A master of the undertow

Matthew Hogan

Our lives are shaped by events that affect us, and certain moments that impact on our memory become the stories we tell others when they afford us their ear.

For those who entertain us with the written word, the memoir is becoming an increasingly popular literary art form. Memoirs have grown in popularity in the digital age and according to an online database provided by EBSCO Academic Search, the number of memoirs hitting the shelves have tripled over the last 15 years. While an autobiography tells the story of a life, a memoir tells a story from life.

As well as six novels, three collections of short stories, and two plays, Robert Drewe has also written two memoirs. His life is a reservoir of events, both ordinary and harrowing. He speaks as though the experience of writing a memoir is compulsive and natural.

With a memoir, you don’t have to look the facts up because it’s your life. By definition you remember what happened. In terms of the sweep of the story or the emotion involved, it’s basically your memory.”

Author Robert Drewe Picture: Russell Shakespeare

Author Robert Drewe Picture: Russell Shakespeare

He was universally acclaimed for his first memoir, The Shark Net, written in 2000, about his navigation through adolescence, growing up in Perth, “the world’s most isolated city”, as he describes it.

Everyone’s been through adolescence. I think it rings a bell universally. It was frank about adolescence and the way teenage boys behaved but also it had a rather unusual and exciting backdrop in that it concerned my family’s connection with a serial killer. Although we knew him, we didn’t know at the time that he was a murderer.”

The Shark Net struck a chord with readers around the globe and netted the writer a bag of awards including the Western Australian Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction. The recognition in foreign counties was somewhat curious to a man described as “a fantastic commercial writer who’s never quite come off in the big league”.

He says, “I was quite surprised that it did well in places like Ireland and Canada, quite different from the coastal, surfing backdrop that I was describing.”

With the breakdown in his marriage still fresh, he found the desire to reflect on his life once more and Montebello is the result. He describes it as the logical follow-up to The Shark Net.

There were two big experiences in my childhood that affected me. The first was having to get married when my girlfriend was pregnant and the serial killer all happening at the same time. That was so dramatic that I had to write about it separately. The second was being scared of the bomb going off in our state. It stayed in my mind all these years. I had to find a way of getting to the site where these nuclear bombs had been exposed and look at it and see what a reaction it still had on me.”

The Montebello Islands became a place of wonderment for him, as it seemed to mirror the themes of his current life conundrum.

Things like romance, happiness and unhappiness just keep going all your life and I had suffered a marriage break-down and was pursuing what I hoped would be a new relationship at that time.”

The Montebellos Island bore little of the scars one might expect to see of a nuclear bombsite.

The whole existence of the islands was dramatically turned around from being a nuclear bomb site to a place of salvation.”

Hope and love form a palpable undercurrent in his memoir writing. He described himself as being “galvanised by melancholy” but he didn’t have to look far for inspiration to get his life moving again.

I’m not someone who likes to mope for too long. I think it’s important, especially as a parent. You want to create an atmosphere of optimism in your children. You can’t drag your heels around all day.”

Keeping that sense of wonder going was the catalyst that moved him from journalism into novel writing at the age of 28 after 10 successful years with The Age and later, The Australian. Robert Drewe still dabbles in his old craft every now and then, even picking up a couple of Walkley Awards along the way.

He has been criticised in some literary circles for not publishing more novels over his career, which spans over 40 years. However, it’s not something the man himself seems too concerned about. He’s been able to put food on the table for his family and has found a home amidst the idyllic landscape of the Byron Bay hinterland. He writes five days a week for eight hours a day and worries only about that of which he is in control – the quality of his writing.

You hope that if you write as well as you can and enough people realise that and appreciate it, they’ll buy your book.”

He describes himself proudly as a “literary writer” as opposed to an “airport novelist”. It’s not lost on him that he’s been lucky to make a living out of literary art and he’s grateful for the awards that have been bestowed on him over the years and drawn attention to his work.

Living in the bush has made Robert Drewe more aware of the elements, environment and wildlife, which he said helped him with writing Montebello. It’s a theme he is set to continue, with a new book due to be released shortly after the Festival entitled, The Local Wildlife, a collection of humorous pieces set in the Northern Rivers area.

Malcolm Knox speaks to award-winning novelist, non-fiction writer and editor Robert Drewe about Montebello, the sequel to his acclaimed memoir, The Shark Net. Event 174 ‘Robert Drewe: Montebello’, May 25, 1-2pm, Richard Wherrett Studio