A novelist, poet and musician, Gregory Day is one of Australia’s most acclaimed and distinctive literary writers. Among other accolades, he has won the ALS Gold Medal and the Elizabeth Jolley Prize, and in 2020 he received the prestigious Patrick White Award. His most recent novel is The Bell of the World, in which a young girl called Sarah, struggling with a deep malaise, gradually discovers through art and nature a means to rekindle her essential self when she is placed under the care of her eccentric Uncle Ferny in Ngangahook, a property tucked deep into the Australian bushland by the coast.
Day has ‘a long history writing about the symbiotic relationships between place, nature and language,’ writes Jack Callil for the Guardian. ‘The Bell of the World is the crescendo of these preoccupations.’
We spoke with Day about the book.
Your distinctive voice – inventive, exuberant, lyrical – is no doubt deeply bound up in your being a poet and musician as well as an author. It makes me wonder if you hear the music of your work as you’re writing it, or perhaps whether you even speak it out loud.
Oh yeah, writing and singing are increasingly indivisible for me. Words come in the way they do not just because of their sense but also their sound, their music, like notes on a stave. In the long arc of the human story it is only relatively recently that the written text took over from the oral tradition. Now of course, with all the sonic apparatus of digital technologies, the sound of things – including the sound of the writer’s voice – is very much coming back to the fore. It’s a very interesting situation and one likely to produce new and exciting forms. Personally I love the depth of intimacy involved when writer and reader meet via the compact of the written page and, with that shared solitude in mind, sound, and also image, rule the roost for me when I’m writing fiction.
In The Bell of the World, plot will often take second place to a higher purpose of holding the reader close to a moment, or idea, or place, or person – and making them stay with it. It seems to have something to do with a philosophy of paying attention. What would you say to this?
I like the way you put that, about holding the reader close to a moment – thank you. I reckon the novel has plenty of eventfulness and plot, but yeah, it’s not exactly Lethal Weapon!
Actually, Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, probably put it best when he said: ‘Digression is the sunshine of life and the soul of reading.’ Taking the time is important to me. The current mantra of ‘moving forward’ is just too rampant in our world. It has its merits in some of life’s difficult situations but it’s damaging as a catch-all philosophy. And it’s a destroyer of durational art forms such as the literary novel. In The Bell of The World I wanted the book’s structure and style to embody the immersive reality of the natural world it describes.
Nature in your work is often lush, ineffable and limitless – and central to the characters that inhabit your worlds. This nature is on stolen land, though, and The Bell of the World – set in bushland Australia after Federation, and with two white wealthy protagonists – grapples with this. Tell me a little bit more about how your literature poses questions about non-Indigenous communities’ relationship to nature – particularly as we find ourselves in a historical moment of ecological crisis.
That’s a big question and I find it difficult to nutshell or paraphrase what the more intricate and embodied world of the novel often says best. It’s so easy to sound preachy or uppity.
That said, you’re right to say that we live on stolen land, and importantly, it’s land that has never been ceded by its first peoples. I do feel too that we have an ongoing literacy problem, and the literacy I’m thinking of is not to do with reading and books but with our ability to read the natural and cultural landscape around us. Some science-y type people have called this a ‘nature deficit disorder’, but that sounds a little too clinical to me. Often it is ancient and ongoing indigenous ways of being that have the most to teach us about the dangerous levels of disconnect we have developed with the biota we live amongst. That’s certainly the case for me in my own home landscape where conversations and time spent with friends whose families have been in this part of the world for thousand of years reveal layers and levels of meaning and resonance that properly deepen the place where my own family arrived back in 1841. Which is to say about 5 minutes ago! An important part of all this is about seeing the world around you, all species, all the water and soil, not as ‘other’ or as ‘nature’ but as members of your extended family. Our level of care and understanding is immediately raised when we understand that this interdependence is how things actually work. So in some important respects it feels like we’re finally getting onto a healing trajectory with our reckoning of the colonial past (and the ongoing presumptions and injustices of the colonial present) and that’s of course got an inextricable connection with the ecological crisis. The Bell of the World is a novel which ultimately is about a universal all-inclusive human connection with the earth and in my view this necessarily includes the idea that all of us, if we go back far enough, were indigenous to some patch of ground on this planet. We are all earthlings and all of us potentially have an affinity with the kind of organic attentiveness and regeneration that the novel describes. So yes, I believe the great ecological damage has been caused by the system not the species. I’m totally over the idea of species-shame and I want to appeal to our better natures. The potential for living in balance with the world is in us all, as is the potential for right and just conduct.
Uncle Ferny is such a singular character. (Even his name is perfect.) From where did he spring, and how did you get better acquainted with him and his dimensions in your writing process?
To be honest the way characters like Ferny emerge is a mystery to me. I have no direct source for him, he’s not based on anyone, he’s just a person that came into my imagination and felt right. I wanted to spend more time with him, to enjoy his company, and to listen to what he had to say. And Sarah – who also came to me in a similair fashion – loved him, he loved and looked after Sarah, they were symbiotic – and that was good enough for me.
I should say too that writing a novel is a lot like dreaming. That’s not say that it doesn’t involve artisanal craft and rigour – but it’s not all like that. So Ferny appeared to me, with his good cheer and his open mind, his unconventional tastes and behaviours, and also with a kind of naive fearlessness that in some ways was a product of his family’s wealth and privilege. That in itself was very interesting to me – that he was a man whose privilege had nourished his better self, that he was both rich in a monetary sense and as a person. He’s no predictable working class hero! Of course people in life don’t come in neat uncomplicated packages and Ferny’s no different.
You’ve created such a rich world in this book. How does it correspond to those in your other works of fiction?
The Bell of The World is set in a landscape quite similar to that of my three Mangowak novels: The Patron Saint of Eels, Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds and The Grand Hotel. When I write I am never just composing one novel, or one piece of music, but an interconnected and recursive ‘body of work’. At least that’s what I hope I’ve been doing all this time! So this novel sits right in there amongst the geographic textures and social concerns of all the others.
Your playfulness of language is in some way mirrored in the book’s characters, who develop their own inventive kind of art-making and expression – Sarah’s piano, in which she is able to play birdsong, the night sky; Uncle Ferny and his composite book and audacious readings. Outside the novel, you also have a passion for exploratory cross-over forms; for instance, your album The Black Tower, in which you sing the poetry of WB Yeats. Do you think this is something we need more of in arts practice – a bolder hybridity and experimental spirit?
Well, I don’t like to be prescriptive at all but hybridity is where it’s at for me. ‘Hybrid vigour’, as they say in the plant world. The quest for the ‘pure’ is often a nostalgic fantasy with just a whiff of totalitarianism about it. Sometimes more than a whiff. We live in fragmented times but also times of great and unforeseen connectedness. And nature doesn’t like being forced into strict categories or grids anyway. Things are always branching out and spilling over. So I always find myself imagining what might first appear to be unlikely bedfellows – a bit like Queequeg and Ishmael in the first chapter of Moby Dick, or like Moby Dick and Furphy’s Such is Life being bound together into the same book. But I like to think that these are unlikely bedfellows that when put together seem all of a sudden not so unlikely at all. Deeper connections are revealed. I suppose too that this penchant for hybrids is a natural enough tendency in a mixed-up place like Australia.
Q&A by Kate Prendergast
The Bell of the World by Gregory Day was published in March 2023 by Transit Lounge. Find copies at Roaring Stories Bookshop Balmain.