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Friday, February 24, 2012

Interview with Doug MacLeod, author of 'The Shiny Guys'

I absolutely loved Doug MacLeod's new book 'The Shiny Guys'. It's one of those books that stays with you long after the last page, that you keep churning over and thinking about for a while. So I was thrilled at the opportunity to pick Mr MacLeod's brain, and get some insight into this deeply personal and challenging book.

Big thanks to Penguin and especially Doug MacLeod.

SPOILER warning - If you haven't read 'The Shiny Guys' yet, some of my questions may spoil parts of the book. So rush out and grab a copy, then come back and read this Q&A, okay? Ta.

Q: How were you first published, agent or slush pile?

Slush pile, but years ago when slush piles were smaller. (1973)

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Shiny Guys’, from idea to final manuscript?

I guess it would amount to about six months, but it wasn't written in one long session. It was written to amuse myself in between the times that I wasn't writing a more traditionally 'funny' book called, for the moment, Beach Tigers (for which I had been contracted). I was genuinely surprised when the publisher favoured The Shiny Guys over Beach Tigers. Beach Tigers is still a good book and will, I believe, be published by Penguin in 2013. It will cause heaps of arguments because in the book I try to analyse why some things are funny and some aren't. (Comedy became a fairly good earner for me, though my life hasn't been a particularly funny one, just absurd.) I was fairly young when my father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He's still with us, because he changed his whole life around. But it was very much touch and go for a while. We all loved and still love him like crazy; and because Death, or at least its Shadow was such a regular tenant at our home, I think we all developed a sense of humour to help us deal with the miserable old bastard that threatened to take our wonderful dad. I touch on that in Beach Tigers. So I started writing The Shiny Guys as a relief from a 'funny' story that was becoming quite heavy and wearing. I was surprised that The Shiny Guys turned out as funny as I'm told it did. All the stuff I write about how the patient feels when they have been hospitalised for clinical depression is as close as I could make it to how I recall feeling, along with the self-hatred you feel when you realise that some people are there because they have lost children or partners in war, and your own depression seems self-indulgent and distasteful in comparison, and the guilt you feel about making people worry. I was lucky to find myself in a group of younger patients with whom I became quite close, though Mango is an amalgam. I did have a friend who was very like him but the 'detachment disorder' from which he suffers was borrowed from a later story that a male nurse told me about a very large boy in a youth training centre in Parkville who really couldn't control himself from hugging people, usually completely out of the blue. It used to freak people out but he wasn't dangerous and he always let go. I think the reason behind Mango's detachment order is the creepiest thing in the book and I shuddered when I wrote it - a situation where you desperately don't want to embrace someone but you genuinely can't stop yourself.

Q: Are you a plotter or a ‘pantser’? – That is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?

A mixture of both. I knew where I was headed with The Shiny Guys, which was the solution to 'The Impossible Cupboard' because I think that is quite a strong moment. (And it isn't even 'the hero's moment'!) The other business sort of grew back from that.

Q: The back-story of how ‘The Shiny Guys’ came to be is very interesting – for the way you draw on personal experience, but also the events that took place after writing the book. I’m talking about your own battle with depression, and the stroke that hospitalised you and left a shadowed cockroach in your brain(scan)… can you tell us about the trials and tribulations of writing ‘The Shiny Guys’ and Ward 44?

I still have depression but I no longer think I'm going crazy, which, as the book indicates, is an important part of dealing with depression. There are certain danger signs to watch for. Going to hospital recently for a prolonged period of rehab reminded me of ward 44, especially the occupational therapy, which seemed quite silly. One of the exercises was sorting a big box of washers into two smaller boxes of smaller washers, but they throw in a medium-sized one to see how you'll react. (There's more about it on my blog.)

Q: So I read that Len, Colin’s awful Ward 44 roommate, was based on a real person of your acquaintance. What about Mango & Anthea? Who else in the book was inspired by real people?

Dr Parkinson has a thinly disguised name and is based on a real character, but I've borrowed just his appearance and mannerisms, which I found quite endearing. He's not a control freak, but I needed him to be, for the story to work. And even when he's being a control freak, I tried to keep him committed to the cause and respectful of his patients, because most psychiatrists I have worked with have been like that. I gave him the Darnum background because I wanted to write jokes about cow psychiatrists, and I also knew Darnum quite well because I spent two years of my childhood in Gippsland. Sorry, I never lived in Frankston, but I like it and it's got such a great name. If you talk about a mystical, distant place known as 'Frankston' it's funny for the same reason that in the movie, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, this terribly impressive magician, making explosions everywhere, announces with much gravity that his name is 'Tim'. 'Frankston' and 'mystical' just don't seem to fit together and a lot of comedy is made by putting together two concepts that wouldn't normally be together because they are such mutually exclusive ideas.

