Robert Drew on the discovery of the baby phenomenon in Australia: “I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone heard of it?'” | Australian Books

TThe sepia lithograph within the Nationwide Library was irresistible to the novelist Robert Drew. A younger boy in crimson shorts was painted in 1866, leaning on an English winding nation highway. On the trainer is the winner’s scarf. John Day was the “Youngster Phenomenon of Australia”.

At 10 years outdated, weighing 4 stones, he was the undefeated world juvenile champion within the in style sport of strolling within the nineteenth century: aggressive, grueling long-distance strolling. “He was the youngest ever world champion,” Drew recollects.

It piqued his curiosity, so he saved digging. It seems that whereas Day was nonetheless a baby, he additionally grew to become a trainee jockey, and in 1870—on the age of fourteen—received the Melbourne Cup on a bay known as, of all issues, Nimblefoot. “I believed, that is uncommon! Why hasn’t anybody heard of it?”

The Drowner, The Rip and The Bodysurfers creator, Drewe, 79, is one in every of Australia’s most adorned writers, and his work has been tailored for movie, tv, theater and even music (Paul Kelly based mostly Our Sunshine on Drewe’s novel of the identical title).

Sir Johnny Day, Australian Infantry Champion c 1866
Sir Johnny Day, Australian Hero of the Infantry, in a lithograph from circa 1866. Picture: Nationwide Portrait Gallery of Australia

In Day, Drew finds his subsequent novel – however analysis into the boy’s life after his glory in two sports activities has confirmed fruitless: The “Australia Youngster Phenomenon” has vanished from historical past. “So I made a decision I wished to make him a fantasy life,” he says. “So I did.”

Though it is a very totally different novel, Drewe’s Nimblefoot shares a conceptual similarity with one other current Australian version: Michael Winkler’s Grimmish, which this yr grew to become the primary self-published guide to be shortlisted for Miles Franklin. Each element the grueling lives of sudden sports activities heroes on the flip of the century in Australia, mixing truth and fiction and highly effective, fragmented imagery — with loads of humor there, too.

Within the Australian Ebook Evaluate, Winkler described Nimblefoot as “a guide of exuberance… each element detailed, each explicit explicit”. To the Guardian in a subsequent cellphone name, he described Nimblefoot as a “brutal factor”.

Winkler first learn Drew when he was a younger teenager. He stated, “He’s probably the most numerous and most prolific author of his era, and an indispensable historian of his time.” “He was all the time forward of the curve.”

However not like Winkler, Drewe has by no means been included in Australia’s most necessary literary award. “It is clear that Miles Franklin’s judges determined way back that I would not get parole,” he recklessly notes.


We meet at Drew’s home within the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, which is a little bit of a large number. He was in his different house, in Western Australia, when the February floods hit, and this home was inundated – earlier than it sat in stagnant water for 3 months. When he opened the door “I used to be met with an uncommon odor. The mould hanging on the wall was like a dwelling creature, like one thing out of an aliens film.” His archives, analysis paperwork, and all his revealed books served because the core.

Though Nimblefoot was related to humor, it was written throughout Drew’s devastating loss. “Loads of dangerous issues occurred in our household’s life, it was only a horrible interval.” His son Ben died in Malaysia in 2019, when he was solely three months into the guide. “I acquired sick because of this,” he says. He was taken to the hospital on account of a coronary heart situation.

Then final November, three months earlier than the top, his daughter Amy died. “The household remains to be coming to phrases with that.”

Drew is thought to be a really loving father to his seven kids, from 4 marriages. These near him say the writing cemented him, channeling his intense grief into intense creativity, leading to a few of the most inventive work of his profession.

“The occasions had been so unhappy and thrilling—I used to be consistently anticipating dangerous information—that I discovered withdrawing into my workplace and into the novel was oddly comforting,” he says. And so amid the insufferable ache of dropping his grownup kids, Drew creates the dwelling lifetime of a misplaced and forgotten youngster. “Writing Johnny’s wild and imaginary life got here as a aid. Johnny began trying like a pleasant acquaintance after some time.”

