David Rain was born in Mount Gambier, South Australia, a small town in the relatively wet and green south-east of the state, known for its “Blue Lake” which mysteriously changes colour every summer from grey to dazzling blue. Mount Gambier is also the birthplace of Sir Robert Helpmann, the ballet dancer, and Max Harris, the literary editor at the centre of the celebrated literary hoax known as the “Ern Malley affair,” with which David has an enduring fascination. David lived in Mount Gambier until he was seventeen, when he went to the University of Adelaide, where he eventually acquired a Ph.D in English literature for a dissertation on the eighteenth-century English novelist Samuel Richardson, author of that great and largely neglected classic, Clarissa. Since 1990, David has lived in Britain and Ireland.
Interview by Brian West
What brought you to the UK?
My mother was English, but I got a job as a lecturer in English literature at Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland. In fact I got offered two jobs at the same time: one in Beijing and one in Belfast. I chose Belfast because it was close to England and Europe. This was in the 1990s and at that time soldiers and tanks were a constant sight. It was a startling contrast to the placid streets of Adelaide. I learned a lot from living in Belfast, but it’s never been something I’ve felt able to write about. I love Ireland, but perhaps Ireland as a literary subject must be left to the Irish. Later I moved to Brighton and then to London where I’ve been teaching at Middlesex University for several years.
You have dual nationality?
Yes. I call myself Australian, but legally speaking I’m both Australian and British. This duality has been important in my life. My mother was very English. I think she looked on life in Australia as an exile. She had been a nurse in London during the war, and her reminiscences of that time felt very real to me. I loved London long before I’d seen it. I suppose my father, by contrast, was very Australian, direct from the outback. I should add, however, that he was a communist and looked forward eagerly to the collapse of capitalism. Hardly typical of his time and place. He talked politics over the dinner table every night, but I never thought he was boring. He read a lot. He could talk about Tolstoy. Again, hardly typical of that kind of man. He’d had a hard life and no education to speak of but he was smart and creative. He made model boats and sailed them on the Valley Lake in Mount Gambier. He was very good at making things.
What do you think your background gave to you?
It was great for my imagination. My sister and I were the children of “old parents” (they were in their fifties while we were still growing up), which I think in itself gives one a skewed angle on the world. Our early lives were both provincial in the extreme and, in material terms, impoverished. Our family had no money, no television, and nothing, by current standards, to do. Books became important to me as soon as I could read. The first book I read for myself was Treasure Island. It’s still a huge favourite of mine. I remember reading Robinson Crusoe, The Wind in the Willows, and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword very early on, too. I don’t envy modern children, bombarded with electronic media at every turn.
For as far back as I can remember my sister and I lived a rich imaginative life, drawing, making up songs, putting on silly voices and creating characters, staging theatrical performances. I was seven or eight when somebody told me about a kid at school who had written a story, just for the hell of it, without the teacher asking him to do it. It seemed such a good idea that I went straight home that afternoon and started my own. It was called Moon Escape. Soon I was writing constantly: science fiction, pirate adventures, thrillers, you name it. All were derivative, all no doubt terrible, but they taught me the most important lesson about writing: take pen, take paper, and go.
Your novel Volcano Street is set in a small town in Australia. How true is it?
Perhaps not true at all! For one thing I was never a girl like Skip Wells, the main character. That said, there are things I copied straight from life. Australians have, or used to have, a big thing about jokes. All the spectacularly vulgar jokes in the book, told mostly by the bus driver, Sandy Campbell, are real ones I heard when I was growing up. Many incidental details in the book are real, too, or real as I can make them. The description of the agricultural “Show” with its attendant sideshows – key event in the Crater Lakes calendar – required little invention on my part. And the high school as I describe it is, in many ways, the high school I went to – at least as it seemed to me in my first year, when I was Skip’s age. (It got better. Later on we had some excellent teachers, who made all the difference.) But the point of the book isn’t to slag off the town, which I miss in a million ways, and it’s certainly not to settle old scores. It’s to tell a story. And in Skip and her sister Marlo, their banishment to Crater Lakes, and what happens as a result, I thought I had a great story. In fact I know I had.
Do you think of yourself as a Londoner now?
I’m not sure anyone’s a Londoner. I often think about going back to Australia. Will I? I don’t know. Leaving turned out well in many ways. But I’ve never really felt at home in England, let alone Northern Ireland. Hawthorne, one of my favourite writers, wrote a novel called The Marble Faun, probably the first of those “Americans in Europe” novels that were later to become so big thanks to Henry James and Hemingway. At the end, Hawthorne says that the characters, after their long sojourn in Europe, finally had to go back where they came from because if they stayed away any longer they would end up entirely rootless. I’ve no doubt got to the rootless stage by now. Does Australia attract me? Often. Will I go back? I don’t know. But writing about it in Volcano Street has been scary, fascinating, and fun.
The Heat of the Sun was called a “debut.” Was it really your first novel?
It was the first published as by David Rain, which is my legal name. I’ve previously published science fiction and fantasy under the name “Tom Arden.” There are eight Tom Arden titles in all. There are five lengthy books in a series called The Orokon, which is a sort of black comic quest fantasy set in a world based loosely on the eighteenth century. It was a huge amount of fun to write, and will be reissued by the British imprint Quercus Books from 2016 onwards. The titles, in order, are The Harlequin’s Dance, The King and Queen of Swords, Sultan of the Moon and Stars, Sisterhood of the Blue Storm, and Empress of the Endless Dream. (Back in the day there were several foreign-language editions as well, including a German one in which each book is split in two, making ten volumes in all. Now that is impressive.)
