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Man standing in front of wall of posters

Max Easton's self portrait

Max Easton
Inside the life and mind of a Sydney writer.
Man standing in front of wall of posters
Max Easton at MoshPit, Newtown. Photo by Joy Lai

I’ve been sketching out a new novel for a few months now. It’s been coming relatively easily, flowing from pen to paper before and after work. Last week, I dropped my pen while trying to read over what I’d written, then found that I’d stained the doona cover. I wondered if that was a good or bad omen, but failed to find symbolic meaning in the ink stain. I guess I just have to be more careful with pens …? My co-worker talks to me while I’m daydreaming about characters in the book. I write notes in a fake work email, and send it to my personal address at the end of the day. I deal with a series of increasingly frustrating customer complaints and then go on my lunch break with my laptop to write this piece. I tell myself that I want to deliver an authentic self-portrait, but this is all feeling very middle of the road. 

When I had a question in a pre-Wikipedia world, my mum used to encourage me to write letters and make phone calls. Turns out the rooster on the Corn Flakes box is there to symbolise the morning. When I mailed a letter to the band Frenzal Rhomb at 12 years old, asking about some kind of ‘charge card’ that was supposed to come with their CD, they replied with these words written on a napkin: ‘Have some stickers and shut up.’ These experiences may have informed my research process.

I learned to write on the early internet, in chat rooms, message boards and weird corners of the web that are now hard to believe ever existed. I was a big pro-wrestling fan and found a message board that ran an ‘e-fed’. This was an online subculture, now lost, that is impossible to explain briefly, but more or less involved writing storylines in competition with other forum users, overseen by ‘commissioners’ who determined the results and wrote up the matches, published monthly in forum events modelled after wrestling pay-per-views. I found an analogue in simulated rugby league competitions where, again on a message board, you wrote your own press releases as ‘coaches’ for fictional rugby league teams. You submitted text files via email with your team lists and strategies to someone who supposedly ran a simulation on their computer, and then reported the results by group email each Sunday. These were vital educational experiences, but I couldn’t put ‘two-time digital world champion’ or ‘assigned as digital NSW State of Origin coach’ on my CV.

After high school, I met a guy who ran a music website to scam a way into music festivals with press passes for reviewers. 

So I became a music writer. I wrote for him, and then, when I heard you could score free CDs and gig tickets, I wrote for the street press. It says a lot about the music press of the time that I didn’t yet know what kind of music I even liked, but wrote reviews as though I did. 

At some point, I discovered Sydney’s DIY music community, and through punk, hardcore, experimental and garage music, found something that spoke to me. In the early 2010s this was a world that communicated through message boards too, as well as zines and blogs. Bands played in pubs and warehouses, and were vocal about the idea of anyone playing music. (I got asked by someone if I played bass because they wanted to start a band, so I lied and said I could.) My writing evolved in attempts to document the undocumented, and even though it wasn’t very good, it improved because I had a reason to write that wasn’t just to alleviate boredom or to pick up fringe benefits. I turned to writing historical zines about artists like Randy Newman and Butthole Surfers, then got asked to turn that series into a documentary podcast, which is another story entirely. 

The thing was, that among all those writing efforts, I really wanted to write fiction. The other thing was that no one who published fiction liked what I was trying to do when I sent it to them. So I printed a zine of short stories, sold it to friends and, as a joke at my own expense, posted a copy to a publisher I liked who eventually asked if I wanted to turn the zine into a novel. Now I guess I write novels. 

I’m writing this self-portrait a week after finding out that I’ve been funded to write a book part-time, which is great, unexpected and rare news, even though it means I can no longer stake any claim to being an ‘outsider’ writer. I’ll finish this piece and get stuck into the next novel with a bit more focus and a little less naivety, but both those terms are relative, because you don’t know what you don’t know until you do.

Max Easton is a writer from Sydney. He is the creator of the zine and podcast series Barely Human, and the author of The Magpie Wing, which was longlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Paradise Estate, his most recent novel, was published by Giramondo in 2023. 

This story appears in Openbook autumn 2024.


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