Thanks for your time John, you're Australian?
Yes, an Australian, born and raised in Melbourne, with early education there, through a Master’s Degree (M.Agr.Sc.) from the University of Melbourne, but now living, and have for the past fifty years, in Hazelwood Park, an inner suburb of Adelaide, South Australia. Melbourne is a very different city then than it is now though; smaller, simpler, easier to get around, more likely to use public transport, or walk. It often influences my writing, in fact all of one’s life experiences influence one’s writings, in one way or another.
Can you remember your first written words?
My first words? Nah, who could ever remember them? But I would bet big dollars that they would have appeared - that is my own words, not someone else’s - in Grade 3. The Mercy nuns were too-strict disciplinarians but great educators. Essays in my school days were a big deal.
Did you have a love of words back then?
You might say that I am kidding myself, but I do believe that I have had a keen love for words right from the get-go – aided and abetted by a number of great teachers, several years of Latin, a year of Classical Greek, and the then requirement for a pass in Year 12 English Expression if one wanted to matriculate. While probably 90% of my literary output to date has been scientific, I have always been a staunch advocate of the proposition that 'scientific literature' is not an oxymoron. Good English is good English, no matter where it is used. And I always tried (successfully? who knows?) to instil that into my students.
Words, and their origins, forever fascinate me. A few years of French, a course in 'Scientific Russian' and sadly-half-hearted attempts at German, Swedish (while actually living in Sweden) and Chinese have all helped. As I think of it now I suspect that another early schooling experience had quite a profound influence on my writing. Parsing. I can well remember long, and indeed enjoyable, hours spent parsing sentences. The longer the better. Is parsing ever taught anymore? Probably most teachers don’t even know what the word means.
Did you go to University?
Of course – B.Agr.Sc. and M.Agr.Sc. (University of Melbourne) and Ph.D. (University of Illinois). But what’s this about 'Journalism'? At an Australian university in the 1950s? - you must be joking.
Did you write much at Uni?
I wrote what I had to write for my university courses, including well-received theses for my Master’s and Doctorate degrees. But outside of that, essentially nothing. And with but two exceptions that was the case throughout my subsequent academic career – major stints at the University of California, Berkeley and, for nearly thirty years, the University of Adelaide, with minor times all over the globe – Monash, Australian National University, Brandeis, Oxford, University of Stockholm, Harvard, University of Oklahoma, Cornell, University of Kuwait, to name but a few.
And, you ask, the two exceptions were? First, during my time at Berkeley, and just after I was married, I wrote a novel – Another Night, Another Day. Why, I don’t quite know, but I did. It was, still is, a great story, but I’m afraid not particularly well told. So far it has been turned down by ten or more publishers. Then second, while on a period of Study Leave at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, I was rather taken by the poetry of one of the Research Assistants there, so I decided to try my own hand.
But it wasn’t until I had resigned from my academic post at the University of Adelaide, had belatedly realized that I was no businessman, and had some time to use, that I started any 'serious' writing. Though I would hate to be considered serious. Say from about age 65/70 on.
Tell me about your very first writing engagement.
By 'engagement' I assume you mean someone actually asking/inviting me to write something? If so, then the early 1970s I suppose. A scientific publisher (Marcel Dekker, New York), of whom at the time I knew very little, wrote to tell me that 'someone', whose identity I never did discover, had advised them that I would be the ideal author for a scientific monograph on Cholesterol. I was making an international name for myself in that field. So of course my ego would not let me say No, so I said YES. Published by Dekker in 1976.
Some interesting features there. Initially Dekker did not like my – what, laid-back? – literary style. Their editor, given one chapter as a trial run, totally emasculated my prose style. So I persisted with my own version – and eventually students loved it. Some critics, however, were not so sure. I had a research assistant at the time who was a whiz with cartoons, so I had her draw for me an appropriate little sketch, using two consistent images each time, me as 'mad scientist' (based on the image of a koala, Bunyip Bluegum, from Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding) and a cholesterol molecule in various configurations, to head up each chapter. One reviewer, I suspect incensed because I didn’t reference his own work often enough (amongst 1,400 odd that I did reference), complained that a half-page cartoon at the beginning of each of the fourteen chapters constituted a waste of seven pages! As I often realized with my students, no matter how scientifically brilliant my lectures might have been, it was all a waste of energy if they weren’t listening, so too with my readers – a brilliant text was useless unless the readers wanted to read it. I made sure that they did.
