Matthew Condon is a prize-winning Australian novelist and journalist. He is currently on staff with The Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine. He began his journalism career with The Gold Coast Bulletin in 1982 and subsequently worked for leading newspapers and journals including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Age.
He is the author of 10 works of fiction, most recently The Trout Opera (Random House, 2008). His latest book is the best-selling Three Crooked Kings (UQP, 2013), the first of two investigative books telling the story of police corruption in Queensland from the 1940s to its undoing at the Fitzgerald Inquiry of the late 1980s. Its sequel, All Fall Down, will be published by UQP in October.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I was around 10 years old and used to clip pictures out of magazines like National Geographic or Newsweek or Time and glue those pictures onto pieces of paper and then write an alternative comic captions for them. Looking back now many years later it was a way of trying to look at something in a different way, to try and reinterpret that thing, to see it through another side of the prism.
Then I went into doing little cartoon strips, which I guess was an expansion of that, and then onto really bad poetry. When I was about 17 I wrote a long, epic poem that ended up being hundreds of lines long and I subdivided that poem into chapters. So it was a slow and steady march to short fiction, and then on from there.
Your first published novel was The Motorcycle Cafe in 1988. Had you had anything published prior to that book?
That epic poem, which draw a lot from Bruce Dawe at the time, was about contemporary Australian suburbia. That won some school award. As I was writing The Motorcycle Cafe, which was a suite of interlinked short stories, I would publish a fragment [of that poem] here and there. One was published in Australian Short Stories, edited by Bruce Pascoe. There was an advertisement in the newspaper for submissions for a collection of Queensland short fiction called Latitudes, edited by Susan Johnson and Mary Roberts, and published by UQP. I submitted a chapter of The Motorcycle Cafe, which they accepted for that anthology. One of the UQP editors called me to ask whether I had any more chapters and I said well, it so happens I’ve got about 15 more. And that’s how my first novel came into being. I think I had written about 11 drafts of it by then.
How old were you?
I started it when I was about 20 and it was published when I was 26.
How was it received?
Tremendously. It was a lucky reception for a first piece of work.
You were working as a journalist at the time?
Yes, I left university in ’82. In ’83 I couldn’t get a job in journalism so I worked pumping petrol at a petrol station for 12 months. But I was submitting film reviews, book reviews, news stories to The Gold Coast Bulletin, where I’d worked as an unpaid intern through my university degree. I would spend the entire holidays working at the newspaper hoping it would land me a job. It ultimately did even though there was a delay pumping petrol, but I did end up starting my cadetship there, and then moved up to Brisbane in ’85 to work for The Courier-Mail.
And you’ve been a fulltime journalist ever since…
I had many years, fortunately with Australia Council grants, where I would manage to disappear from journalism and finish a book. I also survived on freelancing for a number of years. I oscillated, swinging back and forth in and out of the profession.
When did you know you could forge a career as an author?
My belief when I was younger was that I would do journalism until the books sold millions and I could write for a living. But I’m still working as a journalist [laughs]. But journalism is one of the greatest things I decided to do. As a writer of fiction it has allowed me to keep in touch with real life and real people. So I’m not absorbed in my own head alone in a garret, out of touch with how people are thinking, how they are speaking. It has been a great thing for my writing to still be in the world and yet out of it at the same time.
But you never contemplated a career solely as a novelist?
I was realistic enough to think that I would always have to work in journalism, and that has proven to be correct. With my first book I think the advance was about a thousand dollars. It was reprinted, but certainly nothing to say, well that’s it, I’m leaping into the abyss and pursuing writing fulltime. I had always hoped that I would just write what I wanted to write. But I think I’m fortunate that I love journalism so it hasn’t bothered me to any extent really.
When you’re juggling a book with your day job as a journalist do you work on it every day?
It has varied over the years. There is no set pattern. I have learned to adapt to my circumstances. Every different position has had different demands so I’ve had to be malleable and adapt to the conditions at hand. I worked in the UK as a foreign correspondent for a couple of years. Now I have three young children, so you just have to adapt. Initially when I was footloose and fancy free I would either get up really early in the morning or stay up late at night to write. That’s how I progressed through The Motorcycle Cafe and my second and third novels (Usher, The Ancient Guild of Tycoons). Then I moved to Sydney and life changed, and I would grab what moments I could.
Do you work for a certain number of hours or to a word count?
