R.B.R. Verhagen is a writer of fiction based in the Yarra Valley and a graduate student of the Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Beyond writing, he works as a bookseller, tutor in English and the humanities, and chair the not-for-profit community news magazine Mountain Monthly.
Q1: What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
In the Company of Madness (2020) was based on the true story of Alexander Pearce, Tasmania’s most notorious cannibal convict, and his escape from the inescapable Macquarie Harbour prison. However, the story I tell was inspired by the close relation of two other characters to Pearce: his jailer, John Cuthbertson, and his confessor, Phillip Conolly. All three men were born within about 18 miles of each other in Ireland, and all ended up occupying vastly different social roles. I wrote In the Company of Madness to understand why.
Q2: What are five words that describe your writing process?
Lots of talking to myself.
Q3: What authors, or books have influenced you?
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce introduced me to both sides of the boundaries in writing. I am heavily influenced by the work and practice of other modernist writers, especially Ernest Hemingway, and most recently, I reread Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut The Discomfort of Evening (translated from Dutch) about six times. Christopher Hitchens also never put a comma wrong.
Q4: What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?
The absence of human contact.
Q5. What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing?
The most important thing – and I am not saying I succeed in this – is to write for the reader. If a writer includes anything that is included for themselves, that the reader will not derive satisfaction from, or understand, that’s bad writing. Along with that goes commitment to voice, distrust of adverbs, avoidance of unnecessary words, fundamental accuracy of statement, etc. etc.
Q6: What is the best advice you have ever heard?
Beginning sentences with the gerund form of a verb is always a bad idea.
Q7: What is your favourite genre to read?
Q8: What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?
They come equally, dependant on the story. If I am obsessed with a particular character or psyche, as I was with In the Company of Madness, then the plot is me figuring out what happens to that character. On the other hand, if I have a great concept, I must recruit a character who can take on the job. Depends where it starts.
Q9: What are you working on now?
I have just finished a manuscript titled Burning Distance, a coming of age story about the effect of the road toll on Australian families. I am peddling that around for publication at the moment, so if you know anyone!
Q10: What are you currently reading?
I like to read non-fiction because it’s a form I can’t borrow or steal from, so I just enjoy the reading: Mortals by Rachel and Ross Menzies and By-line by Ernest Hemingway (ed. William White).
To find out more about R.B.R. Verhagen check out the links for his website and social media below: