In August of last year, an email popped up in my inbox from Andrew McGahan. I hadn’t seen Andrew in a while so it took me by surprise. Then I read the subject line – ‘The Big C’. A few days later I flew to Melbourne and drove a hire car to his house in Sunshine. I parked up the street, walked down to his house on the corner, and Andrew met me at the door. I was shocked at how thin he was. I knew he had been leading a healthier lifestyle, but the illness was also clearly starting to take hold. In the kitchen, he made me a cup of tea and I asked him whether he was sure of his diagnosis. Perhaps the doctors had made a mistake; I was only half-joking.
When I first met Andrew, in the mid-1990s, he had already won the Vogel award for Praise and had written a play, Bait. Working alongside David Berthold, Bait was the result of Andrew’s time as a resident writer at the Queensland Theatre Company. As fate would have it, the company passed on producing it. Andrew’s time at the company was also over, and so that may well have been it for Andrew’s involvement in the theatre.
I was studying drama in Toowoomba then and had stumbled upon this fact in a magazine article. I, like everybody else in the country, had read Praise. I also knew an opportunity when I saw one. Through various levels of subterfuge I somehow managed to track down a copy of the play and Andrew’s contact details.
At the time, Andrew and his partner Liesje were living in a flat on Ashby Street in Fairfield, Brisbane. The flat is still there, red bricked, unassuming. The rest of Fairfield, like much of the inner suburbs of Brisbane, has been gentrified, but this little corner of Ashby Street remains untouched for the time being. It’s a relic from another Brisbane. I live around the corner from it now, and when I occasionally pass it I’m taken straight back to that first meeting.
I was nervous when I went up those rickety stairs; Andrew had written only one novel, but even then it was clear Praise was establishing itself as an instant classic, in line with Monkey Grip and Johnno, and Andrew was a big deal. By contrast, my little theatre company – Renegade Theatre – had no money, had produced only one other play, and I was between my second and third year at university. I was twenty years old. Who the hell did I think I was?
Details are hazy now. I remember Andrew ushering me into the lounge. He was warm, relaxed, tall and broad-shouldered, and he spoke really fast. Pretty soon he offered me a beer. I don’t know what time of day it was. I’d like to think it was early, before opening hours. Regardless, I said yes. We cracked a Fourex, chatted about the play, and then I told him I had no money but I’d like to direct it. He said yes. He didn’t hesitate. In retrospect, it was a defining moment in our relationship, both personally and professionally. Andrew never said no to me – ever – about any of the projects I would suggest, or that we ended up doing together.
Bait opened at Brisbane’s Metro Arts Theatre on 12 July 1995. A lifetime ago. It’s a cracker of a play, massively underrated. Set in the mail sorting room of the Department of Social Security Bait is the sequel to Praise. And just like with Praise (and 1988, the prequel), Bait is based closely on Andrew’s life. Andrew did indeed work in the mail sorting room and by the play’s end Gordon – Andrew’s literary alter ego – remains trapped, presumably forever, in a meaningless and dehumanising job, a Kafkaesque nightmare. In real life, however, Andrew won the Vogel, and the prize money allowed him to quit the public service and become a full-time writer.
It’s startling now to think about that award and how it shaped Andrew’s life. During my visit last year, we chatted about Gordon and those early works. He told me he always thought he would write another Gordon novel, maybe when he was sixty, about an old Gordon. He wondered how life for Gordon would have turned out in the public service. What would have become of him? I pointed out to Andrew that’s not what happened to Gordon. He didn’t get stuck in a job. Gordon won a literary award and went on to enjoy the career of a successful author. That’s what I suggested it could be about. Andrew seemed genuinely surprised by my take on it. That outcome hadn’t occurred to him. It was typical Andrew. While he was aware of his success, and he was proud of it in his own way, it was not something he dwelled on or considered much. It’s hard to explain Andrew’s humility. I have not encountered anything like it in anyone else.
So back to Bait. The show went well. The reviews were positive, and we all managed to make a little bit of money (the following year the play even won a Brisbane theatre Matilda Award). The closing night party is legendary now, at least to those who were there. Andrew, generous as always, arrived before the final performance with a plastic tub filled with spirits and mixers and cartons of beer. It must have cost hundreds of dollars. I remember him smashing the bags of ice up the back of the auditorium to ensure it was all cold and ready to go by the end of the show. To all us broke theatre folk, that plastic tub was a glittering treasure chest.
