Malcolm Knox: The Writer's Room interview

The Writer's Room

by Charlotte Wood

A brilliant resource for established and beginning writers and for passionate readers everywhere from a range of acclaimed and much-loved writers, lovingly compiled by the brilliant and insightful Charlotte Wood.

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CW: You've published twenty-seven books in the space of a couple of decades. What's the relationship between the different kinds of writing you do?

MK: Well, I don't feel there's much relationship between the fiction and the non-fiction, say. Certainly my methods of working are quite different, and the times at which I'm working on them are quite different. There's a different impulse behind doing it - obviously the impulse for some non-fiction books is purely financial, which is definitely not the case with writing fiction. I think there are probably relationships between the two that I'm not quite aware of. One example that I only thought about later was the overlap between ghostwriting Ben Cousins' autobiog-raphy and writing The Life.

I had ghosted about three books before I wrote The Life, and I'd started developing an idea about voice in those ghosted books. The research for ghostwriting is an oral process, and there's a version you do in which the moment the words are ut-tered, and then written, it becomes, in a way, the 'official un-true'. It's a performance.

It's not just about stuff the person will give up versus their secrets - it's a way of talking that they perform, which is different from their internal voice and their internal life. Ben Cousins is a very honest person, and was wanting to tell people the story of his drug addiction, but he didn't have the words for it really, and I could only give him the words up to a point, because I could only try to approximate his words.

So all this opened up a space for a character like DK in The Life. It wasn't cause and effect, because I'd started writing The Life before I met Ben Cousins, and DK's very different from Ben Cousins. But it was more that in the overlap of that period, I thought, 'Oh, there are some commonalities here'. And there were times I was telling myself, 'I'm writing the truth here, even though it's a made-up person and it's fiction, this is the truth that somebody like Ben can't get out.'

CW: It's interesting you say that. You're so good at replicating ordinary speech in all your novels, but especially in the voice of The Life. One interview I read did make a link between your talent for rendering speech and all that listening you've done in your ghostwriting work. The suggestion was that the ghostwriting has developed your ear for a certain vernacular and idiom.

MK: I don't think I had heard a voice like DK's; that was a composite of voices I'd heard in the water, surfing, and in everyday life, more than a voice I was working with professionally. But that said, doing those ghostwritten books you do think a lot about idiom, you think a lot about a person's way of speaking. And you work extremely hard, not just on the vocab, but the entire package of rhythm and syntax and usage that everybody has which is different. The freedom of fiction that I tried to ex-ploit in The Life was the freedom to write a voice in its raw form.

When you're ghosting, it's not just a matter of capturing the person’s voice, it's a matter of capturing their written voice, such as it is. So you're halfway - you know, a very poorly ghostwritten book is one that will read as if it's been written by Julian Barnes, because the person speaking, the 'author' of the book, will never speak that way. But at the same time it's not a verbatim representation because that would be incoherent. So in making someone up such as Dennis in The Life, I could go in that verbatim direction because the beautiful conventions - or non-conventions - of fiction permit you to. Readers may not always permit it, but the art form permits it.

CW: Given your enormous output, you clearly write very quickly. What are the effects of writing fast - good or bad?

MK: Well the good effects ... I go back to when I had a number of attempts at writing novel-length fiction before my first novel was published. A common failing of those was that they took a long time to write, and during the time I wrote them all sorts of influences and new ideas came to bear on me, and so they were inconsistent in tone and voice, even in genre, whereas Summerland I wrote very, very quickly. I wrote the first draft in about six weeks. That and The Life were both voice novels, and when you're doing a voice novel, I think it is really beneficial to write quickly.

Summerland, in the fictional sense, is all spoken over the course of one night. And the six weeks it took me to do the first draft, in writer's time that's about one night. I do remember in that six-week period just having that voice in my head the whole time. The Life took about ten weeks to do the first draft, and I remember then, too, just having this one voice in my head.

It must be what having a mental illness is like, having another voice talking to you all the time, and if not talking to you, interpreting your own thoughts into its speech. I don't think I started speaking like Dennis, but in order to speak I had to re-convert what was in my head to me again.
But the downside of writing quickly is - I think it probably works against you if you're wanting to write, say, a book like Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Let's just pick it as an example because I've read it recently. You can't write a book like that quickly; your heart rate has to be slowed right down and you have to maintain concentration over a very long period. You have to inhabit that book, and have that book inhabiting you, over a very long stretch of time. And may-be just because this is the way I am, or maybe it's because of the amount of work I do, I can't imagine having the power to write a book like that over seven years.

CW: You once told me that to write a novel, 'I have to stay in that dreamlike state, and stay in the voice'. It sounds like that still holds? You can't step in and out of it while you're doing other stuff?

MK: Yeah, I think it does still hold. In the redrafting I can go in and out, but not in the first draft. And, you know, I'll have - in the last twenty-five years I've had numerous false starts to nov-els. I don't know if this is the cause of it, but the manifestation of that is getting into that flow for ten, fifteen, eighteen or thirty thousand words, then letting it drop, going away - and then coming back and finding the fire has completely gone out.

Books by Malcolm Knox

The Life

Published: June 2012

Daring, dazzling, funny and heartbreaking, this is a story about fame and ambition, surfing and pine-lime Splices . a superbly written and ambitious novel by one of Australia's rising stars. The Life will simply blow you away.


Published: August 2008

Lifelong friendships are put to the test in a Martin Amis-style dissection of privilege and mid-life crisis set against the backdrop of a marathon relay swim in Jamaica. Compulsive reading from an unflinching observer of fallibility, hypocrisy and thwarted ambition.

The Wonder Lover

Published: May 2016

What's the worst thing that can happen to a man who has not one, not two, but three secret families on the go? A spectacular new work of imagination and audacity from one of our finest writers.