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lip lit interview: andrez bergen, tobacco-stained mountain goat

I loathed Blade Runnerwhen I studied it in twelfth grade, and to the dismay of my class, I was extremely vocal about it. And just to clear something up: I aced the unit, so I did “get” it. But nearly ten years on, I still have nightmares about being forced to watch it. So when I was sent a copy of Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat by Aussie ex-pat Andrez Bergen and discovered it had been compared to Blade Runner, it made me a little apprehensive to flick through the PDF.

I shouldn’t have been worried, and flicking though became devouring every sentence.

TSMG is set in Melbourne, which has become the last city on Earth. Everything is essentially owned and operated by a corporation called Hylax, headed by a figure called Wolram E. Deaps. The obsession with beauty has resulted in extensive plastic surgery and GaGa-esque styling. French is a language that holds as much relevance as Latin does today. And, oh, “seekers” patrol the streets to arrest or annihilate “deviants”. Enter our flawed hero, Floyd. A Private-I, Floyd is forced to become a seeker when his wife is hospitalised with an “illness”. He is struggling with the world he lives in. He’s either going to destroy it, or himself.

Bergen writes with clarity, wit and ease. His writing is like a great drink of gin: smooth and complex all at once. The imagery is evoking, characters fascinating and certain themes perturbing.

TSMG is published by Oregon group Another Sky Press. This effort is unique in the way that you can download the novel free in PDF format, then opt to make a donation to the author. If print is more your thing, you can order one for little less than $5 (the printing cost) and then make a further optional contribution. So, really, you all have no choice but to check it out. Just saying.

Andrez will fittingly be launching the book at Melbourne’s For Walls Gallery at Miss Libertine (34 Franklin St) on Wednesday 10th of August, and from the discussions I’ve had with him, it’ll definitely be a rollicking time.

If you’re unconvinced, check out our interview below…

What were your reasons for choosing Melbourne as this location for the last city on Earth? A subtle dig at it being superior to Sydney, perhaps?

Ha Ha Ha… no! I like Sydney, honestly! But Melbourne’s my hometown – I was born there and even now, a decade after leaving, I still feel a huge affinity for the place. And Melbourne is somehow appropriate to be the last city in the world… it plays the same role in Neil Shute’s On the Beach, and I always remember the Hollywood take, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. It also helps that I know the city like the back of my hand, which helps with some of the descriptive nonsense you toss about in novels.

Despite my heart belonging to Sydney, I can see the appeal of Melbourne being the last city. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the city is so much more vast in the way it’s set out. And all those little alleyways could be full of deviant behaviour. I can actually imagine something huge going down in Southern Cross Station — that place is like an open maze!

Ha Ha Ha… I think Melbourne’s infamous weather played its hand in the choice too. Besides, Sydney is already famous enough! But amen to Melbourne’s cramped, narrow alleyways – which do feature in the novel as you noticed – and I spent a few years living in Fitzroy, slap-bang next to the Housing Commission high-rises, and they’re in there too – albeit in heavily expanded and built-up fashion.

I’ve actually been to Southern Cross Station only once, on the way through via the City Loop, since it was built after I packed up and left Melbourne a decade ago. I still remember Spencer Street Station, which used to be there – was kind of kitsch and old school – so I’ll have to check out the replacement when I’m back in Melbourne in August for the book launch on the 10th! (that’s an unsubtle plug, if you didn’t notice).

The book is so visceral and full of such fantastic imagery and dialogue that you can easily imagine it on screen.

Wow, thanks. Yeah, I have to confess that the entire time I was writing the novel I was picturing it up on the silver screen, mostly projected in monochrome but occasionally in Technicolor; the dialogue is influenced by things as diverse as classic American film noir – The Maltese Falcon, obviously – and British comedy, as well as friends of mine. I like the nature of the abstract and surreal, with our protagonist Floyd being the ‘normal’ man in a completely abnormal world, so I think it also owes a lot to movies like Catch-22, Odd Man Out, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

If any actors or actresses (dead or alive, and at any point in their career) could play Floyd, Dot, Laurel and Deaps who would they be?

