by Paul Clark
“I’m a writer because I can’t do anything else”, Mark Dapin says, sitting in his local pub looking relaxed in jeans and a polo shirt. He is unpretentious in dress and manner, but when he talks about writing it is easy to detect the perfectionist within. “Writing is re-writing,” he says. “I will look at a paragraph and ask myself, have I seen this before, have I used a formulaic construction? If it’s in common usage, I try to use something else.”
He says he has never struggled to transfer his ideas into words, but he does like his thoughts to be fresh. For him, that means introducing some variation into his writing day. “When I’ve run out of ideas, I do something that is least like what I just did. I might transcribe some interviews, or do some reading as research,” he says.
Many readers know Mark Dapin for his column in The Good Weekend magazine, which often included obscure allusions to the attractions of roundabouts or the fascist tendencies of garden gnomes. He has also been an acclaimed feature writer, with numerous articles published in The Good Weekend and many other magazines. From 1998 to 2002 he was editor of the lad mag, Ralph, the story of which he tells in his book Sex and Money. Sex and Money could be described as a how-to guide for aspiring editors of mens’ magazines, as well as detailing the reasons why the job might be best avoided.
More recently, he has focused on his own writing. His first novel, King of the Cross, is a crime novel set in Sydney’s Kings Cross. His book Strange Country is an odyssey of travel in the Australian bush and was compared by at least one reviewer to the travel writings of Bill Bryson. Last year, his second novel Spirit House was published to impressive reviews. The novel tells the story of Jimmy Rubens, a former prisoner of war of the Japanese and survivor of the horrific Burma Railway.
The journey from lad mag to novelist might seem improbable to someone who has not heard Mark Dapin discussing the business of writing. At times, he gives the impression of being a little casual, almost offhand. “What I want to do is go around the world writing about stuff,” he says. It is just an impression though. When he mentions Strange Country, he says, “I deliberately set out to produce a canon of work about the bush because I wanted to write Strange Country. I was conscious of that fact probably two years before I produced the book.” The travel involved was at times a chore, but for a writer the work had rewards. “I am very interested in the vernacular,” he says. “I’m interested in the way people speak, the way people tell their story. When you meet someone in the bush who speaks colourfully that’s just fantastic. It tends to mean they’re very bright. They can tell a story. Some of them do it self consciously, they put on their Akubra in the morning and then they put on their ‘bushiness’, but when it’s casual and real I find that fascinating and beautiful to listen to.”
Mr Dapin’s approach to stories, for Strange Country or any article, is to make the best of each opportunity. “You want your stories to run. I see everything I am offered as a kind of puzzle, and the challenge is to see how you can make it work. The stories I prefer have a kind of narrative integrity, so you can tell them as if it is a short story with a mystery at its heart which is gradually revealed through the prose.”
Writing Spirit House demanded a lot of research, more than Mr Dapin first imagined, in order to achieve the necessary realism. “I was trying to make something seem real about Australian troops in Singapore in the forties. What did I know? I know a lot now,” he says. “I read and read and read, I went and looked everywhere, I went back to Changi, Burma, Thailand, Kanchanaburi, walked on the Burma railway. Looking, trying to feel stuff. I read memoirs and history, everything I could find, particularly about Singapore. It was a lot of work, but I loved it, it was fascinating.”
He says dialogue, too, has to be convincing if a novel is to be realistic. “That which you see as apparently realistic dialogue is stylised realistic dialogue,” he says. “I take note of the rhythms of dialogue. I make sure the rhythms are aesthetically pleasing.”
Mark Dapin is not given to forcing his opinions on to others, but that does not mean he will tolerate racism, or homophobia, if he encounters either. There is more than just a notion of fair play about the man; he clearly has a strong interest in social justice, too. This is obvious when conversation moves from writing about World War II and Changi, to Australian troops in more recent wars. Australia’s war in Afghanistan is coming to an end, and he views the results with some distaste. “The best we can do is accept refugees from whatever horrible government ends up in place of the horrible government that we played a part in overthrowing,” he says. “That way we accept part of the responsibility for the chaos we caused.”
He does not think that writers have any special role in leading public opinion, only the same right to be involved in the debate as everyone else. His view is that some people may resent the intervention of writers, as it seems unfair that perhaps the writers are making more articulate contributions to the debate. “There is a certain hostility to clear thinking among the more muddle- headed members of the population,” he says. That does not worry him. “A lot of people would rather be a cheerleader than a truth teller,” he says. It is easy to see that Mark Dapin is not one of the cheerleaders.