Interview with author Sam de Brito

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Sam de Brito has been a journalist for the Murdoch press, and with the recent ‘News Of The World’ scandals, admits he’s seen a few dirty tricks take place up in them ivory towers. His recent novel ‘Hello Darkness’ follows the crusades of a 39-year-old writer, Ned Jelli, who is facing depression, insecurity, failed relationships, and a rocky career. Antonino Tati aims to discover is much of it autobiographical.

 

Right from the beginning of your latest novel ‘Hello Darkness’, I’m thinking you’re like Australia’s answer to Bret Easton Ellis. Do you get that a lot?

No one’s ever said that to me, but I’d be quite humbled if I could sell just one-tenth of the amount of books he sells!

 

There’s plenty of cursing, drug abuse and sexism in the book. Did you set out to be controversial?

Not at all. Basically I just wanted to reflect the world as I see it around me. I could have written something called ‘Hello Sunlight’ but I have a pretty black nature, and I’m attracted to dark characters and dysfunctional scenes. That’s what I enjoy reading, and it’s what I enjoy writing. Maybe it’s because I’ve had my fair share of dysfunction in my life… Really, I just write about whatever is consuming me or concerning me.

 

Do your friends and associates influence the characters in your stories, and how do you avoid these similarities coming back and biting you?

I’ve had the experience with this book of three people contacting me and telling me what an arsehole I am for ripping off their life. If a character is identifiable to a large group of people, and can be proven to be the inspiration behind a character, then you’re open to defamation. A lot of my characters do rather unpleasant things, so I’m wary of libel situations. So I tend to take one trait from one person, and another trait from another person, and mix the two. Or more.

 

Well it worked for Jackie Collins, who merely just changed characters names but kept their sinister personalities intact… Are Australia’s defamation laws more stringent to America’s?

I don’t really know the history of our defamation laws. But they tend to be a good thing. You look at what people can write and say about other people in the US, and it’s out of control. When I write, I always wonder, ‘How is this going to impact the person who I’ve taken inspiration from?’ and I did that with pretty much all the characters in ‘Hello Darkness’. I used to write for television, and we’d often base a character in a soap opera on somebody we knew, but to play it safe a good thing to do is to simply change the sex of the character. If you change enough identifiable features – religion, hair colour, weight – you don’t tend to lose much of the character’s essence, and you don’t tend to get caught out.

 

Well if the book is partly autobiographical, it reads as though you lead quite a rollercoaster rock’n’roll lifestyle.

I’ve obviously taken a lot of liberties. I tend to express of a lot different experiences into one time-frame. Things that happened over a period of 10 years, I crowd into a month. I’m a single father now; I’ve got a little girl; and the last thing on my mind are fuckin’ drugs. I go and probably drink too much at times, but I find it counterproductive to my creativity. I don’t know how people like Hemingway – these famous heavyweight drinkers – managed to produce their work with all that boozing. I mean, did they start writing as they started drinking? Certainly not towards the end of their careers when they were alcoholics…

 

But William Burroughs managed to continue writing til 83, and he was on heroin!

Yeah but I can’t fuckin’ read William Burroughs! The only Burroughs I could read was ‘Cities Of The Red Night’. I’m not sure if it was before or after the impact of HIV but it was really interesting. It’s basically a satire of this disease that was killing homosexuals. Not that he was laughing at that. Being gay himself, he was writing from a sympathetic perspective. But it was a very clever book, I thought. But again, I’m not a massive Burroughs fan.

 

Ultimately, even with all the corruption and cursing, your book ‘Hello Darkness’ could read as a lesson in morals.

Basically it’s about a character coming to terms with himself. It’s a book about depression, and there’s no getting away from that. That’s disastrous for him, but it’s also disastrous for the people he invites into his life. There’s probably a lot of people in Ned’s position who aren’t feeling that great about themselves and they go into this vicious cycle of self-medicating. With Ned it’s all cigarettes and booze, cocaine and one-night-stands. But he’s got to come to terms with that. It’s one thing knowing what your nature is, but another thing to realise your nature is not that pleasant.

 

If you find your protagonist is self-referential to a certain degree, is that like expunging your demons when you’re putting it down on paper.

Kind of. But Ned is not me. Ned is the worst of me. He’s my ugly thoughts. And that’s why he’s fun to write.

 

You worked at News Limited. Did you find you were encouraged to use tactics like Ned does to obtain information for controversial stories?

I was never encouraged to but the powers that be know how certain information is guarded. It’s a nudge-nudge, wink-wink culture. And it’s no different than at any other big company. People don’t go to work one day saying, ‘I want to lose my integrity’. Nobody says they want to serve six-day-old chicken to customers but you know that if you say something to the chef or your boss, you’re gonna get the arse or you’ll be the next out the door. I think in every profession, you’re not so much forced to do things but there’s this culture of omission where if you’re not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re not going to be able to get in front of them. There are clean tricks and there are dirty tricks, and a lot of people don’t see the difference between them.

Some dirty tricks ultimately get found out; just look at the News Of The World saga…

We’ve all seen people doing ethically questionable things in newsrooms. I’ve been a little embarrassed for some journalists with the way they’ve gone about [obtaining information]. You’re crossing the line as soon as you do it. As soon as you start listening in to someone’s voicemails, that’s breach of privacy. That to me is a very clear-cut case. When it was public figures, people seemed to be ambivalent about it. It was only when it became clear that journalists had tapped into the phones of private citizens that the condemnation and the revulsion really started.

 

What do you think of the state of journalism at the moment, how a lot of writing is now in the hands of bloggers?

The nature of journalism is changing rapidly and you can’t hold the ocean back with a broom. Journalism bemoaning the state of journalism, well, what are you going to do about it? The only thing you can do about it is respond with your own work. Many people would look at my writing style as a symptom of the dumbing-down of journalism, but at the same time, on matters of principle, they say, stand like a stone; on matters of fashion, go with the flow. Ultimately, though, readers still reward great writing. You return to blogs and websites where the writing is great. Where you are informed and entertained. The internet is the revenge of the writer. You used to write an article for a newspaper and you didn’t know actually how many eyes were reading that story. Now you write something for a website or for a blog and you can actually quantify your work. In the end, if you’ve got something to say and you can engage and audience, you’re going to find a readership. If anything, I think the new era is probably scaring people who are really fuckin’ boring.

 

‘Hello Darkness’ is published through Picador / Pan Macmillan Australia.