Craig Sherborne’s latest book, Off the Record: A Novel, is a riotously unforgiving story about a tabloid crime reporter who considers himself a writer of exceptional talent and a hero to his wife and teenage son. He is overly proud of his nickname, ‘Words’, drinks too much, and flirts dangerously.
We sat down with Craig Sherborne, whom the Australian has referred to as ‘a supreme wordsmith’, and asked him a few questions about his horrible protagonist, his writing and what he does with himself between books.
Enjoy – then stick around to read an excerpt from his latest masterfully written satire.
Words is a complete rotter. No conscience at all. Did you model him on someone you know?
I have not led a sheltered life. I have mixed with many unsavoury types. They are more interesting than normal people. Which is why I don’t like writing about normal people, or keeping the company of normal people. I expect that makes me an unsavoury type. I have certainly looked in the mirror at one time and seen the ‘dead glitter’ of venality in my eyes, as Words himself does in the novel. Just as well there’s a forgiving god or I’d be in awful trouble.
Words’ life goes from bad to worse through the book and he defiantly fights back, whether justified or not – were you egging him on or hoping to teach him a lesson? (No spoilers!)
Novels aren’t for lessons in my opinion. Writers should not be finger-wagging bores. I grew up believing that one should read the ‘improving book’, as if a novel or poem was like an alternative Bible. While such books improve one’s reading skills, they don’t make for a ‘better person’. Some of the most decent and honest people I know have never read a book in their life. It is a literary convention and fantasy that in the space of a narrative characters are morally renovated like a bathroom, with all their unpleasant mould cleaned off and a new marble-top vanity put in place. Perhaps it’s something that the culture has inherited from Christian conventions and fantasies. The closer I get to writing that which is very close to how I have seen life actually lived, the more I understand the symbiotic relationship between reality and farce. That, I expect, is why the tone of my work is often considered close to farce. I like that being the case.
Is Words an anti-hero or a cautionary tale, and would you say you’ve given a fair or harsh or even possibly understated homage to the state of journalism?
We have novel after novel about crooked cops, crooked lawyers, crooked politicians and crooked businesspeople. Does anyone worry about those occupations being treated fairly or harshly? Journalism ranks low in terms of jobs that people respect. And yet journalists are aghast when it’s their occupation in the firing line. Their self-importance and hypocrisy is galling but very funny. It always reminds me that journalists are a secular clergy in our society. Our equivalent of the medieval-style real clergy in places such as Iran or Saudi Arabia that form brigades of morality police to roam the streets and search for impious behaviour and punish people for it. I don’t know why there aren’t more novels with crooked journalists in them. Too many journalists end up writing books, I suppose. And when they do they want to cast their characters as heroes, as if that makes them heroes too.
What do you hope the main take-away for your readers is?
I hope readers finish Off the Record saying to themselves, ‘I liked the language and some of the ideas in that novel. I liked the humour and the nerve of the writer to think such things.’ I hope readers resolve to read less journalism and get out and about and live more life.
Which novelists do you admire?
Janet Frame, the poet R. S. Thomas, J. M. Coetzee, Les Murray’s nature poems.
Where do you write?
I have a study in my house and an Ikea desk. I also write on the floor on a cowhide rug I call Carlos.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.
What are you working on now?
I’m not working on a book at the moment. I’m spending as much time as I can riding a horse called Paulie and drinking Campari. Not necessarily at the same time.
Horseriding and Campari is definitely not a bad way to pass the time after writing a novel described as, ‘Pacy, sleek, muscled...A mesmerising portrait.’
While we’re deciding what to name our cowhide rugs at home, peruse the below extract from Off the Record by Craig Sherborne and meet one of the more unsavoury anti-heroes in contemporary literature...
I’m called Words for short. My full sobriquet is Wordsmith. It’s a play on Smith, my commonest of surnames, but it’s more than that, it describes me as a journalist, my place in the world among the worker bees.
Some are break-news journos like amateur police and can barely string a sentence together. Some analyse politics with the confidence of sages but get tangled in jargon and sound like a thesis. I’m the wordsmith, the one who makes his copy sing. You can’t teach that type of thing—it’s an accident of birth. It can’t be DNA: my parents ran shoe shops.
