“You can write great books or you can have children. It’s up to you.” That was the pep-talk given to novelist Michael Chabon at a party by an unnamed literary great. “You lose a book,” the advisor continued “For every child.”
Chabon ignored the advice and fathered four children. Luckily, this decision didn’t apparently hold him back, after all, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. Nor does fatherhood seem to have hampered Elliot Perlman either. The Melbourne novelist is the father of two boys aged three and four. “I’ve always wanted to be a dad,” he says. “Frankly, I love it.”
Now 55, fatherhood came later than expected to Perlman, due to what he describes as a “kind of segmented life” that saw him living in New York for nine years. Other biographical chapters included a stint working as a barrister, before he wrote his first novel, Three Dollars in 1998. Since then his novels including Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Street Sweeper have won Perlman international acclaim. The Times Literary Supplement (UK) dubbed him “Australia’s outstanding social novelist” while the Lire (France) named him one of the “50 most important writers in the world”
Given all this, it’s probably understandable that Perlman took the scenic route to fatherhood. “I am an older than average dad for such young children,” he admits. “It hasn’t quite happened yet that somebody has said how sweet it is that their grandfather is picking them up from kinder, but it probably won’t be long.”
Here Perlman discusses life, fatherhood and his new novel, Maybe The Horse Will Talk.
TFH: There’s this line in your new book: “The cardinal rule of fatherhood is to never, ever, stop being terrified your child is going to hurt herself.” Is that a view that you follow yourself as a dad?
ELLIOT PERLMAN: Absolutely. My father read that line and he laughed and laughed and said: ‘I wonder if other fathers feel like that? Or is just you?’ But I do feel like that. I’ve become a little more relaxed, but there is still that feeling when your child is born that the buck stops with you.
I remember when my first son was born. My wife was exhausted after the birth and so the physician handed the baby to me wrapped in this little blanket and we just hung out together for an hour or two. And there was this moment of bonding when you think: ‘This is it! I am now responsible for another human life!’ Nothing concentrates the mind like that feeling.
It also made me remember something that Eddie, the central protagonist in my first novel Three Dollars, said. Now I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s something like: ‘In life, you come to realise that you don’t really know anything. There’s nothing really important, nothing definitive, that you can pass on to your child with one exception. If you live in Melbourne, no matter what time of day or night, no matter the temptation, always avoid Punt Road.’
TFH: Stephen Maserov, the main character in your new novel, is terrified he’s about to lose his job as a lawyer. In general, a lot of the characters in your books often seem pretty anxious – particularly when it comes to money and job insecurity. Where does all that comes from? Are you an anxious guy yourself?
EP: In a micro sense I’m not, but in a macro sense I am. To a certain extent that’s a consequence of my age and the generation I was born. I became an adult at the time that neo-liberalism completely vanquished that Keynesian post-war agreement that if you work hard, do your best and stay out of trouble then you will be safe. You will have a secure job for life and you won’t be economically humiliated. But that agreement was just completely ripped asunder in the late ‘70s, around the time of Thatcher and Reagan.
There was a warning about all this in Three Dollars and not a subtle warning either. A character Tanya says if this economic trend continues then we’ll have crypto-fascist regimes running first-world developed countries. Sadly, that’s been proved right. So much of the situation that Eddie and Tanya face in Three Dollars has not only continued but it’s got worse. More and more people are feeling it. The tendency towards the gig economy has only exacerbated it.
That’s at the heart of Maybe The Horse Will Talk. The opening line tells the reader immediately where Maserov is at in his mind and in his life. And I think that will resonate with a tremendous number of people immediately.
TFH: That line you refer to is: ‘I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.’ And not only does it open the book, but it’s also repeated via another character later in the book. Obviously that repetition isn’t coincidental.
EP: No, it’s not and it begs the question: ‘Well, if you absolutely hate your job, why are you so terrified of losing it?’ And the answer is that you are terrified of falling out of the mainstream economy.
When you look at the bigger picture, on top of the unemployed figures, between 18 and 25 per cent of the workforce are underemployed. They have some hours of employment but not enough and they’re desperate to get more or to work in a full- time job, but, but they can’t get enough hours. You see those people everywhere and they’re often well-educated and hardworking.
So there’s tremendous insecurity and chronic stress out there. And it’s for that reason that the 75 per cent of people in the workforce with full-time jobs often put up with such appalling circumstances.
TFH: As a novelist, you’ve repeatedly demonstrated that you think seriously, deeply and morally about the social forces that are shaping our planet. Right now between climate change and the precarious nature of the global economy things aren’t looking too hopeful. As the father of two very young boys, how do you avoid catastrophising about their future?
EP: Look, I definitely have those fears for the future. And I can only tell you what I do and I’m not saying this is sufficient or even right. Plus, I am not an expert in anything, frankly.
But I think in terms of parenting, irrespective of what’s going on with the economy or with the planet, the first thing to do is to make sure your kids always feel secure and loved. You need to give them that sense that everything is safe and that you’re totally crazy about them. You also need them to know they can afford to do the wrong thing and make mistakes. It’s up to the parents to help children with those mistakes and sometimes literally clean them up and teach them how to do better next time. While explaining that next time they probably won’t do it perfectly either.
But I was also somewhat comforted by what I read in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. He wrote that nobody knows what kind of education will be the best for your children in terms of getting a job in the future. The reason for that is the jobs they’ll want to get haven’t even been invented yet.
So all you can do is try and give your kids the best education you can at this moment in time, while knowing that you’re almost certainly not going to be entirely right in your assessment of what’s the best for them and probably not even manage to deliver on that incorrect assessment. So it’s perfectly okay to just do the best you can.
TFH: Finally, in your new book, the two central male characters are both dads forced to live apart from their kids because of relationship problems. They’re doing everything to try and still play as active role in their children’s lives as they possibly can. They’re not absent fathers, they’re reluctantly distant ones. What informed that narrative thread?
EP: That’s a symptom of what gets called work / family conflict. You know, that situation where the demands of your work are incompatible with the demands of family and social bonds and you can’t properly satisfy both.
What tends to happen is that people desperately try to satisfy the work demands and think: ‘I’ll fix these family issues out later.’ But, of course, by then, your children will have missed out on your attention at very important times in their lives and you find yourself wondering why you don’t have a real relationship with them.
It comes back to that old idea about what’s really important to you. Do you really want to have put on your tombstone: ‘Here lies John Smith: he made budget for the financial year 2018 / 2019’.
Maybe The Horse Will Talk by Elliot Perlman is out now