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Drowning, not waving: an interview with Yannick Thoraval

Melbourne writer Yannick Thoraval is the author behind The Current, a book which beautifully weaves together the doomed future of a pacific island and a dysfunctional

family unit. It centers on the Van Dooren family, in particular its patriarch Peter, and the family’s nihilist attitude to their lives – traversing themes like climate change, alienation, teen angst and consumerism.  It is a sharp social commentary, in a darkly humorous way.

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Yannick Thoraval

I spoke with Yannick about self-identity, ‘cli-fi’ and the travails of publishing.

What was the spark that set you on the path to writing this story?

I had started writing a novel about an affluent but dysfunctional family, but it wasn’t working. I felt like the way I’d written the story zoomed in too closely on unlikeable people in an uncomfortable situation – it was too much to ask a reader to stay there.

I had wanted to use that family’s predicament as an example of how apathy, on any scale, has global consequences, but I’d written myself into a corner; I couldn’t get out of the Van Dooren living room.

Then I read about Mohamed Nasheed who was then fighting climate change as President of the Maldives. I asked myself: ‘what if someone like Nasheed met the patriarch of my family?’ The book took off from there.

You’re Canadian, with a Dutch mum, French dad and now you live in Australia. There’s a lot in the book about self -identification and belonging. How much of that is autobiographical?

The impetus behind the book is autobiographical. I don’t feel that I culturally, linguistically, historically belong in any one country. Instead I have these deep and confusing ties to four countries that I haven’t been able to reconcile into one personal identity. I honestly struggle to understand nationalism. So there’s all of that motivating me to write this book.

But all of these personal experiences have also encouraged me to better understand the immigrant experience more broadly. My story is not unique. I spent five years working in multicultural affairs for the the state government where I met new migrants and refugees. I also edited the book Home Truths, an anthology of migrants and refugees writing about their own search for home. In doing this work, I discovered we shared many of the same questions and discomforts in our search to belong somewhere as first-generation migrants: how, for example, do you raise children in a language and culture you have an increasingly distant connection to? What parts of the culture do you keep? What parts do you discard? It’s like you’re curating your heritage, cherry picking the funnest and most interesting parts to pass on. It makes me aware of just how fluid and deliberately constructed culture is.

In The Current, I wondered what it would be like to live as a generation who knew their heritage was doomed. What would it be like to leave your country knowing there would be no homeland left, that it would literally disappear under a rising sea. 

Much of the book centres around a fictional Pacific island nation, L’Eden Sur Mer. Why did you not choose a real ‘sinking’ island like Kiribati?  What license did this fictional setting give you that an actual location wouldn’t have?

A fictitious island enabled me to invent its history, its culture and use these elements to draw out the broader story that I was after. Using a real island seemed fraught, too many things could go wrong. I would have almost certainly offended someone.

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L’Eden Sur Mer

To research this book, though, I spoke with government representatives in Fiji, Kiribati and Nauru, as well as academics to get a better understanding of the geopolitical situation in the Pacific. I also used my own observations of Timor-Leste thanks to some government work I did there. As with my treatment of culture, I cherry picked what suited me best.  

The main character in the book, Peter Van Dooren, isn’t very likeable. Is it harder to write unlikeable characters?

It’s funny, I don’t see Peter as unlikeable. He’s not cuddly, for sure, but I guess I just see him as misguided. Here’s a man whose materialist world view limits his experience of life. It’s a character flaw I share with Peter Van Dooren.

This is only the second book I’ve read that features climate change as a theme?  (The other was Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver which I didn’t like and didn’t finish!).  Is this still an untapped source of material, or is it that there are plenty of books out there that just aren’t getting attention?

Climate change is a genre, climate fiction they call it, or ‘cli fi’ for short. Most novels in that genre are post-apocalyptic, the authors use human-induced climate change as the backdrop for their dystopian vision of the future. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind. 

In writing The Current I was more interested in exploring the political, cultural and philosophical conditions that allow a manageable disaster like climate change to continue effectively unabated. Ian McEwan plays with these ideas too in Solar, as does Jonathan Franzen in Freedom, both outstanding novels by brilliant writers.  

Which books and authors most influenced this story?

Michel Houellebecq’s Platform opened my eyes to the possibilities of using the novel as contemporary social commentary.

My writing’s reliance on observation of character has also been compared to Evelyn Waugh. I’m flattered. 

Can you tell us a bit about the journey of getting this published?  What advice would you give to other people considering self publishing?

I got rejected by all the big publishing houses. It’s a right of passage.

Then a couple of smaller publishers showed interest in The Current. They asked for full manuscripts of the novel based on the strength of my excerpts. I sweated on their reply. For months. One publisher even asked me to withdraw my book from entry to the Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript to reserve first rights to publication.

download-1The Current went on to receive a judge’s commendation in those awards but no publisher took the bait. Even the small publishers passed, something about market conditions being unfavourable. It was a low point. I bought a pack of cigarettes even though I quit smoking ten years ago.

Then I asked myself why I had allowed myself to become so dependent on small publishing houses. I was a communications professional. I had managed hundreds of corporate publications. Self-publishing made sense.

So I hired all the specialists one needs to do it right: editors, an illustrator, graphic designers, a printer and global distributor, and I managed the project like a (unprofitable) business.

So my advice is that self-publishing can work. I do make a little bit of money from The Current. It’s fun to get monthly sales receipts: five books sold in the United States, ten in the UK, zero in Australia. But you have to approach self-publishing professionally. Self-publishing has a stigma attached to it because too many people publish unpolished material. You have to be able to distinguish if commercial publishers are rejecting your work because it’s not good enough, or because they’re unwilling to accept the business risk your work represents for their bottom line. There’s a big difference. If a publisher’s hesitation is about business risk, then you invest in your own work. If a publisher passes on your book because it’s not good enough, re-draft it or take a writing course.

Tell us something about what you’re working on now? When will we see it published?

I’m revisiting this exploration of culture and belonging, this time in an Australian coastal town. The novel is a few years away from being finished. I’ve got a title though: White Foam. It’s a good start.  

Paperback and e-book versions of the book can be ordered from any book store or bought via the usual places: Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble.

For a limited time, people can also download a free version of the book from Yannick’s website.

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

3 Comments

  1. “Self-publishing has a stigma attached to it because too many people publish unpolished material. You have to be able to distinguish if commercial publishers are rejecting your work because it’s not good enough, or because they’re unwilling to accept the business risk your work represents for their bottom line.”

    I think all authors who are contemplating self-publish need to hear this. And also his approach of taking it seriously as a business, hiring an editor, a publicist, a team of people who will help the author polish their work the way a publishing house would.

    I’ve downloaded his novel. Great interview, Weezelle, thanks for posting.

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