Interviews with Graham Reilly
The Age - interview and article by Christopher BantickIf you want to get to the heart of a character you have to write dialogue, Graham Reilly tells Christopher Bantick.
Graham Reilly is three books into a literary career. He had immediate success with his first book, Saigon Tea, and later, with Sweet Time. His new novel, Five Oranges, a novel of surety and purpose, is a movement back to the familiar territory of Saigon Tea.
Still, there are dangers with sequels. The obvious one is whether what comes after the first is better. There can also be the suspicion that the writer is out of new ideas. But for Reilly, a journalist on The Age, opting to revisit the characters and locations of Saigon Tea was planned: there was unfinished business.
In Saigon Tea, Danny Canyon leaves Glasgow for Melbourne. He marries a Vietnamese girl, Mai, and ends up running a bar in Vietnam. After upsetting the local Mafia, he asks his brother Frankie for backup.
The focus in Five Oranges is different. Frankie returns to Glasgow imagining that he will be able to get back into the rhythm of his marriage to Eileen and dine out on his experiences with his close friends, Jimmy and Stella Stewart. But for the Canyon brothers things are not always as they seem.
Danny and Mai suggest that they all meet up in Melbourne. The problem is that the Saigon Mafia, and in particular the godfather Nam Cam (which translates as Five Oranges), are not done with them just yet. Frankie and Jimmy return to Saigon intent on dealing with Mr Five Oranges.
Reilly is Glaswegian and emigrated with his family to Melbourne in the 1960s. This period of transition from Glasgow tenement to the sprawling and then largely featureless western suburbs of outer Melbourne were deftly captured in his second book, Sweet Time. So what changes has he seen in his writing over three books?
"When I was writing Five Oranges, I felt very confident," he says. "With Saigon Tea, I remember being anxious about whether what I was writing was not any good. I was anxious as I didn't know if this was what you were supposed to do as a novelist. With Sweet Time, I was more assured but I wondered if I only had one book in me. Beginning Five Oranges, it wasn't a question of can I write this book, but more one of how can I write it?"
One of the distinguishing elements of Reilly's work is his ear for dialogue and humour. Moreover, he is able to move easily between the registers of robust Glaswegian argot, and Australian and Vietnamese idioms. Having lived in each country for extended periods, he says he saw many similarities.
"I didn't find the movement over three different geographical locations or speech all that challenging. To me I was writing about the same kind of thing but in different places. This was portraying working-class Glaswegians. The Australian characters were very working-class, old Fitzroy types. I knew their vernacular from living there 20 years ago.
"In Saigon Tea, Frankie says that the Vietnamese reminded him of his own family back in Glasgow through their approach to the world. They were hard-living, laughed a lot and drank. Despite living in a situation where you were really poor, you can still enjoy life. To me, in Five Oranges, I was writing about the same sort of people but in different countries."
As much as Reilly has the safety catch off in Five Oranges and rakes the narrative with rapidly delivered comic one-liners, humour belies the more serious concerns of the novel. It would be a mistake to judge Reilly as purely a comic writer. There is in Five Oranges a sense of the private little tragedies of daily domestic life. Something revealed in feisty Stella, Jimmy's outspoken wife.
Worried about her appearance and her relationship with Jimmy, Stella is poignantly aware of her fading attractiveness. She is shocking and yet strangely vulnerable to the world in which she wants to belong, but doubts if it will do her any favours. Reilly says that he wanted to get across what life is like for people like Stella, Jimmy, Frankie and others who do not have much going for them.
"When I recall my life in Glasgow, I think there was for most people a combination of tragedy and farce. You navigate your way through it with humour. But this doesn't detract from the fact that you're living a tough life. You're not earning any money and you're never going to own your own house. The housing scheme I grew up in was rough. The weather was crap. There was a severe shortage of hope. Yet at the same time, people grab hold of life and give it a good shake.
"They drink a lot, smoke a lot, swear a lot. It's a kind of survival mechanism. Even though there is a lot of humour in Five Oranges, underneath all that is the life I knew as I grew up.
"There are serious issues as well, like Jimmy having a personal crisis. He doesn't know what to do with his life and his marriage is not going well. Eileen, on the other hand, is fulfilled but she wants a kid but can't have children. These people talk about ageing and marriage and how to stay interested in one another. They wonder what their role in life is."
There is one long scene in the story when Jimmy and Frankie are looking into the water of a Glasgow canal. Their lives are unexciting and both are unaware that, fatefully, they will return to Vietnam. Reilly says he wanted to show, through their bleak conversation, the vacuity of fallen dreams.
"The canal is a place of reflection but it's also a place where not only do you think about your own dreams but where the dreams of others have perhaps come to an end. It's a crucial scene as Jimmy tries to take stock of himself. It's a place where tragedies have happened in the past.
"It's at the canal Jimmy realises that he can't let his hopelessness get the better of him. I remember what my mother said to us as kids when we were going to Australia. When we asked her why, she said that we had nothing to look forward to. With Jimmy, the possibility of Australia, and the sunshine, gave him something to look forward to. There was hope."
When the story moves from Glasgow and on to Vietnam, the current of humour is maintained but with an undertow of violence. Reilly says that after Saigon Tea, he wanted to ratchet up the tension.
