Author interview: the cartographer

How did The Cartographer come to be written?

The story came to me one day in March or April 2009 while I was out riding my motorbike. The whole story came to me more or less complete in just a minute or two. It was so simple that I was able to write a one page outline when I arrived home, and that page served as the chapter breakdown for the novel when I began writing it in November of that year. The story that came to me was of a boy who was driven to make maps as the result of something terrible that had happened to him. I could see how a kid could do that, and it had a certain appeal as a story. 

Is it true that you wrote the novel in a month?

Wall in Richmond

Yes. I wrote the first draft at the rate of one chapter (3500 words) a day for twenty-three days. There was very little research, and no revision. That was the version I showed to my agent, Lyn Tranter. Her daughter, Kirsten, was kind enough to read the manuscript, and made some very important suggestions regarding plot.  then began the second draft, which took three or four months to complete. The novel ended up getting an additional nine chapters, and a new major character: Tom. 

Why did you set the book in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond?

My initial idea had been to set the book in Dandenong, as that was where I lived from the age of seven, but then I realised that the city was a far more malevolent place. And as I spent the first seven years of my life in Richmond, I could remember how exciting it has been. Also, Richmond has always had a reputation for being one of the dodgiest parts of Melbourne, so that settled it. I could see a kid in Richmond easily getting into a heap of trouble.

Why did you choose to give the kid such a distinctive voice, and where did it come from?

When I was a child, there were a lot of adults in my world with waggish personalities. Some of these had hearts of gold, but some did not. At the time, I did not appreciate the difference, and took them all at face value, which is either no way to take an Anglo-Irish Australian or the the perfect approach, depending on which side of the law you were on, where your politics lay, where you stood on questions of social justice, which footy team you barracked for, and so on. The kid takes them as they come. As for his voice, it is little more than mimicry. But conscious mimicry. He knows, for example, how the Sandersons speak and faithfully reports their speech. He is thus something of an artist.

How do you justify the streetwise aspects of the kid's personality with his total innocence and acceptance of what life throws at him?

His streetwiseness is largely an illusion; he is, mainly, a kid loose on the streets. HIs innocence is not an illusion. He may say that he's seen a few things before, but despite his exposure to violence, he is still an innocent. It's true that the kid has a intuitive awareness of what constitutes urbanity, and pretends to it, but that only heightens the reader's awareness of his age. 

Old tram

Where did the idea of the departed twin come from? How do you see Tom's role?

Tom did not appear in the first draft of the novel. In that draft, the kid has to solve his problems entirely by using the super hero trick. But Kirsten Tranter, who was one of the readers of that draft, suggested that the plot lacked a driving element, in effect, that the fear of being murdered did not explain enough about the kid's impulse to keep on putting himself in danger. That day I invented the twin Tom, as an emotional driver. The kid's guilt has never really been allowed to play itself out; his grief has been contained simply because he has no suitable role models. Wherever he looks he sees only people in pain. And he is sensitive enough to realise that he needs to let them be. In the second draft, which was nine chapters longer, Tom became a real person, despite being absent. But I wanted Tom to be present. Flashbacks were for me not enough. So I turned the kid into Tom. I think in that moment I felt the kid's pain.

What part do the two dogs play in the novel?

They ground the main character in his childishness, and remind the reader that two of the most important characters in the kid's life do practically nothing at all to achieve super hero status. Because they are dogs. They represent the constant presence of the child's unredeemed soul, his shadow until his final test.

What is the story behind the smell scale?

The smell scale (The Blayney Scale of Smells) occurred spontaneously in the first few pages of the book while I was describing a complex smell ('I had reached a shed. It smelt sweet and meaty and dirty and kind of thick. And kind of wet and doggy and old and empty.') I thought I'd better give it a number, just for good measure, and the smell scale was born. After, that I had a lot of fun with it. It's amazing how much of your past takes place in your nose. Luckily, my ancestors were in the front of the queue when they were giving away conks.  

Did you do much research for the book? I what areas did you research?

I spent considerable time familiarising myself with the geography of the novel's location, mostly in the street level view of google. I   'walked' up and down every street and lane in South Richmond, 'rode' a motorbike around the Boulevard, measured distances, walked the kid's walks. I also did a fare bit of internet research on the pop culture of the 1950s, mostly to confirm my own memories, which, as it turned out, were pretty sharp. It's a geographical book. And then there were the horse racing references, radio serial references, and so on. Lollies. Cakes. Biscuits. In the end I left nothing to chance. Still, I have no doubt that I will receive the odd letter pointing out that a certain geographical feature could not have existed. I know. I know. 

Is this why the picture you paint of late 1950s Richmond is so convincing - because of the research?

Not at all. The book could have been set in any city in any time. What makes it convincing is the emotional content. Steps, shadows, doorways, tunnels, dark passages, drains, hazards, dangerous dogs, men with knives and guns, children in danger. All it needs is to tweak the suggestion of the place and time to put the reader there. After all, the reader is happy to accept his visit to the time and the place, knowing that it's not real, and soon she can close the book and put her thoughts somewhere else. Or can she? 


How much of your own childhood is in this book? To what extent, if any, is it

Well, although I have memories of fragments of some of the events of the book, most of those have just been springboards for the plot. For example, I have a faded memory of a child from our neighbourhood dying in the way Tom did. That was sad, but useful. But the book is not my story at all, nor could it be. As a work of fiction, it really stretches the bounds of believability, and the only thing that saves it from dismissal is the main character and his relationships, which are far from unbelievable. As for me, I was not like the kid at all, being afraid of my own shadow. The chances of me going into a dark place alone would have been zip.  I was, however, an explorer. We all were. 

Do you write in any (other) genres?

My first three novels were sci-fis novel. I trashed the first two, and worked on the third (The Last Messiah) for four years, completing it the day before I began writing The Cartographer. I am currently revising that novel. As it is the first of a planned trilogy, I hope to be writing sic-fi on and off for a long time.

Will you write another novel about the kid?

I don't know about the kid. But am planning novels about the kid's granddad and mother. I found myself curious to find out what made them that way. I'd like them to tell me.

Images: Flickr cc. Top  s2art, centre Scootie, bottom Snipergirl

Copyright ©  Peter Twohig. All rights reserved.