Academic journal article Antipodes

Beating Andrew Johns into the Cessnock Hall of Fame: An Interview with John Hughes

Academic journal article Antipodes

Beating Andrew Johns into the Cessnock Hall of Fame: An Interview with John Hughes

Article excerpt

JOHN HUGHES's first book, The Idea of Home, won the 2005 NSW Premier's Award for Non-Fiction, the 2006 National Biography Award, and was the National Year of Reading "Our Story" winner for NSW in 2012. His second book, Someone Eise: Fictional Essays, won the Adelaide 2008 Festival Award for Innovation and the 2008 Queensland Premier's Award for Short Stories. It was also listed for the inaugural 2009 Warwick International Prize for Writing. His third book, The Remnants, was published in 2012 by UWA Press. He is currently Librarian at Sydney Grammar School.

This is an edited version of an interview conducted via email, August to October 2009.

Stephen Mansfield (SM): I'm interested in the form and structure of The Idea of Home. How did you settle on the concept of five autobiographical essays, moving from portraits of your grandfather, mother and father to two essays where your subject is more obviously yourself?

John Hughes OH): The concept came quite late. But I'm never very good at talking about where my ideas come from. I have a great fear of understanding, or even thinking about the psychology of why I write: it's like, if I found an answer, the source would dry up. It's an irrational fear, 1 know, but there's an immoderate haste in the way we deny the importance of the irrational to what we are as human beings, symptomatic, perhaps, of deeper fears. What I can tell you about is the origin of the book because its origin is a very distinct moment in Australian literary history, though no trace of this remains in the final product. In 1994, in one of her last acts as editor of Meanjin, Jenny Lee, knowing something of my Ukrainian background, asked me to review a novel which had just won the Vogel Award and was about to be published, Helen Demidenko/Darville's The Hand that Signed the Paper. Though I can claim no prescience, what struck me when I read the book was its failure of imagination- and this is what I wrote in my review. Here was someone with access to a tremendous reservoir of first-hand accounts and she made everything feel so stale and second-hand. I didn't know then how truly second-hand it all was.

Anyway, Ivor Indyk (my publisher and editor at Giramondo), who was then editor of Southerly, asked me to "put my money where my mouth was" and do what I had accused Demidenko/Darville of failing to do. I didn't like the idea at the time, it wasn't what I was interested in, but over time it began to niggle away at me, and before I really knew what I was doing I found myself writing "An Essay of Forgetting," the first essay in this book. That was 1995. Ivor by this time had left Southerly and asked me if I'd hold off publication of the essay so that he could publish it in a new magazine he was planning to set upHEAT. I couldn't really refuse- after all, it seemed like his essay. 1 thought, with the publication of that essay that I was done with it. But Ivor had other ideas. He believed there was still a lot that could be said and suggested my mother might make an interesting subject. I was even more resistant this time (unlike my grandfather, my mother was still alive!), but once again the idea got under my skin, and "My Mother's House" began to emerge in my mind. I won't bore you with the mechanics, but the same thing happened with "Country Towns."

It was inevitable, then, that I'd finally turn the torch on myself. Because in each of the three essays to that point, though the ostensible subjects seemed to be other than myself, they were really about my growing up in a small Hunter Valley coalmining town, in a household dominated by memories of the Ukraine; were really about the effect my family's stories and routines had on me as a child, the way they shaped my imagination and determined my idea of myself. But to this point, I'd been writing about myself without thinking I'd been writing about myself. Now, when I set out consciously to make myself the subject, the product of the union I explored in "Country Towns," I froze. …

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