Ryan O’Neill is a Scottish writer living in Australia. In recent years, he has made a name for himself as a whimsical, deeply searching experimental writer who reconciles the demotic and the high-brow. His British publisher, Lightning Books, is keen to promote audacious new writing with a humorous edge. I interviewed him about The Drover’s Wives, an ingenious, dazzlingly inventive rift on the notion of theme and variation.
The Drover’s Wives is a dazzling book. Your 101 versions of the same short story take you into the most hilarious retellings. Were you prompted to attempt this when reading Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style? You surpass him in ingenuity in my view.
Thank you for your kind words about my book, but I think Raymond Queneau is unsurpassable.
The Drover’s Wives is dedicated to Queneau and to Henry Lawson, the author of the short story, “The Drover’s Wife” as it was equally influenced by both writers. I first read Exercises in Style about a decade ago, prompted by my interest in experimenting when writing short fiction. I loved the humour and sense of play in Queneau’s book, and I was staggered by the range of styles he employed so expertly in retelling a simple anecdote. His inventiveness and creativity appeared inexhaustible. At around the same time, I read Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife” for the first time. It is perhaps little read outside of Australia, but it is the most influential short story in Australian literature, having been retold and reimagined numerous times since its publication in the late nineteenth century. Having read the Lawson story, and its reinterpretations by writers such as Frank Moorhouse and Murray Bail, I had the idea of following Queneau’s lead in retelling Lawson’s story in 99 different ways (though the British edition of my book has two extra versions, bringing the total to 101). Exercises in Style was my instruction manual in writing The Drover’s Wives, but I was conscious that I did not want to simply copy what Queneau had done, so while there is some crossover between the two books, my versions include many that Queneau did not use: for example, Hemingwayesque, a cryptic crossword and a cartoon strip.
How close do you feel to the French literary society OuLiPo?
I’m a huge admirer of OuLiPo, especially the work of Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. For a long time, I thought that literature had to be serious and “realistic” and that humour and fun had no place in good writing. In other words, for a long time, I was a fool. Reading Oulipian books like Exercises in Style, A Void, Life a User’s Manual and Invisible Cities showed me that literature can be funny, playful, and inventive. I also enjoy writing under self-imposed constraints, and writing stories in different styles and forms, many of them influenced by OuLiPo.
In my book of fake literary biographies, Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, I imagined an Australian novelist who became friends with Georges Perec, but was rejected for membership of OuLiPo. Frustrated, he returned to Australia and formed his own band of second-rate Australian experimental writers, Kangaroulipo. In another chapter, I took the Oulipian conceit of The Winter Journey, that one lost book had been plagiarised by the greatest French writers, and retold and expanded the story so that this same book turned out to be by an unknown Australian writer, who had not only inspired all of modern French literature, but also all modern Australian and English literature too. These chapters were my tribute to OuLiPo and my attempt to join in and play the wonderful games they have created.
As Eimear McBride pointed out in another interview for The London Magazine, playfulness in literature is on its way out. Is that also true of Australian literature? Did you have trouble having The Drover’s Wives published?
Australia generally adopts literary movements later than the rest of the world (Modernism didn’t really get to Australia until the mid-1950s) so I expect playfulness will not be on its way out here for a while yet.
For much of its literary history, Australian literature has been doggedly realist, focussing on ordinary people doing everyday things in commonplace settings, but there have been times when playfulness has come to the fore. One of these times was the 1970s, which saw an explosion of experimental and playful writing, especially in the short fiction of Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse, and at the present time there have also appeared a number of excellent Australian writers who approach their writing in a playful manner, among them Wayne Marshall, Julie Koh, Elizabeth Tan and Michael Winkler.
Generally, it is smaller publishers who support writing that does not fit into the usual mould, and I have been very fortunate in my publishers in Australia and the UK: Brio and Eye Books. They immediately understood and supported what I was trying to do with The Drover’s Wives and took the risk of publishing a book that is, frankly, quite odd.
You’re originally from Scotland with Irish ancestry. Do you feel like an Australian writer now that you live there or do you still feel closer to European culture?
I was born in Scotland, with an Irish name and Irish roots; I believe my family came to Glasgow from Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Apart from being brought up Roman Catholic, I never really felt a connection to Ireland, though I did love Irish writers like Joyce, Wilde and O’Connor. At university I studied Scottish literature, and my first attempts at fiction writing were set in Scotland. Like Ireland, Scotland is a small country with an astonishingly rich literary heritage, and for many years it was my ambition to be part of that heritage as a writer.
