Watching birds with William McInnes

In his latest novel, this big Australian reports back from real life

“I had this great teacher at acting school and he’d say, ‘Never believe how good people say you are, and never believe how bad they say you are, but err on believing the bad side, that’ll keep you honest.’” Clare Kennedy talks to William McInnes about his latest novel and acting life.

It’s a typically grounded comment from actor and author William McInnes, 49, who has over two decades received critical acclaim for his television and film acting roles.

More recently, in 2013 he starred in the ABC television series ‘The Time of Our Lives’ and in 2014, he plays host on the series, ‘Hello Birdy’, which sees him heading off to remote parts of Australia in search of birds. “You know those British documentaries where some important guy imparts wisdom? Well, it’s not like that!” McInnes laughs. “Some of the things I do are stupid.” In one of them, for instance, he agrees to extract semen from an emu. But I digress.

Actor to author

McInnes has also carved out a niche as a successful author, having written three novels, three nonfiction books and one history.

We meet at Elsternwick cafe Artful Dodger, an appropriate choice given how hard it was to nail down an interview. McInnes has just returned to Melbourne after a Queensland book tour promoting his latest novel, The Birdwatchers – and has managed to squeeze me in after rehearsal at the Ripponlea studios for the second series of ‘The Time of Our Lives’, and before a haircut and dye for his character role.

“I’ll have to spend a lot of time sitting down on camera,” he jokes, ruefully, “I’ve just got to look about 10 kg lighter than I am.”

As to the series: “There’s some good people in it. It polarizes people, gets a reaction. It has a large loyal audience who see parts of their lives reflected in it, and that’s really good drama, I reckon.”

Today, I’m attempting to talk to him about The Birdwatchers, though he keeps digressing with hilarious and outrageous anecdotes. He has an eye for the absurd, and a deep affection for Australian culture. It’s all grist for the mill, including that as a schoolboy, he was taken on excursion to the pineapple cannery, whereas now, some schoolkids go to Nepal or on a tour of England’s hallowed cricket grounds.

He’s a natural storyteller, could have been a comedian. He reminds me of John Cleese with his slapstick humour and frenetic energy as he mimics an arrogant politician, now a pompous cleric, then satirizes himself. He stands up and gesticulates to illustrate a point – and often belly laughs.

McInnes has charisma, charm in spades, and a nice sideline in self-deprecation. But what about the book? He looks at me with a playful twinkle in his eye, and I realise I’m going to have to wrestle some answers out of him.

The Birdwatchers

McInnes shifts seamlessly into a serious register explaining that his wife Sarah, who succumbed to cancer in November 2011, had made notes for a new film before she died, which would become the basis for The Birdwatchers.

The novel is a love story woven around avid birdwatcher David Thomas, who drops everything to glimpse a rare bird in Queensland. But as McInnes explains, the book is about more than birds.

“It’s a particularly quiet story and it’s all about mortality as much as anything else and accepting that we all die, and it’s not a bad thing. Most literature is about cheating death or contemplating it. Not existing is terrifying, to me anyway. But you can’t do anything about it. It’s inevitable.”

He observes that many people live in a convenient bubble, ignoring mortality. “You can hide from it, and then shut off from life and not engage, but I think the best way to go about it is to share life,” he says.

For this novel, McInnes tried writing from a female perspective through the characters Clare, a breast cancer survivor, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Jas. “I can’t invent that much stuff, so I draw from life,” he says, simply.

He quietly agrees there’s a lot of Sarah in the novel. When I say that he writes sensitively about breast cancer, he says candidly, “I’ve been in a foul mood this week because it’s coming up to Christmas and Sarah and I really enjoyed that time of year. She really loved life and living. And it’s just awful to lose someone who you were going to grow old with, have arguments with…dies… it knocks you around a lot.”

He pauses to reflect. “I quite liked the book, it’s genuine emotion. People make sense of death and mortality in lots of ways – and that’s my attempt at it, anyway.”

In particular, the novel explores the wisdom of not judging people on face value.

“Everyone’s had bits and pieces knocked off them by life. When you take someone at face value, you don’t actually delve any deeper. When you get to know someone, it means you just can’t treat them the same way as everyone else.”

The book also celebrates the small moments in life. The joy of making a stove-brewed coffee, a quiet moment on the verandah in the company of a bird. McInnes believes that things don’t need to be on a huge scale, like new year fireworks, to be wondrous.

The novel is soulful at times; the feeling it evokes is heightened by snippets of poems such as Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.

“It’s a great poem, because when you think you’re alone, you can find yourself in a really bad place and there’s no way out of it, and I think people make really bad decisions then.” He quotes faultlessly:

From oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

“It’s like a portal. My dad used to say poems are like distilled literature. I like that poem because it lets you know you’re never alone, no matter where you may find yourself, someone’s been there before.

“I have this great fondness for Australian art and literature.” He mentions Boyd and Tucker and Slessor. “I put in the book the things I love.”

William McInnes is a member of Media Super. ‘Hello Birdy’ commences screening on the ABC in February, 2014

Photo supplied by William McInnes.