By Peter McKinnon
What was he thinking?
In his Sydney Morning Herald review of my book, Cameron Woodhead writes:
"Adapting the story of Christ to 1960s Australia? The Songs of Jesse Adams is about as ambitious as it could be, and it's a testament to Peter McKinnon's storytelling that it doesn't fall flat on its face from the outset" ('SMH' 30/8/14).
Then, Jen Vuk writing in ‘Eureka Street’ says:
"What was Peter McKinnon thinking? Taking on the important figure of Christianity and rebranding him a guitar-toting literary hero?" ('Eureka Street' 28/8/14).
The good news is both reviewers came down kindly on the book. But both, in their own way, were asking a pretty pivotal question: Why? Why take on a figure who is beyond iconic and re-imagine his story in a very different way to a potentially hostile local audience?
Part of my answer to these questions lies in the fact that the story followed me around for thirty years, asking me to tell its’ story and wouldn’t let me go. The story had its genesis in a little musical produced several decades ago by an energetic and passionate group of teenagers and twenty somethings. It dared to take an ancient story, a holy tale, and bring it alive in an uniquely Australian setting, with all the colour, characters and idioms of that place and time. It had an amazing impact, with total attendance figures running into five figures over ten performances. It seemed that people had an appetite for a story considered pious, boring and out of touch, but which now was brought alive:
- in a setting that was familiar;
- in a language they could relate to; and
- was rich with the foibles and failings of characters they could identify and laugh with.
Both the original musical and now the book were born of frustration.
Unlike, say, in the United States where God and patriotism are frequently uttered in the same sentence, religion is pretty much off limits for most Australians. Something private, to be avoided in polite and pub company, something stiff and uncomfortable, even embarrassing. Give us footy, politics and scandal any day. Our reactions are as much a part of our cultural cringe as our traditional national ‘inferiority complex’.
How then to bring an old story set in a strange land and culture into the flesh and bones of our realities and our voice so that the story might not just be heard anew and fresh - but heard at all? That was my ambition with The Songs of Jesse Adams.
I also wanted to lock the person of Jesus into events and characters that cross over into contemporary issues, like power and corruption and the pull of ‘big money’; the challenges of being a woman or gay or indigenous. To ask who are the ‘lepers/untouchables’ of today and how far does grace extend (really...) and love really reach?
Writer Valerie Sayers, writing in ‘Image’, wrote:
‘Our job is story: our job is poking around some little corner of the world our readers have never seen before, allowing them to experience its physicality, its ideas, its history, and perhaps even its future, in some way that defies logic, exposition, and instruction...It was, after all, the shocking narratives of the Gospels themselves that convinced me as a child, that convince me still, that the most unlikely and unsavoury characters are worthy of a storyteller’s attention, that this muck-filled world in which we are fully human is also where we ground our longing for the divine...’
Whether their eyes are on God or not, all writers worth reading ... stir up threat, possibility, celebration, crisis. Susan Sontag famously said that "real art should have the capacity to make us nervous."
It was important to me as a writer to immerse the figure of Jesus into just such a world and lead the reader into a deeper reflection.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek, Annie Dillard relates a story from her childhood growing up in Pittsburgh. She would take one of her own precious pennies and hide it in the roots of a sycamore or a hole in the pavement for someone else to find. Then she would take a piece of chalk and draw huge arrows on the sidewalk from both directions, labelling them with ‘Surprise Ahead’ or ‘Money This Way’. "'I was greatly excited,' she writes,...at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the Universe."
It is true that The Songs of Jesse Adams traces an ancient narrative well known to many of us. But it is, in the end, a fable, a tale, a novel. It lays down arrows and little signs for the reader. Whether he or she finds the prize in the tree at the end of the trail, I cannot predict.
I have experienced the highs of business success, lived on the edge of human experience with World Vision and now landed deeply into the joys and struggle of writing. In the midst of it all, the ‘free gift’ found me. Perhaps, for others, that is all I can hope for.
Set in the turmoil of social change and political unrest of Australia during the 1960s, The Songs of Jesse Adams traces the meteoric rise of a boy from the bush – a farmer’s son who breaks away to follow his heart, his dreams and his love of music. But, as Jesse travels with his band and the crowds gather, it becomes clear that something else is afoot. This rock singer captivates and transforms a host of fans who hear his songs and encounter his touch.
Lives are changed in unexpected ways and the enigmatic Jesse becomes a symbol of hope and freedom for those on society’s edge. But not all will celebrate the rising tide of influence of this charismatic figure whose words and actions challenge those in power – the media, the politicians, the church. In one tumultuous week this clash of ideals comes to a head – with profound consequences.
Awash in all the protest and collapse of conservative Australia, the colour and madness that was the sixties, The Songs of Jesse Adams is a tale of conflict, betrayal and tragedy, but ultimately the triumph of love.
For seventeen years, Peter McKinnon held senior roles in some of Australia’s largest corporations, with a focus on human behaviour and organisational effectiveness. This culminated in his appointment in 1999 as Executive General Manager, People & Culture, of Australia’s then largest financial organisation, National Australia Bank. In late 2006, Peter was approached to head up the global human resources function of World Vision International (WVI), based in Los Angeles. WVI is the world’s largest humanitarian aid organisation, with over 40,000 employees in 100 different countries and countless volunteers working in highly diverse and challenging settings.
When he returned to Australia in late 2009, he committed to pursuing his creative interests more directly and began to write. The Songs of Jesse Adams is the result.
Peter has been published in publications as wide-ranging as the 'Age', 'The Australian Women’s Weekly' and '4 x 4' magazine and regards winning a Pacific cruise for his writing as his crowning achievement in this field! He has also written and produced several musicals.
Peter is a qualified psychologist, has studied theology, worked briefly as a minister and served on the Council of the MCD University of Divinity.
He lives in Melbourne with his wife Julie. This is his first book.
http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/in-short-fiction-20140829-109y0i.html http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=41902#.VAPoF0j0y8U http://www.tobefrank.com.au/fair-dinkum-theology-with-an-australian-accent/the-songs-of-jesse-adams-jesus-comes-to-sunbury/