Dave’s facing death. Sol’s truck runs into a tree. Two very different males are thrust together in the same ward with life-changing consequences for both. Such is the premise of Australian debut novelist Ross Barrett’s new book, “Final Round, The Journey of a Lifetime.”
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: There’s no question that your career path has taken a fascinating route – from scientist to playwright to published novelist. Let’s time-travel back, though, to the early years of Ross Barrett. When you were a lad of 10, what did you envision doing as your life’s work in the future?
A: When I was 10, I think I had an aspiration to be an electrician. After that, I thought about being a Bank Manager, and later a teacher. I was always interested in science, but had no idea you could make a career out of it. I was very naïve with regard to the professions, and my family was quite poor, so the initial plan was that I would leave school after completing my Intermediate Certificate at age 15. Two of my teachers came to visit my parents at home and explained to them that it would be a waste of talent if I didn’t stay on and go to university. It was financially very difficult for my parents but they managed to support me for the extra two years of school. Once at university, I had scholarships and bursaries and was self-supporting. I am very grateful to my two teachers, and to my loving and very proud parents.
Q: Were you an avid reader back then or only putting your nose in a book if homework required it?
A: I was a keen reader, but not fanatical. Books were not part of our family life. I borrowed books from the municipal library, which were a mixture of fiction and popular science. My childhood tastes in fiction were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, Tarzan and Biggles. All of these are now regarded as politically incorrect. In my early teens I discovered Sherlock Holmes, and was attracted by the logical, i.e. scientific, methodology Holmes applied to the solution of his crimes. I read all of the SH stories many times. Later I based one of my plays on the relationship between SH and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Q: What drew you to the field of science and, specifically, what type of science was your calling?
A: One of my early teachers, when I was about ten, gave me a book detailing simple experiments that could be performed at home. I loved working through them, and trying to explain unexpected results. For instance, spin a boiled egg on a smooth flat surface, and you will see it quite suddenly rear up and continue to spin on its point. Why?
I began to read books on science, and had an array of useful equipment that I had gathered together: electric batteries, buzzers, bells, transformers and globes. I was a bit of a pain in the neck, developing booby traps that woke up the household when my sister came home late at night from a date.
At university I studied physics, chemistry, zoology and mathematics. Although I was the top student in Chemistry, I dropped it and majored in physics because I liked the more fundamental questions that physics posed into the nature of the universe.
My research interests have been experimental and theoretical nuclear physics, signal processing, underwater acoustics and sonar.
Q: Do you believe that science is an art or that art is a science? How so?
A: I wasn’t quite sure what this question was getting at, so I Googled it. Most of the hits seemed to imply that art is subjective, and science is objective. I think this is very simplistic. We might like to believe that the results of science are independent of the scientist who carried out the research, but that is often not the case. Scientists are just as prone to ego trips, jealousy of their peers, susceptibility to financial inducements, and other human frailties, as anyone else. These can influence their interpretation of their results, so that they too become subjective.
Q: Like a lot of my peers in high school, science was a class that you either loved (because of the chance to make smelly things blow up) or loathed (because of all of the formulas and tables of elements that had to be memorized). You recently co-authored a book called Physics: The Ultimate Adventure. The title alone suggests a glamorous side to a subject that many of us would otherwise run away from. What inspired this approach and who was the target readership you and your fellow authors had in mind?
A: One of the attractions of science at school was to get hands-on and carry out smelly experiments ourselves. In those days, the school science lab was often full of the highly toxic hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg gas), and the benches awash with Mercury. These days the students are kept at arm’s length from such experiments, to avoid law suits from their parents. Little wonder that science numbers are down.
One of the reasons I dropped chemistry is because I found organic chemistry full of the rote learning of formulas. For me, this was not the case with physics. If you understand the basic principles, the formulas can usually be derived, at least at the level taught in high school.
When we decided to write Physics: the Ultimate Adventure we wanted to present physics in a way that would enable non-specialists to enjoy the mystery and wonders of modern physics, without being submerged in mathematics. We hoped it might encourage students starting out on their careers to consider physics as an option, and those who had already gone down another road to gain a better understanding of the world they live in.
