Mark MacLean

Wednesday, Jul 18, 2012

I first came across Mark MacLean via his blog, Hamilton North a year or so ago. As often happens with the interweb, I can’t exactly remember how or why. What matters is I found it and in turn have had the pleasure of reading Mark wax lyrcial about, well, erm… Newcastle’s open drains.

He remained anonymous to me for much of that time and it wasn’t until I got chatting with Trevor Dickinson at last year’s TINA zine fair that I learnt that he and Mark were pals and that Mark was in fact the Mark MacLean of beloved MacLeans Booksellers on Beaumont Street (now sold on and in capable hands of Max & Amanda Shirley).

Then a few months back I was visiting MacLeans and perusing their local Newcastle section that I chanced upon A Year Down The Drain; Walking in Styx Creek, January to December by none other than Mark MacLean. Naturally I bought a copy and bent back the cover of my second book of the year (the internet has so much to answer for).

I’m glad Mark is writing books instead of only selling them. He has a gift, somewhat uncannily like his friend Trevor,  of taking something ordinary or even less than ordinary, such as storm water detritus and industrial wasteland, and wrapping them up in such a way that they become nostalgic signs of our times.


Condensed CV:

I first came to Australia, aged 23, in 1985. I’d done an apprenticeship when I left school and when I got here I started working as an electrician on Cockatoo Island. About one week in I realised that that this was not what I’d crossed the world for. I mooched around for a few years, took a history degree and eventually got a job on the bottom rung of a publisher. It was in the language centre of the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD), an adult education college in Alice Springs, and we published learner’s guides, dictionaries, children’s books and readers in Aboriginal languages. It was here that I learnt about publishing; I was surrounded by brilliant people and it was an incredibly exciting time professionally. After a decade in Alice Springs, and having had the first of our children, my partner Christine and I moved to Newcastle and opened MacLean’s Booksellers on Beaumont Street. After five years as booksellers we sold MacLean’s and I went back to publishing, as a freelance editor. Christine and I have run Bruderlin MacLean Publishing Services ever since.
What has been your most memorable project?
In terms of the thrill and the risk and the opportunity to realise a vision, opening a bookshop would have to be up there. There’s nothing quite like putting your life savings on the line to focus the attention.
What would be your dream project?
I have all kinds of idle fantasies about being a massively successful author but as far as projects are concerned, they all come from within rather than being commissioned. And so whatever I’m working on right now is the dream project, otherwise I’d stop and do something else. In 2009 I published a collection of short stories; in 2010 I did a zine, with help from Trevor Dickinson; and in 2011 I published A Year Down the Drain: Walking in Styx Creek. This year it’s a longer piece of fiction; it’s good to keep moving, keep changing.  

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
By the time I left IAD we’d built up good list of books and a fantastic team of people, and there were successful traineeships happening. That was incredibly satisfying. Getting MacLean’s Booksellers up and running from scratch was huge, too.
What is your most treasured possession?
A biscuit tin with a picture of the young Queen Elizabeth II embossed on the lid. My mother kept all kinds of things in it – photos, certificates, clippings from the newspaper, letters home from family members – and now it’s in my care. It’s the first thing I’d run for if the house were on fire. After the kids. Of course.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
I usually take Jambo, my cairn terrier, for a walk along Styx Creek. It’s a ritual that sets me up for the day, and blogging about the creek forces me to write when I can’t be bothered to. Like many people in similar professions in Newcastle, my office is a converted tin shed at the end of the garden, and so my commute takes about seven seconds. I usually have three or four editing projects on the go at any one time, all at different stages. The hardest task is to carve out time amongst the billable hours to get some writing done. 

What is your most valuable pearl of wisdom gained since starting your business?
There will always be a typo. Every book project has errors because every book project has a budget and a schedule, none of which are controlled by the editor. There comes a point where no more checks can be made. As an editor your task is to make the manuscript as clean and consistent as possible, but editing’s a lot like housework: no one notices the 99% of things that you’ve done, only the 1% of things that you’ve haven’t. I kind of don’t mind any more anyways; it gives people a massive sense of satisfaction to find a typo in your work. Knock yourself out, kids!
Where do you derive creative inspiration?
I’m in a reading group, which is a good discipline as it makes me read at least one book a month that’s not of my choosing.Walking in places where there are trees and water keeps me sane. I grew up on a tidal estuary and as much as I love Newcastle’s beaches, the places that nourish me are the places where saltwater and freshwater come together. Being near people who come up with good ideas and then carry them out is always inspiring.
Printmaker Christine Bruderlin has done the covers of two of my books, both of them gorgeous.
Trevor Dickinson has nailed the art of producing artwork that appears to be whisked out in seconds but contains huge amounts of careful thought and sheer hard work.

