Books: The Cutting




Perth QC (and Starfish correspondent) Tom Percy is by no means the only hot-shot Aussie lawyer who enjoys writing fiction in his spare time. Across the Nullarbor you’ll find Sydney silk Richard McHugh, who when not handling complex commercial cases, also loves spinning yarns. His second novel, The Cutting (Penguin) which he describes as “comic realism,” has just hit the shelves. Richard chats to The Starfish:

Richard, what’s the book about?

Will is an engineer in his mid-20s at an iron ore mine in the Pilbara.  He loses his job on the first page of the book, along with everyone else at the mine.  He also has a bit of a drug problem. His girlfriend, Justine, is two or three years older.  She runs an organisation called Free All Refugee Children! (FARC!) in Sydney.  Lance is a 40-something iron ore heir; Will worked at his mine.  And Will’s mum, Lee-Anne, works in a poorly paid job for a boss who’s blackmailing her.  The book is about the way their stories collide.  It’s what I would call comic realism.

It’s having a poke at many aspects of society including greed, privilege and social inequity; do you ponder these issues a lot?

I do.  We don’t seem to talk about money and class as much as we used to in this country, but wealth inequality is as bad as it’s ever been.  Plus these characters are fun to write about. The challenge for a writer is making fun of these people while still taking them seriously as people.  I don’t think a lot of Australian authors are interested in characters like these; or at least like Lance, the iron ore heir.  When wealthy characters do get a run in our fiction, they’re rarely more than cardboard cut-outs — usually just villains.  I try to give them a fuller life than you often see in print.

 The main character, Will Fulbright, has more than a few flaws. Is he based on anyone you know?

Thankfully, no! He’s completely invented. He’s meant to be likeable but frustrating.  At least, that’s how I feel about him.


Author Richard McHugh


I can’t satisfactorily explain where the characters come from.  As soon as I get an idea for a character who appeals to me, I have a sense of what that person would do or think in any situation I’m likely to put them in.  It probably sounds ridiculous, but in that sense the characters arrive more or less fully formed.  The main exception in this book was Lee-Anne.  Everyone in the novel underestimates her.  So did I when I started writing, because I was seeing her from Will’s perspective.  But when I started writing her story she soon became my favourite character.

 In your day job as a silk, you contend with complexity of commercial disputes and the like; is writing fiction a way to bring more creativity into your world?

In a way, yes. It’s often said that the law sharpens the mind by narrowing it.  There’s an uncomfortable truth to that.  Fiction is the opposite: it’s all about getting you to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  So writing opens up a completely different part of your mind. But the writing wasn’t a reaction to the legal career.  I started writing long before I became a lawyer.  I just got a bit side-tracked from it for a while: day job, children, mortgage.

You’re the son of high achievers, a former High Court judge and a former federal politician; are your parents fans of your writing?

My mother, yes. I suspect my father would prefer I stayed on the straight and narrow.

Have they read The Cutting, and what did they think?

I got my mother to proof-read the manuscript.  She said she loved it, and she said that many times.  But if I told her I’d decided to devote the rest of my life to baking scones, she’d be very supportive of that, too.

How long did it take you to write the book?

I find it impossible to write fiction when I’m doing legal work.  Running cases is too consuming to leave room for much else.  It amazes me that some people can write for two hours in the morning, then go to work.  I have to get my head as far away from the legal world as I can, in a place with no internet, no people.  Then I do nothing else but write for four or five days until I miss my family too much and have to go home.

This book took the better part of seven years to write, off and on.  I started in 2015 with the characters and main story lines, but a year or two later I stalled; then I got close to completing it when I took a sabbatical from work overseas in 2019. I finished the first draft in 2020. The editorial process, which involved another two main drafts, took almost two years.  The editorial support is one of the truly wonderful things about having a good publisher like Penguin.  But there was quite a bit to do, and I had to find blocks of time off work to get it done.



This is your second book; your debut Charlie Anderson’s General Theory Of Lying came out seven years ago. Have you evolved somewhat as a writer since then? If so, how?

I don’t know whether I’ve evolved.  I’ve learnt a lot from writing both books.  Perhaps the most important lesson from the first one is that people want fiction in their fiction.  They want the good to prosper and the wicked to suffer.  I tried to make Charlie Anderson as realistic as I could, but that meant that by the end of the novel Charlie clawed his way out of the hole he’d dug himself, and managed to hang onto his job, his marriage and his girlfriend. He didn’t get the punishment many readers felt he deserved, and they didn’t like it.  So this time, I wanted to engage with the question whether people get what they deserve. I tried to write what could happen, not what would happen.

Who would The Cutting appeal to, do you think?

If you’re going to ask someone to read 300 pages of your novel, you have to try to make it entertaining, and preferably funny.  That’s what I’ve tried to do.  So I think The Cutting should appeal to anyone who has an interest in the world we live in, in families, relationships, money, class, duplicity.

 Your book has been described as part Succession, part Wall Street and reminiscent of Bonfire of The Vanities: Who are your literary heroes?

They’re mostly from the 19th century; writers with an acute sense of relationships and society: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emile Zola, Henry James and too many others to name.  Among the current crop, those I most admire include Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith.

The writers on Succession are brilliant.  They’re not afraid to write characters who become more unlikeable the more you get to know them.

Do you love the writing process from go to whoa, or just parts of it?

I enjoy every part of it other than the edit.  I absolutely hate that bit.  What’s good for the book isn’t necessarily much fun for the writer.

The Cutting, By Richard McHugh (Penguin) is out now.