An Interview with Richard McHugh – author of The Cutting
Richard McHugh lives near the ocean in Sydney with his partner and their children. He argues cases, makes photographs and writes. He published his first novel, Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying, in 2015. The Cutting is his second novel.
Richard McHugh calls his book The Cutting. The significance of this title immediately eludes me.
- Why did you choose this title?
I had come to hate the working title, which for years had been Madeleine’s Monster. That’s the name of an iron ore mine in the story, but it was also (far too obviously) a reference to one of the characters. Plus, it was likely to confuse readers about the genre. But no one could think of anything better.
My partner came up with the new title a few days before the book had to be sent off to the printers. The houses overlooking the old tramway cutting at Bronte beach have become some of the most expensive real estate in Sydney. The Cutting, as it’s known, is where one of the main characters in the book lives, and where the strands of the story meet at the end of the novel. There’s also an intimation of violence in the word that makes you wonder, who or what will it be directed to?
- “Darkly humorous, this is a novel of our times.”
How is your book representative of today’s world?
I’d put it slightly differently: the book attempts to engage with parts of today’s Australia. We don’t seem to talk as much about social class and money as we used to in this country. That was a subject I wanted to engage with. So, one of the four main characters is born rich; another, who works for the first character, is suddenly unemployed; the third is a young left-wing activist; the fourth is a single mother being blackmailed by her boss. The relationships among all of them are affected by their self-consciousness of class, and to varying extents corroded by money.
The very rich tend to appear in fiction as cardboard cutouts, especially as villains. I set out to write a rich character who was more complex and (to me at least) interesting than that. Striking the right balance was a challenge in a novel with a comic streak: I didn’t want to slip into parody.
- Her lips were brushing his face, tiny butterflies and ladybirds of kisses, breathy zephyrs of tenderness, her arms were wrapping around him, and he melted into the yielding velvet of her skin (82).
This is one of the best descriptions of young femininity that I have read.
How long did it take you to capture it and what were the problems you faced?
The experience I was trying to put into words was that of a young man in his mid-20s remembering his first morning, years before, with the woman he now lives with. Their relationship has since taken a bad turn. He misses the early tenderness. I found that aspect easy enough to imagine (his longing for the tenderness, not the relationship going bad!). From memory, I wrote this sentence quickly, but it was longer and wordier in the first draft and more obvious (it ended with the words, the safety of that place).
I had to confront a bigger problem earlier in the same passage. The scene included the male character’s first unexpected glimpse of the naked body of the woman he’s just spent the night with. There’s a fine line between capturing the essence of the male uni-student character’s experience, and the danger of the male writerly gaze. I don’t feel terribly awkward writing about nudity or sex in general. But as a 53-year-old man, I can’t help feeling self-conscious when writing about a young woman’s body. Working with a really good, younger, female editor — as I have been lucky enough to do — helps.
- Pages 15 – 55; 66 – 107; 118 – 130 (within limits) are ‘writing about’. Descriptions often take the form of catalogues or labels e.g.
This megalomaniacal narcissist, champion of incarcerated children everywhere, social entrepreneur and sole heir to one of the country’s great fortunes…
What do lots of labels add to your story? (4-5)
Seeing that list extracted from the context in which it appears, I don’t warm to it!
Here’s my justification. The story is told largely through the perspectives of the four main characters, and in this case, these are the labels that one of them (Will) is applying to one of the others (Lance). The choice of label tells the reader as much about the character who chooses it as about the character to whom it’s applied. That’s probably as general an answer as I can give.
There’s an extra element in this particular passage, which is on the second page of the book. Although this is in a Will-perspective chapter, I wanted the reader to know a bit more about Lance, in particular that he was the heir to a great fortune. That was important given the context: Lance is sacking Will and his twelve hundred co-workers, and Will is angry with them for not being angrier with Lance. Because whatever happens to them, Lance is going to be fine.
- But here in the Pilbara, where a human Krakatoa of loss and grief and fear should have been rising from the deep bogan sea, where the same angry thought should have been forming in twelve hundred hostile minds, that the Bali villa weekends, the hotted-up utes, the women, the men, the booze, the drugs, were all over, there was silence. They owed this fucker nothing. (6)
What is the point you are making here?
Partly, it’s the point at the end of the previous answer: Will is angry that his co-workers aren’t starting a riot. (In the first draft of the novel there was a riot in a lecture theatre when Will was at uni. That was one of my favourite passages that got cut in the edit: it strayed too far from the core story.)
But there’s another point here. The language, and Will’s selection of the things that he expects will come to an end for his co-workers when they lost their jobs, come from his perception of class difference. In his anger at what’s happening to him, he can’t stop himself from stereotyping and looking down at them.
- No, he was going to plug himself, as directly as he humanly could via the screen on the wall opposite his bed and his earphones, into the glorious, unfettered aggregation of possibility that was the internet. (8)
How does your description fit the internet?
This is Will’s perception. In this episode, he feels every door closing to him. He’s just lost his job. His relationship seems to be in a death spiral. He can’t get his hands on drugs or alcohol. He sees the internet as offering a world of unconstrained pleasure into which he can escape.
- He disappeared into the night. The sudden autonomy! The billowy, wind-in-your-face, bow-of-the-Titanic, master-of-your-own-destiny licence to do, and to be, whoever you wanted. There hadn’t been any particular thing he wanted to do that night. It was general sovereignty he was craving, self-government. Autonomy. (88)
What effect is achieved by repeating the word ‘autonomy’?
Only emphasis. The lesson Lance draws from this episode when he’s 18 is that absolute autonomy is what matters to him. That doesn’t set him up well for adulthood.
Queensland Reviewers Collective