ENCOUNTER: Robert Dessaix

Two years ago, Robert Dessaix was slated to be a featured speaker at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, China’s most prestigious literary event, joining Scott Turow, Junot Díaz and other notable authors. But when the event began, although Dessaix’s name remained on the program, the man himself was nowhere to be found. He had not been allowed to enter the country. His visa application had been denied because he was HIV-positive.

I had never heard of Dessaix, but when I read a brief newspaper article about this incident, I decided to find out more about him. Turns out, he may be the most respected— although certainly not the most well known—author of fiction and nonfiction in Australia, as well as a true Renaissance man. He’s a world traveler—China not included—and has had a long career on Australian public radio, hosting a book and arts show. He credits his experience in radio for developing and sophisticating his voice as that of a writer who can relate intimately to readers. He’s the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, including his newest, “As I Was Saying,” an essay collection, and the editor of a number of anthologies, including “Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing” and “The Best Australian Essays.”

Dessaix’s books of fiction and nonfiction draw on his personal life, his travel experience and his encyclopedic knowledge of literature. His novel “Night Letters,” perhaps his most popular book and a long-time bestseller in Australia, comprises 20 letters written in a hotel in Venice by a man recently diagnosed with HIV. Interestingly, most of his books, whether fiction or nonfiction, are written in the same voice—like “gossip,” Dessaix insists. Indeed, talking with Dessaix, listening to his distinct, lyrical, sensitive, articulate musing, is an exceedingly intimate and enlightening experience, even if you are sitting—as I was while conducting this interview—in Pittsburgh, Pa., and he is 10,000 miles away, in his writing “tower” in Hobart, Tasmania, where he lives with his long-time partner, the writer Peter Timms. In Pittsburgh, it was an early summer evening, balmy and in the mid-70s, while in Hobart, it was a wet and cold morning. Snow was falling outside Dessaix’s window as we spoke. —Lee Gutkind


CNF: I feel I know you simply because reading you is like knowing you. I am a very difficult person to please as a reader, but I can sit back and read pretty much anything you have to say and be perfectly comfortable and happy and learn things—and like you at the same time. It’s been quite a pleasure.

DESSAIX: That’s very nice. You didn’t live in Australia at the time I had my radio program, but I had a radio program for 10 years, and so a lot of my readers are really people who used to listen to me in those years, and very often, they say that when they read me, they can just hear the same voice talking to them off the page that they used to hear on the radio. I think it’s something the radio teaches you, really. I think the radio taught me to write, in a way.

CNF: Really?

DESSAIX: Yes, I do. Because what they teach you at the [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], which is where I had my program (which is the public broadcast), is to choose somebody who knows you well and is very fond of you, is not critical of you, and to talk to this woman or man—for me, it was always a woman, and a lot of people choose their mothers, actually, apparently—to talk to this person and let everybody else eavesdrop, and so that’s what I do. That’s why I don’t worry too much any more about my readers, about whether or not they agree with me. It’s not the point. I’m not trying to convince them of anything, I’m trying to give them a glimpse of something.

CNF: You say you find women much easier to talk to. Do you?

DESSAIX: Of course, I do. It’s the great tragedy of the gay man, you see, in my case, that we would like to be able to talk to men but we can’t; we only enjoy talking to women. And that’s always been true; if I go to a party (which I don’t do very much anymore now, being 114 years old), then I just hone in straight on the women because I know I’m going to have more fun— because they’re going to talk back, because they’re going to ask me questions, because they’re going to engage with how I feel, not just with the information. And that’s what you want. Whereas I always feel—I don’t always feel, but very often feel—that if men accept you, they will be less interested in engaging with how I feel. And I will, therefore, not have much sense of intimacy with them and not be able really to engage with how they feel. Information I can get off the Internet, I can get from books. I want to engage with an experiential world, I think, so I automatically talk to women who have suffered. They’re the best. Women whose husbands have been beastly to them or who have just had a ghastly time with their children, women who have been through the mill—they’re the best. They’re the women I like to talk to, whereas men usually pretend they haven’t suffered; men don’t like to appear vulnerable.

