Words Gabriella Margerison
Photographs Michael Van De Kerkhof
Chris wears Adidas Originals t-shirt and Richard James blazer
Australian fiction is having a moment right now. Markus Zusak, Jane Harper, Matthew Reilly and Liane Moriarty are just some of the authors leading the way in a resurgence that’s seeing Aussie novels charting in countries all over the globe in the last couple of years. In other words, fiction Down Under is heating up as much as the dry, arid land in which the stories are often set.
When you look a little further than the authors already lining the bestseller aisles, there are many budding authors waiting eagerly in the sidelines to pounce. Waiting for their time to shine in Australia’s reformed literary glow. Sydney-based Chris Gill is one of these up-and-comers, whose new coming-of-age novel, The Nowhere, paints the perfect picture of a young man coming to terms with his identity in outback Australia during the 1990s.
As an openly-gay man, Chris has experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of the coming-out process. And while the British-born writer didn’t grow up in Australia, his small-country-town upbringing inspires everything he writes today. That teenage dream of escaping his hometown and longing for the fast pace of city life is something that helped form the bare bones of The Nowhere. Living in Australia the past five years and travelling through small, rural towns and the outback simply added flesh to its skeleton.
When I meet with Chris, it’s one of those stifling summer days in Sydney, much like the weather in his novel. Except, the air today is heavier, more humid. In The Nowhere – the nickname given to the farm 17-year-old Sebastian Johns lives on with his father and brother in outback Western Australia – the days are hot but much dryer. The grass is sun-bleached, and the earth a reddish-brown.
Chris asks the staff in The Winery – his favourite Surry Hills haunt – to try a particular Margaret River Chardonnay before committing to a bottle. Light-years away from the protagonist in his novel who spends his time swigging back a hipflask of anything that his mischievous yet alluring neighbour, Jake, can get his hands on. But it hasn’t always been this way, he assures me.
“Oh god, I remember my friends and I stealing grog from our parents when we were teens. Didn’t we all?”
It seems strange hearing Chris use the word ‘grog’ in his southern English accent. But it’s a word that’s used in his novel to set the scene for the time and place the book is set. “Yeah, I’m trying the odd word out here and there. Trying to get into that world, you know?”
Despite the heat, Chris wears a sharp, oversized jacket, which soon comes off. His narrow sunglasses are perched neatly on the bridge of his nose. As we both take a sip of the chosen Chardonnay, I decide it’s time to delve into Chris’ own past to paint a pre-Sydneysider picture of the author.
“I won’t lie, coming out was pretty easy for me. I was one of the lucky ones. Supportive family, supportive friends. What wasn’t so easy was living in the town I did as a teenager. Even before I was out, many kids had already made up their mind about my sexuality. Words like ‘faggot’ and ‘poof’ were thrown at me plenty of times over the years. I even got hurled at from a car driving past once – the tartan flares probably didn’t help.”
It seems a far cry from the world Chris has landed himself in now as we sit in one of Sydney’s most gay-friendly areas and seeing how comfortable he appears in his skin. But Chris insists it’s not just purely a ‘different time, different place’ situation. He feels we’ve still got a long way to go.
“There are still kids taking their own lives every day because they fear their sexuality won’t be accepted.”
“Look, of course, I can’t deny we’ve made progress. So much progress! Never did I dream as a teenager I’d even get the chance of getting married one day. Now I’m in the final stages of planning my wedding.” Chris has a huge smile on his face as he stops to show me a picture on his phone of his partner of nearly nine years, who he will marry on New Zealand’s beautiful Waiheke Island in the autumn.
“It’s been amazing to grow up and watch these changes happen relatively quickly, but there are still kids taking their own lives every day because they fear their sexuality won’t be accepted. And sadly, most the time it’s happening in more remote parts of the country.”