Of course what I, naive academic and all that, did not realize at the time was that 'success' depended upon selling. Neither Dekker nor I did enough promotion of the text. Looks good on my resume, sure, but certainly no money-spinner. A salutary lesson for my later literary efforts.
What really inspires your?
I like to imagine that two things characterize me – and hence my writing. One, I am an ideas man. Two, I am a story -teller. Thus, these two things inspire most of what I write. Ideas and story concepts – plus, of course, my love of words.
From that point my actual writing can take off in one, or more, of a dozen different directions – article, essay, blog, polemic, memoir, fiction (from short short stories to a full-blown novel), faction, stage plays, film and TV scripts, a musical, a whole variety of forms of poetry. You name it, I can try it. All driven by two imperatives – do I enjoy it; what might I actually be good at. No, perhaps I should reveal here another source of my inspiration. Competitions. Actually I must confess to be slightly addicted to them, especially if they demand a particular theme.
What is the process of transforming that initial moment of inspiration, or idea, into actual words on paper?
Post inspiration, before any actual words appear on paper, two essential steps are required. Words must first take shape in my mind. They are then duplicated in my computer (Microsoft Word), wherein they are manipulated, massaged, magnified and minimized, moderated and modified for varying periods of time (even forever, or so it often seems) before ever appearing on any piece of paper. My poetry, in particular, I am constantly fiddling with. Can’t seem to be able to say when enough is enough.
Do you have a particular writing location?
The initial ideas / concepts / whatever can arise anyplace: in bed, under the shower, eating a meal, driving the car, sitting in the bus/train/plane – just about anywhere at all. The actual 'writing' takes place in only one place, at my PC.
Tell me about the projects you are currently working on.
Oh dear, don’t get me started. Most embarrassing really. Too many projects, really, way too many. While writing, for me at least, must always be fun, it is also work, hard work at times, and I am basically lazy. Someone once said that 'opportunity' is often missed because it usually wears overalls and looks like work. Perhaps 'inspiration has the same effect on me. Inspiration carries me through the first flush of success, but then seems to bog down when the going gets tough.
Name your THREE most favourite books and why.
As a kid I had three favourite books: The Swiss Family Robinson (actually a battered old copy that was missing the last dozen or so pages, so that it was years later before I found out how the story ended), My Dog Crusoe and Soft-Foot of Silver Creek. As for three favourites now, that would be hard to say. But first, as for what I actually read now, I must humbly confess that I am addicted to what might be called 'Fast Read' (cf fast food). Crime and its detection, spies, historical faction, would about cover an embarrassingly restricted field.
I enjoyed immensely Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – great writing, great story, resonated with my love of Latin and my experience of two years in a Catholic seminary. I must admit, though, that I really struggled with his subsequent Foucault’s Pendulum. On a totally different tack, The Collected Verse of A.B. (Banjo) Paterson has long held much appeal. He tells wonderful stories in great style and with a galloping rhythm, and an abundance of rich characters. I can only hope to do half as well. As for a third book, perhaps The Book of Psalms, from the Old Testament, would fit the bill. I find them inspirational on many levels and have tried, so far with little or no success, to write Psalms for the Modern Age. Moreover, I have used the following verse from Psalm 85 to grace the title page of both of my theses, as well as Cholesterol and other books.
Lastly... what does writing MEAN to you? Explain why.
To revive a phrase common in my early childhood days; “Goodness, gosh, golly.” How do I begin to answer a question that asks about 'meaning', for me and / or for my writing? Just too existential by far for a simple bush-loving boy like me.
Well though, just possibly, this might be a useful starting point. I recently wrote a short poem, On Explaining Poetry (to the very young). It finishes with the lines;
“I conjure with words
And if the stars align,
Then a story appears.
It’s magic, my son, just magic.”
Two things I would dearly love to have the ability to add to my Old Jack stage show – a little music and a little magic.
Perhaps my words can add both music and magic to my life. And thus, finally, and as in the final lines from another poem –
“For to find your goal within yourself,
Gives much meaning to your own true self.”
All for as long as I can, for as long as I enjoy it all.
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