After the games: Catherine Harris on ‘The Family Men’
The Family Men (Black Inc., September) explores the fallout from an AFL football team’s post-season celebration. ‘[It’s] a nuanced indictment of a sporting culture that forgives appalling behaviour in our heroes’, writes reviewer Lachlan Jobbins. He spoke to Catherine Harris.
The Family Men unfolds largely from the point of view of a young AFL footballer, Harry, who is involved in an event that gets out of hand. You capture his creeping sense of guilt, his naivety, and the tension between loyalty to his team and self-determination, with insight and great sympathy. How did you put yourself in his mindset and that of his teammates?
Many talented people find themselves living in a bubble-like reality that insulates them from opportunities and experiences that can challenge or broaden their world view. Australia is a sports-mad society, and Melbourne in particular, so AFL footballers are highly visible examples (and cautionary tales) of this kind of cocooned lifestyle (and it’s important to remember that some of them are very young). An awareness of that cloistered existence started me thinking about responsibility and the notion of restricted choice. I tried to imagine how the world would look through that filter, the meaning of individual agency when your perspective is so distorted. And I read every football-related story I could get my hands on, and watched a lot of post-game interviews.
The novel is set in 2006-07. Was there a real-life incident that inspired you to write it? Do you think things have changed in sport since then?
There wasn’t one incident that inspired the book. I have always been struck by the prominent place of sports in our society. All sports, but especially football. Supporters feel a powerful connection with their teams, envision themselves as members of an extended family, and are highly invested in their side’s performance. Yet, sporting clubs are often worlds unto themselves in which different social rules apply. These were ideas, that loyalty and disjunction, that I wanted to explore through fiction. As to whether things have changed in sport since 2006, I’ve no doubt that some things have. But the Kim Duthie fiasco was in 2011, and some of the carry-on about Peta Searle’s recent appointment to St Kilda’s coaching staff suggests there’s still a long way to go.
No-one comes across as entirely innocent in the novel. The players, the groupies, Harry’s family, the journalists, the club officials—everyone is more or less culpable in creating or sustaining the circumstances around which these sorts of things happen. How important was it to get beyond notions of right and wrong?
Moral judgments are often presented as absolutes, but they rarely operate that way. Usually they’re contextual and subject to complex negotiations and trade-offs. Hindsight is always 20/20, but life is lived in the moment. And in that moment so many factors can impinge upon a decision. I’m sure some people always make impeccable choices, but they’re in the minority. The rest of us are all constrained by circumstance. And because of that we’re all sometimes a little bit guilty. That was what I wanted to write about, that grey area, the place most of us inhabit. Seeking to apportion blame is a no-win situation that would have distracted from consideration of the bigger issues.
One of the elements I most admired—and it must have been very difficult to write—was the story of the underage girl who becomes the focus of the Sportman’s Night events. Was it always your intention to include her point of view?
Yes, I always intended to include the girl’s point of view because, although she remains nameless, she is the heart of the story, the most vulnerable character, the one we want to protect. It was a way of showing that this predatory culture has consequences, that objections to it are not just about political correctness, that there is something real on the line. According to the ABS, more than 80% of sexual assaults go unreported. I wanted to make those women real for the reader, all those names we forget or pay no mind, or never actually know because the incidents are never brought to the attention of the authorities. In that sense the girl in my story is ‘everywoman’, a proxy for the impact of these actions on the lives of real human beings (not just the victims but the people, men and women, who care for them).
What was the origin of the novel? Did you start out intending to say something about the way we treat our sport stars, or just wanting to explore the experience of one of the players?
There’s something very beautiful about sporting prowess—it’s enthralling, majestic—yet the beauty of football (all codes) is often overlooked, or bracketed by commentators in very tired clichés. The novel began as an exploration of that beauty, an appreciation of the elegance of discipline, the dedication to a lifestyle, the dogma of the game. But that framing had to be voiced through a character. Once I focused on Harry, the story evolved from there.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I recently re-read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys (Norton), which is so wonderfully concise and dark. The characters are all so grubby and the details so spot-on. There is not one wasted word. It is delicious.