Tale of the Century

Duncan Sarkies is fascinated by the idea of a relationship with an audience that can't trust what...
Duncan Sarkies is fascinated by the idea of a relationship with an audience that can't trust what the narrator is saying. Photo by Matt Grace.
For his latest novel, Duncan Sarkies has enjoyed getting inside his characters' heads and staying there. The former Dunedin author clearly doesn't mind juggling his projects either, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Duncan Sarkies has probably had better starts to his day.

His cat has just been sick in front of him, he explains via phone from his Wellington home, his voice holding a tremor of disgust, which gives way to relief (almost).

"Oh wait ... it's only a fur-ball; they're not as bad ... if I retch in the middle [of this interview], it's not because of you.''

The reason for the conversation is Sarkies' second novel, The Demolition of the Century, in which he puts relationships, memories and the fragility of the human mind under the microscope, albeit using a lens that captures his penchant for black humour.

At its heart, The Demolition of the Century is a reflection on family but, given Sarkies' work features a massive shift of plot some way through the novel, it would be unfair (both on him and any potential readers) to give too much away.

Suffice to say key character Tom Spotswood is a horse-racing industry insurance investigator who has lost a lot, including his marriage, his career and, most importantly, his son (Frank).

After investigating an insurance scam involving a dead stud stallion, Tom finds himself embroiled with various shady characters, including Spud, a demolition man who is using his wrecking ball to bring down a beautiful movie theatre.

In searching for his son, Tom has to come to terms with a past he has long fled.

"It shifts from being a detective story to very much a family story, a very personal story,'' he said.

"I try to give the reader enough so they learn a lot by the halfway mark, but as soon as you know what Tom's situation is, you realise that his search is futile.''

Sarkies (43) reveals his film-making brother, Robert, provided the initial spark of an idea that he subsequently ''fed off''.''

When you've been working on something for so long, you almost lose the thread of what the original idea was, [but] Rob had an idea of a guy waking up in a hotel room and being followed around and not knowing the reasons for that. That was the central theme.''

He encouraged me to play round with it to the point I went back to him and asked if he'd be OK with me running with it myself, taking it on. He was very generous.''

Thus Sarkies spent four years writing The Demolition of the Century while juggling other projects, including 2012 film Two Little Boys, based on his debut 2008 novel of the same name.

A ''few other things'' have also helped pay the bills.''

Obviously, spending four years on a novel isn't the most financially healthy thing for your bank account.''

Raised in Dunedin, Sarkies references the city in his novel's title, which alludes to the demolition in October 1994 of the cinema of the same name.''

I went down to Dunedin and found out a little bit about how the Century was demolished. I also had a walk around the St James, which is still there.

The inside of the Century, as described in the book, is probably based on the interior of the St James; it's a bit of a melange of places,'' Sarkies explains.

"The loss of any grand old building is sad. Then again, I live in a town where there have been tremors. Buildings are treated as these permanent things. But nothing is permanent.

"I was conscious of not being overtly political. For instance, half the book is written through the eyes of this character, Spud, who is a demolition expert.

"But I don't write judgementally about him. He's just doing his job.''

Spud pauses to appreciate a thing of beauty but doesn't think twice about bringing it down. His way of dealing with the past is to demolish it, to chuck it out of his mind - as in it never happened.

"Thom Yorke, from Radiohead, wrote a great song, The Eraser, which includes the lyric, 'the more I try to erase you, the more that you appear'. I love that idea.''

Sarkies has ranged widely in his writing, from award-winning 1994 play Saving Grace (adapted into a 1997 film) to Stray Thoughts and Nosebleeds (1999), a collection of prose pieces that won him a prize at the 2000 New Zealand Book Awards, to various television and film projects.

He enjoys the process of switching creative gears, though he admits his new novel was ''an epic'' effort.

"I've got a few things to keep going with, but it is definitely time to take stock. That novel was very intense. I'm going to take a bit of time off to figure out what I'm going to do next.

"I usually do have a few projects on the go. One of them is something called The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie's Botanarium.

"We've followed a fictional Joseph Banks, who is on a voyage to destroy pleasure. It's a collaboration with musician Lawrence Arabia and a Wellington illustrator, Steven Templer. Jemaine Clement [co-creator of Flight of the Conchords] is in it as well. Short-term, it's a radio series.

"I'm also writing for an Australian TV show called Maximum Choppage, which is a kung-fu comedy set in Cabramatta, a Cambodian-Vietnamese suburb in Sydney.

"It is a case of looking at what each form offers. In prose writing, I can get inside a character's head and stay there. I tend to search for the outsider, the unreliable narrator.

"I am fascinated by the idea of a relationship with an audience which can't trust what the narrator is saying.''

"When I wrote for theatre, I embraced the fact it can be more about dialogue and longer scenes; film can be very visual, so I'll sometimes trip back the dialogue and sometimes have quite short scenes.

"In film, you are often forced to be a little bit more conservative when you're shoving millions of dollars into them. In comparison, a novel is relatively cheap to put out, so you can be very free with your ideas.''

The fact brother Rob provided some initial impetus to The Demolition of the Century begs an obvious question: will the novel become a film at some point?

''Of course, there's a chance a film could be made - especially when you have a brother who is a film-maker - but when I work on a novel, I'm just trying to write the best one I can.

"Now, Rob has read it and he likes it and that's usually a good sign ...''


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