After Bait, Andrew continued to kick around with Renegade Theatre, which had expanded to include another director – David Letch – and a small but committed ensemble of actors. Andrew wrote a short play, Polaroid, which I directed as part of a season of four short plays. X-rated with a lead character called The World’s Greatest Lover, Polaroid pushed the envelope with mixed results. One critic described it as like watching a child smear its faeces on the wall for attention. It didn’t matter, we welcomed the notoriety. Andrew just laughed when he read that review. Inevitably, after a couple of years of frenzied activity, Renegade folded, but Andrew and I remained in contact. Somehow, we had become friends beyond the theatre.
Andrew was eight years older than me so I wasn’t quite the right age to be a part of his older group of friends, who were mostly from his school and university days. On the odd occasion I did enter that circle, he sometimes joked that I was his ‘young’ friend, thereby explaining away any aberrant behaviour on my part. Even so, much of the time that we would end up spending together we would spend alone, just him and me, and a large part of our interactions remained creative. From those first outings with Bait and Polaroid, we would go on to scheme on other scripts – short films, a screenplay, there’s even a pilot to a series we co-wrote about the theatre industry. A lot of this stuff is messy, unfocussed, half-finished, so on one level this was all simply alcohol fuelled fun. On another level, for Andrew, I think, our sessions were akin to little creative holidays between the writing of his books – something relaxed, sociable and chaotically pleasant.
None of this was a serious career thing, not really, and certainly not for Andrew. Some mates get together to play golf; we would get together and dream up crazy script stuff. It has to also be said that amid all this weird creativity we often did nothing as well. We could sit around for hours watching movies, drinking, sometimes taking acid, and talking. Always talking.
But back to Bait. There was a second version of it staged, again at Metro Arts, in 2002. This time however I opted to act in it, to play Gordon, with Brisbane theatre stalwart Linda Hassall picking up directing duties. My decision to act now seems outlandish, but act I did. Andrew came to a few rehearsals but it was getting weird. Gordon was Andrew, and now I was playing Gordon, so was I playing Andrew? We were down some sort of rabbit hole from which, I suspect, we never fully emerged. Indeed, years later, after a failed attempt at co-writing a horror screenplay, we would produce a short mockumentary – Blood on the Cutting Room Floor – about two fictional, delusional horror filmmakers that we called Andrew McGahan and Shaun Charles. We never bothered to change the names.
It all got serious when La Boite Theatre Company approached me and asked whether I wanted to adapt his post-Fitzgerald inquiry noir novel, Last Drinks, for the stage in 2006. The company knew Andrew and I were close collaborators, and knew it would be a relatively painless process acquiring the rights and getting the project up and rolling. So that was that, I was now ripping into one of Andrew’s novels. But it could never be that simple. So while I am credited as sole playwright on the adaptation, in reality our working relationship was far closer and more complex. There were many emails and face-to-face sessions with Andrew – it was his book, after all. I remember tapping away on my laptop in his courtyard in Melbourne. He would be beside me with a copy of the novel, pointing things out, circling passages, making comments in that rapid-fire way of his.
And then came The White Earth. I remember when Andrew rang and told me he had won the Miles Franklin. Andrew found out while wandering around Brisbane’s Carindale Shopping Centre, which is not a place one usually associates with serious literature. After hearing the news he had marched into a bar and ordered a beer. It seems absurd now when I think about it – Carindale Shopping Centre, The White Earth, the Miles Franklin … but I guess that’s just real life.
I went straight to work. Last Drinks had wrapped up and it had been moderately successful, and I felt we could push the agenda further. I rang La Boite and told them Andrew had just won and did La Boite want the adaptation. Here was the kicker, though: Andrew and I wanted to co-adapt and co-direct. It was a brazen request but it just seemed, given the way we worked, the most obvious thing to do. We got a yes that same day.
One of the great things about this project was that, early in the process, La Boite sent Andrew and I on a ‘research’ mission out to the locations featured in the book. A few months later, I would re-create this trip with the design team, but with that first trip it was just Andrew and I.
We drove out of Brisbane in my little red Suzuki Sierra, and made our way to Dalby, then we headed out to the Dalby plains and visited the site of the old McGahan family farm, where Andrew spent his childhood. The farm house was long gone and Andrew and I spent quite a while picking over the remains, wandering around, taking in the scenery.
