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Working with Words: John Hughes

Read Monday, 14 Mar 2022

John Hughes is the author of six books, including The Remnants, Asylum, and the Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted No One. His most recent novel The Dogs was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. We spoke to him about how he approaches the work of writing and the impact  Chekhov’s approach to tension and balance in domestic drama has had on him. 

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A short story called ‘Untitled’, published in Meanjin in 1993. It was published by Jenny Lee – an enlightened editor! It took me a long time to get there.

What’s the best part of your job?

Anything (and that means anything!) I do can be called work!

What’s the worst part of your job? 

See above. (How does one ever get to one’s desk?)

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

To discover, after publishing my first book, The Idea of Home, that I can write what I write, and my family and friends will still talk to me!
That, and meeting Terri-ann White. If there’s a Platonic ideal of a publisher, it’s her.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing? 

Be silent, or speak better than the silence. (I’ve still got a long way to go.)

Be silent, or speak better than the silence.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself? 

I don’t know if it’s the most surprising, but it’s certainly the most frank. With the publication of No One, my father told me I might finally have written a book people actually want to read.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead? 

Given how long it takes me to write a book (and given also my answer to Question 2 above), I think most of what I do is already ‘instead’. Each book comes as a surprise to me – I look at it and think, how did I get that written?

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

You can teach everything about writing but what’s important.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer? 

Don’t listen to advice. You don’t learn anything from advice except how to bypass pain. There’s no shortcut, you have to reinvent the wheel everyday. Anything that’s truly distinctive is learnt only through accident and mistake. (But that sounds too much like advice!)

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both? 

I moved from Sydney to Eden on the far south coast of NSW at the beginning of this year. Unfortunately, Eden has no bookshop. So I’ve learnt the pleasures of buying online. But great alternative that it is, nothing for me (apart from the obvious!) lifts the spirits like a shop full of books, and the time to browse it aimlessly.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

Any of Saul Bellow’s protagonists. I’m more a listener than a talker, and Moses Herzog, Artur Sammler or Augie March could talk under water with a mouth full of marbles, while still telling me a thing or two about the problems of the world (and their solution!), about what it is to be human (and inhuman!), and best of all, make me laugh while doing so.

In Chekhov, although happiness appears real and attainable, in the end it remains a dream.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Although the question is a weighty one (what could be weightier than the most significant impact on your life!), my answer can’t match it in kind and may even appear disingenuous, because if I were asked this question on seven different days, I would give seven different answers. Today, rather than a single book – if I can cheat a little – I’ll say the plays of Anton Chekhov (tomorrow it might be his short stories). In Chekhov, although happiness appears real and attainable, in the end it remains a dream. There is no present, only past and future. His lyricism is the lyricism of grief: for what has been lost and can never be regained, and for what is longed for but can never be. Chekhov is the great playwright of dissatisfaction. What he gives is a glimpse into the realities of life where nothing is cut and dried, funny or sad, where there aren’t any heroes or villains, or even any right answers. Life is a series of difficult choices that nobody wants to make, that nobody can make, because none of the options will lead to a future from which something else is not taken away. Lethargy in Chekhov is therefore not a sin but an inevitable mode of being. The supreme irony of each of Chekhov’s plays is that even if the characters had done nothing, the same end would have come to pass: all the plays’ exhaustive inactivity amounts to an act as good as any other. What kind of moral is this? No wonder Tolstoy despaired of Chekhov’s drama. Chekhov’s plays are more like theatrical documentaries. What we in the audience witness, as mesmerised as any moth by the flame, is a slow freefall: families and individuals in a state of freefall, but so slow as to appear not to happen at all. Something almost happens, but what? How did it come to this? we ask. By what sleight-of-hand did something so visible happen without us seeing? Chekhov’s greatest gift is to show us how things change to become the same. This is why there can be so much drama in nothing happening; the characters transform before our very eyes, but transform, somehow, into what they were, which is to say, their change is to remain the same. In Chekhov, that is, what we call the past we also call the future. We leave most of his pieces (plays and stories) with a feeling that’s not readily definable. His worlds balance such innumerable tensions they often seem to transcend the trappings of literature and become life, which, after all, doesn’t have a genre.

John’s novel The Dogs is out now.

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