Judith Buckrich in Conversation with
George Turner



This conversation took place on the eve of George Turner's 78th birthday, at Turner's home in Ballarat. I was asked by the editors of Eidolon to interview Turner in September 1994, well into the third year of my work on his biography. We found it difficult to stick to the 'interview' framework; our association has been based on many 'interviews' towards the biography and on correspondence. During the course of time we have become friends and developed the habits of conversation that always go beyond the bounds of interview; we find it difficult to stick to 'the point', thus the result is a conversation, and not an interview.

My brief from Eidolon was to talk mainly about Turner's last four books, The Sea and Summer (Drowning Towers in the US), Brain Child, The Destiny Makers and Genetic Soldier, and about science fiction in general. We began by talking about The Sea and Summer.

Let's begin with The Sea and Summer. What were your motivations for writing it?

I wanted to write a science fiction book in the mainstream form - concentrating on people and events. And about the greenhouse effect, but about how it could affect people, not the environment.

Aren't you one of those science fiction writers who always write about people?

To a great extent, but in this case I wanted to write a novel that would not depend upon science for its effect. There were people in a situation (in The Sea and Summer) and they had to behave as their situation drove them. Nothing to do with being driven by new inventions or anything of that sort.

One of your other great interests is population. You've spoken at conferences about it, you've written about it. Do you see the kind of problems that appear in The Sea and Summer around you already?

Not in Australia. But in other parts of the world. For instance in the situation in Africa, with all the tribes fighting in central Africa in particular. I think that a lot of that is driven by overpopulation. They're clearing the jungle. The same is true in South America, particularly in Brazil where the natives are being practically deprived of their living. In fact they're moving into the cities because their jungle living has been destroyed. They've got nothing to eat unless they move into cities.

You always write about people in cities, apart from in Genetic Soldier where there are no cities left. Don't you see any impact, even in a city like Melbourne?

Melbourne, or any big city, provides me with things that I can look at and I can say, yes, well that won't last, or this has got to be changed; things of that sort. For instance the towers in The Sea and Summer are the direct outcome of bankrupt government and automation. Of course we haven't even seen the beginning of automation yet.

Do you think there's going to be a lot more?

Oho, we think we've got ten percent of people out of work and that's bad. I think it will go to forty and fifty before we're through.

Do you think that in your following three books, your science fiction has continued to be people-driven?

Once I've got the general idea of background, the characters are the main consideration. Particularly the main characters: they have to be set even before I start writing.

What do you mean they have to be set?

They have to be a physical and mental type and I have to have some idea of their philosophical orientation; what kind of people they are. And from then on they stay that way. As events happen, they have to react to them in the persona I've given them, they're not allowed to act any other way.

So you control it quite strongly, how these characters behave?

No, I don't control them, that's the point. Once they're set, they're out of my control: they have to react to what happens.

What about what happens, do you have an idea of what will happen? I mean obviously at the beginning you have an idea, but do things ever develop completely differently to what you expect?

Quite often. I know the end of the novel to some extent - I know the point I want to get to - but I don't know what will happen in the middle; that has to take its own way. So what happens generally is that the last twenty thousand words might take up to six months to write because I simply don't know where I'm going and how I'm going to get there. And it might take me six months to work it out.

When you say the main characters have to be set, what do you mean? The main three or four? Is it also true of the minor but important characters.

No; they're the sort of people that major characters are liable to run into.

Because of the kinds of characters they are?

But also because of the circumstances under which they live.

I want to ask you about your female characters. I know you have been asked about them before, but I think in Genetic Soldier there is actually a change in your attitude towards them. Do you think there is a difference between the way you set your female characters and your male characters, or not? For instance in The Sea and Summer, the two mothers: were they two characters that were already set?

No they weren't. The middle-class mother (Alison Conway) was an afterthought. When I started describing the house, the idea of the husband killing himself came to mind, and then I realized that there had to be something to hold the family together, so I turned back and wrote the introduction from her point of view. And it also gave me the final scene. But the two boys, Francis and Teddy, and Kovacs, they were set. And the other woman, the business woman, Nola Parkes. She was necessary in order to get the boy on his upward path.

So I'll ask the question again: do you think there is a difference in the way you set out to write about men and the way you set out to write about women?

