Just when you think you have New Zealand author and schoolteacher Bernard Beckett pinned down he morphs into something else. His 2009 novel Genesis was a thrilling and accessible discourse on the nature of the soul and what it means to be human. Not only was it a serious and informed philosophical discussion, it was a rollicking story with a show-stopping twist at the end.
So his credentials as a sci-fi novelist among young readers (and many who weren’t so young) were assured. Later that same year he bought us Malcolm and Juliet, a YA novel about a slightly obsessive young man and his project to lose his virginity, and Beckett had changed again — this time into a blackly comic dramatist for teens.
Now he’s releasing something very different again in August. We meet Grace and Tristan as they plunge off a cliff on a rainy road at night, the car careering down the hill and coming to a stop on its roof. Tristan and Grace have some history together, and as they sit together upside down, hardly able to move, bleeding and maybe dying, we learn what bought them together that fateful night.
But it’s the style of August as much as the genre that once again sets Beckett apart from his other work. He describes a medieval-like society of repression, thatched villages, adventure and warring classes where you might be expected to find dragons and wizards, yet the pair lie together in an object as familiar as a car. With his living and breathing description of the world of August, it’s tempting to think you finally see where Beckett is coming from. No matter what the genre, world building is his first love.
It turns out even his dab hand at creating the environment is only in service of the story, no more or less than the characters or plot. “That’s interesting because one of the first things my publisher said was that it had this medieval type world but with a lot of modern technology running through it, the society is contemporary to ours.
“But I didn’t want to spend a lot of time setting up the rules for that world and it’s tricky when you get into science fiction or an alternate world. You’ve got to be careful about how much time you spend on it. Also, I didn’t want to set up the whole world up front in this book, but for the reader to wonder how it all fit together. But either way it’s just a device. I don’t spend a lot of time getting excited about it. I just ask myself what I need to have a place that looks the way I need to for the story.”
Even though Beckett’s last three novels are his most popular in Australia (he’s published seven so far), he also reveals that he’s not consciously trying to avoid labels, but they actually fit together in a way. Genesis, he admits, was a step outside what he had been doing (‘contemporary, coming of age teenage fiction’ is his term for his past canon), but they form a sort of trilogy of philosophy on consciousness, free will and, in the case of August, death.
Another label he’s been saddled with is YA author. But August has altogether more adult tones — not least of which are because of the grisly premise of two people trapped in a car waiting to die after a terrible road crash. Was it just what appealed to Beckett at the time, or was he consciously employing a different language and style to chase another demographic?
“There’s an aspect of that,” he says when mentioning the famous writer’s axiom of not writing for an intended audience but for yourself. “For me it’s way too far ahead in the process to start thinking ‘what sort of language should I use?’ At some point in the writing you find a voice and it’s the right one. That goes from everything from how fast the narrative is progressing to sentence structure.
“You have a sense of the primary audience and that helps you find the voice. At least it does me. Just like if you’re talking to a 12 year old or someone at a job interview or talking to a mate at a barbecue, their awareness affects your voice. I can’t escape the idea of in some way knowing who’s going into the conversation.”