JOHN HARWOOD was born in Hobart and educated in Tasmania and at Cambridge University. He went on to become Head of the School of English and Drama at Flinders University in Adelaide before leaving to write full time. His novel The Ghost Writer, first published by Jonathan Cape in 2004, won the International Horror Guild’s First Novel Award for Outstanding Achievement in Horror and Dark Fantasy. The Séance, a dark mystery set in Victorian England, won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel of 2008.The Asylum (Random House) was published earlier this year.
1. What elements of the Gothic have attracted you to write in that mode – and to set your stories, predominantly, in England in the Victorian era?
I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was nine or ten, and as much as anything it was the atmosphere I loved: the fogs, the gaslight, the hansom cabs, the labyrinthine streets of London, the way the stories flirt with the supernatural: until the rational explanation at the end, ‘The Speckled Band’ is classic Gothic horror. At around the same time I discovered the ghost stories of MR James and again I loved the sinister old houses and churches and libraries, the gradual, indirect approach by way of hints and glimpses, leaving as much as possible to the reader’s imagination.
So when I began writing fiction full-time it was only natural that my childhood reading would come back to haunt me. I’d written and discarded a couple of novels with contemporary settings before I stumbled on the idea for The Ghost Writer, and as soon as I started writing ghost stories in that late Victorian idiom I knew – paradoxical as it sounds – that I’d found a voice of my own.
The Victorian era attracts me because it’s very different from our own, but not so remote that the language becomes a barrier. And because it’s a darker, more elemental setting, without any of the technological insulation we take for granted. Once inside that crumbling Gothic mansion, you’re utterly alone with whatever may be lurking there …
2. Your writing has been acknowledged in both literary and genre awards. What is your feeling about the tension or rivalry between these two camps?
It strikes me as an artificial and fairly recent distinction – some of the greatest 19th century novels would now be classified as genre fiction – largely driven by the demands of marketing, and perhaps by a degree of prejudice. I’ve met readers who pride themselves on only reading literary fiction, and tried to explain to them how much they’re missing out on, but sometimes the prejudice is too deeply embedded. Whereas all that ultimately matters is the quality of the writing, in the fullest sense of that phrase.
The best books across all the genres – SF, crime, YA, fantasy, literary – have far more in common with each other than they do with formula-driven, boilerplate fiction. And the best work, regardless of how it’s labelled, often defies classification, like Russell Hoban’s masterpiece, Riddley Walker. Or a book like China Miéville’s The City and the City, which tends to be shelved as SF because that’s mostly what he writes. But when you’ve finished it you still don’t know – at least I didn’t – whether you’ve actually crossed the boundaries of realism or not.
3. The Ghost Writer had supernatural tales embedded within the text; The Séance took aRadcliffe approach to offering rational explanations for the mysterious events; and you play with lost or stolen identity in an asylum on the delightful Bodmin Moor in The Asylum. Where, and when, to next?
I’m not sure yet. The Séance grew out of the original version of The Ghost Writer, which included a novella about a sinister mansion festooned with lightning rods, and then The Asylum grew out of material which didn’t make it into the finished Séance. Could be something quite different this time. For me, beginning a novel is like being a dog trying to follow a scent through a pitch-dark forest, falling down holes and bumping into tree-trunks until he picks it up again: you don’t really know what you’re pursuing until you get through that forest.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Most of my reading in recent months has been about the looming reality of catastrophic climate change, and so the Australian work that comes first to mind is Morrie Schwartz’s invaluable review, The Monthly, with its superb coverage of all sides of politics as well as environmental issues. Which is not to minimise the work that Fairfax journalists are doing under extraordinarily difficult conditions. But with a government dominated by Tea Party lookalikes and climate change deniers, and most of the commercial media acting as their cheer squad, The Monthly is a source of light in a very dark landscape.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
Changes like the emergence of e-books and the ever-increasing power of Amazon haven’t really affected me as much as the exponential growth of the internet itself. When I began work on The Ghost Writer the internet was still relatively slow and clunky, whereas now it’s ubiquitous. The internet is a very mixed blessing, so far as writing is concerned; it speeds up research enormously, but it’s also a terrible distraction, and disruptive of precisely those long stretches of meditative concentration that writing fiction requires.
Like many people, I’ve just kept adding new technologies to existing ones, so that I now have a Kindle as well as a paper library. I assume that the proportion of e-books sold relative to paper will continue to increase, like the proportion of books that will be available only in e-form. Environmentally speaking, I suppose it would be better if we all bought nothing but e-books from here on, but I’d very sorry to see that happen. When the survivors – if there are any – of the Great Anthopocene Extinction are picking over the ruins in a few hundred years’ time, a few printed books in deep cellars or caves may be all that remain of our vast output of words.