Prolific WA author David Whish-Wilson‘s latest novel, The Sawdust House, has just hit the shelves. It’s based on the extraordinary real-life story of Irish- Australian convict James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan.
David chats to The Starfish:
Congrats on your new book. What’s it about?
The Sawdust House follows the life of James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan, an escaped Irish-Australian convict who became a notorious figure in the 1840s ‘Gangs of New York’ milieu, and a celebrated boxer, recounted from his San Franciscan prison cell where he’s awaiting trial. Set in 1856, the novel is a conversation between Yankee Sullivan and Thomas Crane, a young journalist who’s in San Francisco to discover the answer to a mystery of his own. The novel however is less about boxing and more about the joys of storytelling, as Yankee tells the story of his remarkable life, both as distraction from his difficult situation and in order to articulate the truths behind the tabloid versions of his life that were well known in his time.
We’ve never heard of James “Yankee” Sullivan, but apparently back in the 1800s he was famous? What was it about him that made him a household name back then?
Despite being an escaped Irish-Australian convict, and a reluctant boxer, he is considered to be the father of American boxing, which is now of course a multi-billion dollar industry. It was illegal in those times, and yet for an uneducated convict it was one of the few ways that he could raise a stake, initially to escape Australia, and then to set himself up in New York. He was a bit of a lovable rogue and a colourful character familiar in the sixth ward streets of NYC (which Charles Dickens described as the worst slums in the world, even worse than the Whitechapel slums Yankee had grown up in.) However, it wasn’t the fact that his was an untold story that attracted me to him, but more the sense that there were hidden depths to his character not there on the surface, as a product of his poor upbringing and terrible punishments in Australia. A serial escapee, at 16 he’d been sent to Moreton Bay penal colony, the worst in Australia at that time. I wanted to use fiction to plumb some of these hidden depths to his character. Yankee was best known in the US as an escaped Australian convict who sailed back to Britain, where he was still wanted, and where if he was arrested might’ve been executed, and challenging the British middleweight champion to a bout, which Yankee won. The cheekiness of doing this cemented his reputation in revolutionary America.
When did you first hear about Sullivan and what about his story sparked the desire to write a book about this?
I first came upon the character of Yankee Sullivan while researching my earlier novel, The Coves (2018), which was set in 1849 gold-rush San Francisco, featuring the largely unknown story of how a cast of Australian criminals had taken over organised crime in the nascent city, until they pushed things too far and a vigilante committee was organised to rout them from the town. The routing was unsuccessful, however, and ‘Australian’ became something of a dirty word in California, a synonym for all kinds of vice and depravity. The character of Yankee Sullivan played a small role in The Coves, but as mentioned I sensed that there was more to his story than appeared at first sight, and once I started digging, I discovered not only his fame and notoriety but also the smaller -and to me, more important – details of his early life. There was something about the disjunct between the mythologisation of him as a character and his early life that made me want to keep digging, and ultimately to try and draw it out by way of fiction.
Where did you source most of your info from?
With the help of Ben Mountford and Tim Causer, two terrific Australian historians, I was able to look deeper into his time in Australia, where he arrived as a 15-year-old convict sentenced to 14 years hard labour. I was able to find out his real name and record of sentence at the Old Bailey online archive, a terrific resource. There was plenty of reporting about him in the American media, where he used numerous aliases, but I also learnt some of the most interesting things about him from conversations with researchers, historians publicans and boxing fans while in America.
Was there anything in particular you unearthed during your research, that really helped you with the book?
I had done months of research before I decided to write the novel. The clincher for me was reading a report about his wife after his death in San Francisco. The way she spoke about him made me realise that like many public figures -especially those on the run – he was a different person in private. She spoke about his fears, and his melancholy. It was then that I knew I had a character worthy of devoting a couple of years of writing to.
What’s the most challenging aspect for you when tackling historical fiction?
I was pretty gentle with myself when writing this story. I did all the research I could do, then let that guide me. I knew I had a few key points in the story, but plenty of absence, or unknowns, and very patiently over several years I let the story emerge, often in fragments, sometimes in single lines, as a reflection of Yankee’s mental state at the time of his incarceration. The challenging part for me was to avoid completely fictionalising the story, and to find the right hybrid language or voice for Yankee to use, which as it turned out was also the greatest pleasure of writing the book.
What does the book’s title refer to?
The book’s title refers to Yankee’s great dream, to own a pub/saloon called The Sawdust House. It was Yankee’s dream because it was his parent’s dream. He was separated from them as a 14-year-old, and because he suffered so much in Australia, it was a dream he kept alive and aimed to realise in New York when he arrived there.
Who will The Sawdust House appeal to?
Despite its background subject matter of boxing, isn’t really about boxing at all. It’s a very human story, with a focus on character and the very human need to tell stories, particularly when in distress. I’ve been getting terrific feedback from both male and female readers, which has been a great relief. Structurally and stylistically, I think the novel falls somewhere between that of Tom Franklin’s Hell at the Breech, Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid, Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang.
What are you now working on?
My next novel, out with Fremantle Press in 2023, is a crime novel; a kind of sequel to 2019’s True West. I’m currently working through edits of that, but also a narrative non-fiction response to the broad environmental problem of marine conservation in the context of global overfishing, marine piracy and contemporary maritime slavery in a world where fish is a major source of dietary protein. To that end I’m planning on being a writer in residence on a Sea Shepherd vessel of the coast of West Africa this year, while exploring the above issues along with case studies that illustrate potential solutions.
The Sawdust House, Fremantle Press, is out now.