The Monthly Book for October – Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen

This month’s Monthly Book is Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen (Black Inc.).

You’ll find an interview with him here, and the transcript below.

This is Jensen’s first book, a finely written account of the self-destructive, charismatic Australian painter who won the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 2000 and died in pitiful circumstances 12 years later at the age of 46.

The first chapter of this episodic book is called ‘Death’ and begins with the line “Coffins weigh more than you expect.” The biographer is one of the pallbearers at Adam Cullen’s funeral, and the fact of the artist’s death is the ever-present shadow through the rest of Acute Misfortune.

Erik Jensen was only 19, a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, when he was assigned to interview Cullen, who by then was well known for his antics designed to shock and his willingness to offer a pithy quote. After the article was published, Jensen received a phone call from the artist: would he like to write a biography that had been contracted to a publisher? Flattered and intrigued, the young man agreed, and thus began years of Jensen arriving at Cullen’s squalid home in the Blue Mountains, armed with his shorthand notebook, to interview his subject.

But this is no orderly biographical study, for Cullen has a thirst for alcohol, for drugs of many kinds, for guns, for mythmaking and celebrity, and for approval. In our interview, Jensen says, “I was frustrated at times by his self-destruction, by the fact that there was this horrible inevitability to the entire time that I knew him.” Jensen discovers there is no contract for the book and that the image the artist projects as an original and precise thinker is a rehearsed act, “the Adam Cullen Show”. And Jensen comes to understand that the ambivalence for women that Cullen expressed in his paintings and personal relationships masks a kind of love and sexual longing for the biographer himself.

Jensen describes Cullen’s life and death in unflinching and elegant prose. Jensen’s method was one of immersion: he stayed with Cullen in his home; he witnessed drug deals, endless hangovers and bouts of serious illness; he interviewed Cullen’s parents, friends and associates; and his relationship with his subject became so strained that at the end of Cullen’s life, Jensen avoided his calls.

As Jensen tells me:

“I was interested in journalism that required some endurance. And with Adam, he pushed that much further than I would have liked it to have gone. But I took also as my model something that he said about his own painting. He said that he painted human car crashes, and while everyone wanted to see the car crash, no one wanted to go up close, but he did, and he kept his eyes open and saw the blood. And any time he tried to make me blink, to test my resolve, I just refused to recoil. I probably wouldn’t have the same resilience now as I did when I was 19, but I wanted to write this book that went up close, and that didn’t blink, and that couldn’t be shocked.”

Did Jensen really have to stay in Cullen’s house, sleeping in a room with dried vomit on the rug? How close can a writer get to his subject without changing the very parameters of the subject’s personality? How should we respond to the myth of the tormented artist? If you have a happy childhood, should you manufacture an unhappy adulthood to be able to plumb the depths of your soul?

Acute Misfortune is told with wit, perception and empathy by a young and gifted writer, and I’m happy to introduce it to you as the Monthly Book for October.


RAMONA KOVAL: Erik Jensen, welcome to the Monthly Book.

ERIK JENSEN: Thank you.

RK: And congratulations on this, your first book, Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen. You first met your subject, Adam Cullen, when you did a profile of him.

EJ: Mmm.

RK: Or did you meet him before that?

EJ: No, I knew who he was and was aware of him. He was, particularly in Sydney, this artist whose misdemeanours would turn up on newspaper front pages and who was always there for a quote. I profiled him in 2008 for the Sydney Morning Herald, and he called soon after that profile and said, “I’d like you to write this book.”

RK: Whose idea was it to do the first profile you did for the Sydney Morning Herald? Was that something you came up with? Or was it one of those journalistic tasks that get assigned to you?

EJ: I was on staff at the Sydney Morning Herald at that time so it was, I think, probably an assigned profile. I’m not even certain – I can’t recall whether it was or wasn’t. But I remember it was for the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and they had a profile page which was only reasonably briefly lived, where people’s hidden obsessions were meant to be profiled. So in this instance I was writing about Adam Cullen in the context of his obsession with tanning and preserving animal hide.

RK: So how much did you know about him before you set off to do this?

