James Cowan, an internationally acclaimed author, has published almost 30 books, and lectured throughout the world on subjects ranging from Aboriginal art and metaphysics to Persian poetry. His books have been translated into 17 languages. In 1998 he was awarded the Australian Literary Society’s Gold Medal for his novel, A Mapmaker’s Dream.
James and his wife, Wendy, are back on the Hinterland after two years in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. Here, in edited extracts from a relaxed interview with the Hinterland Times, James Cowan tells us why he left the Range, why he came back and what he has done in between.
We originally went to Argentina for a holiday, and then after living up here for a number of years we decided we wanted a good dose of urban life. So we decided to move to Buenos Aires. Argentina turned out to be a very important place intellectually. I wrote a lot of new books there, two or three novels, a book of short stories, a book on travel , as well as a book of essays. In fact, it was the best period of my life from a writer’s point of view.
Argentina is also a very refreshing place to work in. I found the level of culture there very high. I mean, you can sit at dinner and people talk about world affairs, about philosophy, and hear Virgil quoted in Latin! We don’t have that cultural interaction in Australia. It’s that very strange combination of old and new worlds. Borges, their greatest writer, perfectly reflects their level of sophistication and wit.
The first 6 months I really just tried to unwind, and I loved the cafe life. I read a lot. I joined an old military club, and I used to go round there and sit in the leather chairs and have coffee with the ex-generals who told me about their life in jail after the junta’s collapse. The panorama of dysfunction of Argentina was thrust upon me by these gentlemen, and I loved all that.
I walked the streets too. I am a flaneur by heart, taking a bus trip to somewhere then walking back, looking into shop windows and going into book shops. Argentina and Buenos Aires are perfect in that respect. There’s no other city, except Paris perhaps, that has that dimension of urban life to it, the old Baudelairian flaneur life. I am the last of them, really.
But you can’t live in Argentina forever. You have to decide, do you want to spend the rest of your life there or come back to family. In the end it was the family, children and grandchildren that drew us back here.
James has returned to Australia with a swag of new manuscripts which he is now preparing to publish with planned visits to agents in America and the UK.
The novel The Deposition was published in Argentina before I left. It’s a novel set in Palestine 6 months after the death of Christ. It looks at the doubts in the mind of one of the Jewish high priests on the Sanhedrin that convicted Christ, and his doubts about the good sense of that decision.
I’ve written a book of four essays called Quartet on the nature of power. I’ve just finished my first modern novel in 20 years called The Shores of Philae, set in Egypt. It’s a modern love story.
I did a wonderfully exotic book called, Why do we Travel? I also wrote a book on Emperor Julian, the so-called apostate, and his confrontation with early Christianity.
The HT asked James to comment on the strong spiritual themes in his books, particularly on aboriginality and early Christianity. We wanted to know if he was a particularly spiritual or religious man.
Well, I go to stay in Greek Orthodox monasteries regularly. There’s a new Greek Orthodox monastery outside of Sydney now, and I am a very close friend of the abbot there. What I like about early Christianity is that it’s pre-dogmatic, and so open to an encounter with the mysteries. Let’s say that I have a disposition towards living within the domain of the mystical. I have all my life.
James Cowan commented on his astonishing range of literary interests and at 66, where he is headed as a writer.
I’ve never wanted to be pigeon-holed. I think I have come from that old tradition of literature where writers should not just be writing good novels or poetry, but should also try to take on big themes. For example, in my latest book (The Deposition) I am looking again at the story of those who survived the death of Christ. At first I thought, you can’t write about Christ, it’s been done to death. But, as a writer, you’ve got to take on some of the big subjects to see if there’s anything new to say about them. So I am constantly looking for ways of re-expressing old virtualities; seeing whether or not you can extract new flecks of gold out of old stories. A writer can’t afford to just sit there and write about realities as they are. He has to dig deeply into the great issues of all time.
As for the future, having written nearly 30 books, I have to ask if there’s a point reached when I begin to repeat myself. This time may have arrived. We shall see. Meanwhile I have started lecturing again. I’m off to America again in March to lecture at a Michigan University.
It’s harder to get published now, of course. I am an older writer, and editors probably regard my writing style as too dense for their taste. Twenty years ago this was acceptable. But times have changed. Mine is an intensely literary background.
Right now I think it’s time for me to pause and take stock. A lifetime spent in so many different places, both here in Australia and overseas, has left me with an account bulging with memories and experiences. Perhaps I need to allow these to come forth.
My latest book, which is on sale now by the way, is called A Spanner in the Works. It deals with the modern confrontation between science and spirituality. Perhaps this is the style of book that I will pursue in future.
Overall I should say that I have been exceedingly fortunate to have written the kind of books that I have.
Living on an estate near Mapleton, with forest and grasslands to wander through, I feel that I have found an ideal spot to begin this new phase of my life.