Funnily enough I have thought a lot about this, especially since I’ve packaged the novel as a moving picture in my own headspace, but usually recognisable actors aren’t cast in that; my brain seems to prefer unknowns in the central roles. But I’ve also talked about it with my editor Kristopher Young as well as with my wife Yoko, and it makes for interesting fireside fodder.

Wolram E. Deaps is easy – he’d have to be the British actor Sir Ralph Richardson in the latter years of his career, say when he was about 70. But I also think Ian McKellan, now, could very effectively bring across the ulterior venom this man possesses.

For me, Nina ‘Laurel’ Canyon is and should be Lauren Bacall. In fact a young Bacall, circa The Big Sleep (1946), is occasionally cited in the novel when it when it comes to Laurel’s mouth. But Laurel is also half-Japanese, so a Eurasian actress might be best. Someone who comes across strong despite a slender physique – and with an inadvertent pout – is essential. Someone of Chinese descent like Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang in Smallville) might be able to pull it off, but for my money I’d go with Marion Cotillard, who not just has the ‘look’ but is a superb actress.

Floyd’s wife Veronica is heavily modelled on the Hollywood actress Veronica Lake (hence Veronica’s maiden name, ‘du Lac’), but shares as much with Jessica Lange, circa Frances (1982).

And then there’s Floyd. He’s the tough one for me to cast. One actor alone escapes me. Probably this is because, in his creation alone, he’s equal bits Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, a younger and thinner Orson Welles circa The Third Man, Alan Jerkin’s Yossarian in Catch-22, Harrison Ford’s Indie Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Elliott Gould’s take on Philip Marlowe, and even William Shatner in the ‘60s series of Star Trek. These’re all then blended with William Powell’s fictional Nick Charles and the real-life Charles Bukowski – and there’s a lot of me in there as well, though Floyd is a different person altogether. A young Harrison Ford could’ve done a great job, but maybe that’s the Blade Runner talking. Johnny Depp and Clive Owen often jump to mind. I actually just watched Inception for the third time this week, and going by that I think that either Leonardo DiCaprio or Joseph Gordon-Levitt would do a nifty job in completely different ways – though Joe’s a bit young at this stage. But if I went Australian, which I should, I would’ve loved to see Heath Ledger take it on… and another possibility would be Simon Baker from The Mentalist, who I remember watching 20 years ago in Aussie soapie E Street, and I’m a fan. He has the right face for a lot of what Floyd is feeling.

Floyd’s sister Dorothy needs to be someone picture-perfect, so you need a facial structure that’s classical beautiful but a little artificial since she’s had so much work done on it to give it the beauty. Then again, she’s much deeper than the surface image. Someone like a younger Angelina Jolie or Hillary Duff might be able to pull it off.

I love the idea of Marion Cotillard as Laurel. I must confess I kept seeing Michelle Williams as Dorothy — that sort of fragile, pliable beauty.

You know, I didn’t even twig on Michelle till you mentioned her, and I’m glad you did. You’re absolutely spot-on. She’d play the fragility – and underlying strength – just right.

Dorothy, like so many young women, spends an inordinate amount of time and money basically rendering herself unrecognizable. Even though your daughter is only young, does the idea of increasing obsession with ‘beauty’ scare you in a way it didn’t previously?

Funnily enough, in my daughter’s case it doesn’t. Even though she’s only five, Cocoa is a confident, self-assured individual and I like to think that she’s wise enough already to see the bigger picture beyond the ‘image’. Fingers crossed. But over all I do agree that the image/beauty fixation of our society is something that’s sad since it’s often artificial and equally often overlooks the simple beauty that’s there if you scratch beneath the surface.

To be honest, as much as I tell myself that I’m personally adept at seeing beyond the façade, I’m as guilty as anyone else – especially on the subconscious level.

