Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

An Interview with Andrew Macrae

Andrew Macrae is a Melbourne based author, musician, and occasional cover artist. A quiet, artistic and intelligent man, I have known him for around a decade, and have seen his change and evolution in all these categories, and to support the release of his first novel, Trucksong, I have broken out the vague interview practice I have, in which I ask a lot of questions and then throw it together.

Andrew is a busy guy at the moment. His long awaited project, the dystopian novel Trucksong, was just released by Twelfth Planet Press, while weeks before that, his band, the Television Sky, saw the release of their second album. If that’s not enough, Andrew recorded himself a soundtrack for his novel, which you can download on his site, along with a second version of the novel, and the first short stories it was inspired from.

Trucksong and Inspiration

Trucksong, your first novel, has just been released by Twelfth Planet Press. How has the whole experience been?

It's been a long, drawn-out, compressed, painful, joyful, depressing, rewarding process getting the book to this stage, from when I started on the novel proper in 2007. I produced it as part of a PhD project, which was its own peculiar torture.

‘A peculiar torture’. I like that to describe a PhD.

Though, that said, I found mine to be a rare experience. It allowed me a lot of space and time that I mightn't have had before, and a lot of scope. How’d that work for you?

The time and space to focus on the work was great. It was the whole having to produce a thesis that will stand up to scholarly scrutiny that I found painful. I've done a fair bit of time in academia – I did honours and masters before a PhD – so I knew what I was in for, but the full reality was pretty tough. I'm just not a scholar. 

The other thing I found hard was combining critical and creative dimensions in one project. To me, they are kind of antithetical processes. Each contains elements of the other, but trying to mash them both together into one piece of work was hard for me.

The critical and creative might, perhaps, but you’ve managed to combine being a musician and an author well. Indeed, you made a soundtrack to go along with Trucksong. How do you find the two different creative forms mesh for you?

They're complementary. I find that if I'm flagging with a writing project, I'll pick up the guitar and something new will occur to me, and visa versa when the well of music runs dry, the writing has had time to fill up again. I like the idea of creative crop rotation and fallow time. You have to let the field rest a while so the nitrogen can built up in the soil again. 

The risk of having too many fields, though, is that you wind up not being able to spend enough time in any one of them to really take it to a level of excellence. Rationally, I think I'd probably be better off quitting music to just focus on the writing, since I'm a pretty average musician. But yah, I've never had a terribly rational approach to life, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of the guitar, the physicality of it. Making the air move, that tenuous feedback loop between strings and pickup and speaker, where the sound just starts to break up. You can surf it like a wave. I love that shit, and especially playing with my band The Television Sky, where we know each others' playing inside out and we can crank it up and really lock in together and it's like you just disappear. It's the purest form of release I've ever experienced. 

The release I get from writing is different. To paraphrase Cronenberg, writing is more of a Kafka high. You feel like a bug. 

Although come to think of it I have had a few moments of pure release while writing, but I find it's easier to conjure with a valve amplifier.

I’d have to disagree about the different fields. My belief is that a lot of artists would be better creatively if they had other artistic fields they did professional as well, you know? I know that a lot do: they paint, or carve, but few do it on the professional levels that you do, and to me I think the benefits from it must be enormous. The music would have been a huge help with the voice of the narrator, for example.

One thing that I'm really conscious of when writing is the musicality of the text. Rhythm is really important to me, and a sense of dynamics. I think being involved with music helps to hone your sensitivity to that. It gives you an appreciation for pacing and getting down into the grain of the language and manipulating the flow for specific effects. Again, it's that weird phenomenon where marks on a page can generate the illusion of a human voice. Writing is a kind of phantom sound. 

Publication, Publisher, and Australia.

Trucksong has been released by what is, arguably, Australia’s most professional and successful independent speculative fiction press, Twelfth Planet Press. Alisa Krasnostein is pretty good at taking a risk on interesting and diverse projects—she has done the 12 Planets chapbooks, the flip books, the Lydia Day crime novel—and now your novel. It must have been rewarding that she would show such faith in the work.

I was delighted that Twelfth Planet were up for taking a risk on this project, and I think they will give it a really good home. It's a piece of work that is unashamedly and idiomatically Australian, so I was keen for an Australian press to take it.

Yeah, I think it is a very Australian book, from the landscape, to the trucks. To me, it was especially found in the language. It's not often that you see a vocabulary that will make use of that very specific, older Australian slang. What drew you to it?

