Steve Hawke grew up in Melbourne but found his way to the Northern Territory and then to the Kimberley as a nineteen-year-old in 1978. Captivated by the country, the history and the people, he stayed for almost fifteen years working for Aboriginal communities and organisations. He now lives in the hills outside Perth, but continues his strong
association with the Kimberley, returning most years. His writings on the Kimberley include Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law (1989), the children’s novel Barefoot Kids (2007), the play Jandamarra that premiered at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2008 and toured the Kimberley in 2011, and A Town Is Born: The Fitzroy Crossing Story(2013). The Valley is his first novel for adults.
Buy a copy of Out of Time here. // Read a review of Out of Time here.
Your latest book, Out of Time is described as a love story, and family story, that explores the difficult ethical and emotional terrain of dementia, and each person’s right to decide when it is their time to die. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
Out of Time is indeed a family story. It is said that the sentence that begins Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – is the most famous opening line in literature. I beg to differ with the great man. The paths to happiness, and the models for happiness in relationships and amongst families, are, I would suggest, infinitely variable. And personally, I find these intricacies – the habits and accommodations and strategies of couples and families, who find ways to make things work – more interesting and more rewarding to explore than the other side of the coin.
And this is no sprawling Russian family. The novel is in fact painted on a rather confined canvas – in exquisite detail of course! In suburban Perth, by the banks of Derbal Yerrigan (the Swan River for those unfamiliar with the true Noongar name), Joe and Anne and their daughter Claire – Drongo, Badger and Bear, as they sometimes call each other – are engaged on a journey of love, and the struggle to give that love life against the odds.
It is a family in which the waters have often run far from smoothly, but the certainty of mutual love is never doubted. And with the first grandchild imminent, there is a sense that the hard times are behind them. Joe and Anne reckon they have worked their way to a good place.
Although he manages to disguise the situation for many months, it eventually becomes undeniable that Joe is exhibiting symptoms of dementia. Their world is irrevocably changed. Joe handles the situation terribly, and at first cruelly. The bonds that bind are frayed almost to breaking point as they come to terms with this awful situation.
What inspired the idea behind this novel?
I’m not sure that “inspired” is exactly the right word. I say in an Author’s Note that I think of this book as, amongst other things, a novelisation of a conceptual dilemma.
Over a period of years I was witness to Alzheimer’s slowly stealing away my mother’s memory, then reason, then sense of self. When this grand theft was complete, and it was no longer possible for her to live in her real home, I was part of the process of finding and committing her to a “home” as they are euphemistically called. As such places go it was a good one; but having spent many, many hours there, I am of the opinion that a dementia facility is as close to hell on earth as I’ve come across. Joe has lived that experience through his uncle. In Out of Time I have him say, “A man with no memory, no self-awareness, no connection to those who love him. What the hell is he but a shell? I know, absolutely and deep in my guts, that that is not for me.” It probably won’t take deep insight on the part of the reader to guess that this is pretty much my own sentiment.
Heartfelt, but easily said. And what does it really mean? In practice? Please remember that the book is about a whole lot more than just dementia, but a large part of it has come out of my exploration of the implications of holding such a view.
Let me tell you, it is not a simple matter. And the more you think about it, and the further you push the hypotheticals, the more complicated it gets. Assisted dying laws in place and under contemplation in Australia offer no comfort to the demented or their loved ones. It is a disease of the brain not the physical body. And even amongst those afflicted, the intrinsic urgency of the life force, the animal will to live, is often undeniable.
There are no easy answers!
This is very sensitive and heart-wrenching subject matter. How did you deal with that personally while working on the novel? Were you able to switch off at the end of each day?
I think the truth is that when you are deep in the creative phase of writing you never completely switch off. The story and the characters come to inhabit your soul for a period of time. And the book does go to some dark places. There are scenes and moments that still make my throat catch or induce a tear reading them again, a year or more on. But when you are in the thick of it, any darkness or sadness that you are evoking is balanced by the excitement of creation, of the creative process. If the words I put on the page are affecting me, hopefully it means I am on the right track. The aim is to be true to each of the main characters in the book without passing judgement on any of them: to explore the doubts as well as the certainties: to give voice to the joys of life as well as the fears. I slept well most nights.
Despite the subject matter, the book has warmth and humour – much of which comes through because of the obvious love and affection between family members – how do you strike that balance between light and shade in your work?
It would be a sad old world – and a sad old book – without some warmth and humour, wouldn’t it. If you can’t laugh now and then, you might as well give up, I reckon. I don’t consciously seek to strike a balance. In the little world that I created for this book there is an abundance of light and warmth and love. Silly jokes and daggy moments, sly digs and the odd nudge and wink are a part of Joe and Anne’s modus operandi, and especially a part of the way they dig their way out of the holes they create, and forgive each other’s trespasses.
