The following passage is an excerpt from my first novel, Here Today, an interview with Martin Finn as discovered by Astrid at Martin's own suggestion. It is the first glimpse of the character before his current 'locked-in' condition.
It was with some trepidation that I accepted the offer of a window in Martin Finn’s schedule for an interview. The window may have been open for an hour, but twenty minutes was all I would get. It would be a classic of understatement to say that his reputation that precedes him: the writer who has famously used acceptance speech platforms to deride the Australia Council, universities, and a growing litany of real or perceived foes. His television interview with a popular female presenter where he reduced the latter to tears is now the stuff of legend.
It’s a reputation he does not shy away from. Martin Finn is an imposing presence in the room. He carries with him the baggage of his awards and the quiet arrogance of the truly gifted writer. He folds himself wearily into the lounge chair and orders a doppio. He has positioned himself in front of a large expanse of window, presumably to hide his facial expression in a wash of glare.
‘The marketing for this book is completely different to anything I’ve ever done before. Apparently I sell now.’
Finn of course is referring to the Black Ink Award for his last novel, the monumental Red Right. Readers of the novel many already consider a modern masterpiece will recognise the same hand behind his new novel The Sparrow’s Nest. While Finn has dropped the politics and radicalism of the work that attracted the richest prize in modern literature, underlying themes of love, sex, and death remain entrenched in his work. Finn himself is circumspect on the thematic protractions.
‘The Sparrow’s Nest is a very different novel. It comes from a completely different place. A lot has happened since Red Right.’
Finn doesn’t make this claim lightly. The day after the London-based Black Ink committee catapulted him into highest echelons of Australia’s and the world’s literary canon, Finn’s mother died in a Brisbane nursing home. From there a series of upheavals rocked the author’s professional and personal life.
‘Let’s see,’ Finn says, ‘there was the death of my mother, the switch to new publishers, the birth of my daughter, the unconscionable banning of Red Right from religious bigots in the Commonwealth Government.’ He pauses a moment to sip his coffee. ‘I’m sure there are more.’
What about the very public falling out between Finn and his long-time friend and agent, Miles Drewe? For six months the pair conducted a bitter argument through open letters, interviews and newspaper articles. Finn claimed his agent had been withholding royalty payments throughout his career. Drewe claimed his client was morally bankrupt, egotistical, and artistically exhausted after the cathartic experience of Red Right. While Finn may have been justified in shaming his former agent, it was Drewe’s claims that had the greater impact, damaging Finn’s reputation perhaps permanently in the process.
‘I think I’ve said enough over the last few years. In the short term he probably scored a few hits, but frankly all I have to do to prevail is be myself. The tragedy is that history will remember poor old Miles Drewe as nothing more than the former agent of Martin Finn.’
‘This of course assumes that you will continue to find success as a writer.’
‘I’ll keep writing. Whether success finds me now is part history, part luck.’
‘You know this. Big awards create an inbuilt audience, or so they tell me. I can trade on the success of Red Right for years now, even if I write complete shit. Not that it’s shit, but it’s all good news for the success of The Sparrow’s Nest.’
‘Are you saying the book would have trouble finding a market without prior success?’
‘It would find a market, just one that’s not so big. It helps to have a name on the cover. Sparrow’s is a bit of a return to my earlier stuff. It was almost like puberty again, that fucking awful teenage angst. There’s a moment in the book I took from my own experience. My mother died and I carried her body to the hearse. I was struck by a tremendous sense of dread, like a foreboding. I felt like I was going to suffocate. I watched the funeral director go through his solemn motions like he must have done several times a day for years. I wondered about people who surround themselves with death for their entire lives, about what kind of effect that might have on your psychology and how such an environment would impact somebody who is losing control of themselves.’
‘In steps Elgar.’
‘Would you consider Elgar as something of an alter ego?’
Finn seems to consider this for some time before responding. ‘I identify a lot with him – I wouldn’t have made him a main character otherwise – but alter ego is too strong and too easy. It’s the kind of thing lazy journalists cook up then reheat over and over so they don’t have to think. Elgar is his own man with his own foibles and, let’s be honest, some fairly abhorrent traits that I’d never lay claim to.’
‘This brings me to the claim by the federal government, following on from their objections to Red Right, that this new book contains graphic descriptions of necrophilia.’
‘Fucking laughable, isn’t it? Apparently they were too busy doing economics to pick up the most basic English skills. A government that can’t recognise a simile is not a government capable of representing Australia. So they want to ban another of my books – one they clearly haven’t read – from public schools? I say vote them out before they drag everyone down to their level of stupidity.’
‘I want to come back to that image of Elgar acting as pallbearer and the vision of the sparrows. You open the book with a reference to John Skelton’s Phyllyp Sparowe. Why did you choose this bird as the symbol of death for this novel rather than, say, ravens? What do you see as the primary role the sparrows play in Elgar’s psyche?’
‘You make it sound like the sparrows aren’t real.’
‘They are real?’
‘Hard to say. No one else in the story talks about them, so perhaps you’re right. But the reason the birds are sparrows? I mentioned my mother’s funeral as one inspiration. The other was not so much Skelton’s poem, but the ones it was inspired by.’
‘Which would be Catullus.’
‘Right. I think you’re the first person to pick up on the Catullus reference. We should do away with journalists altogether and just talk between novelists. Anyway, I came across a dodgy translation of Catullus in an old bookshop and I was struck by how he was able to swing wildly from precision and emotional maturity to childish point scoring and what I can only assume was the filthiest of Latin that never made it anywhere near churches or schools when I was growing up. You’ve got to love a poem with a first line like: I’m going to fuck you up the arse and make you suck my dick. He was like a Roman gangster rapper, a master of subtlety.’
‘So why not quote from Catullus directly, rather than Skelton?’
‘Skelton seemed to have a richer tone to his poem than the translated Catullus. I suspect Catullus works better in his native Latin, but I wasn’t going to open my novel with a quote in a dead language. At least you can still understand Skelton, at least if you read it out loud.’
At this point I glance down at my notes. I half suspect the kind of reaction I will get, so the next question fills me with dread. A few seconds in and I realise my anxiety is entirely justified. I watch Martin’s eyes cool and his body stiffen as I plough on.
‘A few reviewers have pointed to some of the more explicit scenes in The Sparrow’s Nest to make rather salacious claims of a secret extramarital affair you have supposedly been entangled in for the past several years.’
Martin stands, quite calmly, and drops his espresso cup onto the coffee table with a tremendous crack.
‘Fucking hell, at least have the balls to make the claim yourself instead of hiding behind some faceless group of reviewers. I’m sorry we couldn’t continue this conversation. I was having fun,’ he says simply.
I try to salvage the rest of the interview with a quick mea culpa, but the damage was done. Martin turned at the door to his assistant.
‘Find out who this fucker writes for. I want them blackballed. They don’t publish another fucking word from me, get it?’