Alumni Feature October 2017


Alumni Interview: Mark O’Flynn

Interview and introduction by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Mark O'Flynn

I first met literary all-rounder Mark O’Flynn at Varuna’s 2012 Strategy Day, which took place at Leura’s Fairmont Resort just as Jansis O’Hanlon was about to take the reins at Varuna. It was a great day, full of ideas and energy, and from memory Mark and I first bonded over a group team-building exercise that involved constructing some sort of tower from paper. Our group’s tower was a triumph, I tell you, a triumph. And we had rather a lot of fun doing it too. Since then, we’ve caught up a few times thanks to Varuna events and Sydney Writers’ Festival run-ins. I usually pepper him with questions about his work teaching creative writing to prison inmates – because I can think of few paid writing jobs more fascinating and stressful – but this month it gives me great pleasure to welcome Mark here to discuss his Miles Franklin shortlisted novel, The Last Days of Ava Langdon.

DJ: Mark, Ava Langdon is your fictional version of the mid-twentieth century Australian writer Eve Langley. I’m sure Varuna alumni in particular will be fascinated to learn that you penned a 2002 play, Eleanor and Eve, about a meeting . that never occurred, between Langley and her contemporary, our own Eleanor Dark. Tell us what inspired you and what you thought these two very different grand dames of Oz lit (and fellow residents of the Blue Mountains) might have said to each other?

opium den MO: Well, the play covered all that I imagined they might have said to each other, which I don’t want to reiterate here, suffice it to say they talked about writing a lot, and the creative process. Also opium.

I felt very privileged to have been allowed to be able to produce the play inside the house itself. I’m not sure if such a thing has happened since. It was a great Varuna moment, to turn the house into a stage set. The play went on to have a successful season at the Q Theatre in Sydney.

Eleanor Dark The inspiration was, despite all the things they had in common, the question: why did they never meet? My supposition was that it had something to do with the gulf between their personalities.

DJ: Oh, I wish I’d been around for that production of Eleanor and Eve at Varuna! It sounds like a wonderful, very fitting extension of purpose! Yes, if there’s one thing Eleanor Dark seemed to be, it was in command at all times, whereas Langley seems to have always delighted in (and finally descended into) chaos.

What was the creative segue from that 2002 play about two real authors to a novel inspired by one of them?

MO: A protracted one. If you can call a gap of nearly 20 years a segue. I had written a few short poems about Langley, and the play, then I twigged that the right way to tell that story was in a novel. It sometimes takes me a long time to find the right form. So, it was more of a long jolt than a segue.

DJ: You began your writing life as a playwright, but are probably better known as a poet and novelist. What’s lured you away from the world of the stage over time?

MO: I once had a negative theatrical experience with a play of mine that sort of burnt my fingers. Playwriting is a much more social activity than other forms of writing. So you have to have access to a group of actors, who are also creative people, and are necessarily involved in that creative process. If you don’t acknowledge that, then you’ll probably have a pretty miserable time as a playwright.

stage In moving to Sydney, I lost access to that group of actors, (and only found it again in the mountains). Don’t get me wrong, I still love the theatre, and indeed I still dabble, just less and less often. I don’t tend to think in theatrical terms, or have theatrical ideas anymore. I think it was Northrop Frye who said writing for the stage is the hardest thing you can do with a pen. And Patrick White said writing for the theatre was for the young. I tend to agree. It’s a great form, but I think I might be over it.

LastDays of Ava Langdon cover DJ: The Last Days of Ava Langdon is your fourth novel. Like the one preceding it, The Forgotten World, it’s set both in the past and in the Blue Mountains. As a long-time resident of the area yourself, to what extent are you driven to uncover and tell its stories? To me there’s something very haunting about the Blue Mountains – I always imagine a kind of magnetic force, drawing one into the whispering bushland – and I wonder how much living in the mountains influences your practice and the pursuit of certain projects?

MO: I don’t necessarily feel driven as such. I think I just have a readiness to prick up my ears and listen when an interesting story comes along. It’s just a coincidence that the last two happened to be mountains stories. When I lived in Wagga, I wrote about Wagga. When I lived in Melbourne, I wrote about Melbourne. Nevertheless, the mountains are very inspiring and rife with stories, so I guess place is important.

DJ: Or perhaps immersion in place, given the place itself is not fixed. Now, Mark, the thought of a brilliant but troubled human being dying alone in abject poverty is so heart-rending. If it’s true that authors often ‘write from the wound,’ were you conscious of excavating any personal anxieties about who will be there in the end, or was it more an awareness that dying alone is perhaps the ultimate universal terror?

MO: Yes, Langley’s story is a tragic one, and yet I find there’s something somehow paradoxically dignified in that abjection. My father was dying as the book was being put together and I kept thinking I’ll say what I need to say tomorrow, finish that conversation next time, next visit, when he wakes up. And, of course, he didn’t wake up; even though I was conscious of it, the moment slipped by. In that respect, we’re all alone, the sentence remains unfinished.

Eve Langley DJ: I think I see what you mean, in the idea that Langley perhaps embraced, personified and gave herself over to that fundamental state of aloneness. Your novel has been described as a deeply empathetic portrait of place, ageing, and madness. Our societal attitudes toward, awareness of and treatments for mental health and ageing have changed radically since Eve Langley’s time – what do you think might have been different for her had she been alive today? She spent a lot of time imagining that she was someone else – including Oscar Wilde, whose name she famously took by deed poll – so I wonder which writer today you think she’d most like to be, and to what extent you felt you inhabited her character in order to create Ava Langdon?

