Q&A with Paddy O’Reilly, author of The Fine Colour of Rust

Jessica Au from Readings St Kilda chats to Paddy O'Reilly about her second novel The Fine Colour of Rust.


**Your narrator, Loretta – a single mum struggling to raise her kids in a stranded rural town – is such a fresh voice: funny, deprecating and frank all at once. (She dreams of dumping Melissa and Jake at an orphanage, for example, yet is willing to go-for-broke to rally a less-than-enthusiastic community to save their school). What was it about this character that grabbed you? **

Apart from Loretta’s voice, which gripped me immediately, I was very interested in writing about people who are struggling to get by. There’s a kind of thinking that has taken hold in Australia since the Howard years that people with no money and few prospects have only themselves to blame. They’re depicted as a bogan underclass of lazy, unmotivated bludgers, or as an almost biblically violent and terrifying tribe. I wanted to write the story of people who have very little going for them but who still live rich lives and do the best for their families and community. Not saints – Loretta is no saint – but ordinary, good, flawed people who have the courage to keep going day after day. It’s often the people who can laugh at the world’s absurdity, even as they’re being hammered, who manage to keep it all together.

The other challenge was to write a book that had some real content and honest characters, but that got these things across without the techniques that I might have used if I was writing a book of a more standard literary form. Could I write Loretta in the first person as an original, vibrant, intelligent and complex character without investing her with literary references, meditations on landscape and highbrow analysis that would not be true to her character? At one point she comes across the blurb of a rather pompous sounding book and wonders if everyone thinks like this except her. I was having a bit of fun about certain kinds of books, not least my own! I love reading novels with all those elements – hey, I write them too – but this was to be a different kind of book.

**This novel began life as a short story. At what point did you realise you had a lengthier work on your hands? **

I had always felt that there was more to come, partly because of Loretta’s insistent and laugh-inducing voice in my head. Obviously for the novel I had to restructure the beginning, which had been the original story, but I didn’t do that immediately. At first I wrote loosely, letting the narrative go where it would. I wasn’t thinking novel. I was writing, just writing. And when I found that I had a large body of words, and did go back to rewrite the beginning, I discovered to my amazement that the seeds of the whole book were already there. Of course the seeds of whole lives are contained in short stories, that’s part of their job, but in this case I mean that the plot elements were all foreshadowed. Writing the story had been the catalyst for the novel that wanted to be written.

**You write characters like Norm Stevens, the gruff owner of the junk-yard, and Helen, Loretta’s bloke-crazy friend, with great affection and wit. Humour is often a difficult thing to do – how important was comedy as a counterweight to hardship in the book? **

It was vital. It may be a strange thing to say but I think some books belong to readers, some to the authors who wrote them, and some to the characters who inhabit the book. This is Loretta’s book. Her world view is what saves her life from being a miserable grind of poverty and struggle. She is loyal but absolutely clear-eyed, so her observations of the people around her, while imbued with the love she feels for them, are funny because they are crackingly honest. Events that could be tragic are remade by her wit into farce. In Loretta’s world, laughter makes the unbearable bearable.

**There’s plenty of love between Loretta, Melissa and Jake, but you also touch on the ways children can test you. The tension, for instance, between an 11-year-old girl finding her mother embarrassing for the first time, and the issue of bullying. Were you conscious of wanting to capture a particular idea of parenthood here? **

People have asked about how I can write on parenthood when I don’t have children (no one ever asked me how I can write about men when I’m not a man or aliens when I’ve never met one and so on, but that’s another issue). In a way I have an advantage in being the observer. Parenthood is so consuming and the weight of responsibility so great that everything must be coloured by the constant anxiety that something bad may happen to your child. So watching from the sidelines, I feel as though I am able to have a clear view of the interactions of parents and children. Quite often they are hilarious because children simply will not be the innocent angels we want them to be. At other times the troubles of children’s private lives can make a parent feel overwhelmed and incompetent. It’s a hard job, bringing up a child – full of joy, but there is always a part of a child’s world that will be unavailable to the parent. That small gap in knowing, and the separating off that happens as children grow, is rich territory for fiction.

**Loretta is firmly rooted in life in Gunapan, yet she often fantasies about ‘living the way she used to’, freer and without obligation. How do you feel about this impulse – is it universal in a way? **

There are eras of my life I’d never want to return to – who would ever want to be a teenager again? – and there are others where I regret not realising how much I had. Yet that longing for the things we didn’t appreciate at the time, or the desire for a freedom we imagine we once had, is probably nostalgia for an illusion. We didn’t appreciate what we had because our other concerns at the time made us oblivious. We were free but desperate for something else we didn’t have. Dreaming and longing are fundamental human traits. The dream itself frees us. It’s like reading. It is more than an escape. It allows us to live more lives than the one we have in this world.

You’ve commented that The Fine Colour of Rust marks somewhat of a departure in style for you – both from your first novel, The Factory, and your short stories. In what way?

For one thing, this book was pleasurable to write. I found myself laughing aloud, embarrassingly even at the edit stage when I knew the funny moments off by heart. Reviewers have often remarked on the flashes of humour in my other work. This time I let loose.

Also, I’ve mentioned above the conscious decision I made to write the narrative in a fashion true to Loretta’s character. I knew from the beginning that this book was going to be different from my others. It wasn’t only the humour and the lightness of touch I hoped to achieve. I also took some tropes from the romance genre and the crime genre and tried to play with them and subvert them in a gentle sideways salute.

What are your thoughts about the genre divide between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction? Is this a necessary point of classification, or otherwise unhelpful?

This is contentious and well-trodden ground, but there is plenty more to say about it. My last two books have been classed as literary. The Fine Colour of Rust is being called commercial/literary crossover. We’re starting to see more of this kind of melding, where so-called literary writers are working in different genres, with a purposeful attempt to avoid clichés and to ground the work in a true and original vision of the world.

Some novels will be read purely for entertainment. Some novels adhere to frameworks that supply a certain safety and comfort for readers. Others ask that readers reflect not only on the themes or plot of the work but also on the way the story is told, the language used, the reverberating questions of the novel’s place in the society that spawned it. Yet essentially, the classification of a book is for critics and bookshops: it determines how it will be ‘assessed’ and where it will be placed on the shelves. Whether works are classed as literary or commercial or commercial/literary crossover is irrelevant from the moment a reader opens the book because the reader will make her own decision on what the novel is and what it means. I’ve been in plenty of discussions where the argument over the merits of a book divided the room – one third thought the book was too literary, one third thought it was too commercial and one third thought it was rubbish.

Someone said to me, ‘Does the ‘commercial’ bit of commercial/literary crossover mean that they think it will sell?’

‘I hope so!’ I answered.

The Fine Colour of Rust is out now in paperback ($24.99) and ebook ($4.99).

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Jess_Au Jessica Au is from Readings St Kilda and is the author of Cargo.