EJ: I knew his pictures, although not hugely well. And I knew his reputation. He was one of these artists who was written about frequently and who even if he wasn’t being profiled you’d see his quotes turning up in pieces about something else. He was someone who I think was always offering a good, pithy two-line quote for a newspaper audience. And so I was certainly aware of him, but I didn’t know terribly much about him.

RK: What did you think of his work?

EJ: There were pictures of his that I’d seen that I thought were truly wonderful. There were also pictures that were less good, and I think his output became more and more uneven as his health declined and as his life became more chaotic. But certainly I – like everyone – knew the Archibald portrait of David Wenham and I knew some of the text works that he was making in the late ’90s. And just around this time he had a retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which I’d seen. So I’d seen a reasonable sweep of his work.

RK: So when you turned up for this profile, on preserving dead things, what was the chemistry between you? Did you feel that you were intrigued by this character?

EJ: Yeah. I mean, it was a wild day in the company of this person who was pulling fox heads out of eskies and tanning baths sloshing around with weighted-down kangaroo skins and so on. And I found him to be truly interesting. I think one of the things that interested me about him – and this, on reflection, was a technique of his – you would ask him a question and he’d say, “I need to think about that,” and then get back to it later on. Because he was polishing a quote. But, you know, as a young journalist, it made me feel like I was asking insightful questions. I don’t know that I necessarily was. But I was impressed by the degree to which he wanted, in amongst all this chaos that was that day, to be very precise about what he was saying.

RK: Was it a performance?

EJ: Absolutely. And I think the first six months of working on the book I was watching a performance. And it was only as he started to test me and we negotiated, I suppose, the degree to which we were going to trust each other, that that performance fell away, and I think at times I saw behind it. But the performance would crop up again, you know. Three years in, you could still turn up for an interview and get the Adam Cullen Show. And you really had to work to unpick the many personalities that he’d stitched together for himself.

RK: So he, after being very happy with what he’d read that you’d written in the Sydney Morning Herald, called you to propose this idea of you writing his biography or a book about him?

EJ: Yeah. I only discovered later on he’d invented this publishing contract. But when he called he said that Thames & Hudson had asked for this book, and that he was ill and ready to talk, and he wanted me to write it, which as a 19-year-old journalist is all very flattering. I quite quickly found myself staying on and off in his spare room and working on this book. And it was only much later in the piece that I realised all of this had been a confection of itself. This had been a means by which to try and get me to spend lots of time with him.

RK: When you got that call, I guess you were flattered.

EJ: Mmm.

RK: And then as a 19-year-old journalist [there’s] the idea that this is a big job and this was a way to write a book.

EJ: Mmm.

RK: That it all sort of fell into place for you, in a sense. Did you think this was going to be a really good way to spend a couple of years?

EJ: Yeah. I had no idea what I was doing. I think a lot of it was done without precision, just talking to someone and taking shorthand, and thankfully Adam was interesting enough a subject that just talking to him, I think, produced a reasonable account of his life. But I hadn’t really a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to write a big scholarly biography. In fact, when Adam first called me, I had lunch with David Marr to ask him how he wrote Patrick White: A Life and how should I organise my files …

RK: And what did David Marr tell you?

EJ: He immediately said, “This is a terrible idea. You shouldn’t do it.”

RK: Because?

EJ: (Laughs) Because that’s David’s advice on all things.

RK: (Laughs)

EJ: But he then gave me some sound advice, given that I was going to do it.

RK: Which was?

EJ: Which was write everything down, keep fastidious notes, keep dates on everything, put everything in order. The great power of that Patrick White book is that it roams in a very careful, linear fashion. I ended up writing a book that is completely non-linear and I think someone described it the other day as “scattergun”. I don’t think it’s quite that; I think that they’re very deliberate juxtapositions. But the book I wrote was not the book I thought I was going to write. I was hoping I would appear nowhere in the book; it was going to be this detached, sober piece of longform journalism.

RK: Well, sober – that’s a funny word to use.

EJ: Yeah, well —

RK: And we’ll come to that in a moment (laughs).

EJ: (Laughs)

RK: But why did it have to involve moving in with him?

