Australian author Jock Serong won the Ned Kelly Crime Award for Best First Novel with Quota in 2015. Earlier in 2016, the former criminal lawyer-turned journalist-turned novelist released his second novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket (Text Publishing). The marriage of the sedate game of cricket and tense crime fiction may not be immediately apparent yet as ever, as Chris High discovers, it is as big a mistake to judge a book by its title as it its cover.
In the acknowledgements you thank cricketers Mick Lewis, Michael Holding and Dean Jones. How did you get to know these guys and what did these three bring to the novel?
I’d met Michael and Dean a couple of years earlier while I was covering the release of a documentary called Fire in Babylon, about the history of West Indian cricket. In very different ways, both were thoughtful and articulate not only about the game but about the life of a professional sportsman. Dean in particular helped me a great deal with Darren’s thumb injury: originally I imagined a crushed finger, but over a coffee he described to me in excruciating detail why a Rolando’s fracture of the thumb would be more likely to end a career.
Mick Lewis I met through my youngest brother Luke, who for many years has run a charity called Cricket for Kids. We sat at the MCG on a quiet weekday and talked while state training was going on. With Mick, I was looking for background details about the life of a first-class cricketer: the hotels, buses, dressing rooms. That is, the monotony of it.
The concept of blending cricket with crime doesn’t immediately jump out. When was it you realised you had a plot that had the legs to run as a novel and how much planning goes into your writing?
In some ways I’m still trying to work these things out. With this book, I started with that phrase rattling around in the back of my head: The Rules of Backyard Cricket. It bugged me incessantly – I felt like it had to carry some great meaning, like it was code for the invisible boundaries that exist between siblings (not just brothers, I hasten to add). What outrages can you get away with and which will forever remain unforgivable, and what’s the difference? So that was the starting point: I had a title and no story. Then separately I started thinking about being locked in the boot of a car. The Geelong road in Victoria is one of the most monotonous highways in Australia, and sitting there in traffic one day I began to imagine someone in the boot of the car, heading for their execution and trying to attract the attention of other drivers.
The two ideas – the title and the boot guy – took a long time to merge. What has gone wrong between the siblings that has caused one of them to wind up in the boot? I wasn’t consciously looking to write a crime story, but once you’ve got a trussed-up victim in a car boot, I guess it’s unavoidable…
As for becoming a novel, that was surprisingly easy. Once I had Darren and Wally firmly in my head, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the kinds of situations they would find themselves in. The early ones were only a matter of surveying my own suburban childhood in 1970s Australia, and for the adult stuff I looked closely at the headlines: athletes (and retired athletes) getting themselves into tawdry scrapes like these is a sadly common trope. I’m sure it’s the same in England.
Darren is a composite of lots of sporting legends inasmuch as he is highly talented and
deeply flawed. How much research into different sportsmen and women did you
As I mentioned, I did look at the headlines. And indeed the headlines just keep coming. That Ryan Lochte thing after the Olympics felt very Darren to me. The pressures on sportspeople are immense: the money, the adulation and the ridiculous notion that because you have exceptional hand-eye coordination, you should be a morally flawless human. We all broadcast our lives these days thanks to social media, but very few of us will ever be subjected to the kind of scrutiny that can pick up every time we do something idiotic.
There were also a couple of excellent non-fiction books I read to get a better understanding of how the corruption works: Ed Hawkins’ Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy, about cricket, and Declan Hill’s The Fix, about soccer. Cricket tragics will recognise the scene in the nets, when the fast bowlers are lining up to try to kill Darren, as coming from Christian Ryan’s book about Kim Hughes, Golden Boy. Hughes as a cricketer was an incredibly complex character: a sensitive, insanely ambitious outsider, surrounded by a horde of Wallys and Darrens.
I write a lot in the surfing media, and there are also instances of Darren Keefes to be found in that culture: talented freaks who have never been told ‘no’, and who are on an inevitable slide to a fall. It’s human nature, this stuff, and it’s a predominantly male affliction. Most often, women who make it in professional sport have done a harder road before they get there, because of the systemic disadvantages, so they’re not as gullible or as wasteful once they reach the top. Yes, that’s a gross generalisation but I think the headlines bear it out.
Do you come from a particularly sporting family and what’s the most competitive you can remember being growing up?
Unlike the Keefes, we were four boys and two parents. There was a lot of backyard and beach cricket, and it became a useful template with which to fashion this story (although I do think any other obsession would’ve done the trick – football, tennis, even music).
My older brother was too wise to involve himself in the idiocy very much. I was part of it, and my two younger brothers were the core of the enterprise. It was a little violent but mostly I just remember it being hysterically funny. They’d write defamatory stuff about the neighbours on the tennis balls they used, so that if it went over the fence they had no choice but to go and find it. Us younger three all played club cricket but none of us were good enough to go further, so we never experienced the temptations that Daz was subjected to.
Where the family context is important, is that we were four brothers and we all went to a single-sex school, so despite all the good intentions in the world I think we emerged into adulthood with a fairly limited understanding of women. That’s something I wanted to explore in the book: each of the disasters that befalls Darren is centrally concerned with a woman. His mother, his girlfriend, his sister in law and his niece – even a couple of girls he hooks up with in nightclubs. It’s his failure to see the world from their perspectives that ultimately leads him into strife.
