Interview with Andrez Bergen: Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat

We interviewed Andrez Bergen about his 2011 book Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. Read the review of the book here

Poetic Justice: Would it be a bold proposition to say that, as an expatriate Australian, “Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat” is your vision of a country “gone wrong”? To a whinging pom who always thought it could be paradise, what is your take on modern Australia?

Andrez Bergen: To tackle the first part of your question, I think the recent undercurrents shaping things out there in the “real” world weighed in on my subconscious during the rewrites of the novel, particularly over the period 2005-2009. But the vision of this future dystopia is one that’s lurked in my imagination since I was a teenager, probably after too many viewings of the original “Planet of the Apes”, “Blade Runner”, “Brazil”, “Catch-22”, “The Omega Man”, “A Clockwork Orange”, and their ilk.  Then there’s the bleak examinations of society that come across in Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out”, Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog”, Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole”, and so on. Put them together and you get trouble. I’m not sure being Australian added that much impetus, although the weather in Melbourne is notoriously patchier than picture-postcard places like the Gold Coast. The city in “Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat”, to my mind, could be any Western metropolis – in the original versions I left it unnamed, but a part of me always felt it was Melbourne. Having lived in Tokyo for a decade, I got nostalgic for my hometown and decided to make that the setting. Besides, Melbourne’s played last city before, in Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach”.

As for the second part of the question, the truth is that I love Australia whenever I go back, and I feel lucky I grew up there. To my mind it’s also improved since I left in 2001. There are some concerns I have related to social, political and economic aspects that I’d say reflect the global shift rather than anything intrinsically “Australian”. Then again, we’ve always fretted about something. When I was a kid it was the Cold War, pollution and tiger snakes – now it’s social upheaval, global warming and tiger snakes. Those snakes are the only unique things to worry about Downunder.

Poetic Justice: Where did the idea come from to combine detective noir and apocalypse? Do you read science fiction?

Andrez Bergen: Second part first: I think you might’ve guessed from the novel that I’m more of an avid watcher than reader.  Part of that comes from my journalism (I do a lot of hack movie reviews) and part of it came from my parents’ love of cinema – but they also encouraged me to settle down in a comfy chair occasionally with a book. I’m a slow reader, but prolific, and strangely enough I’m less selective about books than I am with DVDs. I’ll read anything. Scarily.

I always had a soft spot for sci-fi, though I don’t read so much now. Back in primary school I adored Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and by high school I was into “Dune”, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick. I think sci-fi films have been more of a lasting influence. “Blade Runner” is an obvious influence – I’ve seen it dozens of times – and I love the collusion of styles, which do include sci-fi and noir. But there are other, older sci-fi movies that made an impression, from “Things to Come to The Thing from Another World”. You know, the usual suspects like “2001”, “Soylent Green”, “Fahrenheit 451”.

But at the same time I’ve had an ongoing love of noir. As writers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler stand out for me, and I grew up watching old black-and-whites with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Peter Lorre, Dick Powell, Edward G. Robinson and – of course – George Sanders. As time went by, “Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat” became less sci-fi and more noir, possibly because noir is dateless whereas sci-fi has a use-by date.

In the time I was writing TSMG, the year 2001 came and went, as did 2010. 1999 – the year the Moon was supposed to break orbit from Earth according to “Space: 1999” – went by and nothing cataclysmic happened. Before we know it, it’ll be 2019 and we’ll all know how prescient “Blade Runner” was.

Poetic Justice: How does living in different countries influence you, from a writer’s perspective?

Andrez Bergen: Well, it definitely broadens horizons, introduces unforeseen elements, and means you can pluck from cross-cultural stimuli. Living in London then Tokyo weighed heavily on the development of TSMG, and in fact the next novel I’m working on is mostly set in Japan from 1929 on. As an expat, sometimes you feel what it’s like to be a true outsider, in a foreign culture and alien landscape – and that can be invigorating.

Poetic Justice: Do you sit down (or stand up) to write every day, or do you work in sudden bursts of enthusiasm, only when inspired?

Andrez Bergen: Anywhere anytime is my crap motto – I’m constantly writing and editing on bits of scrap paper in the train, at work, out on the street, in the rain, in the loo. I do try to be orderly and sit down at a desk for a session of writing, but if I’m not in the mood social networking and looking up things on Wikipedia, like the Black Death or Eleanor of Aquitaine, distract me.

When I’m working on a novel, like I am now, this is mostly a daily thing, but between publishing TSMG and starting on this one I barely wrote any fiction at all for a few months. I tried to focus instead on my six-year-old daughter, writing a bunch of articles, music production, and that evil necessity – the propaganda barrage of promotion and marketing that we put TSMG through.

Poetic Justice: What are you working on at the moment?

Andrez Bergen: I’m currently pottering on my next novel, titled “One Hundred Years of Vicissitude”, with an apology to Gabriel Garcia Márquez. It’s still in the planning stage – here read a chaotic shamble of ideas – but it’s looking like the narrator is going to be Wolram E. Deaps, the antagonist from TSMG. Otherwise the two novels will share only a minor amount in terms of story, direction and style. I want “One Hundred Years of Vicissitude” to be a stand-alone piece.

I’m also continuing with music (a long-time hobby) and the journalism thing, though the print magazines I’ve written for have dropped like flies in recent years thanks to the Internet.

I have a few other half-baked ideas, but I’d better not let the cat out of the sack at this early stage.

Poetic Justice: Do you think life is mostly hard-boiled or soft-boiled?

Andrez Bergen: Funnily enough I like eggs done the two ways – depends on my mood – so I’ll opt for both in terms of life itself. It can be hard, depressing, unfair and confusing, but also oddly inspired, hilarious and uplifting. Regardless of the atmosphere that dominates a hefty chunk of TSMG, I’ve always had a positive view of the future. I think it’s just easier to tweak the negative sometimes.

Read our review of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat here