Q: HIS ILLEGAL SELF takes place in the early '70s amidst the radical politics and social constructs of the time. What drew you to write about this period?
A: I had very fond memories of living in what you might call a hippie community—in tropical Queensland more than thirty years ago. This was a radical place, although not in the sense your question suggests. I was drawn back there because I wanted to inhabit that space, that rainforest, that lovely humid fecund air. Of course my main characters—Che and Dial—are from New York and Boston and they won’t like that environment at all. But that’s their point of view, not mine.
For me it was a strong desire to reinvent a magical place. So that’s the first step towards His Illegal Self.
Q: Did particular experiences there inform the book?
A: Yes and no. I found my story by worrying at some things that really did happen long ago but they are not in the book at all.
There was a young Texan who came to live in the community. He had no idea where he was. It must have seemed like the end of the earth to him, and we subsequently discovered that he must have been hoping it was—he was on the run for a drugs charge. What he didn’t understand was that he had come to provincial Queensland, where we suffered under a famously corrupt government and a very bent malevolent police force. It was the last place to hide. There was a terrifying police raid to catch him which only increased our general paranoia. We truly believed that our phone calls were listened in to.
These were basic elements from life—the American who doesn't know where on earth he is, the police raid, the pervasive paranoia, trying to shove twenty cent pieces in a call box to make an international call. But I didn’t want to write about a drug smuggler. This is a very different story.
Q: What was the starting point for the novel?
A: I began with the vision of two fugitive Americans, this hippie mother (as I thought of her), Dial, and this little boy, Che, walking along a Queensland road. There is a huge scary storm coming. All the cars are coming the other way, their lights on in the middle of the day. These hitch-hikers have no idea of where one earth they are.
Q: Well the relationship between Dial and Che is...
A: ...more complicated than I at first imagined. At the start I was not even sure what they were running from. How did they get into this mess? I didn't know.
Q: In the book, Che asks Dial, "Why is bad to be American, Dial?"As an Australian living in Australia at that time, what were the prevailing feelings towards Americans? Are there are any parallels between then and now?
A: The simplest answer is: the times are similar. Australia had troops in Vietnam like we do in Iraq. We were a client state. We had a colonial habit of fighting other people's wars. Australian boys were conscripted to fight your war in Vietnam. There was a huge anti-war movement. 70,000 people marched in Melbourne alone. So there was, amongst a majority of the population, a colossal hatred for American imperial power, but all of this was complicated by our admiration and affection, not only for the American anti-war movement, but for all those great artists who made up a broader cultural resistance.
Q: Che carries papers with him wherever he goes. Why?
A: Some kids with very safe and ordinary lives—and Che is not one of them—are like magpies about their "stuff." Che needs his "stuff" more than most of us. The things he carries stand for people he loves, parents he's lost, fragments of happiness he will not relinquish.
Q: In the book, you write a conversation between Dial and Che:
"Che, talk to me."
"I'm Jay," he said. He did not have many ways to hurt her.
Throughout the novel, people are disguised, names are changed, and identities confused—Che comes to be called simply "the boy" at certain points. Were you interested in how labels and names come to define identity, and how they can be played one against the other?
A: I found myself doing this instinctively. If it works in just the way you say, that supports the powerful logic and order of what we call intuition.
Q. Trevor—one of the feral hippies that take Dial and Che in, for a price—Dial, and Che have a complicated relationship that runs from derision to love and a sense of connection. Were these adoptive and seemingly strange parental relationships between the intended to make a statement about the notion of family?
A: My friends read the book this way. For myself, I was heading towards a moment in Che's life where he would know, without any doubt, that he was deeply and fully loved.
Q: How did you come to the voice of a seven-year old boy from Park Avenue?
A: Don’t want to sound too woo-woo about this, but voices do come to me. They are not the result of observation or study, but—like Hugh in my novel Theft for instance—come from some place that one might describe—if it did not run the risk of sounding self-congratulatory—as magical. But also we have all been children so it isn't hard for any of us to see the world from that point of view.
Q: Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, said the following of HIS ILLEGAL SELF: "This isn't the first fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early '70s, but it may well be the best." Why do you think many readers feel you captured the essence of the time and movement, when there's little discussion of the actual politics or radical views of the time?
A: What we call a "time" is the water the society is swimming in, the political air it is breathing. It is not the models of cars, or music or fashions. It is the earth we are standing on, the great slow tectonic plates of historical change. If I do my work properly and have my characters REALLY living in the seventies then the values, the conflicts, the ideas, the radical movements will be contained in the very molecules of their breathe.
And yes, readers do say I have captured the essence of time and movement. God bless them. Writing a novel is a slightly mad and very risky thing. It is so pleasing to feel you might possibly have succeeded.
Q: You now direct the MFA program in writing at Hunter College. How—if at all—has teaching and advising students changed either your writing or your approach to writing?
A: I work with all my students very closely. I inhabit their stories and novels at the level of the line, the sentence, the paragraph. I do this not in order to make them write like me, but in order for them to be most effectively themselves. I have to become almost a part of their blood stream. In doing this, in becoming 'them', in also questioning every sentence, every word, in looking, with them, for what is false, inauthentic, overwritten or just not the point, I have made myself a better writer. One word cut from a sentence makes a better sentence. The removal of dead wood can reveal the most gorgeous jewels. I aim for work which is unlike anything, where all is new, nothing is superfluous. Same for them. Same for me.