I’ve never been that specific about it. I can have great day and do 1,200 words and be very satisfied. I can have a day when I do 200 words and I just have to leave it at that and hope that the next day will be better. There’s no set regime for me. I guess what journalism has given to me is that I can train myself to focus wherever I am and grab whatever time I can to do as much concentrated work as I’m capable of at that moment. So I don’t have to go to the same desk every day at the same time. My work is portable and when I can get a good chunk done, I’ll get it done.
A lot of journalists would not be so inclined to turn their mind to book writing at the end of a working day. What drives you? Why do you write?
Well, if I knew then what I know now perhaps I wouldn’t have pursued it because it has been extremely frustrating at times. I don’t have a chosen path in terms of building one book upon the other in order to ultimately illuminate a grand narrative. I go with what interests me. I don’t think that has done me any favours in my career. I’ll literally go from The Trout Opera to a tiny little monologue on Brisbane as a city (Brisbane, UNSW Press, 2010).
Let’s take that book. Why did you write it?
I had just moved back to Brisbane and it was a way of reacquainting myself with my hometown. I’d discover its history, which I hadn’t known as a child, and I would rattle through the dark that way. It had the impact of planting me more firmly back in the city which I’d lost touch with. So the reason was a personal one.
And Three Crooked Kings?
That opportunity came out of the blue… the chance to interview Terry Lewis who had not spoken since the Fitzgerald Inquiry 25 years earlier. My instinct as a writer was that the chance to speak to him would never come again. He’s 85 now and not in good health, so I grabbed that opportunity and put aside two novels that should have been done by now. But I felt I had to take this chance. It was exciting, and I was interested in the topic. And I’m pleased the book has touched so many readers. But you get critics who question why the guy who wrote The Trout Opera is writing this book. Is he trying to tap into the true crime market? Are there darker forces at play? It had nothing to do with any of that. A great story fell in my lap, and as a writer I felt compelled to write it.
How were you approached to do it in the first place?
A friend of mine, Doug Hall, was director of the Queensland Art Gallery for many years. He was putting together a book of essays about how famous people first met each other, and he wanted to write about when Terry Lewis first met Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. So in an old-fashioned way he wrote to Terry Lewis who had never publicly spoken about it. He has been the famous hermit of that whole saga. But Lewis accepted Doug’s invitation to come to the house and talk about the moment when he first met Bjelke-Petersen. Doug sat down on several occasions with Lewis and at one of their last interviews Lewis said he was now interested finally in telling his version of events. He asked Doug whether he would you like to write his book. Doug said no, it’s impossible, I’m moving from Brisbane, but you might want to meet a friend of mine, Matt Condon. So a meeting was arranged between us, and Terry sort of checked me out and was happy to continue talking with me, and it stemmed from that moment.
Hundreds of hours of interviews later with Lewis and many others connected to the story, how did you tackle writing a book of that scale?
The plan was to write a single edition of that story. I hit about 165,000 words and the publisher said just stop immediately, this is too huge, we’ll have to split it into two books. So I made more work for myself, but there was no way I could tell this story in a single volume. I never conceived of the enormity of the task in the beginning, and if I had known it I may have hesitated in taking it on because I naturally have a family life and all of that, and it’s a very consuming project. Hundreds of interviews, thousands of documents. Then to synthesize that and get it down on paper logically, accurately and in an entertaining way was the greatest challenge. But how I think I broke through that was that it dawned on me as I was finishing my research for the first book that this could have been an incredible novel. The twists and turns are just phenomenal. I then began to see the individuals as characters in a novel. And once I had crossed that line and understood that they were in fact players in a giant drama then I would write it, as I am a novelist, as a novel. So I grabbed half a dozen characters and followed them through the years. So instead of following the facts, I followed these characters.
Three Crooked Kings is told in chronological order. Did you write it in order?
I did, and I made another decision that I would write very short, sharp and clear chapters so that when you are following these strands the reader wouldn’t get lost. The beauty of doing that, being consistent with an annual timeline, but having these short, sharp, punchy chapters was that if I came across something interesting in my research that I had forgotten about and wanted to put in I could shoehorn it into that chapter seamlessly and long as it belonged to that timeline.
Did you plough through to the end with the first draft or did you go back and tinker?