Then again in relation to women, this image fixation has always been there – you just have to look at Marilyn Monroe for proof of that. I guess there’s a reason we have a dusty old adage about judging a book by its cover.

Understandably since you live in Japan, there are a lot of references to Japanese culture and sayings. Apart from your familiarity, why did you choose to put them in there? How do you think the culture relates to this world you’ve created?

I always loved Japanese culture, even since I first saw the Sean Connery James Bond outing You Only Live Twice on the telly when I was a little kid. It was about the same time that I discovered my favourite toy robot was Made in Japan. The place fascinated me. And when I first came to Tokyo I was struck by the modernity of the place, alongside some of the offshoots of that modernity, like bundled up, rather eyesore overhead cables, and the crazy glitzy neon advertizing and video screens. I felt like this was the future, possibly because I loved Blade Runner and that’s such homage to Tokyo.

The use of Japanese kanji lettering as symbolism in the novel settled itself in my brain after I’d watched in excess of a dozen Akira Kurosawa movies on the trot (all within one week) at the beginning of 2010, for an article I was writing for Australian magazine Filmink to celebrate the centennial of the great man’s birth.

In Kurosawa films there’s occasionally kanji that dominates the screen all by itself – accompanied by a sparse, minimal score by a composer like Fumio Hayasaka or Toru Takemitsu – and it’s powerful stuff even if you can’t understand what the devil it says.

It’s good to see there is still reality TV – do you think that there is an innate human desire to be voyeuristic?

Yeah, I do think so. As much as I despite reality shows like Big Brother, I do find others that I’m keen to tune, and here in Japan they’re plentiful as well but the language makes them somehow more exotic – and excusable? – than their Aussie or American brethren. Also, I remember a few years back when someone’s beheading in Iraq was posted on YouTube, and a lot of my friends just had to watch it. That kind of horrified me, but I’ll admit there was a sense of curiosity within myself at the same time. I guess people were being just as voyeuristic when they went to the Coliseum to see lions tucking into Christians.

Pretty much everything is owned by the corporation Hylax. Why did you choose to make the book’s big bad a corporation and the men behind it?

Easy answer: Corporations are a sitting duck target. It’s the greed thing, the fixation on profits, the recklessness in pursuit of market share. People have suffered for the greater good of big business since Lloyds of London set up shop in the seventeenth century. Even though their ruthless, self-important nature has been spotlighted a bit in the recent financial crisis, it’s much older than that in Western culture. Corporations rule the world in Norman Jewison’s 1975 movie Rollerball, and the British East India Company did some major league damage 300 years before that.

The West is not the only guilty party. Here in Japan there was the 35-year mercury poisoning of some 10,000 people in Kumamoto, Kyushu, from 1932-68. Over 10 percent died, brought about by waste from a chemical company called the Chisso Corporation. After some finger-pointing for responsibility in the 1950s, this lovely corporation set about systematically covering up its own test results, discredited outside researchers, refused to admit liability, created faux purification technology that didn’t actually work, and continued polluting over the next decade. Chisso got off pretty much scot-free; these days they’re famous for liquid crystal displays.

But there’s another reason for my anti-corporation stance – my parents are staunch unionists and I was brought up to see big business as the archenemy. The faceless, dispassionate nature of a corporation is far scarier than two lone swordsmen or a hapless great white shark with an appetite to kill.

If you were in this world, what sort of deviant behaviour would you be pulled up on?

Probably the same as Floyd – drunk and disorderly. And I’d be frothing at the gills about the political system and that police state that prevails. I don’t think I’d last all that long, really!


2 thoughts on “lip lit interview: andrez bergen, tobacco-stained mountain goat

  1. Looks cool, great influences, and I’m going to try out this “new” (to me) style of publishing and buying novels. By the way, didn’t Jerry Seinfeld describe Melbourne as the ass-end of the world (or similar)? Sounds like a perfect setting!

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