EJ: Um, that was obviously something that Adam was very keen to see happen. And I didn’t live there; I stayed there for a couple of weeks at a time in stretches and every other weekend and so on. But a big part of that was that he lived quite a way from where I lived. He was in the Blue Mountains and I was living in Marrickville or Paddington at the time. And so it just made sense if I was going up there for interviews, I might as well stay.

RK: What did your parents and friends think about this project?

EJ: Ah, they have now read the book and I think are glad to not have known just how unpredictable it had been in places. I think they assumed I was off doing what a journalist might be doing: sitting down and taking conventional interviews with someone. But the interviews became less and less conventional.

RK: You describe it as a “Sisyphean task”, trying to understand other people. And you say you were “dealt a boulder called Adam”. Did it feel like a boulder to you, one that was threatening to crush you?

EJ: Sometimes. Yeah, as the interviews went on, I found the relationship with Adam more and more exhausting.

RK: Because?

EJ: Because he demanded so much. He would call me at all hours. He wanted this great closeness that I wasn’t necessarily keen to give. I was working full-time as a journalist. I didn’t have the time to be an accessory in Adam’s life, which is what he wanted. But also the physical provocations, like shooting me or throwing me off a motorcycle, they were draining things and —

RK: Above and beyond the call of duty, I would suggest, in any biographer (laughs).

EJ: Yeah, I don’t think I was ever scared of Adam, but I was frustrated by him. And not just because of those provocations. I was frustrated at times by his self-destruction, by the fact that there was this horrible inevitability to the entire time that I knew him. And twice he called me in the time I was writing the book to say that he was about to die, that he had pancreatic cancer, for instance. When he told me that, I was amazed by how upset it made me. And it turned out not to be the case at all. And later on, when he slid into his comas and got close towards the end to eventually dying, I found myself again hugely emotionally drained by a situation I’d become quite – I don’t think improperly entwined with, but quite entwined all the same. And I think I wasn’t alone in that either. Adam ran out many friendships by the virtue of the fact that he demanded too much of them.

RK: How much do you think his performance was his idea of what an artist should be? The kind of the artist that comes out of living intensely on the edge in the depths. This idea, this sort of mythic idea, seems to have informed everything he did.

EJ: Yeah, and I think that’s two-fold. The first is the performance was what he thought other people wanted from an artist. And he was right about that. The reason he turned up in the pages of newspapers and was frequently quoted and so on was because he played all the tropes of dangerous talent to a tee.

RK: Like what? Drunk? Drugs?

EJ: Yeah, you know —

RK: Extreme bad behaviour.

EJ: Bad behaviour. I think his weapons trial in tabloid newspapers looked like a dream, surely.

RK: Tell people what the weapons trial was.

EJ: You had this artist who was well known, had won the Archibald Prize, who was caught drunk in his car with something like 28 firearms, some of them registered, some of them not. And there was no elaborate criminality to this. It was like what would happen if a 10-year-old boy could drive a car and fill it with all the guns he wanted (laughs). It wasn’t like he was planning to do anything hugely mischievous. He was just … the foolishness of the enterprise, I think, allowed people to go, ”This guy is what we want from an artist. He’s not all bad but he’s a little dangerous. He does things the rest of us couldn’t.” I mean, there is this idea, I think, in Australia about painters, that we want our painters to be dangerous innocents: people who can see the world in ways we can’t because they live a way we don’t live, but somehow they’re going to offer us larger truths about ourselves. And I think sometimes Adam did do that with his work, and I think that’s the second part of this character we’re talking about. While on some levels he played a role people wanted from him, he also lived a marginal circumstance, because it was, I think, at least to some degree necessary for his work. Adam situated himself, and his good pictures were situated, on the edge of this adult malevolence and this childhood innocence. And some of the sublime early sculptural work he made and certainly some of the better paintings he made were there, but to live on that precipice is to live a not-properly constructed life. Adam was always holding on to bits of childhood, and yet, I suppose, practising in the adult world. And I think that the drugs and the outrageous provocations weren’t necessary, but they happened to be crutches around trying to hold on to this particular part of himself, which is a part of life that you and I ran out of at the age of ten, you know.

