Episode 32: Liam Pieper

Liam Pieper is an author and freelance journalist.

Penmanship podcast episode 32: Liam Pieper, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016Since the publication of his first book in 2014, a memoir named The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, he has quickly followed it up with two more. Last year, he published a collection of short essays called Mistakes Were Made, which I reviewed for The Weekend Australian, where I described his writing as “electric: charged with meaning and energised by surprising comedic turns”. With his third book, Liam has proved that he’s supremely talented at writing fiction, too. Named The Toymaker, his debut novel is based on an ambitions, multi-layered narrative that travels between an Australian business set in the present day, and German concentration camps during World War II. The character that links these two worlds is a Russian man imprisoned during the war who escapes to Australia and starts a globally successful toy business.

When Liam visited Brisbane in early August, I met him for the first time at his hotel room. Our conversation touches on the unique way in which Liam received funding to research and write The Toymaker while living overseas; how he navigated the legal threats that arose after the publication of his first book, which detailed his career as an adolescent drug dealer; how he messed up an important magazine assignment by filing 22,000 words instead of the requested length of 5,000 words; and how he helps young writers with finding the voice that best suits their style while working as content director for an online community called Writers Bloc.

Liam Pieper is a Melbourne-based author and journalist. His first book was a memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, shortlisted for the National Biography Award and the Ned Kelly Best True Crime award. His second was the Penguin Special Mistakes Were Made, a volume of humorous essays. He was co-recipient of the 2014 M Literary Award, winner of the 2015 Geoff Dean Short Story Prize and the inaugural creative resident of the UNESCO City of Literature of Prague. He is also content director of Writers Bloc, a platform and resource for emerging writers. The Toymaker is his first novel.

Liam Pieper on Twitter: @LiamPieper

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2.30 Liam is visiting Brisbane to promote The Toymaker, which is “somewhere between a fraught historical novel and a moral thriller, in the style of modern contemporary, social fiction”

4.00 “It was a risk; fiction is something I love to read. I used to write fiction less successfully when I was younger, so to move into this was a departure for me – a terrifying one”

4.30 The Toymaker was supported by the Prague UNESCO City of Literature, in consultation with the Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office, which offered funding for Liam to write a book that featured Prague in the narrative

6.00 Liam was surprised by his nomination, because in his first book (The Feel-Good Hit Of The Year: A Memoir), he wrote about his substance abuse problems, and the grant would take him to “the drug, alcohol and partying capital of central Europe, where a beer is cheaper than water”

7.30 Liam received a stipend of 400 Euro per month, which went a long way in Prague; his accommodation and flights were taken care of, and he was there for 10 weeks all up

9.00 Although Liam finished the book in Prague, the bones of its structure were written on another writing residency in India the year prior, at Sangam House, where he spent three months

11.30 “Something about this Hindu work ethic really stuck in my Catholic guilt, and it really fired me up to keep working, all day”

12.30 Liam has only ever won two things in his life, and they both happened to be “magnificent” writing residencies, which offered him a chance to dive deep within himself to write The Toymaker

14.00 One of the key inspirations behind the book was an ex-girlfriend’s family, who were Holocaust survivors; they were Russian Jews who lived in the south-east of Melbourne, where Liam grew up

17.30 While visiting Berlin, due to the largesse of his ex-girlfriend’s family who received reparations from the Holocaust and offered them a few thousand dollars for travelling, Liam’s Catholic guilt kicked in when he realised he was putting that money back into the German economy

22.30 “As a writer, my preferred mode is a kind of black comedy. That is a very New York thing, which in turn makes it a very Jewish thing”

24.00 Liam would often wonder what the Russian Jews in Melbourne had experienced, because they didn’t talk about the things they’d seen and done to survive; he wondered what secrets they held

26.30 “Australia is a very good place to forget. There’s something fundamentally missing in our sense of introspection at a national level; there’s a trauma that we are unwilling to look at”

30.30 Liam didn’t have the book contract for The Toymaker when he visited Prague; they were taking a risk on him as a previously published Penguin author

32.00 In editing and production, Liam and Penguin cut out “a good 50,000 words before we got close to what the public are reading now; there were all sorts of threads and subplots that I had to abandon, because they weren’t panning out”

