2016 / Saturday

Dwarf throwing, mercenaries and honesty with Mark Dapin

Krista Sturday

Award winning author, Mark Dapin, at his Sydney home. Photograph by Krista Sturday

Award winning author, Mark Dapin, at his Sydney home. Photograph by Krista Sturday

Mark Dapin sits on the deck of his sandstone terrace overlooking Sydney Harbour.  He moves his arm in a stabbing motion toward his chest, ripping it apart. “The more I cut myself open and pulled out my innards, the more fan mail I got.  People just loved it,” he says. “I loved that people could see something recognisably human.”

A dramatic start to the afternoon. But beneath the surprising drama lies the honesty and wry perception this writer has become known for.  In contrast to a tough, tattoo-pumped personal exterior, his work is often evocative and deeply personal, imparting great understanding of the human experience.

A successful journalist, sub-editor, editor and author of fiction and non-fiction books, the creative Mr Dapin is aware that he cannot rest on past success. Each new project leaves this writer cutting himself open in order to honour his audience with the truth. As with all creative professions, writing often exposes the author, leaving him or her open to a certain vulnerability. “I just hope people will like it,” Mark Dapin says.

Born in the UK, Mr Dapin says his teenage-self adopted a “nihilistic” attitude. “Right up until my mid-twenties, I just couldn’t see the point in anything.”  He is unsure if this viewpoint came from absorbing the punk scene prevalent in Britain at the time, right down to Sex Pistols tattoos and wearing white socks made cool by Paul Weller from The Jam.  Or if blame lies with his school. “It wasn’t a rough school it was just rubbish,” he says. “A school full of teachers who had no interest whatsoever in teaching pupils. Education was not paramount in the minds of the families or the teachers.” Regardless, he still managed to have both fiction and journalism articles published by the age of 16.

Moving to Australia in 1989 he took on work as a sub-editor for Penthouse.  Despite its reputation for being a lewd magazine for men, most of his work was “just laddish features about mercenaries and dwarf throwing”.  Later, amongst other journalism work, he worked as editor of Ralph magazine, was chief sub-editor for The Australian Financial Review Magazine and had a weekly column in Good Weekend.

At the height of his popularity, his Good Weekend column ended abruptly following changes made by Fairfax director of news media Garry Linnell, who had charge of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times.

Concerned the loss of his column would send him broke, Mr Dapin, a father of two young children with his partner Claire, started taking on any work he could. This lead to rolling book contracts, starting a PhD, and a mass of freelance journalism, which now consumes his intellectual time.

A once self-professed “shy but not private” man, no longer considers himself shy. “I try not to draw a line at all between my public and private personas.  When I started to write personal stuff, I thought people would like me more if I were tougher and cooler than I am. Whereas now I’m as close to portraying a character that is as close to how I think of myself as I can, whilst still being entertaining. I’ve started to open up far more.”

A question he gets asked often is: who does he write for? He says the only practical answer is his publisher or editor. A successful method it seems. His first fiction novel King of the Cross, won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. Nasho’s War, a non-fiction account of Australian conscripts in the Vietnam War, won the National NIB/Waverly Library People’s Choice Award, was shortlisted for the Alex Buzo Prize and was nominated for the 2016 Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction.

Despite his adopted country acknowledging his skill as a writer, it is making the shortlist for his novel Spirit House for the 2014 Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Award that means the most to him. Nominated by his peers for a literary work that best evokes sense of place, he says, “It’s great to be acknowledged in Australia. But to be acknowledged in my home country, that was very important to me. Still is very important to me.”

A certain masculinity flows through much of Mr Dapin’s writing. This theme fits in with a theory he has evolved over the years about how differently men behave when women aren’t around. “I remember after my grandad died, my mum said to me, ‘You know the thing about your grandad was he was such a gentleman, he never swore.’ My grandad swore all the time. In a pub he just swore constantly and my mum and Nan had no idea that he was this person, a kind of accomplished vulgarian outside the house and in the company of men,” he says. “I’ve changed my mind a little now. I am not sure now that women and men communicate as differently as I’d thought they did. I mistook a gender division for a class division, which is exactly the thing I hate in other people’s thinking and yet I’ve done it myself.”

R&R is Mr Dapin’s most recent novel. Released last year it is a about Military Police in the Vietnam War.  It is more of a murder thriller than war tale. Having two central characters was a contentious area for Mr Dapin’s publisher. But for the author, it was the point of the novel. He wanted to take two diverse characters and transform them by each adopting the qualities of the other by the end.

Through writing fiction, he has learned that by loving the characters he creates, the reader will respond to them better.  A lesson he applied in R&R. “I loved Shorty’s naivety and good heart and Nashville’s humour and determination to do whatever he was determined to do.”

The nihilism of his youth has evaporated and the search for truth in the stories people tell themselves is what drives him forward. Writing will always be what Mark Dapin does. “I’m never going to retire. I figure if I stop writing, I’ll want to die, because that’s what I do to live”.