We believe that physics, far from being dry, can be, and should be made, beautiful, inspiring and enjoyable.
Q: In 1987, you began writing scripts for live theatre, a decision that subsequently led to not only seven of them being professionally produced in Adelaide but one of them selected as the best new South Australian play of the year in 1994. Tell us about your approach to the playwriting craft. For instance, is there a formulaic/outline structure that draws from your left-brain expertise as a scientist or do you allow your right-brain creativity to invite the muses in and see what they do?
A: I do not have any formulaic structure that I work from. I tend to have a broad outline of character, plot or theme that is the starting point. I start writing fairly early in the creative process, and it is this act of putting the material on the page that generates further ideas on where to go next. For me, the analytical, or left brain activity comes at the rewriting stage. Characters are then torn apart and extra traits introduced to give them more depth, the dramatic structure is analysed to locate the climaxes and make sure they are in the right place, and the dramatic conflict in every scene is studied to find the characters’ objectives and what is preventing their fulfilment. When all the problems of the script have been identified, I then return to the starting point, and let the muses prepare a second version. This cycle continues until a convergence occurs, and I have what I call my First Draft.
It is a time-consuming process, and probably not practical for a long work, such as War and Peace. However, if I try to plot everything out first, I find myself staring for ages at the blank page.
Q; Do you allow anyone to read your works in progress or does everyone have to wait until you have typed the final page?
A: After I have reached the First Draft stage described in the last question, I let others read it and offer critical comments. To let them read it before this stage would be to waste both their time and mine, because the script has not yet solidified enough. It is very beneficial to get a play script read aloud by good actors. They have much to contribute on characterisation and dialogue.
Q: What did it feel like the first time you heard applause for one of your productions?
A: It was very exciting. Even though not comedies, most of my plays have plenty of humour, and it is always rewarding to hear laughter come at the correct places.
It was a great surprise to me to see the different reactions of different audiences for the same play. This is the charm of live theatre. The audience is a part of the production, and the actors feed off their reactions, as much as the audience responds to the actors. Some audiences can be quite cold, while others respond very warmly to the same show. Psychologists could make a living studying the group dynamics of audiences. One of the best audiences I ever had was when the play went on after a cocktail party, and the audience was half sloshed.
I will always remember a comment I overheard at interval during my first play. I was walking past two young members of the audience who were outside the theatre with a drink. They did not know I was the writer, and as I went past I heard one ask the other: “what do you think of the show?” My ears pricked up because I was interested to discover whether someone thirty years younger than I was would get anything out of the play. His reply was one of my most satisfying moments. “That’s my life being enacted on the stage in there,” he said.
Q: Your first novel, Final Round, was originally conceived as a stage play. What was the inspiration behind the storyline?
A: This play began several years ago when I spent a week in hospital with a Deep Vein Thrombosis. “Look on the bright side,” everybody said to me. “It’ll give you material for a new play.”
When the character in the next bed learned of my condition, he comforted my wife with: “That’s what I’ve got, only worse. They may have to take my leg off.” Another member of the ward had a carotid artery that was 50% blocked. He was given aspirin, sent home and told to come back when it was 75% blocked. The fourth patient, who kept everybody awake at night with a hacking cough that we all thought was chronic bronchitis, was found to have inhaled a pea, which was now lodged deep in his lung.
A hospital ward is a place where people, who would normally power-walk the Nullabor Plain to avoid each other, are thrown together. Scars are opened, muscles flexed, secrets unlocked; all this in an environment where tragedy and death are often not far away. I realised I had the perfect setting for a play to explore the growth of a bond between two very different males who nevertheless shared a dark secret.
Q: What triggered your desire to adapt it to a different medium?
A: In a play, you are bounded in what you can present by the available time (in this case, 60 minutes) and by the limits of the stage. I wanted to explore the motivations and internal thoughts of the characters in more depth than was possible in a Fringe stage play.
Q: What did the adaptation to a novel allow you to do that might have been challenging/problematic in a live performance?
