What was the process for getting in the mindset to write as Katerina Klova, a seventeen-year-old girl? Were there any similarities between her journey and your migration from Serbia that helped with this process?
‘Atlantic Black’ is so much from the perspective of Katerina Klova it must seem as though a character generated the entire novel. But the fact is, another passenger could have been the focus for the novel. My inspiration was really more of a desire to set my imagination sailing on a grand ocean liner, calmly crossing the Atlantic. The narrative dynamic is my primary objective because a mindset is defined by the way it inhabits story. If my novel was to be set in bayside Melbourne, as was ‘Black Rock White City’, the last character I would have chosen would be a seventeen-year-old girl. Since suburban life can be the very definition of boredom, I needed the characters of my first novel to be, if not exotic, then unfamiliar to readers, and for them to arrive in that sedate setting driven by the violence of their past. Aboard an ocean liner, steaming across an ocean on New Year’s eve 1938, I needed a character who is light, absolutely present and open to the striking environment that she’s in. While Katerina Klova is not driven by her past, she is sailing into a world that is about to erupt into the cataclysm of global violence we call World War II.
Having a European birth and Yugoslav parents gave me a sense of connection to the history and literature of Europe, but my parents flew to Australia in 1974, so I was living in Melbourne before I was two years old. There wasn’t much travelling after that, certainly no adventures on the high seas. Far more influential to ‘Atlantic Black’ was ‘Madam Bovary’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Daisy Miller’. But I worked at the Southern Cross Hotel when I was eighteen with the son of a Yugoslav ambassador. Pictures of him growing up in African or South American embassies didn’t look exotic—when I saw it from his perspective. It was ordinary life and family even in unusual circumstances, and while Katerina Klova’s experience is a lot more volatile, in the same way as it was for this ambassador’s son, her life and family aren’t exotic.
The ocean liner is a pivotal character in ‘Atlantic Black’. It has a way of simultaneously coming across as vast and wondrous yet suffocating. Was this your intention from the beginning or did this develop along with the story?
Living by the bay in Melbourne might have something to do with it. Ships continuously enter and exit the harbour. At night they drift across the black horizon in an endless line of coloured lights. I was a bartender by the pier in my youth and those ships would sail past to dock, and practically block out a summer sun, they were so immense. I was struck by the steel—hundreds of thousands of tons of metal, sliding across the water without a sound. A container ship has a crew of only a dozen people. Ocean liners could have over two thousand in crew to move three thousand people. So an ocean liner was a moving city, yet depending on how you looked at it, they were also moving prisons. On a basic level they served as public transport, and for many crossing the ocean, it was an awful experience of crowded compression, but a liner like The RMS Aquitania was also an absolute palace of luxury if you were a person of means. I found all those elements full of potential as a writer but I didn’t have a thematic intention so much as that desire for exploration I mentioned.
How did Stanley Kubrick inspire ‘Atlantic Black’?
I find that influences on my novels are measured in decades rather than months. Twenty years ago I found Kubrick movies like ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘The Shining’, ‘Dr. Strangelove’, and ‘Full Metal Jacket’, exploded in my mind. He could deliver raw brutality or the kind of humour that makes you want to scream a moment after laughing. But whatever grand concepts animated his mind, Kubrick’s films displayed a commitment to pure narrative movement. Kubrick grappled with the nature of violence, which is what I’ve found myself also concerned with in my writing. A great many artists have focused on the same subject but Kubrick fused an irresistible imperative with an impeccable aesthetic.
Your writings have a continued focus on migration, is it your intent to highlight ongoing social and political issues in Australia?
Migration was a major aspect of ‘Black Rock White City’, yet for me, that novel is essentially a love story. I don’t have any intention of engaging social or political issues through my fiction. Agenda driven fiction is usually awful. Even so, a person’s entire perspective, of self and world, is shaped by a social sensibility and a political history, so that weltanschauung will naturally form a writer’s material. Migration might again be an aspect of ‘Atlantic Black’, but all I wanted to do was write a tragedy.
You have previously stated that you were anxious to write after being awarded the prestigious Miles Franklin. Has finishing ‘Atlantic Black’ been a liberating experience?
Writers are only ever writers when they are writing. There’s an uncomfortable past tense to all you have published, or to prizes you have won, even after the ‘liberating experience’ of finishing a new novel. A major award can generate a whole new array of significant distractions and confuse a writer’s sense of purpose. And some writers believe it just gets harder from book to book. For me, writing was always painfully close to impossible—but that’s how it should feel if you’re at the cutting edge of your own creative evolution.
You have now published multiple novels after an original focus on short stories. What will you next project be?
Short stories have been my ideal literary form since I started publishing in 2009. Both my novels are driven by the principles of short fiction so short stories have never ceased being my focus. And I’m delighted to say I have another collection being published by Transit Lounge next year called ‘The Butcherbird Stories’.
What was the best piece of advice you were given as an emerging writer?
Write every day.
When those three words became a religious principle for me I rapidly began to develop as a writer. There are no weekends because writing is more a devotion than it is a job. If you wanted to be a musician you would practice every day. The instrument would always be nearby. If you wanted to be a professional athlete you might not compete every day, but every day would be focused on the preparation required to perform. Excellence comes only from total commitment—mind, body and soul. I’m not sure why, but there seems to be a lot of aspiring writers that don’t believe that. They’d rather believe there was some secret to the entire endeavour. But becoming a professional writer is the same process as becoming a professional musician or athlete. Look for a hack and you become a hack.
In terms of advice though, this is simply the practical truth of doing anything skilfully. And yet it’s not just about proficiency. There’s the way we understand ourselves and what it means to come up with a story (long or short). When we sleep at night, we dream. Even if years go by without us being able to remember one dream. Only the occasional fragment remains when we wake. Yet, when people have been monitored in their sleep, they are always dreaming, it’s been found. And it’s also been proven that even if the body is rested—without dreams, we lose our minds. I have a theory that in the same way, during the days, we have stories drifting through our minds. Usually, we catch only a fragment here or there. It’s rare that we catch an entire story before it dissolves away into the business of our day; into a multitude of distractions. The daily practice of writing is vital then for us to catch these stories before they vanish. Otherwise, as with our dreams at night, years can go by without us finding a story that really comes from our own soul.
A. S. Patrić is a bookseller and teacher of creative writing. He is the author of two short story collections, ‘Las Vegas for Vegans’ and ‘The Rattler & other stories’, and a novella called ‘Bruno Kramzer’. His debut novel ‘Black Rock White City’ was published to critical acclaim in 2015 and won the Miles Franklin Award in 2016.
‘Atlantic Black’ is published by Transit Lounge.