We talk with PATRICK HOLLAND, a longlist nominee for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award for his novel The Mary Smokes Boys, about his new novel, One, which tells the story of the real-life Kenniff brothers. These two late-19th-century Queenslanders were Australia’s last bushrangers, and Patrick questions the extent of their supposed villainy – did they deserve their fate?
You’ve said that place is essential in your writing, and many readers point out that the setting in itself seems to become a character in your books. How does the setting affect the story in One?
I never planned it, but I only seem to have two settings – big-city Asia and outback Australia. To those, in my last novel, I added the ocean. Noise and silence inspire me. I think they’re phenomenally linked. They are both isolating. The empty and silent landscapes One covers inspired me to a very elemental prose. Also, the characters in such landscapes have potential for a fairly direct relationship between themselves and the cosmos – there are few distractions.
You’ve lived in China and Vietnam. How does the Australian landscape compare to the landscape of those countries and that of other countries you have visited?
It often feels older and harder. The vastness and emptiness are remarkable, and I wonder that we don’t produce more mystic and contemplative writers, as the deserts of the Middle East did.
It’s hard, certainly, but when the Australian landscape does welcome you, when the light on the western plains softens and is filtered through eucalypts, when the stars come out at night, then it is all the more beautiful for having so firmly resisted the revelation. That is a magical quality that I’ve only experienced here.
Do you think you’d dedicate the same flair towards evoking your rural settings if you hadn’t grown up in the outback? Do any memories from your childhood leak into One?
‘Flair’ is an interesting word – I daresay if I hadn’t grown up there I’d be using more flair. I’ve noticed people who are foreign to a landscape have a natural instinct to make ornamental catalogues – even when they’re writing novels. It is a fairly recent Western (or perhaps I should say Anglophone) approach to literary art – that the writer should employ all possible verbal resources in the attempt exhaust a subject’s potential for beauty. So I’m hoping ‘flair’ is something readers will find absent from my pages, and instead find a quiet, unembellished beauty – an architectural beauty is how I like to think of it, so the load-bearing walls are more beautiful than the ornaments – which I believe is always true, as they keep the roof from falling on your head, which is a beautiful thing. My favourite sentence in the book is ‘She brought him a cup of water’ – perhaps because I am not present in it, there was no simpler way to say that.
As for memories informing One – absolutely. Especially my memories of the landscape and of the older people – the way they talked and acted.
What prompted you to write about bushrangers?
You wouldn’t call me a crime writer, but in almost everything I write there is lawbreaking. I’m not interested in criminals who are merely trying to get an advantage over other people – be that physical, financial or psychological – but rather in people who are forced to break the law, or who do bad things for what they see as good reasons. There wasn’t one unified experience that was ‘bushranging’ – some bushrangers were just thugs. The Kenniffs were accused of that, but I don’t believe it. Then, I’m bound to be sympathetic. And, of course, as a novelist, I take many poetic licences – my portrait is just one of many that could be made of Jim Kenniff.
Why do you think the illegal escapades of bushrangers are often celebrated in Australian culture rather than vilified?
This isn’t only an Australian phenomenon – think of Jesse James, Ishikawa Goemon, Bai Lang or Pancho Villa. These heroes arise naturally enough when people feel subject to malevolent institutional power; their violence articulates the average person’s silent frustration. I haven’t much studied our relationship to the bushrangers today, though my immediate impression is that we don’t understand them as they were understood in their time – as freedom fighters, or social radicals or terrorists. Rather I think we seem them as curious bits of outback kitsch. It’s an experience of life so remote that it has little relevance to us, apart from our pride in having descended – genetically if not culturally – from such extreme and puzzling men. What’s more troubling, though, is the present-day global inclination to canonise outlaw heroes for no reason other than their extreme power and wealth, so drug baron Pablo Escobar gets something like hero status. This seems to me the opposite sentiment from that which would make a poor farmer love Jim Kenniff or Ned Kelly.
Your Miles Franklin-longlisted novel The Mary Smokes Boys also involves horse thieves. Will fans of The Mary Smokes Boys be in for a similar read with One?
I do feel like they’re linked. I don’t know why I keep writing about horse theft. I worked with horses a lot as a kid, but I’ve never stolen one. (Perhaps I did in a past life.) In some ways you could say the prose style of One completes the journey that began with The Mary Smokes Boys. I am presently researching ambient writing. Mary Smokes is more ambient in that it privileges narrative drift over drive, and One is more so, in that it leaves more space for the reader at a sentence level – it’s more minimal. Both books aim to maximise the reader’s involvement in making the reading experience.
What compelled you to write about the Kenniff brothers in particular?