The White Earth is a work of fiction but the places are real. Dalby is Powell. The McGahan farm is William’s farm. Jimbour House is Kuran House. The Bunya Mountains are the Hoop Mountains. That day, at the McGahan farm site, I took photos. I was searching for visual inspiration for the production. I photographed Andrew’s shadow on the dirt, and his back, thinking these shots could easily be of The White Earth’s John McIvor. Now, when I look at them I see something different. I see Andrew, and only Andrew. There’s another photo from that visit, in the foreground there is a blackened, burnt stump and beyond that, across the fields, the Bunya Mountains, which appear as a low, distant blue range in the right of frame. It’s not the world’s greatest photo but, for me, this is The White Earth in one image. Originally, I wanted it on the front cover of the published adaptation, and I just managed to persuade the publisher to put it on the back. I’m glad it’s there. If nothing else, it’s a moment in time. I know that Andrew and I are standing behind the camera.
After visiting the farm site we went to Jimbour House for a walk around, and finally, after bouncing along unsealed back roads for hours, we drove up the Bunya Mountains where we had a house booked for the night.
That evening, after dinner, we headed out into the darkness. We drove to a lookout that faced west. All before us was black, but you could still sense the vastness of the plains. Off in the west, a storm was rolling in. Occasionally, lightning would flash, illuminating the clouds from within. It was sublime. Time passed and I must of started getting twitchy. Maybe I wanted a beer. There were some back at the house, cold and calling to me. Andrew nodded, he understood. Even so, he was reluctant to leave. ‘I could watch this weather forever,’ he said, or something very close to that.
That was Andrew, beautifully patient and deeply connected to the landscape.
While it is often noted that Andrew wrote across genres it is this connection to weather, to the natural world, that binds his writing into a coherent whole. It’s not surprising, really. His childhood spent on the Dalby farm, and his stint at the weather station at Cape Don in the Northern Territory – the inspiration for 1988 – cemented something in his understanding of the world. It’s there in everything. The Brisbane heat and the sex of Praise and Last Drinks. A cyclone kickstarts the mayhem in Underground, and in The White Earth it is drought that empties the waterhole and reveals the terrible truth, and it is the coming of the rain that provides William relief at the end. In some ways, Wonders of a Godless World, an experimental work powered by the very forces of nature, is the perfect expression of this, but it’s even there in his YA series, Ship Kings, for what are sailors if not for the wind.
And so The White Earth adaptation. We started writing. Andrew came to Brisbane once or twice. I made a couple of trips to Melbourne, and slowly the adaptation took shape. He was generous with his work. There were times when he’d leave me alone in his office, a cave-like room where he worked. I would sit at his desk and tap away at his keyboard. It seems remarkable now. Here was a novel already firmly entrenched in the nation’s cultural consciousness, and he was happy to let me sit in his private, creative space and change a line, delete a line, rearrange stuff. One thing you could never call Andrew was precious. Of course, he did a lot of writing too, the bulk of it perhaps. He could distill down pages of his text into a simple and elegant paragraph. Watching him do this was like watching a magician. No, that’s wrong, it wasn’t a trick, it was something else. Something real.
The stage adaptation of The White Earth opened in February 2009. During the run, Andrew and I rarely sat in the main part of the auditorium, at least not with the public there, we were too nervous. In La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre there are a couple of plastic chairs, way up the back behind a waist-high, solid partition. I think it’s the platform for wheelchairs. In any case, that’s where we sat. Often, when we approached the tricky bits in the show (and there were lots of those), where we knew it could all derail, we’d crouch down and hide behind the partition. Were we nervous? For sure. Were we mortified? A little bit. Were we exhilarated? Definitely. But mostly we were dumbstruck by the whole thing, By what we were doing. By what we had done. We’d look at each and just shake our heads. It was so much damn fun.
To be objective about the end result, the actual piece that ended up on the stage, it wasn’t perfect. I think I paced it a little slowly and, in the end, I think I relied too heavily on technical trickery, which is nothing against the design team, they were all brilliant. It looked amazing. I just think, in the end, it probably didn’t need all that stuff. And that’s on me. If Andrew took the lion’s share of writing, I took the lion’s share of directing (though I’ll always remember Andrew impatiently demonstrating how to violently wave an oversized Eureka flag to a flustered cast member who couldn’t see properly out of his Ku Klux Klan costume. There was a director in there somewhere).
We spoke a little bit about the adaptation and the production on a walk in Sunshine when I visited him last year. I told him that, in retrospect, I might do things a little differently. He wasn’t concerned. And that was the other thing about Andrew: as far I could tell, he wasn’t one to dwell.
