Kill Your Darlings’ first First Book Club pick for 2017 is Peter Polites’ debut novel Down The Hume (Hachette Australia), a queer noir novel of addiction, secrets and misplaced love, set in the shadowy places of Western Sydney. KYD Podcast coordinator Meaghan Dew spoke to Polites about the novel, Australian noir and building resilience. Listen out for an extended version of this interview on the KYD Podcast in the coming weeks!
Where did the idea for Down The Hume come from and how did it develop?
Down The Hume started as a short story workshopped in the SWEATSHOP Collective and then published. It was actually SWEATSHOP and Seizure collaborating – the book was called Stories of Sydney – and I wrote a short story called More Handsome Than A Monkey, and the character just wouldn’t leave me.
How has your involvement with SWEATSHOP shaped your writing?
SWEATSHOP influences my work because when you bring some work, you read it, and then people criticise you. They throw a lot of punches your way, and a lot of the time you just want to leave. You’ll go home quite devastated from the criticism. You might stop writing for a bit, have a few cigarettes on your balcony and then you’ll just get back to it. It makes your work better, and you learn how to become resilient.
Do you feel like [that resilience] left you better prepared for the editing process?
It did. Being prepared for anything that came my way, but it also helped because I kind of knew which parts of editing I would accept and which parts I wouldn’t. I think one of the most important things as a writer is to listen to other people when they say ‘you need to fix this’ or ‘your work’s bad’ because really, you have an idea, a core idea, and you really want to be able to convey that and an audience needs to access that as well.
Were there any specific things that changed?
There were some sections of the novel that were written in the third person, and that wasn’t working. Particularly because I don’t have the skill set for that yet. That’s about it.
The way Down The Hume actually happened was through a show I did with Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Luke Carman called Three Jerks. That was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Emerging Writers’ Festival. At the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Robert Watkins, the editor from Hachette, gave me a card. I kept on having coffees with him, and then I ended up writing the first part of the book and I sent him, maybe, one or two chapters and he just wanted more and more and more and more.
Having the book signed up on a few chapters, did that motivate your writing or did it cause anxiety knowing that it then had to be finished?
I’m just generally anxious all the time – it’s one of the curses of living in your head. But I think the motivation was joy. As a writer, your motivation is constructing this voice, trying to make it work – a voice that I still think I’m going to be trying to master for the rest of my life. Doing the work was the actual exciting part, not, per se, having the book deal. The process was the joy, and that is what it really is for a writer. That’s really what you’re there for.
Where and when do you tend to write?
When I’m not doing publicity stuff I really love to write every day. I might try and do a minimum of 1,000 words a day, and that’s usually in the mornings. I wake up, have a carbohydrate-based breakfast, and then I’ll sit in front of my laptop, which is on a table that my partner found on the street. And I’ll type in my little apartment, like Ms Marvel.
I remember there was one chapter in Down the Hume when I had a day off from work and I just spent literally 8–10 hours in front of the screen. This almost transcendental moment happened where I was just writing and looking at the screen, then everything around me blacked out and all I could see were the words and the narrative. I just was in this strange zone for 8 hours – it’s never happened to me before.
I think that’s why people write, to get to that point. And if you can get to that – and hopefully I’ll be able to get to that point more – that’s the peak experience.
‘Our personal desires are just as important as any national myth that’s going on about the construction of Australia.’
Down the Hume is described as a noir novel – what was it that attracted you to the genre?
What I love about noir is that they’re dark melodramas, and because of my cultural background I’ve always loved melodramas. Historically, it’s part of my folk traditions and noir is kind of the darkness of urban society. Someone like James M. Cain, who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, writes from a specific place in a specific economic environment and what’s amazing about his work is that you can actually draw parallels with Australia now.
In the America he wrote about, there was a big shift into the service economy from the manufacturing industry base, and different gender roles were changing at the time. In our Australia now, I think noir fits because you have the neoliberal economy and the casualisation of the labour force occurring at the moment. We’re seeing that real battle for minorities’ rights…and noir is a great vehicle for minorities because a lot of those lose–lose situations that occur in the narrative structure fit perfectly for people who are from minority backgrounds. I wish more people from minority backgrounds, from lower socio-economic backgrounds – that it wasn’t just a white man’s genre, that it was women, and queers, and all people writing noir.
Is noir something you’re keen to continue with?
I’m going to play with the genre of noir for a few more books. I really like the conventions. One of the really key things for me in noir is just – and this is about all my writing as well – is that as much as I write characters and individuals and people within society, they’re also, in a lot of ways, metaphors for the broader structural issues at play. You know on online sex apps right, on the gay ones – well, you don’t know because you’re not a gay man – but what you’ll see are things like ‘no Asians’ or ‘no blacks’. They’ll say racist shit on their profiles. But our personal desires in terms of race are so arbitrary, and so socially constructed, and they also say something about our nation, Australia. Our personal desires are just as important as any national myth that’s going on about the construction of Australia. And that’s the prominence I want to give to people in the book. That’s why I chose to write about a wog boy who’s only obsessed with white boys, because those desires are just as important as the Anzac myth, or the way we construct our identities. They’re just as arbitrary, just as socially constructed.