Robert Drewe: A comic departure

Robert Drewe has never been to a family reunion. And having put one at the heart of his latest novel, Whipbird, a delicious satire of today's Australia, will probably ensure he never does.

Not that he didn't enjoy the experience of writing it. Indeed, he reckons he had more pleasure writing what is his first novel for 12 years and his seventh in all than any of his other books - and that includes short stories, memoirs, plays and the several collections he has edited.

"It was a departure from all the others. My novels and short stories have been pretty serious, I guess. But it's worth writing a comic novel. There's a lot of seriousness in a comic novel. I've always been a fan of writers who can pull that off like John Cheever and Saul Bellow who could do both."

Should he wander past the Victoria Barracks in St Kilda Road while in Melbourne for the writers festival his mind will surely turn to his great grandfather, John Bray, who served and lived there for many years, as a staff sergeant and quartermaster in the British army and then, after the imperial forces withdrew, as an ordinance clerk controlling supplies for the new military.

Bray was a young Irish immigrant who had joined the British forces during the potato famine and came to this country with the 40th Regiment of Foot. He was with the 40th at the Eureka Stockade and, family legend has it, fought in the Maori Wars. Unscathed throughout, apparently.

Most important from Drewe's point of view, however, was the fact that he had 14 children and that the 14th, fathered when the family patriarch was 70, was Drewe's grandmother. Although he refers to her as "our little grandmother", May weighed 6.35 kilos at birth and Bridget, her poor mother and Bray's second wife who had already given birth to seven children, never walked again. "There are only those two generations between me and him - pretty unusual - because he was old when he had her."

Whipbird is the winery owned by Hugh and Christine Cleary. It's been 160 years since the founding father of the clan, Conor, arrived in Australia, and Hugh has invited descendants to descend on it for the weekend. And given they are a catholic family, there are a lot of them.

What's so clever and so simple about Whipbird is that because there are so many, Drewe can create characters from every walk of life. There's Mick, Hugh's father, a suburban bank manager, in constant dispute with cousin Doug, "a member of that toffy brigade who convened in the Members' stand in their weekend tweed jackets and squatter's boots. Those tossers really got him going."

There's Hugh's cousin, Craig, married to Rani from Aceh; his sister, Medecins sans Frontieres doctor Thea; the mysterious youth wandering through the reunion whose name no one seems to know; Hugh's recalcitrant son, Liam; cousin Ryan, the lovelorn priest, and plenty more of all sorts, sizes and ages.

"I wanted to represent various classes and various successes. I also wanted to show how within a couple of generations you could go from very very basic working class, as my parents were, to publicans, boilermakers and even the occasional Liberal politician and to a profession and wealth in some cases."

Drewe's most delicious conceit is the character of Simon "Sly" Clearly, Hugh's brother, former keyboard player with Spider Flower, now a decrepit, drug-addled shell of a man suffering from Cotard's syndrome. The chances are most readers won't be familiar with this oddest of conditions whose sufferers live under the misapprehension that they are already dead. But Sly's "tangled brain bits" have allowed old Conor somehow to inhabit his feeble body and grey matter and allow us to hear the family history from his point of view, the truth about all those myths, and get his perspective on the reunion. Conor is a sort of corporeal and intellectual parasite, a robust bunch of mistletoe growing on a withered old tree.

"Well," Conor says, "I've had a good look around now. Got my bearings. Yes, I'm touched by all the fuss. Gratified. Why not? They're celebrating me."

Drewe says he was delighted to find Cotard's syndrome exists. "I knew someone who had it actually and who was delighted when they died." But it must have been a godsend for a writer because he worried about how to let Conor be a character without reverting to what he calls "yesteryear things in italics".

Drewe admits he was working out some of his own thoughts about life today in Australia, but is quick to point out that his views are not the ones Mick expresses, for example.

Mick was modelled to some extent on Drewe's grandfather, George Watson, who married May. "He was a suburban and country bank manager and he died when I was young so I never had this conversation with him. But I imagined if he had been still working he would have takeovers and the change from companies to corporates, and decimal currency and ATMs. I just imagined how he would have found those things."

His views are more curmudgeonly than Drewe's, who - unlike Mick - is not fazed by the range of modern foodstuffs. "I quite like the idea ??? of a character who's perhaps 15 years older than you. They're quite nice to write because there's just a bit of you creeping in to see they might have a point."

If getting Conor into the book caused Drewe his greatest creative concern, his other concern was being sufficiently tough on his characters. "I didn't want to pull back with a couple of the characters and their surroundings and the way people behave to others."

As an example he cites a scene, not a major one, when a group of women of about 65 are in the vicinity of Rani, the young woman from Aceh. They are patronising her, telling her she's pretty and so on. "Because she's Asian and she's pretty, it seems as if she should be regarded as a five-year-old in a party dress."

Drewe is back on the circuit with this book and talking on the phone from his home near Byron Bay, where Whipbird was about to be launched. He has been a professional writer since he began as a journalist in Perth before shifting to Melbourne at 21 to work on The Age. He was dispatched to Sydney to run the bureau there but at 28 quit in order to write.

"It was a big step and it didn't work at first. I wanted to write for myself. I wanted to make things up and not report back. But I resigned without really much knowledge of what I was doing. It didn't work; I didn't have enough life experience."

The Australian came to the rescue with a job and while he was the paper's books editor he wrote The Savage Crows. Then he took to the freelance life with The Bulletin and as a film reviewer with The Sydney Morning Herald. They were all jobs to make money. "If you're a novelist in Australia, with the exception of two or three people, all the time you're looking for the next buck."

He liked the miniseries made from his first collection of stories, The Bodysurfers, and his first memoir, Shark Net. He was less enthusiastic about Ned Kelly, the film adapted from his novel Our Sunshine. "One thing that annoyed me was changing the title from Our Sunshine, which is quite interesting. It's one of the strange things that goes on when a producer buys a project - it's like a fox terrier pissing on the lamppost of the cocker spaniel that's gone before."

Shark Net he found a surreal experience and depressing to relive the death of his mother and her funeral on screen. But it was made less so, he says, because the funeral scene was rather ludicrous.

"It was a Presbyterian service and they had all the men with hats on, which they don't do, and all the men had the same hat - that was a style thing - and all the hats were pointing in the same direction so it was like a Busby Berkeley funeral."

Drewe knows if his characters have worked on the page if he can imagine them "being outside the frame. I also know they've worked if I dream about them as if they're real people."

The night before we spoke he dreamed about Mick and his daughter Thea having an argument, one of those arguments in dreams, he says, that make no sense whatsoever.

And the Ned Kelly from Our Sunshine had a big impact on him. "It was the quickest book I've ever written and even as I'm talking about him now it seems weird but the hairs are rising on the back of my neck."

Rob Drewe is a guest at Melbourne Writers Festival. (mwf.com.au). The Age is a festival sponsor. He discusses his new novel at Gleebooks on September 4 at 6.30pm. Whipbird is published by Hamish Hamilton at $32.99.

This story Robert Drewe: A comic departure first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.