Occasionally we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements, and inspirations.
This month we spoke with James McKenzie Watson, author of Denizen, the forthcoming psychological thriller that has just won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. Nikole Evans, our Administration Officer, spoke with James about his background as a nurse in regional New South Wales and how this experience influenced Denizen.
Your book Denizen has just won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, that’s a huge achievement, congratulations! What was the first thing you did when you found out?
Thank you so much! The first thing I did was the one thing the publisher who called me asked me to not do – I shared the news with someone. To be fair, I was in a slightly awkward position – I got the phone call midway through recording an episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast I co-host with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt. Ashley was therefore inadvertently privy to the news when I received it. What’s really lovely is that we were still recording when we learned I’d won, and we used the resulting few minutes of celebration and disbelief in Episode 31 of the podcast. I’ve since admitted this transgression to Penguin, who very kindly didn’t immediately retract the prize.
Can you tell us a bit about Denizen?
Denizen is an Australian gothic/literary thriller that explores rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people, a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. On a remote property in western NSW, eight-year-old Parker fears that something is wrong with his brain. His desperate attempts to control this internal chaos spark a series of events that gallop from his control in deadly and devastating ways. Years later, Parker, now a father himself, returns to the bushland he grew up in for a camping trip with old friends. When this reunion descends into chaos amid revelations of unresolved fear, guilt and violence, Parker must finally address the consequences of his childhood actions.
What drew you to the thriller genre?
I’ve always been drawn to writing about regional Australia and the bush, a setting that lends itself very well to the thriller genre. It’s a place imbued with darkness, mystery, and a very palpable sense of threat that often results from nothing more than its vast scale. Obviously, these aren’t new ideas – some of Australia’s greatest writers, like Patrick White, Joan Lindsay and Kenneth Cook, made their names exploring them – but their ongoing examination continues to result in some of Australia’s most fascinating and visceral art. I remember being blown away the first time I saw films like Wolf Creek, Snowtown and Beautiful Kate – I hadn’t realised that wider audiences were as interested in these kinds of raw explorations of Australia’s rural heartlands as I was. Suddenly, concepts I was fascinated by as I sought to understand my own experiences were being enjoyed by the mainstream. The run-away success of Jane Harper’s The Dry and Chris Hammer’s Scrublands, and ongoing popularity of rural noir/Australian gothic novels confirms how well these kinds of stories are suited to thrillers.
As a side note, Australian film and literature is frequently criticised for focusing on bleak and ‘cynical’ themes such as suicide, mental illness and violence. I don’t think that’s fair. Much of rural Australia is staggeringly beautiful and populated by thriving, healthy communities, but it’s also haunted by immutable pasts of colonisation, isolation and hardship. It’s these ghosts, and the intensity of their presence, that the art is responding to. These narratives aren’t coming from nowhere – there might be less ‘depressing’ Australian films and books when the inequities that inspire them are resolved.
You work as a nurse in regional New South Wales, and you are the co-host of the writing and health podcast James and Ashley Stay at Home. How has your interest in health influenced Denizen?
One of Denizen’s core motifs is that an enormous gulf remains between what’s required and what’s provided for mental illness in regional Australia. This is something I witnessed firsthand while growing up and continue to see working as an emergency nurse in regional NSW. The widespread mental illness – exacerbated by socioeconomic disparity, poor educational outcomes, intergenerational trauma, physical isolation and environmental hardship – far outruns the services provided, and the resulting gulf is littered with drug abuse, violence and suicide. The quality of these services and access to them has improved out of sight in recent years, but there’s still a huge gap.
Much of Denizen takes place in that gap and attempts to communicate the desperation of those inhabiting it. I don’t think it’s a novel I could have written without an interest in health – particularly mental health and rural health – and if I hadn’t seen firsthand so much of the devastation that accompanies these challenges.
Your work delves into the “ruggedness” of rural Australia. Why are stories of regional Australia so important?
Regional Australian stories remain underrepresented in the Australian art and media landscape, despite ongoing efforts from many publishers and media organisations. Australia is such a vast country with such high population concentration in the cities – it’s very easy for regional Australian voices to be drowned out and their views not registered.
Of course, the challenge of ‘regional Australians’ being such a broad and poorly defined group is that there’s incredible diversity among them. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people who think the last thing the literary scene needs is another dark novel about the ‘ruggedness’ of the bush – fair enough! That’s just my experience and my contribution is just one of many. The challenge is not to louden individual regional Australian voices, but to have more people join the chorus. The economic, societal, health and environmental difficulties faced in the regions are so different to conditions in the city, and it’s so important that there are as many stories out there as possible to influence the wider conversation.
What books do you like to read? Are there any standout writers that influenced Denizen?
I try to read as widely as possible – I’m incredibly lucky that I get introduced to so many wonderful new books through the podcast! – but my favourites tend to be dark, literary novels that explore high emotion, morality and taboo. David Vann (who Ashley and I interviewed for episode 23 of our podcast) was far and away the greatest influence on Denizen’s early drafts. I was especially inspired by his novels Dirt and Goat Mountain – they’re both intense, sparse, hypnotically dark works that probe shame and responsibility in rural families. Cormac McCarthy’s fearlessness in exploring moral ambiguity and violence in Child of God shaped how I approached similar themes. I discovered Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series quite late in the process of writing Denizen but found his intensely introspective and existential narration absolutely captivating, and tried to apply elements of his writing to my own prose.
Do you have any advice for someone interested in writing a psychological thriller?
Lean into the emotion. By their nature, psychological thrillers (and psychological dramas, which I feel better describes my writing!) turn on internal conflict, and so it follows that gripping and plausible internal drama maximises their effectiveness. When done well, it results in devastating, highly affecting payoffs whose power comes from how intensely we’ve come to feel the characters’ internal state.
If you had to sum up your experience of writing Denizen in three words, what would they be?
Exciting, addictive, cathartic.
Denizen will be published by Penguin Random House in 2022.
James McKenzie Watson won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize for his novel Denizen. His short and long-form fiction has been recognised in international competitions and publications, and with Varuna and KSP Residential Fellowships. He co-hosts the writing and health podcast ‘James and Ashley Stay at Home’ and works as a critical care nurse in regional New South Wales.