Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2020

Author Talk: Philip Salom in conversation with James Ley

As regular readers will remember, I read and reviewed Philip Salom’s new novel The Fifth Season just a little while ago but it was too good an opportunity to pass up when I heard about an author talk featuring Philip.  I discovered his books when Waiting was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin, and was not surprised when The Returns was shortlisted last year too.  (I have recently acquired his two early novels so that’s a treat in store.)  Yes, one of my favourite writers.

James Ley is a Melbourne essayist and literary critic, and a former editor of the Sydney Review of Books.  The Fifth Season is Philip’s fifth novel.

Ley began by noting that Philip is on ‘a bit of a creative roll with his witty intelligent novels.  He characterised Salom’s writing as playful and observant, and having a lot of ideas.  Salom has a good eye for minor characters.

But he found The Fifth Season hard to characterise: it’s sort of crime, sort of mystery but then it’s neither.  How would Philip place it?

His answer was enigmatic: ”Strange?”

He said it was a hard question.  When he’s writing, he never establishes a frame or genre.  He develops an impulse and the writing makes its own way.  In this novel there’s a bit of meta fiction, exploring fact and fiction and mixing them up.  There are observations from the real world — you can Google them — but they are interspersed with entirely fictional aspects which have equal status with the factual elements.  It is a realist kind  of writing, but it’s not a memoir, even though Jack the character is a writer too, and some of the things he’s done are things that Salom has done himself.

Ley can’t think of any other book that does the same kind of things though there are elements in it that we have become used to, such as drawing attention to its being a novel through its metafictional elements and including autofiction like Knausgaard does.  [LH: Though mercifully not at all like Knausgaard does.] Yet The Fifth Season looks like a novel and reads like a novel.

Philip talked about writing about the self at a distance.  It’s not ‘safe’ art, it occupies an area of strangeness which offers the reader a place to go to that isn’t real, between naturalism and realism where you can do strange things and break the rules of writing if you want to.  In this kind of writing you can bring readers to thought experiences and feeling experiences where they are freed from themselves by the distance.  You can’t do with novels that are entirely realist.

Ley noted the use of doppelgangers in the novel, used in a really original way.  They’re not just characters, they’re also text elements because Philip has incorporated parts of his own earlier works into this one, actually integrated into it.  (I remember my baffled excitement when I discovered this as I read the book).  Writers reference other books all the time, but Philip has been able to use chunks of another book because it’s his own book.  That many people who read it will never know that he’s done this is one of those writerly jokes that he really enjoys.

All the characters have an absent double.  Jack’s double is a writer who lived in the house before he did, but disappeared.  Sarah’s sister is a missing person.  The visual artist (Sarah) and the literary artist (Jack) both deal with psychological questions of identity,

The book is about real missing people with no back stories because they’re missing and nobody knows why or how.  But through writing or art work, Salom is also feeding the ghost, the place within us that has no answers, that haunts our existence.  We feed it all the time but it’s remorseless and never stops haunting us.

I hope I’ve understood this next aspect of what Salom has to say about how doing things forms our identity:

In all our lives if we take up something as a practice, it will be distilled into our being and bring us closer to an identity which is philosophically closer to the experiences you have every day.  With writing, for example, you may be writing the things you don’t know or only know subliminally but the idea or thought can come through into the work just because it is being done. (I call this, not knowing what I think until I write it). Practice (in any kind of activity) can bring those moments into whatever work you are doing and that becomes part of your identity.  After creating such a work the artist loses his insights because they’re within the work but they may be transmitted to the reader or the viewer of the work.  And a book may have those insights even if some readers are not aware of it.  Writing novels is a way of writing strangeness.

Ley asked if Salom ever withheld certain things from his reader? Yes, he does, because he likes to create open-endedness.  In The Fifth Season Sarah rails at the use of the word ‘closure’ because there isn’t any. There can’t ever be, not even if she found her sister.  As a writer, he says,  you have to resist closure.

(Ley (playfully, I thought) said that you can still have reinvention, and referenced the way Sarah’s paintings get painted over in the novel.)

It was important, Salom said, to depict ambiguous grief — ambiguous because people have nothing concrete to grieve over when a person is missing, they don’t even know that the person is dead.  And while those searching interrogate every last moment they had with the missing person, for clues, self-blame and guilt, it’s quite possible that the person chose to go missing and wanted to get away, maybe from the very people grieving her absence.  In the novel Sarah by obsessively searching and painting her sister’s portrait everywhere, partly as her own art practice, makes that absence very complicated.  Similarly, Simon is full of ambiguities: he’s in a fugue state, escaping to a writers retreat, and there are hints about his health.  The reader never knows whether he is dying or writing about dying.  We don’t really know and are not meant to know.

Salom says that to write is to distance yourself from yourself, just by doing it.  It’s a paradox.  (And it’s also an addiction, but not usually a damaging one.)

Ley brought up the issue of writing about people who’ve been completely effaced, i.e. the Somerton Man, who was a real man  found in 1948 on a South Australian beach but to this day no one really knows who he was.  All evidence had been removed so it’s impossible to know who he was.  The Isdal Woman in Norway was the same, again no evidence as to who she was, and her identity was totally erased, and the Gippsland Man was a similar case.  There are many like this: a blank slate, one which fascinates not just him but everyone.

Missing people have a back story but no future story.  Erased people have no back story.  The pathos in this situation also has potential for wonderment.  It’s not all entirely tragic: Salom likes to hope that people who are missing want to be. There are 38,000 people who go missing in Australia and while every year many are found, they are replaced by others. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it.

Ley asked about the title, and the answer turned out to both simple and complex.  Salom is ‘a farm boy from WA’ where there are four seasons which govern life on the farm and must be planned for.  The four seasons also correspond to the four ages of man: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age  — the seasons of life.  Similarly, these four seasons replicate elements of quaternity, the square, the balance, the form, and the continuum, and what we expect of life is a continuum.  So the four seasons relate to our expectation that there is this continuum and that we know where we’re going.  The fifth season, therefore is a meta of the seasons, a season above below beside and outside of the four seasons that we all know.

The Ascent of Man - dvd cover.jpgWhen I read The Fifth Season, I was fascinated by the garden of broken shards in the garden of Simon’s house.  In my review I referenced the Spanish architect Gaudi, but I wanted to know where the idea came from.  It turns out that it comes from a BBC TV series that those of us of a certain age will remember: The Ascent of Man which was presented by mathematician and historian Jacob Bronowski.  I dug out my copy of the book that accompanied the program, and there it was in the chapter called ‘The Grain in the Stone’: a reference to the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Here is what Bronowski had to say about them, so that you can envisage the structures that Salom reinvents in his novel:

I could not end this essay without turning to my favourite monuments, built by a man who had no more scientific equipment than a Gothic mason.  These are the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, built by an Italian called Simon Rodia.  He came from Italy to the United States at the age of twelve.  And then at the age of forty-two, having worked as a tile-setter and general repairman, he decided to build, in his back garden, these tremendous structures out of chicken wire, bits of railway tie, steel rods, cement, sea shells, bits of broken glass, and tile of course — anything that he could find or that the neighbourhood children could bring him.  It took him thirty-three years to build them.  He never had anyone to help him because, he said, ‘most of the time I didn’t know what to do myself.’  He finished them in 1954; he was seventy-five by then.  He gave the house, the garden and the towers to a neighbour, and then simply walked out.

‘I had in mind to do something big,’ Simon Rodia had said, ‘and I did.  You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered.’ He had learned his engineering skill as he went along, by doing, and by taking pleasure in the doing.’ (The Ascent of Man by J. Bronowsi, BBC, 1973, Australian edition published by Angus & Robertson, 1976,ISBN 0563170646, p 118-121)

You can find out more about them, and see images here.

Many thanks to Christine from Readings Bookstore for facilitating these author talks.

Buy the book at Readings!


  1. Oh, I would have loved to have heard this Lisa. I think Ley is a good thinker and writer.

    I loved your comment that “I hope I’ve understood this next aspect of what Salom has to say …” I often feel that when I’m writing up these sorts of events. I worry that the speakers, or others in the audience, will say “no, that’s not what I heard. She wasn’t listening properly!” However, I wasn’t there for this one so what you write makes perfect sense to me. Interesting discussion about missing people. I’d like to think that the majority are people who want to be – like abused women who have managed to get away! Hopefully to a better life!


    • Yes, remember when they revised down so dramatically the numbers of people who’d perished in 9/11 and it was said to be in part because there are always some people who take advantage of a situation like that to get away. Sometimes it’s to escape a criminal past, other times it’s a toxic relationship…


      • You’d have to be a quick thinker in those crisis situations wouldn’t you.


        • I reckon it would be people who’ve been thinking and planning for a while, and the event is just the catalyst.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Those numbers are astounding. How easy it must be to take up a new identity and a new life. Have heard Philip many years ago hear in WA. At that time he was writing poetry and very good too. I will have to check his novels after your review and recommendation.


    • I forgot to say that James Ley said that if you haven’t read Salom before, to start with his other novels because they all have resonances with the later ones.


  3. Will do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gosh darn i wish I had been able to listen to Salom speak! I am turning a shade of green here!

    Salom has the two characters from Waiting appear in The Returns – but only recognized by those who have read the first novel. I find it interesting. I was disappointed in The Returns and haven’t yet finished it, but perhaps it was just the wrong time to read it.. I adored Waiting as you know, and am still waiting on this book as the library is finding obtaining new books a slow process in these times. I don’t know if I will love anything by him as much as I loved Waiting – I think because he showed real affection for Big and Little and the others in the boarding house.. I knew some men who lived in a boarding house in Melbourne long ago, so perhaps it brought back memories for me. Which makes me think about how an author can never know just what a reader brings to the experience of their novel.

    I remember The Ascent of Man but not the Watts Towers, now I will have to look them up, I do love it when a book (and a blog!) spurs me on to learn about something new!

    I will look forward to reading this one when the library manages to get a copy. Thanks for the fascinating post Lisa!


    • I know what you mean about Waiting and The Returns. I loved them both, but Waiting has a special place in my heart. The Fifth Season is entirely different, it’s more playful and more challenging — closer to Brian Castro than any other writer I know of — which is part of the reason I wanted to hear this session after reading the book. It reaffirmed for me, that like Castro’s novels, you’re not meant to ‘get it’ entirely on a first reading.
      I’m sure we’ve got a copy of The Ascent of Man on DVD and Salom’s reference to it has made me want to watch it again. It’s not so long since we re-watched Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, and it made me very nostalgic for the days when there were enriching educational programs like that on TV instead of the rubbish there is now.


      • I’ve been borrowing documentaries on DVD from the library Lisa – I feel less guilty about watching a television screen if I am learning something!

        I have read Waiting through twice now and it’s one of those books I could re-read many times – along with Brian Doyle’s wonderful book Chicago – both are written with such shining warmth and affection for their characters – they’re a real joy!


        • Yes, that’s how I feel… they have joined a cast of characters who live in my imagination as real people for evermore.


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