Between the Lines: Robert Lukins
Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book. With a focus on debut writers from independent presses, Jay Anderson and Amy Lin ask questions of short story writers, novelists and poets to learn more about what informs recent works of literature. In responding to Between the Lines, our authors open up new questions, and ignite further conversations.
Robert Lukins is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. His debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday, was published in Australia by UQP/Penguin Random House in February 2018. Robert’s work has appeared in Crikey, Overland, The Big Issue, Rolling Stone, Broadsheet, Time Off, Inpress, and other odd places.
This is your first novel, but you have written many novel-length manuscripts since you were seventeen, adopting what you call a ‘puritanical approach to writing’. In what ways did your former manuscripts shape your writing practice and prepare you for writing The Everlasting Sunday?
All of the novel-length pieces of fiction I wrote prior to The Everlasting Sunday were consciously exercises. I was too stubbornly attached to the idea of learning to write in isolation. I think I certainly learnt a little craft during the writing of those works but I also used up a lot of precious energy in their creation. My debut novel is in many ways a reaction against all that I wrote before it. I wanted to free myself from all the constraints and self-flagellating tendencies I’d accumulated over the years. This time I went to a blank page and wrote a story that had great meaning to me, and in a voice that felt natural. All the former manuscripts taught me a lot about perseverance and focus but it was liberating to abandon them to history and finally write that first novel.
The novel is about, among other things, friendship. One of the main characters, Teddy, who runs the Manor for troubled boys, suggests that if all you have is friends, you have a lot, and that you can rely on friends to ultimately save you. How do you see the role of friendship in the novel?
Friendship and other permutations of love certainly become the centre of the story. Characters move into orbits around each other, and it’s kinds of love that control their actions; they come to learn of love as a type of abandonment. Friendship can protect and secure but it necessarily leaves a person vulnerable and this is such a part of its significance. Friendship in this story is an act of courage.
The narrator and main character Radford refers to the ‘badness’ of the boys at the Manor, saying that they were ‘all surely bad’. Yet readers go through the novel not knowing what trouble brought each of them to the Manor. Was this a conscious decision to remain silent on the boys’ histories?
One of the thoughts I was trying to present in the novel is that we only know each other in the places where our stories intersect. We know the parts of each other that we choose to share, and the versions that we present. There’s a great power in choosing to whom, and to what extent, we share ourselves. I tried to extend this idea to my telling of the novel: the characters come to choose how much of their past they wish to share with the reader. We learn the characters in parts, and at the moments we intersect.
The weather, particularly the freezing cold of the 1962 English winter, plays an active role in the text, almost as a narrator or character in itself. How do you see the role of winter as contributing to the book’s atmosphere and thematic significance?
The parts of the story told from the winter’s perspective were strange moments in the writing of the novel. A particular voice would continue to interject as I was writing and I wasn’t sure whose it was. It was only very late in the writing that I realised it was the winter itself. In parallel with the young humans, it tells its own story of being misunderstood and hurt and angered.
I understand part of the inspiration for the book was your experience as a postman in Shropshire. Can you talk a little bit about how your experiences there informed the aesthetic of the narrative?
I found myself working as a postman in a tiny Shropshire village in 2002. I was alone in this place, heading out each morning at 3am on my Royal Mail pushbike, bumbling into the cobbled streets. The last delivery each morning would take me a few miles out of town to a great, abandoned manor house isolated in the grazing fields. Standing at the front door of this house as the sun would begin to rise each morning is such a vivid memory for me. It was always a moment that was so beautiful and intense and frightening. The novel is in many ways simply an attempt to reconstruct that very specific atmosphere that has never left me.
You have spoken about how the Manor, particularly during the Big Freeze of 1962, is a pressure cooker environment, a place of both comfort and danger that is at once beautiful and scary. How did you find the process of balancing these competing concerns and ideas?
I found it a very natural way to write. This central ambivalence, of the beauty and the fear, feels like what it is to be alive. We are competing to balance these forces every day. I managed the writing of this by just letting the anxieties and comforts of the story come to the page as they presented themselves and by not seeking to actively balance the story’s elements. I attempted to let it find its own level.
In the book the main character Radford states, ‘If love came on the back of violence then perhaps that was not love but fear.’ One of the strengths of the novel is how it presents love, fear and violence as intertwined. Can you comment on the interconnection of these themes?
I wanted to build a world inside The Everlasting Sunday where events and motivations are compressed to a degree that they are at times difficult to distinguish from each other, as they are in life. It seems to me that love and fear and violence are so often confused with one another and one can spark the other. Loving a person might mean fearing the loss of that love. The characters in this story come from difficult pasts; places where violence might have been the result of fear.
The title, ‘The Everlasting Sunday’, refers to the suspension of time on a Sunday before Monday approaches, the anticipation of the challenges in the week ahead. You have spoken of the 1962 Winter at the Manor as a ‘frozen moment in time’, akin to this sensation of an everlasting Sunday. In what way do you see the novel’s events as defining the characters, preparing them for their lives beyond the Manor?
That’s a really interesting question and I’m not sure of the answer. The Manor and the novel are not an attempt to necessarily provide answers for these troubled people. The events will shape them but it’s unclear if it’s for the better. The characters came from challenging places and the truth is that for most of them a difficult future lies ahead. It may just be that the Manor, and this winter, will be simply that frozen moment in time. It might have to be enough that it is only a memory they can carry with them.
Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.