a heart-rending, provoking novel about the nature of long term friendships.
h a Greek lover, visits her old friend Martin Blake, a high-profile, high-dollar interior designer. This suspenseful story shows the effects of a lifetime friendship going toxic as modern life pulls the once quasi-siblings in opposite directions. As Sara embarks on a simpler life, Martin becomes increasingly complex and erratic. Eventually Sara is forced to a terrible choice in the name of self-preservation. In the dying days of British Hong Kong, Sara Sexton, upon breaking up wit
The beautiful prose, arresting characters, and intriguing setting as Johnston evokes the cities of Hong Kong and Sydney and immerses the reader in a world that is as beautiful as it is painful.
Commenting this post and adding your e-mail address you'll get the chance to win a Kindle version or an e-book version of Consumption. The winner will be asked to choose. This giveaway is, of course, open internationally and ends on Wednesday June 22.
Welcome on Fly High, Greg. I’m really glad to have you as my guest and to have the chance to discuss your book, Consumption, with you. First question is, can you briefly introduce the story ?
Primarily Consumption is the story of Sara Sexton's transition from a damaged childhood and adolescence to functional adulthood. Her transition to a simpler form of living is juxtaposed to Martin Blake's, her life-long friend, transition to an ever more complex life. His value system shifts to be based around the acquisition of material possessions. As the two move in opposite directions, out of deference to the past they cling together until the friendship becomes toxic and damaging and Sara decides to break free. With consequence.
As you’ve just said, In Consumption you analyse the nature of long-term friendship. In this case between a man and a woman. Do you think it can work?
Martin is a confirmed homosexual, very light on his feet, and that engenders a very special bond between a man and a woman where the sexual tension between them is erased, a very pure type of relationship. They share a common view of the world but from a different perspective. When the novel was being planned, I knew the main characters had to be a non-sexual coupling. Although jealousy and anger and a lot of negative emotions develop through the novel, there is never a sexual tension. If there had been a possibility of this, it would have been very, very easy to dismiss their crisis as unrequited love. Sara is sexually attracted to very different men to Martin and he expresses absolutely no sexual interest in women. As such, his homosexuality is unproblematic, relegated to the sidelines of his character as he's very comfortable with it.
I had played around with other sets of characters - two males. two females, but the combination of a gay man and a straight woman seemed to work the best. The story definitely wouldn't have worked if there was a possibility of the two of them having sex, or being "in love" with the other.
Martin and Sara share a very unique bond, “an unwritten pact, a secret society” , as Sara describes it . Everything started when they were children, both grieving for the loss of their dear ones. Did their friendship help them to heal their wounds?
They are very young, 7 or 8, when they first meet and have both already been the victim of the slings and arrows of life. Both Sara's parents were killed in a car crash when she was only an infant and Martin's father has just died in a light-plane crash. So they understood one another, even though there was no annunciation of that fact. As Sara says, death shouldn't come around young children. So I think rather than healing one another's wounds, they were able to salve one another by knowing that someone else felt what each of them were feeling. Both had experienced great loss. That's a powerful insight and for a child to have any insight into another's subjectivity would fuse them to be quasi siblings.
But no, it doesn't heal them, not in the long term. Sara does take the support Martin gave her through friendship and almost subtracts from it as she seeks a simpler and simpler life. This reductive de-consumption ultimately leads her to Andy and completion. But at the same time she's heading in that direction, Martin tries to replace the emptiness and resentment he feels through consumption of high-end material possessions. But nothing for Martin will ever heal him, enough will never be enough. His lifestyle and preoccupations serve only to lead him further and further from himself and any chance at happiness, despite how supportive Sara is.
I’m intrigued by the connections which can be drawn between literary texts and modern fiction and I love to notice and discover links and similarities. In Consumption, I loved the image Andy chooses to describe how he sees the friendship between Sara and Martin. It is taken from the best short story ever written in the English language, “The Dead” by James Joyce.
