The author of Tofu Landing has very kindly agreed to answer some of my questions following the reading of his book. I’m very grateful to Evan Maloney for answering my questions with such care and interest.
Q1. Where did the idea for Tofu Landing come from was this flat full of larger than life characters an experience you had gone through yourself?
I have never experienced anything like the world depicted in Tofu Landing… although I’m not entirely unfamiliar with it, either. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of inspiration for any story, I think that is part of the magic of storytelling. I worked in the Arts and the media in London so I was working a lot in Soho and had a peripheral experience of that mad-edged media world where talent was often subordinate to publicity and drugs were a tool that people employed to keep reality at a distance.
I was always a bit dismayed, as a writer, by the way the Arts and media industries worked. It seemed to be a world that lacked genuine reflection and insight in many cases – the publicity machine is not really something that values genuine reflection, it’s simply a means to an end. I thought a character like Pete Doherty was a fine example of all the worst aspects of that machine, and I obviously based Tristan Russell and some parts of the story on his life, but there was a pot-pourie of sources and inspirations and, finally, it’s all about imagination. Damien Hirst did a similar publicity drive to Bridget’s for one of his exhibitions, Tracy Emin was a hotel reviewer for a glossy magazine.
It might sound odd, but Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall was the novel that I read just prior to beginning Tofu Landing. Initially I had intended to stretch the narrative far beyond anything akin socially realistic representation, but I finished the first draft and realised, with a kind of bemused wonder, that even though the story was wildly far-fetched at times, it was far closer to social realism than satirical farce.
Q2. Art is a constant theme through the book is art important to you and in that respect do you share the views about the importance of Art voiced at various times by Declan?
As a young boy growing up in the country I wanted to be an artist and I thought I was exceptional. At the age of ten I moved to the city (Melbourne) and there was a boy in my class who was a better draftsman than me. It shattered my confidence a bit. I thought that his was the level of talent I had to compete with in the big city. I decided then that I would focus on writing, but I have always felt a bit like a painter who writes (which is ironic given Declan’s views on the literary nature of contemporary art) In fact, that boy I went to primary school with, Cameron Hayes, is still a close friend and now one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. He is represented by Ronald Feldman in New York City, who runs one of the most prestigious galleries in NYC. Cameron paints massive narrative paintings that work in man ways like a novel.
Regarding Declan’s views on art: I think it is important to note that Declan is an artistic person who is not productive. He has lost his creative potency. As such, his views are slightly aimed at self-justification. It’s a common trait among people in the arts who struggle to be artistically productive – they blame the industry when, ultimately, I think a genuine artist is always productive regardless of the zeitgeist. I think Declan is a sentimental character, too, and sentimentality is, like drug taking, another form of false comfort that corrupts a person’s vision of reality.
Q3. Drugs also play a massive role in dividing the past and the present and the idea of reality and imaginary lives. Was drug use meant to be used in that sense of blurring truth and personality in the first two thirds of the book?
This is a great observation. I wanted the drug references to be vivid enough to make a person feel a kind of specious euphoria initially. People take drugs for a reason: they can be a lot of fun, and I wanted to give a real sense of that at the start of the novel. But I also wanted to create a sense of overload towards the end of the story, so the reader would feel sick and tired of the drug taking, as if it were something they themselves had been subjected to and wanted to move on from.
The whole “drugs are so much fun” ground is a superficial one, and if you dig beneath the surface, what you find is that many of the characters in Tofu Landing have suffered some personal experience that is blocking their path forward in life. They are trapped in the past and the drug taking is one expression of that entrapment. Sexual abuse is one common experience that many of the characters are dealing with and yet it is not presented in a way that is particularly honest. It is sort of glossed over in the narratives the characters offer, and I think this is one of the legacies of drug taking – people do not approach their own experiences honestly and try to work through them like mature adults.
This unreal approach to personal trauma is also referenced in some of the art works discussed. Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, which is one of the most beautifully sculptured works of art ever created, is about an attempted rape. I don’t think for a moment Bernini was cognizant of the event he depicted as one of great psychological trauma for the victim. The tone of the novel is, perhaps, inspired by that sort of work of art, it is trying to dazzle the reader with a story that works beautifully in an objective manner, but if the reader stops and thinks about the events described they might feel slightly disturbed, because the depictions are somewhat false.
Q4. There is a passage about the invention of Tofu being an accident and how sometimes life can mirror that. Is that something you believe and have experienced yourself?
It’s the Panglossian view of life, isn’t it, which Voltaire had such fun with in Candide. Voltaire was satirising the Leibnizian mantra through Dr Pangloss, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Having grown up Catholic, and carried a lot of guilt and remorse baggage through my life, I can see the appeal of this view, but it is an indulgent one as well, and one that has a distinctly Western, First World aftertaste. I’m sure all the kids working in sweatshops in 3rd World countries would beg to differ that what happens in their lives is all for the best.
Q5. Declan occasionally shows his frustration with some of the people he is living with but most of the time he is remarkably tolerant. Were you keen to make sure the reader made their own judgments about the characters?
Absolutely. I think the 3rd person narrator is oblique for most of the book. Tone was an issue I struggled with a lot while writing the book, because much of the novel is essentially toneless. The narration only develops some kind of tone late in the book, and that is meant to reflect the fact that Declan himself has developed a point of view in relation to his life and the world he inhabits. I think this was something that failed to impress some publishers, who probably only read the first third of the book and thought that that was as good as it got.
Q6. Finally as we leave Declan as a man who has come through not just an interesting experience but one that has enabled him to grow into a more stable person is he a character that would appear again in your writing?
This is a question I’ve been asked by a few people who have read the book. At the moment I feel the book is finished and I have moved on. I got the publishing deal in May 2009 and started my second book the same week. I finished the first draft of the second book a week before Tofu Landing was launched in February this year, and then I spent two months rewriting it. It is about as a removed from the world of Declan and the Posse as I am from the Roman Empire.
The second novel is about a group of multicultural Australians whose parents and grandparents arrived in Australia as refugees from Lebanon, Poland, Vietnam (and a “ten-pound Pom”), as well as an aboriginal, who have taken up arms and are resisting the occupation of Australia by a powerful Asian neighbour. It is set in the near future. This disparate group are all fighting together for their land, and it’s been very liberating to create characters that are so unique and distinct, and to set them in a dystopian society that requires a more pure from of imagination to create. Off the top of my head, Michael Ondaatje is the only writer I’ve read who has successfully reprised characters from one novel and written a second novel of great power (The Skin of a Lion and The English Patient).
There are probably others but, generally speaking, I find the whole idea of writing a sequel evidence of either a lack of imagination, a fear of trying something new or a desire for a paycheck. Of course, I might reconsider these views if Tofu Landing ended up selling a million copies.