Just listening to Australian voices on the television, hearing them on the radio. I deliberately put in some elements of archaic Aussie slang, but for the most part it's just what I hear around me. You don't have to travel very far from the multicultural megapolises on the coastal fringe before you start to hear it. 

I really wanted to try to capture that sound and inflection, and overlay it on a completely fantastical world. 

Behind the Book You Hold

How was it, working with Twelfth Planet Press in the publication of Trucksong?

You think that writing is all about the time you spend alone with the manuscript, but it's not. It's about all the collaboration you do with other people to produce the finished product.

All the people who read and commented on different versions of the story, and the editors and proofreaders at Twelfth Planet, are just the beginning. I really enjoyed working with Kenkichi Tai on the cover and website as well as Amanda Rainey who did the internal page design. The great thing about working with an independent publisher is that there's so much more scope to be creative, and to treat the whole effort as a partnership.

Yeah, I loved what Rainey did for Above/Below. I think she’ll go a lot of places, really, and Tai’s cover of Trucksong was sweet as.

Did it surprise you by just how much of a collaboration the book was by the end?

Yes and no. I've worked on a few indie creative projects in my time, so I sort of know how it goes. And with a book, obviously there's a lot of solo time in front of the manuscript, but there's also a lot of negotiation and consultation as well once a production schedule is locked in. And I was lucky enough that I had a bunch of cool, talented people around me to help bring this thing into the world, with its own website and music and a graphic identity, as well as a nicely polished manuscript. 

Yeah, a lot of people in this scene will probably forget that, before the novel, before the music, you edited c0ck with Keith Stevenson and had an early hand in the formation of the Cour de Lion Press (one of Australia’s other fine presses known for taking risks). It must have left you with an appreciation of both sides, one perhaps deepened by your own freelance work?

I edited and published the c0ck anthology with Keith and together we started up Coeur de Lion back in 2006, and then my life imploded and CDL was one of the things I dropped. I'm really glad Keith has kept it going though. He's published some amazing stuff. X6 is a great collection, and Adam Browne's debut novel Pyrotechnicon as well. Some really cutting edge stuff. 

I did a stint working in-house at an education publisher and I've run my own freelance writing and editing business since 2007, so I guess that gives me a bit of perspective from a few different sides of the table. It's funny the perceptions that people have of writing and publishing as this glamourous and mysterious activity but the reality, at my level anyway, is pretty grim. As a creative person, you get used to rejection and varying responses to your work. I'll never get accustomed to indifference, though. That is the worst. 

Yeah, I completely agree with that. The worse thing is silence.

It’s why I have always been drawn to that idea of mutiple streams you talk about. I've always been terrible at maintaining it, myself – I get lost in individual projects – but you do it well, and its benefit is not just for finances, either, but for the creative bit of the soul. It combats that indifference that can come from some freelance work?

That has been my mantra as a freelancer – multiple streams. If you sink too much of yourself into any one endeavour, you're stuck if it goes nowhere. It's an insurance policy against indifference. It's funny the things that people respond to and the things they don't. Like with the typewriter art, that was something I did as a lark because it felt good, and then all of a sudden I'm getting reblogged on Boing Boing and 10,000 hits on my site in 24 hours and beating out Sean Tan to win a Ditmar Award for the cover art of your book /Twenty-six lies/! I mean, there's just no way you can predict that kind of thing. 

And then on the other side of that, there's stuff that I do that important to me that I slave over for years and it just sinks. 

So the trick is to have lots of things on the go, I think. 

Would that be your recommendation to new artists attempting to go it alone?

Do lots of different things. Cultivate lots of different relationships because you never know when one is going to pay off. Say yes to everything that comes your way, no matter how scary. Be prepared for the constant tension between artistic integrity and paying the bills, and accept that sometimes paying the bills is more important. 

The History of Trucksong

Publication wise, the genesis of the book appears to be a long one, with the first print traces of it being 'Truckdreamin'' in Cat Sparks' Agog Ripping Reads in 2005. Was there much life before that?

There was one version of the story before that, the 13,000 word novellla-length one that you critiqued for me way back in 2004. I remember you and Deb Biancotti being particularly amused at the image of the trucks 'daisychaining' in the lee of a hill! You'll be pleased to know the trucks have gone on to have a very fulfilling sex life.

