Interview: Miles Franklin nominee Gregory Day talks A Sand Archive, local inspiration, and bookish discoveries

We’re continuing our series of interviews with Miles Franklin nominees! With the winner announcement just around the corner, it’s now the the turn of Gregory Day, author of A Sand Archive!

Congratulations on making the Miles Franklin shortlist! What was it like to hear the news?

As you might imagine it felt satisfying for my work to be acknowledged in this way. Particularly as A Sand Archive is a book about such a quiet individual life, and deliberately so. The novel’s themes however, which have to do with way the natural world and human culture have grown to be so out of whack, are not so quiet at all.

Interestingly, my publishers have been very confident all along about the possibility of this award-thing happening, but they were also for my previous novel, Archipelago of Souls, and the one before that, The Grand Hotel, and neither of them even made the longlist! So yes, everything’s got to run the
right way for you in these things, and so it was this time around.

Could you tell us a little about A Sand Archive?

Like all my novels it’s set in my local area of bush and sea along the Great Ocean Road in southern Victoria. The heart of the book though involves a juxtaposition between this area and the philosophical landscapes of 1968 in France.

The book’s central character, FB Herschell, is a CRB engineer working on sand dune stabilisation along the Great Ocean Road. His research takes him to Paris, which back in the 1960s was the centre of such studies, due to the stabilisation work done on the French Atlantic coast in the years following the French Revolution. Herschell is there to study sand but ends up in the middle of the student demonstrations of May ’68. Sous les paves, les plage!

His life is changed by the people he meets and the ideas he is exposed to, and when he returns to Australia, back to his humble dwelling in Geelong, he ever so quietly attempts to apply what he has learnt about sand, about ontology, and about love, to his local situation.

The narrator of the novel remains unnamed. Is there any particular reason for this?

My intention for the novel was for it to sit right on the seam between fact and fiction, to have that true-to-life tang but also an imaginative, poetic, meditative texture. The narrator bears a strong resemblance to me in many ways, but never explicitly, nor literally. Keeping him unnamed helped me to maintain the fictional integrity which is at the heart of the design of the book.

The plot of A Sand Archive is launched by the discovery of a book. Have you made any exciting bookish discoveries of your own?

The fictional book that you refer to, written by my main character FB Herschell, was discovered by the
narrator of A Sand Archive in his local library, but what really launches the plot is the narrator meeting FB Herschell in the second hand bookshop where the narrator works. This meeting interests our narrator because of the enigmatic relationship he senses between the book he has long been fascinated by and the real man who wrote it.

But yes, I have made many many exciting discoveries in my favourite second hand bookshop, Barwon Booksellers in Geelong, which, sadly, is no longer with us. The last such discovery I made there was the 2nd edition of Sinclair’s Husbandry of Scotland, published in 1813. It’s these kind of books that keep me off the streets!

And, finally, what’s next for you?

Well hopefully more writing, more reading, swimming and walking. It often seems to me that the whole world’s a poem, and life’s just about learning how to read it. So that’s what I’ll be going on with, if, of course, the current warping of our climate allows me to.

The Miles Franklin Literary Award was established using funds bequeathed by the My Brilliant Career author upon her death in 1957, and celebrates novels presenting an uniquely Australian experience. The overall winner will be chosen from six shortlisted authors, winning $60,000 in prize money. This year’s winner will be named on July 30th. For more information on the prize, head to the Perpetual/ Miles Franklin website.

Gregory Days’s A Sand Archive is published by Picador Australia and is in bookstores now.

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