In the spirit of things Reply

by Paul Clark

Caption: Mark Dapin

Mark Dapin surprised everyone by admitting that when he was sacked from The Good Weekend magazine, it was, in some ways, a relief. “The column had started to become a millstone around my neck,” he said. “I began to think it was not good for my career to be the clown in the Sydney Morning Herald.”

Mark Dapin was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in conversation with fellow lad mag old boy Jack Marx – the two were friends and colleagues on the now defunct Ralph magazine. The topic was Mr Dapin’s recently released novel Spirit House although the discussion ranged freely.  Explaining his relief at moving on from The Good Weekend, he said that although his column was popular, he began to feel that the amount of effort required to produce it was no longer worth the personal and professional reward it brought him. He said his column was originally meant to be a kind of memoir, but over time the editor came to expect that it would always be humorous.  In his view, the expectation that the column would always be funny detracted from the quality of the work and risked creating a perception of him as a clown rather than a serious writer.

Mark Dapin did allow his audience a few amusing anecdotes from happier days at magazine. His recollection of an interview with Gordon Ramsey, which the celebrity chef famously cut short, had the audience leaning forward in anticipation.  They were not disappointed.  “Gordon Ramsay said that running a kitchen is like being in the SAS,” he said. “Can you imagine asking someone in the SAS what it’s like and they say that it’s like being a chef?”

Returning to Spirit House, he said the novel is about veterans of the prison camps of Changi and the Burma Railway coming to terms with their wartime experiences in their lives after World War II.  The broader theme of Spirit House is how the experience of war moulds the lives of soldiers for years afterwards.  Mr Dapin said the soldiers involved did not imagine that they would be captured and enter a life of degradation in prisoner of war camps.  “I also wanted to make it clear that this experience could happen to anyone,” he said.

Mr Dapin’s research for Spirit House included walking a section of the infamous World War II Burma Railway. Asked by Jack Marx if he felt that he needed to do that, he said, “I needed to see the shapes and colours, particularly of the vegetation.  In the end about 200 words in the novel came directly from the walk, but it contributed to the realism.”

At the end of the session Mr Dapin took questions from the audience, answering one about his plans by saying that he will be continuing as a writer for now.  However, he is starting a doctorate in July and may become a lecturer in the future.

The two writers had enjoyed some good natured banter throughout the discussion, so it seemed appropriate that Jack Marx ended the session with a tongue-in-cheek quote from Spirit House. “I’ve had a great morning, but this wasn’t it.”

Caption: Mark Dapin

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