The next edition of Converminsations features David Francis, author of the literary thriller/family saga Stray Dog Winter, which was published by MacAdam/Cage late last year.
JIM RULAND: What will be reading on April 5?
DAVID FRANCIS: I’ll probably read the opening of Stray Dog Winter.
JR: Your novel begins with a journey by train to Moscow. When you made the trip, did you know right away that it was "material" that you would use some day? Was it all as shockingly oppressive as you make it seem?
DF: Yes, in 1984 I traveled by train from Prague through Poland and the Ukraine, and sensed it as a very particular experience. No foreigners, just strange Slavic characters and landscapes like something out of Turgenev, but with a bizarre, oppressive Soviet pall over everything. I knew I wasn’t supposed to take photos but I wanted to capture it. When I arrived in Moscow, I (like Darcy Bright in the novel) was escorted into custody, my camera confiscated and film exposed. Still, the images really stayed with me but not because I consciously planned to write about them – I wasn’t yet writing at all. I began my first novel, The Great Inland Sea, more than a decade later. And even when I started Stray Dog Winter in about 2004, it grew as a story of a boy and his half-sister in Australia – it actually came as a surprise when she got a fellowship to paint the industrial landscapes of Moscow and I saw him so vividly on that train.
JR: The two story lines of the novel – the narrative present of Cold War Russia and the back story of your protagonist's youth – run along parallel tracks as if to suggest that one's past is always with us, that it informs our every step. To what degree was this intentional?
DF: Initially, I was afraid I was writing two novels, one in Australia, an unusual family love story, and one in Moscow, a weird literary mystery. But the characters were clearly the same in both and so I just kept writing them, following them until the past so truly informed the present Russian story. Eventually, they began to fold into each other, the past, more episodically revealed, catching up with the present at a moment when the suspense element takes the story over. I never set out to write a mystery, or dare I say thriller, underpinned by a family saga; I wouldn’t have been so ambitious.
JR: When Darcy Bright gets in way over his head you abandon the Australia storyline. It’s as if you’re saying there's no going back to what got him there, to what made him who he is. It's just him and his wits and his instincts. This, too, seemed carefully crafted.
DF: Yes, the story is carefully crafted, sentence to sentence and scene to scene, but it was genuinely written in an organic fashion – that’s how I write – so I can’t pretend to have plotted or structured it all very cleverly. I just stayed close to Darcy and experienced his childhood, his adventures in his twenties (well, misadventures) in Moscow and just tried to really be inside his world, his wits and instincts, and to follow where they took him. Sure, I drew somewhat on my own experiences, but allowed Darcy to be much more than I (I’d love to say “me” here; wish it wasn’t wrong). And while I believe at some level, whether we’re conscious of it or not, “all art is exorcism” (as Otto Dix once said), Stray Dog Winter is not strictly autobiographical. Still, it contains a kind of emotional truth for me and I think that’s crucial. To be writing to find out what I feel about something and to be telling a story I really need to tell.
JR: Was there a scene or experience abroad that you'd intended to include that you had to take out?
DF: My Australian and US publishers bought the novel at the Book Fair in Frankfurt simultaneously and were on the same page editorially – they wanted to “up” the suspense factor. So I undertook a re-write, investing heavily in the tautness and intrigue while keeping the pacing and poetry. I took out any scene that didn’t propel the story forward, some of which were based on Moscow memories – one at the circus, one in the GUM department store. What was sad was that, in themselves, those chapters really worked but they didn’t quite move the narrative sufficiently, so they were jettisoned. I also added some chapters to further develop and balance the Australian story.
JR: Now that you've succeeded in writing a such an ambitious book, do you think you'll try it again? Does writing a technically challenging novel raise the bar, so to speak, or is it a matter of the story setting its own parameters?
DF: I wouldn’t intentionally do it again, but I suppose something as challenging could unfold. My New York agent is keen that I write more suspense but I’m not sure that’s me in the long term. I’ll just write what I write and see. Since I finished Stray Dog Winter, I’ve been working on short stories, some of which have been published, which is fun. One of these stories has ignited and is becoming something longer. I may also end up with a collection of linked stories.
JR: You say that you weren't writing when you went to Moscow. Is there a moment that you can point to where you "became" a writer?
DF: A part of me that wants to believe I’ll really become a writer when it becomes extremely lucrative (ridiculous, I know). Another part believes I am a writer because I write what I want to or what I need to, not what I think I should or what others tell me I should. But maybe the moment I felt I became a writer was when my first book, Agapanthus Tango (as it was called internationally) was released – it came out initially in the UK and my first review was in the Times Literary Supplement, and my London agent emailed me a copy. Then it was reinvigorated when I received a six-month literary fellowship to the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. And in Paris I feel like a writer, or when I’m on tour or at book festivals, then I come back here to L.A. and toil away, and feel like a phony again, wondering “Who on earth will read this?”
