Questions I’ve Asked Myself: Liam Pieper
'Will this make a good story?' In the lead-up to The Festival of Questions, Liam Pieper quizzes his own conscience.
The question I’ve asked myself most often and to the most detriment is simple. Will this make a good story?
Coming up at The Festival of Questions
When I was younger, there was a bottom-feeding part of me that would qualify whatever I was pursuing with the justification that it was an investment in narrative. It’s a question one can apply prophylactically, before launching on a jackassed caper, or retrospectively – with the assumption that mistakes will eventually calcify into wisdom.
Now that I’m old, I’ve learned that wisdom is just the luxury of waking up every morning in a state of panicked regret – for all the stories I’ve swooped down and snatched magpie-style, like a lazy metaphor borrowed from Patrick White – and horror that I am compelled to tell those stories.
I remember, back in 2002, when our hero (that’s me) was a sleazy teenaged gangster getting arrested for the first time in front of my girlfriend’s mother on the porch of my family home thinking, ‘My life is over,’ but also ‘Maybe in ten years I can sell this story to Australia’s premier publishers of literary non-fiction?’
You should never trust anyone who’s absolutely convinced they are trustworthy.
Of all the terrible role models I’ve emulated over the years, Hunter S. Thompson is the worst. Many young lives have been destroyed by his notion that ‘Many fine books have been written in prison’.
I did end up writing that book. It’s a memoir about my time as a criminal – a text that nobody bought but every potential employer in the world has read. I wrote it partly because I grew up questioning a swathe of Australian laws (about prohibition, the criminality of certain substances and on treating drug addiction as a criminal rather than health issue) that didn’t make sense to me. They still don’t, but I’ve since questioned the wisdom of marketing oneself as a public scofflaw, because, perhaps unsurprisingly, that approach turned out to be disastrous.
Still, disaster is good for literature. I firmly believe that people become writers as a consequence of cataclysm – some event occurs of such magnitude that it completely discombobulates you, forces you to chart a new course, to question.
Why do I write books? Why does anyone write books? There are enough books. In Australia alone, 28,234 books were published in 2014, the year my first book was published. Last year, in the USA, around a million books were published if you include self-published titles. That’s a smidgen under 300 books for every citizen. What drives all these people to write?
I can speak only for myself, and with less authority every passing day. The reason I do this stupid archaic thing has had different answers for each successive stage of my life. Angst (15–19), loneliness (20–22), deluded belief in my own talent (23–30), loneliness again (30–infinity), and, sporadically, the hope that I will be able to answer a question that someone, somewhere out there is struggling with.
Every time I write something, I’m trying to answer a question. The problem is, the question keeps changing.
To editorialise for a minute; all people are the same. Each of us, from the moment we’re conscious, just wants to answer the question, the primordial, question: why? It’s the question every toddler tugging on a sleeve has asked from the dawn of language: why?
In good books, a question masks another question, or a series of questions, like nesting matryoshka dolls.
Our holy texts, after all, are, for the most part, codes of law that prescribe how to be a better person. What should I eat? How should I raise my children? Is the prospect of violence anathema to civilisation, or a prerequisite? How many slaves am I allowed to own?
And, of course, it’s what’s driven authors, although the set of questions that a writer needs answered can be highly specific, existential questions urgent to perhaps only one person. For that reason, novelists tend to operate somewhere between a pontiff confidently explaining the fault in our stars, and a toddler urgently announcing that they have soiled themselves.
Is it ever possible to really know another person? (Alexandre Dumas.) Is it ever possible to really know another person when she is a schoolgirl who lives in a wishing well? (Haruki Murakami.) Friendship Y/N? (Elena Ferrante)? Should I, a very wealthy person, have an affair? (Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Liane Moriarty.) What is life like in a small coastal town? (All Australian literature.)
In good books, a question masks another question, or a series of questions, like nesting matryoshka dolls. Sometimes the same is true of bad ideas, and the rhetorical questions we set ourselves are like straw men in the shooting gallery that public debate has descended to.
For example, the question, ‘Should same sex marriage be legalised?’ really asks the questions, ‘Will you allow us, with our immense wealth and arsenal of legal chicanery to distract you with a childish card trick?’ Inside which nests the question, ‘Will you sacrifice your dignity, and ours, to allow us to govern you a little longer, even though we are very bad at it?’
I think a questioning temperament and a comfortable baseline of existential panic is healthy. You should never trust anyone who’s absolutely convinced they are trustworthy. Believe in the guy who tells you he’s got every answer and suddenly the world is a dystopian hell-scape run by a malevolent Twistie.
Most of us will have a highly destructive period in our lives, when we think we’ve got the world figured out. Then points of view evolve, and all of a sudden, we haven’t. People change, moral and political compasses move, and we question the world and our place in it. There’s an old truism that a conservative is just a liberal who’s tried to tell a joke to Woke Twitter.
Another truism: the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to listen. To defer to experts. Or at least, throw to them when you’re doing a panel show and you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to.
A writer – if they are good and dedicated and lucky – can answer maybe two or three of the big questions through life, which isn’t actually a great batting average. And they tend to be gloomy company.
You know who has permission to be depressed? Climate scientists. And comedians. But mainly scientists. And a host of other people with ideas you’ll be richer for hearing, even if you don’t like the answer.
The Festival of Questions, on 15 October, is one full day of thoughtful, quick-witted and exhilarating discussions at Melbourne Town Hall.