However, as is the case with many writers, I never really found my voice until I left the country of my birth. It was only after arriving in Australia that my work began to be regularly published in literary journals. I think this is because at that time, to my embarrassment, I had read very little Australian literature, and so I think my work appeared original out of this ignorance. I remedied this ignorance over the next fifteen years, immersing myself in Australian literature, so that now I have a far better knowledge of Australian literature than Scottish literature, and probably a better knowledge of Australian literature than most Australians. (In one of my books, I made a joke that the best place for a university student who is looking for peace and quiet is the Australian literature section of the library, because that is the one place they will never be disturbed by staff or students.)
From being a writer who knew almost nothing about Australian literature, I now find myself a writer whose last two books have been entirely about Australian literature: Their Brilliant Careers is an alternate satirical history of Australian literature told through sixteen fictional biographies, and The Drover’s Wives retells the most famous Australian short story in dozens of versions. The two books I am working on now continue this engagement with Australian literature in various ways. Somewhere in the last seventeen years, I stopped being a Scottish writer and became an Australian writer, albeit one that will never lose the Scottish accent.
Do you consider yourself to be a postmodernist writer or is that label meaningless to you?
In recent years I’ve come to believe that terms like “postmodern”, “metafictional” and “experimental” are more useful to the academic than they are to the reader, and especially to the writer (though I admit I have used the terms many times myself, even earlier in this interview). I don’t think that any writer sits down and thinks “I’m now going to write a postmodern novel,” or if they do, I have little doubt that the resulting novel will be terrible.
One of my favourite writers is B.S. Johnson, who bridled at being labelled as experimental. When looking at work that does not follow literary conventions, Johnson argued that, “The relevant questions are surely whether each device works or not, whether it achieves what it set out to achieve, and how less good were the alternatives.” I think this is a good way to look at any kind of writing, and it is irritating that some critics still seem to think that writing in an unconventional manner is because the writer wants to show how clever they are, rather than the writer believing that this is the best way of telling the story they want to tell.
If I ever did, I don’t think of myself as a postmodern writer anymore. I think of myself as a writer who will use any and all literary tools available to best complete the task at hand. Some of these tools could be labelled “conventional” or “realist” and some could be labelled “postmodern” or “experimental.” But the names of the tools don’t matter: it’s what is built with them.
Can I ask why you feel that remaining in Australia is better for your writing?
Though I have lived in Australia for nearly two decades, I still feel like an outsider in some ways, and this is a useful feeling for any writer to have. I’ll never know how my writing would have developed had I remained in Scotland. I know that I had trouble finding my voice when I wrote in Scotland, and that I found my voice shortly after coming to Australia, but I don’t know if this was because of the location, or simply that I was improving in the craft of writing.
I do think that my writing responded to something in Australia in a way that it never responded to in Scotland. In my early twenties, I remember struggling to set stories in my hometown of Glasgow. At that time, it didn’t seem to be the kind of city where books took place. As the great Scottish novelist Alasdair Grey wrote, “What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets … imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the outside world. It’s all we’ve given ourselves.”
When I moved to Australia, I first lived in Newcastle, NSW which is an Australian Glasgow: a working class, industrial city, but with a beach and sunshine. Perhaps it was because of this contrast to Glasgow, that Newcastle seemed like a place where I could set my stories. Or perhaps it’s because just as I still feel something of a stranger in Australia, Australian literature remains somewhat strange to me, and I’m inspired by this strangeness. I would have kept writing if I had never left Scotland, but I would never have written a book of fictional biographies of Scottish writers, or 101 retellings of the greatest Scottish short story (what would that even be anyway?). These books only came about because of living, reading, and writing in Australia. I can’t now imagine writing about any other country.
Has woke thought had any impact on the way you write?
George Orwell once identified four motives for writing (leaving aside money, which is far less of a reason to write now than in Orwell’s time, when selling a short story could bring the equivalent of a month’s wages). Orwell’s reasons were sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Orwell himself believed he was most strongly motivated by a political purpose to write: this is obvious from reading any of his novels. I am not as selfless as Orwell, being much more motivated by aesthetic enthusiasm in the act of creating something, and sheer egoism in the absurd hope that something I create will be remembered. In that sense, I don’t believe current political thought has had an impact on the way I write, though I may be mistaken; Orwell also argued that no novel could be free of political bias.
By Erik Martiny
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