RK: Let’s talk about his parents, because the way this book is organised is into chapters – snapshots, I guess – of these topics: his art, his drugs, the Archibald Prize, but his mother and his father. It’s where we go, isn’t it, to say, “Why is this person behaving like this? What is it about their childhood that might tell us something?” So what was your approach there?

EJ: I was very keen not to find myself a pop psychologist in this book. And so Adam directed the conversations to his mother and to his father. I wasn’t looking to dig there, necessarily, to understand who he was. But he spoke constantly about his mother, and his difficulties loving her, I think, were a definitive aspect of his life. They spoke to what I eventually discovered to be his hidden sexuality, but they also informed a lot of the resentment he had around the world or about the world. I think one of the most difficult lines to write in the book was something he told me early on, which was “I was 14 when I stopped loving my mother.” Which is such a concise and damning account of a life that will follow, I think. And happily I had time to meet his mother – his mother died while I was working on the book but I at least got to know her in the course of writing it – and certainly to know Adam’s father, Kevin, and, I think, as figures … while I don’t stray into pop psychology in the book and I certainly – unless something is told to me I don’t try and synthesise or look for meaning that isn’t there – but they are both figures that help explain Adam’s life. There is the creative mother who he, as I say, struggled to love, although ultimately after she died [he] realised that he did love her. And then his father, this kind of larger-than-life Australian larrikin who was all of the things Adam wished he could be and wished would come easily to him.

RK: As a man?

EJ: As a man. But as a man who was effortlessly funny and comfortable and capable of the kind of storytelling that is burnished by building sites and beach.

RK: And sexually attractive.

EJ: Exactly. An imp. There was impishness to Adam’s character but nothing like the kind of glinting charm that his father had.

RK: You say that he stopped loving his mother at 14. But you don’t seem to have found a kind of miserable childhood there.

EJ: No. This is the other aspect of Adam’s desire to hold on to childhood: to try and find a complexity that wasn’t there. He had a very happy childhood. And he spent his life wishing it might be otherwise. And that’s why he sought out complicating factors. Adam was ultimately deemed by a court to be badly mentally ill but he sought out things like heroin – it was very deliberate to go and start taking drugs because it added some complexity to his life. He didn’t want to be simply the blissful grommet from the Northern Beaches who happened to be a fine draughtsman and went on to be a painter. He wanted more than that.

RK: He wanted a bigger story than that. I know you said you didn’t want to be an amateur psychologist or psychiatrist, but this mental illness – do you think he was mentally ill and this made him reach for all this kind of life, or do you think the life made him mentally ill?

EJ: The weapons trial we mentioned earlier, he pleaded what would once have been termed insanity in that trial. He received from the court dispensation to be dealt with under the Mental Health Act and in the course of that had to submit to a psychiatric assessment. I read that assessment only after he died, but the court case itself was, I think, more than anything what killed Adam. He just stopped living because he suddenly had to confront the reality of everything and realise that there was a lot about his life that wasn’t unique and wonderful and unquantifiable. He was an alcoholic who suffered bipolar, and the court decided that for him. And he was standing in front of that magistrate forced to face this very plain, very simple reality. And the psychiatry report in its six pages it does all of what I was trying to do for four years. It was quite a sobering document to read, but I do think – and I spoke to Adam about this – that standing there [was] this last embarrassment, and the embarrassment was simply that he was ordinary. It was to me like that scene at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

RK: Yes.

EJ: The curtain parts, and the big voice is from a little man.

RK: A little man on the chair. Yes. One of the epigraphs of this book is this reproduction of the line “Endurance is more important than truth” in Adam’s handwriting and that’s his signature. And you say he used to write it on all of his books.

EJ: Almost everything. It was in the front of all his books, any time he would give someone a present he’d probably write it. It ended up – misspelled, as it happened – on some memorial cards that were printed after he died. And the line was never his – it’s Bukowski’s, it’s from Barfly.

RK: And the whole line is “Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance.” And then, “Endurance is more important than truth.” But what does it even mean?

EJ: To Adam’s mind, it was an excuse for everything. He was a maker —

RK: He just had to live through everything.

EJ: Yes. He was a maker of myths. And he was not necessarily a seeker of truth. I mean, many artists position themselves as these tellers and seekers of truth. Adam was something else. Adam was a – he was a performer in some ways. He was playing a role and doing difficult things and enduring. And that endurance was the important thing. I think it was a line that for Adam allowed all of the half-truths and outright lies to be press-ganged into service for his larger purpose, which was simply to endure. He really wanted to leave something behind. I mean, this is why he asked me to write – well, one of the reasons he asked me to write the book was that he had a number of things he wanted to say. He wanted to be certain those things would be written down and they would survive him. He used to talk about leaving behind aesthetic residue. We talked once early on – it’s not in the book —

RK: Sounds like grit.

EJ: We talked early on about Captain Beefheart and how he fetishised Beefheart because Beefheart was able to dip in and out of existence, that there was enough assembled around him that he need not be there as the character anymore. And I think that to some degree that was what Adam was doing. He was building this carapace of images and stories and ultimately of his own thoughts about this life that would all be there and he could come out of the middle and left would be the shell of what was his life. And that would be enough to remember him by.

RK: Like a kind of insect.

EJ: Mmm.

RK: Who grows out of his skin. But you say so much of Adam was paraphrased, like this line “Endurance is more important than truth”. I want to come back to it because it’s a whole lot of drunks sitting around saying, “Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes something special to be a drunk.” Which is kind of [like] a whole lot of alcoholics talking to each other about being an alcoholic. So why is that meaningful to anybody?

EJ: When Adam saw Barfly, it was his first encounter with Bukowski and it was a film that spoke to everything as an adolescent he thought might be his life. It looked for the beauty and squalor; it celebrated drinking; it said that art could not be made politely, that it must be made difficultly. The Mickey Rourke character in the film is this character I think that Adam would happily have been. And he borrowed the line – I don’t think Adam ever formed a firm view of what that line meant. As I went through my notepad too, or notepads, the crate of them, to put this book together, I kept finding lines of Adam’s that were borrowed. A lot of his work, particularly he was making these text paintings in the early/mid ’90s, which I think are some of his best paintings, and it is language harvested from popular culture. He would sit in front of television. He had a musical ear for language. He would pick up a phrase and say it aloud over and over until it would shed or gain meaning or something would happen to it and it would become for him another koan to put onto a canvas. It was remarkable as I would be transcribing, going, “Oh, even one of the first lines he said to me, ‘I know I’ll be dead ’cause I’m so busy dying,’ is slightly paraphrased Dylan. Jim Morrison was constantly being paraphrased, even in his diaries as his mother died. I actually think this is a lovely detail in this particular diary. It’s the diary he wrote the year his mother died, and he writes on one page, “My mother died today,” and on the next page, “My mother died yesterday.” It’s a Camus line that actually wasn’t done glib. It’s a moving diary, that particular year, but he couldn’t help but go for the reference, and yet he felt and meant what he was writing as he used that language.

RK: Did he act as if these were lines that he had thought of? Or did he just use them unattributed because he thought everybody understood the reference?

EJ: For Adam, there was never attribution. He was a magpie. He called it transcription, but it was often theft.

RK: (Laughs)

EJ: And I think even looking at the way he made paintings, he always referred to them as the final document. Everything else was just building up to and collecting so that the final document could be made. I think it’s true also about how he collected language. Anything he picked up could be in the service of the final piece of work. And ultimately I think he began to regard his character as his final work.

RK: Where did the Archibald Prize come into life on the edge?

EJ: You mean for Adam’s living —

RK: You put your painting into the Archibald Prize —

EJ: Validation. One of the reasons I’ve written a book that is deliberately fragmented and based … If it has a technique anywhere in it, the technique is juxtaposition, because Adam had various characters and he could occupy them consecutively and sometimes concurrently. And even though he wanted to live on the fringe and he wanted his outsider reputation, he also wanted to be told he was good.

RK: Mmm.

