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The Shark Net: Memoirs and Murder
Robert Drewe
289 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Robert Drewe

Novelist and memoirist Robert Drewe compares writing nonfiction to writing novels and tells us why he thinks a writer's childhood surroundings help determine the landscape of his prose.

You've written seven works of fiction, but The Shark Net is your first major foray into nonfiction. Why did you decide to write a memoir? Was it something you'd been considering for a long time?

Drewe: I didn't really decide to write a memoir as such; the material was so closely bound up in personal family matters and sensitive feelings that for a long while I saw it as somehow out of bounds. But years, decades, passed and the chaotic events of those four or five years at the beginning of the sixties began pressing on me more than ever. And I thought, "It's now or never."

WAG: How did it feel to mull over your childhood and adolescence—or for that matter, the Perth of your childhood?

Drewe: It was both exhilarating and very emotionally taxing. I enjoyed reliving the childhood episodes ("the moss-pissing years") and the whole provincial milieu of the fifties, and got some wry amusement and bittersweet pleasure out of writing about my adolescence, especially my would-be Rottnest Island romances. But writing about the pregnancy and its dramatic aftermath—inextricably bound up as it was with multiple murders and domestic and community recriminations—was very difficult and gave me many sleepless nights.

WAG: Did you have any qualms about revealing so much private material about your family?

Drewe: Of course. But many years have passed—and, as it happened, I was urged on and supported by my sister, who was anxious to learn about that time and the parents she hardly had time to know.

WAG: Do you think that you would have become a different sort of writer—one with different thematic interests, for example—if you had stayed in Melbourne rather than moving to Perth?

Drewe: There's no doubt I would be a different sort of writer if the family hadn't moved from Melbourne. Of course, I would have absorbed a totally different, less extreme environment. Those early years really fix a particular landscape in your mind's eye for all time. I don't know what would have taken the place of the beach and the coast in my life. Tennis? Football? Rose-growing?

WAG: Your use of the Eric Cooke murder material is novel. Rather than presenting it as a straightforward true-crime story, you use it more sparingly to advance and underline more complicated themes in your own story. Is that how you intended to use the material from the beginning or did the manuscript develop in that direction as you worked?

Drewe: I was always determined not to let the Eric Cooke material dominate the story. Despite my knowing the killer and one of the victims, that would have seemed to be exploiting it rather than letting it sit naturally, as it actually happened, within the context of my family's lives and the lives and times of the community. It was the most terrible time the community had experienced, but life--and death--went on. Even today, thirty years later, the Cooke killings are the source of constant discussion in Perth.

WAG: How does writing nonfiction compare to writing novels?

Drewe: I guess it depends on the sort of nonfiction. Writing a memoir is easier in a technical sense: you know what is going to happen! You know what your experiences were, what your material is. The major difficulties are the sensitivities of others, the selection process and your actual writing technique.

Writing novels is a freer sensation for me. After writing The Shark Net the next novel will seem like a holiday. You're God, you can make characters do what you want; you can make the story go where you want. But with this freedom you need a stringent discipline, too.

WAG: Do you think you'd work in nonfiction again, if the right subject came along?

Drewe: I would definitely work in nonfiction again. In fact, I've been contracted by Hamish Hamilton in London and Viking-Penguin in Australia to write another memoirish book called Mangrove Point after my present novel.

WAG: Finally, two related questions.

a) Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer--someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself?

b) And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Drewe: a) I admire the work of Barry Hannah, the Mississippi writer. I think he's hilarious, very clever and edgy and blackly comic. I've used his stories in two international short story collections I've edited, The Picador Book of the Beach and The Penguin Book of the City.

b) Apart from myself, do you mean?

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted November 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Sandy Edwards

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne and grew up on the West Australian coast. He is the author of five internationally acclaimed novels, two short story collections and, most recently, The Shark Net: Memories and Murder.



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