There was a third adaptation of another of Andrew’s novels – of Wonders of a Godless World, with a student cohort, at Griffith University, in 2012. I only decided to do Wonders because during the run of The White Earth, Andrew had told me about his next novel and said there was no way in hell anyone could ever adapt it for the stage. It was just too weird. It sounded like a challenge, so I started straight away, working from an uncorrected proof copy of the book. Andrew was mostly hands off for this one, but still, after one of the performances, he came backstage to meet the students. Strangely, out of all the productions we did I think he liked this one the best. Perhaps it was because, being a student production, the pressure was off. No-one was watching, and I was more relaxed. Or maybe it was because with over twenty student performers we could, as Andrew’s novel demanded, create giant waves and make volcanoes erupt. Whatever the reason, Andrew, surrounded by the students still in their costumes, told them, ‘Now, that is theatre.’
In the end, however, Andrew’s relationship with the theatre remained split. On the one hand, he was drawn to the process of creating a work. The stuff that happens behind the scenes, in the rehearsal rooms, backstage. For him, that part of the process was mad, fun and social. Rarely, he suspected, did the fun and madness of creating a work translate through to the stage.
For the program of Wonders of a Godless World, Andrew and I interviewed each other about the process and our work together. I asked him why he did all this theatre stuff. ‘Theatre is a fascinating world to visit, coming from a novelist background,’ he said.
It’s a cliche to say so, of course, but writing a novel really is a mostly isolated process, whereas theatre is the opposite – indeed, it’s the very definition of a group activity. Those cooperative and social aspects make for a nice change, on the rare occasions that I’m directly involved with a production. Plus, there’s an urgency and dare I say panic to theatre which simply doesn’t exist in novel writing, which is all about the long slow grind. It’s especially addictive to be part of that urgency and chaos when experienced backstage or in the rehearsal room – which is no doubt one reason theatre people love their world so much. But I do wonder if enough of that inside fun makes it out to the audience, who only get to see the often-rather-dull end product.
Hard but honest words, and if nothing else they prove Andrew was, and forever will be, a novelist. And yet how to explain this body of work we created over decades? A body of work that ran along a back road, but a road that closely followed the contours of his main career as a novelist. My suspicion is that while contracts were often signed for our projects, they were never really business deals. Rather, our creative times together were the basis of our friendship. Which is not to say we didn’t take the work seriously; we did, but more important than the finished product was the frenzied act of creating together. That was the connection, and that seemed to be what was most important. All the completed adaptations and even the half-formed, scrappy unfinished stuff are the detritus of a friendship. In this way, even though Andrew would never be totally seduced by the theatre, he nonetheless innately understood its power to connect people, face to face, in the same space. In the program for Wonders I asked him why he let me do it. He wrote, ‘we’re old friends, I was hardly gonna say no!’
Friendship was indeed important to Andrew. His circle of friends was large, his family even larger. And while his reputation was sometimes that of a reclusive writer nothing could be further from the truth. He was gregarious, open, loving and committed to those who mattered to him. Andrew wasn’t a reclusive writer, he simply had no need or use for celebrity. His life was already full.
During that final visit we crammed in as much as possible. We drank a few beers, went on walks, had the best damn Vietnamese soup up at the shops at Sunshine, and watched some crap movie, ripping it apart the way we always did. At some point, at Andrew’s suggestion, we set up my camera on timer and fired off some shots of us sitting together in his courtyard.
The next day, as the visit was nearing its end, the banter started to dry up, and we began to sit quietly together. There was so much to say, and yet there was nothing to say.
After a period of silence I said, ‘You know, I thought we would do another project.’
He nodded and replied, ‘Me too.’
Another moment of silence, and then I had to leave to catch a flight back to Brisbane. We stood and Andrew said, ‘Okay, Shaun, let’s hug.’
I can’t explain that moment.
I also can’t explain how numb it felt to leave Andrew standing in the hallway. I’m not sure what the weather was like that day. I think it was cold. But as I walked to the car I didn’t feel anything, only a descending sense of confusion. I managed to keep it together as I drove towards Tullamarine, but by the time I ditched the hire car and made the departure lounge I had lost it. I found a bar, ordered a beer, and started to cry.
When I landed in Brisbane and turned on my phone there was a text from Andrew.
‘Hope you made it home safe and sound, Shaun. Thanks once more for your visit. It seems very fitting that our last time together was spent as most of our time together was – playing around with cameras and pointlessly critiquing bad movies. It was fun, all of it, then and now. So thank you for the entire friendship.’