Your new novel ‘On the Java Ridge’ is your third work of fiction, after the award-winning ‘Quota’ and the best-selling ‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2016. Your latest book follows the tourist-laden vessel Java Ridge as it encounters the asylum seeker boat Takalar off the coast of Indonesia. Takalar is headed for Australia but runs into engine trouble and becomes desperate for help. Did you find On the Java Ridge an emotional book to write?
I did, but perhaps not for the reasons that are immediately obvious.
I wanted to describe life aboard the Takalar through the eyes of a child – a nine-year-old Afghan girl named Roya. She’s wise and perceptive, but she’s still a child and the point I wanted to make was that refugee journeys frequently place children in situations they should have no part of. It’s one of the many basic decencies we’ve lost sight of in our asylum seeker policies – the right of children to be protected from the violence and mendacity of adults. The right to be children, in other words.
Similarly, I wanted to describe the Minister for Immigration (which I called ‘Border Integrity’, then reality leapfrogged me with ‘Border Force’) through the eyes of his young son. I did this because I wanted him to be visible as a father and as a person capable of love and conscience, not just a political automaton, as these people so often seem to be.
But what happened in both cases was I accessed the depths of emotion that you feel as the parent of your own children: the terror that stirs in you when you glimpse the enormous reliance, the adoration, that children invest in their parents. And how easily you can fail them. I felt what Roya and Rory felt because I was thinking of such things befalling my own children.
The themes around asylum seekers are highly topical given Australia’s current refugee policy. How much political research did you undertake during the books construction?
I tried to read widely about Australia’s policies; books like ‘Dark Victory’ and ‘The People Smuggler’. I read Herz Bergner’s novel ‘Between Sky and Sea’ about Jewish refugees in the last days of the Second World War – it’s heartbreaking and it reads like our treatment of boat arrivals right now, seventy years after he wrote it. I also drew on my own habits as a political media junky – there’s not a day goes by that I don’t fulminate at one feature article after another. I’d probably make myself a whole lot less furious if I read the sport. The third thing I did was to talk in depth with a retired Senator, Judith Troeth. She’ll probably kill me for naming her, but she’s there in the acknowledgements anyway…
Judith was great for the big picture stuff, but also the little things, like how a minister picks up the phone and rings the PM. How you get a car from Parliament House to the CBD. Simple procedural stuff.
The tourists aboard the Java Ridge are surfers set for a tailored holiday. How has your love of surfing made its way into your storytelling to date?
Well, I’ve written a lot of non-fiction about surfing, mostly for ‘Surfing World’, but also ‘Tracks’ and some American titles. For a couple of years I edited a magazine about the sea, called ‘Great Ocean Quarterly’ – it wasn’t a surf mag, but the wider point here is that it’s a love of the sea generally, rather than a love of surfing, that propelled the writing in Java Ridge. I do surf, but I’m just as happy rolling around in the shallows with the kids.
I’d got myself into this total panic about writing surfing fiction. Surfing as a way of life, and as a cultural history, is full of fascinating stories. But with a few notable exceptions like Tim Winton, Fiona Capp and Mark Smith, surf fiction seems riddled with open mineshafts into which a writer can plummet. Cliché, mawkishness, self-indulgence, faux-mysticism…you’ve got to be so careful. So I promised myself I’d never write surfing into a novel. Then I went right ahead and broke the promise…
To what extent did your background in Law inform your writing?
It took me a while to figure this out, but I’ve now developed an answer to this question, and it has two parts –
The interesting part is that working in law (particularly criminal law) is a window into the most extreme moments of people’s lives. The worst night of someone’s life. The worst month, as they face a trial that could ruin their reputation, or marriage, or career; or as they watch someone setting out to strangle their business. It’s impossible to observe people in those circumstances and not be struck by the ways in which people try to contain their own desperation. Their voices, their patterns of speech, the way they sit, or look out the window, or whatever it is. I was no good at the technical lawyery stuff because I was so absorbed in the human drama.
The boring part is that years and years of legal work will drill into you a discipline about using your time productively and your words concisely. There’s all those hackneyed gags about lawyers being accustomed to writing fiction, but the reality is that they are good at imparting power into words by using economy, rather than getting all flowery.
The book has three central characters: Isa, the skipper of Java Ridge, Cassius Calvert, the former Olympic rower turned politician, and eight-year-old asylum seeker, Roya. Which of these did you find the most difficult to write?
As I mentioned above, Roya was hard to write because she brought up for me every fear that I have for my own daughters. It sounds a little mad, but I wanted to protect her and that’s not what the story allowed.
Are there any upcoming plans for a fourth novel?
Yes, in keeping with my policy of making a constant marketing headache of myself, I thought I’d try a historical novel. It’s set in the late eighteenth century, and it’s about a shipwreck in Bass Strait and the subsequent struggle for survival. It’s based on a true story – there is a summarised journal that one of the survivors kept – but I’m more interested in the things the diary doesn’t mention: things like how it felt to be Scottish, or English, or Bengali, and to be walking through this bizarre land which holds all sorts of unknown terrors. Will this plant kill me? Will these people kill me? Yet at the same time, the country they traversed to find safety was a kind of Eden, and it makes me wonder if there was any room in the desperate quest to stay alive, for contemplation of what was beautiful.
As an established author, what advice can you give to aspiring writers about getting their fiction published?
I don’t take it for granted that Text, or anyone else, will necessarily publish the next thing I write. So I’m as worried now as I was at the start. There’s this paradox: you both need to believe fanatically in the worth of what you’re doing, but also be humble enough to take advice.
Don’t show your work to people who will tell you it’s lovely and nice and interesting and all those dreadful epithets. Find someone who will accurately identify the weaknesses in your work and then LISTEN TO THEM. They are not trying to hurt your feelings. They are trying to help you improve your work, and if you don’t get some tough love at the manuscript stage, you can bet your life that a busy editor, or a notoriously tetchy reviewer with a hangover, will deliver it in spades.
But as I said, the other side of the paradox is that you need to defend your work against the whole world and keep persisting and persisting. It took me bloody ages and many rejections and rewrites before my first novel became a reality. Others are much more fortunate: I believe there are things called bidding wars, though I’ve never got within a bull’s roar of being party to one. The thing is, I’m glad I had to fight my way into becoming a published author, because I’m grateful for every person who reads my books or comes to listen to me mumble about my work. In fact, I’m baffled and delighted that I get to wake up in the morning, stumble across the passageway, dodge a kid or two, and make up stories for a living.
Jock Serong’s debut novel Quota won the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. In 2016, The Rules of Backyard Cricket was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. On the Java Ridge is his third novel. Jock teaches law and writes feature articles in the surfing media and for publications such as The Guardian and Slow Living. He lives with his wife and four children in Port Fairy, Victoria.