Our Library recently spoke to Brendan Gullifer about his novel, SOLD, which has been selected as one of 10 notable books for The Summer Read, an initiative of the State Library of Victoria, presented at Our Library from 1 January to 26 March.
SOLD is a fast-paced and highly entertaining satirical novel, which examines the underbelly of the real estate industry. You will have the chance to meet Brendan Gullifer at Hastings Library on Saturday 30 January.
In the lead up to his visit, Brendan Gullifer spoke to us about his writing practice, the cathartic nature of writing and the transition from working in journalism to writing fiction.
SOLD is your debut novel, however, you have worked as a journalist and an editor and you have also written the non-fiction book, The Pocketbook of Aussie Patriotism (2007). Was it difficult to make the transition to fiction? Or was this something y0u had dreamt of doing for a long time?
Back in the early nineties, I was in a job that involved a lot of travel. I would spend nights in hotel rooms writing fiction. My dream, my goal, was to write a novel and get it published. It was also to write a novel that did so well commercially I could make a living from it. (That part hasn’t happened yet.)
So writing fiction has been a passion for a while now.
I have been a professional writer, however, for most of my working life. I’ve worked as a newspaper journalist and editor around Australia and overseas. I’ve also worked in advertising and magazine publishing.
Additionally, I taught English as a second language so have a good theoretical and practical grasp of grammar and the rules of language.
But I came to realise that writing fiction requires a different set of skills to any other sort of writing. It requires different muscles, if you like.
While I read a lot of books about the craft, the first fiction classes I took were not until 2002. It was a workshop where people passed around and critiqued work. Most of the other members were much younger than me.
And they were tenacious, unbounded in their enthusiasm to destroy the writing of fellow classmates.
Often I would go home feeling battered and despondent.
But looking back, it was strangely healthy (in a masochistic way).
It helped me to develop a thick skin, which is important. I also became adept at discovering which people and which criticism were actually helpful.
I developed an ear, I think, where I could pick through the dross and take on board what was really beneficial.
I later did a Masters in Writing at RMIT University in Melbourne. This was much more collegiate and supportive.
When you’re on this journey, there’s nothing better than hanging out with people who get you, and who get what you’re trying to do.
Writing fiction is a long and solitary process. If you wish to get published, it will probably mean a lot of rejection. (More than 300 agents and publishers in Australia and the US rejected my first novel, still unpublished.)
So it’s vital to hang out with people who are on the same journey, who understand what you’re trying to achieve and who are willing to provide support.
The Pocketbook of Aussie Patriotism was a detour. I was pitching ideas to Melbourne publishing company Black Inc. back in 2005. I told them about a compact guide to English history that had done very well in the UK in 2004. (I’d read about it on the net.) I suggested they do an Australian version. And they asked me if I was interested in compiling it.
That was a surprise. The only history I had studied was at school. And I was an appallingly disinterested student.
So I dropped my fiction writing and worked on it almost full-time for a year. It did reasonably well and gave me insight into the author-publisher relationship, and how the book industry works.
After it was published, I did more than 30 radio, press and TV interviews and gave more than 50 speeches. So it helped me get comfortable with that side of the publishing business as well.
You worked in the real estate industry for around 18 months. Was SOLD conceived while you were an agent or did you decide to write it at a later period?
I’ve come to realise that one of the things that drives my storytelling is a sense of catharsis. I want to take dark periods of my life and make something positive out of them through writing.
Prolific American writer Stephen King says he sees his writing as a revolutionary act, raising his fist to the world. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre but I love that.
Writing SOLD was a long process but it happened after I’d left real estate. I was trying to find my way back after 18 very stressful and not particularly successful months. Professionally, I had failed. My health was bad. I had gone backwards financially.
My first novel had been rejected by just about everyone. So I started tinkering with SOLD, and it grew from there. I started taking writing classes, and tried to develop productive writing habits (i.e. writing every day, or almost every day).
Did you consciously decide to write a satirical novel or did it slowly evolve?
It definitely evolved.
I wanted to lift the curtains on the real estate industry, to convey an emotional truth about people who work in it, their motivations, their thinking, how they operate, why they are like they are.
It later surprised me that people found the book funny. (I’m used to telling jokes around the kitchen table and having my teenage kids roll their eyes.)
But I definitely wanted to write something that would be a “good read”, and a page-turner. There are so many options for our leisure-time these days. I wanted the book to be engaging, to carry readers on a journey.
So I was always conscious of raising the stakes, of lifting the reality of it.
