A story a day published on a public blog, the seed of a story kicked off on this blog, three different ideas for a book title, and the paradox of being presented with your own book and the opportunity to purchase loads of copies of it as part of your other job … They’re just some of the elements that have gone into Brisbane-based writer Christopher Currie’s first novel, The Ottoman Motel.
Currie is known to many readers for his Furious Horses blog, for which he wrote and published something daily with the public shame of not achieving his daily goal inspiring him keep putting fingers to keyboard. Others have discovered his finely crafted work through such publications as The Lifted Brow and Small Room magazine. I caught up with him to find out where the idea for the novel, its title, and artwork came from, and whether Furious Horses played a role …
Can you please outline briefly what the book’s about?
The main character is an 11-year-old boy called Simon who is on a road trip with his parents to visit his estranged grandmother, who has fallen ill, who lives in a small coastal town called Reception on the Northern NSW coast. They check into a hotel (The Ottoman Motel, strangely enough), and Simon’s parents go off to visit a local landmark and leave Simon alone.
He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, his parents have gone. The community of Reception seems kind at first: the town’s police officer takes an active interest and a local family takes him in, but Simon soon realises that maybe he can’t trust anyone. They disappearance of his parents has had an effect on the town, an effect that no one could have anticipated …
How did you come up with this idea?
This was my first go at a full-length manuscript, having very much cut my teeth writing short fiction. The story developed out of two or three short stories I had been playing around with. The relationship between children and parents, the idea of a small tourist town that shuts down in winter, the competitive streak between children meeting for the first time: these are a few themes that started me off.
Being a short story writer, the first version of The Ottoman Motel actually consisted of eight different points of view, which was probably me finding a way to get around committing myself to a sustained long narrative. While this was a good exercise in voice, it didn’t do much for narrative tension or mystery, both of which are important to the story.
The final version is pared down to three voices: Simon, Madaline (the local police officer) and Tarden (a fisherman who is the last person to see Simon’s parents alive). As with much of my writing, I worked without a rigid plan, and let the characters evolve in their own way. This led me (and them) through some surprising twists and turns and onto an ending that I hope does justice to the rest of the story.
The Ottoman Motel is a great title and the cover, and the water-soaked silhouette in particular is brilliant. Can you tell us how both came about?
Embarrassingly enough, The Ottoman Motel was not my choice of title, although I have since seen sense. As this story has been with me for over 10 years, from the very first instance, it had been called From the Deep End Table (which makes sense once you read it) and I was deeply attached to the title. Unfortunately, the first thing my editor told me in our very first face-to-face meeting was ‘We’ve got to get rid of that title’.
Then it was called Reception (the name of the town, and with obvious other overtones), which I was just getting used to when my editor came up with The Ottoman Motel. After a week’s worth of arguing, she convinced me of the change. I couldn’t be happier now, as it seems to be a title that sticks in peoples’ minds.
As for the cover, again I can take no credit. Despite me sending a number of long emails to my long-suffering editor with cover design suggestions, Text Publishing went with their brilliant in-house designer W H Chong, who came up with the stunning cover. I am very particular about covers (I mean, you should have seen the ‘cover suggestion’ emails I sent!), but the jacket image you see now is just about identical to the first one I was shown. As soon as I saw it, I loved it.
As a writer who moonlights as a bookseller when you’re not writing, can you tell us how important it is to nail the cover and title?
Like I say, being a bookseller makes you acutely aware of how important a cover and title can be. Despite the old adage that you should never judge a book by its proverbial, the reality is, if the image doesn’t catch your eye among dozens of others on a bookshop’s shelves, you don’t pick it up and if you don’t pick it up you don’t buy it.
With your book now lining the shelves, how tempting will it be to recommend it when customers come in the vague requests for ‘a good book’ to read?
It’s going to be a quandary. My role in the bookshop I work in is the stock buyer, so I had the strange experience recently of being shown my own book in a sales kit, and having to decide how many to buy in (I told my boss the entire shop would be lined with The Ottoman Motels for the month of May. I was sort of joking.). I may have to abstain from recommending it myself, and rely on others to do the selling for me! Unless it’s someone running a book club who needs 20 copies of a single book, in which case …
The writing process is long and arduous and the thought of sitting down to a blank page/computer screen is incredibly hard. You kicked off your blog, Furious Horses, a couple of years ago to force yourself to write every day. Can you tell us a little about it and how it’s helped you?
Strangely enough, I started Furious Horses off the back of what was then an early version of The Ottoman Motel. I had rushed to write the end of it for the 2007 Australian/Vogel Award (and was surprised to find it had been longlisted) but I had no impetus to work any more on it. Having convinced myself I had nowhere left to go with my writing, my routine just stopped.
The idea behind Furious Horses was to write a short story every day and post it to a blog, but more importantly to tell everyone I knew that I was doing it. In this way, the power of shame forbade me from stopping. I simply had to do it, and I did, and it helped my writing routine no end, as well as raising my profile (‘Hey, you’re that story-a day guy!’).
How many years and incarnations has The Ottoman Hotel been in the works? Has it changed much during that time?
I am a chronic rewriter, so I can’t possibly tell you how many versions there were before I was signed to Text. There have been three major (and I mean major) revisions since I started working with my editor. As I mentioned, there are now only three points of view, and the trajectory of the story has changed greatly.
During the initial drafting of the story, I was watching Twin Peaks for the first time, and as such the narrative was very mysterious and convoluted. The version I have ended up with I hope retains some of that mystery, but has a tighter, more compelling story.
If you had to sum up the book and its target readership in a couple of sentences, what would you say?
If you can imagine Sonya Hartnett, Murray Bail, and Donna Tartt staying up to late to watch Wake in Fright, they would all have a collective dream something like The Ottoman Motel. God, I hate writing those things.
What’s next for you? Is there another novel in the works or a well-earned writing rest?
I’m actually writing a short film at the moment, which is another new challenge for me. Once that’s done, it’s definitely on to another novel. It’s funny, when I was writing this novel, I seemed to have lots of good ideas for other books that I welcomed as distractions. Now they seem to have disappeared …