EUAN MITCHELL, INTERVIEWED (1999): Hitchin' around mate.

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EUAN MITCHELL, INTERVIEWED (1999): Hitchin' around mate.

Australian first-time novelist Euan Mitchell is recounting his life story and hits the extended punchline with a broad smile.

"Then I did something which was probably as foolish as leaving home with $4 in my pocket. I quit my job as a senior editor with a multinational publisher to finish the book - with a wife and two young kids, and a mortgage.

"I couldn't get unemployment benefit because I'd quit my job, and I had no publishing deal, so we ran ourselves into debt ... and I'm pleased to say the gamble paid off."

Handsomely, too. Feral Tracks - a freewheeling fictionalised account of Mitchell taking to the highway in the 70s at age 16 with $4 in his pocket - has sold upwards of 5000 copies in his homeland where "sales for first-time writers are respectable if you've sold 1500."

ABC and Fox are looking at it as a miniseries.

Feral Tracks is a discreetly crafted book based on a year in Mitchell's life when he quit school and stuck out his thumb. He hitch-hiked from Melbourne to Perth, up the west coast and through the Northern Territories where he worked as a jackaroo. Along the way he surfed, smoked dope, worked jobs he knew nothing about, almost lost his life, and met a dizzying array of characters from millionaires to Aboriginal stockmen.

Feral_Tracks_coverWhile the book recounts these adventures, it does so without suggesting it as a viable lifestyle, and with the same equanimity as he recounts the good times, Mitchell also paints the dark side.

Yet, as with any of the better road novels, its momentum has been the result of "sweating blood to make it look like it was written in one sitting - there was a lot of polishing and editing."

Because of its style and subject it has crossed the boundaries between teenage literature and kidult. Mitchell says he's also seen it in Australiana and humour sections. It fits all categories, although that initially worked against it, he says.

After his year on the road, Mitchell went back to school and qualified from university with an arts degree in maths and music ("overeducated and underqualified") and got into publishing and researching text books on popular music for Ausmusic.

He played in a Melbourne band (Making Noises), picked away at Feral Tracks, then joined a publishing house. He quit to finish his book, and when he was looking for a publisher he had to hear the same excuse he had used to aspiring authors.

"Publishers said two things. The first was that they were rationalising their lists and cutting back on authors. But more confusing was that my book crossed over and had a youth and adult audience - and they felt that would confuse book stores. The thing is, publishers want books to cross over.

"No self-respecting teenager buys something from 'young adult.' How patronising is that?"

So he published Feral Tracks himself - and has seen its sales figures steadily climb.

Even a cursory glance through its rolling narrative shows why: the story reaches a broad demographic, but in its faithfulness to idiomatic language Mitchell has written from within the oral tradition of great Aussie yarns. He also touches on the larrikin spirit of Australia, so it is fair to ask if that still exists or has it been supplanted by the latte lifestyle?

"There's certainly been an erosion of the larrakin spirit. Many Australians today have this image of an Outback, bronzed Aussie, whereas most haven't seen the Outback. Ninety per cent live in cities and towns on the southeast seaboard, so this is a view of Australia that Australians don't see.

"And economic rationalism has dampened peoples' spirits. Road rage is a symptom of people working longer and harder and with no job security, and that puts pressure on the larrakin spirit."

Whether it is possible to take to the road today as Mitchell did in the 70s is a more difficult question. He believes it's possible, although he notes that his book doesn't encourage it, and concedes the drug culture in particular has changed.

"In the 70s you used to have to know where to go to score. Now it's in your face."

In a suburb in Melbourne, Collingwood, the main road Smith St is now known as Smack St, he says. "If you walk down that street in broad daylight you'll be asked, 'Are ya chasin? Are ya chasin?' It'll be outside the supermarket, not in the back stairways."

When he takes his kids to St Kilda beach for a swim they check the sand for abandoned syringes.

"Issues like suicide, drugs and homelessness, which were just starting to emerge in the 70s, have come to fruition in the 90s and that's why it's struck a chord with so many readers."

He also notes his contact with Aboriginals has been rare. Segregation was practised, which people today find surprising.

"At 16 I was in the pub ordering beers for Aboriginal men who weren't allowed in. There was no sign saying 'whites only' but it was understood."

Admitting he hasn't been back to the stock stations since, he says friends tell him it is worse today "because the tensions have grown."

"In the 70s, while land rights as an issue was emerging, the Aboriginal community wasn't standing up for its rights the same way as it is now, and there's still a lot of residue racism. There's been genuine progress but there have been pockets of resistance."

So, why "imaginings based on facts" and not an autobiography?

Mitchell say he knew it would be easier to speak in schools and institutions about the central character Daniel in the third person, that his first chapter of a feral summer trip to Perth was a condensation of two trips, and a novelisation allowed him to heighten the drama and sharpen the humour.

"Alfred Hitchcock once said movies are life without the boring bits. I think novels are the same."

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