Paul Dalgarno is a Melbourne-based author and journalist. He writes mainly about people, including himself, and sometimes sings. His book – And You May Find Yourself – was published by Sleepers Publishing in September 2015.
You certainly have had a very interesting life. Could you tell us a little more about yourself?
I’ve lived a life, since being a teen, where I believed in the idea of meritocracy, as sold by Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 90s. That has seen me try all sorts of things that would have traditionally been considered above my station, but it’s also led to the inevitable conclusion that meritocracy is a trick. Cultural capital – which I’ve never had much of – is the thing: without that, one way or another, you’re screwed.
Could you shed some light onto your most recent book and why it would grab a reader’s attention?
And You May Find Yourself covers a thirty-something man’s first year in Australia, having emigrated from Scotland with his 36-weeks-pregnant Australian wife and their one-year-old son. Without savings or jobs, they find themselves living on the wife’s parents’ living room floor in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, supposedly for a couple of days, then for a couple of weeks, then for a year: two parents and two babies jammed between unpacked cases, furniture and baby paraphernalia in a house with four other adults. I’m one of those parents.
Within that, it’s a book of ideas about family, displacement, fear, depression, friendship, masculinity, marital breakdown, selfishness, mental illness, loneliness, death, humour, and love in all its manifestations.
What is your writing process like and what is a typical writing day like?
I write faster, and with larger text (48 point, 500% magnification), than anyone I know. I used to work on the features desk of an open-plan newsroom. Once, a guy from the sports desk, about 100 metres away, came over to say he could read everything on my screen from where he was sitting.
And yet I don’t look at the screen much while I’m writing. I piss around with fonts, wonder what album to listen to, have a shower, piss around with fonts again, then smash out as many words as I can as quickly as I can without stopping, looking up or worrying about spelling or punctuation. From the 10,000 or so words on the screen at the end of that process, maybe 2,000 will be workable, at least to begin with, which to my mind isn’t bad.
My editing is also quick, but far more forensic and iterative. I have no problem cutting and reshaping my own work. I drag it out in clumps – 4,000 words here, 6,000 there … That process gets more and more granular until, eventually, I’m editing at a sentence level, then zooming back out, then back in, back out … A long time later, from a whole manuscript, there may be three sentences still haunting and taunting me. If I can’t make them work I eventually have to go back in and nix them – the proverbial killing of darlings.
My life, as with other lives, is crowded, so I have no typical writing day, and no set times to write – hence the speediness.
Tell us a little about your experiences while travelling around the world?
Most of my travelling and living elsewhere has been in Spanish-speaking countries, among them Chile, Cuba, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. And Spain – a great many times.
I did a joint honours degree in English literature and Hispanic studies, which explains quite a bit of that, but even before starting the degree there was a gravitational pull. My childhood holidays were often in Spain; the first time I backpacked for any length of time, long before knowing I’d study Spanish, was in Spain.
And it’s not just me. The year before I finished my degree my parents emigrated to Spain, which facilitated more visits from me and lengthy stays. And my grandfather, the greatest autodidact I’ve ever known, taught himself Spanish to an exceptionally high standard to better communicate with good friends he’d made during his holidays to Alicante over the years.
He told me a most-likely-apocryphal story once, which seemed to go some way to clarifying the attraction. Where he comes from, in Fraserburgh – a port town up the coast from my home city of Aberdeen – a man washed up on shore at some point in the 17th century, the only survivor of a shipwreck in the North Sea.
He was alive, if only barely. When the locals managed to revive him the word he kept repeating was Delgado, Delgado, Delgado – a common Spanish surname. He settled in Fraserburgh, where his name, and that of his progeny – through bastardisation – became Dalgarno.
That story came back to me a few weeks ago when I flew to Peru for a work project. The taxi driver waiting at the airport was holding a placard that said Paul Delgado. I didn’t correct him.
Apart from Australia, the other place I’ve spent a big chunk of time is Italy, where I worked as a language teacher. At the end of my degree I was headhunted by the Mi6. I think they were curious to know how someone they’d have previously waterboarded without compunction had transformed himself into someone who could work for them as a spy.
Between blocks of interviews and testing they advised me to go overseas – but not to another Spanish-speaking country. And so I went to Italy. I didn’t love it, and didn’t know what I was doing there until I met the woman who would become my wife.
Do you find as a writer you are more analytical or critical of other writer’s work or find yourself comparing yourself to them?
I’ve found myself only recently in the heinous position of envying the response some people have had to their books, thinking: “MINE IS WAY BETTER.” But that’s a recent phenomenon, and hopefully not habit-forming. More commonly, I’m a sucker for good writing and ever-ready to be thoroughly transported, provided I feel I’m in safe hands.
To give an example of potentially unsafe hands, my book contains a sex scene with my wife when we first met – a sentence that, just writing it, makes me nauseous. There are a million ways – maybe more – sex scenes can be, and are, done badly (a bit like the act itself). That’s true in fiction, of course, but maybe even more so in memoir. The way I got round that was to write about the bed we were having sex on and how it responded.