His writer Nikki Christer says, “Something that would occur to Rob appears to have occurred to Rob. He nonetheless will get his guide on time and it has been nice working with him on a regular basis. I do not know the way he did it.”

Robert Drew at his apartment in Fremantle
“I give my humorousness extra scope than I am used to”: Robert Drew in his Fremantle condominium. {Photograph}: Tony McDonough/The Guardian

Drew began his profession as a journalist, and was one in every of a era that included Helen Garner, Roger MacDonald, Peter Carey, Murray Bell, and Frank Morehouse. Writers who helped form the id of Australia’s settlers By rethinking ourselves to us. His achievement was the 1983 guide of brief tales, The Bodysurfers, which captured the zeitgeist of the time, introducing the seashore to literature as central to the way in which Australian life is finished. Prolific, sandy and seductive, it has been tailored for movie, tv, radio and theater. It has been in print for almost 4 a long time.

Now together with his imaginative skills at full pace, he appears to be getting funnier with age, and extra playful. His 2017 novel Whipbird was a scathing satire of contemporary middle-class life. “I’m not very impressed with the thought of ​​writing severe novels. I give my humorousness extra scope than I used to be used to after I was at first.” On the time, ‘The entire Australian institution was outdated, furious, and too loathsome to allow you to move by means of the gates. All of the writing was country-based; there was little or no writing about city life and positively not within the suburbs. Squatters had been very prevalent and ladies had been wandering round. Below the jacaranda. However now it is a lot freer and I am glad about that.”

Drew is a collector of tales and a eager observer of life’s paradoxical absurdities. In case you’re a bit snooty, it’s important to watch out – you would possibly find yourself in one in every of his books. “If the chance comes up the place you want a personality like that, it is simple to have the ability to bear in mind it,” he says. (Krester says, “He simply sort of sits there and watches and sucks, and also you’re pondering, ‘The place’s he going to make use of that?’)

He’s additionally a grasp of quick transmission. Paragraph can go in full peace till one of many characters out of the blue jumps out of the ocean liner, dies from the bubonic plague, or falls from a balcony on the fourth flooring. You are feeling counterintuitive on this, with the humor typically too delicate however so drastic that you do not see it coming.

There’s typically a dent protruding of the pages as properly; Drew is a sensual author. In Nimblefoot, John Day remembers his mom who died when he was six years outdated. “It was in his reminiscence a sense, and a odor, not a reputation. A female scent. A kiss, a frown, an outburst of exercise, a uncommon snicker, a cooking and an fragrant scent, the tickling of the curls on his cheek.”

Drew imagines his method into the previous, with out the issue of boring penalties, and takes a startlingly ruthless purpose into the British monarchy—in Prince Alfred particularly, who visited Australia on a non-public journey in 1870. In Nimblefoot, Alfred Drewe is a little bit of a spoiler. “There are every kind of tales from up to date publications that I cherished playing, racing, and horse driving,” he says. “In these days, Melbourne brothels had been properly attended by members of the neighborhood.”

Nimblefoot by Robert Drew is out August 2022 by Penguin Random House

And so the younger Prince John Day, nonetheless wearing purple race silk, is escorted to a brothel to rejoice his Melbourne Cup win. Right now witnesses two murders by the royal celebration and a speedy cover-up. Abruptly he turns into a burden, which the imperial forces need to eliminate – so Dai retains working.

He ended up on the coast of Western Australia, the place Drew grew up and the place he returns many times in his writing, and for six months annually together with his spouse Tracy. In Nimblefoot, a Western Australian sundown is “African, hysterical, bookish. From Monet Monet.”

Drew says the important nature of the coast and its salty scent “proceed to make a huge effect on me…I actually take pleasure in experiencing the wildlife—and would like to put it in a guide.”