Researcher of the month
Professor Michael Meehan
Writing novels – almost any kind of novel – requires a huge amount of research, not just in gathering information but in gathering texture; that is, in putting together the kind of information you need to recreate an ‘insider’ sense of foreign, unfamiliar, past or future environments. All my novels have been historical novels – few novels are written in the present or future tense – and all are based in years of careful research.
Research it is, but it’s often unlike academic research. Academic writing foregrounds research, while novel writing usually tries to disguise the fact that anything like research has ever taken place. The writer communicates the results of careful information-gathering through a process that feels ‘like living’ – as though the information is actually drifting in through felt experience, through conversations, through revelations akin to those we meet in our everyday lives. Every now and then, of course, you can shove in a character who is a genuine researcher. I’ve done this in my last two novels, Deception (Allen & Unwin, 2008) and Below the Styx (Allen & Unwin, 2010). Genuine researchers have been known to talk – at some length – about what they have managed to find out. Here, you can work in solid information, while maintaining Henry James’s impression of ‘felt life’.
Research in and for the creative arts is an increasingly important aspect of the University’s productivity. It should be evaluated and rewarded, but as creative arts research – as something with a distinctive character - and not just pillaged for signs of something that looks familiar on radar screens in more traditional areas of the University. It is up to us, as researchers in and around the creative arts, to promote a better understanding of where our particular kind of activity ‘fits’, and to claim appropriate support for our high productivity in this area.
I’m now back in territory a little closer to conventional research. I’ve been commissioned to write a book in my old field, Australian legal writing: Convenient Fictions: a Story of Australian Law. A story, note, and not the story. Australian law is a vast narrative, the early chapters of which were written elsewhere, where keeping consistency in plot and sub-plots, content, moral perspective, acceptable closures and narrative voice – the Voice of the Law – is a heavy brake on innovation, but also a prime source of legal authority. Lawyers, asked to shape the future, look for a precedent they can fiddle with. Ask what should be in the next chapter, and, as with any substantial chain novel, Ronald Dworkin tells us, innovation and new directions in our national Legal Plot will involve careful and subversive re-reading - deconstruction, even - of the chapters that went before. My book will be a (selective) study of two centuries of innovative misreading, where the past has been subtly reconstructed, case by case, to get a desired trajectory to the future. For innovation – new legal chapters - to be acceptable, it all just has to keep feeling like one coherent, evolving story.
It’s research. It’s important. It comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s an adventure.
Reviews of Below the Styx have been published recently by:
- The Australian - 7 April 2010, Flight of the epergne by Stella Clarke
- Australian Book Review - March 2010 Mysteries of the Epergne by Don Anderson
- Sunday Tasmanian - Past indiscrections by Carlene Ellwood 21 March 2010
- Canberra Times
- West Australian
- Bookseller Review - 4 March 2010