Very true, so an interview like this is not so far from the heart of the matter when it comes to talking with any writer, fiction or non-fiction, be they intimate confessor or widescreen cultural commentator. I think we always speak to ourselves first, that we search through ourselves in relation to the world around us. Then we hopefully make it interesting to other people in a story or poem – both through what we say and how we say it. That’s the process of writing and it should always be the process of writing: an act of discovery as you write – or a journey at the very least.
There’s something illuminating for the writer about writing a story, that’s for sure, but no sooner is it done – if it’s ever really ‘done’ – than the light seems to slip just beyond you and you start all over again with something new. The end of The Great Gatsby springs to mind: “He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
With non-fiction, unfortunately, there’s more pressure to get rid of the mystery inherent in our lives, to shut out the paradoxes, the strangeness, the supernatural. The journalistic roots of non-fiction tend to push things towards conclusions, neatly tied-up ideas, clear and sharp edges. Sometimes, of course, the reality is we never quite figure something out. That’s real life. And that’s why I value poetry in journalism as very helpful sensibility, and some feel for the spiritual side of things maybe, if you can ever get up to that level.
Certainly you try and bring something back alive inside a story. You try not to cage it completely, or not to kill it. I don’t like a story on someone or something to end up being this butterfly pinned to a board. I guess that’s why I have always hated the idea of an editor demanding an ‘angle’ before you begin something, much as there are always thematic anticipations working away in your mind once you have done some research or your interest is piqued. Whatever those anticipations might be, I think it’s best to let a story throw you around as you experience it. You want people to feel the same way, too, ideally, as they read something you have written.
A story needs to stay breathing in a reader’s mind after they have read it too. People need to be left thinking about it and wondering. As if there’s a momentum going on or a bell ringing that they can feel or hear, sending them back across everything they have just read and out into that invisible space where they think and feel and their mind moves forward again. I don’t mean where they go back and read the whole thing again and reflect on it, obviously – more that idea Ginsberg nailed when he described Bob Dylan’s songs as “chain of flashing images”. You want it all to go off in a moment somehow.
Does rock ‘n’ roll inspire you?
Oh for sure. Always has. Maybe all I am really talking about is the worth of lyricism in non-fiction writing. The New Journalism thing was about that, and very connected to the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll as a poetic force in the 1960s. These days it’s degenerated into lifestyle journalism, and maybe a little too much of the author ‘presenting’ a story, person or event in which the writer is the star. I love great subjective, first-person writing in non-fiction – Hunter S. Thompson when he is cooking really springs to mind – but too much of what I read these days seems to lack an edge. It might be sensational, but it seems formulaic to me, like some equation for radicality or grooviness or sensitivity. You read Thompson or Joan Didion, or something wild and timeless about the Vietnam War like Michael Herr’s Dispatches, or an incredible travel memoir like Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family – and you see that their subjective voice and presence in the story is a challenge to themselves. That, to me, seems to be the critical missing ingredient in a lot of non-fiction novels and feature writing today. Along with a failure to explore form as much as content. While I am talking about this, the annihilation of at least half the columnists now writing in newspapers and magazines across the world would be a good thing for the future of print journalism. Just get rid of them and open it up to freelancers. Something exciting might actually happen, like new voices and new writing. I guess that’s one of the many reasons people have gone digital and moved off to blogs and online media. Print is tired, not just in its physical conditions and forms, but in the types of pieces it publishes and the same old faces it perpetuates. That said, save me from print journals that try to get all jazzy and online and ‘young’ with me. It’s like someone’s old uncle getting drunk at a party and dancing badly.
You give long answers.
Yeah (laughs), I rave on. And I don’t think I have even said the half of it. Right now I am working on a biography of the singer Nick Cave. I guess that’s why the issues of self and identity within a portrait form are being given so much thought by me. Is there ever really ‘one’ life for anyone, or ‘one’ story? I look back to writing album reviews when I first started as a rock journalist, through to the travel memoir collection I wrote, Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip (Hawthorne Books, USA), to the Nick Cave biography I am working on now, and it’s always been about exploring. Trying to be truthful, whatever that might mean, trying to give the story a presence, having fun with language, being aware that every story is a performance too, but going even further than that. I guess, in some way, even writing up this interview I see that I am arguing for poetry as a basis for great journalism, and that maybe poetry is the basis of our reality, too, if our senses are really firing and we are lucky enough to catch that fire and get it on the page. It’s easy to talk about. Doing it, of course, is a whole other game.
MARK MORDUE is a writer, journalist and editor working internationally. He won the 2010 Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. Previously he has received a 1992 Human Rights Media Award for his journalism, as well as the 1994 Women and the Media Award. His travel book Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip was published in both Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2001) and the USA (Hawthorne Books, 2004). Film director Wim Wenders acclaimed it as the first book of its kind to take the road genre “into the 21st century”. Mark was 2001 Asialink Australian Writer-in-Residence at Beijing University and has taught narrative writing and literary journalism at the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) over the past decade. He was Guest Editor of the literary journal Meanjin’s ‘On Rock ‘n’ Roll’ issue (November 2006) and recently completed a draft novel for his M.A. in Writing (by Research) at UTS. He is currently developing a major biographical work on Nick Cave for international publication.