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Craig Sherborne interview

Whether in poetry, memoir or now fiction, Craig Sherborne sees writing as a way to “live life out a second time” and make sense of it.

Craig Sherborne/Corbis

In the midst of writing his first novel, at the magical point where “the characters come off the page and surround you like ghosts in your own house”, Craig Sherborne took to his bed. “I went into a very big hole. I really went off the rails. I sat there thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ It felt like a physical reaction – that you simply don’t have in you what you need to finish the book and what are you wasting your life for?”

He felt so unwell he visited his GP, who suggested dietary supplements. But what Sherborne describes as a crisis of confidence both in himself and his writing was not going to be cured with Berocca.

It’s not as if The Amateur Science of Love is Sherborne’s first foray into print. The Melbourne-based writer has put himself out there many times: as a poet, playwright, journalist and the author of Hoi Polloi (Black Inc, 2005) and Muck (Black Inc, 2007), two acclaimed, award-winning memoirs of growing up in 1970s Australia and New Zealand. And it’s not as if he hasn’t mined deeply personal material – reviewers of his memoirs tend to use words such as scalding and searing.

Sherborne is the only child of overbearing, social-climbing parents, whom he labelled Winks and Heels. His memoirs trace his grotesquely funny childhood, from Hastings, where his parents ran a pub, to the racetracks and exclusive schools of Sydney and back to New ­Zealand, where his parents set themselves up as landed gentry and built Tudor Park, a mansion amid the cow pats.

Sherborne paints himself as a snobbish, unlikeable, tragic prat of an heir. He sees his father beaten up in their pub – or hotel, as his mother insists on calling it – as a matter of course and is forced to attend the local primary school dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, when most of his classmates are barefoot.

Although others may consider his childhood a catastrophic, comic nightmare, Sherborne doesn’t see it like that. “I look back on my own childhood – and the books – as quirky, complicated love letters.” As a boy, he was a “tall, gangly, slightly stroppy little shit”, certainly a prat, but a lonely prat in search of love. He misses his parents terribly. “I still have my mother’s ashes in my study; I’ve never been able to scatter them. You have these love-hate relationships in your life and I was like that with my parents – and yet the love was so desperately profound. We all rubbed each other up the wrong way; this neurotic threesome slowly going mad every time we were together.”

He was writing his first memoir, Hoi Polloi, as his father was dying. “I was staying with him and he was going downhill pretty quick. I was writing by his bed while he was sleeping and I thought, ‘It is crazy to be doing this’, and yet it seemed very natural; they were love ­letters.”

Sherborne recalls a line in Dylan ­Thomas’s Under Milk Wood that he found seminal as a poetry-writing teenager: “We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood.”

“That has become the way I see life and characters: most of us are not bad or good but a bit of both. If you believe literature has any worth as some kind of cultural referencing of what it is to be a person at a particular time and place, then you have to be truthful. Truth is a difficult word because it has so many religious overtones but it is still a very important word in writing.”

Which brings us back to his crisis of confidence halfway through his first novel. The Amateur Science of Love begins where we left Sherborne in Muck, on the brink of adulthood. The fictional character of Colin Butcher is in London, living in the archetypal grotty youth hostel, auditioning for RADA – not unlike the path taken by the author himself. Then Colin falls in love and the affair changes his life. He moves to Australia, settling in a rural Victorian town.

“Everything I write is part of the same project – it all comes from an autobiographical base – the memoirs, the poetry … autobiography forms the bedrock of all literature, really.” It’s not giving away the plot to say Colin wrestles with his conscience over whether to betray those closest to him, at a time when they need him most. In writing Colin’s dilemma, Sherborne says, he was forced to confront situations in his own life when he had been severely tested – and failed.

“It really started to go into me and my sense of unworthiness as a human being. I felt as though in the tests I have had as a human being I have not quite measured up. I started to go through aspects of my own life to pull out the emotion needed for the book. It was like something inside me had to work itself out.”

In the novel, Colin confesses to the reader that writing allows him to “live life out a second time, make sense of it, to clear your conscience, square your soul”. There are events of biblical proportions in Amateur Science – freakish ailments, even a plague of rodents. In the end, though, no pestilence rained down. The writer simply found the right words for Colin, hauled himself out of bed and finished the book. “In many ways, I see Colin as a better person than I was at that age – more directed and somehow braver and even less of the muddler. I admire him in some weird way, even though he is not a pleasant character.” He pauses. “A lot of people will find that quite a disgusting notion.”

For Sherborne – as for the character of Colin – words were both a refuge and a comfort. His was not a literary household, yet he remembers the complete works of Shakespeare turning up one day when he arrived home from primary school. He recalls flicking through the volumes and feeling as if “it was the word of God, though I couldn’t understand a word of it. I remember just being fascinated by the size of the books and the smell of them – it seemed like an alternative Bible to read books.”

Later, he discovered writing was something he could do and he went on to win awards for his plays and to work as a journalist, writing news features for Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper and more recently the Monthly, a national current affairs magazine. “If you have a proficiency, it makes an enormous difference to your life: you no longer feel like a complete idiot, you feel quite charged and energised and somehow important.”

Sherborne’s second collection of poetry, Necessary Evil (Black Inc, 2005), contains several less than flattering accounts of his experiences as a journalist; the title came from his own musings on the point of the profession. These days he does less and less of it. He’s in the midst of a second novel and has left memoir behind as well. “At my mother’s funeral, I said, ‘I don’t want to write any more about my parents.’ In many ways, my mother’s death was so significant, it just left me alone: I don’t have any children of my own or any close family members, because they mostly live in New Zealand. I’ve preserved my mother and father and myself in amber and I just want to leave it in amber and go off and do other stuff.”

And he was eager for the creative freedom of making things up. “The thing about memoir is that you almost step outside of your own life and think of yourself – or your parents – as people you are observing or putting on a stage, and having them live out [your] life again. It’s a spooky experience, but you are bound by the facts of narrative and the concept of – for want of a better word – truth.”

Besides which, the recent rash of celebrity memoirs have given the once-reputable genre a bad name, he says. “There are so many crappy ones out there now: commercial memoirs done to exploit someone’s fame or tragedy. They should probably ban the whole thing, really.”

What drives him is his search for emotional truth. “To try and say what it is to be a particular human being, in a particular time, in particular circumstances … to offer some truth and realism about what it is to be us now and all the complications and confusions that we endure. I like the idea of ordinary people who are tested in life, who find themselves tested in love and relationships. The politics and dynamics of that obsess me.”

Perhaps Colin’s line in The Amateur Science of Love, about writing your life out a second time to make sense of it, to square your soul, was a little pointer to the reader? “Exactly right. I think that in this day and age to undertake the business of writing seriously is as good a thing to have on your gravestone as anything.”

THE AMATEUR SCIENCE OF LOVE, by Craig Sherborne (Text, $40).