ESSAY ... Matthew CONDON
On writing The Trout Opera
MATTHEW CONDON talks about being inspired to write his novel, The Trout Opera, by a man who showed him the world from a little town in New South Wales, Australia
IN THE LATE SUMMER OF 1996, I found myself in the little township of Dalgety, 51 kilometres southwest of Cooma and at the foot of the Australian High Country, reporting for a newspaper on the slow but steady death of the great Snowy River.
I had not been to the Monaro region since a family driving holiday when I was a child, and my only memories of the Snowy Mountains were kidney-shaped drifts of dirty snow and the strange outcrops of granite that littered the low hills.
As I stood on the banks of the poor old Snowy, our Mississippi, our Danube, mythologised in another time by Australia’s “national” bush poet, A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, but long since a victim of the hydro-electric scheme and the dam at Jindabyne upstream and environmental degradation over time, and now just wide enough, in places, to be skipped across, I talked to the locals about its former glory.
The photographer and I were set to leave and make the dash for a plane out of Cooma when someone said: “You should talk to Ray Reid if you want some of the old yarns about the river.” The photographer checked his watch. I checked mine. “Just five minutes,” I said to him, and with those three words I unwittingly changed the course of the next ten years of my life.
We met old Ray, then 84, in his rundown shack with its hardwood slab walls and earthen floor about five kilometres outside town. I have before me a copy of the original story I wrote about the trip, and meeting Ray for the first time. “The approach to his home is a winding, rutted road through tall stands of weed. Car bodies litter the yard beyond his home-made generator. It is difficult to comprehend his long life and how the Snowy River has weaved in and out of it for most of the century.”
We sat with Ray for about twenty minutes before racing back to Cooma airport.
For a long time I could not stop thinking of Ray, the farm hand and rabbiter who lived all his life in Dalgety and left, only once, to attend World War II. As I had written, I could not comprehend his life. He had lived almost all of 20th-century Australia, yet never really seen anything, never experienced its grand historical moments, explored its diverse cities, been a part of its debate, its life. He was simply Old Ray of Dalgety.
After filing the newspaper story, I began to make notes about a fictional character called Wilfred Lampe, an old man who lived in a shack outside Dalgety, New South Wales. And for the first time in my writing career, the entire life of my man Wilfred came to me, fully formed, in my imagination. He could have been my own grandfather.
What I didn’t know was that brief meeting with Ray would start a long, laborious, sometimes exhilarating and often exasperating journey that would result in a novel, The Trout Opera. Those seemingly unremarkable twenty minutes had sparked a 200,000-word tale of Australian history and place, the importance of community and human decency, love and death, the changing nature of the national character, and the cruelty and transcendent beauty of nature. A story of multitudinous characters that spanned a century of Australian life and came together, in a final, transcendent, operatic scene that was the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The writing experience would give me periods of great joy but at times it was so difficult, so huge, that it would take me to a place where I contemplated the whole mad panoply of writing and publishing and test my resolve to the point where I seriously considered, after having published several novels and short stories, abandoning writing for good. Just as my character Wilfred was asking those unanswerable questions of himself—What is life? What is my part in the grand scheme of things?—I too pondered the same axioms. Ray Reid had a lot to answer for.
During those long years of writing and rewriting, I became emotionally attached to Wilfred, and the long lost love of his life, Dorothea, and his great-niece, the troubled but plucky Aurora, and my other characters both major and minor. I revisited Dalgety several times. On one of my early research trips I asked after Ray in the Dalgety general store, and was told that he had passed away just months earlier. I went to the local cemetery, and sat quietly beside his grave.
There was a myriad of coincidences that occurred during the writing of this story. If I relayed them here you would not believe them. Other writers have told me of being so deeply embedded in a story that serendipitous things related to the work just seemed to keep happening. I held onto the superstition that this was the one story in my life I was meant to write.
I see now that meeting Ray had posed a puzzle. “It is difficult to comprehend his long life,” I had written. It took me a decade to come up with a sort of answer to that puzzle.
On my last visit to Dalgety in 2005, with the research all done and drafts of the novel well progressed, I nostalgically went out to Ray’s old shack. The property owner had simply put a padlock on the front door after Ray died some years before, but through the windows I could still see his table and chair, a battered tin teapot set on the table, a saucepan on the stove, old boots side by side in the doorway, and a pair of Ray’s old horn-rimmed spectacles still hanging from a nail in the kitchen. It was, I realised, a museum to my character, Wilfred Lampe.
Sometime soon I want to make the journey back to Dalgety, head out to the town cemetery, and place a copy of The Trout Opera on Ray’s grave.
I once thought that Ray had never lived, seen anything, done anything in this tiny little town on the Monaro. The truth is, he had lived a rich, soulful and meaningful life. He had done and experienced all of the world without straying from his place of birth, and the river.
That’s just one of the things he taught me.
MATTHEW CONDON was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1962 and has lived in the U.K., Germany and France. His first book, The Motorcycle Cafe, was widely reviewed and praised, and was shortlisted for the 1989 New South Wales State Literary Award for Fiction. Usher and The Ancient Guild of Tycoons were both shortlisted for the NBC Banjo Award for Fiction in 1992 and 1995 respectively. A Night at The Pink Poodle and The Lulu Magnet won back-to-back Steele Rudd Awards for Short Fiction. His latest novel, The Trout Opera, was shortlisted for the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the 2008 Asia-Australia Literary Award.
Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine