Author Steve Hawke (the son of our former PM) has just come out with new novel, The Brothers Wolfe. And to many Starfish readers, it’s set in familiar territory. Steve chats to Claire Miller from Fremantle Press about his new work:
Starfish readers are largely based in the leafy affluent suburbs of Perth, will some recognise your characters?
You betcha! I call it ‘The Bulge’; that area bounded by Stirling Highway to the north, and the Swan River on the other three sides – Claremont, Nedlands, Dalkeith – Perth’s purple circle. That is the domain of the Wolfe family. Though the book’s entrepreneur older brother Elliot escapes to City Beach. ‘New money,’ sniffs matriarch Cynthia when she hears this. Then there’s that anomaly, Mosman Park, or ‘Mossie Park’, depending which end you come from. Young brother Athol’s best mate Rob lives in the north end, around the corner from St. Hilda’s. His girlfriend Stella grew up just around the corner from the Housing Commission towers in the south end. I like to think the novel captures many sides of Perth, many characters that represent its different elements. But to use your phrase, it does inhabit the leafy affluent suburbs more than any other part of the city.
You’ve said you’re fascinated by the men who choose entrepreneurship as a way of life – those people for whom enough will never be enough. Yet all your characters are written with a high degree of empathy. How do you get into that mindset? And what did you learn from writing a character whose viewpoint appears to be so different from your own?
I will admit to a certain fascination with the entrepreneurial class. One of the epigraphs at the start of the book is a quote from a pre-presidential Donald Trump in which he compares the art of deal-making to the creation of great art. Alongside it is another from a psychologist who says that to understand the psyche of an entrepreneur you must first understand the mind of a juvenile delinquent; which I take to mean that both types are self-obsessed, and oblivious to the impact of their actions on others. Bond and Connell were the two archetypes of the 80s, and I’ve got them in there as Adam Bland and Maurie Cornell. Such figures are a huge part of the WA story over the generations. Viz: Hancocks and Forrests, in both cases impacting both earlier decades, and the present. They are not pure evil; nor are they saints. And they mostly have feet of clay. But they are certainly worth an enquiring examination.It is the job of a novelist to get inside the head of the characters you create. If you can’t find some empathy for them, you probably should be doing a different gig. I love and hate Elliot Wolfe at the same time; just like his young brother Athol does.
You were born into a fairly affluent background and probably had opportunities to go into politics or business yourself but you chose activism and creative writing. This novel made me wonder what drives you, Steve. Is the younger brother modeled on you perhaps?
Not that affluent. Dad was on a union official’s wage, not a CEO’s. But I got a scholarship to a really posh school, which I hated deeply. There is a half page exchange within the book between two sons of privilege that is deeply offensive, and could have come straight from my days at Melbourne Grammar. That world of power and privilege just never appealed to me. I embarked on a different path by chance as much as by active decision, and I regret the life I found not one whit.
Yes, young Athol Wolfe is the character in the book I identify the most with at a personal level. He is an uncertain soul, and the older I get, the less certain I become. I like to think though that I am not quite as wimpish as he is at times.
The book is about brothers, but the character of French woman Mitzi is just as important to the plot. Can you tell us about her?
‘The Brothers Wolfe’ was one of my early thoughts for a title, but I temporarily abandoned it, because I thought it was unfair to Mitzi, who is just as important to the book as the two brothers. When Freo Press suggested reverting to this title, it was my big reservation; but as I finished up saying to my publisher, I reckon Mitzi is strong enough to stand up on her own two feet, whatever the title, if you actually read it.
I love her. She came from nowhere, and insisted on her place in the story. In so many ways, she is a much stronger character, and lives a much better life than either of the two brothers. She forges her own path. And she has the capacity to make both of the brothers pause and take stock when they are consumed by their own travails and inadequacies.
Describe the process of writing a book for you.
I have written nine now, and each one has been a completely different journey. This one has been in my head, in various forms, for a long, long time. One of the characters, Great Aunt Ida, first came to life in a short story I wrote back in the 1990s. I’ve got cabinets worth of notes and scrawls that fed into it.
It is a variation – many steps removed – from the first novel I imagined writing after my first non-fiction book, ‘Noonkanbah’, that was published in 1989. I’ve had to grope my way towards it with a lot of detours along the way. But I like to think that all that practice has paid off. The first feedback I got, from my publisher Georgia, was “It’s grand!” I particularly liked her exclamation mark. I’d set out to write a big book about a big slice of this State’s history and myths. I hope I’ve achieved that.
How important to you was discussing this book with your family, given that it seems to be so much about sibling and parent child relationships? Did your family inspire parts of it? If so, which parts?
My family did not inspire it. The Wolfes are a helluva long way removed from the Hawkes. That said, my partner and my two sons, are my first and most intelligent readers. I have probably bored them silly with discussing it over the years. They have contributed substantially to the craft of it, but they have not inspired the content. I must confess to having a very cohesive and mutually supportive family, unlike my two chief protagonists.
You’ve just become a grandfather. What do you most wish for, for the next generation – from any perspective?
Who told you? Probably me. I can’t help crowing about the joys of grandparent-hood. Peace. And the blessing we Australians have, of a comfortable, un-threatened life. That has been my lot. I do fear whether that will continue.
Anything else you would like to add?
I hope people enjoy the book, and find some food for thought within its covers.
For more info about The Brothers Wolfe go to: https://fremantlepress.com.au/books/the-brothers-wolfe/