By day, CAMERON RAYNES teaches history at the University of South Australia. By night, however, he prefers to make things up. His latest work of fiction, First Person Shooter, is about a boy called Jayden who lives in a small Australian town. He’s addicted to video games – and he stutters. We spoke to Cameron about the connection between his stutter and writing, violent video games and working with psychopaths.
Violent video games are often decried for the behaviour they incite, which has been linked to school shootings. Do you personally believe that they are a bad influence, especially when the players have access to real guns?
That’s a tricky question. We know that Anders Behring Breivik, the person responsible for the terrible mass shooting in Norway in July 2011, used the first person shooter, Call of Duty, as a kind of ‘training aid’. And we also know that this and other similar games are popular with soldiers around the world, including in Australia and the United States.
Jayden, the 15-year-old narrator of First Person Shooter, is coming out of an addiction to these games but still plays them when he needs to escape from the pressures of his world. When his inability to speak sees one of his best friends get sent out of the classroom, Jayden is left distraught, wishing he were elsewhere: ‘I want to be sitting on the blue lounge at home, the blue light washing over me, sweet oblivion. Killing all the bad guys. Aliens, Germans, Muslims, whatever.’ And Jayden has a .22 rifle in his cupboard.
There are legitimate concerns regarding desensitisation to violence for long time users of these games. There has also been research into the way in which some users, after long sessions of game play, have difficulty in switching back to the physical world without constantly ‘scanning’ it for trouble. When Jayden approaches his school, alert for bullies, he admits he finds it ‘hard to walk through here without looking for places to hide, things to bomb, enemies to shoot.’
But there are encouraging signs too. Researchers in the field of psychology are finding that online games that facilitate teamwork, including first person shooters, may have a positive effect on the ability of young people to empathise with others. This is especially important if you believe, like me, that empathy – the capacity to ‘enter into’ the feeling or spirit of another – lies at the heart of a person’s moral development.
Jayden often feels displaced, as though he isn’t a true member of the rural population in Bridgetown. Why do you think there is such a strong divide between the city and the country in Australia? Why did you want to include this in his novel?
I’ve always been fascinated by how a person’s environment, the place they live in, affects how they think and feel. There is a divide between city and country in Australia and First Person Shooter touches on some of the differences. For instance, when Jayden is wondering if he should climb the fence into the bikies’ backyard to help one of his friends find out whether the guinea pigs he sold to the school bully are being looked after properly, he muses: ‘The fence is one of those old asbestos ones that probably should’ve been torn down ages ago, but it’s Bridgetown. We do what we like out here.’
Living and working in country towns in Western Australia and the Northern Territory in the 1980s and 1990s, I was struck by the different rhythms of life, the lack of anonymity of country towns (everyone tends to know your business), and the sense that the community is on its own if anything catastrophic occurs. People in country towns often live with a sense that they are not heard, not consulted, and there’s a kind of rawness and self-sufficiency in country towns that is harder to sustain in cities.
Jayden grew up in the city, but is finding his way in Bridgetown. It’s really his stutter that gives him a sense of being different, of being ‘marked’.
Death plays a big role in the novel. I was particularly struck by Nigel’s decline, and his wish to ‘go out on his own terms’. It was also a strong contrast to the shooting deaths which occurred in the book. Why did you choose to include such different kinds of death in the story?
Yes, several characters died in the making of this story! Both main characters, Jayden (the first person narrator) and Shannon (the girl who lives nearby, and with whom he goes shooting), have been touched by the death of a parent. Living in a rural environment gives you constant reminders of death: ‘Things are dying or being born around us all the time out here. In the stink of road-kill roo, in the tadpoles that come from nowhere every time there’s a bit of rain and Hilliers Creek flows.’
The possibility of death always raises the stakes, and this is what attracts novelists and scriptwriters alike. The novels that stay with me – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret History, Enduring Love, Breath – all deal with the actuality and finality of death. And reading Colin Thiele’s The Fire in the Stone at eleven years of age was a revelation. It was the first novel I’d read in which a major character died. The morning after I finished it, a school day, I faked an asthma attack so I could stay home and read it again.
In your About the Author, it mentions that the experience of adolescent stuttering is deeply personal. Are there any moments Jayden goes through which are especially autobiographical?
Initially, Jayden was a minor character in First Person Shooter. At some point I realised it was Jayden’s story and then, some time later, I began playing with the idea of giving Jayden a stutter – this being the cross I’ve had to bear since I could talk.
My stutter has probably made me the writer I am. Living with a sense of being different, in some way ‘broken’ or ‘marked’, heightens your capacity for empathy.
It took a while for me to embrace this, but once I did I knew I had to write the most brutally honest account of what growing up as a person who stutters is like. So I knew I’d have to tap into my experiences as a stutterer. Nothing would be off-limits. This was very confronting at first, but then became energising, giving my work a sense of purpose I’d never quite felt in any of my earlier works, not even The Last Protector.
