William Lane on his new book The Salamanders and the strangeness of life

Rock legend Jim Morrison put it this way: “This is the strangest life I’ve ever known.”

Hunter author William Lane relates deeply to these words, which Morrison sings in the track, Waiting for the Sun.

Lane, who has published three novels, finds the world very strange.

“I love that line from the Doors’ song,” Lane says.

There’s another link between Morrison and Lane. The Doors’ singer was known as “the Lizard King”. Lane’s latest book is titled The Salamanders. Salamanders are amphibians, with lizard-like qualities.

“The mythical salamander could withstand fire. Some of the characters in the story have to learn to withstand fire – almost literally, in the great heat they encounter on their travels around Australia,” Lane tells Weekender.

They also face “emotional and ethical fires” lit by themselves and people in their past.

A key character in the book is an artist named Peregrine. Lane describes him as an “abominable painter”, who dominates the book even when he’s out of the picture.

“He’s a real reptile, in the worst sense,” Lane says.

In the book, Lane quotes a character named Rosie as saying Australia is “the land of the lizard”.

“Ever since settlement, not one species [of lizard] has gone extinct. They’re not flummoxed, even by cats and foxes. Or white people.”

Rosie, who hails from England, adds that the surface of Australia looks “lizard-like” from a plane.

Lane says the story is, in part, a portrayal of Australian landscapes.

But this isn’t a book about lizards and reptiles. The Salamanders is very much a human story.

“I wrote The Salamanders for many reasons, but one of the main ones is that I wanted to explore how our inner life is shaped by things we have little or no control over, such as our parents’ choices and circumstances and the landscape and social circles we are born into,” Lane says.

Other themes are social standards, boundaries and conflicts. The novel examines taboo topics.

“The story explores the limits of what is socially acceptable,” Lane says.

“Peregrine keeps exceeding taboos by saying what should not be said, painting what should not be shown, sleeping with who he should not be sleeping with.

“We live our lives enmeshed in taboo; most of the time we are only aware of a few big ones, but I’ve realised there are thousands of little ones we are constantly striving to observe – especially if you think of taboo as shading into etiquette.”

Peregrine’s son Arthur is one of the main characters in the novel.

His relationship to the past and the landscape permeates his life.

“There is a part of Arthur, however, that nothing can touch,” Lane says.

Sydney to the Hunter

William Lane at Pokolbin.

William Lane at Pokolbin.

Lane grew up on the edges of Sydney in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“My dad voted Liberal, my mum voted Labor; he believed in God, she was agnostic. 

“From an early age, I found myself trying to agree with two people who held quite different worldviews – although they shared some essential values.

“It helped me to realise that the world contains many different perspectives – and in many cases they can be justified equally.”

A pivotal moment in his life was a terrifying incident that happened when he was aged about six.

“The house we lived in literally slipped down the hill and almost collapsed over our heads. That made me aware of the precariousness of material things.”

It prompted him to look elsewhere for value in life. Nowadays, he lives a quiet life in a bush setting in Pokolbin, with a view of the Brokenback Range.

“I’ve lived here three years now. My father lived here for 25 years and I often used to visit him, so my connection with the Hunter goes back to the ‘80s,” he says.

The Hunter landscape inspires his writing.

“I’m beginning to think there are lots of stories in the Brokenback Range. I want to find out more about their meaning and place in Indigenous culture.”

He also says the Maitland floodplains have “a strange, almost magical, atmosphere”.

The history of the Hunter interests him.

“The past feels close to the surface here – I don’t know why. And there are lots of places, like Wollombi and around Morpeth, that feel like they exist in another time – it’s strange.

“I like trying to imagine what the place looked like 200 years ago. The governors in Sydney back then put a moratorium on the Hunter’s settlement by Europeans, so they could keep extracting coal and timber from it. There was a curious pause before the onslaught.”

