Read an interview with City of Fremantle T.A.G Hungerford Award shortlisted writer Alan Fyfe plus an extract from his novel Floaters.
Describe your manuscript in your own words.
Floaters is a novel that treads a line between magical realism and hallucination. Set in the Peel region of Western Australia, it involves the lives of a small group of low-level methamphetamine dealers and users, and some strange, apparently supernatural, happenings. Floaters is about philosophical absurdity, ghosts, addiction, love, poetry, levitation and art.
What inspired you to write it?
I grew up and spent most of my life around Mandurah and Pinjarra, which has always been a cheaper place to live than Perth and the more genteel areas of the south-west. The people I knew, lived with and loved were from the lower socioeconomic strata of that place and I felt strongly about providing them with a voice that was both lyrical and authentic. I feel this part of Australian society is often patronised in our literature, so I wanted to go a little beyond the tragedy of their addictions and faults to provide a window into the kinds of texts, verse and art that inform their life-world, as well as the oral traditions of bogan folklore.
I also wanted to write something a little bit like T.H. White's The Once and Future King, which I've read annually for the past twenty-two years. White's seamless shifts between perspectives and his negotiation between verse and prose have been a great influence. I was inspired to play with the boundaries of first, second, and third person narrative by Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, with the thin line between the supernatural and personal delusion by Dostoevsky's The Double, and with the philosophical absurdity in Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus.
How long have you been working on it?
That's a funny question, or an ordinary question with a funny answer. The final text was completed and redrafted several times, over a period of Monday to Friday, five to twelve hour work days for a little over six months between mid to late 2017. However, the ‘book within a book’ that appears in the second part of the novel, The Art of Levitation in 1994 and other Fictions, was first drafted ten years ago when I put together an eclectic collection of my writing, all informed by a sense of place within the Peel Region. The years after were spent on repeated attempts to realise the original (and rather bigger) book as an interconnected narrative with its own thematic integrity and to expand the world of its characters into a full-length novel.
It's still not as simple as saying the project was started ten years ago, though. When I was thirteen, I started a novel which I completed just after I turned fourteen. It was 250 pages, I don't know how many words because the manual typewriter I used didn't have a word-count function, and about Satanists from Dwellingup. It wasn't very good and I burned the original manuscript in a fit of teenage pique. What ended up as Floaters still has Dwellingup Satanists, though they are no longer the main subject, so, in a very concrete way, I have been writing, reimagining, and redrafting this for thirty-two years, until the final version was almost completely different form from the first, and until I was happy enough with my own abilities. Never stop editing.
What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Awards?
Honestly, it's a tremendous relief. After working so hard on Floaters, and chipping away at my art praxis for so many years, knowing the prestige associated with the Hungerford Award shortlisting gives me confidence that I've leapfrogged many slush piles and have a much better chance at finally seeing my novel printed and put out by a decent publisher. I've been published many times in the past in shorter form, but getting a full novel accepted is a tricky business. Fremantle Press has been the home of some of my literary heroes, like Kim Scott, so the acknowledgement from this publisher is incredibly affirming.
I also feel a sense of continuity and attachment with this award in particular, as opposed to other first manuscript prizes. Brenda Walker, the inaugural winner of the Hungerford, was my writing teacher at UWA. It was for her honours class that the short story at the heart of the narrative, ‘The Art of Levitation in 1994’, was developed and written. It was her encouragement that helped me think of myself as an artist beyond university, so that I could keep at the task and produce something worthwhile in time. Her contribution to West Australian literature as a teacher goes far beyond her own celebrated writing and is an inspiration for the way I'd like to proceed when I finish my postgrad studies and, hopefully, get the chance to make my own contribution to our fantastic local scene as a creative writing teacher myself.
From Floaters by Alan Fyfe
Two medics brought Gulp’s body down the stairs from his house very early on a Saturday. Soft-shoed, shuffling men keeping their voices down around death as though it would hear them. They were straining at the trolley, the rearmost leaning backwards, the man in front pushing against the way he was going. The stairs were almost at forty-five degrees, leaning up to a corrugated tin half silo high on stilts, where Gulp had lived his final three years, and they were more than half ladder: thin slats nailed between two diagonal props with no handrails. This forced the trolley to a sharp angle and forced the medics to negotiate each step carefully. If he had died before he moved into the half silo house by the brown river, the job would have been harder. Gulp had lost a lot of weight since then.
Two police stood watching and smoking. They leaned against the warm engine housing of their patrol car, 6.30 a.m. brains a little hypnotized by the swirls of river mist on Gulp’s long, untended lawn and the slow progress of the medics struggling down the stairs. The edge of the sun was peeking over a long tree-line on the other side of the river – the old, slow Murray. The river was an unacknowledged vein for all their activities, as they travelled the roads of their coastal town – up and down in reference to its flow and the streets built out in uneven grids from its banks – for them, for the medics, and as much for Gulp’s former trade.
As the front medic shifted his weight onto the final step, the weather-battered jarrah creaked loudly then snapped through the middle. His foot shot through and his calf was shredded on the splintered edges, sending him down onto one knee. The man at the back lost his grip and the trundle bed followed the change in balance, the front going down with the pull from the fallen man and the back end suddenly free, it turned over and became airborne. The shorter of the two police, a thickset woman with her gun slung low on her hip, saw the scene happening very slowly, though it must have taken less than a second. It seemed to freeze, for her, in a moment with the trolley bearing Gulp’s corpse in the air above the kneeling medic. The medic had his arms crossed in front of his face to protect himself and an expression of deeply invested terror so visible it was almost cartoonish. It reminded the policewoman of a renaissance painting she’d seen in the Perth City Gallery, when she was a cadet, of a terrified prophet facing a hovering angel. The medic’s fear was less metaphysical though, and Gulp’s bagged body quickly closed on him with a slap of plastic and flesh, pinning him to the ground. At the sound, a stand of ibis who had been scavenging in Gulp’s rubbish took flight. The trolley’s wheels, now upended, spun in the air and the unhurt medic screamed for help from the police who still hadn’t moved more than to widen their eyes and exclaim a few swear words in appreciation of the moment’s novelty.
T drove past Gulp’s house just as the police roused themselves to help. The tall policeman appeared to be laughing. The policewoman turned when she heard T’s engine (which wasn’t the type of quiet, well-tended engine police ignore) and seemed to make eye contact with him through the windscreen. He took in the police car, the medic still standing on the steps, and the medic trapped face to face with the body in the bag – his fat limbs flailing out at the sides and blood visibly spurting from his left leg. He accelerated to the speed limit and focused his attention on Yunderup Drive in front of him, as though he was a curious passer-by and hadn’t been intending to pull into Gulp’s yard at all.