33.00 In the book, Liam picked a fight with many aspects of Australian identity, and with humanity as a whole; “It’s quite a pugilistic work, I think”

34.00 The book’s narrative twist occurred to Liam when he first visited Berlin, and had been bouncing around in his head since

35.00 “The danger with writing a book like this is using someone else’s experience to advance an agenda of your own, which I think is antithetical to good writing”

36.30 Liam’s first book triggered some legal threats, as it was a memoir about crime in which he admitted to being complicit in “all sorts of nefarious deeds”

39.30 “When I’m doing narrative non-fiction, the voice is mine; it’s very constrained, dry, laconic and sarcastic”

40.30 Liam’s research process for The Toymaker was to read every book and see every movie he could find about the Holocaust, to try and transport himself into the events and the aftermath as much as possible

45.30 One of Liam’s favourite writers on this topic is Hannah Arendt, a New Yorker journalist who covered Adolf Eichmann’s trials, and was struck by how boring he was; she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”

48.00 In the book’s acknowledgements, Liam thanks Werner Pieper, “whose recollections and insights into the Third Reich were invaluable”; Werner contacted Liam after the publication of his first book, claiming to be Germany’s biggest LSD dealer and a potential relative of Liam’s

52.30 Liam is fond of the Kurt Vonnegut quote, “Unexpected travel invitations are dancing lessons from God”, and Liam’s visit to see Werner Pieper certainly fit that bill

55.00 Liam says he has a strong work ethic now, but for a long time he was very lazy; “I was a shitbag, as is well-documented in my memoir”

56.30 “Although writing doesn’t have a lot of perks – the rewards are slim – you do get a chance to see people enjoy what you do. That’s a great reward”

57.30 Liam recently received his favourite-ever fanmail from a reader who said: “The Toymaker is my second favourite novel ever. Please write another one, but hurry, because I’m 93!”

58.00 Liam’s second book was a slim volume, a Penguin Special, comprising four essays titled Mistakes Were Made; Liam kindly reads aloud the opening of the first essay, ‘Catching The Spirit’, about being on assignment for a “Very Important Magazine”

59.30 Liam won’t say who the Very Important Magazine is, but they’re an “Australian current affairs and news magazine” who were offering him more than he usually earns in a year to write about the nation’s drug culture and its ramifications

60.30 ‘Chasing The Spirit’ is a recollection of Liam’s reporting of that magazine story, which was meant to be 5,000 words; he ended up filing something like 22,000 words, due to the effects of a tick’s neurotoxin, and the piece was spiked by his editor

62.30 “Since then, I’ve had the ticked removed from my brain, and I’ve learned to stick to word counts a little more efficaciously”

64.30 With his first book, Liam believed that he could change drug laws: “The conservative, reactionary elements of society who see drugs as a moral failing, rather than a complex political, economic and medical issue […] I thought if I could just articulate that, then immediately, the world will change”

69.00 Liam works as the content director for a website for emerging writers called The Writers Bloc, and he has found that the first hurdle when trying to assist young writers to find their voice is helping them to understand a path they’re taking is not necessarily the one for them

70.30 The second essay in Mistakes Were Made concerns what Liam experienced during the publicity tour for The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, and how the first media narrative tended to dominate everything that came after it

71.30 The first element of the publicity campaign was an extract from the book that ran in Good Weekend magazine in May 2014, and syndicated across the Fairfax Media websites; it was a scene where Liam was arrested at the age of 18

72.30 “Little by little, I got the hang of media, but by then, the story had gotten away from me, and it was very exposing – not so much for me, but for others”

74.00 “Everyone has an opinion immediately, and in the first few months of the book, there were more Goodreads reviews of the book than books had sold”

76.30 With The Toymaker, Liam is more concerned about whether he got anything wrong, or was in anyway disrespectful to the dead, rather than offending anyone in his personal life

78.00 “I was also very much driven along by another survivor who I spoke to […] He asked me whether the people who were telling me I couldn’t write it were Jewish. I said no, they’re not, and he said, ‘Well, fuck it, then, it’s not their decision'”

79.00 After this book, Liam has another project in mind, but he’s not sure yet if it’ll be fiction or non-fiction

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