Good Reading : March 2006
MARCH 2006 ı goodreading 13 author profile We are sitting in the tea garden at Sassafrass in Latrobe Street, Paddington, in Brisbane, and Earls is dressed in baggy shorts, a T-shirt and runners. He looks more like a student than a bestselling author. He orders a short black. He is ready to talk about his roots. He describes the changes in Northern Ireland as ‘insidious’, something people had adapted to over a period of time. They no longer found it strange or discomforting and dealt with it on a day to day basis. Children of family friends, who went to school in Belfast, adopted a routine of lying down on the floor of the car for parts of the journey in case there was crossfire. You never knew what awaited you if you went into Belfast or one of the bigger towns. At a road block you couldn’t be sure if the people in ar my unifor ms were legitimate or if they were the IRA in army uniforms. The impact of these events on Earls’s young life would not be evident for many years. At home, however, life was safe and magical. Through his mother’s bedtime tales, both read and invented, he came to love stories and the possibilities they offered. Stories were exciting, and he started telling his own stories at kindergarten at the age of four. His parents encouraged reading and admired his imagi- native and dramatic abilities. For Earls, leaving Ireland was an adventure. His parents treated it as such and he and his sister were captivated by the excitement of new places and the possibilities the move prom- ised. Winter in Brisbane was as war m as the summer they had left behind and to the Earls children it was an amazing place, with palm trees and beaches nearby. But the first month of school in Brisbane was tough. As an eight-year-old Irish boy from a farm school with one hundred pupils, he was unprepared for the Ascot State School of nine hundred. He remembers being treated as an outsider with a funny accent, as an oddity. ‘You’re the foreign kid, aren’t you? Say something,’ was a frequent unwelcome request from other kids, helping little to dispel his fears and embar- rassment at being different. Some mornings he would fake illness to avoid going to school. But once he was no longer the new kid – and stopped wearing socks with sandals – he started gaining confidence, made friends more easily and became a local. By the beginning of Grade 5 he spoke and felt like an Aussie. His accent still changed when he spoke to his family, however. Earls and his nine-year-old sister made an audio tape for their grandmother on which they performed a play about pirates in their Irish accents. He remembers casting himself as the hor ribly arrogant pirate captain and his sister as everything else. Today few remnants of his Irish accent remain, and only surface surreptitiously when he is in the company of Irish friends. Known as ‘The Face of Brisbane’ in the city’s publicity campaign, Earls would be regarded by many Australians as the ‘Brisbane boy’ who made good. His novels Bachelor Kisses, 48 Shades of Brown,World of Chickens and Perfect Skin have been published internationally, and at home his incisive and humor- ous observations of city life have conferred upon Brisbane youth culture an impetus of levity and originality. Then came The Thompson Gunner, and suddenly all precon- ceptions of Earls are being challenged. It’s based partly on his childhood memories and partly on his own travels as an author to Canada and throughout Australia. Earls says that the idea for The Thompson Gunner was ‘irresistible’, even though it repre- sented a career risk, being a ‘serious’ novel. He felt compelled to write it but found it difficult to start, concerned that he would be plagued by dreams of soldiers with guns, standing over him on a cold, wet night. But as the story unfolded and the main character wrestled with unresolved issues and an identity crisis, he found that he was exorcising his own demons and confronting his inherent Irishness. The adult Earls had to face his deep-seated fears and the nightmares that haunted him as a child. He admits that some of his conflicts are still unresolved. He has been back to Northern Ireland only once, in 1977. In Belfast shots were being fired close by and he was searched thirteen times. He took a photograph of a shopfront window that had been blown up. For most of the passers-by the carnage did not merit a second glance. Since then his parents have visited their birth country a number of times, but Earls is still ambivalent about returning. He insists, however, that he feels a strong connection to Norther n Ireland and retains an intimate understanding of the place, albeit an eight-year-old’s perception which ‘was frozen back in 1972’. These are complicated feelings and his dual loyalties are not easily explained. ‘In a way I feel that I am completely both. I am not divisible. At the same time, I feel like I belong here.’ He isn’t sure how to go back. ‘Seeing how different it might be or the same it might be’ is a daunting thought. ‘It isn’t fixed yet,’ he says of Northern Ireland. ‘There is still a very significant sectarian divide … until that is resolved, it won’t be fixed.’ Having always felt a bit odd about the fact that people insist they know you once they have read your books, Earls has been reluctant to reveal his intense feelings about his roots. People have often regarded his novels as autobiographical, even against his protestations. After he wrote Perfect Skin, for instance, some Leaving Ireland was an adventure. He and his sister were captivated by the excitement of new places and the possibilities the move promised. Winter in Brisbane was as warm as the summer they had left behind and to the Earls child- ren it was an amazing place, with palm trees and beaches nearby.