MO: I think inhabited is too strong a word. I merely listened. I had a strong sense of the character’s voice, probably derived from the play and particularly Annie Byron’s performance as Eve. I also heard some recordings of her being interviewed and what she had to say was often quite wacky. So, I would merely put the character in various situations and see how she responded.

I also think that perhaps there’s a lot more of me in Ava than I’d like to admit. If she were alive today she would probably have greater access to health services, yet would she have made use of them? I don’t know. They might have stultified her fury and passion. As to writers, Oscar Wilde was the only one. I recall a line from the play where Langley says: ‘If people can’t have conversations the way Oscar Wilde and Alfred Lord Douglas did, then I don’t know why they bother talking at all.’

DJ: The Miles Franklin judges say of your novel, ‘Gleeful, unrepentant, brave and admirable, Ava Langdon is a marvellous creation, and this vivid novel a tribute to the whole process of creating – art, literature, and life.’ Well, Mark, that strikes me as a fairly mighty accomplishment for any writer in any form. Having anyone say any of that about anything I’d written would be a clear ‘I can die happy’ moment – so what’s this year been like for you?

MO: Ha ha. Thank you very much. Yes, the whole Miles Franklin thing has been a great ride. The long list was fabulous, and then the short list … They certainly made a lot of fuss about that, which was gratifying. I never thought the book would have travelled this far, and so I feel immensely lucky.

Pea Pickers cover DJ: The late and much-mourned novelist Georgia Blain proclaims Langley’s 1942 novel The Pea Pickers, ‘a wonderful book, absurd, hilariously funny, messy, anarchic; the kind of book that so rarely gets published.’ The same might almost be said of The Last Days of Ava Langdon, so it must be incredibly gratifying not only that respected independent publisher UQP didn’t hesitate to publish the novel, but that it went on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award this year. What’s your view on the current state of Australian publishing, given the success of an idiosyncratic project like The Last Days of Ava Langdon?

MO: That’s a big question for one bumbling writer to attempt to answer. I guess it reflects that old adage that you can never predict the market, nor what publishers might think is good. You can only write the book you want to write irrespective of market taste, irrespective perhaps even of readers. I’m sure there’s a lot of luck involved. Fortunately for me UQP loved Ava, and are less constrained by commercial pressures. Phew. The bigger, commercial publishers only seem to be interested in moving units.

DJ: I wholeheartedly agree, but I still hope UQP shifts a few more units after your shortlisting! I think readers greatly benefit from smaller publishers’ willingness to take greater risks, and frankly I hope houses like UQP do well out of that leap of faith. I know there’s usually a fillip in sales for the Miles Franklin winner and I hope the same proves true for shortlisted works like yours.

asylum Mark, in fictionalising Eve Langley, whose biography offers up such a wealth of compelling, poignant material, including her years spent in a mental institution, why did you decide to focus on your character’s final days?

Eve Langley bio cover MO: Good question. The biography (The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy Thwaite) is very good and I did not want to try and replicate that. As I have said elsewhere, nothing is known of Langley’s last days, weeks or even months. She was probably much more addled than I have portrayed her. Therefore, anything I made up about her final days could only be fiction. I didn’t have to worry about writing a whole life; I only had to think about a highly contained timeframe. I found that very liberating. Of course, this was informed by what I understood of her personality. I deliberately made sure not to revisit the biography. What I relied on was my twenty-year-old memory of that research.

DJ: No Alumni Interview is complete without my asking how Varuna has influenced your development as a writer. You’ve got a long history with the National Writers’ House, Mark; maybe take us back to where it all began?

MO: When I was a young writer in Melbourne and elsewhere, I felt largely ignored. I used to go to these weird things called poetry readings and sometimes no one else turned up. Sometimes not even the organisers turned up. Maybe I had the wrong night? Anyway, Varuna was the first time where I felt acknowledged as a writer. When I first moved to the mountains in 1991, Varuna was just getting off the ground, so I was aware of it pretty much right from the start. It felt like doors were opened and I was allowed in.

DJ: What’s lovely about that image is that even nearly 30 years later, I think most writers arriving at Varuna for the first time experience much the same sensation.

Finally, Mark, you’re quietly prolific up there in the mountains. What’s next for you, and how hard is it letting go of someone as unforgettable as Eve/Ava?

MO: I have a few cakes in the oven, which I’m loath to bring out into the light lest they deflate. I have a book of short stories, which I’m still fiddling with. The Miles Franklin has certainly given Ava a new lease of life, but hopefully I can move on from her now. I live very nearby the remains of her hut, so I say hello when I walk by.

DJ: Way to put a lump in my throat! Please say hello for me too next time you pass. I might have to stop by there and pay my own respects next time I’m in the mountains. In the meantime, I love the extension of her vast, untameable (if deeply troubled) personality in The Last Days of Ava Langdon. It’s become part of her story, and there’s something so poignant about that. You don’t choose your family or the stories that come to you, but I’ll always think of you and Eva Langley as kin in all the ways that count.

Thanks so much for joining us here in the Alumni Interview Suite, Mark. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you as always.

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