Not sure. Let's go on a bit of a diversion here. Right from the start, when I first started to write, I was determined that there weren't going to be any forced love affairs. Because as far as I can see in actual life, either the women are central to what's happening or they're peripheral. Even when you have a family man who is, let's say, involved in business affairs, the plot is going to hang on him. If you have the plot centred on a woman, you have to handle it from a different point of view. Now, I write about men, because I know them better. But when it comes to - there must be some women naturally, then I sit down and start thinking what sort of women are these liable to be? Now, for many years, before I started writing science fiction the personality of my mother dominated the female characters far too much. Eventually I got rid of her in Beloved Son - it was rather a brutal act, but still, I did it. Then I found that I was interested in my father who I didn't know. Well, I was six years old when I last saw him, so I can't remember. From then on I started to concentrate on rather different female types. Brain Child used quite a lot of them, fairly experimentally really. In The Destiny Makers I knew what I was about then.

What do you mean, you experimented with female characters?

I gave them very definite, strong personalities. And they were created simply to kick the book along.

In Brain Child when David Chance has that sexual experience with one of his "aunts" - Belinda - that's quite an extraordinary scene. There's a woman who is so strong, even if she is a bit two dimensional. That's a thing I find in your work, that you have a way of presenting female characters as two dimensional, but enormously strong. It's confusing. I kind of admire them, but I don't understand their motivation. This happens more with your female characters than your male characters.

Yes. All my female characters are strong, but I've never sat down to think about it. I think what happens is that I conceive the strength first and then I build the woman around it.

It's not how you work with men.

Sometimes it is. Kostakis in The Destiny Makers was like that. Whereas Ostrov (also in The Destiny Makers) was aspects of me. And Kovacs in The Sea and Summer appeared full blown. I don't know where he came from.

Perhaps it was a result of living all those years in St. Kilda with all those East Europeans around you. Were you affected by that at all?

No. I'd had five or six years working in an employment office [1946 - 1951 approx.] so I knew all those different kinds of people backwards and forwards.

Do you still draw on that?

Yes I do for odd traits of personality and actions.

When you're writing, is each book a different experience? Can we talk about the difference between writing The Sea and Summer and Brain Child?

The Sea and Summer was an outcome of one of my mainstream novels. I simply wrote that with a complete concentration on the characters. Brain Child was a very deliberate book. It was started as a short story and I realized that I'd told the wrong tale. So I sat down and wrote the right one.

How long does it take you to write a book?

About two years.

And how does it happen; what happens in those two years?

Usually I start with an introductory twenty thousand words to establish the theme and style, and then I throw that out and start all over again.

How long does that take?

About six months.

And then you throw it out?

And then I write all the things I've learned in the six months.

When you say six months, do you sit down every day to write?

No, I'm very bad in that respect. I stop writing at the slightest excuse.

Is there a particular time of day when you like writing the most?

At night, though lately I've begun to write in the morning, since I've been here in Ballarat.

Are there times when the thing is doing nothing but gestating?

Whenever I come up against a point where I start wondering what happens next I simply stop and shove it down into my subconscious and in a week or two I can say oh yes, that's it.

What do you read George?

What do I read?

I'm trying to get an idea of where you get your inspiration from. Where are your sources?

I read everything that you can think of. The classics, science, essays.

Do they input into the work as you're going along?

I don't know. They produce useful facts. My inspiration usually comes from whatever happens to be interesting me at the time.

What inspired Brain Child? Was it just concern about genetic engineering?

To a degree. But more the science fiction idea that the super mentality has got to be a super mind in the way that we understand it: like our own minds only better. I tried to point out that there might be all sorts of different minds. And that they wouldn't necessarily be better, they would be less effective in some ways. And then there's the questions of how we as normal people would react to them. I came to the conclusion that on the whole we wouldn't want them (the superminds).

And that's the tragedy of Brain Child isn't it, that they're like aliens and so the others don't want them. But is Brain Child also about a search that someone makes with their own life? Is the search for one's life a common thread in your work? It was there in Transit of Cassidy too.

Yes it is. But it's common to a lot of novelists. It was there in The Destiny Makers too. Though Ostrov isn't really searching, he realizes that he has to change his mind.

