This was the speech I made to launch Bite Me! , a collection of short stories by John Larkin, somewhere around 1999/2000.
Before tonight, I had never met John Larkin. Now this may come as something of a surprise to you, for a number of reasons. If you know John, I guess that you would assume that the person asked to launch his book would similarly be a friend or colleague of his. If you know me, you know that over the past ten years I have worked with just about every children’s author in Sydney and elsewhere one way or another. If you know neither John nor myself but wandered in to pick up the new Patricia Cornwall and stayed for the cheese and bikkies, then you probably don’t care much either way.
But the truth is, in all my years working in the field of children’s books, I have somehow managed to avoid meeting John Larkin even once. Even in passing. And yet over the course of this past year I feel as if I have come to know John very, very well indeed. I know — or at least, I suspect — that John’s childhood nickname was Spaghetti Legs. I know that he shares my own disdain for the aesthetic qualities of the architecture and interior design, and a healthy fear of the elevator in the building imaginatively called E7 at Macquarie University. I know that he’s watched one too many episodes of the X-Files, and that like me he can’t get enough of the delightfully deadpan Daria, who for those of you who have not heard of her, is the anti-heroine of a wonderful MTV animation series, which until recently screened between Little Lulu and To The Manor Born, an odd piece of scheduling even for the ABC. I know that John has a deep and abiding intolerance for intolerance. I think he had a fantastic (literally) childhood, and I suspect that his family supplies him with many of the just-on-this-side of unbelievable incidents that are peppered throughout his books. I know that he views the world with equal parts compassion and incredulity, tempered with a wicked sense of humour. I also know that writing is his passion and his art. And I know all this simply from having read his books.
I must confess that I am not of the “the author is dead” school of thought. I like to feel that I get a sense of the person behind the writing from the words on the page, from the attitudes embedded in the characters and plot.
So let me tell more about the John Larkin I have come to know. First of all, I will just quickly fill in the gaps to say that the reason I have become so intimately acquainted with John this year is because he and I have become colleagues of a sort. I work on a program called “Nestle Write Around Australia”, a creative writing program for Year 5 and 6 students which is co-ordinated by the State Library. John is one of “our” authors — which means that he spends a week every year in a public library (this year it was Bateau Bay) taking creative writing workshops for local schools, and for the children who have been selected as finalists in the competition part of the program. Earlier this year I prepared Teachers’ Notes on John’s books to assist prepare the teachers and students who would be attending his workshops
So let me tell you about those books. I spent weeks with them preparing the teacher’s notes, so I figure I know them pretty well. The thing that I love most about John’s writing is that he sets his books in a world that I know very well, and it’s a world that isn’t depicted anywhere near often enough in proportion to the number of kids who actually live their lives there. The books are, by and large, set in the suburbs of western Sydney. The kids here don’t have long sandy beaches to play on, or national parks and forests to create their own Terabithias in. These kids wander in and out of each other’s back yards, bedrooms and sheds. They play by rough and ready creeks and in rubbish dumps. They make their own amusements out of what they’ve got. And while the books are very contemporary in many ways, one thing I like is the way that John’s characters make their own amusements, not from electronic games or made-to-measure consumer-hungry toys, but in an old-fashioned pick-it-up-as-you-find-it kind of a way. And so you get, for instance, two kids converting an old trike into a flying machine. Kind of dangerous, sure, but way more inventive than reaching the next level of Pokémon.
And so the books are set in a very real and recognisable world, but it’s also a world where extraordinary things can and do happen. John’s books owe as much to the flights of his imagination as it does to the demographics of the Parramatta area. John isn’t hide-bound by reality in his books, and this is what makes them, in my opinion, so fresh and funny and unique. In the teacher’s notes I mentioned earlier, for instance, I described John’s book Growing Payne as follows: The novel begins as a realistic adventure story, then becomes a sort of time travel/spy/sci fi meets Big (the Tom Hanks film) riot! Larkin pulls off a fairly extraordinary feat in mixing up genres and he keeps control of a plot which “soars, twists and nose dives like the trike” (Fran Knight, Peterborough High School, SA).
And this brings me to the book which brings us together here tonight, to launch upon an unsuspecting world John’s first collection of short stories, Bite Me. Like John’s previous novels, you will recognise much borrowed from the “real world” in these stories: Macquarie University, Sydney trains, the Vatican, family car trips, popular culture (Daria again, and game shows and movies and a dash of Monty Python), and dollops more suburban life. But you’ll also find a 37 year old cat, crocodiles in Martin Place and a man who gets lost in his book — literally! You’ll get plenty of sick jokes, wry observations, philosophy, history, a bit of religion, a smattering of sex, some delightful anti-Hansonite public disobedience, mental illness, bad puns, clever twists, several cross-references for the sharp-eyed between previous books, characters and between these stories themselves, and a tattooed, pierced Buddhist Pope called Nigel. In other words, you’ll find Vintage John Larkin, and yes I did pinch that from the back of the book but only because Alison Aprhys got there before me.
Bite Me made me laugh, made me think and gave me much pleasure in the reading. Congratulations to you John, and to Random House. I hope that Random House did you a decent print run and I hope it sells by the truck load. I’m delighted to meet you at last, John, and I’m honoured to launch Bite Me. God bless her and all who sail in her!