Thursday, December 4, 2014

Q&A with writer Brian Castro

Brian Castro, photo courtesy of A. Willis
Brian Castro is the author of 10 novels, including Shanghai Dancing, The Garden Book, and Drift. He also has written many short stories, essays, and other articles. Born in Hong Kong, he has lived in Australia for most of his life.

Q: You recently won the Patrick White Literary Award. What is the significance of that award for you, and what do you think it says about your writing?

A: It is a kind of “lifetime” award for a contribution to Australian literature, so I’m very pleased to have been awarded it. It isn’t a prize one can apply for, nor are there shortlists etc.

It’s a recognition that would not have originated from mainstream sources, which are based on volumes of sales and media appearances.

I’m quite a private person who happens to believe the author should stay in the wings. By the same token, I haven’t been much noticed outside of Australia, I presume for the same reasons.

My books, while dealing tangentially with Australia, come from “elsewhere.” Having been foreign-born, I don’t feel I have to sell Australia or help create its burgeoning mythology. I do however, feel a responsibility to write deeply about what is disappearing: lost emotions, hybrid cultures, the “literary” itself.

Q: You’ve called your novel Shanghai Dancing a fictional biography. Why did you choose that category for it?

A: I think the subjectivity inherent in any kind of writing needs to be transformed into a distanced, material form. The “I” plays another role: performs itself, metamorphoses into a biographical entity which can be examined through different textual lenses.

In the end we are dealing with language rather than representation, so in a sense, to speak of the self is to invent it.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you begin writing, or do you find that you make many changes along the way?

A: I have a very vague sense of the ending, otherwise I feel the novel is meandering. A sense of constriction rather than filling in gaps is what I get excited about; when something “works” because it is tight; when the least significant sentence can encapsulate the whole through its tone or ironic distance.

I do change directions of course, while mid-ocean, but that’s in order to navigate better.

I usually do four edits before sending it to my publisher. I don’t know why four times seems to fit the pattern. Perhaps because the ternary appears too iconic. My fourth reader, which is still myself, is probably the toughest hombre with the least sympathy.

Q: Who are some Australian writers that you feel should be better known internationally?

A: If you mean contemporary Australian writers I would suggest Marion M. Campbell. There are so many layers to her work; goldmines in every sentence. She’s for the very discerning reader.

In terms of the past, I like Thea Astley’s ascerbic view of Australia and I’ve always enjoyed the novels of Randolph Stow.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a verse novel. There is much constriction there, not only in the threat of the margins but in the way a verse novel carves out a field unploughed by poetry or left fallow by prose. It comes back to my preoccupation with language. I like to hone it with a multi-lingual stone.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m reading the work of Georges Perec with great interest. He was briefly in Australia before he died, and I missed meeting him by an hour or so. I rented a flat recently in Paris and only now do I realise he used to live next door, on the rue Linné. These coincidences and near misses are ideal for the writing life. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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