Change his mind about what?

About his whole attitude to life really. It begins with his parents who as a youngster he's more or less despised, and finishes up in the last couple of pages looking to all the things he can do for other people. He's had a chance to have a look at his own subconscious.

It's interesting that both in The Destiny Makers and The Sea and Summer it's the ordinary people that you like, and that the reader gets to like. Do you admire these people who are struggling to live?

I don't know about admire them. I understand them.

Does that come from your own experience? Or from your mother and grandmother?

Actually it is mother's struggle. I've never really had to struggle. I haven't had it easy. On the whole I've had it pretty good. Even in times of recession I've always had a job.

There was that one time when you went to Sydney and you came home broke. You said that you literally had nothing.

Yes that's true. I had no money and no job. What did I do then?

All I know about is that John Bangsund gave you a typewriter.

Oh I know, I went to work for Carlton & United. It only took a few days. The first thing I tried was the Melbourne Tramways, but I had to tell so many lies about my age [GT was over 50] that it was a waste of time.

Did you want to be a tram conductor?

Anything. I just wanted a job.

George Turner the tram conductor - that would have been great.

Then I tried Carlton & United. Someone suggested it. I had to lie about my age there too, but no-one checked it. They found out eventually though.

What did you say when they found out?

They asked me why I'd lied, and I said that I needed a job, that's why. By that time I'd had a promotion so what the hell.

Getting back to the books, the last four are very different from one another, much more so than the first three science fiction books [Beloved Son, Vaneglory, Yesterday's Men].

Yes. Three of them were set on totally different worlds. The fact that they were all set in the greenhouse was just a background.

With a book like The Destiny Makers which is so much about politics -

No.

You don't think so?

Pretty superficial politics.

It does have a go at political corruption of the kind that exists in the world today.

Yes; I accept corruption as part of politics.

What did you feel about The Destiny Makers when it was finished?

It was a 'plotty' novel. I was all the time working out how to get from point A to point B. The only really connecting thread in it was Ostrov's self discovery.

Well if you weren't happy with it, did you try to rewrite it? Or did you just accept it the way it was?

No, I just accepted it the way it was. I got to the end and felt that any kind of rewriting would have to take a whole new theme.

So would you say that, of the last four novels, this was the one that satisfied you the least?

Yes.

How have the reviews been for the four?

They've all had good reviews, except Brain Child had one real stinker from Brian Stableford. But I didn't worry too much about that; on the whole they were well reviewed.

The Destiny Makers was too? Did anyone mention that it was too plot-driven?

No.

Let's talk about Genetic Soldier. When did you finish writing it?

Sometime early in 1993.

What was the driving force for it?

Originally it was a short story called "I Still Call Australia Home". Someone, I think one of the fans, wrote and said that in the short story there didn't seem to be enough reason for a starship coming home to be driven away. So I provided a reason. And, working backwards from there, I had to create the different kind of characters. And it involved creating a world that was very simple on the surface and very complex underneath, because I don't believe that there are any simplicities in human relationships; none whatsoever. And it had to be a kind of civilization that the 'old' people couldn't merge into whether they wanted to or not. And there were lots of other things that I wanted to put in too. For instance, the idea of a starship leaving Earth and looking for other planets; now that's a commonplace of science fiction, and one of the things I wanted to point out is that as far as other liveable planets go, there might be one in ten million. It's very unlikely that they'd find any in a lifetime, which really is the reason why they wanted to come home.

In the Locus (August 1994) review it says that Genetic Soldier is a book about a homecoming starship, but it also calls it a Utopia. And you've just said that that's how it seems on the surface, but really in order for human beings to create a real Utopia, they'd have to become something else, wouldn't they? And there is the theme of belonging and the question of home. Tommy in Genetic Soldier eventually runs away from his home because he doesn't belong even though he has always lived there.

He's running for his life.

Yes. But right from the start the reader senses that he is different, that he doesn't fit into the forced genetic system of the place. He's friends with someone who is not in his own group; his father is an Ordinand; he has a whole lot of things in him that mark him out, including the fact that he was conceived in 'Carnival'. And 'Carnival' is a very strange concept too, a time when anyone can mate with anyone. Is that part of the Utopia, or is that a 'disorder'? And is there something tragic about the starpeople coming home and not being able to stay. The disappointment of not finding yourself or what you're looking for is a common theme in your work isn't it?

