Do you force yourself to go on these expeditions to the bush or is it just something that you enjoy?
Some years ago, I realised I needed a recreation, to break away from the life of words. I'd learned about the bush growing up through Scouts with my parents and both my brothers and from my time in the army and so I knew a lot of things already and thought I'd build on that. I thought I'd make this going into the bush a way of relaxing and getting away.
I was essentially getting away from the verbal. Books, writing, conversations, endless conversations, television, films, the computer, the internet, the radio (although I carry a radio and sometimes listen to it when I can, and I carry a book but only for emergencies, say if it is raining and I am stuck in my tent). In the bush all of my verbal life ceases (although I still keep notes, a log, which is a failing).
It's a release from domesticity, too. All that I have is a constant raw interface. I trek off trail and this requires navigation which engages me 100 per cent. Being alert, being aware, watching for pitfalls and danger, observing and experiencing and watching the weather and watching the compass and the trail. Finding a site, making camp, breaking camp, there is all of this activity, the time fills up.
Are you always on your own?
At times I do take people out, but once I started to spend more time on my own in the bush I realised I was entering into another type of experience. It's the solitude of the bush and I have a great capacity for solitude. Out in the bush where everything is your responsibility and done the way you want to do it is such a release. If I wanted to stay in the same spot for another night or two I could. If I want to go this way or that way I could. If I wanted to have a drink at 11am I could. The freedom of the solitary.
You have long been an observer and commentator on Australian society. Are you optimistic about Australia's condition?
When he was in Australia, Gore Vidal said that of all the countries, Australia has the last chance to get it right. We have got a lot of things right. It impressed me after being cynical and disillusioned when young and enjoying the moral holiday of saying 'Everything's fucked – I can do nothing'. In my lifetime the things we got right were incredible; the women's movement, the gay liberation movement, our attitudes, most of our attitudes towards Indigenous people. We transformed so much.
For instance, Australia was one of the most censored countries in the world when I started writing and now it's one of the freest. We fought for the freedom of expression laws to be changed and they were. Society never changes evenly. We don't all march in step.
There are still vicious and dangerous parts of our society. I suppose I live part of my day thinking everything's fucked and we're a doomed species and the other part, depending on who I'm with and what I'm reading and what I'm drinking, can change to a feeling of being a bit more objective and realise that we are evolving and that we have got a lot of things right. We can kick back.
You mentioned various things that we got right, what are we getting wrong?
The thing that disappoints me in Australia is ever-growing social disparity. We are creating a health system, legal system and an education system for the wealthy. It is a system that the lower half of the country cannot afford and so the rich are commandeering the best teachers, the best universities, the best health service and they can afford to go to court to right their wrongs, protect their interests.
The lower socio-economic third or whatever, maybe closer to half, cannot access this reserved system. I think this is a dreadful dilemma. We are creating a society for the rich and a society for the not so rich. It's no longer an equal playing field for most children. As I have said before, it's very good for a society to hold onto the great French Revolution cry: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
You spent twenty years on the Edith Trilogy. How does one move on from such a long relationship with characters? Will you be able to move on?
I do not know the answer to this question yet. It is only six months since publication. I am aware that I am approaching a time of serious decision about where to go next, how to use my life. I know that writing is the most gratifying thing I can do, the most enlivening.
What are you currently putting your time into?
Recovery, restoration, reviewing my life, rethinking my life, some regretting, some relief, some dilemma.