The parents of a young boy disappear in a small, strange town called Reception, in Christopher Currie’s atmospheric debut novel The Ottoman Motel. The townfolk don’t seem to be trying too hard to find Simon’s parents, and it isn’t the first disappearance in the area. Currie’s debut is simultaneously a gripping mystery and a touching coming-of-age story, as young Simon faces new emotions and is burdened with the task of looking for his parents himself. I asked Chris Currie a few questions about The Ottoman Motel…
The novel has a real Twilight Zone feel, especially at the beginning: a small town, strange characters, adults going missing with no explanation. Also, through the way it’s written: the shadows Simon sees in the corner of his eye, the things he imagines. Did this kind of mood interest you, or was it more about capturing the experience from the POV of a child? Where everything can be kind of exaggerated, confusing and frightening?
That’s a really great question. And I think it’s yes on both counts. What started me on this book was the idea of a disappearance. This is a commodity well-mined in fiction, but more often from the point of view of parents/a family losing a child, because of the obvious dramatic richness of the situation. Far more interesting for me was the notion of how a child would feel upon losing his parents, in a quite literal sense. And yes, that mood of not being one way or the other (Simon’s parents could be alive or dead) certainly plays into the idea of Reception, the fictional coastal town the story is set in: where the town is stuck in an early winter, when the tourism it is heavily dependent on has vanished.
This in-between state plays out in another way in the book: through Simon, as he makes his premature journey from childhood imagination into the ‘real’ adult world. For me, the memories we form as children are sort of hyper-real, in that we see the world in a necessarily exaggerated way. Our imagination (that thing, by the way, that we writers try to access every day) is inevitably dampened over time as our ideal version of the world comes up against the harsh realities of the ‘grown-up’ universe. Simon is something of a day-dreamer, a kid whose own particular brand of loneliness has spawned numerous games inside his own head, insulating him. The other children in the story have had their own reactions to an early birth into the ‘real’ world, but that’s perhaps something I’ll let the readers work out.
So yes, this fulcrum between reality and mystery is something I really wanted to explore. While Reception may feel like something out of The Twilight Zone to some readers, The Ottoman Motel is very much a classic mystery story transplanted into the actual world.
So you began with the idea of a disappearance, and did you know it was going to turn out to be a mystery story? Did you start out wanting to write a mystery or thriller? If so, were there certain conventions you knew you had to follow?
It was definitely always going to be a mystery story. In the original version (which featured viewpoints of eight separate characters), I didn’t really know how to write a proper mystery, so it was a matter of me setting up as many problems (ie. ‘What the hell is going on here’ moments) as I could to solve by the end of the narrative, which was overly ambitious, and would never have held up. Interestingly enough, this original version did borrow more tropes from the thriller genre, as I had to perform the necessary smoke and mirrors of withholding or revealing information depending on which character was telling the story. Each section was more of a classic set-up/cliffhanger scenario as well, which you’ll see in every thriller: leaving off one character in a perilous/intriguing situation before starting on another.
The version that ended up being published is far less cluttered, in that it only has points of view from three characters, and has been distilled down to one central premise: what effect does a disappearance have on a town with a lot to hide? As I mentioned before, this departs from the classic mystery or ‘crime’ question: ‘What has happened to Simon’s parents?’ I grew up in a house with a large collection of books by classic British crime writers like Ruth Rendell and P D James, and I really enjoyed them, but the caveat to any ‘classic’ mystery story is that the conclusion can never match the setup. China Miéville says it best in this great essay about crime fiction.
Did you revisit any tiny coastal towns while you were writing, or was it inspired by any in particular? Reception reminded me of many places I’d passed when I used to drive from Coffs Harbour to Sydney. Nuggets and chips at the Ottoman, indeed.
Yeah, I think we’ve all experienced the ‘Kidz Menu’ at various dodgy cafes in our time. I think more than anything the town came out of my laser-focused loathing of family Sunday Drives while growing up. I spend just about all of my childhood in a country town called Warwick (about two hours from Brisbane), whose proximity to the NSW border meant that jaunts to places like Killarney, Stanthorpe and Girraween could stretch that extra hour to include somewhere like Tenterfield of Glen Innes. While these places were far from coastal towns, they did instill in me a natural dread of abandoned main streets in country hamlets on dwindling Sunday afternoons. The coastal town element comes from experiences I’ve had at places like Stradbroke Island, The Sunshine Coast, Yamba and especially parts of Byron Bay. There’s something about people who live by the sea…
In the first draft of the book Magpie Lake (where Simon’s parents go missing) was a far larger character in the book, and it was based on Warwick’s own Leslie Dam, which has been Warwick’s water source for as long as I can remember. In my early childhood, it was a bountiful place where you could go swimming and exploring the Picnic at Hanging Rock-esque granite boulder fields, but by the mid-nineties, its level had fallen to three per cent, and this weird ghostly landscape was uncovered that had been hidden underneath the water: bare bones trees, bleached rocks etc. When I left Warwick in 2000, it was still hovering around the 12 per cent mark. In January of this year, however, the dam spilled over for the first time in about 20 years.