The Hexham Swamp is another place that appeals, although not in the usual way. He’s dying to write about the place. It might be a story about someone who “goes in there and never comes out”.

“Or maybe they stagger into Maitland one day. You really couldn’t think of a better name for the setting of a scary story,” he says.

Foreign Feeling

Author William Lane.

Author William Lane.

Despite his attraction to the landscape, Lane finds Australia overwhelming.

“I’ve never felt at home in Australia, although I was born here. I’m native-born, but I don’t feel native. I’ve learnt to love the landscape, but I’ve always felt at one remove from it. When I look at the Brokenback ridge, it is so old and disinterested. It’s just waiting for us pesky humans to leave, so it can get back to its business in private. It doesn’t even want me to look at it.”

Lane says the Australian continent “feels older than other places”.

“But also, it’s as if the place couldn’t care less about time – it’s been there, done that. Time is a yawn.”

The Salamanders, he says, is partly about how time is felt, lived and compacted inside us.

“The sense of time is different in those parts of the book set in Australia to those set in England. When in England, as in Europe more generally, one usually has a clear sense of time. Wherever you go, the structures of time are never far away, not only in the old buildings and roads, but in the customs and common ideas.

“In Australia, however, as you leave the cities and towns, very soon there are fewer and fewer reminders of any Western construct of time. You can quite easily find places where you might be walking a million years ago.”

Most of the book is set in Australia, outside the cities. On their travels through the outback, two of the main characters – Rosie and Arthur – seem to fall through time. They see creatures long extinct.

Lane is attracted to nature. It fills him with wonder.

“I love the experience of coming up against varieties of consciousness other than my own,” he says.

He’s intrigued by the way a kangaroo or kookaburra observes him.

Nature, he says, seems to be a few forms endlessly repeated, with ingenious variation. Humans being one of those variations.

“That would be why we’re destroying ourselves piece by piece, by destroying the environment bit by bit,” he says.

Before it was published, The Salamanders was shortlisted for the Vogel Unpublished Manuscript Prize. An earlier manuscript of the work won a Varuna Litlink Fellowship in 2010.

Lane’s other published novels are Over the Water (2014) and The Horses (2015).

Over the Water is the story of an Australian outsider who is seduced by the sights, sounds and magic of Indonesia.

The Horses is set at a boys’ boarding school on the outskirts of Sydney. The school isolates itself from the outside world and over the course of several months of rain, the atmosphere inside the school becomes increasingly lawless and violent. 

A Writer’s Life

William Lane at his Pokolbin property.

William Lane at his Pokolbin property.

Lane’s life as a writer, he says, is “occasionally great fun, when things fall into place”.

But it’s mostly anxious and solitary – a struggle.

“Most of what I write turns out to be no good, which is pretty depressing. But then things get published and that’s reassuring. I find writing addictive. People often talk about writing as healing and cathartic, but I actually wonder if it’s a kind of illness, an obsessive-compulsive thing – not that I’d ever want to be cured.

“I have to earn a living from things other than writing, so I juggle the time needed to write with the rest of my life.”

He likes writing “because it has larger possibilities than the majority of everyday communication”.

“We are all so constrained by what we can say and how we are meant to say it in our everyday lives. That limitation irritates me, it almost amounts to falsehood, because there are so many ideas to explore and so many ways to use English.”

Lane particularly admires the work of Australian novelist Christina Stead, who died in 1983.

“I first encountered Stead’s works when I was 20. They changed me. They seemed different from anything else I’d read, set apart somehow. They were strange in a powerful, memorable way. They stayed with you.”

In his 40s, he wrote a PhD on Stead’s work, including a short story set in the Hunter called Morpeth Tower and “the most powerful short story I’ve ever read, The Triskelion”, which is set at The Entrance. It’s found in Stead’s first book, The Salzburg Tales.

Lane says he loves to read because it involves “communication with other minds, minds that existed or exist in other places and other times”.

Writing and reading, then, helps him understand the strange world we live in.