Words. It’s my real name more than Callum Smith ever could be. I joke I’ll make it official, change it by deed poll.
For all that, my life edits down to this secret: I do not believe in free speech. I am the reason why. I do not believe in a free press either; the only people who benefit from it are individuals like me in the business. My reason for living is my wife and my son. They, Emma and Oliver, are my religion: without them I doubt I could make an attempt at goodness. But a reason to be good is far from being good. I am compelled to do bad as part of loving them. They’re my family, I say in my mind-to-soul conversations. I’d do anything for my family, even wrong things.
I, Words, am a provider and required to earn wages. In the service of which I have knocked on flyscreens and said to mothers of kidnapped toddlers, ‘Don’t you feel guilty for leaving your child in the front yard alone?’ I have shamed them to tears for the photographer. I have gatecrashed funerals, linked innocent corpses to local crime syndicates. Or feigned empathy to the grief-stricken to make copy from their hard-luck stories. I enjoyed the kudos of my name beneath headlines on front pages and became used to the heartlessness as if blank inside. I was doing it for my family, it was worth the cruelty.
That line of work gives your eyes a plastic appearance. I’ve noticed it in the mirror, a dead glitter.
To counter the blankness I’ve had the usual vices: alcohol—vodka mainly, because it leaves a fainter smell. A penchant for bars, the better to flirt in—drunk girls and low-flicker lighting. It softens the feel of being forty-eight to have the indoor night on your side, blurs your jowl edges, your blotchy face baggage. I have partied with the young lads from work, acted their age and shown off my flirting skills. Most times I was turned down but that was half the fun. To get so far as to offer my seat to a female and have the offer accepted ensured me sly winks from the boys. A woman ten years my junior in a two-piece office outfit nestling near me meant more to my spirit than mere lust-thrills. I felt the wild warmth of human company fill the place the blankness normally occupied. I did not get this feeling at home.
Home felt like part of my workload instead of the way we view homes as a sanctuary. I felt dirty at work and therefore resented myhome life. It was home I was being dirty for, so went my pitiful logic. Emma and Ollie, I was doing all this for them: I had sold my self-respect to give them a future. In turn I demanded their complete respect. Which got out of hand into needing hero-worship. The more you don’t deserve respect, the more you crave it. I expected to walk in the front door and be fawned over. ‘Here he is, home from the battle!’ That’s the welcome I was owed. Why wasn’t Ollie saying, ‘Thanks for everything, Dad. Can I do something for you? Can I bring you a beer?’ Why wasn’t Emma saying, ‘Callum, sweetheart, have you had a hell of a day? We’re so grateful for what you do for us, aren’t we, Oliver?’
She had her own job, a worthy job, assessing the elderly for placement in nursing homes. Did I ever hero-worship her or give her fawning? I barely asked how her toiling was going. Her work was lesser in my mind: she didn’t get dirty for it.
I would do anything to have us together again. To see Ollie in a trance at the television or thumbing his phone’s keypad like a talisman, ignoring me, taking my presence for granted. There’d be no nights in the beguilement of tom-tom liquor. I’d be a changed man. Our dinner table would be my altar and communion. I would enquire with loving patience into the trying elements of Emma’s day: the shambolic admissions system at high-care facilities; the rip-off bed rates for self-funded retirees. Matters I only bothered with if sniffing a scandalous story for my purposes. I would revel in the light laughs you can have mid-mouthful when switching to inane topics—signage misprints at the shopping mall, for instance: Get your fresh bread hair daily.
How could I have not worshipped the magic of simple meals! Ollie is in his own world but he is a boy, fourteen. At that age your own world is all you can cope with. It was no slight from him to me, his ignorant manner, I see that now. If anything, I was the slight tohim. I was the ignorant one, the master of bitterness.
Leave your work at work, isn’t that a saying? Sayings aren’t sayings for nothing. They’re sayings because they’ve been proven true.