It’s a shame that I had to cut a lot of the Magpie Lake scenes out of the published version, but maybe it will return in another book! For those of you playing at home, the rock-throwing scene in my book is something that actually happened to me, my brother and my dad by the shore of Leslie Dam.
Oh, yikes! I once accidentally knocked a kid out with a baseball bat (on the backswing) if that’s any consolation. Tell us a bit about the journey behind the book. It’s been a few years in the making, yes?
It has been a long journey to publication, that’s for sure. It all started with a short scene I wrote in around 2003, where a young boy sits at a nameless food court with his parents, halfway through a car trip, bored and philosophising about all the people and meals that had gone before him. I came back to the scene some time later, when I couldn’t get questions out of my head about the characters: where were they going? Why did none of them want to talk about it? This scene, of course, became Simon Sawyer and his parents, and their road trip became a journey to Reception, and The Ottoman Motel.
I had tinkered on and off with the story over the next five or so years, but had reached a stalemate about 2/3 of the way through. I was (and still am) a compulsive re-writer, and just kept editing the first parts of the book without ever pressing on to the end. I eventually decided to give myself a concrete deadline, and powered through the final 20,000 words over a long weekend in order to get it in for the 2007 Vogel Award. The prize was announced, and I hadn’t heard anything, but then a month later I had the notification that I had been longlisted (and to this day I don’t quite know how many people get longlisted!). The notification came with a page of judges’ comments, which added up to ‘nice writing, but unsalvageable ending’. The book then stalled again, and my writing routine disappeared. I threw the novel in the bottom drawer and began Furious Horses (my blog where I wrote a story every day for a year) as a jump-start to my writing process, which it did, as well as raising my profile. A year or so after the blog project ended, I got the chance to submit my first three chapters to Text Publishing, and the rest is history! And of course, when I say ‘history’, I mean ‘gruelling redrafting process that nearly killed me.’
You’re a well-read buyer at Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, too. What authors or books have been an influence or an inspiration? Or does your inspiration come from elsewhere?
I think it’s fair to say that a draw a fair bit of inspiration from my day job. Despite getting to see close up the horrifying reality of how many books are released each month, it does really give me the satisfying sense that people still read books, and, more importantly, are willing to read books by new authors. Certainly for The Ottoman Motel, at least in the initial drafts, I wore my inspirations on my sleeve. Sonya Hartnett’s brilliant book Of A Boy was obviously a huge influence, along with other writers I was into at the time I started writing it like Haruki Murakami (whose writing quite literally taught me a new way to think about writing), Murray Bail and of course Donna Tartt. I’m an all-time sucker for ‘coming-of-age’ and ‘small town’ novels, and when the two collide, all the better. To this end, books like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide hold enormous sentimental value for me. Murakami led me to David Mitchell (just about my all-time favourite author) and then later to more ‘experimental’ writers like Ben Marucus, Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders, whose style and simplicity can’t be beaten.
Apart from books, I try to collect ‘moods’ for my fiction as often as I can. Which sounds a little wankerish, and it’s a little hard to explain, but I often find my way into a story by trying first to create its unique atmosphere, which takes into account the setting, the character and what has already been: that is, what forces have come together to place this character at this place in time. Actually, that sounds very wankerish. Let’s just say Shakespeare, and leave it at that.
What’s one thing you hope readers will get out of The Ottoman Motel?
Hopefully they will want to read more! Most of all, I really hope that readers will just be able to enjoy the story. That is first and foremost. If they appreciate the mystery elements, and the way I’ve played with the conventions of the genre, then all the better, but hopefully they will find an engaging and graceful narrative that will lead them to seek out more writing by this first-time author, tell their friends and buy my next book!
Christopher Currie will be launching The Ottoman Motel with special guest Daniel Ducrou at Readings Carlton (309 Lygon Street, Carlton) on Monday, May 23 at 6.30pm. Free event, but RSVP to Cora Kipling on 03 8610 4512 or [email protected]