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Monday, 29 September 2014

Meet Robert Cox: A Compulsion to Kill

A Compulsion to Kill is like no other! Investigating the lives of the murderous and heinous, Robert Cox brings Australia’s earliest serial killers to life in a gripping page-turner.

Cox sat down with Editorial Assistant Sarah Trapski to have a quick chat about his new book.
Sarah Trapski: With your previous work, Baptised in Blood, and now A Compulsion to Kill, it’s obvious you’re not one to shy away from historical research. What, in your opinion, is the big draw? 
Robert Cox: History has always fascinated me. In Tasmania it’s all around you; you’re standing in it or leaning on it or living in it; it’s very unlikely to have disappeared under concrete and steel. But I’m a reader rather than a historian, so my interest isn’t in the dry old stuff of formal histories, like policies and administrations and economic fluctuations, but in the people, the personalities, especially the lesser lights, the ordinary people whose flame briefly flared in some way: convicts, bushrangers, Aboriginal people. And serial killers, of course!
ST: A Compulsion to Kill is about Australia’s earliest serial killers. Researching the history and lives of Charles Routley, Alexander Pearce, and John Haley, just to name a few, would have been a monumental task! How did you go about it?
RC: I’d written about the virtually unknown Charles Routley, Tasmania’s worst serial killer, in a previous book, which got me to wondering whether there’d been other serial killers in the state who’d also been forgotten. Alexander Pearce has been much written about and his story’s also been filmed a couple of times, so he was fairly easy. For the others, I had to rely on books, contemporary newspapers, historical documents, and, in a few cases, websites. It’s quite fascinating when you start with just a name and perhaps just a detail or two but nothing else to go on, then eventually manage to build a picture of a life or an event, bit by bit, through assiduous research.
ST: Any tips for budding historians out there?
RC: I have to say I don’t consider myself a historian; I have no qualifications or training in that discipline. I’m just a writer who happens to like historical subjects. Like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, I’m a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, which isn’t a bad thing, given what I do. Like a patchwork quilter, I gather a scrap of fabric here, a scrap of cloth there, and stitch them together into what I hope is an interesting whole. All of which is a rather verbose way of saying: leave no stone unturned. Cast the widest possible net. Accumulate scraps large and small. Send Google on wild and imaginative searches. But where possible, rely only on original sources.
ST: Out of the list of serial killers you documented in A Compulsion to Kill, who did you find the most fascinating?
RC: Probably Rocky Whelan, not least because he operated in areas near Hobart that I know well. Also Thomas Jeffrey. Jeffrey was a warped individual, a sadist, a sexual predator, a killer and cannibal. But Whelan was simply a fairly minor career criminal who underwent a horrific 20-year brutalising in the Norfolk Island penal colony, which hardened him and probably turned him into a killer. When he was transferred to Tasmania, he absconded and in just 24 days killed five men in cold blood.
ST: A Compulsion to Kill is your sixth book. Is writing compulsive for you? Or do you enjoy the research more than the writing?
RC: I do enjoy the research, especially when it rewards me with something new or unexpected. But writing … I don’t know whether compulsive is the right word for me. I just do it — I write every day — and it’s fulfilling and hugely enjoyable, even when it’s not going well. Then it becomes a challenge to get it right, and I enjoy that too. I rewrite constantly —compulsively, even!
ST: What are your thoughts on Jack the Ripper? How does he compare to Tasmania’s killers?
RC: Jack the Ripper was insane; I don’t think anybody would dispute that, especially anyone who’s seen post-mortem photographs of his victims. But I wouldn’t readily say that about Tasmania’s colonial serial killers. They nearly all seem to have had clear motives for what they did: Brown and Lemon killed for revenge, Pearce and Broughton and McAvoy to avoid starvation, John Haley through losing his uncontrollable temper. Routley, Jeffrey, and Whelan, although they killed to prevent being identified by men they’d robbed, all seem to have increasingly enjoyed exercising their power over their victims — the power of life or death. The more they killed, the easier it seems to have become. Jack the Ripper, probably fuelled by an insane rage whose cause we’ll never know, seems to have found murder easy right from the outset.
ST: Do you think reading this book will affect the way Tasmanians view their State?
RC: I hope so. Tasmanians, especially those who come from pioneer stock, are very protective of their history, but all too often they see it through the rose-coloured glasses of hearsay and ignorance and don’t want to face uncomfortable facts. Some terrible things happened here in the early days, but there’s a part of the population that simply doesn’t want to know about them. My last book, the first history of the town of Sorell, which took me six years to research and write, was traduced by so-called historians with local roots who claimed I had it all wrong, but none of them has yet produced an iota of evidence to support the claim because none of them has ever bothered to do any real research. I can’t see A Compulsion to Kill being on their reading list. Too much truth!
ST: What’s your next project?
RC: One’s already with the publisher: Behind the Masks, a collection of friends’ reminiscences about the late and much-esteemed Tasmanian poet Gwen Harwood, which I co-edited and contributed to. My other projects are a New and Selected Stories, which is nearly complete, and Broken Spear, a biography of the Aboriginal leader Kikatapula, or Black Tom Birch. After being raised partly in a wealthy Caucasian family, he went bush, started and led Aboriginal resistance in Tasmania’s Black War of 1823-32, then changed sides to work against his own people, yet the great majority of Tasmanians have never heard of him. His story has never previously been told, and he’s wholly absent from a truly astonishing number of history books, even those about the Black War.

