Malcolm Knox, author of The Life, answers Six Sharp Questions

by |June 3, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Malcolm Knox

author of The Life, JamaicaSummerland and more…

Six Sharp Questions


1. Congratulations, you have a new book. What is it about and what does it mean to you?

THE LIFE is a novel, my fourth, and it’s an immersive experience both to write and (I hope) to read. It’s narrated in the voice of Dennis Keith, a 58-year-old washed-up ex-surfer living with his mother in her retirement village… and secretly plotting a comeback. It’s soaked in the idiom of Old Queensland. He hasn’t surfed for decades, during which he’s been known as a reclusive, shadowy, slightly sinister mystery. A young surf journalist, Megan, turns up claiming she wants to write his biography, and Dennis’s mother, Mo, surprises him by letting Megan in. What Megan really wants is something else, and she and Dennis both set about a sly dance of trying to outwit each other.

The story takes place in the present but also on the Gold Coast of the 1960s and 1970s, wandering into the question of how Dennis turned from golden boy into bloated old man, from that into this. It has elements of crime thriller to it, and lots about how a kid with no past became hooked on his special relationship with the sea. It’s a historical novel, looking at the birth of modern celebrity and the moment when the Gold Coast changed from a working-class touch beachside community into a high-rise resort. More than anything, though, it’s a trip in the hands of a mad, bad, dangerous but also strangely charming and funny narrator who wants to tell everything and nothing at the same time. Read a review of THE LIFE by author Kylie Ladd here.

2. Times pass. Things change. What are the best and worst moments that you have experienced in the past year or so?

Hard question, but as I surf a lot I’ll restrict my answer to that subject. The worst moment was going to Indonesia to surf and getting held underwater and dragged along a reef so badly and so long that I really was beginning to panic. The best moment was the same week, getting the longest, biggest, most powerful and exhilarating waves of my life.

3. Do you have a favourite quote or passage you would be happy to share with us? It doesn’t need to be deep but it would be great if it meant something to you.

I’ve always liked Rilke’s line about writing: ‘If you can live without writing, don’t write.’ It’s a warning and a comfort. It warns you that writing is something that shouldn’t be forced. It comforts you because it tells you that if you’re not writing, you probably shouldn’t be, so don’t worry about it.

4. Writers have often been described as being difficult to live with. Do you conform to the stereotype or defy it? Please tell us a little about the day to day of your writing life.

I’m not the best person to ask. But I know my wife complains about my state of abstractedness while I’m in the writing zone. I have a glazed look. I’m ‘there but not there’. I’m not that difficult, more a waste of space.

5. Some writers claim not to be influenced by the needs of the marketplace, while others seem obsessed by it. Would you please describe how the marketplace affects your writing (come on, tell the truth!).

I have periods where I become affected by the marketplace – or rather, I dwell on something I’m often told, which is that I would sell a lot more books if I changed the way I write to cater to what the market has shown it wants. When I do this, I usually start on novels that I never finish. The thing is, writing a novel is too long and hard a process to get through unless you’re absolutely passionate about what you’re doing. It’s very hard to fake, and even if you can fake it to the point where you have produced a book, readers will eventually find you out. So in my case, when the market-focused approach fails, as it always does, I go back to doing what I do best, and live in hope that I will do something that the market catches up with. If there’s one truth about the market for books, it’s that it will surprise you with what it goes for next. It’s completely unpredictable. So that’s another reason not to write what you think the market has liked in the past.

6. Unlikely Scenario: You’ve been charged with civilising twenty ill-educated adolescents but you may take only five books with you. What do you take and why?

OK, the first book has to be The Lord of the Flies, because it’s accessible and it will in some way mirror back to them their own world and tell them great books are about them too. Then I’d give them the ultimate comic adolescent novel, Catch-22. This would give them a taste for the greatness of literature without overtaxing them. The best way to keep their attention is to keep them amused, so I’d offer something like The Ginger Man like JP Donleavy. As we haven’t had anything Australian yet, I’d move them onto The Fat Man In History or War Crimes by Peter Carey. So now they’re primed to take on a classic, I’d give them Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations or Anna Karenin, depending on their individual taste at this stage. That’s more than five, but I’d give them the choice of any five from that list.

Malcolm, thank you for playing.

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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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