Mark Dapin is the author of Spirit House, King of the Cross and Strange Country. He has been the editor-in-chief of Australian Consolidated Press’ men’s magazines, and is a hugely popular columnist.
You’ve had a pretty varied career- you were the editor of a men’s magazine for quite a while, but you’ve also written quite a few novels that have won prizes and got a lot of critical acclaim. Did these two pursuits feed into each other at all?
I think that being a journalist allowed me to understand that you could write a lot and write it regularly without too much difficulty. I think before then- before I had to write regularly to deadline- I didn’t realise how much I was able to produce. I mean, if you look at the idea of writing a novel and say that your novel has to be 90, 000 words, which is a massive number, it doesn’t seem like you’ll ever be able to do it. But when you’re a journalist you regularly write thirty 3000 word features in a year, it seems much more achievable. You know how to break it down into smaller, more achievable chunks. You’ll notice that all of the chapters in my book are about 3000 words long, and that’s because I’ve spent my career writing 3000 word feature articles. Also, my main interest as a journalist was never so much the stories that people told, but the way that people tell them. As someone who wrote a large amount of interview-based fiction, I spent a lot of time transcribing interviews, and so absorbing and examining people’s speech patterns and a knowledge of the way ordinary people speak. So that knowledge really informed my fiction writing, much more than a backlog of journalist knowledge did. Because, for me, writing features was always a bit like cramming for exams, because I always forget everything I’ve learnt about a subject as soon as I’ve finished writing about it.
At the Emerging Writers’ Festival you’re going to be talking about things you wish you’d be told at the beginning of your career. Can you tell us a bit about those early days of being a writer? How did you get into writing etc?
Well, I was actually first published as a short story writer when I was 14, and then again at 16, but then I blew it and wasted the next 8 years of my life doing nothing. And I really didn’t come back to it until I came to Australia and got away from the life I had. I got a job as a typesetter, which is a profession that’s now been destroyed by the rise of desktop publishing, and then because I understood the language of typesetting it was relatively easy to get a job as a sub-editor. And then from there it wasn’t too hard to get into writing for the newspaper I was sub-editing for.
You emigrated to Australia in your 20s, and I think that, for writers at least, the emigration tends to go the other way around. As a writer, do you think Australia’s a good place to live?
Well, I certainly didn’t come here to write. I ended up here because I’d been travelling through Asia for seven months, and when you’re travelling south you get to a point where you just have to end up in Australia. I mean, Australia is a really lovely place to live, and especially so as a writer up until very recently. Unfortunately, I have this horribly tendency to destroy pretty much every industry I get involved in. First it was typesetting, which went down the toilet, and now the same thing seems to be happening to the fiction and newspaper industry simultaneously. But, up until 18 months ago, Australia was a great place to be working as a writer, and I know that I was at least making more money that friends and people I knew doing the same jobs over in England.
Do you prefer writing as a journalist or as a novelist?
Well, at the moment I’m really not too interested in journalism. As in, in the last four weeks or so, I’ve just lost a whole lot of interest in it. I don’t know, journalism just started to seem very trivial to me, and I started realising that I’ve just been writing different versions of the same story over and over again for my whole career. And I found it difficult to resolve to spend the rest of my life doing that, so I think I might let it rest for a little while.
To what extent to do you adhere to that age-old writers’ axiom about writing what you know?
Well, not at all. Not in the slightest, not in any way at all. I mean, my last novel was about a boy who lived in Australia whose grandfather was on the Burma Railway. I grew up in England, my grandfather wasn’t on the Burma Railway, and I actually never knew anyone who was on the railway. Previously, I’ve written about Australian gangsters in Australian in the 50s and 60s, a world which I’ve got absolutely no personal experience of. What I brought to those books was more knowledge that I’ve gained about the way people tell stories, and an understanding of character. But, to be honest, I think if I just wrote a story about my life, it would have an incredibly limited market, an even more limited market than my books at the moment!
Mark Dapin will be presenting the panel, Seven Enviable Lines, with Lisa Dempster and Jane Gleeson-White at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. You can purchase tickets by visiting our product page or calling the NSW Writers’ Centre on (02) 9555 9757.