A. S. Patric

It was a Saturday morning in May that A.S. Patric - Alec Patric - put the final touches to the final scene of his new novel, Atlantic Black. He was buzzing. I know because we encountered each other over breakfast at a hotel by the water in Sydney.

He was a guest at the writers festival and I was there for an in-conversation with the British Libyan writer Hisham Matar. Patric was excited and relieved to have finished his second novel, anticipating much interest, no doubt, given that his first, Black Rock White City, won the Miles Franklin last year.

I asked him to tell me about it so he set the scene: an ocean liner heading across the Atlantic towards Europe on the cusp of 1939. Uncertain times. I said it made me think of the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, specifically his marvellous novella, The Royal Game.

Fast forward a few months and Atlantic Black is about to be published. This time, as befits a winner of Australia's most significant literary prize, his name on the cover is in a bigger type size.

Zweig, Patric says when we meet again to discuss Atlantic Black, was fundamental to the new book. What got to him was the set-up in that novella: the ocean liner and the psychological disintegration of a particular character as a consequence of the Second World War.

On board Patric's vessel are Katerina Klova and her mother Anne, who has had some sort of breakdown. Katerina's father, Audrius, is a Soviet diplomat who has served in Mexico - Trotsky was in exile there, remember - but is now somewhere in Europe. Her brother, Kornel, is there too, at a military academy.

"I liked the idea of life on an ocean liner and those people forced together creates a situation in which they've got to continue relationships and those relationships can be compressed or exploded because of that compression. And that's what happens to Katerina and her mother.

"Her mother has a breakdown because of that. And for the first time in Katerina's life - she's a 17-year-old girl - she's now alone."

During her on-board wanderings in the space of 24 hours as the watershed year 1939 dawns, Katerina meets some strange people, has dramatic encounters, and learns more about the truth of her mother, father and brother and, of course, herself. It would be a shame to reveal the ending and its ambiguities, but the last line is significant. Not "The End" rather a date "??? January 1, 1939".

That liner steaming across the ocean towards Europe as the continent is about to explode was the starting point for the book. But it would be wrong to think of Atlantic Black as a historical novel.

Patric was not interested in the impending war per se, more the immense social catastrophe that was about to erupt. And that, for him, makes it more contemporary in feel. After all, he says, writers are always responding to the crises of their times; what generates a whole novel is your sense of crisis.

"That's where we are right now. When we look at the world now, just the kind of precarious balances that we see with Brexit, and the kind of disruption that's been happening in Europe because of that and also before that with the refugees coming in and Trump's America and North Korea and the seemingly inescapable nuclear war that's on the horizon."

The appeal of the time was also determined by his view of the Second World War, which he sees - rather than the First - as the fulcrum of the modern era.

"It feels almost like the epicentre of an earthquake and to be on the verge of that and at the point of that eruption was what appealed to me about setting it in 1939. Anytime I hear that date for me it's shorthand for catastrophe, for cataclysm."

Patric is fascinated by trauma. It is a kind of individual or national wound that forces a process of reiteration, forcing it to be enacted again. That for him explains World War II. "Most of our conflicts are a kind of re-enactment of trauma as if it is some way to resolve or deal with it. Yet, in the end it just deepens the trauma."

So the nature of trauma is at the heart of his work - just think of the plight of the Bosnian refugees Jovan and Suzana exiled geographically and emotionally in suburban Melbourne in Black Rock White City. "How do we understand the way we've been traumatised, how do we understand the conflict that rises from that trauma. For me it's not a question of the First World War or the Second World War, but a history of our species."

Perhaps it's no surprise that the epigraph of Atlantic Black comes from David Malouf: "We inhabit a world of unfinished stories, and echoes, the repetition of age-old horrors and miseries."

If Zweig inspired the setting of Atlantic Black, the twin influences Patric acknowledges are surprising and disparate. One is the work of Bill Henson; the other that of the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

What he appreciates in Henson's photographs is not the moment of sexual maturing in his subjects that seems to attract so much attention but "a kind of melancholy in those characters as they emerge into a world that seems broken, that seems about to crush the fearful perspective that we find in those characters". That seems to echo in the experiences of Katerina.

But Kubrick, he says, was the major influence. He cites The Shining for its sense of compression in the grand old hotel in which it is set and the way the director deals with the vast space.

"An ocean liner is huge but there's also a way it compresses everything within it, into corridors, rooms, chambers. That aesthetic Kubrick created showed us movement in that world. I particularly remember seeing the little boy (in The Shining) on the tricycle going up the corridors. And I had that idea of constant motion, that Katerina would be moving all the time."

And Dr Strangelove dovetails with his view of 1939 in that he sees the film as being not about the war but more about the world being on the precipice of a cataclysm, "that sense of we're about to go over the waterfall and there's no coming back from that.

"I feel like Kubrick's aesthetic was an American perspective that had become really European and I have found a lot of people telling me that Atlantic Black feels really European to them. But I think it's not a wholehearted European perspective, more an internationalist perspective that Kubrick might have had."

Winning the Miles Franklin came at the right time for Patric, who wonders whether had it come much earlier - he's 44 now - it might have inflated his ego and actually disrupted his writing. "If it comes at the right time it can be immensely encouraging. There's a sense that your literature has found a place in Australian culture."

Given his background - Patric's parents migrated from former Yugoslavia in the `70s when he was nearly two - that is particularly gratifying; they moved to give their children a better life and, as he said at the time, "for me to win the Miles Franklin that's certainly coming to fruition".

More than a year later and with a more recent winner, Josephine Wilson, on the Miles honour board, he finds his win even more satisfying, he says, because his book is now part of a significant history.

Patric was born in Zemun, on the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. He didn't think he remembered much about his time there but found writing to be almost archaeological. "If you start writing about a set of experiences you find there are these trace memories."

He has previously published two collections of short stories, The Rattler and Other Stories in 2011 and, a year later, Las Vegas for Vegans, plus a novella, Bruno Kramzer: A Long Story, in 2013. Although it's not long since he finally finished work on Atlantic Black, he says it feels as if it is receding into the past. He has already started work on a new collection of stories and having got back the rights to his first collection wondered about including some among the new lot.

"But those stories and Vegans, the novella and Black Rock White City are starting to feel that is the past and now I'm moving onto something else. The new stories I'm working on have a different feel to them, a different kind of cohesion, a different perspective."

So it's full steam ahead then.

Atlantic Black is published by Transit Lounge at $29.99.

This story A. S. Patric first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.