This FAQ post absolutely contains massive spoilers, and it is highly recommended that you read the story it refers to before reading this. These questions are about the novel “Beef”. For the actual novel itself, please go here for the eBook, or here for the print-on-demand physical version.
Why the tired old patriarchal power structures? I mean, this is a fictional story about the future, you could’ve made the power structures anything. Why just more tired white male bullshit? Seriously man, I thought you were cool.
That’s a damn good question, sorry to disappoint you. It’s not like I didn’t think long and hard about this stuff when I was writing it, I tend to labour over exactly this kind of stuff all the time. I guess there are several answers here, the first of which is, I feel like I have to tread carefully when I write, to make sure I’m telling a story that is my story to tell: am I really qualified to tell the story of a Hispanic lesbian’s struggle with heroin, when I’m not any of those things? In the same way as I kinda feel like black roles should be played by black actors (instead of white folk in blackface) or gay characters should be played by gay actors (instead of straight folk in gayface), I sorta kinda feel like writers should tell stories that they are qualified to tell. (This is all wishy washy kind of philosophical stuff, and at the same time as I feel quite strongly about all this, I also feel quite strongly about the opposite: that the whole point of being an actor is to be someone you’re not, and the whole point of being a fiction writer is to tell stories that aren’t true. So I’m really quite ambivalent about this topic, actually (the word “ambivalent” used in the old sense of “having strong feelings both ways”, rather than the new sense of “feeling kinda neutral”). So, with “Beef”, I guess I erred on the side of telling the story from the point of view of a white male sociophobe, three things I quite clearly am.)
Another reason why I went for the white male patriarchy is that, in my country (Australia), demographically-speaking, most of the power is currently held by white males. Like it or not (and I don’t like it one bit), it does seem to be undeniably the case. So, when creating this world where no-one eats animals, I felt like that was already the one Big Departure From Reality, and that too many more would maybe make the reader harder to convince. I mean, sheesh, I already have psychics and teleportation and unlikely cults and giant murderous bovines, to be honest I’m already stretching reality a little too thin for most people, I was wary of making the whole thing seem like a “these are all the things Mat disagrees with” political fantasy. I felt like, by creating a world with no animal exploitation, and by making the woman Royston has this emotional affair with non-skinny, I was already kinda dealing with a couple of Big Issues, and too many more would’ve tipped the book into something maybe too alienating for a lot of people. I really don’t know. I did think about all this lots, though, if that makes any difference.
And, like it or not, I feel like the powerful white males are unlikely to give up their power any time soon. This may be a poor reason, but it’s a true one. Similarly, demographically-speaking, Australia is mostly populated by whites, so, statistically, it’s likely that my readers are going to be People of No Colour. This also may be a dodgy reason, but it is, I think, an accurate one.
Again, sorry to disappoint. I really did hope you’d think I was cool.
Sorry, I vagued out during all that. But whatever the answer was, I doubt it was good enough.
I suspect you’re right.
Why did you feel the need to make fun of people with Aspergers Syndrome?
I didn’t. The reason that was part of the book was because I’m a lazy writer, and I just used my real life instead of coming up with something creative. My otherwise-lovely partner Nalin does believe that I’m Aspergery, and she calls me all the very clever burger-themed nicknames that Luka calls Royston. So really, it wasn’t me making fun of Aspies, it was her: honestly, when it comes to that shit, I just copied and pasted my real life straight into the novel. If you’ve got any complaints, take them up with Nalin.
The book is set two generations into the future, right? So how come the nightcows evolved so drastically in so little time? Seems unlikely to me.
You think I’m a biologist? Beats me. I kinda imagined it like, the cow has been domesticated and inbred for so long, bovine genetics are inherently unstable, and the instant they get to express themselves in different phenotypes, they do – it’s like they’re making up for lost time. None of this is supported scientifically, it’s total poetic licence. I just liked the idea of cows becoming scary beasts who fuck up our complacency. Let me dream, won’t you?
Gene is a one-dimensional Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You even admit that in the book, when she says something like “I’m not just a one-dimensional Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. Why didn’t you explore her more, make her more than just a sex object for Royston’s mid-life crisis? Lame, Blackwell, lame.
These questions all seem really negative. I didn’t know this would be such an anti-Blackwell diatribe. But yes, well, fair enough question, I suppose. I guess the answer is, I wanted the whole book to really be an exploration of Royston’s inner states, not other people’s. Once other people’s inner worlds are being explored, it feels to me like it loses the claustrophobic neurosis of being trapped in Royston’s head. There are only two voices in “Beef”: Royston’s, and mine (as narrator). Every time I tried exploring someone else’s inner world, it felt like the story was being diluted, and I ended up scrapping it (I think there are maybe still one or two moments where we get to experience Lena’s inner world, but that’s about it). So, to Royston, Gene is this Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that’s exactly who she is in his world. I wanted to explore these notions of obsession, and, I think, a large part of this kind of obsession is the element of fantasy: once reality intrudes, the fantasy is negated. In a way, the whole point is that Gene never really becomes more than one-dimensional to Royston, that’s the whole story: because it’s just his ego, it’s his own inner obsession, it’s not actually about her at all. In the end, this story is about Royston, and to tell his story properly, I knew I couldn’t really tell Gene’s. Maybe in another book.
Are you a vegan?
That’s not really about “Beef”, is it.
Well, it sort of is. I mean, “Beef” is a book all about a world without animal exploitation, so it does beg the question “does Blackwell walk his talk?”