EJ: And somewhere in between that with the Archibald Prize was the joke of being able to say, “I won the Archibald Prize.” He really wanted that validation. No young painters were entering the prize when he entered it, and certainly when he won it in 2000 it was a surprising thing, that a contemporary painter had won what had become a fairly stiff prize.

RK: So what were the politics of that?

EJ: Well, Adam liked to think – he claimed always that he received hate mail right up until his death for this terrible, outrageous picture. [But] it was a popular decision for him to win that prize, the media reporting at the time has people pouring praise onto this picture. The irony again for Adam – I think there’s constant duality in his character, but I think the irony is that everyone thought he’d painted Diver Dan from SeaChange.

RK: David Wenham?

EJ: David Wenham. But he’d painted David Wenham from The Boys, this terrible sociopath.

RK: Murderous. Yeah. And they couldn’t tell the difference between Diver Dan and a murderous sociopath.

EJ: And that really hurt Adam. It was one of the moments where he got what he wanted. He finally won this prize. After being called to be told he’d won, he drove all the way to the Art Gallery simply muttering, “I’ve done it, I’ve finally done it.” And yet it was also the moment where society least understood him.

RK: Mmm. He showed you his ravaged belly early on and gave you the title of the book, “Acute misfortune”. Tell us, for those who haven’t read the book yet, where that comes from.

EJ: Yeah. In that first interview I did for the Sydney Morning Herald, we were sitting in his studio and he said, “I’m going to die,” which again was a deliberate provocation. And then to cement the provocation, he took his shirt off and he had – I’d never seen a scar like this, it was twisting all the way up his stomach and there were these great burr holes where, because he was so sickly, the drainage ports that were in him, in his pancreatitis operations, never really properly healed and they just left these great craters in him and he was pushing his thumbs into these holes and saying, “Look at me, I’m going to die.” So he looked – I think I say in the book – like an overstuffed carpetbag. He really did, because he had this alcoholic heroin bloat and then all this twisted sinew and scar tissue and so on. And surprised as I was by this, I just asked what had happened, as you might. And his answer was sufficiently enigmatic, I think, to interest me in writing the book. And I think the book really is about trying to answer, or explain, that first answer, and the first answer was “Acute misfortune. I think the art world caused this.”

RK: Mmm.

EJ: I recount that scene in the first chapter of the book, and I hope that I spend the rest of the book maybe adding some nuance to that first glib explanation.

RK: So the art world … but really he caused it, didn’t he?

EJ: But I don’t know if you can take him from it or it from him.

RK: Let’s talk about the way you wrote this book. Who were your models for this sort of up-close and personal approach? You mention the work of Joseph Mitchell – tell me about him.

EJ: Mitchell – I don’t claim to write anywhere near like Mitchell wrote, but he was a writer at the New Yorker who produced, I think, some of the great profiles in American journalism, partly because he was such a beautiful prose stylist but also because he let people speak. You would read the language of an ordinary stevedore and you would be reading about them because it turns out that they hold some record for eating clams or something, but you saw bits of life you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see and you wouldn’t get that sort of access. Mitchell was a chronicler of the eccentrics of Manhattan, I think, and obviously an eccentric himself – I think he finished his career with 30 years of writer’s block, going to the New Yorker office every day and sitting in his office and then going home and never once writing a word in those 30 years, crippled as he was by his last subject, who was meant to be writing a history of all time, it was some enormous history, but Mitchell knew, I think, that in this briefcase that was meant to have the history was only torn-up newspapers and his subject had been a fraud. And I think that ruined him to some degree. I don’t know enough about Mitchell to speculate on that. But I was interested in that kind of free-access profile-writing. This book was written under the influence of a number of things, and probably none of them are literature.

RK: What are they?

EJ: (Laughs)

RK: This number of things?

EJ: There’s a fair bit of drinking.

RK: And you did kind of match him, almost.

EJ: Mmm.

RK: Didn’t you?

EJ: I don’t think I could drink like he did, but yeah, I drank a lot.

RK: Why did you drink a lot? Did you have a sense that – there was one point where I’ve said in my notes, I’ve got this question here: Why did you sleep in a room with dried vomit on the rug next to your bed? You seem very fastidious here in the studio. Was that part of trying to live the life of the subject, trying to get in from the inside?