Women—they are interested to know what it felt like to be you in such and such a situation, and this is already very interesting and makes life worth living. So that’s why I talk to … The women I talk to are in my head, and they are tertiary-educated women, they are women who do know the difference between Beethoven and the Beatles, they are women who read books, they're women who are emotionally sophisticated. That’s who I talk to. And sometimes, an editor will say, “Nobody knows what country Fez is in; you’re going to have to say ‘Fez, Morocco.’” I say, “I can’t put ‘Fez, Morocco’; my fingers will not type ‘Fez, Morocco.’” If you don’t know what country Fez is in, you shouldn’t be reading my book.

When I wrote a book called “Arabesques” recently, I started off by quoting Rousseau. It’s in the first line somewhere, and immediately, someone at the publisher said, “You’re going to have to say ‘the French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau,’” and I said, “I refuse. Plus, he wasn’t French; he was Swiss.” But I refused to put that. If you don’t know who Jean-Jacques Rousseau was, then Google him or go find out, feel curious, do something about it. But basically, if you’re reading my book, you should be the sort of person who studied him, and there you go. The world is not a level playing field. There are rewards for being educated and being curious, and I’m not interested in talking to people who aren’t curious.

CNF: What’s interesting to me is your work is … You say, “Go Google this and get this information,” but your work is absolutely filled with information.

DESSAIX: Do you think so?

CNF: One learns so much from what you have read or what you have experienced. The information is not given the way journalists give information, but the tangents you go on are chock-full of things you find interesting. But they’re still very informative to a reader who wants to know what you think and what you know.

DESSAIX: I consider myself as a high-class gossip; that’s what I think I am. And when I discovered that—when I kind of embraced that notion—I felt much happier about what I do professionally. I thought, everyone is so rude about gossips, and they say, “That’s just gossip,” and, “So-and-so’s a terrible gossip.” Look, I’m a gossip: I’m gossiping about what I just heard; I gossip about what I’ve just seen, about what the neighbor’s doing (in some broad sense of that word), about what’s going on in the world that interests me, and I just have a very good vocabulary for gossiping. It’s not the same vocabulary you use for gossiping over the back fence, but I think gossiping is a really important activity. And, of course, it’s a feminine activity, isn’t it? I’m not a hunter, you see; I’m a gatherer. And I know if you have a penis, you’re supposed to be a hunter, but I just figure plenty of people out there can hunt. They can go and hunt and bring back the dead bodies, and I’ll sit at home and gossip and do a bit of gathering. That’s what I do. I think, in terms of nonfiction, I am a gossip, and so—as there is in any kind of gossiping—there’s a little bit of blurring (isn’t there?) of fiction and nonfiction.

You have to—this is what gossips do—you have to make it an activity that not only you are indulging in, but that the reader, the person you’re gossiping to, is also indulging in, and then you start blurring the boundaries between storytelling and passing on information. And this annoys some people, and I do understand that. There is a very rude letter in the next issue of Australian Book Review saying, basically, who do I think I am, flouting these rules about genre and about saying the truth or that kind of thing. Well, when you’re a gossip, it’s not quite like that: You’re trying to keep your neighbor standing by the fence for a little longer; you’ve got to entertain; you’ve got to maybe shuffle the information around a bit to make it sound more interesting. That’s why I think boundaries get a bit blurred in my writing. That’s why in my second book—it was called “Night Letters” (it did come out in the United States, actually)—I said the funny thing is that when I write autobiography, as in my first book, I include a lot of fiction, and when I write fiction, such as “Night Letters,” it’s really almost totally autobiographical. I just tell stories.

In the first book—“A Mother’s Disgrace”—I took a line from Jeanette Winterson, and the line says, “Trust me. I’m telling you stories.” I love that because, of course, an English speaker knows that “I’m telling you stories” can have two completely different meanings. That’s what I do, and if you’re not very bright, you might not always be able to tell which kind of story I’m telling you. But if you’re sophisticated, you’ll just lie back and enjoy it and gossip in your own mind with yourself and with your friends about the things I’ve been talking about.

CNF: The gossip: It’s not making things up; it’s more like exaggerating or manipulating the information or story to make it seem more compelling, rather than just imagining or making things up that didn’t happen, correct?

DESSAIX: That’s right. There is a character called Daniel in two of my recent books. He’s in the book I wrote about Turgenev—which also came out in the United States; it’s called “Twilight of Love.”

CNF: I have it in front of me.

DESSAIX: He reappears in the next book, called “Arabesque,” and I tell the story—I tell it in this article printed in the Australian Book Review, actually—about biography. I was in Paris, talking to a French publisher and translator, and she said, at some point, “Well, you’ll want to go now because you’ll want to go and see Daniel, who has arrived in Paris,” and I said, “Look, there is no Daniel,” and she was absolutely stupefied because, she said, “He’s so real!” Of course, he’s real: He’s made up of a number of young men I have known very well and traveled with or had conversations with or have encountered, but I’ve collapsed them into one character, and so he’s invented in that sense, but he’s not made up out of thin air the way some fiction writers are able to do. I don’t think I ever did that. I might tell a story about a friend, or move things around, or claim I was in Moscow in May because I need a monosyllabic word starting with M and “April” simply will not do—and I’ve said this to the translators, I’ve said, “Sometimes I do things because I need that word and not another, and when you’re translating me, don’t strive to put the word ‘May’ in Italian if it doesn’t do the job that ‘May’ is doing in English.” Do you see what I’m saying? There’s a line I remember—I can’t remember what the words were—but I had three words starting with S, three adjectives starting with S, and I said to the translator, “You don’t have to translate those three words into Italian; I want three words that start with S.” That’s more important to me. That’s the way I write.

CNF: I have not read the essay you are referring to about biography, but were people critical of you because you did, in fact, alter what they thought was accurate and true?

DESSAIX: No, I would never say Turgenev is born in 1893 when he was born in 1818; it’s nothing like that. It’s that they found the narrator simply too unreliable. What I’m saying is, “Yes, I’m unreliable!” That’s the thing. When you read my books, I am unreliable: You’re spending time with an unreliable person. Lie back and enjoy it. I’m not going to tell you something historical (I suppose) happened when it didn’t happen. I don’t mean to fictionalize, I would say—not really. I just play about in the borderland. It’s a funny business.

CNF: It’s a very blurry line and a very difficult balancing act, and you seem to do it very well simply because you come right out and say you’re musing and you’re gossiping and you kind of define your gossip. You make the reader, or get the reader, to know what it is—how it is you are approaching the subject.

DESSAIX: Well, yes. It’s like saying to Matisse, “You’ve painted that wall over there as cream when actually it’s more of an adobe yellow; it’s not really cream at all.” He would look at you as if you were completely mad if you said that to him. That’s not what the painting is there for, stupid. If you are a police photographer, then it’s probably important to get the color right, but I’m not a police photographer; I’m doing something else. I know, sometimes, it can create difficulties.

I can tell you this: I am writing another memoir, just at the moment, about a time that I had in the hospital last year. It was a very dramatic incident, and it happened on the 4th of July, and I was looking out the window, and I was writing this, and it was a moonlit sky, and I thought, “No, I’m going to look up my diary from last year and see what the phase of the moon was for the 4th of July.” Isn’t that weird? Once I’ve said it is the 4th of July, I must know what the phase of the moon was that night if I’m going to describe the sky. I must know whether there was, in fact, a quarter moon on the 4th of July. If I do not say it was the 4th of July, then I can play with the sky; that’s how my mind works. So I spent the whole morning Googling “phases of the moon” and searching for the exact hour the moon would have set on the July 4, 2011. It was important to me to be absolutely accurate.

However, in the same memoir, I claim to have read a novel by Houellebecq, the French writer, whom I dislike very much, several days before I actually read it, because it gives a better shape to what I want to say. I’m talking about coincidence in this part of the memoir, and I need some examples of coincidence, and it works better for all sorts of reasons if I have read this novel a few days earlier than I actually did. But when it comes to the phase of the moon on July 4, 2011, I have to get it absolutely correct once I’ve named the 4th of July, named a historical piece of information. Does it make sense?

CNF: It makes absolutely total sense because if you were inaccurate, someone would notice—two or three or four or 10 people—and they would no longer trust what you have to say.

DESSAIX: They would no longer trust. I want them to think I’m fun. I don’t mind them thinking I’m untrustworthy in a kind of adorable way; I’m not untrustworthy in the sense of “Throw this book across the room, and never pick it up again.” The same thing with the Turgenev—I think I make it quite clear that I’m remembering a trip to Russia and invoking impressions. And who knows if they were exactly impressions, if they are exact impressions, of what happened? But I would not tell you it took three days to get from Moscow to Berlin in 1840 if it only took two. I would have checked that. If I said it took two days, it took two days. That’s the funny thing. That has been checked. That is absolutely correct.

If I tell you the town of Oryol has 400 thousand inhabitants, it has. I wouldn’t say it had 400 if it had 500. But I might claim to have spent three hours wandering around the streets one night and collapse things that happened to me on three different nights in Oryol into one night—when, in fact, on each night, I only walked around the town for one hour. I might turn it into a three-hour walk. I would do that, you see. It’s different.

CNF: Were you physically ill when you were in the hospital?

DESSAIX: I had a heart attack, and I died twice that night, actually, and I thought, “This is quite an interesting thing to write about.” So I’m just sort of putting bits and pieces together, but at my age, when you’ve had this kind of experience, you don’t feel urgency anymore; that’s the interesting thing about getting old. When you’re young, you think when you get old. … Well, you think: “Those old people over there at the other end of the train, they must realize they’ve only got another five or 10 years to go, so they must really be trying to cram as much as they can into their days.” We’re not. That’s not what happens at all. You kind of relax. I don’t care if I miss buses anymore. When I was young, I really cared. I don’t care anymore; I just stand at the bus stop and see things. It’s quite a different attitude, and so it’s taken me quite a while to write these memoirs, but I write in a spiral fashion. Anyone who reads a large number of my books gets used to this kind of spiraling shape, and so I just take my time, and I just spiral around. I try to mention the main things I want to talk about in the first chapter, and then I spiral and come around and talk about them from a different angle again later. That’s what I’m doing.

CNF: Are you well now?

DESSAIX: Yes, I am. I’m feeling much better than I did before it happened.

CNF: I’ve been to Australia three or four times but never to Hobart. You’re way far away from everything, are you not? I know you write about your “tower,” but are you happy being so isolated? Or is it not isolation there?

DESSAIX: We moved here 10 years ago. I’m 68, so we moved here when I was in my late 50s, but during the time I was in my 50s, we basically lived in Melbourne, and then when I was in my 40s, we basically lived in Sydney, and so we’ve only been here 10 years, and you’ll see when you get here, at a certain time in life, particularly now with modern communications, it kind of doesn’t matter if you’re in a provincial town.

I think I’m quite a provincial person; I just feel that, sometimes, on the periphery, you are freer to experiment with ideas than you are in the big cities, because in the big cities you have to compete more. In Australia, this means Sydney or Melbourne; there, you can see what the fashionable and successful people in your field are doing, and you feel you should, perhaps, be trying to do something like that. When you live in Hobart, words like “fashionable” do not apply. You feel free to do whatever you damn well like.

I just feel so free down here, that what I do doesn’t matter. Somewhere provincial, you can do whatever you damn well like, and life is more pleasurable. And as I’ve said a number of times, as I get older, beauty is more and more important to me because I’ve given up on meaning. I thought I would get meaning, but I never found it.

CNF: Are you not pretty much an outsider? You’ve been an outsider, in many respects, your whole life, have you not?

DESSAIX: Well, yes. I mean, I use a different word when I think about myself. I feel I’m swimming against the current; that’s how I think of myself. I don’t think of myself so much as an outsider as swimming against the current a bit. I don’t play sports; sports are important in America and in Australia. I’m male. I don’t know one end of a football from the other. I don’t know one end of a cricket bat from the other; nothing bores me more. The thought of the Olympic Games coming up makes me want to kill myself because we will have nothing to view but the Games for a month. The Tour de France sends me into a deep depression. I don’t drink. I don’t drink alcohol. I’ve never drunk. I don’t even drink beer. I don’t drink. Well, you see, males drink. I’m not an Anglican or a Catholic or anything sort of comfortable and normal. I don’t believe Jesus is my savior, but I’m not a Muslim, and I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not anything, really. What else don’t I do? I’m not heterosexual. I had a go at it for 10 years or so, but I’m not one, let’s face it. I’m small; I’m not tall, the way you’re supposed to be, and, yes, I suppose that, in many ways, I just don’t. … I say “no” to a lot of things most people say “yes” to. So this makes me a bit of an “outsider,” in your terms, but I just sort of feel I don’t swim with the current. But that’s all right, isn’t it?

CNF: I think that’s quite all right! I think you’re part of. … Many writers feel similarly: When you swim against the current, there’s a lot more you can see.

DESSAIX: That’s right. There’s a lot more you can see, and you see everything from a different angle. There are other ways in which I feel I perhaps swim against the current. Language, yes: I’m obsessed with language. I don’t have an Australian accent, but it’s not an American accent, nor a Canadian accent, not even an English accent. It’s just my little accent; it’s got French in it, and it’s got Russian in it, and so forth. Those sorts of things make me a bit different, but it’s not a stance. It’s just the way I am.

A lot of it has to do with being adopted and being an only child. When you’re adopted and an only child, you just do not feel any obligation, from the moment you are conscious, to be anything you don’t want to be. You don’t have to be like your parents or Uncle Harry or anyone else in the family because no one knows exactly who you are. You can reinvent yourself. In fact, I’ve just written a line you would like in this memoir, where I say I don’t really feel I was born; I feel I was invented. By whom, that’s what I don’t know.

CNF: I do like that.

DESSAIX: It’s not quite the same as saying I’m an outsider. Most people feel born. The little boys next door—there are three little boys living next door—I’m sure they all feel born. They all feel these other two are my brothers and this is my daddy and this is my mommy, and I live in this house, and that’s my granny and that’s my granddad, and I was born. I didn’t feel that. This also makes you a storyteller, because when you don’t come replete with a story, you have to make one up. You start very early making up your own story. This is a scientific fact, actually. I’m one of those children who made up his own language and his own land when he was a child, and there’s now research taking place in Cambridge, in the linguistics department, that shows that children who do this, in order to do it, have to develop certain qualities of empathy—that is, the ability to put themselves inside other people’s bodies and heads, and imagine what it would be like to be them, in order to create their world and have citizens and people in their world who are not them. You have to have a prime minister, and you have to have a king, maybe, or a queen, or you have to have someone driving the trains, and you have to, from a very early age, learn to get inside their heads. In my case, I also made a language, and so to speak this language, you have to have a different kind of mind. So, it changes you from very early on and makes you in some ways value the imagination. I don’t think I’m a good storyteller in the way Annie Proulx is, or Margaret Atwood, or Alice Monroe; I can’t tell that kind of story. But I do have an imagination.