A novel way to write the wrongs
When Indigenous author Philip McLaren heard the story of Dr Archie Kalokarinos – a man who spent much of his life helping Aboriginal people in remote communities – he knew it would form the basis of his fifth novel.
Originally from Greece, Dr Kalokarinos spent many years compiling records of the dire health situation in many remote Aboriginal communities only to be refused equipment and medicine time and time again as successive governments tried to paint his research as nonsense. Years down the track he’s been proven right, but he now lives in Tamworth, broke, having spent his life savings treating Indigenous patients. For Philip, it was the perfect real-life tale on which to base his new novel Murder in Utopia, which he will discuss at a special author’s talk in Lismore next Wednesday (December 9).
“I spoke with him by phone and soon after I decided to write my thriller set in a medical centre somewhere in remote Australia,” Philip said. “The real Utopia in the Northern Territory was irresistible, almost too ironic for words. I travelled there to do some research and it’s like it’s some sort of joke – it’s anything but utopian out there. My main protagonist was someone from overseas, as was Dr Archie, and my character is from New York. This gave me the opportunity to look at Australia through foreign eyes – I needed to unfold the story from the perspective of someone who had no idea in what conditions Aboriginal people were forced to live in their own country. I needed someone who could be truly outraged by the government neglect he saw.”
Philip, who lives in Federal with his wife and “the best editor in the world” Roslyn, is not shy about tackling tough issues in his novels, even if they are fiction. In his last four books he has touched on the mining of sacred Aboriginal sites, the Stolen Generations, deaths in custody and institutionalised racism.
In this latest offering he wanted to talk about health issues, so he concocted character called Jack Nugent, a reformed alcoholic doctor who takes up a post in Australia to get his crumbling career back on track. Of course, it’s also a thriller, and very soon the new doctor in town finds himself embroiled in a bizarre ritual murder investigation. But it’s all a framework to look at real issues that Philip thinks need talking about; he believes the fiction simply makes it more palatable to a wider audience.
“People know about the conditions out there [in remote Aboriginal communities], politicians know what’s going on out there… sometimes I think it’s all very sinister,” he said. “It can be really soul destroying to hear the way governments cook the figures. They say ‘we’re spending 700 million dollars on health’ but out of that they have to spend money on getting a road built to a community or simply getting clean water running, but the rest of Australia already has that and those things certainly don’t come out of the health budget. I see the spin doctoring, the way everything is couched for the general public, and it makes me so angry. It’s like the Ministry for Defence being called the Ministry for Defence when in reality it’s the Ministry for War. That’s why I’m compelled to keep telling these stories – because people should be up in arms about this stuff.”
Philip first became recognised as a writer after his first book, Sweet Water… Stolen Land, became an instant best seller in 1993. He has since achieved international success with his books being translated and published in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Africa, the USA, Canada and Germany.
“When it was published I was suddenly juggling around the same list as Jurassic Park and The Firm by John Grisham – I was in good company!” Philip laughed. “I now have this quite large fan base across the world – I get fan mail from Budapest.”
Philip is already planning the sequel to Murder in Utopia and has two other books in the pipeline.
“I love writing, there’s a total freedom to it because you’re in total control. I used to work in film and advertising and most decisions are made by committee – I hate that,” he said. “I still don’t know quite how I came to write – for me it just streams in; it’s like magic. I can write for two hours, look up, and hardly remember a word I’ve written. If I was religious I’d say it was God.”
Philip McLaren will give a talk on Murder in Utopia at the Lismore Library next Wednesday, December 9, at 1.15pm. Everyone is welcome.