Jayden’s traumas at school and elsewhere are based largely on things that happened to me, from the problem with ‘g-g-gherkins’ in the supermarket, to the terrible waiting to be called on to speak in class. When Jayden’s history teacher is going from student to student, making them give answers, Jayden wishes a plane would drop from the sky and smash into the classroom. It’s ‘like waiting to be shot. Like he’s a terrorist, strolling down the row with a 9mm Glock, shooting everyone in turn.’ Such things were part of my daily reality from the age of eight, when I first became aware that I stuttered. (Typically, children aren’t aware they stutter until around that age.)
What, if any, are the connections between writing and stuttering?
My stutter has probably made me the writer I am. Living with a sense of being different, in some way ‘broken’ or ‘marked’, heightens your capacity for empathy. Without this capacity it’s difficult to write fiction, as it will be all but impossible to care about the characters you create, and very difficult to get inside their heads and explore what makes them tick.
Most people who stutter scan ahead as they speak, ‘seeing’ the words they’ll have problems with, and substituting them for ones they know they can say. Like Jayden, I have always had problems with words beginning with ‘w’ and ‘l’. Word substitution, practised from the age of eight onwards, probably helps develop vocabulary.
But more important than this, I believe, is the way in which having a stutter develops your brain’s ‘dialogue-generation’ muscle. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it works like this: whether you are a person who stutters or not, we all come away from encounters and conversations wishing we’d said this or that. And we probably all reconstruct the conversations we wished we’d had in our heads. People who stutter are constantly doing this. I’d spend hours every day, from the age of eight onwards, playing and replaying the things I should’ve said in a host of situations. I’d create whole conversations in my head, with multiple actors and shifts in argument and mood. Incessantly. There’s probably no better training for developing the capacity to write dialogue.
This is probably why most of my stories start off as film scripts. Sometimes it’s almost as if the characters I create come to life in my head, talking and arguing and doing things and I’m just the scribe, writing it all down. When this happens, I’m often surprised by the directions my characters take me, and the things they say and do. That sounds weird, I know.
It was also mentioned that you survived bruising encounters with three psychopaths in your time as a welfare officer. What was particularly shocking for you in this role? Were some of the scenes or the characters in the book influenced by those experiences?
Psychopaths I’ve Known is the book I’ll write when I’m 70, and I’m sure that the first three I locked horns with in my mid 20s and early 30s are dead. Of these, only one of the incidents stems directly from my time as a welfare worker in Meekatharra and Katherine.
Breaking the cycle of violence is very difficult. Men born of angry, violent men, who see violence normalised in a family setting, are much more likely to do the same thing when they have families of their own.
In fact, I met many fascinating characters during my three years as a welfare worker, and found myself in a series of extraordinary and sometimes bizarre encounters and situations. For instance, my very first task on arriving in Meekatharra as a young welfare worker was to escort a 14-year-old Aboriginal girl to Nyandi, the juvenile detention centre, in Perth.
In some ways, welfare work is the perfect pathway to being a writer. The work gives you insight into the fragility, strength, courage, resilience and occasional helplessness of the human condition. Learning one of the ‘helping trades’ – be it social work, counselling, or psychology – and putting it to use in the field is probably as good a route to becoming a writer as doing a university degree in creative writing.
Yes, some of the scenes and characters in First Person Shooter were inspired by my run-ins with psychopaths. Pete is an amalgam of several violent men I had the misfortune to get tangled up with. And the dramatic ending of my novel, where Jayden, up against Pete and hopelessly out of his depth, does something no one (not even Jayden himself) was expecting – is taken directly from a real life, terror-filled incident that happened to me while living on the edge of Meekatharra. My encounter with psychopath #1 is a story that will come out one day.
Madeleine’s jail term for shooting the abusive Terry raises the issue of domestic violence. Why did you want to include that particular theme? Do you believe that families can break the cycle of violence?
In First Person Shooter, the drama is built around the fact that Pete, the stepbrother of Jayden’s best friend, Shannon, has returned to Bridgetown to avenge the death of his father. Shannon’s mother killed Pete’s father because she saw no way out of the abusive relationship they shared, and knew he was on the verge of becoming a sexual threat to her daughters, Shannon and Jess.
One thing welfare work exposes you to is the prevalence of domestic violence and child abuse. As such, it’s a topic that deserves our attention and writing about it ensures it’s in the public domain. On a pragmatic level, for a writer to be able to reveal their protagonist’s character, it’s essential that the stakes for that character be high. In The Hunger Games, for instance, the stakes are life or death for Katniss and the people she loves. If you don’t put your protagonist through hell, how will the reader know what they’re capable of and who they really are? So domestic violence is there because it has, in part, created Pete, the overwhelming danger that Jayden must face.
Breaking the cycle of violence is very difficult. Men born of angry, violent men, who see violence normalised in a family setting, are much more likely to do the same thing when they have families of their own. More is being done these days in relation to programmes for offenders, and many men who ‘inherit’ violent behaviour are deeply ashamed of their actions.
Families of all kinds are explored in the story. What is it about family relationships which make them so intriguing? Why did you elect to explore such different varieties?
There’s a line in Don Delillo’s Libra, his masterful novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of President Kennedy, where family is named as the thing that twists you out of shape. There’s an element of truth in this for many people. Families are always interesting; for most of us it’s where some of the great dramatic moments of our lives lie.