EJ: Someone was showing me their life, a life that I found really interesting – repellent as it was at times, and difficult as it was. But I did feel the great privilege of access as well. And this was before our relationship metastasised into something that Adam wanted it to be but it wasn’t going to be and so on. I was doing what I thought was – and I still think is – journalism. At that time, I was interested in immersion journalism. I would sleep on the streets with homeless children to write essays or I would go and walk the Kokoda Track to write on nationalism. I was interested in journalism that required some endurance. And with Adam, he pushed that much further than I would have liked it to have gone. But I took also as my model something that he said about his own painting. He said that he painted human car crashes, and while everyone wanted to see the car crash, no one wanted to go up close, but he did, and he kept his eyes open and saw the blood. And any time he tried to make me blink, to test my resolve, I just refused to recoil. I probably wouldn’t have the same resilience now as I did when I was 19, but I wanted to write this book that went up close, and that didn’t blink, and that couldn’t be shocked. And I very early on decided that this would be a book without moral judgement and without the expression of shock or surprise. I wanted to write very evenly about what was very uneven. And I think the book is without moral judgement. What it does have is the occasional frustration, because I found the situation frustrating, and I thought for myself and also for the reader I needed occasionally to vent that frustration. But I never make an assessment as to whether or not Adam lived his life appropriately or otherwise.

RK: Well, yeah, this idea of “without judgement”, though. I mean, in the end you found him difficult to be around. You moved cities, but he rang you every day and you stopped answering his calls. So in a sense, summing up what happened to him, you do judge the situation – how can you write a book about a man and what happened to him without a view?

EJ: I don’t think I judge. I think I express —

RK: When you say “moral judgement”, you’re not saying that he shouldn’t have done this or this is bad behaviour, but there is a kind of judgement in: Is this the way he necessarily had to live his life? Was his art that good? Was it worth that kind of sacrifice? Was it a kind of manufactured, mythic delusion that he was living? I, as a reader, found that I was judging him.

EJ: And I think that’s what I’d hoped, that I would put down details … I really don’t think I judge him. I think maybe there is some deliberate juxtapositions in the book that weight certain scenes and so on, but in the drugs chapter, for instance, as we’re travelling through drug deals and he’s shooting up in his dealer’s front room while a toddler’s crying in front of TV and so on, I record those scenes, I think, with detail but I don’t think I judge them.

RK: No, no, no – “I am a camera.” (Laughs) You were observing in a way that I certainly couldn’t have done that job. Maybe it takes a time of your life.

EJ: I think it does. I think my great protection in this book was my naivety, and happily I think was less naive when I wrote it than when I was researching it. And I think, I think I got to some truth about Adam. One of the people who knows him very well read it recently and said that he was there on each page and that the words had caught him like a bird in the net. And I think that was a great and kind thing to have someone say about a biography. I didn’t want to trap him, as in to capture him in a way he wanted not to be caught, but I am happy that I think his essence is somehow imbued in how I told his story.

RK: How did his father feel about the book?

EJ: I think it’s not an easy book for my parents to read, let alone Adam’s parents. Anyone whose child has been so important to them and yet has lived a life that was as destructive as Adam’s life is has with them, I think, a great burden of legacy with a child who died too soon – any parent who outlives their child. And I don’t think Kevin, who’s alive and Adam’s father, I don’t think he necessarily thinks that everything that is in the book should be in the book, but he very graciously sent me a note late on Father’s Day to say that it was a hell of a read, which I think is much more than I would have been able to muster, necessarily.

RK: Do you believe in this myth of the artist, that the artist must live on the edge like this?

EJ: Not at all. But Adam was a very particular kind of artist. He was a painter playing the role of outsider painter but he was also an artist celebrity in some way. His character was as important to his work – and overshadowed his work at times – as was the work. So I wouldn’t suggest anyone needs to live the way that Adam lived, but he certainly felt that it was necessary.

RK: Well, it’s a fine book, Erik. Thanks for writing it, and I look forward to your next.

EJ: Thanks very much, Ramona.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: