Based in Adelaide, Stephen Orr has published several novels, and has been nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and twice for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. His novella ‘Datsunland’ explores the hesitant bond that develops between a reluctant music teacher and his teenage student in a school they both loathe. In this interview, he discusses his own experiences of teaching, and how growing up in ’70s suburbia informed his writing.
A lot of your non-fiction work, particularly for The Adelaide Review, Inside History and The Advertiser, investigates elements of both Australian and international history and considers the effect of the past upon the present. How would you describe your interest in history? How do you think this interest has influenced your fiction writing?
I read a lot about history, become fascinated by certain people, use them in a transfigured way. My second published novel, Hill of Grace (Wakefield Press, 2004), was based on the life and rantings of the American Baptist preacher, William Miller. Spending his life studying the Bible in search of the date of the Second Coming, which came and went, a bit more maths, a lot of delusion, sweet talking his neighbours into selling their farms to help him prepare for the End. It seems there are so many novels and characters out there already. ‘Datsunland’ is contemporary. Completely made up. In a way, this is the harder writing as there’s no safety net for the imagination.
You have previously defended the suburb as a ‘place of opportunity’, and suburbia has formed the backdrop for this novella as well as some of your shorter works. What do you find inspiring about the landscape of suburbia? How do these sorts of settings, such as the suburban Adelaide of ‘Datsunland’, differ from others you have engaged with?
What is a suburb anymore? Not the place I grew up, with kids in and out of each other’s house. If you invoke this suburbia now you’re accused of being sentimental, but that was life in the 1970s. This environment comes to reflect how our values have changed, and how we’ve become more insular, frightened, protective, self-interested and determined to accumulate more. It is not how humans were designed to work. I think many of us yearn to return, devolve into the Santa Ana suburb of fifty years ago, but feel we no longer know how. My suburb, Hillcrest, was like James Agee’s Knoxville, where the talk was always of ‘nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all’. A few years of this grass-smelling dreamscape and, as a writer, you’re set for life. Someone’s mum used to sunbake nude in her backyard, and this was good entertainment. Mrs W had a thousand cats, and Mr A, who used to organise for a union and quoted Marx, would always be shouting at her. None of that any more.
At the start of ‘Datsunland’, William and Charlie appear disillusioned and lost in their own ways, and both seem to swing between hopefulness and hopelessness as they navigate their lives. However, the last scene provides a moment of stillness in this emotional restlessness. In writing that final scene, what did you feel would prevail: hopefulness or hopelessness?
William started off like so many of us: a sort of semi-arrogant twentysomething with a degree who has a Harvard-referenced opinion on everything. Then time goes and the vast runway that has been stretching out in front of us becomes a sort of car park. Less room to manoeuvre. Fewer opportunities. In William’s case, there’s a degree of self-sabotage because he doesn’t really want to become a successful teacher, with all the conformity that involves. But he’s not brave (or hard working) enough to do what it would take to be a successful musician, so when we meet him he’s dangling. In the first draft he was married and his wife thought him a complete dead loss, but that set-up seemed too restrictive. So when he sees Charlie, he sees himself. He wants to help the boy, not to redeem himself but because he likes Charlie – his ambivalent attitude and his shitty situation at home. Age doesn’t seem to matter, although it does for others seeing it all from a distance, but that sexual slant, now mostly informed by Today, Tonight, is a misreading. Charlie grows. William grows. William replaces Damien for a while and Damien comes to see the temporary nature of letting go, as long as you let go. A lot of egg-cracking to make a decent omelette. And yet, Charlie and William are never hopeless. Always hopeful. Both tempered by misfortune, losing loved ones, but growing up around love, knowing it, knowing people who ‘shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth’.
The complex relationship between teacher and student that develops in ‘Datsunland’ is both inspired and reinforced by music; it is only through Charlie’s guitar lessons, running through scales and practising chord progressions, that he is able to connect with an adult. What is your personal relationship with music? What were the greatest challenges in communicating these aural experiences through the silent medium that is the written word?
I was in a band, Nimrod’s Cat (sound familiar?), and spent the late ’80s playing in pubs around Adelaide. Then I had delusions of grandeur and studied a music degree for a year, but dropped out of the Elder Conservatorium when I realised that music education was all about producing more fiddlers to rehash more Mozart. It still seems like this. But William loves his music. Hates how the multinationals have killed rock’n’roll with pre-packaged hits sung by demographically appropriate ‘musicians’ with six-month career spans. But he would think this because he’s hypercritical. He has a bullshit filter and the inability to keep his mouth shut, so he’s not terribly employable – although he’s instantly someone Charlie, with his acute intelligence, wit and black humour, is attracted to. Leading to the question of appropriate relationships and how much teachers are really allowed to be authentic, versus educators as people able to meet the hundreds of standards, values, skills sets that make them ‘professionals’. All the teachers I remember from school were slightly daggy. That’s how I learnt about authenticity. As a teacher myself, I know that students can sniff a phoney at a hundred metres.
Rather than the usual sense of freedom associated with cars and motion, I think the recurrence of the Datsun in ‘Datsunland’ points to something more interesting. For example, the car yard owned by Charlie’s father appeared to me as a place where old dreams are sent to be repackaged and sold on to someone new. Was this your intention at all? I know you learned to drive in a Datsun 120Y, but how exactly does the Datsun function in your novella?
My bus used to pass a car yard called Datsunland. Long gone. Even in the ’80s it seemed like a sad relic. Obviously it was established when Datsuns were big sellers, but then they stopped making them in (I think) 1986, and the car yard was struggling with low-priced ‘Jap crap’ that your mum and dad bought if you lived in fibro-land (like me). But proud. With its little flags and a few blokes with pot bellies putting on a tie every day and trying to make a living from ever-diminishing margins. Until they gave up, I suppose. Proud. Like Damien. I think this is the important lesson he would, or will, teach Charlie. Quaint looking values lifted from those sentimental suburbs. And we let them go, but regret it because what are we left with? Yes, Datsuns are the dream, underpowered, bow-legged, ripped vinyl, basic (and broken) gauges on a cracked dashboard. Just like William and Charlie: plain-looking cars that just keep going. But more than this. Beautiful engineering. I always light up when I see a Fairlady or 180B, or the dream, a 120Y, driving past. This little rattling metaphor. The smell of leaded fuel drifting in from the driveway when you wake in the morning.