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Meet Michael Cohen: A Place to Read

Editorial Assistant, Sarah Trapski, had a chat with veteran essay writer, lecturer, and author, Michael Cohen, about his latest work, A Place to Read. 

A Place to Read is a collection of essays reflecting Cohen’s life and inner thoughts. He poses difficult questions and shed light on subjects that are otherwise overseen. Prior to this collection, several individual essays have been published in Harvard Review, Birding, The Humanist, and The Missouri Review with rave reviews.

Michael Cohen’s essays on the reading life are a treat to read. Relaxed, personal, wide-ranging, they contain fascinating nuggets of information and lively assessments of hundreds of books, as well as a whole life’s worth of thoughtful rumination on time, love, travel, and family, as well as what it means to be, almost existentially, a reader.
– Christina Thompson, Editor, Harvard Review

Sarah Trapski: What are your favourite essays in A Place to Read?
Michael Cohen: I like the turn away from the personal and back again in “My Hypochondria.” And the sudden turn into the personal at the end of “The Place Where It Happened.”

ST: You write about some very personal topics, for example your father’s murder, and your experience with hypochondria. How do you feel about sharing such intimate experiences? And have you had feedback from readers about these subjects?
MC: “Amusing notion,” writes Montaigne, “many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends to a bookseller’s shop.” It is a surprise what gets dredged up when you begin writing about yourself; the form, as Montaigne proved so convincingly, is a method of self-exploration. Not that I approve of essay writing as a confessional exercise.I even have mixed feelings about those I called the Agonists in a Missouri Review essay a few years ago. 

Nancy Mairs and the Joan Didion of The Year of Magical Thinking are examples of people performing their suffering. It may be a compulsion, but I don’t think it’s a consolation, and it’s difficult to make it into art. C. S. Lewis said all three of those things in A Grief Observed. My friends who know me as somewhat reserved have expressed surprise at what I have revealed about myself in these essays. Most readers, I think, have come to expect that sort of thing.

ST: Did you have an overall book or set of themes in mind as you wrote the individual essays, or did the book form organically?

MC: I did not see the book coming. That the essays I had published in little magazines formed a kind of memoir was as much of a surprise as that the theme of reading gave them a sort of unity.

ST: Collecting essays in book form is not as popular as it used to be. Do you see this as an endangered species?

MC: There are mixed signals. Robert Atwan’s yearly Best American Essays series has been going strong since 1987 and attests to continued or renewed contemporary interest in good examples of the form. I believe you have a comparable Australian series started by Black, Inc. and continued by Penguin. And creative writing programs are devoting more attention to nonfiction. But the ubiquitous journalistic and political essays that infest the web and print media often lack any sense of form and even logical sequence. 

The essay’s strength in the past has come partly from the conscious, formal awareness of its so-different kinds of writers on topics from every discipline and field of interest. Good models train readers before they train writers. And right now there are not enough readers who like essays to push many publishers into taking a chance with essay collections. Before David Reiter took a chance with mine, I hate to tell you how many publishers said, “Wow, these are good essays and they’ve appeared in really good magazines. But we can’t take them. The market’s too soft for essay collections.”

ST: A link to your blog is posted on A Place to Reads mini site. Do you feel blogging is a new form of essay writing?

MC: No. But blogs can be the raw material of essays.

ST: Some writers of fiction work organically rather than with a systematic plan in their composing? What is your preferred method, and do you see the essay as a form better suited to one strategy of composition than the other?

MC: Rarely an essay comes out of my mind and onto paper in a single sitting. Strenuous revision may not change its initial structure and flow. Other times I collect thoughts and scenes that seem to have a topical or thematic connection and then sit down to see if they can be made to cohere into an essay. Except for those rare spontaneous essays, I never work initially from a plan but try to find it in the material. When I put things together, expand, refine, I usually find the plan has to be modified and the structure changed. An essay is like a poem in that it has to convince you that its particular form is the one the subject demands, but other than that observation I can’t make comparisons because I have written very little fiction or poetry.

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