JR: A few weeks ago Terry Teachout characterized a brief stint working in a bank as "one of the most painful experiences of my life." As someone who "punches a clock" (disclaimer: I've never actually punched a clock, although I've assaulted a few radios) for a living, I find such remarks out-of-touch and insulting. What's your reaction?
DF: I have always juggled a day job “lawyering” with writing, and prior to that a horse life. I’ve left my law job for periods when my passions have taken me elsewhere, riding on an Australian equestrian team in Europe in the 1980’s, and more recently going on book tours or writing fellowships, but I’ve always come back to the safety of the law, as much as I’ve resented it. When I returned to my office in L.A. from six months writing in Paris, I couldn’t stop crying, and there’s no crying in public finance. I’ve always dreamed a writing life might free me, sustain me financially – when The Great Inland Sea sold in lots of countries and then the film rights were optioned, it looked promising. But I’d have to produce a book every two years and rely on it being successful enough that I could avoid a day job. For better or worse, I’m not that kind of writer. I’m pretty slow, and suspicious of books that are finished in less than three years. In fact, my day job has been a godsend: a place to go with air-conditioning/heat, where I interact with “normal” people, and get a salary that allows me to write what I want. I was always fearful that being a lawyer would stifle any creative (as much as I hate that word) possibilities, but the legal writing is different enough and I think the discipline helps me. I wonder whether I’d rather be traipsing around teaching writing all over the place like my friends do, but that’s also painful and less lucrative. So I think the Teachout piece is a bit naïve and unrealistic for most of us, especially in this economy. He has the luxury of life as a critic and that’s great for him, but how many of us sustain ourselves publishing novels? He writes biographies which is probably a safer bet, but I love the idea of creating something from whole cloth, a less derivative thing, from my own experience and imagination. For now, I need a day job to afford to venture into the vagaries of fiction.
JR: Is it easier to write about your native Australia, living and working elsewhere?
DF: Maybe there’s a perspective about Australia I experience from this distance, which allows me to write about it in a particular way, a way that might not have emerged had I stayed there. My first book was set mostly in very rural Australia and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my second between less rural Australia and Cold War Moscow, written from L.A. or Paris, and also some re-writing back on the farm in Australia. I’ve tended not to re-visit places I’m writing about while I’m writing, but prefer to rely on skerricks (an Australian word meaning skerricks) of memory to spawn the scenes – I was tempted to go to Moscow to re-familiarize myself as I wrote Stray Dog Winter but a writer friend from L.A., Les Plesko, who was writing a book about Budapest, visited Hungary for “research” and felt it skewed his inherent feel for the book. It was being molded from images and memories from his childhood there, and was sort of frayed and dissipated by the new reality of Budapest thirty years later. Still, while I doubted I’d write about America if I was still living here, since I finished Stray Dog Winter, I’ve been writing some stories set in California, three of which have been published which is fun, and two of which are funny, kind of.
DF: My family farm is quite near the fires in Victoria, about twenty miles from one of the big ones. My sister now runs the place and it has been really scary, the impact of the climate change and the ferocity of the wind and heat, the fact that so many fires are being deliberately lit, and the awful loss of life. Images of horses and kangaroos on fire tearing through the bush, people being incinerated in their cars after having collisions in the smoke. Oddly, I’ve recently written three stories with fires in them, one in Australia, one in L.A. during the riots in the early nineties, and another in Santa Barbara at a monastery where I retreated to write on my birthday last year and was evacuated as the Montecito Hills were incinerated. The last has become a bigger story, less about the fire and more about a man turning fifty. My first book had a fire in it also, in a corn field in Maryland, deliberately lit by Callie, the female protagonist who had a history with conflagration. I now have a sense of a new story about the recent Australian fires, written from this distance but from the point of view of a young aboriginal arsonist.
JR: What's the most unusual reaction you've had at a reading?
DF: My first reading in Paris was at The Red Wheelbarrow, a wonderful English bookstore at the bottom of the Marais, near the river. I read from Agapanthus Tango, and then a wonderful French writer Alain de Fosse, the translator, read the same piece in French (from Le Tango des Agapanthes – an even more obscure title in French). It was all very literary and I felt like I’d arrived, and then we opened it up for any questions and this very intellectual-looking French woman put up her hand. She looked at me quizzically and asked me where I bought my shirt.
Here's David Francis reading at at St. John's Cathedral for Melbourne Writers Festival. Come see him in far more secular surroundings at the Mountain Bar on Sunday, April 5 at 8pm.