Danyl Mclauchlan’s Unspeakable Secretsby Toby Manhire
Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan’s first novel is a satire in which the mystical secrets of the universe are hidden in Wellington’s Aro Valley.
The best line in Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley – and there are plenty to choose from – is halfway down the acknowledgements on the last page: “Thanks to Campbell Walker, who has confirmed in writing that he will not be taking legal action.” The real-life Campbell Walker, who gives his name to the kitsch and creepy villain in the debut novel by biologist and blogger Danyl Mclauchlan, will be familiar to Wellingtonians of a certain age as the beret-wearing, eye-rolling staffer at the Aro St Video Shop and maker of hyper-realist low-budget films.
“When I was living here, in the mid-90s, Campbell was working incredibly long hours at the video store,” says Mclauchlan, pointing across the road from a table in the Aro St Cafe, another institution in Wellington’s dank bohemian idyll. “It kind of made him quite a powerful figure in the community, because he could waive your late fees, or cancel your membership if he didn’t like you. I remember one of my friends, Matt Grainger, was the film critic for the Dominion, and he made Black Hawk Down his film of the year. Campbell threw him out of the store and banned him for life. And so Campbell was someone I knew who was a figure of fear, almost."
After his novel was accepted for publication, Mclauchlan contacted Walker, who had recently moved to Dunedin. “I sent him this message, saying, ‘Hi, Campbell. Long time, no see. Listen, this is sort of awkward, but I’ve written a novel that defames you quite extensively. How do you feel about that?’ I told him I’d made him the villain. And I think he assumed at that point he was an incredibly glamorous, beguiling villain. And so he was really excited by that and wrote back and said, ‘That’s fine, sure, I waive every legal right.’”
Walker has since read the novel. “He said he really enjoyed it, instead of feeling slighted,” says Mclauchlan, with a disappointed stare.
Walker is not the only Unspeakable Secrets character named after a real person. The protagonist, who finds himself lured into Walker’s Byzantine Aro Valley cult, is Mclauchlan. “I’d been reading all these various thrillers that inspired the book, and one thing I noticed was the main characters often really seemed like the author’s male fantasy about themselves,” he says.
“The heroes were brilliant, and very brave, and incredibly attractive to all the female characters. And they had very similar jobs and backgrounds to the authors of the book. The author is an academic so the hero is an academic; the author is a business journalist so the hero is a business journalist … So I decided to do the opposite, and write a book in which the hero was essentially the author, and didn’t have any of these attractive qualities. Because I know lots of writers and journalists and academics and very few of them are incredibly brave or sexually irresistible.”
This might be his first novel, but 38-year-old Mclauchlan already has a loyal readership as a blogger. The Dim-Post, one of a handful of New Zealand political blogs that will not send you into a spiral of despair, began five years ago focused on satire, although he has since branched out to include smart political commentary alongside the parody.
Back in 2008, there were just a few online satirists, but recent years have seen many more spring up. Some are even funny. “I kind of feel the torch has been passed on to a new generation of dicks on the internet,” says Mclauchlan.
The most celebrated of the new breed is, of course, The Civilian, which received an unlikely burst of publicity when witless Conservative Party leader Colin Craig issued its author with a legal threat. By way of solidarity, Mclauchlan posted an appallingly hilarious spoof interview with Craig, in homage to Fifty Shades of Grey. Sample sentence: “As I hung upside down beside him, both of us screaming in exaltation and pain while hot wax from the candles strapped to our ankles ran down our thighs, I couldn’t decide what it was that separated him from other minor party political leaders.”
On the whole, political blogging “seems a lot less influential now than it was around 2007 or 2008”, says Mclauchlan. “I guess other forms of social media, like Twitter, seem far more influential.” And it was never going to be an earner. The day job is at Victoria University’s School of Biological Studies, in the field of bio-informatics, or computational biology. His current project, which doesn’t sound a million miles away from the world of politics, is building a database of wasp pathogens.
Unspeakable Secrets is promoted on its outside cover as “a classic Kiwi comic mystery erotic horror adventure novel” (“something I said as a joke to the publisher, and he stuck on the back of the book and wouldn’t take it off”). That certainly captures the novel’s entertainment quotient. But it’s also a clever book, tightly plotted and told in a manner something like a pastiche of Paul Auster writing a pastiche of Dan Brown.
Mclauchlan insists he knows nothing about postmodernism, but concedes he’s a fan of Auster and Jorge Luis Borges. “They’re interested in riddles and labyrinths and self-referentiality, and I’m interested in those things as well.” But their influence was fleeting compared with that of Dan Brown, who never left his shoulder. “Just like Virgil was with Dante,” he deadpans.
“I’d lived overseas, and done lots of travelling and ended up reading all these airport novels. There was this fashion, kicked off by The Da Vinci Code, for thrillers and mysteries in which the secrets of the universe are all hidden behind riddles and mazes in exotic locations like Jerusalem or the south of France or Rome or wherever. Then I moved back and thought, ‘Why not write a satire in which the mystical secrets of the universe are hidden in the Aro Valley?’”
With no experience in composing fiction, and disinclined to study creative writing, Mclauchlan conducted a different kind of computational research. “I was searching the internet for advice for writers, and I remember one site I came across was about slash fiction, which is where people write erotic stories about fictional characters – so you have hundreds of thousands of weird sex scenes people have written in which Voldemort has sex with Bilbo Baggins or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or whatever.”
And there the biologist-blogger discovered a rule to live, or at least write, by. “One of the pieces of advice was: never write a lesbian three-way. If you generalise that, it’s actually amazingly good advice. If you think about the technical challenges of writing a scene in which you introduce three characters and then have them interacting with each other in similar ways, it would be impossible not to make that confusing for the reader.
“So when I read that, I realised I had lots and lots of scenes like that. And now I use it as a kind of test when I write a scene: is this a lesbian three-way? It would have been useful if I’d had a mentor who could have read the first draft and said, ‘No, no, these are all lesbian three-ways.’”
UNSPEAKABLE SECRETS OF THE ARO VALLEY, by Danyl Mclauchlan (VUP, $35).
Update: Just for the record, a couple of tweets from the above-mentioned Matt Grainger ...
Campbell Walker never banned me from Aro St Video; I banned myself after being berated for trying to rent some shitty blockbuster. @danylmc
— Matthew Grainger (@mjgrainger) July 11, 2013
But most importantly: Black Hawk Down was NEVER my film of the year. @danylmc
— Matthew Grainger (@mjgrainger) July 11, 2013
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