In First Person Shooter, Jayden lives with his father, his mother having died when he was very young: ‘Her name was Rachel. I never got to call her that and never will.’ Adding to this sense of loss, he’s grown apart from his father, as many boys of fifteen do. Jayden’s father is dealing with a slow-healing injury from a car accident, and this has also created distance between them.
Shannon lives with her older sister, Jess. Both their father and stepfather are dead, and their mother is serving a five-year gaol term for shooting the stepfather. When the novel opens, Madeleine is just eight days away from getting out of gaol, and her family is gearing up for her homecoming party. So is Pete, but with revenge and destruction on his mind.
The drug trade is a catalyst for much of the action at the end of the book. What inspired the inclusion of drugs in the Bridgetown? Is it a prominent problem in the real town?
Firstly, I should point out that though there is a Bridgetown in Western Australia, and though I stayed there when I was 21, while on a three-week bike ride from Perth to Albany and return, the Bridgetown of my novel is a fictional place. In fact, it is based more on the kind of town you can find along the South Australian reaches of the Murray River.
Stories about crystal meth (or shard as it’s often called in Australia) periodically flood the media, and it’s estimated that 200,000 Australians use this drug. For much the same reason as I’ve included dysfunctional families and domestic violence, I felt it would be an exercise in white-washing to avoid the topic of drugs, and the effect they can have on a town. Small towns are especially prone to problems with drug use. Where unemployment is high, people will get by in any way they can. When drugs become part of a person’s livelihood, the stakes for them are raised. Those who would curtail the trade are seen as threats to the drug dealer’s livelihood. And so, as existential threats. Again, it’s about raising the stakes, putting your protagonist into situations that require them to make tough decisions that will show the kind of person they are.
At the core of this story is the notion that the attempt to hide a flaw is more corrosive than the flaw itself.
Nigel’s advice, that a man should know how to feel and a woman should know how to defend herself, is a rather poignant sentiment. How did that particular piece make its way into the story?
Nigel’s had a difficult life. An ex-Vietnam Vet, ex-bikie, years ago he returned to Bridgetown to look after his then-dying mother. Now he’s alone, dying of hepatitis C, sitting on the back verandah of his old farm house, shooting targets with his .223.
Defending himself was never a problem for Nigel – he was always the biggest, meanest looking bugger in town – but he realised that his self-destructive behaviour stemmed from trying to squash down the bad things that happened in Vietnam. Nigel has spent the last five years or more looking out for Shannon and Jess. His house is filled with books and his love of poetry is shared by Jayden, who finds in poetry a piece of the jigsaw puzzle he needs to deal with his stutter.
Nigel’s also seen the effect that Shannon’s stepfather (Pete’s dad) had on her, her sister, and her mother. In Nigel’s world, it’s just as important that a woman has the ability to stand up for herself, to defend herself if necessary.
What is the main message you wanted your readers to understand from the story?
I’m hoping I’ve written this novel in a way which invites a variety of responses from its readers. While on the surface there’s a lot of action, it’s meant to be nuanced and complicated; it’s meant to have layers to it that will reward the careful reader. So while it’s the story of how a 15-year-old becomes entangled with a world of guns, revenge, a psychopath and drugs, thudding away beneath all this is a story of what it is to remain hopeful and resilient when it feels like the whole world is against you.
Nigel’s idea that you might have to look at your definition of a good day and turn it upside down if you want to live a full life is also important. But rather than attempt to explain this, I’d rather each reader comes to his or her own understanding of Nigel’s words, and how they might matter to them.
At the core of this story is the notion that the attempt to hide a flaw is more corrosive than the flaw itself. It’s a story about realising that you have to lean in, embrace your faults, and accept who you are.
What was the primary catalyst which led to you writing a young adult fiction?
First Person Shooter was written as a novel that would engage adults and young adults alike. As with many of my projects, it began as a film script with a 30-something man – a taxi driver called Luke – as the protagonist. At some point I realised it wasn’t Luke’s story I wanted to write. Jayden, who was up until then a minor character, became the protagonist, and Luke soon vanished completely.
But it wasn’t that I then set out to write a YA novel. When I decided to give Jayden a stutter, I realised I had to write the most honest account I could of what it’s like to grow up with that condition. Those teenage years are among the most exhilarating, challenging and confusing we face. If I was ever going to write a novel about stuttering, it had to have a teenage protagonist. So I kind of fell into it, but once that happened I knew it was exactly what I needed to do and I committed everything I had to writing it.
Have you got any ideas bubbling away for another book? What might we expect from you next?
I am currently contracted to work on two film scripts that may or may not also end up as novels: an action film that has a father/daughter story at its core (Thump) and a horror web series (Devil’s Elbow). There’s a crime novel I’m working on called ‘What Just Happened?’ and a TV series called ‘Hamley Bridge’, set in a country town where rogue ASIO agents and Aussie-swazis cross paths. I have to balance all this with teaching Aboriginal history and digital research methods in my day job at the University of South Australia.
First Person Shooter by Cameron Raynes is published by MidnightSun.