INTERVIEW: Jon Bauer on ‘Rocks in the Belly’ (Scribe)

Pictured: Jon Bauer (photo by Natasha Blankfield)

Rocks in the Belly (Scribe) is the story of a young boy who is overcome by jealously after his mother fosters another child, and the man he becomes as he returns to face his now chronically ill mother. The book was officially launched last night by Cate Kennedy.

Bookseller+Publisher Reviewer B Owen Baxter interviewed first-time novelist Bauer for our July issue.

What inspired you to write this book?

This book began as far back as 1998, way before I began writing. I was visiting family friends in England with my mum at a time when she was showing the first signs of her illness. I saw a photograph on the mantelpiece of a wonderful 13-year-old girl with an intellectual disability. I asked about her and it was clear that this girl meant a lot to the family, that they’d fostered her but she’d died. I must have carried that image because in 2007 it returned in the form of a first line: I used to tell people I was a foster child.

To what extent did you draw on real-life experiences (whether they’re your own or from somebody you know)?

This is fiction but of course there are parallels with my own life. My mother dying of brain cancer is the clearest link although her illness is more a cameo than a central feature of the book. But I made sure I put real emotion into the fiction so that the book’s heart is my heart, even if the events are not mine. If you want to move people you have to risk your own truth. If you want to do anything well I think you have to give of yourself.

The main character (particularly as a child) has quite a disturbing combination of naivety and sociopathy. What (if any) research did you do in order to portray this?

I researched fostering through a friend who works in the field, but I’ve long been an avid observer of the human condition. I believe that we all contain every element of humanity, which is why history is so repetitive. None of us is all good or all bad. We’re often simultaneously both.

What is the significance of not revealing the main character’s real name?

This was an instinctive choice but I struggled with it during editing because it made things hard at times—to avoid the name without if being a conspicuous avoidance. I think a nameless character can add power. It’s more personal for the reader somehow, and the writer. Perhaps it was also about my own need to keep the character inside of me. I’d tremble sometimes while he was up to his ‘sociopathy’. Especially because, in my mind, he was doing it to the memory of my dying mother.

Do you have any plans for a sequel/prequel? If not, what do you think your next project will be?

I am returning to a novel I wrote prior to this—The Prophet of Loss, a story I spent 18 months researching in Morocco. I’ve also started looking into blindness (including plans to be blind myself for two weeks) for another book I want to write about an older man losing his sight: Winter Solstice.

Did you struggle with the ending of this story?

I waited a long time before writing the ending. Harder was editing the last third which was difficult to shorten. Rocks in the Belly is a complicated saga to bring to a satisfactory conclusion without it being too neat or too dark. I hope I managed it.

Who are some of your favourite authors?

Graham Greene (The End of the Affair), Michael Chabon and Brett Easton Ellis (I read American Psycho twice during the writing of Rocks to see how he managed to make the objectionable palatable).

As an established writer do you have any special techniques that you use to overcome problems such as writer’s block?

I think writer’s block is a function only of fear, which causes a writer to be judgemental. Writing confronts you with yourself, and writer’s block is a sign that a writer is being cruel to themselves. Writing should be play. And does all play need to be good? You don’t judge play. I found Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury useful. As well as the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron because it is essentially about fostering kindness towards yourself.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Write. Do it for yourself. Be prepared to be bad in order to become better. Do it for growth not greatness. I wrote short stories so I could grow faster before tackling a novel. Write for its own sake. Love it and it will love you back. Besides, if you love it you’re already a success.

What other jobs have you had?

I worked in marketing for many years and was miserable. Charity marketing helped ease some of the misery. Then I became a copywriter, writing ads, but in my spare time at work I’d write stories …

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

I always knew I didn’t want to be a marketing guy. I just wasn’t strong enough yet to live my own life. I was doing what my parents said I’d be good at. In the end I chose writing arbitrarily and got lucky. This is only my fifth year at it.

B Owen Baxter is a bookseller and aspiring young writer from the Central Coast of New South Wales. His review of Rocks in the Belly and a version of this interview first appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

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