I’m just grateful Emma hasn’t turned him against me. Hasn’t set out the details of our separation. We synchronised a narrative and so far she has stuck to it: Dad was moving out to rent an apartment on his own. And wasn’t leaving so much as getting the solitude he needed. Mum wanted solitude as well and was sad the marriage had been allowed to drift, but sometimes being apart is best for everyone. Sometimes adults go from loving each other intensely to a plainer friendship. It’s not a bad development, it’s life’s evolution.
‘Our one constant is you, Ollie. That love never changes. It is the primary love of all love.’
Ollie cried at first and Emma cried. Then he snuffled tears back and nodded acceptingly, wordlessly, shrugged a few times and asked to be excused to go to his room. He looked neither of us in the eye. I touched his head and bent to kiss it but he slipped away. I stared at the space where he’d been seated and I roared silently at myself: What have you done, you stupid man! How could you let this crazy thing happen?
What we did not reveal was the sordid truth of my departure. I was not leaving willingly. I had been asked to. Commanded. Emma’s faith in me had broken. I had broken it and in the breaking her love collapsed around her pride.
My vodka nights, my low-light nestling were my undoing. They had not stayed harmless. One evening I flirted and the flirting blazed to life. There was kissing suddenly with a redhead ad rep namedMegan. There was touching under the table. There was sex of the clothes-on, standing-up kind. No one could bestow on it the wholesome word lovemaking. It happened in the car park of the Connaught Beer Garden.
All reporters have a nasty streak. If they don’t, they find other work or get told to. The streak deadens your conscience for non-work offences. Lying about a drunk fuck would be one example. The normal course would be to wipe your memory clean. Not tell your spouse about the squalid incident. Commit the smiling lie of omission. For some reason I couldn’t smile that lie, not to Emma. I wasn’t dead enough, it would seem. To my dangerous delight, my conscience still had blood pumping through it. It filled me too full of pompous rectitude. I truly believed that by confessing, the great gesture of being honest would void the sin.
Far from it. Pain poured from her. She was lost from me and I was alone. I fumbled to make contact with her arms and shoulders. I asked to hold her. I tried reaching her with apologies. Have her embrace me and assure me that the apologies were accepted. ‘Please forgive me, sweetheart. Please forgive me.’
These pathetic pleas made her curse me harder. She wept deeply, breaths convulsive as hiccups. She accused me of having a calculating nerve. To humiliate her with cheap fucking and then own up to it. As if for that she should be grateful! What a trusting fool she had been through my late nights, thinking I was simply meeting deadlines. Poor Callum works hard to be a bread-winning father. Aloof as a husband, but one day he would come back to her as intimately as the old days. These were his earning years. Quieter times awaited us. Worth the sacrifice. She had been duped by life. It had promised good living and for fifteen years she had done right by me. I had not delivered a paradisiac future. I had betrayed her. Betrayed Ollie. I had killed the future.
Recrimination darkened us over the following weeks. I felt sick coming home to face them and sensed Emma was sick of setting her green eyes on me. Ollie being present meant we kept the air civil. I heard him ask one time, ‘You okay, Mum?’ He thought she’d come down with a virus.
I do not believe in honesty. It is not worth the upheaval it activates. Honesty is a thief—it steals your life. The people you are honest with are at its mercy. It tricks you into thinking you’re doing the right thing. Charms your mind’s eye away from the should-have-seen consequences.
If I had not been honest I would still have been living in my beautiful house in East Malvern. I would not be renting a one-bedroomer above a coffee shop in Melbourne’s south. It’s smart enough as apartments go—Smeg kitchen with chrome knobs; fully furnished in a flimsy Japanese fashion, factory-faded in the wood grain to look antiqueish. There’s a sofa bed for when Ollie visits, though he turns his nose up at using it. We swap and he gets the queen-size.
I boast to him how close the place is to mansion-lined parks. Sunny evening walks and emerald grass to throw a picnic blanket on. I don’t want him to think I’m down-at-heel. Half my home is still mine and worth in this market well over a million. Take a hundred and fifty thousand off for the mortgage and there’s my life in dollar terms.