As “Tom” I also published a couple of small-press titles, weird gothic-style novels called Shadow Black (the first novel I ever completed) and The Translation of Bastian Test. I’m fond of both those and would love to see them back in circulation. Whether they’re really “Tom Arden” books or “David Rain” books is an interesting question. Tom also did a BBC-licensed Doctor Who novella called Nightdreamers, which stars Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. There was a deluxe edition of this with bookplates signed both by Tom and the actress Katy Manning, who played the Doctor’s companion Jo Grant on television. The best thing about being involved in the Doctor Who world was meeting, or at least being in the same room as, people from the show. I did a signing event where I sat next to the late Nicholas Courtney (“the Brigadier”) all afternoon. He was a charming man. Tom Baker was there and Courtney, in true old-fashioned British theatrical style, addressed him as “darling” – which is kind of fun if you imagine Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart saying it.
What do you think of your fantasy novels now?
I haven’t read them since they came out. I don’t want to re-read my old work. I’d keep finding things I wanted to change. But the best fan letter I had about The Orokon was from a young woman who described in detail all the ways in which my books violated the conventions of fantasy. She thought this was a good thing, I might add – innovative, even! The truth is, I had no idea that most of those conventions existed. I loved the idea of a fantasy series – a long, endlessly ramifying romance (in the original, adventure-story sense of the word) filled with strange happenings and bizarre characters. But I went about it my own way. I hadn’t even read Tolkien when I wrote The Orokon. The series tends to divide people, but that’s no bad thing. The people who like Tom Arden like him a lot. I don’t know if I’ll ever write more fantasy. I like the stuff I’m writing now.
You also write poetry?
Yes, I began writing verse and song lyrics in my teens and published various pieces in Australia – nothing worth resurrecting. After a long gap I began writing verse again a few years back, and have published a few pieces here and there. I’d love to get a collection out in due course, though there’s no money in it, so it’s hard to make that happen unless you publish it yourself – not something I’m instantly keen on. But I’d write verse anyway, whether or not I thought anyone would read it. I like to write in metre, often in rhyme. I love the craft aspect, making words fit, making them echo off each other like music. Verse shouldn’t just be chopped-up prose, which is all it often is nowadays. I like poetry that’s mysterious. Most of my favourite poetry is stuff I didn’t understand when I first read it, sometimes still don’t completely understand now. That lit-class approach to poetry – paraphrasing, figuring it out like a crossword puzzle – kills it for most people. Remember how you loved “Like a Rolling Stone” or “American Pie” before you even thought about what those songs meant? You loved how they sounded. You loved the images.
What do you read – fiction, poetry, drama? Who are your favourite writers?
So many. In my early twenties I devoured the novels of Iris Murdoch one after the other. Her facility for plots amazed me. Dickens is tremendous: Great Expectations probably remains my single favourite novel. I’ve always loved E. M. Forster, Patrick White, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. Somerset Maugham. Who else? Thomas Mann. Muriel Spark. Kingsley Amis. Gore Vidal. Current writers? I’m not sure I read that many. I think a lot of writers would say that. When you’re trying to write your own stuff, you don’t really want those voices in your head. But I could name a few. Peter Cameron, I love his stuff. Christopher Bram. David Malouf. David Leavitt. James Howard Kunstler, I’ve read all his books, fiction and amazing non-fiction. Actually, there are just so many. Ian Whitcomb, now he’s one quirky writer I’ve loved for years. The best book about pop music ever written has to be Whitcomb’s After the Ball.
Poets? Housman, Eliot, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden. Reading poetry, and writing it yourself – which I do enjoy – absolutely makes you better at writing prose. Drama is important to me, too: Ibsen, Shaw, Coward, Joe Orton. There’s Shakespeare, of course. I like reading plays as well as watching them. I love the theatre. There’s a line from the critic Jan Kott that I’ve always liked: “Theatre is not an image of the world, it is the world that is an image of the theatre.” I’m not entirely sure what it means. But I suspect it may be true.
What interests do you have other than writing?
Very few! Writing seems to crowd out everything else these days, but I don’t mind. My partner and I have travelled a lot. I like music, painting, architecture. I sporadically collect old British comic books (Eagle and Lion being my favourites). I love cats and have two. I also love typewriters and possess several, which I enjoy using. I try to be healthy and don’t always succeed. I’m mostly a vegan and an admittedly on-again off-again raw foodist. I’ve been interested for some time in environmental and resource issues such as peak oil and global warming – I’ve become a minor expert on all the catastrophes awaiting the human race! I have no religious beliefs.
How and when do you write?
These days, every day unless it’s impossible. It’s always best to start the day with writing, and start early. I do a lot of planning, lots of rough notes, usually on one of my typewriters. I don’t care how messy it is. It enforces a certain linearity, a progression of thought, precisely because I can’t go back and erase things. Once I’m writing the real thing, I produce a draft, very often in pen or pencil. I try to make this as full as I can, though there may be many holes in it that need to be plugged later. Typing all this into the computer afterwards can be murder, but it’s worth it because I get so many new thoughts during that stage, which I feed into the script as notes.
Writing for me is certainly a compulsion. If I don’t write I start to feel lost. In my teens, and for years afterwards, there were lots of diversions: rock bands that never got off the ground, an abortive attempt at a radio career, and too long at university. Academic study, beyond a certain point, really isn’t great for writers. We’d be better off being lumberjacks or knocking back absinthe in bars on the Left Bank. But this is a large subject. It wasn’t until I got to Northern Ireland that I started writing seriously. It’s been a long journey. I’ve had false starts, failures, wrong directions. I’m a slow learner. But I do learn in the end.