“Gabriel tells his wife, Gretta, a story of a mill horse who was forced to walk constantly round and round in circles to drive a mill wheel. One evening when the owner released the horse from the mill to draw his carriage, the horse saw a statue and began to walk round and around it.”
I've always liked that image in The Dead of the mill horse. It is one of the greatest stories, as are all in Dubliners. The last line of The Dead is one of the most simple and beautiful lines in the English canon. Oh to write like that! I was trying to think of things that would make Sara fall in love with Andy and I thought of that image and that if someone had tried that on me I'd have been smitten fairly quickly.
I like to use acknowledged quotations, in a way that Lady Gaga folds anything she can lay her hands on in to music and image. Consumption also contains references to the Australian artist Donald Friend's paintings. This was harder to do - how do you bring a painting alive in words? But Friend's work, indeed his life, spent in part as an expatriate in
Asia, drew out many parallels to Martin's experience of living in Hong Kong. So not only did Donald Friend's art serve as an initial connection between Sara and Andy, the meta-text of Friend's life served as some clues to Martin's.
How are you as a reader? Who are the authors who most influenced you in general and in this story?
I read like a putta - anything and everything. There's always something to add to a list of tricks, some technique that's interesting. Even badly written novels are great as they show what not to do. It always amazes me when a writer censors what they'll read. But there were a few novels that really turned my head. A
S Byatt's Possession was like a lightning bolt. And I remember reading The Name of the Rose and thinking it was unbelievably well written and amazed that one man could accrue so much information in one life time. I read these two books a few months apart and thought I'd like to start to mimic them. I saw Umberto Eco once walking down the street in and genuflected in his general direction but I don't think he noticed me. Bologna
Do you relate more to your real, personal experiences or to previous readings in your characterization techniques?
I'd like to think its a mix of both. There's only so much experience one human being can have so to be able to roam the realm of fiction allows a much greater, almost super human experience. Every time we move house and I pack up the books, I'm reminded of how these characters contained within the novels actually live in our house. Miss Elizabeth Bennet is always expressing her pert opinion of our rather dull lives.
, if the writing is working, allows you to inhabit another subjectivity, another set of circumstance. This can only led you to understanding people better and as a writer it does give you more colours on your pallet. And Signor Eco never lived in a Reading 14C monastery but I feel I have. That subjective shift could only be achieved through reading.
But I do draw experience directly from life. Sometimes when the characters have reached a certain point and something is needed, I dredge the past. For example, when Andy tries to change the course of their friendship to romance, I thought of the album Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell and I remembered sending it to someone and saying, there's a song here that tells you what I'm feeling. It was a perfect fit for Andy to do. And the album starts with that crisp e-major chord, so full of light and promise, and through a series of intelligent shifts comes to the minor and the intrigue and the murk of a romance.
Sara is hurt by the discovery of what Martin has become as an adult. Her idea of him, her memory of him , shattered. It takes time and pain to accept the truth. Do you think she will ever recover? What future do you imagine for her?
Without giving away the ending, we're never free of the past, whether it is the remote past or the near past. We can only ever be an amalgam of these experiences. So I think by the end of the novel, Sara has resolved a lot of issues. To a degree, she has had to posit that she will never understand Martin and that she possibly never really knew him, that he will always be an enigma which is probably the way he would like to be remembered. I hate this modern idea that people faced with tragedy have to find "closure", like some where there's a lid you can put on grieving. I don't believe there's such a process but you can and do learn to lie down with your demons and go on, as Sara does.
Can I ask you about your choices for the setting? Why Hong Kong?
I needed a setting for Martin where he could go to from Australia and be something completely different. Hong Kong has a geographical connection to Australia but it is also far enough away for someone to wipe the slate clean and start writing their life story again. And Hong Kong has a large expatriate population made up of British, Australians, Americans and Europeans. Martin could lose himself in this and re-invent himself as whatever he wanted. The past was left behind, momentarily.