Okay, fine, you’re right. The short answer would be “yes”. But as you can tell, I don’t like short answers. The long answer is “no, but I do everything that a vegan does”. That is, I don’t really consider myself a “vegan”, I just consider myself a normal kind-hearted person who doesn’t want to support cruelty in any area, be it sweat-shop labour or making people homeless or using sexist language or using racist insults or encouraging animal exploitation. I believe pretty much everything that a vegan believes, but I don’t really call myself a “vegan”, in the same way as I believe pretty much everything that a Buddhist believes, but don’t really call myself a “Buddhist”, and support pretty much everything that the Church of Satan stands for, but don’t really call myself a “Satanist”.
Do you really hate parties?
Hate is a strong word. I do find them exhausting.
The book seems to glorify drugs. What’s all that about?
It doesn’t! I mean, well, okay, I guess it does, sort of. I can fully see how you got that impression, anyway. Thing is, I try to make my writing as honest as I possibly can, and, speaking honestly, I’ve had many lovely lovely times on drugs. The prevailing social attitude that we’re meant to have is “drugs are bad”, but if I’m honest with myself, I’ve rarely had a bad time on drugs, whatever they’ve been. At the same time, there was a period in my life where I was surrounded by junkies, and they stole heaps of my stuff and pawned it, and I would find fucking used needles and shit around my house, and it was generally a pretty shitty environment to be in. People died, people got really low, there were definite bad vibes and dangerous people and unsavoury living arrangements and a lot of darkness. So it’s not like it’s a black and white issue: drugs can definitely fuck up your life, whether it be heroin or alcohol or even marijuana (I’ve known people who’ve lost a good decade getting stoned when they really didn’t want to be – there just didn’t seem to be any other good option, at the time). But drugs can also be great fun, and, more importantly, therapeutic: LSD or shrooms or MDMA can make you realise what you really think, they’re quite good at tearing away all the bullshit we fill our lives with so we can clearly see what we actually feel about things. To me, these substances are not “party drugs”, they’re only ever to be used therapeutically: I think of them as “defragging” the brain, and will only ever do them one or two times a year, max (and generally much less frequently). So is that “glorification”? Not sure. Certainly, in “Beef”, Royston has the experience of finally being aware of his own true motives and feelings thanks to the clarity of MDMA, and there are a few scoobies smoked, but I’m not sure if that’s “glorification”, or just “accurate reporting”. I do think that, as a society, we’ll only ever be able to deal with “the drug problem” if we talk openly and honestly about it, instead of pretending it’s all bad, because let’s face it, people who actually use drugs already know that it’s not all bad. Honesty is usually the key to any sort of discussion, as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I do these FAQs in the first place.
You live in Cape Paterson, right? It sounds like you don’t like the place.
What? No, I love it here. When I said it’s “a place old people moved to to die”, I didn’t really mean it as a slur. There’s nothing wrong with going somewhere peaceful in the final few decades of your life, sounds ideal. What I meant was, it’s a peaceful quiet place filled with old people. Because it is. And not much happens here, that’s also not meant as a slur, it’s just the case. That bit where I said that the local newspaper had a front-page story about a Canadian guy who ate quite a lot of pies: that was totally true. To me, that was just the perfect example of how little of note happens here: it was not meant as a put-down, or a negative, or making fun of the place, it was just an example of the kind of place this is. It’s peaceful. It’s quiet. It’s far away from the Big Smoke. And the stars are beautiful here, and the rocks are gnarled and crocodilian and ancient and amazing, and the cold cold ocean does stretch out to Antarctica, and it fully does not give two shits about anything we do, and I really do love that so so much. That enormous ocean was here before us, and will be there after we’re all gone, and it will be doing the same thing it was doing before we ever popped up our hairy heads. We’re absolutely insignificant here, which, if you think about it, is one of Royston’s subconscious issues: his own insignificance.
And all that shit about fracking, that’s also a genuine concern for the area. I desperately hope it won’t happen like I described in the book, but it totally could. Scary scary times, for a beautiful beautiful place.
The ending seemed really sudden. It’s like, there’s the climax, and then suddenly I’m reading the epilogue. What happened there? That felt really rushed and weird. It made me angry.
Sorry to make you angry. That wasn’t my intention. From my point of view, I just keep on seeing movies where it feels like the real story has actually finished, but the film keeps on going because they feel they have to wrap up a whole bunch of narrative loose ends, and so I really wanted to avoid that feeling. So, for me, as soon as the real story was over, I wanted to end it as quickly as possible. For me, there are two real threads to the story: the individual story of Royston’s infatuation, and the bigger-scale story of the consciousness of the vat-meat. Once both of those stories were over, that was it: “Beef” was over. Instead of labouring over another dozen pages of narrative blah, I thought the neatest and least painful way of tying off those loose ends was to simply tell you what happened, and get the hell out of there. Sorry that made you angry. It made me very happy indeed.
So, you’re some fruitcake who believes in psychic powers, huh.
That’s not even a question.
Okay: are you some fruitcake who believes in psychic powers?
Much better. Am I? I’m just not sure. It’s one of the many many things that I like to keep an open mind about. After all, it seems like a hard thing to prove either way, and so having a specific position on it seems to be presumptuous. I do believe that we’re unlikely to know for certain one way or the other without a whole lot more serious study on the phenomena involved, and that, at this stage, we’re unlikely to see a whole lot more serious study on it, because no serious scientist wants to look like some fruitcake who believes in psychic powers. I don’t believe in “supernatural powers”: I believe that, if psionic powers (etc) do exist, they are just a scientifically-describable phenomenon that we simply don’t have the proper terms and/or tools to describe/measure adequately yet. But my personal beliefs are pretty much as irrelevant as everyone else’s, when it comes to what actually does or does not exist. As far as “Beef” is concerned, psychics exist because it’s the only way to detect the “consciousness” of vat-meat.
You really don’t like “yes” or “no” answers, do you.
I see what you did there.
I see what you did there.