Author Jay Carmichael will release his debut novel Ironbark later this month. He recently spoke with QNews Magazine about his inspirations, and what motivates him as a writer.
Waaia, the town in Victoria I grew up in, had about 70 people in the township, and a few hundred more scattered across the farmlands that stretched in every direction right up to and beyond the horizon. There was one bus to and from school. There was one pub in town, which is still there, and then a milk bar, but it didn’t last long and is now disused.
For many years I wanted to be a scientist. I was going to specialise in botany and develop crop hybrids tolerant to drought. But to study science, you have to be good at maths, and I am not. One day in about Year 9, I was ‘sick’ at home from school. The midday movie was Novocaine. I didn’t like the ending, so I decided to write a novel where I would have control over what happened and how it happened. That is how I came to writing, but perhaps not the reason I stayed writing.
During high school, I found out that I was gay (and still am). I write ‘found out’ because it was the people who bullied me who pointed this out to me. So, I was never going to admit this, not there, not in an environment that also remained silent about me: when I was being teased, no one stood up for me. And that same silence seemed to support the verbal and physical assaults levelled at me.
Most people probably don’t think that any one deserves to be discriminated against, but I suspect that some (if not most) of these people would not defend someone who they see being discriminated against — not when there’s a level of risk to themselves involved. For example, once during high school a boy came over to me after class.
He rolled up his A4 writing book and, stroking his hand along the cylinder, asked, “D’you think you could shaft all this?” I’ve written about this incident before for Overland, and I want to expand on it here. What I found more stigmatising was not the boy’s remark — he couldn’t have cared less about how much of his book I could potentially “shaft” — but that the people around me who heard him say this said nothing. Silence. It was as if their silence drew greater attention to my difference, and that their non-defence of me was a sign that they didn’t want to be associated with me.
The silence exuded by people around me — sometimes by people who I cared deeply for and who cared deeply in return — made my being gay in a small country town more isolating than the geographical distance of the town.
When I first started writing I wrote about men and women and how in love they could be. I was in denial, and so it always felt wrong. Denial was for me a two-way street: I denied being gay because being gay was denied in the place I lived. There were no role models or rainbow stickers. Safe spaces did not exist. And if you didn’t play footy you were obviously a poof.
Which is why serious writing on my debut novel, Ironbark, only began when I moved to Melbourne for study. I met ‘city’ people who really did not care about who I was attracted to. This liberated me to be able to write the novel from a place of assessment. Like Ironbark’s main character, Markus, who found himself amid a stillness that followed once chaos had settled, when I moved to the city, all these feelings and thoughts began to surface.
I could have easily written creative non-fiction or penned a premature memoir of my time growing up as the only gay in the village (though I found out years after I left the area that there were at least two other young gay men who I went to school with but who, I suspect, saw how I was treated and, because they were ‘straight-acting’, chose to hide the queer part of themselves until it was safer to express it).
One reason I did not write in memoir or non-fiction is because, simply, when I first started writing Ironbark I was still not out to my family or friends. Writing in fiction meant the book wasn’t necessarily about me.
Whether or not the people around me ‘always knew’ that I was gay is beside the point: it was not their truth to tell. I had let those boys — the ones who traumatised me at high school — claim a part of me as their own, and in a broader context I believed the tragic queer narrative that’s still perpetuated by gay characters in TV, movies, and books who are denied a happy ending.
While the setting and the people in Ironbark are all fictional, the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of Markus are very close to what I experienced growing up gay in rural Victoria. And it was through the mode of fiction that I found I could take those feelings, thoughts, and emotions and expand on them as ideas, rather than play-by-play experiences.
Ironbark was not only about writing out these feelings, thoughts, and emotions, it was also about exploring them and trying to understand where they came from. I don’t think the constraints of memoir or non-fiction could have allowed for a deep, lyrical exploration of emotion.
During the editing process, I was pushed — and rightly so — to expand on some of the material in order to more fully describe how Markus experienced his world. This often meant, for me, returning to memories and personal experiences I had tried to bury.
Writing Ironbark helped me work through how I had internalised my self-hatred and shame. It was paralysing and took a long time to write because for many years previous to putting pen to paper, I felt I didn’t control myself — people calling me names and touching me up had turned my thoughts and my body against me. Which is why, in the end, Ironbark is a reclamation: ‘This is who I am and this is how I have been made to feel.’
Ironbark is out on April 30 and is available to pre-order here.