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Working with Words: Matthew Condon

Read Monday, 4 Jun 2018

Matthew Condon is a journalist and the acclaimed author of many books including The Trout Opera, The Lulu Magnet and All Fall Down. He shared with us the lessons he learned as a bowser boy and told us about a lifetime of listening, laughing and learning to write about Brisbane.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of journalist and author Matthew Condon

For reasons unknown, my father gave me a volume of Goon Show scripts when I was quite young, and I became obsessed with the comic Spike Milligan and his volumes of illustrated poetry and stories. It was silly and absurd and I loved it all.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I would clip pictures from magazines like National Geographic then create new captions that I thought were funny. I’d then collect them into little ‘volumes’. I also wrote spoofs on Australian history: Captain Cook et al. My parents recently discovered a caricature I’d drawn of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen when I was about ten. Thus were the by-products of living under a totalitarian regime in Queensland as a child.

It is interesting, though, that my early stuff had as political dimension, even though I might not have understood that at the time. Then followed a spate of teenage love poems. I won’t go there …

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

The job that still has an impact on me personally, and on my writing, was the year I worked pumping petrol at a service station on the Gold Coast. I was about twenty-one years old and I couldn’t find work as a journalist, so I did six days a week at the servo. During my lunch hours I’d meet with the mechanics and hear their wild stories and ribald language. And it was at this time that I started the first draft of my first book, The Motorcycle Café. But out on the station tarmac, I was a young kid pumping petrol, washing windscreens and filling steaming radiators.

In a service job like that you meet every single walk of life. Often complete strangers made assumptions about me because of the job I had. I was abused and made fun of because I was the ‘dumb’ bowser boy. It gave me a profound insight into how as human beings we made judgements, often completely incorrect, about others every day. It gave me a profound insight into how others saw the world, and made me look harder.

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

That’s a terrifying question. I wanted to be a writer from when I was about eight years old. I’m not sure I possess any other skills that might translate to a different career. Although I always wanted to paint pictures. I may have to leave that for the nursing home.

It gave me a profound insight into how as human beings we made judgements, often completely incorrect, about others every day.

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

The best was a little tip I picked up from Hemingway, who claimed he always left the day’s work knowing where he was heading the next day. That has been invaluable.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I have dozens and dozens of diaries. They all begin on January 1. And they all go blank around January 6 or 7. I wish I had kept diaries. I regret not being able to stick with them. I greatly admire people who keep diaries but I have always felt self-conscious writing a diary myself.

I’m sure the source of this self-consciousness has nothing to do with actual diaries, but something in me that perhaps I don’t want to drill down into. Ironically, keeping a diary may have resolved this.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

In 1981 I read Gerard Lee’s novel, True Love and How to Get It. It was the story of a young man’s life and loves in Brisbane. At the precise moment I read this book I had yet to be published and I was trying to work out why anyone would bother reading about my landscape, Brisbane. Who cared? There was the great classic, Johnno, by David Malouf, which seemed to me the final word. But Lee’s novel ignited something in me, and told me that my landscape was a valid one for fiction. It unlocked a door for me, and I will always treasure it.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

Who doesn’t? I can’t leave reading a book or writing a manuscript on an even page. It has to be an odd number.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

A loaded question. I very, very rarely, if ever, go back to the published work. I wouldn’t want to be put into a position where I might wish to go back and change things. Recently, I was part of a public discussion about historical fiction, and the chair of the session unexpectedly read from my novel, The Trout Opera, published in 2007. Firstly, it was a shock to hear my words again. Secondly, it didn’t sound too bad. Or, it could’ve been a lot worse.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

Patrick White. I would have loved to have been a guest at that famous dining table in the house off Centennial Park in Sydney, and listened to the chatter during those epic dinner parties. I would have been too terrified to talk. For me, listening is almost always more than enough.

Matthew’s true crime book, The Night Dragon, will be published in November. It is the fifth volume in his chronicle of Queensland crime and corruption in the 20th Century.

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