Is this why he chose to set the book where he did? “It’s part of it, yeah. In many ways, the setting and the landscape of this novel is one of the characters. But no, I didn’t set out to write the book to make a statement or anything like that. Ideas come to me in a more abstract, natural way. And, I guess, seeing as the book moves around in time periods – predominantly the late 90s and present day – it shows that things have progressed. But I do think we still have hurdles to climb.”
The book, which is placed neatly on our table next to the quickly-warming ice bucket, includes the derogatory language Chris used to explain what some of his teenage tormentors would throw at him. It seems shocking to read the language so flippantly used throughout the novel, especially through the thoughts of Seb who the story is told through, but it paints a picture of how embedded homophobia was in Australian culture in the 1990s. Especially in a setting like The Nowhere.
“I obviously don’t want to offend, but I wanted the novel to be as realistic as possible. I didn’t hold back.” After a brief pause, Chris picks up the book and passes it to me. Although I’ve already read the copy his co-founded publisher, PRNTD, sent me earlier this month, I hold the book in my hands and admire the design. I can see that he’s proud of it, and I understand why. A clean and simple design with a scorched outline of a male silhouette, assumingly Seb, the book features a unique yet of-the-moment blush hue – undoubtedly Instagrammable. A detail that definitely wasn’t lost on Chris, who currently has over 8,000 followers on the social media platform.
“Of course I’d love to see my books in bookstores, what writer wouldn’t? But I’m publishing The Nowhere independently, so I’m under no false pretence. With the audience this book is meant for, I think it’s more important I focus on social media.”
From reading the book, Chris isn’t wrong. It is in many ways a young adult novel, although the scenes that take place with Seb as an adult pull it back into the adult fiction genre. ‘New adult fiction’ is a term he’s aware of, and although resistant to have his work be defined by labels, he understands its importance when it comes to marketing his work. “It takes all the fun out,” he says simply.
“The minute I start getting caught up in sales and numbers is the moment I’ll stop being inspired.”
Chris wears Burberry t-shirt
Although a joy to read, The Nowhere is definitely more of a slow-burner. One that gently builds up to a climactic conclusion, favouring internal dialogue and intricate memories to page-turning hooks. That said, I wouldn’t exactly call The Nowhere literary fiction, as it’s more plot-driven than lyrical. Chris appears acutely aware of how hard the book is to place into one set genre or target audience.
“It’s exactly why I’m releasing the book independently. It’s not the most commercial piece of fiction ever written, but it’s something I’m immensely proud of. Who knows, maybe my next book will be one you pick up in an airport. But right now I’m happy with what I’ve created. The minute I start getting caught up in sales and numbers is the moment I’ll stop being inspired.”
Almost instantly after finishing his sentence, the scheduled late-afternoon storm begins to close in. As if influenced by the weather, our conversation takes a darker turn and Chris’ upbeat demeaner dissipates. We’re talking about his late father, who sadly passed away in October last year. “We knew it was coming for a while as Dad was unwell for just over a year, but it’s still a shock when it actually happens. Nothing can prepare you.”
I wonder whether to change the subject when I see Chris’ eyes grow glassy and his voice begin to break. But it’s hard to deny the significance of the loss, especially when parts of his novel seem to draw parallels from what happened in the 30-year-old author’s life.
“I’d already sketched out the outline of the story before my dad was diagnosed. I ended up spending so much time in and out of hospitals. It’s hard to believe how much [of the storyline] came true.”
When I comment on the relationship between Seb and his father, which is testing at the best of times throughout the book, Chris assures me that his relationship with his own father couldn’t have been more different.
“Dad was a best friend to me. He inspired me and I know he was proud of me. Of course, it breaks my heart he won’t get to read the book. But he did get to hold an early copy in his hands.”
Speaking with Chris, I know how proud his dad would be of him and the book. He picks up the novel and thumbs to the dedication page: In loving memory of Dad. I raise the last of my wine as we toast his old man.
Our conversation goes from heavy to light as the sun breaks through the storm clouds – new projects and his plans for future married life. For now, the storm is over. But with his brilliant new novel on the way, I can’t help but think that for this driven young author, it’s simply the calm before.