and our population increased about five-fold in the last hundred years and doubled in the last 50 years. So, anything that we might meaningfully describe as a stable Australian identity sort of doesn’t exist. It’s a bit of a fantasy on behalf of those who would argue on its behalf. While that means that there’s a sort of sense of uncertainty and indeterminacy and something undefined at the heart of Australian identity, I think that that means there is an enormous capacity for change within the Australian identity. We are not determined as a people and our capacity to define what it means to be Australian today, is quite strong still. In none of my essays do I talk about Australia particularly, I think I mention it here and there but it’s more an incidental fact to what I’m talking about in the essays. That being said, one of the novels I’ve started and haven’t finished is about this. I think what Australia has shows for identity in general is that identity itself is a sort of fiction and something that we create anew constantly. That freedom to redefine who we are is something that comes with being Australian and I think that’s probably part of my whole project, that sense of an attempt to change and the belief that there’s capacity for that.
L: What a positive outlook. Now I have one more question, purely for my own curiosity. Do you have a favourite essay?
A: In the book?
L: Yeah, out of the six you’ve given us.
A: Ah geez, great question. I really like all of them for different reasons and I’m really quite happy with all of them. I think I was quite pleased with how personal the essay on Metroid, the second one in the volume, is. The act of introspection that I do there, I was really impressed with how that turned out and really pleased that I took it as far as I did. I kind of liked that one formally because, obviously with the footnotes, I’m leaning into David Foster Wallace’s style there, but I think about three quarters of the way through the essay I explain what psychoanalyst’s call the schizoid, which is the sort of retreat into language at the expense of your external world and your relations, and the elaboration of these complex systems of thought and investment of all your personal energy in that elaboration as opposed to, maybe, your relationships in the outside world. I thought what I was doing formally, was representing that on the page, as well as impliedly critiquing David Foster Wallace’s mode of writing by putting the whole schizoid thing inside the essay itself. So I really liked that one formally, and I also really like the 9/11 essay. That one took a lot of effort to get the point that I get from Samuel Beckett, to work that into the essay. About when we’re confronted with the thought of nothingness. Trying to construct that positively as an immediate self-defeating act that we nonetheless have to partake in. Letting that bleed into the writing was a difficult thing to do and it turned out really well in that one.
L: Well, these have been amazing answers. I might end the interview here, but I want to thank you for such a thought-provoking conversation. It’s been a pleasure to have you chatting with us today and I can’t wait to see Holding Patterns in the flesh.
A: Nor can I. Thanks for organising it, I’ve been quite excited about it all this week.