Mango is real but somewhat idealised. He certainly wasn't the sort of handsome kid you would fall in lust with. And this is what has happened to Colin. It's actually very noble of him to set Anthea up with Mango, when Colin is secretly, unknowingly in love with Mango. It’s funny how no one has commented on the gay love story, but I bet they will. There were a few lines in the sequence with Mango driving the 'escape car' where I had Colin caressing Mango's hair, and little touches like that, but my editor quite rightly suggested I keep Colin's relationship with Mango a little more oblique. Their embrace in the shower is probably enough. (Reading that back made me laugh. Hair-patting equals too gay. Embracing in the shower equals acceptably gay without being all Alan Hollinghurst. You really do have to read the book to see that the embrace in the shower between Mango and Colin is definitely not gay. Or maybe it is? Hell, read what you want to read into it.) The decision to cool it a little on the gay front was nothing to do with worries about how the marketplace would react to a book with a covert gay theme. All my books have them. Though I read a Penguin sales rep report that Dymocks in Bendigo didn't take my book, Siggy and Amber, because the Amber character has gay parents. I'm not sure if this is really what the store manager said, but the sales rep reported something along the lines of 'We don't have those types of people in Bendigo.' I think Colin himself would be upset and confused if someone asked him to acknowledge a gay relationship with Mango, so those extra moments in the escape car really didn't work, as they made Colin too knowing in his love for Mango.

It's interesting how you mention that you really can't talk about Franz Kafka without alluding to Metamorphosis. There are the Samsa cockroaches, of course, but I never mention the book by name, and yet the word 'Metamorphosis' is the tag to the whole story. Do you think that works, if you don't already know the title Metamorphosis? I could have slipped it into the story somewhere, but I like an ending that leaves you wanting to know a little more.

Q: Which idea came first – to have cockroaches in ‘The Shiny Guys’, or Kafka? And can you have one without the other?

'The Impossible Cupboard' definitely came first. That's been around for years, since I put it in a play and freaked myself out about how nasty I could be. Then I spent a whole year where I read a lot of Kafka because his were the only talking books I could find and I was travelling a lot. I think the book works well as a 'package', it's not all doom and gloom, the cover is brilliant, it has a good title, which I had to fight for because no one liked it. In the end I had to rewrite part of the book to justify it.

Q: I loved Colin. He was such a wonderful, smart and sweet character (and he hailed from my hometown, Frankston! Shout-out!). And many times while reading the book I just wanted to reach into the page and give him a hug, say “it’s okay, it’s not your fault!” and remind him that things will get better. Thinking about your own history of depression, and your stay in a psychiatric ward –if you had the chance (and a time machine) to go back to 1985, what would you say to reassure your younger-self about the future?

'It gets better and there is someone for everybody.'

Q: I found it quite interesting that in the book you don’t condemn ECT (‘shock therapy’). Colin is afraid that his parents will sign papers permitting him to undergo shock therapy – but at the same time it is presented as a treatment with many benefits and successes. I suppose popular culture (I’m looking at you, Ken Kesey!) and just plain ignorance have conditioned people to think that shock therapy is much the same as a lobotomy. What research did you do into ECT to arrive at the conclusion that it’s not always bad?

I talked with two friends, writer Barry Dickins and copywriter Michael Smith, who both went through ECT at the same time. It worked wonders for Michael, but not Barry. I wanted to know exactly what all the equipment looked like and how it worked, so I was given a guided tour of an ECT facility. You really do lose a little memory immediately preceding then following a treatment, which of course gives Colin plenty of time to invent the whole Nestor environment . (I picture it as a Shaun Tan nightmare.) If you glance through the book again, you'll see that every single aspect of Nestor is established in the real world. Even the box-like little ambulance (very Shaun Tan) that attends the crashed Nestorian commuter shuttle is from Colin's real world experience. It's the first aid box they took to The Flinders Rangers. By the way, the national parkrangers at Pichy Richy Pass really do have trouble with people vandalising the sign to make it Ichy Ichy Ass. They won't thank me for pointing out this jape.

Q: [SPOILER question] Shock therapy does help Colin, in a strange, delusional way. Meeting the Nestorians and searching for Briony is how he comes to terms with his suppressed memories about her disappearance… and this suggests that shock therapy did work for him, in a way. Do you think Colin’s revelation about Briony thanks entirely to ECT, could he have had such a revelation without it?

