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Tabula Rasa

Clown Prince

An interview with Will Elliott

by David Carroll and Kyla Ward, 2006

The Pilo Family Circus

The ABC Fiction Award looks a serious and well-supported endeavour. So we were delighted to read that the inaugural winner — Will Elliott's The Pilo Family Circus — is gleefully violent and perverse. Set in a circus halfway between Brisbane and hell, our hero Jamie runs up against insane magicians, werewolves and fortune tellers. But perhaps the most dangerous of the carnival's inhabitants is himself, whenever he puts on the greasepaint.

Tabula Rasa: You and clowns... Is it personal?

Will Elliott: It may become so, if clowns read this book and take exception to my slandering of their profession! Clowns are almost a horror icon as much as ghouls and werewolves, these days. But no, I have no problem with them. I had fun playing around with the idea of misbehaving clowns. They make great characters, because any behaviour, no matter how good or bad, seems to fit as long as they're dressed in the age-old uniform.

TR: If you did join a circus, what role would you play?

WE: I'd probably run a corrupt stall in sideshow alley, one with really good prizes on the shelf which punters are never able to win. I was fleeced in such fashion many times as a kid.

TR: What about a share household?

WE: Yes, been there, done that. I was half out of my mind when I was last in a share-house, fried on sleep deprivation and booze. That whole time is mostly a blur, and what I remember is embarrassing. That's also the time I began writing. I wrote my first manuscript in about four weeks. God willing, it'll never see the light of day.

TR: How long have you been writing? What have been your inspirations?

WE: I've been writing in a serious way since about 2002. Before that I was a 'dabbler', writing short horror stories, then branching out into other kinds. So it hasn't been a very long apprenticeship, but it's been an intense one — most of each day has involved reading and writing. Inspiration has mostly come from other writers and their work — certainly not much inspiration came from real-life surrounds. Brisbane is a fairly drab environment, especially on my side of the poverty line. As for which writers inspired me, a pretty vast range, everything from Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dan Simmons and Lovecraft to writers who are nothing to do with horror, like Tristan Egolf, John Birmingham and George Saunders. I like the way these writers don't get hung up on their surroundings like many Australian writers do. There seems to be a need among some of us to define the country and put it on the map somehow, judging by the books I had to read for college. Overseas writers don't worry about that — they may note familiar landmarks, but then get on with the job of telling a story.

TR: Describe your experiences with the ABC Fiction Award? Did you get any feedback from them about their choice of a horror novel (and did they ever call it that)?

WE: The ABC award took me completely by surprise. I sent my entry by express post in literally in the last hour, just before the post office shut on the day before the deadline. I was in the habit of entering competitions by then, so I didn't give it much thought (though I had a dream a couple of months later telling me I'd won.) Months passed and I'd been getting ready to quit writing for a while and move on to other things when the phone call came. Suddenly I was in the papers and on radio, caught completely off-guard. I actually panicked. I'm just now starting to get things in perspective and get back into the routine of daily writing and reading.

Will ElliottI have spoken with some of the judges — they picked the Circus because they said it could be enjoyed on different levels: as a supernatural thriller, as satire, as dark comedy. Some others have called it allegorical, a description I find interesting, but can't quite bring myself to agree with. (Though maybe their view of the work is clearer than mine, who knows.)

The book hasn't often been referred to as 'horror', though the violence and gore has been commented on. (The violence was actually toned down — the original draft went quite a bit further.) I guess the book does straddle genres a little, but horror seemed the most active ingredient to me when I was writing it (and still does.) Horror seems at times like the black sheep in the literary family! But it's such a versatile genre, mixes with anything, and any kind of literary statement can be made in horror. Maybe the trick is to sneak a few horror novels through the back door when no one's looking, which is kind of what happened with this book...

At any rate I'm still just glad the book found its way to shelves. Things were looking grim for a while there.

TR: Were you having any luck with your short stories previously?

WE: There are so few paying markets for short fiction that my strategy was to enter short story competitions and win a whole bunch — that way I'd have an impressive cover letter when submitting novels. It turned out I only managed to land on some short lists (about 7 or 8). Recently I've had a bit more luck. My story 'Ain't no ordinary ham' was published in the Griffith Review (September 2006) and selected by Robert Drewe for publication in Black Ink's The Best Australian Stories of 2006, which is a real thrill for me. It's also going to be read out on ABC radio, but I'm not sure when. Drewe's collection is being launched this month.

TR: Did the Australian setting influence the horror and supernatural elements of the novel, would you say?

WE: Maybe as far as coarseness of the setting and characters go, speech patterns of characters and so on. But the devices of horror are pretty universal, and I was following a hybrid of the European/American approach. Part of the challenge was to see if an American formula could be applied in an Australian setting ... It's hard to imagine matters of worldwide peril happening in humble Australia.

TR: And what is planned next for Will Elliott?

WE: The UK release happens early next year, so I'm eagerly awaiting developments on that front. As for what kind of book is next, that's what I'm currently trying to work out. A sequel to the circus is a possibility, depending on how well the first one is received. I'd like to remain in the zone of speculative fiction, horror/fantasy that has one foot in our world, one foot in another, maybe with the tone of delivery of Bret Easton Ellis.


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