But I never set out to write satire.
I was partly inspired by the Australian television show Frontline. Many called that satire. Having worked in the media, I thought it was very close to the truth.
I know of real estate agents who have bought my book because they feel it accurately reflects what goes on.
But writing the book was a process. It probably went through a dozen drafts. There was a whole section that looked at the rental industry. On the advice of my publishers, I cut that out.
I covered the lounge room wall with little yellow plot-point cards, and spent a month shifting them around, trying different combinations.
One version of the manuscript had about six other characters in it. They never made it into the final cut.
In short, I grappled with every aspect. For most of the time, it felt like pulling teeth, or scratching about in the dirt.
And the final manuscript was 50,000-60,000 words shorter than an earlier version. I became tenacious at cutting stuff out, because every time I did so the work felt intrinsically stronger.
How would you describe your writing practice?
Eclectic. Trying to write fiction every day is the hardest thing. Life interrupts. I’ll do anything not to begin. But if I don’t do it every day, I become restless.
I have had periods where I have written fiction full-time, and that sort of existence had an unreal, otherworldly feel. I hadn’t been published then so it also felt indulgent, and eccentric, like tilting at windmills. Practically anything else felt more important, more grounded, more productive.
Now that I have a full-time job, I would certainly welcome a good clear six months to complete my current project. (The grass is always greener, I guess.)
So now I just grab periods when I can: late at night, sometimes in the morning, at airports. Even if I only write a couple of sentences, it can feel complete, and satisfying.
Always, the hardest thing is starting. Sometimes I tell myself I’ll just open the laptop and “play” around for a couple of minutes… re-read the last few sentences I wrote, add a word here or there. Then I get hooked into it and two or three hours can whizz by.
The less pressure I put on myself, the more relaxed and consistent I am, the better the outcome.
This is a new experience for me. In the past, it was a painful battle against writer’s block and self-doubt. Now I just sit down and do it. I’m less judgmental, and more accepting that writing is a process. The first draft will be lousy. But the work will improve with work.
Where do you usually work?
Anywhere I can. My laptop goes with me everywhere. I write in bed, in cafes, on the lounge, at the kitchen table, still in hotel rooms. I’ll be first in line for a computer I can safely use in the bath.
What made you want to write when you started out?
Being an artist of any sort in this country is very challenging. There’s not much support. You can spend years not getting paid for your efforts, with little or no recognition.
And even when you do break through a bit, it’s seen as peripheral to things, not part of the mainstream, a kind of indulgence.
Even now, friends and acquaintances are far more interested in my day job (I now work in politics) than anything to do with my creative writing.
So the act of writing fiction is a deeply personal thing. It’s hard for me to articulate what drives me.
When I work on a really difficult passage, when I chip away at it and finally get it right, I get such a surge of delight I feel I could dance around the kitchen (and sometimes do).
Which writers have inspired you?
Dirt Music by Tim Winton is a favourite. So is CJ Koch’s Highways to a War. It is one of the most evocative and moving books. I dive into it and I can smell Asia. It is the past I wish I’d had. It is the novel I most wish I had written.
I also love Morris Lurie: a wonderfully angry old man, a splendidly good writer. Flying Home is just marvelous.
While studying in America, I was introduced to James Salter. Many consider him a writer’s writer. I love his work. I also love Richard Ford and Philip Roth. John Le Carre is the grand man of thriller writing. I’ve been reading him for years.
I like Michael Chabon. Jonathan Franzen is devastatingly clever. Richard Russo (Empire Falls) has an ability to create a sense of controlled chaos, which I aspire to.
I once went into a bookshop and bought every Elmore Leonard they had.
And off the web I recently obtained a second-hand copy of The Graduate by Charles Webb: such tight, sardonic prose, such succinct and brilliant dialogue.
What are you currently working on?
I have three things that I tell people who wish to write fiction. Read a lot. Write as regularly as you can. Work on a story you are burning to tell.
After at least a dozen false starts on a second novel, I have gone back to the beginning. I have pulled out that first project from the bottom drawer.
I can’t let go of it. It won’t let go of me. I have to work it out of my system.
I can see now why it was rejected. It was gawky and badly written. Too few flashes of radiance with too much indulgence. But it won’t let me go. It has called me back. So I’m working on that. Again.
Don’t miss the opportunity to meet Brendan Gullifer!
Meet the author: Brendan Gullifer
Saturday 30 January, 11am
Hastings Library, 7 High Street
Bookings essential: firstname.lastname@example.org