Kim Scott, author of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Winning – That Deadman Dance, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |September 19, 2010

The Booktopia Book Guru Asks

Kim Scott –

winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book in south-east Asia and the Pacific for That Deadman Dance

and author of the Miles Franklin Award Winning Benang and True Country

Ten Terrifying Questions

UPDATE: Kim Scott has won
the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award – details here


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

Born in Perth, Western Australia, but moved to Albany when I was three or four years old and did all my schooling there. Albany is my home town.

My father’s family had lived a couple of hours drive east of Albany, at what’s now Ravensthorpe for the generations since its proclamation, and lived in the vicinity since human society was formed there. But Ravensthorpe has a bad rep with most Aboriginal people today because of a lot of killing that occurred there in the earliest years of its colonisation. I didn’t even know about it until I was a young adult. There’s much food for thought, contemplating one’s Aboriginal family raised in those circumstances, having reconciled themselves with their country if not its recent history.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, a sportsperson (Australian rules football). At Eighteen – after one injury too many – I wanted to be a musician, once I met people who played music and sang. At thirty, a published writer – I was teaching “English”, and felt fraudulent, not having the experience of publication.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That I was near-on indestructible, and pretty well unique.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

My answer will change from day to day. The first book I can remember reading is Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer which, as I recall, starts with a repeated shout: “Tom … Tom …’ , along with, ‘where is that infernal boy?’

My father’s name was Tom, and I wondered if his younger self might be the hero of this novel I had begun. By the time I realised it was probably not my father, my reading had improved a great deal

On another day I might mention le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for the great pleasure of its shifting narration, and the metaphor of spy as writer: you must create a character, including their motivation and ‘back story’: find a voice … Be cunning and deceptive, for a higher cause and greater good.

The piece of music that comes to mind is Bach’s Chaconne in Dm (played on guitar), although I’m no classical music aficionado. Again and again over the years, I have returned to its complex variations, and its slower phrases toward its close speak, I think, poignant truth. I can sink into it, yet be buoyed at the same time.

In visual art, I often return to the so-called Carrolup Art and the rich and distinctive sense of place so evident there, even though the original artists were so new to the materials they were using, and so young.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

It doesn’t feel like a choice. Writing is an art form suitable to solitude, and independence. It values voice, a good ear, and something we might call ‘inwardness’. Perhaps one needs a certain detached coolness. And anxiety? Some of these things, at least, suit aspects of my temperament. It feels a privilege to engage in what is very intimate communication, a kind of collaborative exploration outwards.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

That Deadman Dance is inspired by what’s sometimes called the ‘friendly frontier’, particularly the role of its Aboriginal people – the Noongar – who even turned a military drill into a dance. Though that’s not necessarily the dead man dance I’m talking about.

It’s about communication between black and white at a tentative maritime colony, and the paradoxically global-yet –local nature of nineteenth-century shore-based whaling industry. At one stage, Noongar people were a large proportion of its workforce, those individuals who would row out and spear leviathan so as to experience what their visitors called a ‘Nantucket sleigh ride’, and the festivities afterwards. ‘Here’s adventure and romance’ (as they used to say in tv series, The Cisco Kid), and from it, and the perhaps disconcerting slippage between narrator and character, I hope a collaborative reader and writer can create a sensibility appropriate to such a history.

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I would hope some sense of pleasure, of play and thoughtfulness, might linger.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

As before, there’s quite a group. But Nabokov’s opening to the novel, Lolita, with its description of the ‘tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth’ is hard to beat for expression: a name, a linguistic description, and already we are in the realm of sensuality and arch style. Mind you, it was Anthony Burgess who pointed out the quality of Nabokov’s opening to me, and Burgess’s Clockwork Orange is no mean performance either.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

To persist.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read, play with writing, do diagrams. Feel and think, and be alive to the world around you as well as within.

Kim, thank you for playing.

Some of the rave reviews That Deadman Dance has already received:

‘A novel of great power and originality. One of the finest I’ve read in many years. I hope it wins all the prizes and gains Kim the wide recognition he richly deserves. It is a great achievement.

‘For a long time I felt sure it was the quiet unfolding of the great Australian tragedy of dispossession, but Kim’s vision is not that simple, nor that predictable – nor that closed. He offers us instead something far richer, subtler and fresher than this. The language is magical, often ecstatic, and Kim’s passion for it is a gift to the reader – the characters and landscapes are so accurately observed at times that their exquisite detail blends them one with the other.

That Deadman Dance is beautiful, heartrending and utterly superb. I was enthralled from the first page to the last by the strange urgency of the story; and yet the voice in which the story is told is not urgent but is modest, unhurried, calm and often deeply reflective. And always richly intelligent. While I was reading, I was aware of never having read anything quite like it before.’

Alex Miller, Miles Franklin Award winning author of The Ancestor Game and Lovesong

‘Fresh and original in its re-imagining the first years of contact between the Noongar people, British colonists and American whalers, That Deadman Dance explores the lively fascination these people felt for one another. It’s a testimony to Kim Scott’s skill and restraint that, right from the beginning, he leaves the reader’s own awareness of history to cast the long shadow of tragedy over the story. The result is a brilliant feat of understanding—a novel rich in compassion—from a writer bewitched by the thrill of breathing life into the past.’

Rodney Hall, Miles Franklin Award winning author of Popeye Never Told You

That Deadman Dance is an achievement equivalent to that of Alexis Wright. It is an enchanting and authentic book, giving us an insider’s view of Australia before it was Australia. The early collisions between European and Aboriginal (Noongar) cosmologies is calmly narrated, the tragedy of it delineated at a wonderful pace. It is an enormously readable, humane, proud and subtle book, and many Australians will love to get a sense of the experience of intrusion not from a descendant of intruders but from a child of the true possessors.’

Thomas Keneally, Miles Franklin Award and Man Booker Prize winning author of Schindler’s Ark

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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  • September 19, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Great responses. I love that Nabokov and Burgess are highlighted–I adore them both.

    And I completely agree on the idea of leaving the reader with a sense of playfulness and thoughtfulness–I love reading a book that imparts something beyond its plot.

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