Perhaps, initially, that they were the great outlaws from the country where I grew up – south-west Queensland – and I was keen to write that landscape again. Also because they were the last Australian bushrangers, and I’m always interested in the twilight of things – transitional states. And certainly I had some things I wanted to meditate on regarding law and justice, and I reckoned Jim Kenniff was the right vehicle for that.
If the Kenniffs did kill the men they were accused of killing, then I could sympathise with a brother, wife, or sister loading a rifle, stalking them and shooting them dead on their horses. But never death in cold blood at the end of a rope by order of a government.”
What were the most surprising or valuable sources of research for this book?
I’m always grateful to the local historians. They are in just about all the small towns in Australia, selling their books for a fiver at the tourist window of the council office. Their books are much better for the novelist than the academic texts, because their method is simply to gather events, rather than argue a philosophical point. Their language is better too, even if they don’t know – or perhaps they resist – some of the finer arts of storytelling. Ketching the Kenniffs by Bob Good is such a book. I liked it very much. But there is no better resource than the artist’s own experience. Borges says it beautifully: ‘Nobody should dare to write “outskirts” without having spent hours pacing their high sidewalks.’
Does religion permeate the book in any way?
Only obliquely. Les Murray has a wonderful line, commenting on what he sees as our unavoidably religious nature:
who lose belief in God will not only believe in anything. They
will bring blood offerings to it
To write about people is to write about a relationship with God – even if that relationship is hostile. And to simply place a person in history places them in a relationship to religion.
Which writers, books or other forms or media influenced the writing of One?
Ah, so many. Typically music. All of Arvo Pärt’s music, but especially Für Alina … I attempted to infuse my writing with the same enormity that is in that piece, which is engendered by very simple notes and silence. Also ambient music like John Broaddus’s 4@18, and Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s recent work – their music really speaks to an experience of Australia I don’t get from too many other Australian musicians. And, as for books, Japanese writing, especially Yasunari Kawabata – Snow Country and The Dancing Girl of Izu – I love the atmospheres of Kawabata’s novels. Also the old pulp westerns, I’ve read plenty of those, the plots are usually of two or three types, but the language – the thing they’re never credited for – I find wonderful. Perhaps because it’s so artless. In a similar way, as an aficionado of language, I prefer to listen to football podcasts, comedians and rural folk talk than, say, BBC culture programs. The language of the former group is more useful to me. It’s more raw, more inventive, more spontaneous. I can’t do anything with Melvyn Bragg, but I learn a lot from listening to the others – to anyone whose language has been given them orally and not by books.
Did the Kenniff brothers deserve their fate?
I believe state killing is satanic. If the Kenniffs did kill the men they were accused of killing, then I could sympathise with a brother, wife, or sister loading a rifle, stalking them and shooting them dead on their horses. But never death in cold blood at the end of a rope by order of a government. It’s a waste of human potential, a horror, and it multiplies suffering.
As to whether or not they were guilty, I really don’t know, but I don’t believe anyone on their jury was sure either. It’s interesting though, and something the novel explores, how we tend to define a person by the worst thing they’ve ever done. I think most of us are capable of doing bad things given the appropriate circumstances, and most of us are lucky enough not to find those.
One – Patrick Holland
Like most people, at the mention of bushrangers my mind immediately conjures the iconic armour and antics of Ned Kelly. But after reading One, my imagination has been snatched by Jim and Patrick Kenniff, Australia’s last bushrangers. One describes the raw, brutal outback of Western Queensland that the Kenniff brothers made their kingdom, and the desperate attempts of the law to rein them in. Holland focuses on Jim, the more reckless of the two. If you’re expecting a hard-jawed, whisky slogging, violent horseman with murder in his eyes, you won’t be all that disappointed. But Holland presents Jim with a sensitivity and complexity that makes the unfurling of the horse-thief’s traumatic past compulsive and heartbreaking.
The other main character is Nixon, a policeman who sets out to hunt the Kenniffs with a farm boy and a young indigenous tracker he dubs ‘King Edward’. The patrol that attempted to find the Kenniffs before him ended up butchered and burned in the bush. Nixon is driven by a quiet fury and a strict passion for the law to find and charge the bushrangers. He seems to crave for Jim’s demise in particular. But the outlaws are expert escapists who can melt into the bush without so much as a cloud of dust kicked up by their horses’ hooves. Jim Kenniff is treated as some sort of myth by the fearful locals; they say bullets pass straight through him as if he were a ghost.
The most distinctive feature of One is Holland’s addictive, sparse style. He can evoke the roaring openness of the outback in a sentence and his tight dialogue is revealing and real. Holland’s minimalist prose ushers you urgently through a thrillingly unique and morally tense Australian historical novel.
Four stars – Transit Lounge $29.99
Reviewed by Angus Dalton
One by Patrick Holland is published by Transit Lounge, rrp $29.95.