In early October, work experience student Guthrow interviewed author Simon Butters. Simon’s book The Hounded was longlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2017 Book of the Year for Older Readers, and shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards 2017 Griffith University Young Adult Book Award. The Hounded is a book about depression and working out who you really are, from one of Australia’s most prolific children’s television writers.
Guthrow: Why did you go from screenwriting to novel writing, and where did the idea of The Hounded come from?
Simon: Before writing The Hounded, I worked in television screenwriting in live-action drama and animation for children’s television for many years. The industry in Australia is supported by a quota system for the free-to air networks that requires them to produce a certain amount of new shows each year. I won’t bore you with the details, but the upshot is that the industry is not able to produce as much local drama as it used to.
Published by Wakefield Press in 2016, I wrote The Hounded between writing television projects as a way to further my creative writing. I did not write it for the financial rewards, it was a purely creative decision. As far as the idea, I had always been fascinated by perception, and the grey area between the supernatural, faith and psychoanalysis. So, is the dog real, or just his imagination …? That is open for each reader to decide.
I was also inspired by images of the dog at night in my youth. Your mind can play tricks on you when you see a shadow, and for a while you think it might be a dog, or a person, but when you walk closer, it just turns out to be a rubbish bin. Turns out, our brains evolved that way to look for danger. So I guess Monty is hyper-aware of danger, and his dog is the result.
G: How did your idea of the novel evolve or was the idea fully formed before you started?
S: When I started the book, I went the other way to my screenwriting training – which is to plan everything relentlessly before you begin. I wanted to go back to a freer way of writing and so I only wrote a short two or three line brief for each chapter – so I only had a rough outline of plot at the start (however I did know what the ending was going to be).
G: Were there any characters influenced by real people?
S: Most of them were influenced by real people – but I cannot tell you who … (but all characters have been heavily fictionalised).
G: Was the book originally about Monty or the Black Dog?
S: The novel was always going to be focused on Monty, and the dog only ever a passing influence, like a shadow that comes and goes.
G: What inspired you to write a novel that is so upfront and honest about mental health?
S: I guess to be honest, I wrote the novel out of a personal struggle. Being an artist is always a struggle to find that elusive sweet point between making enough money out of it to survive and to also satisfy your creative side. I have been an actor, director, writer, and all of these are tough. The ‘middle way’, where you work and be creative, is what I am trying to achieve in life.
Apart from the obvious analogy of mental health, Monty suffers from an unstated personality disorder, which I researched during development. After being left alone – which is a form of abuse – as a young child, Monty struggles to connect with the reality around him: other people, objects, and even his own body. This is where in the novel, he describes his body as going on autopilot.
In writing the ending, I was very concerned that it would be a step too far for young readers. If I went back to write it again, there is one line I would cut, but other than that I really tried to get the balance right between an honest portrayal, within the confines of the world, and not doing anyone harm in reading it.
G: For a debut novel, The Hounded was very successful. Did you ever doubt your chances of success and how important was it for this novel to succeed?
S: When writing, I certainly didn’t think about success in any way, it was just about getting the job done and something that I enjoyed reading myself.
G: What did you learn from writing this novel?
S: I learnt that you need honesty in writing. You lay yourself bare as a writer like no other creative expression. Your words are your thoughts. That’s confronting …
G: What do you want your readers to learn when reading this novel?
S: I wanted a reader to ponder their own existence and what their purpose is. I believe, like the existentialists (like Silas and his ball, or Sisyphus and his rock) that you find your own purpose in life, and even if that seems insignificant, your actions provide you with purpose. That’s what Monty needs to learn, and that’s what I guess I need to learn. That’s what I think our whole world needs to learn.
Written by Guthrow Taylor Johnson. Many thanks to Simon Butters for his time and generosity, and for his wonderful book!
Want a copy of The Hounded? Visit Wakefield Press at 16 Rose Street, Mile End SA 5031 or shop the book online.