Q & A with Author Peter Docker

Peter Docker was born in Wiilman Country at Narrogin, Western Australia, and is of Irish, Cornish and English heritage. He grew up on a station in Wudjari Country at Coomalbidgup, near Esperance. He has worked as a dairy-hand, hay carter, wheat-bogger, window-washer, bank teller, lift driver and barman. He has had short stories published in Australian literary journals and has written for stage and radio. Someone Else’s Country was his first book. His second novel, The Waterboys was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award.

 He is currently writing a play about the Mickelbergs.

When did you first start writing? When did you decide that you wanted to ‘be a writer’? I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. The first thing I recall finishing was a novella about a rifle that was haunted by the ghosts of people it had killed. I had been working as an actor for around 10 years when I commented to a TV writer mate that I wanted to be a writer. He asked me how often I wrote. I replied, ‘Every day.’ He said, ‘You’re already a writer – you just have to figure out a way to make a living out of it.’ So I did.

Who would you say are your writing influences/inspirations?

·      Yukio Mishima for his visceral imagery and economy of language (even though I am reading translations).

·      Allen Ginsberg for his madness and language multi-associations.

·      Wilfred Owen whose pre-war poetry was soppy romantic rubbish – and then he got posted to the Western Front.

·      James Joyce for his intense and intimate portrayals of the society he was self-exiled from.

·      Thomas Hardy for his classic The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I re-read often.

·      Emily Bronte who wrote one of the greatest stories of men, jealousy & revenge (Wuthering Heights). Emily was a relatively inexperienced young woman who lived in the country with her sister, and yet she drilled down so deep. I am often reminded of Emily when I ponder the modern writer’s obsession with so-called ‘research’. Emily clearly did none.

·      Cormac McCarthy is certainly my greatest modern influence. A recluse (like me) also with a disdain for ‘research’ and for any ‘cross promotional’ activities. As a writer he doesn’t promote – he writes.

·      Non-fiction writers also have a big influence on me: such as Howard Pedersen (Jandamarra & The Bunuba Resistance); Ian Jones (Ned Kelly – A Short Life); and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate On Earth)

You work as an actor as well as a writer. How does your acting affect your writing, and vice versa? The main thing I notice are the characters. As an actor I play one character in a story – but as the writer I get to play all of them. I am particularly driven by characters but am aware that I am not always in control of what they do or what happens to them. When Captain Fremantle is shot dead in the moment of his great triumph in The Waterboys, I must admit that I wept, because I had come to love him, and I certainly wasn’t expecting him to die.

Both your novels centre on indigenous culture. What is the appeal of this sensitive subject matter for you?  I’m not sure who said that the best place to start is to write about what you know. For the last 20 years I have effectively lived in Aboriginal Australia – which is a very different place to the rest of Oz. It is the sense of humour that sustains me more than anything.

I am also aware of comments like those of WEH Stanner, the great anthropologist – that Australian artists have not engaged with Indigenous thinking. As a story teller, to interact with the most ancient living culture on the planet whose very laws of existence are encoded within ancestral and spirit stories is very enriching. This encoding and layering process within what may appear to be quite innocuous stories of Dreaming Spirits is something that I am very interested in in my own work. And I believe the encoding that I put into my stories is the real reason why I have incredibly varied responses from readers – because they are all reading their own version of the story.

The injustices and trauma being currently endured by Aboriginal Australia scratch at my eyes and heart like a feral cat on ice. I believe that the soul of our country is sick. Needs healing. Artists have always been part of such healing processes – even if they may take hundreds of years, as in our case.

 I understand you’re currently writing a play. How is the process different or similar to writing a novel? I have written several plays. I love the dialogue writing more than anything. I have a bottom drawer full of unproduced plays, so I am obviously not that good at it.

What are your writing habits?  At the moment my writing hours are dictated by school hours. This is not my optimum, mainly because I am not a morning person. My first novel Someone Else’s Country was written almost exclusively between the hours of 12pm – 3am. I would sit in hotel rooms whilst on tour with a play and scribble into my exercise books until my fingers cramped up.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? And if so, how do you overcome it? I don’t recall writer’s block – although I know that there have been certain chapters that I’ve put off writing for days because I fear what I have to face about myself to get it out. I have an office at home in my converted garage, and have no hesitation to do anything to get me into the mood. I see the creative process as a surfer on the wave. The surfer doesn’t create the wave, he or she simply chooses to get on one and execute some creative movement. I don’t see myself as an inventor or creator (those activities seem to epitomise the patriarchal view of artistic endeavour) – I am just a mere board rider. In other instances I find music a great help – as are chocolate, football scores, drugs, alcohol, sex, weights, poetry, pornography, self-mutilation, binge-eating, reading my hate-blogger, and cigarettes (when I was still smoking). It can get tricky if I am having nudie Tuesday and someone drops by for a cuppa. I work on several projects at once, and if I can’t catch the wave with one of them – I just paddle out to a different spot – and wait.

Have you had any surprising or unusual reader responses to your writing? In Someone Else’s Country I wrote one terribly sad story about encountering drunk Aboriginal people at the toilet block by the beach in Esperance. It is a horrible story where the 8 year old me encounters for the first time the manifestation of the trauma of the dispossessed. When this work was first reviewed, a reviewer for the West said ‘This is a nasty and brutish work. Mr Docker’s Aboriginal friends will not thank him for how he has depicted them.’ One night in Melbourne a Wongathaa actress whom I know threw her arms around me and gave me a huge hug – ‘Brother – I learnt to drink at that toilet block!’ She was so happy that I had immortalized that sad place. This would turn out to be a pattern: whitefullas would come up and say ‘Whoa, Pete – sad book!’ And blackfullas would come up and say ‘That’s the funniest book I’ve ever read, Coorda.’


You can read more about The Waterboys here, here and here.

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Q   A with Author Peter Docker   ANNABEL SMITH

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