A: I structured the novel so that each chapter was written from a different point of view, cycling through the POVs of the three main characters. In this way the thoughts of the three characters about their life situations, and the others sharing them, are clearer.
The stage play takes place entirely in a hospital ward. Although this is still largely true with the novel, in the latter case there was more freedom in exploring the characters’ back-stories and other events outside the hospital environment.
Q: What would you advise other playwrights who may be thinking of adapting their stories to a different platform?
A: Go for it. If you have a successful play then you already have well-developed characters, realistic dialogue and a plot line with climaxes in the appropriate places. A novel enables you to go into greater depth with the characters, and explore issues that may only have been hinted at in the play. You have the freedom to develop sub-plots and take the action to exotic or surreal locations.
Bear in mind, however, that you must develop language skills that enable you to write clear, grammatical English. A play consists of dialogue and stage directions. The latter are read by nobody, least of all the director. A novel must carry the reader along with the artistry of the writer’s prose. This is a different skill from those possessed by a playwright.
Q: In writing for both the stage and the page, are there recurring or underlying themes that readers should pay attention to?
A: My writing has dealt with historical subjects (Billy Hughes and How We Beat the Favourite), science themes (Footsteps, Love in the Chook House, Double Blind) and more general explorations of the human condition (Suns of Home, Final Round, Rainbows Singing). My writing is about the themes that interest me.
In both my career as a scientist and in my writing, I have ranged over a fairly wide area. Probably more success comes to those who restrict themselves, e.g. the specialist who knows more than anybody in the world about the third digit on the African elephant’s left front foot, or the writer churning out the fifteenth book in a crime series. However, that is not what I enjoy doing.
Q: Authors oftentimes inject aspects of their own personalities into their characters. Would you say this is true of your own work?
A: Partially. I would say that there are parts of me in most of my characters.
If you are writing about a murderer, that doesn’t mean you have to be one. However, you need to be able to construct a believable murderer if your play or novel is to be successful. This might entail imagining what you would be capable of if some of your moral inhibitions were switched off. Character actors face the same situation when playing villains. Some decline to play child abusers because they are unhappy with the dark places in their minds that their research for the role takes them to.
I would say my characters are based on research, combined with exploring and exaggerating the parts of my own personality that are relevant to the character.
Q: Which comes first for you – the characters or the plot? Why does your chosen method best suit your writing style?
A: This depends on the play or novel. My plays, Billy Hughes and How We Beat the Favourite are the stories of two real characters, a former Australian Prime Minister and a poet/horseman. In these cases, the characters obviously came first. My play Sherlock Holmes and ‘The Coming of the Fairies’ asked the question: how could such an irrational person as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in spiritualism and fairies at the bottom of the garden, have created the most coolly rational character in fiction? The characters were already there, and I had to develop the plot. In the novel I am working on now, Double Blind, the plot came before the characters, as it was based on a fiction analogue of a real situation.
Q: When and where do you get your best writing done?
A: I write in my study at home in Adelaide, or at a beach house we have in Marion Bay on the Yorke Peninsula of South Australia. When I was working as a scientist, I wrote in the evenings after dinner. Now that I am retired, I write in the morning.
I try to write as a habit, and to produce a minimum number of words each day. This is not realistic when writing about science, as there is quite a bit of reference checking and research to be done with each paragraph.
Q: Do you self-edit as you go along or wait until the end?
A: Before beginning my day’s writing, I tend to read several of the last pages that I wrote at the previous sitting. I polish the prose while doing this. I treat it as a warm-up, in the same way that actors warm up before a performance. It enables me to get into the state of mind that I was in when I left off last time.
One thing that I do not do is listen to the critic on my shoulder who is whispering into my ear that what I have just written is rubbish. I know from past experience that although it may be rubbish at the moment, by the time it has been subjected to endless rewrites, it will at least be of an acceptable standard.
Q: What governed the decision to self-publish Final Round?
A: I was one of a group of writers who had submitted their novels to a small U.K. publisher, had their books accepted, and been offered quite generous contracts. However, the publisher became sick and when he recovered from an illness lasting over a year, he had lost interest in the fiction side of his company.
Rather than go through the whole hassle again, we all decided to self-publish, and provide each other with any tips that we picked up along the way.
My experience with Physics: the Ultimate Adventure was quite different. In this case, we submitted two sample chapters and a summary of the other chapters sequentially to three publishers. We received replies within a few weeks. In two cases, they said they liked the proposal but it was not the type of book they published, and they did not believe their readership would be interested. They were basically text book publishers. The third was more dismissive, but also replied quickly.
The fourth publisher we submitted the proposal to was Springer. I received their email reply 48 hours after the editor returned to her office from a week-long holiday break. The mail started off in a very positive vein. I skip read down the screen, looking for the paragraph beginning with “however”. There wasn’t one. They were going to publish it.
Q: What have you learned from the self-publishing experience that you’d like to share with fellow writers?
A: Self-publishing is a doddle and costs nothing. The resultant Print-on-Demand paperbacks and ebooks are of good trade quality. However, the marketing of the books takes time and effort. This is something that I, and the other group of writers I mentioned above, are working at.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: Possibly that I have played seven 1st grade rugby matches, and have had my photo published in the local newspaper more often as a rugby player than as a scientist or writer. Admittedly, this was half a century ago.
Q: Coffee or tea?
A: Both. I like a cappuccino in the morning, but prefer tea as a thirst quencher during the day. These days, however, I have to cut down on caffeine.
Q: Cake or cookies?
A: Cookies (we call them biscuits). However, they do tend to put on the weight.
Q: Early riser or night owl?
A: Certainly not an early riser.
Q: If Hollywood came calling to make a movie out of Final Round, who would be in your dream cast?
A: Geoffrey Rush for the older character. Rush was a member of the Adelaide State Theatre Company when we moved to Adelaide years ago. This was before he won his Oscar, his Emmy and his Tony. I saw him in many stage plays at the time, and thought he was brilliant. I saw him again last year playing King Lear in Sydney. Same verdict.
For the younger man, I would suggest Russell Crowe, but he would have to take off a few years.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Double Blind, which is my second novel, also based on a play script.
It is set in a science research institute. Linh, a Research Fellow at the Verdelho Institute in Melbourne, becomes worried that her supervisor has more than just objective scientific reasons in wishing to see a pharmaceutical discredited. She finds herself unwittingly caught up in a major scandal, and the steps she takes to extricate herself have consequences for her career, and for everybody else at the Verdelho Institute.
As you can imagine, my academic background came in useful here.
Q: Where do you hope to go with your writing from here?
A: My two Italian co-authors and I are planning a second book, exploring the limits of physics. Our first book raised a number of questions, and issues, that deserve further discussion. For instance, the two major 20th century theories in physics, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, are mutually contradictory. They can’t both be right. Also, there are about two hundred arbitrary fundamental constants in physics, and if the value of one of these were changed by a few percent, our universe would be so different, life as we know it would not be possible. We thought we could write something interesting on these, and similar, topics.
Q: With hindsight, what have been the most rewarding aspects of your professional life?
A: For a scientist it is exciting to be able to look at your work and say “I have just learned something that nobody else on the planet knows.” This is the ultimate adventure. It is exciting to look at Google Scholar and see that scientific work I published in 1990 is still being cited today, and used in fields, e.g. traffic control and the analysis of music, far-removed from where I ever imagined it being applied.
However, another reward is the variety of people I have met, and the places I have visited. To live in a non-English speaking country (Germany) for two and a half years, learn German, and appreciate the different perspective that an experience like that brings to one’s outlook, is broadening.
At my recent birthday party, among the guests were physicists, engineers, business managers, company executives, writers, actors, directors, musicians, teachers, and university professors. They were the friends I have made in the various phases my career has passed through. They are all very different people. I hope none of them recognises themselves on the stage, or in one of my novels.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
A: I have a web site at www.rfbarrett.com
Readers can read more about my work there, and contact me through there if they wish. I will be glad to answer any of their questions.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I think that about covers it.