"Mr Five Oranges is a bad guy and there are some bad Mafia types in Saigon. I'd always intended to maintain this theme in the plot. Simply stated , the book is about Mr Five Oranges' revenge. I had two options. Would I bring him to Australia or would I take Frankie and Jimmy back to Vietnam? From a dramatic point of view, I liked the idea of them going back to Vietnam to sort out the business with Mr Five Oranges once and for all."
Reilly is a dab hand at switching dialogue. Much of the humour is dependent on the broad Glaswegian accent set against the Vietnamese way of looking at the world. He says this is basic to how he wants to write.
"I think dialogue catches the essence of people. I don't like books with no dialogue. If you don't have characters speaking, how do you get to their heart? People have to speak for themselves. I don't want the writer telling me what these people think. I want to hear what's on people's minds. I want to hear them crack jokes and know when they are unhappy and joyful."
The Age, 23rd August 2002 - interview and article by Jane SullivanFrom Glasgow slums to the streets of Saigon
When Graham Reilly writes, he thinks in Glaswegian. After 20 years of journalism in Australia, he writes about humour, hope, getting out of poverty. Often it's very small details. "Whether you cut sandwiches on the diagonal or across," he says. "That means different things in Glasgow."
He once described the Glasgow dialect in a piece for The Age: "Take a vowel, any vowel, grab it by the throat, throttle it until it's screaming for mercy, then give it a good kick in the cods before letting it scramble out your throat like a demented greyhound that's come out of the starting box to find there's no rabbit anywhere in sight."
Fortunately his first novel, Saigon Tea, isn't written entirely in Glaswegian. But the dialect gets into a lot of the dialogue. What else would you expect in a story about two Glasgow brothers, Frankie and Danny Canyon. Danny emigrates to Melbourne, then gets into a wee spot of bother with gangsters in Saigon, and Frankie comes to bail him out.
You also learn how to make love in front of wildlife documentaries on the telly, and that they did a lovely sausage in Constantinople. Fellow writer Nick Earls, reckons the book contains "some of the funniest conversations I've ever read".
In person, Reilly doesn't come across as a funny man. He still has a touch of Glaswegian pallor, he wears immaculate suits and cufflinks, and he talks quietly and seriously, as befits an Age features editor. What he says is another matter. At their book launches, some authors give speeches about the deep conviction and significance of their work. At his book launch, Reilly told a story about trying to find a doctor in Saigon for a sick budgie.
What was his Glasgow childhood like? "I would describe it as difficult." He grew up in a Victorian tenement slum, the eldest of three brothers. Their father drilled holes in truck wheels for a living. The family of five slept in one room. There was no bathroom: they shared a toilet on the landing with three other families, and it was always frozen in winter.
In 1967, when he was 11, the council moved the Reillys out to a pebble-dash estate. The same year, it was declared the most violent housing scheme in Britain. Everywhere they went, there were two gangs, the Pak and the Toi. He knew people who'd been stabbed: "There was this guy who went round poking people in the kidneys with a compass."
After football training, he and his brothers had to run the gauntlet across a great bare stretch of ground to get home.
In the end, the Reillys decided there was no hope of ever getting ahead in Glasgow. They emigrated to Melbourne in 1969 and came to live with Uncle Charlie in Altona, with only £200 and a little tin box of old photographs. Reilly remembers the shock of his 13-year-old self and his little brothers, standing on the steps of the aircraft at Essendon airport after a 32-hour flight, three skinny Scottish boys bundled up in their anoraks on a scorching summer day. No wonder his cousins told them they were a sorry sight.
At the Altona house, he was thrilled to have a bedroom all to himself for the first time in his life. Reilly went on to live the immigrant's dream: a Melbourne University degree, working as a journalist first with Leader newspapers and then with The Age, a series of editing jobs, marriage and two children. He wanted to write fiction, and was encouraged by the response to comic pieces he wrote for The Age about his eccentric family, all well lubricated by wee drams, voddies and McEwans export lagers.
But it never seemed to be the right time to start a novel: "I don't know how people come home from work and write - I can't do it. Also, I was afraid I might not be up to it."
His chance came in 1999, when his wife, Amanda Paxton, had a diplomatic posting to Saigon. "I felt relaxed, I had the mornings to myself and I just wrote. I was interested in writing about ordinary working people, but not in a depressing way. People often assume that being poor, or not being affluent, means your life is miserable. But it's not. I didn't set out to tell jokes and make people laugh. I was telling these people's stories, and humour played a big part in their lives."
Another source of inspiration was Saigon. "You walk down the street and there's a million things to look at. I became quite a fixture, people saw me every day and didn't hassle me. After a while, I spent time chatting to people and got their stories - kids in the streets begging, or shoe shine boys, or working girls in the bars.
"The Vietnamese are extraordinarily friendly and they don't have the same reserve about talking to strangers as we do. They told me the most personal things, in a way we might find odd or confronting. `Mr Graham, you used to be handsome, you're not handsome today'."
The two-and-a-half years in Saigon were so prolific for Reilly that he wrote two novels - the second is another story of Glasgow immigrants to Australia - and he's now working on a sequel to Saigon Tea.
Not surprisingly, his favorite authors are Celtic: the Scottish James Kelman and the Irish Colm Toibin. He thinks journalists have a head start in fiction writing. "The thing I love is all this stuff comes into your head, and you think `How the hell did I write that?'
"I write something and I laugh, because I've never heard it before. It wasn't really me writing it."