You were once a lawyer and now write features for Great Ocean Quarterly and, of course, novels. Why the switch and why crime fiction as a genre?
Like anyone’s life, this is a series of intended and unintended forks in the road. I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world when I was a kid. I fell into law school probably through trying to compromise – figuring I could still be a writer later on but wouldn’t it be sensible to have a law degree. I practised law for seventeen years, mostly in crime, and I would ever call this a mistake, or regret it, because it was often fascinating and it provided well for our family. During those years I suppressed the writing urge for a long time until a handful of coincidences and supportive friends rekindled it. At the time I jumped from law into writing entirely, we had big debts and four small kids: it probably wasn’t ideal timing. But I had reached a point where I’d had some minor successes (I’d signed my first novel with Text Publishing and had a fair bit of features journalism published), and I felt that the need to explore this side of my life wasn’t going to go away, so I might was well give it everything. The “what if” would’ve corroded me otherwise.
Great Ocean Quarterly was part of that transition: it was a beautiful magazine about the sea, which was dreamed up by two friends of mine, Mick Sowry and Mark Willett. They brought me in as a co-founder, to be the editor. The magazine was a success in the sense that we made seven issues that were just beautiful, unique publications, mixing established artists like Jon Frank and Gregory Day with unpublished creators who had something passionate to contribute. But the hard reality was, we couldn’t make money out of it, and we had to close our doors last year. I still think the concept was strong – people are more and more interested in the ocean and what it means for their lives – but the realities of making print media are bloody grim.
The switch to novels was, for me, a natural extension from writing so much non-fiction. It felt liberating to be making up people and stories after giving so much effort to carefully discussing the existing world. I wondered at first if I could do it at all – the first drafts of my debut, Quota, were pretty wobbly. But the feeling was right.
You’ve also won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. That must have been a fantastic feeling and a heck of night!!! What is the benefit of receiving awards to you ultimately as a writer?
Awards matter more than I thought they would. As a writer of fiction you spend vast amounts of time in hermit mode: alone in a room with your thoughts and your insecurities. You wonder if you’re up to it. You wonder if you’re going slowly mad. You wonder if you’re starting to smell awful.
So it’s not the gong itself that matters – it’s the fact that someone put together a committee, that they read all those books and that they had a serious discussion about why the books mattered and they put on a night for everyone to come together and get smashed and feel some community. What an extraordinarily generous thing to do. That stuff is vital: making and selling books is a hard grind and awards make the grind feel worthwhile – whether you’re ultimately the winner or not.
Again in the acknowledgements, you thank friends and family for reading the manuscript. How many saw it before publication and how do you separate the feedback?
I compartmentalise. I think about those friends and family and what I know they’re good at spotting. Sometimes I send them that part of the manuscript, sometimes the whole thing. I’m never after the specifics – I don’t ask ‘should I give her a gun in chapter eight?’ What I want is to know how the reading experience felt: did it slow down at some point? Did the ending feel satisfying? Was there a character who irritated you?
I’m pretty liberal with sending the manuscript around: up to a dozen people might have read it before I submit it. Partially that’s just a function of novels taking a long time to write: over eighteen months or two years, so many people have asked you ‘what are you working on?’ that at least a few times I will have answered ‘I’ll send it to you and you can tell me what you think.’
Okay, if you could choose one author alive or dead to interview who would it be, about which book and why?
Ooh, hell. So many. I think it would have to be David Foster Wallace, on Infinite Jest. It’s a book that’s already important to a lot of people but I think its true importance will only emerge many years from now. I say that because it is an artefact of the 90s, as much as Nirvana or Seinfeld. That means there’s a contemporary backlash – snobs saying ‘ah, it’s a whole bunch of slacker navel-gazing’.
But Infinite Jest defies almost every rule of good fiction writing and still it works. It’s too long – nearly 1200 pages. The plot is almost indiscernible amongst a mad gabble of observations and sarcastic asides. It has gigantic footnotes that ramble to nowhere. It is impossible to describe as an elevator pitch. But the language is unique and ingenious, it’s funny and compassionate and sometimes so batshit crazy that you can’t believe a human could think like that. Maybe I wouldn’t interview him. I’d be so intimidated I don’t think I could talk. I believe that with Foster Wallace’s early death we lost maybe forty more years of such genius. It’s a terrible loss.
Any plans to visit England in the near future?
Just as soon as our Test team gets itself in order so I can come over and watch the Ashes and not be completely embarrassed.
I’ve finished my next novel and it’s currently with Mandy Brett at Text for editing. It’s a significant departure from Backyard Cricket. I wanted to tackle our asylum seeker issue, because I believe the debate has stagnated in non-fiction, in journalism. Everyone is in their trenches now and they’re not bloody moving., When that happens – say for instance with the Iraq war – fiction can step in and offer a new way of looking at the problem, one that’s based on conscience, and not on contested claims to the evidence.
So I have set a surf charter boat full of young Australians on an island in eastern Indonesia, where they discover a wrecked asylum seeker boat on a reef in a storm. They have to make all sorts of decisions about how they’ll respond – and this is occurring in the week before a federal election, so the government wants the whole lot of them to disappear.
On current indications, that’ll be out around October next year. The working title is On the Java Ridge.