Author: Geoffrey McGeachin
Q & A With Geoffrey McGeachin
Penguin Q & A with Geoffrey McGeachin author of Blackwattle Creek
What is your new book about?
Blackwattle Creek catches up with Charlie Berlin in 1957, ten years on from his introduction in The Diggers Rest Hotel. Berlin is still a Melbourne copper, still dealing with the traumas of his wartime service but he is now married with kids and a house in the suburbs. He seems to be holding it all together but an apparently simple request from his wife to have a chat with a just-widowed friend leads to his life spiralling out of control as he’s embroiled in events that take him down a very dark path.
What or who inspired it?
I wanted to pick up Charlie ten years later and see how he was coping and also to see how Australian society was changing over that period. This took me to 1957 post-Olympics Melbourne and I had an idea about an object being inadvertently placed into a coffin and having to be retrieved. That actually came about from my father’s favourite cap being put into his coffin rather than placed on top with his wartime medals. Though his cap was never retrieved the incident gave me an idea for a story where a soldier’s medals are accidentally placed inside the coffin and when his widow asks for them back she sees something disturbing. Coming across something called Project Sunshine, while doing research, let me tie in British atomic testing in Australia, radioactive fallout and Cold War paranoia, and then I was off and running.
What was the biggest challenge, writing it?
My biggest challenge was probably making time since I have a parallel career as a photography teacher. I love historical research and creating characters and letting my imagination wander so I need a fair bit of mulling time – a few extra hours in the day or days in the week would be useful.
What did you want to achieve with your book?
To peel back some more layers of Charlie Berlin and to explore how he’s coping ten years after his war experiences – is he coping, or does he just appear to be? And what is dredged up for him when he’s confronted with a situation that questions the worth of what he fought for and what his comrades lost their lives for. The men and women who survived WW2 were expected to come home and get on with their normal lives. Most of them looked like they did but many of them struggled with what they’d seen and done and a ‘normal’ life wasn’t easy to achieve. Hopefully it will satisfy the people who wanted to know what happened to the main characters in the first Berlin story and also perhaps inspire people to look into some of my earlier writing. What I ultimately want to achieve with all my books is to tell a good yarn.
What do you hope for your book?
I’d love to get the same response I had to the first Charlie Berlin story with emails from readers who could identify with him or through his struggles understand a little more about what people of his generation went through.
Are there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?
My father was an Australian airman who served with the RAF in Europe, though he was a navigator in a special duties Halifax bomber squadron while the fictional Charlie Berlin was a Lancaster pilot with Bomber command. Both men were POWs and both took part in the frightful march out of Poland into Germany during the worst winter blizzards in a hundred years. It was on this march that Berlin witnesses something that shatters his soul. Whatever demons my father brought home with him he seems to have dealt with successfully but Charlie Berlin has a lot going on just below the surface.
Do you have a favourite character or one you really enjoyed writing?
I really love creating some of the peripheral but really important support characters. In this book, one is Lazlo, the Hungarian ex-journalist turned hearse driver who points Berlin in the right direction but who just may have an agenda of his own. These people need to be real and they are also a great way of lightening the tone sometimes. My earlier books were pretty much tongue-in-cheek with a lot of humour carrying a more serious message and though the Charlie Berlin series is a bit heavier in tone I try to be true to that most Australian characteristic that nothing is so serious that you can’t make a joke out of it. Charlie has a dry and understated wit but I hope some of the minor character will make readers laugh out loud.
What do you see as the major themes in your book?
I’m totally cynical and a hopeless romantic and these two aspects always seem to collide in my life and my writing. None of my heroes ever change the world but they do attempt to at least improve their own little corner of it.
What made you set it in 1957?
I wanted to see where Charlie would be ten years on. And I like the idea of a world just after momentous events like WW2 in the first book and the ‘56 Olympics in this one. It’s a sort of emotionally deflated environment where people struggle to find their own place.
Did the title come instantly to you or did you labour over it?
Titles are always a problem and too often a last minute decision. My agent Selwa Anthony is good at cutting to the chase and the two Berlin titles were her idea. But it was my wife who suggested we call my first book Fat, Fifty & F***Ed! It was how the lead character described himself and since the book was going into a competition we though it would get the judge’s attention. To tell the truth we never thought it would get published under that title but looking for a better one was a very long and futile exercise.
To whom have you dedicated the book and why?
All my books are dedicated to my wife Wilma because without her inspiration, encouragement, collaboration, insightful and sometimes tough but always fair and usually correct criticism and her wicked sense of humour there would be no books.
Who do you think will enjoy your book?
Initially I thought I would be best received by a male audience but I have some pretty strong female characters and women who seem to like the books as well. I’ve also had feedback from families where three generations have passed the books around and all enjoyed them. I get some lovely emails from British and Canadian readers and also from Americans, which is really fun, especially when they get the Australian sense of humour.
Do you have a special ‘spot’ for writing at home?
My wife writes in our sunroom, which is bright and well organised, just like her. My office is in the spare bedroom and if I ever need to describe a scene where a bomb has just gone off I only need to look around me.
Do you like silence or music playing while you’re writing?
I like quiet when I’m working.
When did you start writing?
I started writing when I just couldn’t put it off anymore. I like to claim the world record for writer’s block and in my case we are talking decades. In the end it came down to the point where I knew I had to give it a go or give the whole published writer fantasy away.
Did you always want to become an author?
I always did want to be an author but I didn’t want to be a bad one. One easy way to avoid failure is never to attempt anything but it is also of course the ideal way to avoid success. Becoming a teacher and having to inspire students to try things—and if they failed encouraging them to try and try again until they succeeded—had the happy consequence of making me finally wake up to myself.
Tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was born in Melbourne but spent the first six years of my life in Wodonga on the Victorian NSW border, which was fun and gave me the location for the first Charlie Berlin story. After that we lived in the northern suburbs of Melbourne where I attended primary and then secondary school where I had a good time in English, History and Geography. Not such a good time in my other subjects apart from woodwork. So I’m good at telling you clearly and precisely where something is and how it got there. And I’m also one hell of a handyman.
If you’ve had other jobs outside of writing, what were they?
A high school English teacher read one of my second year essays and proclaimed I had a great future as a writer so of course I became a photographer and eventually a teacher of photography. But as a working photographer I was able to travel the world and see exotic places and live in other countries but, given all the time spent waiting around in photography, I also got to observe people and overhear conversations and I feel this really was a plus when I eventually started to write.
Describe yourself in three words?
Tall, dark, handsome. Also deluded.
What star sign are you and are you typical of it?
I’m a Sagittarian and a lot of people who were bemused or confused by some of the previous statements are now nodding and saying, “Of course, that explains everything.”
I think miniature poodles and Sagittarians are both known for their short attention span.
What three things do you dislike?
Politicians, yappy dogs and sprightly people in gym clothes who park their expensive cars in disabled spaces.
What three things do you like?
Interesting food, interesting people and interesting destinations.
Have you a family, partner or are you single?
I live with my truly wonderful partner Wilma and no dogs, no cats, and no budgerigars. We like the idea of being able to lock the door and scoot off at a moment’s notice.