I like to leave that open. Maybe the ECT helped him not to be so hard on himself? And depression makes you very hard on yourself.

Q: As I write these questions, there’s a disturbing news story from America about a girl who was nearly abducted from a Walmart store. The story behind Briony’s disappearance is sad and chilling – what influenced this story of child abduction?

I'm afraid it seems a common enough story. When I was writing the book there was a lot in the media about an Indian boy who had purportedly been abducted and killed by a stranger, though this proved to be a fabrication by the murderer, a member of the boy's family. I don't think many people were surprised that it was a deception, actually. It wasn't a terribly well thought-out or convincing one.

Q: You do warn at the beginning of ‘The Shiny Guys’ that it is a ‘serious book’ without too many jokes. But I did find myself smiling through a lot of the book (mostly Mango scenes, I loved that guy!). And Dr. Parkinson reasonably points out that “You'd be surprised how many comedians suffer depression. Being funny is their way of dealing with it.” Was it hard trying to rein in your funny bone for this novel?

Always. Nearly all the stuff on the cutting room floor is funny stuff.

I lost a whole patient character that had some really good visual jokes (she was a mad pleater: she couldn't stop pleating paper or material or anything that was pleatable, and she would end up at night with her blanket and her sheet all pleated at the end of the bed, in a thick line of Manchester. Mum worked at Judge Book Nursing Home in Eltham and she came home with quite a few stories like that. She never told them meanly, you could see she cared for her little old ladies. I decided to add the pleater to ward 44. My editor suggested there were enough endearing crazies already - especially when a gorgeous balloon-breasted American nurse appeared- and that we could probably lose her.

Q: Really though, why basket weaving? Did you find any research that correlates basket weaving to improved mental health?

None. But they really did have it. And when Len finally left the ward, I remember asking him what he felt he had gained from the experience, and he told me quite flatly that he had gained a very nice basket. I like Colin's extrapolation that it is in spectacularly poor taste for the Vietnam vets to be making things that look very much like that hats of the people who were trying to kill them. I don't think would have made that connection myself, but Colin did because he kept obsessing about little things like that.

Q: You have an impressive CV of comedy TV writing. You’ve worked on ‘Kath & Kim’, ‘Fast Forward’ and have written many children’s books. Which is harder – writing for TV, or writing books? And which industry is friendlier?

Oh, come on. You know the answers to these questions. TV is generally not friendly (though Jane Turner and Gina Riley and are absolutely gorgeous). TV is hard, but it pays more than writing books.

Q: Favourite book(s) of all time?

The Reginald Perrin books, by David Nobbs about an average suburban man who has a nervous breakdown, decides to fake his own suicide and come back as someone else. They’re moving and stupendously funny stories . I didn't realise what a huge influence they’ve been on me, until I reread some of them recently, and saw some gags, or at least figures of speech that I have used in my own books.

Q: Favourite author(s)?

Because I write comedy, I tend towards books that are rather dark. My favourite YA authors are Sonya Hartnett, John Marsden, Meg Rosoff, Sofie Laguna and Robert Cormier. I'm far too judgmental about comedy and find it hard to enjoy. I loathe Jasper Fforde and everyone tells me I'm meant to love his humour. Most Douglas Adams books make me laugh and I curse Azreal the Angel of Death for taking Douglas away from us when he was so young.

Q: What novel are you working on at the moment, and when can we get it into our hot little hands?

Firstly. I'm still in rehab after last year's stroke, so I'm not writing terribly much.

But there are two books.

One is called Beach Tigers, coming soon to a bookstore near you.

I'm also tinkering with a sequel to The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher because that really was great fun to do. Being very rude about the English, who never take my books. Most satisfying.

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?

Get a really terrible job first. I worked on a building site for a short time and it was horrible. When I find it hard to write or just don't feel like it, I remember how it felt holding those bricks around. If you really want to be a serious writer, don’t get married or have kids.


  1. great interview. I skipped over the 'spoiler' questions so now I can put this book on my 'to read' list

  2. OMG YES! "If you really want to be a serious writer, don’t get married or have kids.” I won’t until I write my first book. Which hopefully is before I’m 30.

    And fantastic interview Dan and Doug... “Dan and Doug” - I’m taking that for my books to do with two stage people ;)

  3. @Maree Kimberley - Fantastic! I hope you enjoy it :)

    @Braiden - lol, I took comfort in that too! Although, the flip-side is that Gab Williams at her launch said she got the kernel of an idea for 'The Reluctant Hallelujah' from her kids, so...

    Dan & Doug. I like it!


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