Deb and I were always on the cutting edge of new pornography. I was pleased to see that the truck sex stayed in the book – what gave inspiration for that?

I totally ripped that off Rudy Rucker. I always loved the dimension of artificial life he brought to the conversation about artificial intelligence – his robots are looking for ways to reproduce and evolve, as well as learn and grow. In Software, they reproduce in a quasi sexual manner, with an element of random mutation thrown in. And as soon as you have sexual reproduction in the mix, there's a whole whacky range of freaky fun to be had! 

So I just played with that idea and it was pretty evident that intelligent autonomous trucks are going to want to find ways to be self-reproducing and self-repairing. 

What about the writing of the book itself, how did that take place?

I wrote that original version on a manual typewriter in a white-hot burst of uncharacteristic productivity over just a couple of days. Then Cat made me sand off all the rough edges and cut 5,000 words. Not that I'm bitter.

I loved the typewriter in the book, by the way, and I loved how the frame of the whole book. It took me back to your particular love of typewriters and, as we talked about a bit earlier, the typewriter art you produced.

Yeah I don't use the typewriters as much as I used to, mostly because I'm lazy and computers are just way easier for editing text. But I love the romance of the typing machine, there's something very seductive about the feel of a manual typewriter, like the machines in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. They are these glorious mechanical bugs that enter text almost with a mind of their own, a kind of automatic writing. And then in that film there's one particularly startling scene where the typewriter reveals it has an anus and rectum underneath its carapace, from which it starts talking. 

That's how I feel about typewriters anyway. 

Well, we got Cronenberg, Rudy Rucker, who else forms the influences of the book?

Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker was a huge influence, which you'll see if you download the experimental cut of the novel from the extras section of the website. That book, the way Hoban uses language, just lifted the roof off my highly impressionable 22-year-old skull when I encountered it. I kept going back to it, and I wanted to write an Australian version of it, with a post-apocalyptic scenario that is both high tech and fallen, and where the artefacts of technological society have ontological problems of their own. 

As far as the language goes, I was also really influenced by Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. I just love that idiomatic approach to first-person writing, the way that marks on a page can generate the effect of a voice in your head. I have a thing for specialised grapholects – written dialects, non-standard spellings – that are hard to grasp at first, but that really speak to you once you decipher the patterns. 

It's a first novel, and I worked on it for a long time, so basically everything I ever read and dug is in there. Jeff Noon's Vurt is in there, particularly in the truck battle scene in the middle of the book. He's another writer with a very musical approach to text. Terry Dowling's Rynosseros. There's some utopian stuff in there by way of Kim Stanley Robinson and Le Guin and Delaney. There's some Philip K Dick. There's some Cordwainer Smith. There's Ballard and Burroughs. 

Yeah, I can see a lot of those there - though oddly, I hadn't thought of Dowling's Rynosseros stuff.

I was actually pretty interested in the language influences. Hoban's book, for example, is new to me, but the others I saw to a greater and lesser degree in different versions of the book. What I enjoyed about reading both (and for everyone out there, I recommend both), was the way that the central voice of your narrator remained, even though the feel of the novel altered slightly. The experimental felt a little less Australian than the released version, but I thought that it countered by having a stronger dystopic air. How was it, writing the two, and what were the concerns you wanted to keep?

Well that's funny because I was initially quite resistant to comprising my original vision for the book, when Alisa was considering it and asked if I would tone down the experimental language. 

The trouble with the experimental version, which you can download off my site is that unless you're really into that specific kind of linguistic play, it can be really hard to read. 

Like every writer, I wanted my work to reach as many people as possible, so I agreed to rewrite it in standard spelling. And I think actually it is a better book for me having done that. 

It's funny that you say the published version sounds more Australian – the amazing to me was how the rewrite actually had very little effect on the tone of my protagonist's voice. That still came through really strongly. In the end they were relatively simple changes on the surface of the text. 

I think one of the things I was concerned about was losing some of the doubled meanings that you get with the distorted language. In the original version, for example, the word /transmission/ was rendered as /trance mission/, which has this nice layering effect in the context of the book. So I did keep some of the misspellings, like /lie bury/ for /library/, and I think in the end I was able to strike a good balance between play and readability. 

And that brings us to the end. Be sure to pick up a copy of the book, then read both versions, and come back and talk to me about it.
Tags: interview

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