Michael Hyde is a recently retired member of the faculty at VU. He has taught subjects in creative writing, sports writing and children’s literature. He sat down with Meghann Clark, to discuss his memoir about Australia in the 60s All Along the Watchtower, and the art of memoir writing.
Writer: Meghann Clark
Photographer: Veronica Mellere
Meghann: Your memoir All Along the Watchtower is a fantastic read as it is the story of an era consumed by political and social upheaval. Commonly, memoirs are said to either document worthy family history or for the author to explore themselves and share their results with the public. Did your memoir touch upon all that is Michael Hyde? Was it an aim of the piece to immortalise the most historically gripping portion of your life?
Michael: Thanks very much. I’m glad you liked it. It was to capture those times which were gripping for anybody involved – and there were thousands up to their necks in the upheavals of the sixties. One thing that drove me was the absence of accounts of that era. Why that is, is something I’m researching at the moment – but I have my suspicions. The 60s is often either ridiculed or ignored – as you say, it was an upheaval on a massive scale; so how come we don’t have lots of stories from a progressive point of view, in film, books and songs?
But it did allow me to come to grips with those ten years of my life. I was determined to tell the truth, warts and all. It bloody near killed me writing it, but when I finished I felt much lighter, more together as a person, proud of what we accomplished and at peace with some stuff we did that I may not feel so comfortable with. As I wrote I found myself laughing, giggling, crying… But also angry.
Meghann: What are the characteristics that you believe embody a really good memoir?
Michael: Tell a good story. Something that conveys the spirit of the times, the events and the people. You have to become very clever at constructing the narrative. Some aspects also need specific, accurate information that allows the memoir to resonate. For example, in my memoir the hanging of Ronald Ryan had to be accurate in terms of dates, what he supposedly did, what the government at the time thought about capital punishment, the exact time of the hanging.
There are times you have to decide what to exclude as well as include, to help the flow of your story. To a large extent this might be determined by who your audience is.
However, a good memoir has to have courage. You have to tell the truth as you see it and remember it. You have to include material that might make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed.
Meghann: When recalling memories, many people suffer the problem of uncertainty. If a memory is unclear, or missing parts, in your opinion is it okay to fill the gaps?
Michael: Ah memory. My memoir tries to rectify what I might term ‘faulty cultural memory’ which goes back to what I said about the absence of stories from the 60s. Some parts that were unclear or missing I retrieved by reading the few other memoirs/accounts/articles I could find, or digging up newspaper articles, documentaries and so on.
My memoir was a literary memoir, which allowed me to move events around; compress four people into one character, get rid of some people as characters. If you were writing a straight-down-the-line history then you wouldn’t have that liberty. I was intent on writing a story that captured the spirit of the rebellious forces of the 60s. Being a fiction writer I used many narrative devices in my memoir to do so, but there are no lies. Everything happened.
If filling the gaps means spinning complete bullshit then no, that’s not acceptable. If it means emphasising or lessening something or other to enhance the story then I reckon that’s ok. Mind you, a couple of historians have taken exception to my memoir.
Meghann: What research did your memoir entail? Where did you start your research?
Michael: The best material I had at hand were my ASIO files. Thirteen big fat files. Reading through them I remembered events I’d completely forgotten. I couldn’t remember much of what we did in an organisation called the ‘Worker-Student Alliance’. The political police, who tapped our phones and sat outside with listening devices, plus accounts from some people who must have been spies, provided much detail. It seemed as though I had my own personal assistant throughout those years.
Others supplied their own written accounts and anecdotes which they were happy for me to use. The State and Monash libraries also provided articles by myself and others. Others I knew had kept their own files.
In terms of incomplete memories, they often came flooding back as I wrote. As I’ve said ad nauseum for years now, writing is an act of discovery.
Meghann: Was the novel Hey Joe intended to be a prelude to your memoir? Or did Hey
Joe simply provide motivation and inspiration to follow through writing All Along the Watchtower?
Michael: A bloody perceptive question. Hey Joe was going to be two novels but worked better as one. What I did not know at the time was that it was indeed a prelude, not only concerning material but also psyching myself into a space where I could handle the larger work of the memoir.