There are endless crunch points where a reader, in slippery hands, might think: “Fuck this, I’m outta here.” Or not even think it: they’ll just close the book and go do something else. I love seeing writers overcome problems – and when they do, I feel like applauding.
Do you write purely for yourself or with an idealised reader in mind?
I write mainly for myself but bear a few other people in mind. People like my late gran – would she think my writing was pretentious? Would she get every reference? Would she feel alienated? I’m Scottish, and from a relentlessly working-class background: those two things have always held me in check when I feel the temptation to get too far up myself.
Also, there are people whose writing I admire greatly. Would they think this image or that turn of phrase was icky? Would they be able to look me in the eye if we ever met? So it’s always me, but with a Greek chorus murmuring in the wings.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing and how do you overcome it?
My aesthetic is quotidian and I write in simple, vernacular prose. And yet, within that, I’m playing with all the tricks of storytelling, trying to conjure something poetic, engaging, universal, and, on some level, moving.
A Hollywood blockbuster might climax with the hero facing ten seconds to save the world. In mine, the narrator might have ten seconds before his pants fall down slightly, revealing his (wife’s) underpants, during a low-level work presentation to a roomful of disinterested people.
Instilling the everyday with a sense of jeopardy and universal significance can be difficult – but I know when it “feels” right, and that’s usually my saving grace.
Can you talk a little about your father?
My father made only brief appearances in the early iterations of And You May Find Yourself – it wasn’t until about half way through the fifth draft that he started to really insinuate himself.
From that point, the idea of considering our son-father relationship in the context of my own father-son relationship with my two boys seemed imperative. Each draft I wrote had a different working title. The sixth, following that realisation, was Modern Dads, Male Relationships. That thematic focus comes through in the finished book, many drafts and ideas later.
My father raised me to be very competitive, which definitely had its advantages – but it also led to me competing with myself, and defeating myself, in a bid to get his approval. I had no doubt if that moment ever came it would be the soft-focus version we know from tear-jerky movies, replete with soaring strings:
“I’m proud of you, Son.”
“Oh, are you, Dad?”
“Son, I am … I’m so very proud of you. Let’s shake hands.”
In my teens we had a few run-ins that involved me winding him up like a dynamo and him punching me to the floor – it was never unprovoked violence, never random. I was completely off the rails from 13 to 17 – largely, I think now, because of testosterone and my body’s inability to deal with it. I’ve seen it in the children of friends: smart, unassuming kids who turn into monsters for a few years before stabilising.
I went from being a sweet boy, top of my class, to prodigious levels of delinquency and drug-taking. Solvents. Hash. Poppers. Speed. Acid. Vodka. Nicotine. MDMA. All I wanted was to be smashed out of my head, even if that came via someone’s pounding fists.
I left school at 15 with no exams and worked for my father as his apprentice, fixing household appliances. Shortly after serving my time I told him, through my mum, that I wanted to go to university instead – an idea completely out of keeping with anyone’s expectations for me. At the end of my degree I was offered a scholarship to Cambridge, awarded annually to the best performing student in English literature. The scholarship letter arrived an hour before my parents, who had flown to Scotland from Spain for my graduation.
“Here’s the moment,” I thought. “Paternal pride!”
My father didn’t comment on the scholarship offer, or the degree. At my graduation dinner he didn’t acknowledge me in his toast. In that moment I realised, for the first time, that much of what I’d been doing was being done, on some level, to gain his approval, and that everything I’d been doing was, on some level, pushing him further away.
With my own boys I overcompensate, tell them I’m proud of them for weeing straight in the toilet, eating their dinner, brushing their teeth. They don’t care.
“I’m so proud of you, Son.”
“Oh … Can I have another biscuit, Daddy?”
I worry my overpraise of them will have negative consequences: “Yeah, I shoplift, old man, but your constant praising freaked me out …” That kind of thing.
I’m profoundly interested in archetypes and the ways in which we inhabit them – in the inherent power they have before we even step into them. Families are a good way into that.
Tell is a little about your current / future writing projects?
I’m working on a manuscript that picks up on something that’s in the early stages of happening to the narrator’s mother at the end of And You May Find Yourself, while developing some elements from the first book more broadly.
It has as an intertext a classic work of 19th-century fiction that – for the sake of not jinxing myself – I’d rather not name at this stage, other than to say it came to me during a dream that I should look very closely at that novel and I’ve been thinking about it deeply ever since.
In thematic terms, the manuscript is about the stories we tell, the value and purpose of myth, life, grief, abandonment and the duties of care we feel to our loved ones.
In its emphasis, And You May Find Yourself leans more towards men and masculinity; the new manuscript leans more towards women and femininity. They’ll work well as a pairing, and make a whole load of sense when read together.
Do you have some thoughts you would like to share with your readers?
I guess, on a general note: keep your brain engaged when reading anything described as “raw and honest”. Rawness can be many years in the making and honesty can be manipulated to within an inch of its life.
Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulDalgarno