Q&A with Philip Salom

Frances Terrett

Frances Terrett of Writers Victoria spoke to Miles Franklin finalist, Philip Salom, about his latest novel 'The Returns'.

You started your writing career in poetry. What compels you to dip into the novel format?

My earliest literary interest was the novel, in fact, but when I began writing it was poetry that intrigued me, and suddenly I had a breakthrough - I 'got' the secret of poetry's compression. It felt as if I had been let into a club. I loved the intensity and suggestion of poetry. But I promised myself at least one novel. My 5th book was the novel Playback and thirteen years later I published Toccata and Rain. Twelve years later came Waiting. That's slow fiction! But now, with the publication of The Returns, I have written two novels in a row. I am absorbed in character-driven encounters (rather than plotted action) and I am addicted to dialogue and interfering narrators and the absurdities of the human condition. I have discovered more humour in my prose, and readers enjoy it. I actually have readers now!


Your latest novel 'The Returns' has two main characters both grappling with the impact of family connections. What is it about family dynamic that makes it a particular topic of interest for you?

Ah, there is always someone in a family who causes strife for someone else. It may be serious and vexatious or simply ludicrous; either way the novelist in me is drawn to the absurdities of our relationships and, let's face it, family is inescapable, so the pressure is increased – you are captive. It's the obvious dynamic for drama and one every reader understands, though I have leavened the tensions with humour rather than continual seriousness. I find humour, even bleak humour, to be oddly uplifting.


Your third novel 'Waiting' featured two main characters, Big who is a hefty cross-dresser and Little who is little. Together they make something of an odd couple. In your latest novel 'The Returns' we have another odd couple in Elizabeth, a solitary yet feisty book editor at the beck and call of her aging mother, and Trevor, a book seller whose Polish father disappeared when Trevor was fifteen and his mother died not knowing whether the father was dead or alive. What attracts you to working with characters who are an unusual match?

I think the odd-couple schema makes us see our lives immediately. It reflects the most common experience of both writer and reader. We live it. Fiction can get stuck into this commonality and pull it inside out for insights into the 'everyday us' and do it at one remove, which is where all art gathers its power of identification and catharsis. The reader is temporarily captive but always escapes! We can recognise and even laugh at things which might be far more awkward closer up. It allows a sharp narrative focus in the narration without discounting the freedom I have as a writer to allow into the action a bundle of minor characters (who are sometimes my favourites)


In 2010 you published 'Keepers', a verse novel. Does this medium strike a balance for you between writing poetry and writing novels or is it a distinctly unique form?

Yes, for me Keepers is a keeper ... precisely because it works this balancing act of poetry and character, and it leads on to the book The Keeper of Fish where the main character in Keepers – Alan Fish – emerges as a closet poet in a book of his own. Fish is the acerbic and eccentric conscience in this satire of Art School life. A great many odd things happen in such places. As a form it maintains its sense of narration intermittently, through repetition, through several characters and by the undercurrent of Fish's commentary. So it's rather like music, perhaps an opera sans the big voices and the oversized costumes. 


What is the most significant difference in process for you, between writing novels and writing poetry?

Poetry comes to me fast – at least the first drafts do – and it's a personal language, very distinctive to the poet, from its rhythms and 'personality', to its linguistic style and tone. These are akin to other poetry but less so to the demotic forms of language and speech. Poetry comes to me privately and I need to be alone. Poetry – and the poem especially - is surrounded by a charged silence.

Fiction is a public language and I feel it not through intense linguistic compression of inner states and perceptions but through recognisable characters and events, and dialogue. When I write fiction I imagine being the characters and watching/hearing them close-up, in a slower time frame than poetry. And a longer one, lasting years. Since it's in public language, I can hear it anywhere I might be, and later it can be written straight into the text. It accumulates, it grows, it moves forward very visually. My problem is stopping it!

Poetry isn't speech, it's the poet's voice, whereas fiction is full of speech, narrated and and/or spoken in distinctive ways by the different characters. Poetry is a truth to itself. The novel is a hugely broader representation of life than a poem. And what a novel doesn't depict it implies. The compression of a poem should generate expanding waves of perception; the expansion of a novel should suggest intense moments of inner awareness. You have to love them both. I do.

Click here for more about Philip Salom and 'The Returns'.