Meghann: I believe that all writers include a small portion of their life experience in their work. In reading some of your other works, namely Max and Tyger Tyger, I could see glimpses of morals and experiences that were later elaborated upon in your memoir. Does this surprise you? What parallels can you draw as the author between your memoir and your previous works?
Michael: Doesn’t surprise me at all. A few years ago I gave a talk at the Adelaide Youth Literature Festival, titled, ‘Gnawing on the same bone’ where I discussed the common factors in mine and others’ writing.
One such factor is my hatred of a social/political/economic system that does not put people first and sees the almighty dollar as the only way of judging success and validity. I clearly opt for the underdog and those who are oppressed and mistreated .
Another is my fascination with what lies beneath our existence and actions, the intrigue of metaphor and the nether world between life and death.
All of the above can be seen seen in my teen and young adult novels, whether they are about youth suicide or a kid trying to make it in footy.
I guess my memoir was a lot about trying to right the wrongs of society and the times that taught me so much; made me a better thinker, showed me how to set about changing the world. You could probably see some of that life and death stuff in the memoir as well but more like, ‘will we get out of this alive?’ rather than philosophical pondering.
Returning to your opening remarks about writers including themselves and their life experiences in their fiction; absolutely true. A writer can’t avoid it, even if the protagonist is the opposite gender to the author. The writer’s self curls like smoke throughout everything they write, even if they are writing a story that is a million miles from their own lives and the people they know.
Meghann: What was the most difficult challenge you face when writing All Along the Watchtower?
Michael: Two challenges, almost equal. Firstly, to tell the truth as I remembered it. Sometimes my hands froze on the keys but I kept pushing through that.
The other challenge was controlling such an enormous story; structuring the story, with so much happening, so that the narrative flow and drive didn’t become clunky.
Meghann: What was the most enjoyable part of the experience?
Michael: The smart-arse answer would be finishing it. But the most joy was writing and finding myself right in the story and whenever that happened the words flew onto the page. Sometimes I wondered if thinking about this memoir for so long that I had unconsciously built a chip in my brain that I could plug into.
Meghann: I would describe your writer’s voice as distinctly Australian. After reading All Along the Watchtower, this observation seems rooted in your history as a political Australian patriot of sorts. Do you agree?
Michael: The writer’s voice is something that is honed. Once you feel that you might have found it, you then have to have the courage to love it and develop it. Some other reviewers have pointed out this ‘Australian-ness’. I kind of agree, although I’m not sure what it means. On reflection I think, early on, the Australian authors I read for many years influenced me a great deal – John Morrison, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Allan Marshall, Colin Johnson – then again I read quite a few American authors like Kurt Vonnegut who I took much from.
Perhaps the fact I began writing in earnest when I was a tech School english teacher for street-wise working class kids from the western suburbs affected the tone and subject matter of my writing.
And maybe beneath it all, when I was deeply involved politically I became acutely aware of how our diverse culture was often over-run by US culture. So that probably drove me on as well. What we don’t remember is that in the years prior to the 60s and 70s there was little Australian literature, music, film, publishing houses. That changed quite dramatically in the 60s.
“Any kind of life is worth documenting.”
Meghann: What kind of lives, in your opinion, are worth documenting through the form of a memoir?
Michael: Any kind of life is worth documenting. Of course in western societies I suppose the belief would be that you have to be famous, a criminal, a rockstar, millionaire… But by now you’d know what I felt about that! I’d be interested to read the memoir of a single mum who lives on the nineteenth floor of a housing commission block.
Meghann: And lastly, off the top of your head, may I ask you for some words of wisdom for the aspiring writers of the world who are struggling to tell their story, or to find a story to tell?
Michael: Be observant. Continue to wonder. Find a story that fascinates you. It can start as an object, a person, an event, a dream, a perplexing question, a snail crossing the road, anger, joy, sadness. Find a story that seems to fit you. Start writing. With a bit of luck the story may well become clearer and more urgent as you write. Have a few friends who don’t always say, ‘that’s fantastic’ or ‘that’s pathetic… stupid… embarrassing’.
Oh yeah; read books, listen to lyrics, watch movies. See how others do it. A mate of mine said to me, ‘whenever you think of a story or a structure that you think maybe is too weird, it’s probably been done a thousand times before.’
Meghann is studying a Bachelor of Laws/Arts and was one of the founders of HYDE alongside Rachel Gale and Timothy Philippe.