Powerful and terrifying, Paul Haines’ work was never for the faint-hearted, having at its core a horrible insight into the darkest parts of what it means to be human. But if there was ever a writer whose work gave no indication of the person behind the words, it was Paul. He is missed.
Paul himself gave the impetus for this memorial Snapshot with a post he made on his blog in November 2011, reprinted below. To this, his friends Adam Browne, Matthew Chrulew, Rjurik Davidson, Brendan Duffy, Andrew Macrae and Cat Sparks have responded, sharing their thoughts on Paul’s career – both what was, and what shall never be.
The End of My Writing Career by Paul Haines
(Republished with the kind permission of Paul’s wife, Jules)
Several reviews have expressed excitement in looking forward to more work from me over the coming years, but alas, this is the official declaration that the writing career of Paul Haines is over.
There is very little new work in the pipeline, and many large projects I have recently begun that will remain unfinished.
It’s frustrating. Actually it’s much worse than that. I’ve been writing since 1999, with the first real success and the start of my published career occurring in 2001 with “The Garden of Jahal’Adin” in Orb #2
I reached another milestone this year. The dream that many writers want to achieve – the status of full-time writer. My IT career was in tatters (not that I cared), we had moved down to the Peninsula, my health insurance could cover our mortgage and bills, and in between bouts of chemotherapy-induced sickness I could dedicate my time to writing.
What had often eluded me throughout my career though was “the novel idea”. I had enough (only just) short story ideas to keep me in print and visible each year, but the novel idea had never happened to me. I was starting to lament my career somewhat as a writer, that I would always be a short-story writer, and therefore never considered serious, never considered more than a hobby. (Hobbies are fun, people, writing is hard graft and often torturous).
Shortly after moving to the coast and making the active decision to write full-time, however, the wind in my sails changed, for the bigger and for the better.
I was invited by Wolf Creek director Greg McLean to work with him on a prequel novel to the movie. Penguin Books paid a tidy advance on the novel (well, compared to anything else I’d made money-wise in this business, and the first instalment was certainly on a par with the entirety of what most authors would receive for their first novel). This was huge. I’d been working on a screenplay for my novella “Wives” with Greg in mind as the director only the year before and here I was now in a room with the guy and he had a copy of the novella to read as proof of my ability to deliver Wolf Creek serial killer Mick Taylor to the page. (Incidentally, I had given up on the screenplay with a “what the fuck am I thinking? I’ll never meet Greg.” I doubt too he has had the time to read the novella though he was kind enough to purchase my last two collections).
I had also been invited to submit to a Middle Reader horror series, also by Penguin a few months beforehand. (Middle Reader being before YA). I had responded to the invitation with a “do you know what sort of horror I am known for?” and the response was “Yes, but we think you can do this.” So I did. I took my “Her Gallant Needs” novelette and heavily reworked it for a much younger audience. (How is that possible, I hear those who are familiar with that story ask) It is no longer a sexual coming-of-age story, the time-travel and parallel worlds are no longer there (huh, I hear the reader say, that was in there?), language has been cleaned, almost all pop-culture removed, violence toned down, the protagonist is no longer the unreliable narrator, wrote a different ending, and gave it a different “Hansel and Gretel” anagram as the title. (After all, this was my take on that fairy-tale, right?). The editor loved it. It is leading off the horror series (to be called “Game Over”) and she took me out to dinner, firstly to meet me, and secondly to see what I’d be like to work with. She expressed a very strong interest in anything I was to do with the YA market and wanted to see it. We discussed a collection of fairy-tales (Haines-style) to be promoted like the Margo Lanagan collections had been. This was something I had been thinking on for a year or two now ever since Gillian Pollock had given me real encouragement to pursue something like that. And if I had a YA novel lurking in the wings, well, even better, send it Penguin’s way. They were keen.
So there I was, ego almost exploding, not quite able to believe that I finally had my foot in the door of one of the big publishing houses, invited in, not just once, but twice. Things were definitely looking up. Full-time writer? Jesus H Christ, I had more than enough to work on for a year or two.
And while researching for my Wolf Creek novel, my own novel idea finally arrived, and it was wonderful, and easy for me to do, and sustainable. If it needed to be pitched it would be Stephen King’s The Shining meets Brett Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park. I would call it Meta-Fiction: A Novel and it would be about a writer called Paul Haines who has cancer and moves his family away from the city to the edge of the bush where all the clinical trial drugs and their side-effects combined with the harrowing details of what he has to research slowly and surely start to undo his mind. For those familiar with the novelette “The Past Is A Bridge Best Left Burnt”, I’d be writing in a similar style, one where fact and fiction were so blurred it would be hard for the reader to know what was and wasn’t real.
Sadly, I had to pull the pin on Wolf Creek late last week. A month ago I had advised all parties concerned that I was no longer able to make the deadline (Jan 2012), but when my health deteriorated further, the advice changed to I no longer think I can stay alive until the deadline. There will be no YA fairy-tale collection. My debut novel will never be written (and it would have been fucking good).
So what is out there from my pen that hasn’t seen the light of day?
There’s about eight chapters of a Doorways for the Dispossessed novel sitting abandoned on my hard drive. An early attempt at thinking I had to become a novelist to be taken seriously as a writer, so I took the short story which has a wonderful milieu and tried to rewrite the short as a novel. I’d lost interest before I even began. I’d done this story. Maybe, when I was older, when I was able to churn the shit out, I’d come back to this.
The “Slice of Life” stories were originally meant to be the foundation for a short story suite, that seemingly easy collection-cum-novel that in reality is very hard to pull off. All of the published “Slice of Life” stories can be read independently of each other, though if you read them sequentially you got the overall story arc appearing, the tenuous relationship between the corporate cannibal sociopath Paul Haines and his amorphous, shape-shifting alien mentor. Haines however is the ultimate unreliable narrator, with all the violence held off the page, assumed to have happened. Each published story followed a formula, and that is there must be a recipe involving a specific cut of meat, perhaps human, perhaps not. The linking narratives I had written (only 3 of them to-date, and only 2 of them finished) did not feature a recipe or a murder, but still kept that horrible, nasty, black humoured approach. With Stuart Mayne and Geoff Maloney’s advice, we tinkered a bit with an approach to take it away from the more restrictive short story suite into a novel structure. There is one unfinished ‘recipe’ story out there, where Haines and his sleazy boss Carter take a business trip to Adelaide. Haines is hit upon at the hotel bar by a young gay dancer with a Gene Simmons-like tongue. You can see where that one is going to end up. On a plate, most likely. But I never finished it. The two completed linking narratives may come out in the near future in a magazine called Fawlt. But then again, like all those familiar with this game, they may not either.
There’s also a shared-world that I have been developing with Brendan Duffy, one of my favourite Aussie sci-fi authors, and possibly the funniest. I call it the St Kilda Sleaze and it’s a near-future depiction of Melbourne, mainly set in and around St Kilda, where bio-engineering, cloning, nanotechnology etc is all the rage. The stories are sleazy, funny, revolting with perhaps too much explicit sex of the strange variety. We’d almost finished the first one “Love Is The Drug” when, on my turn to redraft and add to, I had to return the story to Duffy and ask him to finish it due to my little breakdown at the moment. The other one we’ve talked and plotted about for years is called “The Type of Guy” and is based around cloning, losers, and incest (though is it really incest? It’s more than masturbation…) A few of the inaugural Clarion South crew know what to expect if that one ever sees the light of day.
And that’s it, folks, nothing else left in the well. It’s run dry. Actually, it’s overflowing but this final phase of my life is not conducive to letting me drink from it.
What have I achieved?
Three short story collections, a swag of awards (fourteen actually, but I’m the only one counting) a James Tiptree Jnr Honours listing (of which I’m immensely proud), a gnat’s cock short of a Hugo shortlisting, and making it to the starting line of the Full Time Writer race, but having to pull out due to injury. An almost made it. The world is littered with almost made it’s and I sure didn’t want to be one of them.
Thanks to everybody who has supported me throughout my writing career (especially my wife Jules, particularly with the harrowing content in a lot of those stories that may or may not be true), and all those who bought, read and enjoyed my work.
