Writers Festival: Food for thought

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid talks to Australian writer Wayne Macauley about food porn and creativity

Australian writer Wayne Macauley. Photo / Supplied
Australian writer Wayne Macauley. Photo / Supplied

If you're a fan of MasterChef and have glossy recipe books on your shelves, Melbourne's Wayne Macauley has a novel for you. If you despise the current overload of television cooking shows and obsession with food, he's got exactly the same one.

Macauley's The Cook - which won the inaugural 2012 Most Underrated Book Award in Australia - has been hailed as a brilliant satire but is also a moving story about hope, expectation, the lure of fame and social mores.

Located between the dreams of a juvenile delinquent and a series of MasterChef, The Cook speaks through the mind of an ambitious but flawed boy, Zac, whose shot at redemption is at a cooking school where there are eliminations and what some might call "big personalities".

It feels sharply authentic. It is poetic, as Zac's thought-lines run fluidly and often without punctuation; becomes violently dark; and, most of all, is astutely observed. It's that world on the small screen eating its own.

Macauley - who enjoyed a happy childhood in Melbourne's bushy outer suburbs, was turned on to writing in his late teens and spent time studying theatre - admits there's a satirical thread in many of his novels (Caravan Story turns the microscope on fellow writers and artists) and feels the need to deal with the world he inhabits. The global infatuation with celebrity chefs and cooking shows was almost unavoidable.

"I'd been thinking about it for a long time," he says. "I can't help but come from an angle of questioning and asking, 'Why is it going on?' because it's ubiquitous, international and in various media and weekend supplements. I suppose like every book in a way, it starts with a question - not that you expect every book to answer that question - but it does start from a curiosity, wondering what it would be like to believe all this from the inside. What would it sound like if you really believed all this crap?"

Macauley says "food porn" is selling a dream, and young Zac is cooking as a way up and out of the life he has.

"In all those reality shows there's the idea that wherever you are on the social hierarchy it's not good enough, there's somewhere else to be. This idea of ambition and aspiration is in our culture, but I can't think of a time where it's been so powerful. It shifts glossy magazines on the basis of, 'that could be me' or 'look at her on the beach, how can she be famous when she's got fat rolls like that?'

"The food thing is part of that, but beyond anything else it's selling us the idea we can live a decadent life and somehow have wealth and power and privilege attached to you. It's not about food any more."

Macauley, however, appreciates the irony that when he appears at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, audiences will see him as a successful, acclaimed and internationally published author, the archetypal famous writer who has made it.

"Yes," he laughs, "the crossover has even got into such serious, deep-thinking professions as writing. People do try to find the shortcut to this thing, but I come to all this as an outsider, and for any kind of artist that's a good place to come from because you see things differently."

Macauley's working method for his novels begins with an overall plan but very little detail - that emerges as he discovers his characters while writing them.

"My plan for The Cook - it was in my diary: I will start on this day - was half a dozen pages of notes and sketches, but my outline was just one-and-a-half A4 pages, which described the book as it turned out: three parts - the first at cook school, the part in the wealthy home and the confessional part at the end.

"I mapped out how many pages they would take and I wrote to that. But within that very broad plan I'm flying by the seat of my pants and coming to the desk knowing just not enough to keep me excited."

He says that having other projects - not the least a family, teaching creative writing at the University of Melbourne and supporting AFL team Richmond - allows him to leave the characters at his desk. They don't haunt his dreams.

"I consciously down tools and do something else so I won't be tormented by my characters. In the morning I'm really happy to go and meet them, no matter how horrible they might be."

The real key to literary success, however - aside from having some innate talent - is rather mundane, says Macauley, who writes for at least four hours each morning, five days a week.

"I realised it very early on. I heard a writer once say there's only one way to write and that's to actually write. For a while in my 20s I dreamed about being a writer but I didn't do enough writing. I see a lot of that now, a young generation of writers getting ahead of themselves and thinking they're writers before they've actually got down and done it. I don't want to sound like an old man, but the discipline is important.

"No matter what you're writing - it might be the most avant-garde, out-there thing or a serious work - you actually have to get up every day - or start every night, whichever you prefer. Just do it.

"I don't know how a novel comes out at the other end, but I know the best chance of it coming out is by creating that discipline, by firewalling yourself with structure and routine, and going to the desk every day, day-in and day-out. And maybe year-in and year-out."

Wayne Macauley will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival at the Aotea Centre on Friday at 2.30pm, in a workshop on the short story on Saturday at 9am, and in a panel discussion and reading on Saturday at 5.30pm.

- NZ Herald

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