Michael, I loved your book – congratulations on a fine debut. But love’s a loaded word isn’t it in the context of this novel? We hang on to it in our kin and other close relationships - sometimes as a “last thread” – but there can be a whole history of devastations under its veneer. Maybe I should say then: I loved the steadfastness you exhibit in your examination of a sometimes quite gut-wrenching family history. Did you struggle with trying to retain some critical distance – or is there really no such thing when dealing with “the source of the sadness”, as you refer to it at one point?
Love is a loaded word in The Last Thread, and I think that one of the themes of this book is the idea of love, what it means to different people and how it gets corrupted. I’m not just talking about love between people, but about the way people see themselves. I made many false starts before I wrote The Last Thread. For a long time, the material was too confronting – too painful, too raw. It amazed me how, when I started writing about what I remembered, my childhood returned to me in such a visceral way. It had always been there, but had just expressed itself more subconsciously; through my relationships; through binge drinking; in a certain self-loathing and insecurity.
For a while, when I began writing about the difficult events in my life (my father’s abuse of my brother, my stepfather’s violence, my younger brother’s disappearance), I became more depressed and felt far more vulnerable, but gradually I started to find my feet. Critical distance to the material in my childhood was a massive challenge, but it was a crucial one too. On the one hand, you have to feel the material that you are writing about in order to really bring it to life. On the other, you can’t let that raw feeling dominate you or the story.
Almost a character in its own right in the novel is the city of Newcastle. In one passage, the mother character, Nici, says “the city just becomes the memories you have of it”. You reside there still I see in the biographical note in my proof copy. Does the city have a pull all of its own, or is it so constitutive of your identity (as uncertain as that was in your early years), that you cannot imagine living anywhere else?
I did intend Newcastle to become a kind of character in this book that changes and grows over time. I think what my mother says at that stage of the book is an interesting idea, but I don’t agree with the underlying sentiment, or maybe I think the idea should be carried through to its natural conclusion. Yes, the city you live in is partly a product of your memories, but you are constantly adding new layers of memory to the picture. The more time that you spend there, the more your experience of the place diversifies and changes. I guess it’s about how you live your life: whether you repeat the past or build from it, and perhaps that’s reflected in your view of wherever you find yourself.
My reasons for staying here are practical. My wife and I both have children from previous relationships. It’s not a bad place to live either. One of the few times that I’ve felt an uncomfortable closeness to the past was when I dropped in at Newcastle East Public, the first school that I went to when I was four. I lived nearby and had to vote in an election. It’s a lovely school now, but for me the experience was terrible. As a child, I didn’t know a word of English and didn’t get any help with that, and the teacher used to treat me badly. When I went there to vote, I didn’t really recognize the place, especially with all the voting booths up, but I had some gut instinct, a negative reaction to the place that surprised me. It was like the spirit of my experiences still lingered in the brickwork.
But generally, the thing about living in Newcastle is that the suburbs are remarkably diverse. Each suburb seems to have such a different character. Right now, I’m living in an area I’ve never lived before, in this old house up on a ridge that overlooks the city and the ocean all the way to a shipwreck (the Sygna) in the distance, and I love it. I’ve lived in Newcastle about twenty-five years and yet – with the way the city changes around me, and with how my life has changed – I don’t think I’m living in the same city at all. Ultimately for me, living in Newcastle is about being in a position to enjoy my family – my wife, my children – and I think that I carry a lot of what matters to me inside my head.
The “Michael” character in this novel visits Holland, the country of his birth, for the last time as a 13 year old. In that several of your characters in the book are reckoning with versions of events, stories of the past that have accreted new layers over the years (and not just personal stories, but also ones for instance associated with the murky years of WW2 in occupied Europe, of resistance and collaboration) – did you return to Holland for your research for this book? Or is it written entirely from your own memories of that time, with some imaginary excavations of events you were too little to comprehend fully?
I haven’t been back to Holland since I was thirteen. So, in a sense, the Holland that I came from is a product of memory coupled with imagination. It’s more of an emotional place than a physical one. But The Last Thread is not a book about the past; it’s about how the past relates to the present. It’s about what I live with now as an adult. It contains lots of my strong images of Holland, but it’s not about depicting Holland in an exhaustive way. I think that a destructive nostalgia motivated my mother, whether it was for a place, or for her own mother’s love, and that is what the town of my birth, Bergen Op Zoom, represents for me more than anything else. I like your idea of imaginary excavations. At the best of times, memory is not precise, and how can I remember precisely things that were said, when they occurred in a language with which I am no longer that competent? But I have carefully attempted to brush back the muck, to capture what happened as I remember it.
One scene that I struggled with in this way was a visit to an aunt when I was nine, just before we left Holland for the second time. She literally spoke as if I wasn’t there and decided to summarise the whole scandalous past of my family for my mother. It was horrible but fascinating, my grandmother’s involvement with the Nazis, her intense anti-Semitism, the callous way that she’d treated some of her children. I’ll never forget how dramatically my view of the whole world changed in just a couple of hours, just through listening to someone talk. I never looked at my grandmother in the same way again..
“Gezellig”, a Dutch word meaning cosy, an atmosphere in which one feels warm and secure and happy, is much sought after but rarely found in the peripatetic family life this novel describes. The family was tainted in Holland as a result of the war years; after migrating to Australia, dysfunction prevails most of the time for Michael and his brother Con growing up, and there is always the pull of “home” for the parents – an occasion for usually calamitous return visits. Towards the end of the book I started to feel there was no end of misfortune for Nici in particular: “Her voice had an arthritic edge of cheerfulness. You could almost mistake it for hope”. Then there’s the adult Con’s desolation; and step-brother Tomo’s emotionlessness. Did your editor implore you at any stage for more light, more feel-good characters, more Gezelligkeit?!
I was probably more worried about that than my editor. Rebecca really liked the balance of the characters and the way the story came together, and I suppose that I’ve come around to that point of view too. Gezelligheid is really elusive for most of this book, but it has a strong presence nonetheless, as an idea, an aspiration and an occasional interlude. There’s some dark subject matter, but I don’t think of this book as bleak. All the major characters are flawed and damaged, but they also have unique strengths.
Flawed characters are so much more interesting in my view. My older brother is in many ways still amazing to me now. On a physical level, he’s always been remarkably brave and brilliantly adaptable to whatever environment he happens to find himself in. My mother has always been so tenacious. It’s true that my younger brother is depicted as having a sort of emotional insulation from the world, but underneath that, there’s a very sensitive and gentle quality to him. I suppose that I see all of their characters engaged in some sort of struggle throughout the narrative.
I remember from my own teenage years being very affected - but also comforted - by the work of the Swiss psychologist Alice Miller. I’m not suggesting she’s an influence on your work, but she came to my mind when reading The Last Thread when you talk about Michael’s anger and shame, his guilt and self-loathing when thinking about the violence and emotional abuse he has been exposed to. The fear that he is becoming like his father etc ! What were the influences that possibly fed into this book? From literature, from autobiography, from elsewhere?
I haven’t really read much of Alice Miller, but I share her attitude towards the justification for violence against children. To me, hitting a child is a failure of reason on the part of the parent. No one’s ever been able to give me a good rationale for doing so.
A while ago, I watched a parent distracted by a conversation, and her two children decided to set off by themselves across the road. The older one was about six and holding the hands of a kid that looked about three. He was being quite adventurous but lost his nerve half way across the road, at the traffic island. The mother suddenly looked around, saw them stuck there in the middle of the road, and ran after them. Once she got them to the other side of the road, she slapped the older boy across the face. As the boy began crying, she said, ‘I did that because you could have got killed.’ That reasoning made no sense to me. I think that the mother’s response, while understandable, came from fear and guilt. Failure is a part of parenting.
In my book, for example, I relate a few of my actions as an adult that I see as abusive. I wouldn’t do those things again. These are my failures. These aren’t major disasters, but neither should they be explained away as somehow necessary or given the illusion of a logical framework. They were very disturbing for me and so they should have been. It’s your job to be disturbed as a parent sometimes. Many people don’t want to be too much like their own parents, and with an abusive parent, as Miller argues too, that becomes all the more pressing. Meanwhile the literature that I’ve read has influenced me more on a stylistic level. There’s too much writing too name, but I’ve read a lot of work that’s beautifully detailed, that uses simple, clear language to really break open experience. Works like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Primo Levi’s If this is a Man, and JM Coetzee’s Boyhood, spring to mind.
I had a little eureka moment in the book. Towards the end you describe a pair of 19C brass candle-holders from a ship, that the mother gifts to Michael. “They’re designed with hinges so that the candles always stay level. The ship might be going down, but at least you’ll be able to see the look on people’s faces, the water coming in.” It strikes me that this could stand as a metaphor for your project with this book. You’ve been prepared to stare down some really strong themes, and the candle-holders, like Michael, are still around to tell the tale. Michael has the occasional nightmares, but he also has love, a child of his own to care for…an equilibrium, of sorts?
There’s a kind of question in that image of the candleholders for me. If the ship is going down, if you’re stuck down there and heading towards the bottom of the ocean, is there a point in seeing the looks on people’s faces, the water coming in? There were definitely times, while writing this book, that I wondered if illuminating all of this experience was worth it. I was often plagued by doubt. I didn’t want to get consumed by it, and that’s always the risk, and it’s probably inevitable that it happens for a while, but somehow you have to find a way of pulling yourself free enough to be able to tell the story without becoming damaged by it all over again. Because in the end, the story isn’t about the damage, it’s about the interesting perspectives and experiences of the people involved.
I didn’t want to become that figure of my aunt towards the end of the book who is consumed by the bitterness of her experiences, but at the same time, I think the past matters. I don’t think that you can bury it indefinitely. You need to be able to look at it with a steady eye, and that takes practice and it helps if you can find a good balance in your life as a whole. My daughter, towards the end, is a really important part of the book for me. Becoming a father really put me in a position to write this book. Until that moment, I was really anxious that I would somehow fall into a way of echoing the destructive parenting that I had experienced as a child. Becoming a father gave me a lot of confidence and motivation and it led to me making peace with some of the more difficult parts of my childhood. I now have a son as well as a daughter, and the feeling, when I see either of them, tells me everything that I need to know about my relationship with the past.
The Last Thread is the Regional Winner (Pacific) of the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize.