I can’t say I really knew Andrew McGahan, but he wasn’t really one for being known. He lived his life in a way that made it clear that wanting to write and wanting to be part of the writing and publishing industry are not actually the same thing. His public face was his writing, and his writing speaks for itself, and is today being lauded, as it should be. His private world was, I believe, a small one. He was very selective about who he let in, and it’s those people I’m feeling most for today.
I don’t think I spoke to him after the 90s, but circumstances – or, more accurately, literary event organisers – put us in the same room a few times back in that decade, back before he worked out that that he could set a limit of one interview and zero events per book and his publishers would still want him anyway. Very few of us have turned out writing that would let us get away with that.
Those times when I did speak to him, he was gentle, thoughtful and considerate, not things I had expected at first, and not things we’re inclined to do well this century. These are attributes those close to him will miss having in their lives.
I’m not sure if we’d met before we were put together on a Brisbane Writers Festival panel in 1993. He was there reluctantly and because of the significant successes of Praise. I was there needing to take any chance that came my way, and because my otherwise-vanished short story collection from the year before, Passion, had been shortlisted for an award.
In question time, someone asked why he’d handled the Brisbane in Praise the way he had, dropping local place names in as if the world would know them already. Andrew explained that a lot of what he read was set in places like New York, and New York writers always did that, so he figured he’d do it too.
That stuck with me. The stories in Passion didn’t really find their feet because I had quite a bit to learn about writing, but also because I thought good writing happened elsewhere and my characters had mostly ended up inhabiting some ill-defined elsewhere, and I had never seen them clearly enough in their worlds to write them well.
Brisbane had been a city writers left and, if those departed writers wrote about the place, it tended to be a Brisbane too long gone for me to recognise. But Andrew wrote a book set in Brisbane in my time, and it broke through. And then John Birmingham wrote Felafel, and it broke through.
And I looked at my pile of notes for a story about a guy who’s been dumped by his girlfriend and I remembered what Andrew had said about those New York writers and I thought, might was well try to own my share of this place, since nothing else is working for me. And, instead of living vaguely elsewhere, my character found a home in Red Hill, and the name of his street became the title of the novel, and the novel broke through.
Andrew’s answer to that question has been in my head for 25 years and I still quote it to emerging writers. It still counts. It stayed in my head despite me seeing him quoted at other times saying things that seemed to contradict it. He’d said it that day, and there was a truth in it for me, and there still is.
In the late 90s, in the conversation that I think ended up being our last, I mentioned that answer to him, and told him how it had got me thinking. And he said, ‘Really? Did I say that?’ and he blew some smoke out of the side of his mouth, and laughed.