Saturday mornings I drive there and water the camellias. I mow the back lawn and water that as well. Do any odd jobs such as light-bulb changes. Re-silicon the window sashes where rain seeps inside during storms. The rear verandah has a problem with the balustrade—the wood rail kinks left at the last step. I’m always tightening screws at the base because of wobbling. A drawback of having a period house is the little chores it requires of you. Especially an Edwardian.
I like to turn up early, just after seven. That way, Paul and Harriet next door get to see me in normal weekend mode, hose in hand or mixing two-stroke for the mower as if I still lived there. If they head out for a jog I smile—‘Weather’s warming up nicely’—and whistle no particular tune. We’re not friends as such but my situation embarrasses me. I want to present the illusion that all is well on my piece of the planet. I want to believe the illusion myself. I trust Emma when she says she hasn’t informed the neighbours, though my car not being in the driveway through the week must raise suspicions.
When I finish I let myself inside (I still have my key), have a wash and do my week’s laundry. It takes an hour until the final rinse cycle so I stovetop some coffee and make toast. If it’s before nine o’clock Emma will have propped herself up in bed to read a novel. I take her a tray of toast-fingers and diced grapefruit and say, ‘Breakfast in bed.’
‘What a treat,’ she replies. And there’s an awkward moment where instinct directs me to flop down beside her, but that automatic right no longer applies. Instead we do transactions: cash for Ollie’s maths tutor or his holiday camp at Mansfield. The conversation goes no deeper than that, to my relief. Ollie needing hiking boots, and the gum ulcers caused by his braces: these are easy matters for discussion and give us a common purpose that avoids the topic of ourselves.
I view this avoidance as a positive sign. We’re relearning to be comfortable in each other’s presence. Divorce isn’t mentioned. If it’s on her mind she doesn’t say. One day I will ask to move back in. One day I will sense the perfect timing. But for now this slow process must be trusted. I must keep a wary distance and hope we edge closer. I must not be inquisitive and wonder out loud if she’s seeing someone. It has been six months since our blow-up. Seeing someone might have occurred to her. I could hardly complain, could I? Yet the thought makes my hairline sweat. A liquid panic of jealousy slides downs my stomach. I control it with the counter-thought that Ollie would have said something. A dutiful word in his old man’s ear. She still wears our matching gold wedding ring.
Just in case, I withhold compliments from Emma about how she’s looking. Far from showing the strain of our troubles, her face has shed its overweight roundness. Her jaw has squared up. Her chin has thinned as if getting younger—forty-six going on forty. I know it’s the strain that has done it—she lost interest in eating. It becomes her nonetheless despite fine lines appearing on her cheeks. Let her be mine and no one else’s!
Ollie seldom leaves his bed until late. Saturday should be sports day but he never was physical. He hates football and cricket. Last month I got him to the running track for Little Athletics. He finished out of the placings and faked a torn hamstring. School says it intends pushing the boy harder. I hope so. I’d love a sport to share between us. An interest we had, for neutral subject matter.
I knock and enter his bedroom. Hold my breath to adapt to the smells, his farts, his stinky innersoles. I part the curtains enough to see the mound of his body stirring beneath the quilt. I sit and try to expose his face. When I ask how he’s going—his maths studies, his lazy punctuation—he says ‘Sweet’, his favourite response. I say I’munder the pump at work. ‘Sweet.’ I’ve given his mother his allowance money. ‘Sweet.’ I’ll ring him tomorrow as usual. ‘Sweet.’ He asks me to close the curtains.
I put my damp washing in the car. My block has communal dryers but I refuse to rub smalls with anyone non-family. I hang them around my apartment.
This leaving part of the Saturday is hardest. Using our home dryer would delay it but the extra time might upset the ‘slow process’ balance. When I drive off I exhale, as if I’ve scraped through another trial. Yet there’s no cause for celebration. How could there be, when I’d much prefer to stay?
By the time I turn onto Wattletree Road and swerve and slot into freeway traffic I ask out loud to the windscreen, ‘Was the world meant to be like this? Was it meant to be so fucking complicated?’
If there ever was a God he must have slunk off disappointed, like a dud parent who no longer wants contact.
Off the Record by Craig Sherborne is available in all good bookshops, on the Text website (Free postage!) and as an ebook.