Whilst I enjoy Hong Kong, it's just a huge shopping mall. It's fun for a day or so but for me very quickly that seduction of consumption wears off and I'm happy to keep moving on. So for Martin, he could have everything there. But this ability for an expatriate to consume in Asia comes at a great cost. Once a person has got used to servants, cars, the international hotel scene, the pace and thump of Asia, it would be very hard to come back to living without access to these things. Deep down, Martin knows he's trapped in Asia, not just by what he can't have in Australia but by what he has made himself in to in Asia.
I know you lived in Italy. Was it a good experience?
I had a lovely time in Italy. I was there in 1991 for a year. It was a time of great personal transition. I lived in Perugia, largely a university town, and studied at the Università per Stranieri. I remember the night I arrived, a few days after New Year, walking down the Via del Corso, guitar and bag in hands like some nouveau Maria von Trapp, and thinking, I don't exist in Italian. It was a remarkable freedom. But rather than doing as Martin did in Hong Kong and constructing a "false" identity, I remember Italy led me to myself. Life started again, in a new way, away from the past but not forgetting it.
But it wasn't all good food and wine - it was a difficult year, learning to survive, learning the language which when I arrived could do little more than order un caffé. And Italy was in a state of flux. I remember seeing advertising against racism on TVs in railway stations. A black man was crucified. Until then, Italy had always been a source of Diaspora but now people were coming to live there. And whenever there was a problem in the city, it was always the African students doing, when I would wager it was far more likely to be drunk white Australian males. A few days after I arrived, the first gulf war broke out. There was a huge military presence on the street and the Arab students at the university rioted on the corso. That was confronting. Australia is geographically a long way from the Europe and the middle east. Suddenly I was on the fringe of this conflict which had far greater immediate consequences.
Have you ever thought of writing about Italy?
I would love to write something directly about Italy, but in an odd way I already have. My experience of Italy is similar to Martin's of Hong Kong. We just went in different directions. And Sara's experience of Greece does have some moments taken from my experience of Italy. Sara starts to write there. Whilst I didn't do that, I realised that I loved words and the tricks I could play with them.
But to write about Italy I would have to go back there. I've been back a few times and of course it has changed more and more but there is something I like there and feel very comfortable with. I imagine a room with a view in a small hill top town and my computer and a contemplative life. It's probably just a dream.
Your book has only been published in the kindle version. What about a “solid” paperback? What is the future of books in your opinion?
I chose to vanity publish in Kindle form as it over came two immediate problems: production and distribution. And as Amazon now sell more Kindle published books than paper print, it seemed the right time to "suck it and see". If I sell some quantities of Consumption with favourable reaction, I may look at a print on demand edition. That would be fun to do. I hope the future of books is a combination of both e-pub and print. I'd always want books in a room - they add warmth to it. But in this carbon flushed world, an e-book has to be considered as an alternative. And as it always takes me a long time to get to buy and read a certain novel, as they generally have such a short shelf life now, to have e-pub versions of books available forever is a great source of joy. And e-pub does allow niche marketing which can only be good for writers. I've wallpapered so many houses with rejection letters. It had to stop. I had to find some readers.
Working on a new project?
I've nearly finished something new. It's an historically based fiction, set in Hungary during the late stages of WWII. It's largely a romance. A Hungarian man who lived through those times told me the kernel of the story, in two or three lines, and while I was writing Consumption the idea kept playing on my mind. But I could find very little information about what had happened in the "real" story. Once I realised I could take a step sideways and use the "real" story to weave my own around, my story precipitated relatively easily. But writing it was another matter.
And I have started thinking of another story...
Wow! I dreamt of writing a novel set during WWII myself when I was a child and was brought up with real war anecdotes and stories instead of fairy tales by my grandfather. Never happened, though. But I’ve read many good ones written by others. So, that’s all, Greg. Thank you so much for being my guest and for the pleasure of reading your novel.
Thank you for the interview, my first! It would be lovely if some of your readers too were able to read Consumption and drop me a line to let me know what they made of it.