Yes. But I think it's true of most people. I think most people are disappointed with their lives. People grow up to marry and have children, and that is the great ambition, but I wonder how many of them are satisfied with it? They don't seem to be satisfied with their wives or husbands, or with their children. They think, if only they'd taken the other one it would have been better. But it would only have been different. I've always had the feeling that as human beings we're only at a transitional stage, that we're only at the beginning of understanding what it means to be human. And if we last several hundred thousand years, and we get to the roots of intelligence and are able to manage our lives, then humanity will begin. This is only a childhood stage.

Do you think that people are conscious of this? Do you think people are not just dissatisfied with their lives, but also with the limits of their humanity?

Yes. That could be true. Imagination is the great refuge.

For people like you and me, who were only children and found our refuge in books - and you started writing early too - imagination is the great refuge. But do you think that's true of everyone? For people who don't write or paint?

Of course. They dream of having money, they dream of having brilliant children, or success in their jobs. They always dream of something they're not capable of: the great ambition of the beauty contest winner who wants to go to Hollywood, but who'll just marry the boy next door.

When one first starts to read Genetic Soldier the air is clean and there are gum trees, the reader is aroused to a kind of longing. When you start writing about a world like that, or like the far future world of the autumn people in The Sea and Summer, is there something in you that longs for that sort of world?

No, I'm a city boy. Not that I haven't had country experiences; I can appreciate it, but I don't want it.

Yet when you write about it, there is a strong sense of something very positive about it: the physical strength of people, the fact that they walk long distances and work hard.

The point of those people was simply that they were 'created' by a scientist hundreds of years before who thought he was producing people suited to their environment. What he got was human beings who went their own way.

What about the 'Library'? I mean, despite the perfection of these people in terms of their environment, they are so interested in the past that they find in the old books and they are also interested in a Buddhist kind of working-towards-Nirvana. The past, present and future are linked up. Why is it the past that is so important?

The past has always been important to humans; look at the fascination with historical novels. No, the general idea was that the scientist who created the genetic races had one ambition, but people being people found another one - for instance the Ordinands and their interest in the investigation of the mind.

And the 'Net' is a result of that?

Yes: 'Indra's Net'. I had to do a lot of research for that. The general idea was expressed in the last line of the book.

But that is the strangest scene at the end. I mean the starship people have stayed the same, and yet on Earth this extraordinary thing has happened: human beings have become something else.

The inspiration for that came from the Australian Aboriginal fascination with "Dreamtime" and the Earth; the sense of belonging which is something I don't believe any other race has in such a strong way. There's a novel by someone that credits the Kudaitcha men with being able to separate the spirit from the body. But they don't talk about it because in Aboriginal hierarchy information can only be passed on to someone who has been initiated.

Is this interest that you have in Aboriginal society partly a result of your thinking about your own background?

Yes.

I don't think that many people know that you have Aboriginal ancestry. You've kind of meshed the Australian indigenous ideas with Buddhist ones.

And, of course, morphic resonance. Those experiments with the rats and the people were done and they were the real results. But no one's ever gone any further with it.

Yes, it's interesting how these concepts come up and then disappear. Getting back to Genetic Soldier, do you think that it could be perceived as didactic at all? Is didacticism one of the marks of your work?

I think like anybody I have my perceptions of human nature and I try to write about real people. I'm not interested in superman heroes. People have to behave as I see them behaving. If there is any didacticism, it would be an outpouring of my own personal beliefs, and I've never really examined them to find out what they are. In Genetic Soldier, for instance, I don't know where didacticism would come in there. I don't know from one moment to the next where the plot was going. And the final chapter came as a result of a complaint that the book was unfinished. I wanted to end it at the point where Tommy said "and now the stars".

One of the other things I wanted to ask you about was the extraordinary sexuality of "the match" in Genetic Soldier. Where did that idea come from?

It just suddenly appeared. It may have been simply that I was reading about pheromones and it clicked into position. And also it was logically possible.

Other animals do behave like that don't they?

Butterflies can detect each other from a mile away. All the dogs in the neighbourhood know when a bitch comes on heat.

