Author Robert Drewe’s award-winning novels are much loved for their sharply drawn portraits of Australian life. For his latest, Whipbird, he has turned his satirical eye to the type of monied professional chasing the settler tradition by owning a modest vineyard. By Susan Chenery.

Author Robert Drewe on his latest satire, ‘Whipbird’

Robert Drewe
Robert Drewe

Water, in motif and in reality, is fundamental to the work and life of Robert Drewe. Its attraction, power, perils, its invigoration, what lies beneath, the gleam of its surface, is everywhere in his books. Little details, ideas, propulsions of plot; sometimes whole novels come to him when he is on his back in the water, looking at the sky. “They come when I am doing backstroke in the pool. I do a lot of working out of stuff when I am going up and down in the pool,” he says. A lifelong daily swimmer, he is irresistibly drawn to the glimpse of frothing surf through branches of eucalypts.

His house, in the picturesque village of Bangalow in the Byron hinterland, is not far from the coast. The back porch looks over a small plantation of lemon myrtle and macadamia trees. There is an ancient mango sheltering the lawn – the favourite feeding place of thousands of fruit bats – butcherbirds that fly down to be fed, and citrus trees. There used to be kangaroos and echidnas that came in the evenings until the neighbour got a dog that chased them away. “They never came back,” Drewe says.

Drewe is acutely aware of the unpredictable nature of the wildlife, both animal and human, and the elemental nature of the subtropics.

“Most of my life I have lived in various cities. And you don’t notice things like the weather specifically, or the vegetation,” he says. “There are no wild animals. But coming up here I am very interested in the weather. I look at it every day, almost hour by hour, to see what the weather is going to do. And I find myself interested in the landscape and wildlife and stuff.” Driving along these scenic country roads he has tried to count all the shades of green in the landscape, “and you get up to about 40 and you give up counting”.

The Local Wildlife, published in 2013, is a series of vignettes about the eccentricities of the local people and fauna. For a decade Drewe had been observing them, noting their absurdities and occasionally politely sniggering at their antics. The book – a collection of his newspaper columns – featured anecdotes from his own encounters, as well as those from local newspaper snippets and people he knows from the pub, which he still visits every week. “We go on Friday nights for the meat raffle, which we have won quite often. You can call me Robert ‘Two Meat Raffles’ Drewe because we’ve won two in one night.”

Drewe is 74 now, fit and compact, with a large body of work and a big life behind him. Highly decorated with literary awards, he is at an age where anywhere else he would be an elder statesman of letters, but he is far too modest and ironic for that. And anyway, he is a long way out here from the lionising literary salons of the big cities.

In the kitchen his fourth wife, Tracy, is cheerfully laying the table for a dinner for her visiting son. He has known her for nearly 30 years, since she married his schoolfriend in Perth. They got together in 2011 after she was widowed and the collapse of his 25-year marriage to the writer and publisher Candida Baker. It has been a writing life of domesticity and children. Since he became a novelist in his 20s he has produced seven children and 18 “or something” books. Books were written on the dining room table at night and early in the morning “with two small kids racing around” while he was still working as a journalist. “I just really wanted to do it. I very much wanted to make it up rather than report stuff. It was a revolt against facts in a way. ”

Of hair-tossing teenage characters in his latest novel Whipbird, he says: “I’ve still got a teenage child [Anna, 17, a model] so the teenage jargon wasn’t unknown to me and the way that teenage boys lurch after teenage girls hasn’t changed over the decades.”

For Drewe, writing is a compulsion – he is constantly observing the minutiae around him, the quirks in people, the telling incongruent detail, and digesting. The stories well up in him. But Baker says that even when he is deeply absorbed in a book, “he has never been emotionally detached from his family. He certainly came out of that in order to walk the dog, or do the shopping or pick up the kids. He has always had a big zest for life. He loves eating and drinking and family, and dining out and movies, and the beach and swimming, bookshops; all those things are a big part of his life. But the thing is that Rob is a writer through and through. For him that is his whole raison d’être. His heart and soul and every part of him is a writer.”

Those close to him know Drewe for his droll sense of humour. He’s deployed it for Whipbird, a satirical novel both wry and acerbic. It’s Drewe at his ironic best. Its setting in a vineyard in Victoria for a family reunion, to celebrate the 160th anniversary of an Irish ancestor arriving in Melbourne, has given him plenty of scope for a potent cocktail of Irish grievances and grudges fuelled by alcohol. It has also given him a broad canvas to tell a sprawling story across generations, embroidering history and mocking contemporary mores. The idea came when his second cousin, a retired history professor, researched their great-grandfather who had come from Templemore, Tipperary. “He was a young Irish kid who came as a member of the British Army escaping the potato famine, as in the book. My maternal grandmother was the last of his 15 children that he had when he was 70.” His ancestor had been at the Eureka Stockade, as has his fictional ancestral character, Conor Cleary.