It’s bit of both. A lesson I learned very early on was to get a draft down first and stop blockading yourself as you go through. In a project like this if I allowed myself to fall into a pit hole in 1958, say, then the whole project could have fallen into that black hole. So I just made sure I wrote a skeletal draft, that I had the timeframe up and running, then I went back to all the interviews I did with Lewis and other people and if I found something worthy or interesting and vital to the narrative then I could slot it in as I went through. It was doing an early draft, building the draft and then fattening it out on route.
You mention in the Acknowledgements that you ran the draft past a few people. A lot of writers say that they don’t share a work-in-progress, but in your case it seemed to be beneficial…
It was. I have never shown a draft to a colleague or a friend, with any of my fiction. But with this project there were a couple of trusted people I know in journalism in Brisbane and I just felt it was time to let it go so I gave it to Hedley Thomas and Des Houghton and asked them to tell me if it made sense, if it was worth it, if it was what I thought it was, to give me an external perspective. What we were dealing with was in many ways a well-known story. Every Queenslander over a certain age thinks they know the story of Lewis and Fitzgerald, the inquiry. So it wasn’t an original manuscript of a novel, this was history. So I wanted a couple of fresh eyes to run over it, just for my own reassurance. For me this was virgin territory. I’d never done a piece of creative non-fiction of that depth and length. So I needed advice and I’m very glad I sought it.
Do you have a desire now to do more non-fiction? You established yourself firmly as a novelist first with about 10 books before this…
It has been absolutely exhausting and I will definitely need a break from these types of books when I am done. Bear in mind that I am dealing with some unsavory people and circumstances on a daily basis, corruption and personal horrors to such an extent that I never knew had gone on in the history of Queensland. It does wear away at you.
Does writing change anything? You sound like you’ve changed yourself…
I think I have. The response to the first book has been very, very encouraging. On average I get about 10 to 12 people each week contacting me to say that they or their relatives have been part of this epic story, that they want to pass on anecdotes, documents, or to be interviewed, just to make sure that the truth is put down on paper. I had no idea that this story would have had as much traction. I wasn’t convinced that anyone would be interested in reading it at all. I had my doubts and my crises of confidence. But thankfully it proved the opposite. This history is still very much alive and the impact is still being felt to this day. To have a 65-year-old man bawling his eyes out like a child in front of you having just met him… it is astonishing to understand the impact of this story. It also begs for dignity and honestly and I feel a great responsibility with these two books that people outside may not understand. There are so many things at stake, so many people’s lives in your hands and you have to respect all of that and do your best and do your best by them.
Does writing change anything? Before Three Crooked Kings I may have wondered. Since that book there is absolutely no question in that specific circumstance. I remember talking to a friend of mine who was a police officer in the ‘70s and ‘80s who helped me a lot with that book, and I asked whether I was wasting my time doing this, will people be interested. And he said to me that it was not just a potentially powerful book, but a potentially dangerous one, too. And I asked why, all these events happened between 1949 and 1976, and he said you don’t understand, they’ve never been put in a linear sequence. It is only when things are put in a linear sequence that people can grasp the impact of the story itself. And he was absolutely right. It took for it to be in a logical format for people to see how the corruption came together. That’s where it started, that’s how it progressed and developed.
Since the book has been released we’ve had scenarios whereby it triggered a mini royal commission into the Crime and Misconduct Commission in Queensland. That was just by the sheer nature of the fact that the book existed that it triggered a number of real-life events whereby people were looking back at the story and reflecting with the benefit of hindsight and were beginning then to debate the process of the Fitzgerald Inquiry and whether it did us justice. So it actually began a conversation, a very important conversation in Queensland. And out came all of these people whose lives had been… some destroyed, some skewed off tangent forever, they came forward and cathartically told me their stories. Many of them said thank you for writing the book, I can now give it to my children and they can understand what happened to me in the 1960s. So then it becomes part of an individual’s family history and that will be passed onto those kid’s children. I had no idea that the ripples from the pebble would spread so far. Has it changed things? In the two months since its publication it most certainly has. It has surprised me more than anybody to be honest with you.
Where physically do you write?
I am very proud of this. We live on a steep ridge in inner Brisbane with a garage that is level with the street, but the hill runs very steeply under the garage. When we bought the place there was an old aviary in that space, and my immediate thought was that I could put a little bungalow under there. A great mate of mine who is a carpenter built me a long, narrow self-contained bungalow with windows, electricity and an Internet connection underneath the garage. I swing the windows open and it looks straight out onto the garden. It’s all bare wood and rustic. It is like the cubby house I had when I was 10. It’s a beautiful, beautiful space to work. And in the three and a half, four years since I’ve had it my wife has never set foot in it once [laughs].