Until we meet again, much love…
These every-few-years Snapshots are developing their own grim kind of gravitas in the vein of Michael Apted’s ‘The Up Series’. All the hope and aspirations showcased then savaged by the passage of time. A few years on and suddenly one of us is gone. Look around, folks – who do you reckon will be next? Checking my own last 2010 Snapshot, I note that almost nothing I was talking about back then came true. How many of this year’s hard-worked projects will be disintegrated by forces beyond anybody’s control?
I hear Paul talking in my head when I read his words – we probably all do. Producing a slideshow for the Aurealis Awards, I realised there are photos I don’t dare use because Paul looks so sick and awful in them. I never saw him that way face-to-face because my vision always applied a lavish layer of cosmetic hope. When he posted ‘The End of My Writing Career’ I still didn’t get it. I emailed him with a grandiose plan to partner his unfinished works with top-drawer writers. His stories would be realised and I’d find suitable homes for them. Presto! Paul said no – and he meant no. He practically had to draw me a diagram before I understood. He said they were unfinished for a reason and that he was happy to let them slide into hard drive dust. “If I can’t do them, then I don’t reckon they should get done”, the exception being the collaboration ‘Love is the Drug’ he began with Duffy.
Paul’s illness led to him focusing his fictional explorations inwards – not that he wasn’t already looking in that direction well before he got sick. Cancer made him slide beneath his own skin and grapple with the wet stuff. Would ‘Wives’ ever have been so powerful if Paul had never got cancer? We can’t ever do more than speculate but personally I suspect not.
Thanks for letting me know about the unfinished work stuff (he must have a lot) – I asked him and he didn’t say much, and then afterwards, I wondered what he would have wanted, and took the shotgun approach and considered just about every option, but as time moved on I guessed what you have said – that when he said ‘the end of my writing career’ he meant the end.
Duffy, I reckon the pressure’s on you at least a little as he really did want to see ‘Love is the Drug’ completed. And if you do finish it, I will help you find a decent home for it. I’d say something nice like “I don’t mean to put you on the spot, Duffy”, only it would be a total crock because I do want to put you on the spot. I want you to finish Love is the Drug because if that story exists then Haines himself gets a bit more artificial life extension. Plus I can already taste and smell that story. The two of you combined could not help but produce something totally – and engagingly – disgusting.
I had lunch with Haines before they moved to Rosebud, long time ago now, and he told me some or all this stuff –Wolf Creek, the Penguin Middle Reader offer, the inspiration for his own novel coming at last – he was talking uncharacteristically fast, had an only slightly grim determination to him, and in the end, I felt it was all going to happen – it was amazing. Then it all fucked up. And then the end-of-the-writing-career email. That, and his blog posts about his skin and scalp – crying when Jules cut his hair – were the two things that made it real for me.
It wasn’t until after he died that I had a comforting thought: ‘at least he got that far – at least he got acknowledgement from the industry that were it not for the cancer, he could have become a Proper Writer’. It made me feel better, I hope it did a bit for him too.
The man says it best himself, and yes, I can hear his voice in my head as I read his words. How wonderful and strange the technology of writing, that something as nebulous as language and as insubstantial as words can persist in a specific pattern after the energy that arranged them no longer exists in that particular waveform.
I know he was incredibly frustrated that his career ended when and how it did. At Clarion, he made writing look easy, cranking out a compelling story a week in his trademark clean copy, but it wasn’t all easy. He suffered a real creative crisis in the years between Clarion and cancer. ‘The Devil in Mr Pussy’ deals with these struggles to an extent. In a way his struggle with cancer re-energised him. The ultimate deadline.
He knew he wasn’t going to make it, once the secondaries showed up; he knew all the love and good wishes and goodwill in the world wouldn’t be enough. He hoped like hell he would beat the odds, and he fought it every torturous step, but ‘High Tide at Hot Water Beach’ sums it up: for the last three years of his life, he knew he wan’t going to be walking back out of that water.
And he was pissed off that just as his struggles were starting to pay off, it was all taken away. He was bitterly disappointed he didn’t achieve the writing goals he had set for himself.
