‘Sex, drugs, art, suicide, love, death and, possibly, murder are the themes of this exceptional debut novel,’ writes Paul Landymore in his five-star review of Brendan Cowell’s debut novel. He spoke to the author.
Suicide plays a large part in the story. Is this a big issue for Cronulla, particularly among its young men?
I believe so, yes. Well it was when I was growing up. A couple of boys in my year, a few in the year above and below, all took their own lives. It’s such a beautiful place Cronulla, quite stunning actually, and with a strong sense of family and community, so it hurts and fascinates me as to why these young men cannot see enough light in their lives to go on.
Your protagonist, Neil, is initially very hesitant sexually, but undergoes a rapid expansion of his awareness once at uni. Is this simply a result of his being away from home or is it a process of ‘art culture’?
The first part of the book takes place on the night the students get their HSC results. There is a party, and the characters are forced to confront the fact that this part of their life is over, and that it will never be the same again between them. Neil, our protagonist, is under pressure from his girlfriend to have sex, to lose their virginity together on this night, but her life is so full of pain, and her need to do this act so loaded, that he cannot go through with it. He is also a shy, introverted fellow, whose creativity has not been allowed to blossom in the Shire. Once at university his talent thrives and with it, his ego, and with that, his penchant for experimental sex. It’s all part of the same thing, for Neil, the art and the sex and the drugs, it’s all part of his obsession with the idea of ‘Me’, which makes up most of part two until tragedy explodes it all.
The idea of sexual freedom within artistic communities has been a constant throughout history. Do you think the pursuit of art feeds this freedom? Are people with more relaxed sexual boundaries more likely to be artistic? Or is it less direct than that?
Look, I am sure there are some accountants having orgies and mad sessions somewhere. I’m not sure it’s only the work of the artistic. Though, I must say, when one studies theatre and/or performance, your guard comes down pretty quickly. A lot of the study involves being vulnerable, and sharing your truth with other people. It also involves a lot of touching and physical involvement, so sex and so forth does not seem like so much of a stretch from what is already taking place. Though, I must say, this was not necessarily my experience at university, though I’m sure it was going on.
Given your background, questions of autobiography are likely to be raised around your novel. To what extent did you use your own life or knowledge of others you knew, studied and worked with?
As my agent Jean Mostyn said so eloquently, writing is a pot pourri of truth, observation, and invention. I would go along with this. How It Feels is very similar to my life trajectory, in terms of geography, but it is not my life. I did not run a theatre company in London for seven years, nor did I have a Sri Lankan girlfriend, or fall out of a window after a foursome in Dalston. Though I did play skirmish once. A lot of this book comes from things I saw and felt from being young, and leaving the Shire and becoming an artist, and then coming back, but it is a whole lot more interesting than how it happened for me.
Having acted, written and directed, what drew you to writing a novel and were you conscious of the potential for people to treat you akin to a soap actor trying to be a pop star?
Firstly, I am not so sure being a pop star is a reasonable equivalent to being a novelist. Well, I’m not sure Dickens would appreciate the connection to Britney. I wrote How It Feels for a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to write a book. I have always dreamt and aspired to this. Books have played a large part in enriching my life and I wanted to add to the greater pool of this. I also wanted to get back to the very stuff of writing, and to do so on my own. Writing television, film, and theatre for that matter, well there are a lot of voices on board, a lot of factors you have to consider. Writing a novel allowed me to use language, and offer my mind absolute freedom. I also wanted to write about being young before I forgot how it felt. And also, well, I guess it’s a love letter to a lost friend as well. If they can read in heaven, well, I wrote it for him.
This interview first appeared in the November issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Read Paul Landymore’s review of How it Feels here.