Writing Fragments With & Through
Peter Mitchell marks the start of his writing life when he changed from a Radio/Journalism Major to a Creative Writing/Literature Major at the University of Technology, Sydney, graduating in 1988. In the early 1990s, he worked as a freelance journalist, writing primarily for Campaign and capital Q and the ‘literary’ press, including Australian Book Review and writing short fiction. Gordon Thompson interviews Peter about his new memoir Fragments through the Epidemic.
GT: Peter, you’re currently writing a memoir. I believe that you began this as a poem? Tell us about the memoir, and how you’ve been looking for the right form to express the story.
PM: In the early noughties, I attempted a memoir, describing the day-today living with HIV. Even though I made several starts to it, I wasn’t able to describe these stressful experiences. It was not the right time, the attempts ultimately failing. The reasons for these failures were unknown to me. The first attempts at narrating these events were still too close to the time of their occurrence. In the following years I came to understand the traumatic effects of living through an epidemic. It wasn’t a matter of time healing, but more of time revealing. But by the mid-teens, the time was right.
In 2013, I was awarded the 2014 Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship (Varuna Writers’ Centre) for a full collection of poetry, describing the first ten years (1984-1992) of living with HIV. During this residency, I wrote a number of poems, thus starting the collection. However, with more time to reflect about the collection at home, I realised that poetry was inadequate in representing the minutiae of these experiences. I decided that a cross-genre project: poetry, letters, journal entries, long narrative and quotes, was a more appropriate form.
In 2014, I was the recipient of an Australia Council writer’s grant through the Artist with a Disability program. This grant lasted from July 2014 to the end of October 2015. I completed a 90,000-word manuscript and acquitted the grant. But again, I was still dissatisfied with this form. I finally decided that long narrative was the optimum way forward. So I deleted scenes that didn’t propel the narrative forward, changed journal entries into dramatic scenes and created numerous doctors’ appointments as emotional fiction. By October 2017, I had completed a 74,000-word manuscript Fragments through the Epidemic.
GT: Did you have any mentors through this?
PM: I received critical feedback from Michelle Dicinoski (Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance) and I immediately started work on the present draft. As of August the manuscript is 59,608 words and counting. I suspect it may reach 100,000 words!
GT: When it is completed, what do you want readers to take away from the memoir?
PM: I hope readers will understand the energies of fear, courage, indifference, sensitivity, care and outrage that individuals, couples and networks of friends that comprise and construct the gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgender subcultures lived with and through … These social formations were historically specific to that time. Other historical conditions have and are constructing formations current to this time.
GT: Does this involve multiple viewpoints?
PM: The autobiographical narrator, ‘Peter Mitchell’ is a metonym for these communities. His lived experiences become fictional representations of the lives of thousands of people (mostly gay men, at least in Australia) living with HIV/AIDS. These representations also bear witness to these personal, group and sub-cultural histories. Fragments is also historical and educative. With the historical, again this is in the metonymic sense. The autobiographical ‘I’ (of course, myself) participated in and witnessed social events that occurred through the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, events that are of social and political significance to these subcultures, events that filled the silences of time with text.
GT: What have been – if any – the literary influences on Fragments? Any particular writers?
PM: I am not consciously aware of any literary influences on Fragments, nor my writing generally. I have read the usual fiction – Holding the Man by Tim Conigrave, Take me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster, Positive by David Menadue, Night Letters by Robert Dessaix, the writing of Gary Dunne – among others, all in the name of HIV. I enjoyed most of these; of course, the quality of the writing varies. The memoir writer I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in the last two years months is Patti Smith. Just Kids and M Train are amazing. Both books burnt into my imagination. I haven’t stopped thinking about them since I turned the last page in both of them.
Read an extract from Peter’s memoir-in-development Game Changer.
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