Writers in the Attic is now in its seventh year and over that time more than 130 writers have generously given us an insight into their writing process. Every single one of those processes has been unique and today, I bring you another great writer with another original writing process – research in bars!
Without further ado, I hand you over to David Whish-Wilson, but don’t forget to comment to be in the running to win a copy of his latest book, The Sawdust House.
David Whish-Wilson is the author of eight novels and three creative non-fiction books. His first novel in the Frank Swann crime series, Line of Sight (Penguin Australia), was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award in 2012. He has been short-listed for a WA Premiers Book Award and three of David’s crime novels have been published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag. David also teaches in the prison system in Perth and previously in Fiji, where he started the countries first prisoner writing program. He currently lives in Fremantle, Western Australia with his partner and three kids, and teaches creative writing at Curtin University.
Research Moments in Bars
When I’m working on a novel it’s fair to say that I can be a little distant. You might see me in a supermarket or on the street and I might not notice you. It’s not because I’m being rude, but is more likely because I’m daydreaming my WIP into life. Every book presents a series of challenges and problems, a large puzzle that resolves itself over time. From experience, breakthrough moments can occur at any moment – in the shower, walking the dog, while choosing butter in the supermarket.
Because the writing-mind is always working, however, it’s important to take a break. For me this involves strenuous exercise (boxing), or diving in the ocean, or making things with my hands – times and places where I need to be wholly present, in order to fully appreciate the experience, or to avoid getting hurt, or to make something as beautiful as possible. The other places where I get a break from the writing process are when I’m living the chaos and joy of my home life, with my wife and three kids, where there’s little scope or time for introspection, or alternatively when I’m catching up with friends.
The place I usually catch up with friends is the pub. Nothing unusual about this, and as someone who worked as a bartender for many years, I’ve learned to respect the pub/bar/hotel as a site for conversation, but also occasionally for those random moments that work as research ‘accidents’ – stories that essentially come to you rather than stories that are sought in the archives or elsewhere.
This was certainly the case while I was researching The Sawdust House. The first time it happened, early in the research process, long before I’d put pen to paper, was in conversation with a friend-of-a-friend from County Cork. Upon hearing of the subject, Brian (who works as a deep-sea diver) began to regale me with stories from his homeland, both historical and contemporary. The odd thing was that many of the contemporary stories or observations could easily have taken place in historical Cork, which isn’t true of many places. Some of those stories and observations found their way into The Sawdust House, as images of Bandon and Baltimore, and it was nice to have received them over a pint of Guinness and a Redbreast whiskey, instead of discovering them in a book.
Similarly, and in the same pub, but later in the research process, I was chatting to the bartender Albert about the research, and the fact that my character, Yankee Sullivan, had been incarcerated at Moreton Bay penal establishment, for being a serial convict absconder in Sydney (he even absconded from Moreton Bay for two months). I mentioned that it was hard to find research about the conditions at Moreton Bay, and as a musician (Albert is the lead singer in great Freo band New Nausea), he immediately suggested I listen to the song ‘Sixteen Straws’ by Perth band The Drones, from their album Gala Mill. I vaguely remembered the song, but upon revisiting it found it very useful for giving a stark emotional tone to descriptions of Yankee’s time there, under the iron rule of Commandant Logan.
The final random research moment in a bar is described in the author note to the The Sawdust House, and which took place in a sports bar in Manhattan, where I’d stopped for a pint of Guinness and a whiskey after a fruitless day of researching at the otherwise wonderful NYC public library, before interviewing a local historian. I’d dropped into the bar for a drink and some conversation, and was grateful when the bartender asked me what I was doing in the US. I proceeded to tell him about Yankee Sullivan, starting in on my usual spiel, which he interrupted, finishing my sentence for me.
The bartender was a boxing fan, and the fact that he knew more about Yankee’s life than most historians of the great city was instructive, in the sense that a working-class character like Yankee and his larger-than-life exploits have lived longer in public memory, or in oral histories, than in any formal or academic setting or text (such as in Primus’s song ‘Fisticuffs’.) We had a great chat, and he told me some things I didn’t know about Yankee’s life in the US, and I in turn was able to tell him a lot about Yankee’s hitherto unknown life in Australia, London and Cork. The bartender was also genuinely interested, in a way that most academics and historians I’d met were not, because what he seemed to enjoy most was listening to the stories.
It’s a nice realisation that the next time the subject of Yankee Sullivan, and early New York history, is raised in that particular bar, the bartender will likely step in and flesh out the fuller story with the information and stories that I’d given him, in exchange for the stories he’d given me. I only wish that I’d taken the man’s name, and the name of the bar, so that I could send him a copy of the book. Either way, the fact that the stories will be told, in the old way, person to person over a pint, is something that I think Yankee Sullivan, the once-owner of Manhattan saloon The Sawdust House, would appreciate.
I’m thrilled to offer a copy of David’s book, The Sawdust House, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of my social media posts about David’s novel.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 23rd June, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.