It was also about controlling violence wasn't it?

Yes. I wanted to discuss how a civilized man would control violence.

Yes, but it was also about how women control the men in the Genetic Soldier society through 'the match'. The implication is that women aren't as violent as men.

My feeling about violence has always been rational. Kovacs in The Sea and Summer believes that violence is necessary under certain circumstances, but it practically kills him when he tries it.

Tommy in Genetic Soldier was like that too. In fact it was one of the keys in the book because he realized that he wasn't what he seemed to be at that point.

The book I'm writing at the present time will deal with the genetics that appear in Genetic Soldier. There will be the question raised that, if the Earth is overpopulated and the only means of getting it back into liveable condition is to cull humanity, what is the moral standpoint? That is what the last part of the book will be about, with Ostrov (see The Destiny Makers) dealing with it to some extent, and that despite his kill the lot of the bastards reaction he has to have a civilized approach. And he's up against the scientist Wishart whose approach is simply that if it's necessary it's necessary. Who has the right to say if it's necessary?

This is something you've been thinking about for a long time - about the morality of it.

Well, you have the church complaining about abortion. They put the moral element into it right away.

They do and they don't. There's plenty of people who don't think it's immoral to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

What about Chinese morality, putting girl children on a hillside? Morality comes up against necessity. But whose necessity is the question. A human being is only a source of making another human being. God's great mistake was to give us brains.

I still want to talk about the extraordinary sexuality in Genetic Soldier and in Beloved Son. It's a typical George Turner thing that out of the blue you get a sexual event happening. It does always seem to be an extraordinary event in your work. In 'normal life' in your books we don't seem to get much sexuality referred to at all, in the every day. When it does happen it always seems to have great significance. Is there a reason for that? Do you think sexuality is a strong force?

Obviously it is. But I think it comes from memory.

A memory of an event in your life?

No, the whole business of sexual contact. You see, I had the prostate operation about ten years ago and a prostate operation does nothing about preventing sexual requirements. What it does is prevent you from doing anything about it.

The desire is there but . . .

Actually it's been stronger than it ever was before.

Just before we finish up, do you have any thoughts about what is happening in science fiction in general? Do you think there's anything new happening?

No, I don't think so. There are a few writers trying to keep up to date and handling new ideas as fast as they come out, but my real thought about science fiction at the present time is that it's been swamped by fantasy and that too many science fiction writers are trying to beat fantasy at its own game, turning out science fiction that really is fantasy except that it's hooked on a single idea of genetics, or virtual reality or something of that sort. And that people are writing very long, involved novels that are about practically nothing; start with an idea and have an adventure. Start with an idea, I say, and see where it leads you.

Do you think it's because we're up against a huge number of problems but we don't seem to be up against any one particular thing that we can put our fingers on?

Well yes, but one of my great complaints about science fiction is that it doesn't deal with our present problems at all. I mean, we've had dozens of novels in the past talking about an overpopulated Earth, but what you get in the outcome is bigger buildings and bigger cities; nobody talks about how we're going to feed them. Nobody talks about clearing the forests or running the animals off the ground, because that's too difficult. They never think out what the result of the bigger cities will be, and that's the great point.

Do you think that that's true only for science fiction, or for fiction in general?

In science fiction, money drives: that's what all the big novels are about. You feel as though the writers are turning them out over the weekend.

Do you think the mainstream pool is bigger, so you get greater variety?

I think it's the same for both. It's not usually the big sellers who are the best writers. I mean people like Jeffery Archer are a catastrophe.

At this point we had a good laugh and I stopped the tape. We were both tired. George as usual had some new and interesting things to say about his work and the world, and had avoided the questions he didn't want to (or couldn't) answer. I was pleased that I had managed to broach some aspects of his work that he finds it difficult to talk about - the question of female characters and of the way he deals with sex. Of course the answers weren't complete - but they were interesting. We had a cup of coffee and left to visit Dunwoodie's Butcher Shop in Ballarat and had a quick look at the Ballarat Art Gallery before I took the train back to Melbourne.





Originally appeared pp. 43-55, Eidolon 16, February 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Judith Buckrich.
Reprinted by kind permission of Judith Buckrich.


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