In conversation with Chris Womersley
It has been approximately nine years since Cairo was released in 2013. What are your thoughts about the book now?
Cairo was a fun book to write, and I am fond of it still due to it being partly based on my memories and feelings of being young and living in and around Fitzroy. When I go back to it, I feel like I can access that feeling that Tom has of being young and wanting to hang around with the cool kids. The book is also a bit of a love letter to Melbourne. Some of the key locations conjure up a certain nostalgia of the city during previous decades.
What are your first memories of Cairo Flats?
My first memories of the building relate to living in and around Fitzroy in my twenties and walking along Nicholson Street or catching a tram into the city. Looking through the front fence, I remember the building having a sense of alure. To be honest though, I feel like I did not properly pay attention to the building until I started writing the book in 2010. A friend that I worked with in a previous job lived in Cairo Flats and invited me in. This was the first time that I was able to have a proper look around and take some photos.
Did you do any research about Cairo Flats or speak to any residents before writing Cairo?
My original idea was to set Cairo in a generic block of flats and give the flats the name - Alexandria, after the famous city. I did not make this point in the book, but one reason I chose the building was that it is idiosyncratic and in a deco style. I also liked the fact that it was built around the time that Picasso painted the Weeping Woman. Once I chose Cairo Flats as one of the key locations, I did a little research on the internet, but I did not need to do an extensive amount of research about the building because I was fictionalising it in some respects.
What was the most surprising thing you heard in feedback after publishing Cairo in 2013?
One of the things that surprised me most was the number of people who contacted me saying that they knew someone who used to live at Cairo Flats, or someone saying that they went to a party in Cairo, that kind of thing. The building was more embedded in the cultural memory than I had given it credit for, when I was writing the book. The second thing was the number of theories that people contacted me with, regarding the theft of the Wheeping Woman painting in 1986. There are a couple of people who still email me periodically with their latest theories on the theft. When Framed – the television series came out in 2021, I got even more emails about various theories from people who had read Cairo.
Is there anything about the story of Cairo that you would have changed if you were releasing the book now?
When I was writing the book, I largely went off the newspaper articles about the theft to shape the story of Cairo and I sometimes regret that I did not talk to people in the art world to get their perspective on what happened. I don’t think I knew the fact that the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) students had access to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) via a door that was unlocked. If I had known this, I think I would have probably used it in the story of Cairo.
What is your theory about how the painting was stolen and if the real one was returned?
After hearing multiple theories since the book was published, my take on it is that it was a bunch of artists, and it was a bit of a prank. I don’t think that they had the ability to properly launder the painting, so it was returned. Before the book was released one person asked me if I had heard the theory that the painting that was returned to the gallery was a forgery? I actually did not know that this was a popular theory, but I did use it in the book for the purposes of the story. Having looked at the painting close-up, I don’t think it would be that hard to forge, so it is plausible that a forgery was returned, rather than the original. There has got to be at least half a dozen people who are still alive today, who know for certain who was involved in steeling the Weeping Woman back in 1986.
How is your new novel - The Diplomat connected to your previous novel Cairo?
The Diplomat is a companion piece to Cairo, not a sequel and it takes up the story of Edward, five years later in 1991. Edward returns to Melbourne after his wife has died and he has one last thing that he needs to do that involves him to going down to the Diplomat Hotel, which is a real building that used to be in Acland Street. I had a vision of a series of novels that are all named after different places, that take up the story of different characters. The original working title for The Diplomat was St Kilda, but then I settled on The Diplomat because like Cairo, it’s a place but, it is also ambiguous to draw the reader in.
You open Cairo with Pablo Picasso’s quote “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. What have you stolen?
[laughs]. Everyone borrows ideas from others, but the trick is to make it your own. I still have a copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, that I stole from a bookstore in Bourke Street in about 1983. I feel a little bad about that now.
What’s your favourite under-appreciated book?
I don’t know if it is under-appreciated but there is a 12-volume series of books called A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Whilst I was writing Cairo, it was one of the books that gave me the idea of a writing a sequence of books because his books are sort of stand-alone works but characters in it appear, disappear, and then reappear later in the series. A Dance to the Music of Time is a beautifully written and very moving. In my opinion it is well worth the time invested in it.
Interview with Chris Womersley conducted at Cairo Flats © 2022.