Todd Alexander discusses his latest book Tom Houghton with the Co-op chat.
Todd Alexander discusses his latest book Tom Houghton. So who is Tom Houghton? As a boy growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, Tom Houghton escapes the harshness of the schoolyard by cocooning himself in the cinema of the golden age of Hollywood. When he discovers that his favourite actress, Katharine Hepburn, modelled herself on her brother, Thomas Houghton Hepburn, Tom sinks deeper into his fantasy life. Determined to reveal his true identity to the world, Tom is propelled on a torturous path with disastrous consequences…
It’s how those two clashing, which really creates his character, but the book is also about Tom the 40-year-old, who’s a bit of a prickly guy. He’s pretty self-destructive, not the most committed of friends in the world, and I really set about creating a character that was going to be a challenge for people to get to like, but I wanted to show that what happened to him as a child has contributed to what kind of character he turned into, and hold that up to the reader and go, “Rather than be quick to judge who he is as a man, have a think about his history and see how that impacts your feelings towards him.”
I think for all of us, it’s constant reexamining. I think through out your daily life, things pop up that remind you of something that happened in childhood. You might see someone who reminds you of someone or is actually from your past. I think there is a constant reexamining. The question for me is how many of us have let go of childhood in the sense that maybe trauma happened, and it’s no longer impacting you, and how many of us are still living a life where we haven’t dealt with things that happened to us in our childhood? It’s certainly different for different people, but I think we’d be crazy to let go of our childhood years altogether, because they absolutely have informed who we are as adults. I think to a large degree, they’re keys in understanding who we are, and being better people.
When I started thinking about a 12-year-old boy in the western suburbs who is a big caught up in the fantasy world of film and actors and magazines and all those kind of things, it was almost inevitable that his peers would turn on him and single him out as being different. That’s I guess the challenging thing about bullying, is that the person who bullies is doing it for a reason, and sometimes we’ll never know why that’s the case, but one of my theories is that people hide behind bulling. There could be some really bad stuff going on at home, or you might have a few insecurities of your own.
The best way to hide behind that is to put someone else down for theirs, so that’s how that evolved the young Tom scenes. Bullying was pretty central into shaping who he was as a child, and therefore informed who he was as an adult.
A bit. It’s certainly not autobiographical. I liked film as a kid. I didn’t need film to escape any of the realities of life. I probably watched more films than the average kid because I just really enjoyed the art form and different actors and different directors, but when I started writing the book and the bullying things started evolving, I was reminded of quite a few kids that I went to school with who were really severely bullied. I was picked on at school. In those days, we were just taught that it was teasing, and to get over it, and to develop a thicker skin, but I remember a really good week for me was getting to Friday and not having anyone pick on me from Monday to Friday, and think, “Hey, that was a really good week.”
It was very, very rare that that continued much into the second week. Every five, six, four days, I was generally singled out, but I think that’s where the similarities end. This isn’t a book about me, it’s a book about someone who’s quite different to me, and I never really escaped into a world of fantasy. I always knew what I wanted to do and where I was going, and if people picked on me, then I always felt that there was a pretty firm path, a direction for me to follow to get out of it. The oldest scenes of Tom, you know we’ve all been a bit self-destructive. Certainly in our 20s and early 30s, I think most of us go through that invincible period, and we don’t really think about the consequences of our behaviour.
I’m certainly not the adult Tom, and anyone who knows me would tell you that there aren’t many similarities between us.
She’s quite happy to point out his flaws, but at the same time, she loves him for who he is, so it doesn’t expect that he’s to change. I think with Tom being an actor in his adult life, he’d be surrounded by superficiality nearly day in, day out and people who may want to get to know him for advancing their own careers, but Hannah is not like that. Hannah just holds the mirror up to Tom and says, “This is the brutal reality, so what are you going to do about it? I’m not going to stand for any of your shit.” I think he likes that.
I just like that not all of his characters are lovable, but I like that his writing holds the mirror up to the reader so that we critically assess our own lives and character.
Very different to school. It was almost a revelation. I worked really hard in the HAC. I studied my guts out, and I would spend my weekends inside memorizing essays, etcetera. When I got to university, I said, “I’m not going to work my guts out as severely as that.” The other revelation for me is that there was just everyone accepted everyone else at face value. There wasn’t teasing, there wasn’t bullying. Everyone was just there to sort out the next phase of their life. I really loved university. I studied arts and law. It’s weird, I knew I wasn’t going to be a lawyer almost from day one. It just wasn’t the right career for me, but I loved what the degree did and how it challenged my mind.
I wouldn’t trade those years. I was there at uni for five years, but I think a lot of people are at uni saying, “I don’t know what my next step’s going to be.” I think that’s quite all right, and I certainly wouldn’t relive my uni years going, “Right, on day one I’m going to be doing this when I live, after five years.” I think it’s quite okay to let those years unfurl before you, and then make your next decision after that.
I have to write chronologically, and it’s a pure escapism for me. I don’t really censormyself during those early drafts. I just let all the writing come out, and it’s a great escape. I can sit down and write, and then after a few hours go, “I can’t believe I’ve been sitting on my desk for three or four hours,” whereas nonfiction is more like crossing points off a checklist and making sure they were all included.
I’ve just started laying out how to get that research done.
Good. I’d like to thank Todd for joining us on the Co-Op Chat, and we look forward to grabbing a copy of Tom Houghton from the Co-Op Store or online, and seeing what comes next.