Claire has grown up in that environment. She gets it and she joins in. That is the family dynamic. And it comes in handy when she faces her own tough times.
What kind of research, if any, did you undertake in the writing of this novel?
Not a lot, if truth be told. The Author’s Note mentioned above also says: “I am far more concerned with the emotional realities of the characters than the medical detail. Do not expect in these pages an account that is necessarily true to the clinical courses of dementia, or the medical approaches to its treatment, many and varied as both of these things are. And it should be blindingly obvious, but I will say the same of any references to architecture. The author will take no responsibility for any buildings that may fall down.” (Joe is an architect.)
There are a couple of suspension files in my filing cabinet with clippings about dementia and about architecture, but they were mostly just clipped and filed in the end. Of course I did my fact-checking, and I am fairly confident that there is nothing egregiously wrong or implausible in there; but it is a book that seeks emotional truth. Research is not where you find that.
What do you hope the reader will take away from this book?
I actually find this a really hard question to answer. It is not something that is in my mind as I am writing. I am trying to make the book whole and true unto itself, which I suppose is a way of saying that I am looking inward to the story and the characters, rather than outward to how they will be perceived. This is very different to my non-fiction writing, which is often crafted with a very specific message in mind. I think of my novels as vessels, not vehicles, if that makes any sense.
I have found, talking to people about my work, that everyone finds different things, different meanings, and different elements or themes that resonate with them. This can be surprising at times, but I am perfectly fine with it. The writer puts it out there; after that, it belongs more to the reader.
So there is certainly no “message” for the reader. Just a hope that they will realise – if they didn’t know it already – that this is fraught and complicated territory, with no blacks and whites, rights and wrongs, or easy decisions and answers. And at the risk of sounding far too smarmy, I try to convey that, beyond love, kindness to each other and empathy for the other cannot be overvalued.
The main character has had a major disappointment early in his career – one which he’s never really recovered from professionally or personally. What place are you saying that a career, especially a creative career, ultimately has at the end of a person’s life?
This is not something that I’ve especially thought about, or that I have sought to “say” something about. But now that you ask, I suspect it is true that the vast majority of people who think of themselves as creatives, believe that they probably could have done better. That there was this idea, this project, that opportunity that would have made the difference. If I hadn’t wasted all those years working for the mob up in the Kimberley, I could’ve been bigger than Peter Carey. (It’s a joke folks! Those years most certainly weren’t wasted.) The trick is to remember the things that have worked, that have brought you and others pleasure, rather than to dwell on the misses – something that Joe is a bit prone to.
What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?
There are no secrets to my routine. I turn up at the office, and I get to work. Hopefully. There are the dud days. I’ve been at it long enough now to accept these as part of the gig, and not stress too much. As the years pass, I find that I write more, and I suspect better, in the evenings and night times, with the daylight hours often given to the more mundane stuff. I do have the advantage of a really nice space to work in – big sliding glass doors to left and right, with ever moving trees, scurrying bandicoots and lizards of various sizes, and a plethora of birds. They help. But if you want to be a writer, you have to sit at the bloody desk, and tap away at the keyboard. (Or if it isn’t working, take a walk, or go and swing in the hammock for a while – that’s where I get some of my best ideas.)
As for current projects. I’m doing another footy book; in collaboration with one of the great pioneers amongst the Indigenous players, Bill Dempsey of West Perth and the Darwin Buffaloes. And there is another novel cooking away, with some of the early elements down on paper – sketches more than drafts at this stage; but I’m not giving away any details yet.
How did writing this book compare with writing your last book The Valley?
They are very different beasts.
The Valley is a sprawling, hundred year epic with a large cast of characters, and a somewhat complex structure. It deals with the world of remote Indigenous Australia, which I know intimately, but is completely unfamiliar to most Australians. I had to put it in cold storage for a few years after the first attempt at it stalled. But when I came back to it, and found a way to make it work, it was an absolute joy to write; evoking a world that I love, and transporting me back to the good country of the Kimberley highlands. I love it dearly.
Out Of Time is written on a much smaller canvas in terms of cast and time frame. It is much more speculative, in the sense that it seeks to imagine something that I cannot know, rather than evoke a world that I do; and it arose out of a different imperative. I did manage to find a way to take the book to the Kimberley, and give it just a little overlap with The Valley, but essentially it is a novel of a nuclear family in suburban Australia. And I love it dearly.
For all their differences, the writing of both of them was a joy. Of course there are moments and frustrations. But what could be more fun, more empowering, more liberating of the spirit, than imagining a world from scratch, creating wholly new beings, and weaving these into a story that you can offer to the world. I have been known to say that being a novelist is financially ruinous, but very good for the soul!