More About the Author
Notes from a chat with Max Halley about his novel - The Giftie.
I met with Max Halley in his study in his house in the foothills of the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. He is dressed in old tennis shoes and frayed overalls. He needed a haircut.
Looking around the room there are two walls of book shelves. I see just about every Graham Greene, all of Joyce and plenty of Updike. One whole section is taken up with what he dismisses as undergraduate philosophy and another with his passion for all things mechanical.
There are some sketches on the walls that later I learn are his. Pride of place on his windowsill goes to photos of wife, daughters and his 1961 BSA motorcycle.
He has a diffident look about him, as one who only occasionally visits the world of appearances.
I asked him how he began writing.
"I was recovering from some pretty nasty surgery and felt I lacked an attitude towards it. Had my brush with death changed me? I found it had not, well not in any radical sense. This struck me as odd and a counter to what was expected. I began writing as a way of trying to articulate how we are slaves to the spin we are encouraged to put on the ups and downs of living.
That explains why you wrote, but not why you chose to write fiction.
You're right. I hadn't originally intended to write a novel. I hadn't even considered the novel form at all. I'd been a modest reader of fiction over the years, but even so the majority of my reading had been career driven stuff. - Systematic, factual, unambiguous and prescriptive.
However the problem I was grappling turned out to be really messy. Peoples' experience is messy, you know, blown about by the four winds, swimming with, across, and against the tides, dark and light, wind and rain. The weather is never exactly the same on two consecutive days and ultimately, I suppose is caused by forces beyond our comprehension. It occurred to me that reality is also like this - messy and unpredictable. Not at all like we are led to believe.
It also means that no two people are likely to see things the same way and that as soon as you pick up a pen to describe it, you begin to corrupt what it you're trying to say. It is like trying to capture the unique beauty and grandeur of a cathedral with the limited number of Lego blocks, something really essential about cathedrals, about the soaring beauty, about spirituality and so on gets left out. Take that away and it's just a pile of rubble. Perhaps I can sum it up with an anecdote; one of my college lecturers had just given a paper at a lunchtime seminar and of course all the other academics in the room were doing their best to poo-poo it. They kept teasing out finer and finer shades of meaning from his words, hoping to trip him up. Well in the end the lecturer stubbed out his cigarette angrily, snapped shut his folder and said; "well what do you want from me - a ****** novel?"
At least with a novel the reader has to do a lot of the heavy lifting from his own resources, personalise the story to his own experience. This means that the novelist's skill is in frustrating the reader somewhat, meeting the reader only half way, giving them the dots but not the joining strokes, letting them draw their own story and their own relevance from the words on the page. For this reason a good novel is never prescriptive. Of course what is left in the readers mind will be of necessity messy and-ill formed. But that is just as it should be'
I know from the feedback I've received on the Giftie that no two readers have the same take on the novel. The best that can be said is that they have a kind of family resemblance.
Who or what are your literary influences?
'David Hume I suppose: Hume's system strips human nature back to its bare essentials. We are once irrational, unknowing, habitual creatures drunk on the vanity that would claim otherwise.
I'll also put a plug in here for Thomas Nagel, one of the few contemporary philosophers who have managed to get under my radar, and the bloke that gave voice to my issue by setting limits to objective systems of thought.
JM Coetzee for his prose style and self-effacement.
Joyce; As a documenter of what is, or was, he is unsurpassed for me. I'll also rave about a little book called UTZ by Bruce Chatwin. I'll stop there before I bore you.'
So you are a sceptic, a pessimist?
Yes and no.
I am sceptical about finding lasting comfort in systems- political, scientific, religious or otherwise. All these systems are predicated on some notion of averaged utility ¬- individual, material or spiritual. Head in the fire and arse in the fridge etc.
Then I thought that, well, isn't that a great cause for optimism. Am I nuts or does the possibility of freewill revives when experience outruns the rigidities of our systems? While there is mystery, doubt about how thing work, there is hope for freewill.
So how does that play into your Novel - The Giftie?
I wanted to say something about the rather stark possibility that we labour more in ignorance than knowledge. I wanted to illustrate a starkness that is helpful rather than threatening. That kind of says that by getting past the need to align with this or that belief system we may be able to build the New Jerusalem or something like that.'
So I came up with a few characters each with a different cut on how they thought it all worked, and how they comported themselves in adherence to it. I followed them as their individual rigidities or creeds about life began to let them down.
Don Heffernan, whose character began to overtake all others from the get-go, is a hard-nut of the sort I've met in business hundreds of times. The fact of his material success is all he needs to justify the capitalist system that secures him. To Heffernan the end justifies the means, I suppose, but please don't ask him what the end of the capitalist system is. It will just send him into a rage. Similarly any person, who opposes his system or, as in the case of Applegate who had achieved the same end without sharing in Heffernan's beliefs, is an existential threat that must be obliterated.
On the other hand Chauncey Applegate is the foil by which, Heffernan's unthinking is contrasted. Applegate has gamed Heffernan's beloved system and had achieved by acquiescence what Heffernan had achieved by bullying and action. Applegate believes he is running to a superior plan too.
Margaret Swift sits between them. I give her a dash of religiosity, but really she is the most unaligned of the three. She neither knows nor does not know, how and why she had been successful. And that puts her closer to the overall theme of the novel perhaps, although I don't believe she ever says as much.
We meet them all when their success is about to desert them, when what was seen as connected proves to have been just a correlation, fate or coincidence.
I wanted to follow them as each floundered in no man's land, into the messiness I spoke of earlier of their own wilderness. Not knowing whether to turn back or go forward.
So where did you get your material for the Giftie?
Mostly from my discomfort with others (he laughs).
I've been a higher-up for several multinationals. I also spent many years as an international consultant. What struck me about all the high flyers I met was their abject ordinariness. They exibited a kind of embarrassment about their rise to prominence, which if you tried to address often made them defensive. I think the fact was that they could not really explain how, they themselves had been instrumental in getting to the top. Oh sure they could point out this and that lucky break, but nothing about themselves that you could put your finger on. And yet they all believed that a system had put them there. It was as though their loyalty to their creed had rewarded them.
And then I began to see many of them fall like nine-pins. Fired, retired, overlooked, disgraced. Their company's share price would dive, a competitor would acquire them, and head-hunters desert them.
No, all the material I needed was pulled directly from my own experience.