First published on 27 Apr 2012. Updated on 30 Apr 2012.
Ruby, this is your first published novel. What were some of the early novels-that-never-made-it-off-the-PC about?
I’ve always written short stories and worked as a freelance writer on the side, but I thought it would take me a long time to work up to a novel. Jakarta haunted me, though, and it wouldn’t fit in a short story. It needed more. In lots of ways I probably wasn’t ready to leave the city behind when I did, so I tried to carry it away with me. Running Dogs is my first novel, but it’s been a while in the making.
What are your personal ties with Indonesia?
Australians seem to forget sometimes that 17,000 islands are drifting above our northern coast. Indonesia is this enormous, vibrant, complex place, with a population of 238 million, over 700 languages… hugely multicultural, and full of contradictions. I was sent to Jakarta from 2009-2010 as part of an AusAid program to work in public information for a development organisation. I wouldn’t describe Running Dogs as about ‘Indonesia’. It’s about an expat family growing up in Jakarta, and actually, it’s a very small piece of Jakarta!
Did you feel a sense of responsibility portraying an expat culture and the world of NGOs that the average would have a very limited understanding of?
I think every writer is responsible for the kind of story they tell. Running Dogs is a novel about expats in South East Asia, but it’s also about people, and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and what we deserve. It’s not meant to represent everyone’s experience of Jakarta; nothing can do that. But it does try to use one small family, and their lives, to ask questions about something bigger: what it means to ‘belong’ to a family, a nation, what it can be like to feel powerless in front of poverty and privilege. In the end, though, it’s up to the reader to find the answers.
Did your family encourage your writing in any ways?
My family are all involved in the arts. My mother is a young adult writer, my stepfather is a puppeteer, my siblings are musicians and artists and set designers. I tried to escape the arts. I studied environmental political theory, and went on to work in development. My family haven’t exactly encouraged me, but they have shown me that there are no magic underpants that will turn you into an artist: no tricks, no shortcuts. You just have to sit down and work, work, work. And then throw it out and do it all again.
What was your earliest masterpiece as a child, and did it foretell what creative direction you might go in?
When I was eleven I wrote a novel called Hero’s All. The story followed the trials and tribulations of a group of warriors in a country called ‘Middle Earth’. Uh-huh. And the novel’s title was inspired by the Metallica song ‘Hero of the Day’, which wasn’t popular at the time and has since sunk to even new lows of obscurity. It was gripping stuff. Especially the war scene, which took up the bulk of the novel and involved a lot of blood and argument. In a way, I think it did say something about what would interest me later! Genre fiction – like crime and fantasy, which is was what I loved as a child – is about humans working in the grey area between right and wrong, trying to understand what justice means. Often, I think that modern literary fiction can be a bit too cynical, it’s forgotten that these questions – right and wrong, justice and retribution – are part of the human condition; are what we spend so much time trying to work out. Who is right, the elves or the orcs? And what on earth should we do about that body in the library?
How do you discipline yourself as a writer? Do you have a routine you go through?
I try to write in the mornings, before the day begins and I go out into the world and get distracted by it. And I try to do it every day. Setting a word limit or a time limit helps.
What qualities, other than being creative, have helped you as a writer?
To write, I think you have to be prepared to fail, over and over again. So you have to be good-humoured about failure, and you have to be stubborn. You have to have a healthy whack of self-doubt, so that you can see when your work is bad, and some brassy arrogance too, so you can ignore people who tell you your work is bad when you think it’s good. Does that make sense? Probably not.
What does Melbourne have to offer writers (whether it be a fantastic café strip with wireless and seclusion, or the Wheeler Centre, or other resources)?
Melbourne is unlike any other city I’ve lived in for writing, and I’ve lived in a few now! The coffee, for a start, is amazing. Having places like Journal Café next door to the Melbourne City Library and Mr Tulknext door to the State Library… is awesome.
In 2008 Melbourne was designated the world’s second UNESCO City of Literature, after Edinburgh. It’s not hard to see why. The domed reading room at the State Library is one of my favourite places in town. The Wheeler Centre for Books and Ideas does an amazing job; pretty much any day of the week you can walk into a vibrant discussion, mostly for free. The Readings Bookshops in Carlton and St Kilda are huge supporters of the local writing scene, and the writers’ festivals – both the Emerging Writers’ Festival in May/June and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in August – help keep the winter months warm with plenty of words… and wine.
It’s fantastic being transported to Indonesia via its tastes, smells, temperatures and sounds in Running Dogs. If you had to pick another region to write about, what would it be and why?
Even though I love Melbourne, I’ve been an expat on and off for my whole adult life. My parents moved countries a couple of times when I was young and I think that sort of set the tone for what I’d be doing as an adult. I’ve never really been sure where I belong, which country is ‘mine’. But one of the countries I’ve spent a lot of time in is France, and one day I’ll end up writing about part of Europe. It’s an old, difficult, particular piece of the world.
Running Dogs is out on April 30, published by Scribe.