Q&A with Tom Campbell

A square photo of Tom Campbell is placed against a banner. The banner displays a close-up section of the Tenacity Issue’s cover by Rebecca Stewart, featuring intricate illustrations overlaid with shades of blue and teal. In his photo, Tom coincidentally wears matching colours: dark blue pants, a navy open shirt, and a light blue top. He sits in a blue chair against a backdrop of a green lawn. Tom has short, brown-blonde hair and looks warmly at the camera. On the left side of the banner, the words ‘Issue #32: Tenacity. An interview with Tom Campbell’ are displayed.

Tom Campbell is a writer from Meanjin/Brisbane. He writes short stories, poetry, and is working on his first long-form piece. His work has also appeared in Urinal Mag.

Now, this story caused a rather amusing behind-the-scenes mix-up: when we read it during selection, our entire editorial team presumed its narrator was a man. One of our editors even raised the possibility of changing her ‘skirt’ to a ‘shirt’, in order to make her gender more ambiguous (which I, ahem, seconded)—in response to which you wrote a very gracious comment, citing Helen Garner’s journals and a friend’s crowd-surfing mother, outlining why it was so important to you that this story be about a woman, specifically, finding ‘happiness and contentment and sexual fulfillment in late middle age.’ Whyever we made this mix-up—because Australian Literature has been infiltrated by Big Queer? Because we’re more used to seeing depictions of sexually active older gay men than we are older straight women? Because we saw your name was Tom?—I’m curious as to what your emotional and intellectual reactions were when it was raised. Do you think it reflects anything at work in the story itself, or just in who was reading it? And why is it so key that the story be about a woman?

That reading was very surprising but I’m glad that it still had resonance for TSR staff. It might stem from the relative rarity of male authors writing female protagonists. I didn’t set out to write about a female character in middle age as any sort of comment or statement. I had that voice in my head when I was writing it. I realised later, the narrative significance of having a female protagonist in a particular age group. It’s obvious to me now that this decision was heavily influenced by people who I know and by what I was reading. Helen Garner’s journals and several Rachel Cusks. I kept thinking—Garner is so extraordinary, such an extraordinary Australian talent, why isn’t Murray Bail nicer to her? He’s jealous of her talent, he’s dismissive of it, but he knows it’s there. And a lot of their dynamic is gender-based at its core. What Bail thinks about male and female novelists, for instance. And then I was walking around all day with Rachel Cusk’s illuminating, singular ideas rattling around in my mind, colouring my daily interactions. I was writing this thing which I hoped was—in part—about tenderness in the face of grief and cruelty, about softly personal domestic romance without ugly ego. So, these ideas, these things in my head, bled into one another. It’s complicated, I think. Because would Eggy have stimulated someone like Garner spiritually, intellectually, artistically? I don’t think so. But then Cusk talks about her partner’s relationship to silence, how different it is to hers. I was thinking about ideals versus realities. The strongest sense that I had about this story was of the protagonist. It’s a story about her. Her circumstances are secondary to her interiority and her view of the world, which is reeling just in that moment. All of these things felt integral. Changing the story to make gender more ambiguous seemed dishonest, though I think it would make an interesting story too.

One of the parts of this story I love most—certainly the part that moves me most—is its ending. There’s bravery in committing to an ending that’s truly happy, and real craft required to make such happiness feel earned—to grow that happiness into something sturdy and capacious enough to hold the story’s grief without denying it; perhaps it’s why unapologetically happy endings seem so rare in (quote-unquote) ‘literary’ fiction, particularly literary fiction that deals with sex. One such ending that does come to mind is that of Garth Greenwell’s ‘The Frog King’ (published in The New Yorker)—an at times pornographic story that ends, as yours does, after one of the most genuinely moving mentions of a flaccid penis I have read: both erotic and wholly unerotic, a kind of sexless affirmation of sex (and sex organ). I wonder: how do you think of happiness, in fiction or in life, in relation to both plot and sex?

I was strangely unconscious of the sexual aspect of this story. It didn’t register. My sister read it and commented on how many bodily fluids there are throughout. I just thought, isn’t this a sweet story? Isn’t this a sort of love story, even if it is about grief? In some ways, this story is about small kindnesses and thoughtfulness and quiet romance. I suppose for me that involves a personal eroticism. I don’t find that to be in opposition to affection. Isn’t it always nice to know that couples who have been together for a long time still have really good sex? I like the idea of a flaccid penis as a symbol of comfortableness, its presence as small (I’m so sorry) and important as remembering your partner’s favourite wine. I like sad stories and I like haunting stories and I like grim stories. But I know a lot of happy, interesting people who I find engaging, riveting. It’s that thing about writing the type of stories you want to read. I kept trying to write bleakly. It’s difficult to escape a mentality that happy endings are final, happily-ever-after, static. I hope—and certainly tried—to suggest something more fluid and complex than that. But I did want to reflect a certain happy dynamic that I have seen. I underestimated how interesting kindness can be. This is a happy ending in that what is fundamentally happy at the beginning remains. Too often, I think about happiness in fiction as something that must inevitably topple. It’s interesting when that doesn’t happen.

I’m conscious that my questions so far would probably get me played off stage at the Golden Globes, so I’ll keep this last one mostly to the point. We love Eggy. He has taken on an almost mythic quality in the collective TSR imagination, I think. We all deserve an Eggy in our lives, and should all aspire to be somebody’s Eggy. Is Eggy real? Is there a real-life Eggy out there, walking the streets, cooking delicious yet (I imagine) rustic, elegantly elemental meals for his lover? Is he a composite—which is to say, are there a collection of souls with each of whose most ruggedly handsome parts one might frankenstein together a perfect Eggy of the Mind? Or is he a tender spirit too good for our world, born of imagination, destined to remain there?

There are real-life Eggys. Conversely, there are real-life Nicks and real-life ‘Is’. I know a few of each. If I’ve done anything right with this piece, readers will feel like they recognise these figures. If the characters embody anything of myself—and they all do, probably—Eggy is aspirational. I have never valued kindness very much in my life or in the things I’ve written and I regret that. Eggy acts in precisely the way the protagonist needs on that day. It is perhaps only through her lens that he is perfect that afternoon. No one is impeachable, not even an Eggy, but he is that day to her. Characters like this—the ones who I know—can have their faults. Often they can be passive when you want them to be furious and passionate, late and relaxed when you want them to be harried and energised—disappointing like we all are. But fundamentally what sets Eggys that I know apart from others is that they care about people honestly and with an integrity that is unusual and unselfconscious. So, yes, I am happy to say that I think characters like Eggy really exist and I hope that everyone knows one.

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