Which other designers, artists or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
I love well-written dialogue. I enjoy the books of Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle and Paul Auster.
Comedy writing is the hardest of all and the American team-writing system has produced some brilliant TV in recent years. Whether or not you like shows such as, say, Big Bang Theory, they’re worth watching for the way in which they maintain a narrative arc whilst keeping the inner momentum of the set up/gag, set up/gag, set up/gag moving. I’ve got several books of Andy Goldsworthy’s work and I can spend hours going through them.
What are some of your favourite websites or blogs?
Picture-sharing blogs are always fun to flick through: I like Showbag and Swamp Life on Tumblr. In a world where anyone with a iPhone and an app’s a photographer, I think that Andrew Forrer’s got a great eye for the urban landscape and Max Elliott. for the natural world.
John Birmingham is a working writer. I go to his Cheeseburger Gothic blog as it reminds me just how much discipline and work is needed to earn a living from writing.
British scriptwriter James Cary’s Sitcom Geek is interesting for his analysis of comedy shows from a writer’s perspective.
As a former bookseller, I love the blog from London bookshop Crow on the Hill; just odd thoughts and snippets of things customers have said. For book reviews and opinion, Bookslutis a great clearing house.
The contributors to the US Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Francaare some of the best editors around.
During the northern winter I spend far too much time at the Barrow AFC fan forum. I’ll also tune in to BBC Radio Cumbria at stupid times of the morning to listen to Barrow getting beaten by some other small, regional, non-league team. It’s too sad for words. 
I can’t work with talk radio or music but if I’m doing something brainless then BBC Radio 4’s Book Show, News Quiz and History Today.
Apart from your work, what other interests, passions, hobbies do you have?
Most of my working day involves sitting down at a computer. I made a Winston Churchill-style standing desk so that I’m not on my bum stooped over a keyboard all day but that only works for some jobs, so I go to Aikido as much as possible. It helps me untangle my body and tangle it up again in new ways.
I’ve been a birdwatcher since I was a kid, when I started collecting birds eggs. “Birdwatcher” is a synonym for a kind of socially awkward nerd, which is OK by me. 

How long have you been a Novocastrian?
I’ve been coming to Newcastle in a regular basis since 1987, but moved here permanently in 1997.
Newcastle in a word?
What do you love and hate about living in Newcastle?
It’s very much a place of opportunity. If you have an idea and the determination to realise that idea then you can be very successful here very quickly.
It’s also got an amazing climate. When I moved here after ten years in Alice Springs I used to walk down the street in the middle of the afternoon without a hat on for sheer joy of knowing I could do it without being fried alive.
“Hate” is a strong word, but after Alice Springs I found it took a while to connect with people. There was a sense that all the folk I met already had enough friends, thank you, and so they didn’t need to get to know anyone new. Most of my closest friends are people like me who aren’t born-and-bred Novocastrians but have settled here long term.
How is Newcastle different to anywhere else?
In the twenty-plus years I’ve been living or visiting here I think it’s changed enormously, and some of those changes (as with any large city in the world) have had a homogenising effect. The thing that differentiates any town or city is its geography and topography. Newcaslte city centre’s being at “end of the line” is seen by some as holding it back but I see it as its strength. We’ve got rivers, wetlands, beaches, headlands: all features that have “held the town back” yet make Newcastle unique.

Where are your favourite places in Newcastle / Hunter to:
+ eat
I recently came across Peppertown Café, 1 Maitland Rd (cnr Selwyn St), Mayfield East.
+ drink
Gateway Hotel, 139 Maitland Rd, Islington
Albion Hotel, 72 Hannell St, Wickham
The Lass O’Gowrie Hotel, 14 Railway St, Wickham
+ shop
MacLean’s Booksellers, 69 Beaumont St, Hamilton
+ play
Saku Shin Kan Aikido, 7 Bennett St, Hamilton
+ relax
Styx Creek, Clyde Street gasworks (Georgetown), quiz night at the Gateway.
What is Newcastle / Hunter’s best-kept secret?
Its network of “drains”, the creeks and waterways that thread through the suburbs and stitch them together. Endless hours of fun to be had down there!


  • JonathanM

    Thanks for the mention. Love the book jackets. Best, Jonathan.

  • Craig

    Great interview, very enjoyable, A Year Down The Drain was a tremendous work that has seen me recently exploring more of Hamilton North and finding all sorts of curious spots I never knew about.

  • Mark MacLean: A year down the drain | books we have read

    […] actually pretty special after all. And National ABC Radio and the Independent Best Seller list and others […]

  • Penny Fox

    I heard your interview today. I lived in Wickham, Hamilton and The junction while at uni, (at Tighes Hill) so I know your area well. Can I please access your blog.
    Penny Fox

  • Michael ,Sally and Margaret

    Great to meet you and Jambo in the drain this evening Mark, and thanks again for your insights in to this forgotten link between the land the river and the sea. Saw heaps of eels in “The Beck” as far as New Lambton South this time around . Our daughter Margaret was impressed !
    Reckon you’d enjoy 2 recent books; “Ocean of Life” Prof. Callum Roberts, and “Saltwater People” John Ogden.
    All the best !!

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