One of the most comedic pieces in the book is an account of Conor Cleary describing his being dispatched to the Maori Wars in Taranaki, New Zealand, with the 40th Regiment of Foot, “with bugles, drums and rousing speeches across the Tasman from Melbourne”. The regiment got a terrible fright when they found piles of heads from decapitated soldiers in a pyramid outside their camp. When the Maoris advanced, with “throaty growls and war cries”, Cleary’s commanding officer yelled, “Christ! Run like bloody hell.” Cleary joined the retreat, but said: “Frankly, when I say ‘joined’ I mean ‘preceded’. Being younger and skinnier, I beat the lieutenant home by at least 50 yards.”

Drewe had heard through family Chinese whispers that his own ancestor had been an illustrious general in charge of Southern Command in Melbourne – “that big building in St Kilda”. But in fact he discovered his great-grandfather “was just the quartermaster, just in charge of guns and gaiters, virtually the lowest person in the building, who moved from rented house to rented house in Richmond. I wanted to create a character that was not exactly a coward but was quite lowly and very human. That was more interesting than having a heroic figure.”

With a cast of motley characters relentlessly barbecuing and knocking back the wine, wearing various coloured T-shirts to identify which branch of the family they belong to, the winery weekend gradually descends into farce. But not before Drewe has digressed with intergenerational backstories of characters. The sonorous-voiced barrister Hugh Cleary, whose vineyard it is, and who is hosting the weekend, will have humiliation heaped upon him. “I am familiar with the Margaret River and the sort of people, lawyery types and doctors who have got a bit of dough who have small vineyards. It is a pretty trendy thing for people of a certain section to do.”

Wandering through all this is a skeletal former rock star, Hugh’s brother Simon, who thinks he is dead. Drewe says he knew someone with Cotard’s syndrome, where a person believes they are deceased. “They didn’t know they were walking around. And they later died, which presumably made them very happy,” he says.

In his work and in his life Drewe has returned again and again to the distant shores of Western Australia, where he grew up. Now, he says, “that particular landscape is the reverse of this. It is dry and sandy and not green. But it still has a huge impact on me. It is a moonscape, it is almost like an African landscape. And it has its own salty sort of smell. There is always a hint in the sandhills of something dead in the shrubbery.”

He has fossicked around in his adolescence there, most notably in The Shark Net, a memoir about a serial killer who stalked middle-class suburbs, killing eight people, and who had worked with Drewe’s father at Dunlop. As a young journalist covering the trial, the accused had winked at Drewe, who, to his own horror, winked back. The book was later made into a powerful ABC mini-series. “I must say that reliving my mother’s death and funeral on the screen and seeing young actors playing me and my brother and sister, as children, mourning her, was harrowing.”

Drewe has always approached his writing with the journalist’s eye for detail. He started out at The West Australian, where he still has a column. “I had really good training as a cadet reporter on a newspaper. It was serious training, it taught us to be more observant, I suppose. One thing I do think I have got is a reasonably good shit detector. But you have got to apply that to yourself as well.”

His breakthrough came when he was working as the Sydney correspondent for The Age, with his 1983 collection of short stories, The Bodysurfers, which somehow captured the zeitgeist when Australia was finding its national identity. It remains in print. “It has been on reading lists all over the place, and come out in America and England and so on. It has done solidly over the years.”

Since then he has been a full-time writer producing novels, short stories, memoir, film scripts and newspaper columns. The short stories usually come after the marathon of a novel, which can take several years to write. “It is not really an efficient way of earning a living, is it?” he poses dryly. With so many children it hasn’t always been easy. There have been lean times. “He has lived on the edge financially for most of his life,” says Bob Sessions, now retired as publishing director of Drewe’s publisher, Penguin. “When the bank balance begins to drop he writes something – a novel, a script, a short story.”

Film and TV adaptations can provide a boost. As well as The Bodysurfers, his novel Our Sunshine was made into the film Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger and Naomi Watts. “The money can keep you writing for a couple of years, and you see a big spike in book sales after a film or TV series.”

When Drewe is writing he sees quite clearly the world he is creating.

“I do see the scenes in my fiction as clear visual, cinematic images. And I like to imagine the characters’ lives are continuing beyond the page, outside the frame.”

With Whipbird we find a writer in full technical control of his material, knowing when to pull back, with the mastery, rhythm and expertise to deliver the killer line and a story full of humanity and humour. Age has not wearied him. “There is a bit more confidence that comes in,” he says of getting older. “You don’t give up the ghost necessarily because nothing is working. You do think, ‘Well, it is always like this’ at that stage of total indecision. But you are just taking a punt, really. You are never sure about anything. I must say that writing Whipbird has been my most pleasurable writing experience yet. Giving free rein to the comic aspects of the plot, putting Australia on the slab and dissecting; it was very enjoyable.”

Now Drewe says he is aching to get onto his next book and back to his “normal level of anxiety”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2017 as "Drewe story".

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Susan Chenery is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.

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