Your bungalow is wired, but do you leave the Internet on when you write?
How I work is I’ll do 20 minutes, then I’ll surf the Internet or send an email. Come back, do 50 minutes, go back to the Internet, do something else. So it’s like a crab shuffle, moving backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. But when something sticks I’ll look up and three hours will have passed. So it’s a matter of getting into that headspace.
You sound like you focus well and procrastinate very little…
The older I get I seem to be more productive even though the constraints on my time are infinitely more. I look back at my earlier books and cannot believe the wasted time, the self-indulgence, all of that. Having kids taught me the greatest thing as a writer, and that is that the world does not centre around you. That changed my view of everything, in life and work. And it seems to have helped me focus. Now I can concentrate and do more effective work in a shorter time. And the older I get the more work I’m taking on.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
There’s no time for writer’s block. Working in journalism, there’s no opportunity to have that. You are given a 4,000-word assignment and a deadline, and you have to have it done. So you can crash through all of that stuff and at least get the work done. It may not be the best you’ve ever done, but at least you’re getting it done.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
Absolutely. I can tell you with The Trout Opera which was published in 2007, I did that on and off over 10 years, and there was a period in about 2003 where I was working away at my screen and I slumped in my chair and I thought, who is going to want to read this, what does it matter, nobody cares, why am I bothering, I have been chipping away at this profession for so long. You know you have books come out which get slated by the critics, you come back for more, and ask why am I bothering to do this. I made a decision after I came back after a swim and I thought, stuff it, I am going to finish this book if it kills me, but if the book turns out to be 5,000 pages long I am going to write 5,000 pages and it may never be published, but I can at least give it to my kids. That was a crisis of confidence. And when I made that decision it came to me how to finish the book and I have been steaming along ever since. It was a very real moment that perhaps it was all over and so what. And it was good to have that, it changed my view of my career and it led me to the point to say who cares what people think really. I guess that is just part of growing older as a person, too.
It’s always much harder to do than to criticize…
Yes, I know it is. But in Australia, and I lived in Sydney for almost 20 years, there is a little group of people who have been doing it forever and they know each other and they are in the game, giving literary prizes and writing book pages. You get poor reviews and you can’t quite understand why this is happening, perhaps the book is no good after all. But to know that there is a sub-strata of individuals who are controlling the reviews, the pages, the prizes, the short lists, you let it all go and say you’re out of the game, I’m not in it anymore, that’s a very liberating place to be in. And it helped me move back to Brisbane, too. To move out of all the crap in Sydney. I indulged as much as anyone in that silly game, and the minute I broke free of it was like breathing fresh air for the first time in 20 years.
What writers do you always look out for? Who do you read religiously?
Oh. Frank Moorhouse. I like Peter Carey because his book Illywhacker made me as a young man very excited about the process of writing and about the energy of writing and the fun you could have. The same with Thea Astley. She actually made me excited about the process of writing, let alone what she wrote and how beautiful it was. I absolutely adore Patrick White and adore David Marr’s brilliant biography of Patrick White. But there are many great journalists, such as Ryszard Kapuściński, the late Polish journalist, I love his work. Graham Greene taught me everything I need to know about dialogue. I love Georges Simenon, PG Wodehouse, a lot of Hemingway’s early short stories, Jack Kerouac’s The Big Sur, 10 times better than On the Road, an incredible document. I could go on and on forever.
Do you have a particular favourite book?
I read The Great Gatsby every year, it just reminds me of what perfect pitch and tone is. And it’s just a touchstone. Read that and something will rub off on you… the silly superstitions that one has. But the older I get the harder it is to find something good to read so you end up going back to the touchstones.
Are you one of those writers who is always writing? Or are you able to switch off?
I guess that’s what journalism has given me. When I’m not doing my own book work, I’m always writing something… columns, op-ed pieces, reviews, features. So in a sense I am always writing. One is for necessity for my job, the other is for my book career. Very rarely will a day go by when I am not writing something.
What’s next for you? The sequel to Three Crooked Kings, All Fall Down, is out in October. What’s after that?
I’m going back to a novel that I was ready to write before I met Terrence Murray Lewis. That is a book on the great First World War Australian war correspondent Charles Bean, and specific element of his career that I want to fictionalize.
Posted: Friday, May 24, 2013