The last time I saw him was at Swancon 2011, he was let out and off the hook a bit, was drinking, eating curries, staying up late, and like Adam says, he had these projects emerging for him, things that he was the perfect guy for and that would launch the next stage of his career. Skill and confidence was never the problem: he knew he could do it, he belonged there, Wolf Creek was all in his stride, Mick Taylor was a pussy this is Paul Haines we’re talking about. He was robbed of the chance to make this happen. All the other typical writerly delays and psych-problems and life issues, that savage our hopes as Cat said and that are recorded in this therefore quite humourous and painful little archive of the Snapshots, Paul would have bested, his swagger and ego and determination would have beaten down. Except fucking cancer.
Yeah, I felt the drama, and share it. I was just listening to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and was in awe of how science fictionally predictive it is with him standing on a rode to utopia, saying he hopes that we will come too, and feeling hope in the knowledge that one day it WILL happen for us, we will leave all those shackles behind, and Obama just said yes to gay marriage, another foot forward…
You know, I have always hated that Lennon song. To me it seems irritatingly patronising and simplistic and utterly lacks soul.
Anyone know what Haines thought of it?
Well, whatever it is as a song, it makes a good step one in the thought exercise of putting together a science fictional milieu.
I was kinda obliquely heading toward “Here comes the sun”, the song Paul chose to be played at his funeral
As Wigney said – Paul loved the Beatles and loved the music of whiney white guys… I wonder what Paul would have thought of “Imagine”.
Well, there’s a nice dark cover of it by A Perfect Circle that manages to keep the hope without the schmaltz. But Paul wasn’t much of a prog man. We never talked about music as much as I’d have liked.
My version of the rescue response, the desire to redeem his unfinished works and cheat death by making them exist for us, was all about his novel. I had been hassling him for years to write a novel, and he kept saying he didn’t have a good idea for one. When I finally saw it appear in his “The End of My Writing Career” post, I was heartbroken. Meta-Fiction: A Novel about a writer who gets cancer and … I wanted to write a “meta-ficto-critical” story/essay quoting this non-existent novel, interpreting and elaborating it, bringing it to life, having Haines appear in the narrative… It is cruelly ironic that what finally gave him the novel idea he’d been waiting for, was the very thing that would keep him from writing it. For all the dissimulation, illusion, and irreality in his work, I think what is most characteristic and powerful about Haines’ fiction is its unflinching honesty about life and its pain. This novel would have wrenched guts and souls. I think it is this honesty that led him to refuse having his unfinished works completed. This fucked up world kept them from being finished, and he didn’t want to paper over that. The pain and power is in their incompletion.
It’s kinda House of Leaves meets Slice of Life.
Paul had a way of speaking to you which made you feel as if you were important. There was a directness to it, as if he was speaking to you alone, despite the fact that there were others around. Perhaps this was because Paul was centred – confident? – enough that he could actually see you without all the bullshit that so many of us carry around. He certainly had a right to be confident. He was in the very front rank of Australian horror writers. His passing leaves an abyss in his place. A while ago I reviewed Slice of Life and I emailed him about it. I can’t say it better now, so here’s what I wrote:
I picked up Slice of Life and felt like I’d been thrown into a cold river. I came up, wide awake, eyes open, thinking, I’m alive. The stories were tight, carefully crafted, original (and also reminiscent of someone like Ellison), daring and funny. I laughed out loud three times in the first two stories. Do you know how rare it is for me to laugh out loud? I have some criticisms, but don’t we always have them? Let’s not dwell on them. But one of the things I thought was – these stories should be better known, fuck it. I mean, I work at one of the top literary journals in OZ, and it’s rare we’d ever get anything as good as “The Devil in Mr Pussy”.
Paul’s writing only grew in strength and maturity, but time was running out. When a group of us visited him late last year, he was cadaverously thin, with yellow eyes, like a character from one of his own stories. While the rest of us ate rolls, he drank a strange green liquid. When I hugged him goodbye, I felt the bones in his back. He said, “Goodbye Rju,” in that tone that made me feel like I mattered.
I guess the final thing I am left wondering is what direction Paul’s fiction might have taken had he not gotten ill. Cancer made him introspective. Had it not robbed him of his time might we have seen Haines space opera, Haines transhumanism, Haines far future biopunk? Would The Interferers have donned shiny silver suits and gone off to mess with interstellar livestock?
Yes, I think maybe they would have.
This post was made as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 1 June to 7 June and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus. You can read interviews at: