Unambiguously, a writer

It took a while, but Elliot Perlman finally proved to himself that he had made it in his chosen field.

BY CHRIS JOHNSTON 

Although Elliot Perlman studied law, economics and politics at Monash in the 1980s, he always wanted to write fiction. Which is what he does now, with huge success. His book Seven Types of Ambiguity was recently turned into a television drama for the ABC starring Alex Dimitriades, Hugo Weaving and Susie Porter. 

He wrote what he calls his first “adult” short story while a student – “adult, meaning that I wasn’t ashamed of it within four days”. He was always reading literature and writing and reading more – always more. 

After Monash and a stint backpacking, he became a solicitor in corporate law, then a barrister, writing all the while. Then he got a job as an associate to a Supreme Court judge, which had more regular working patterns; it was more of a nine-to-five role. 

In a year he penned the first draft of his acclaimed first novel, Three Dollars, which went on to win The Age Book of the Year award. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and picked up gongs in the UK. Then, when he wrote the screenplay for a film adaptation of the work, he won an AFI award, as well as an Australian Film Critics’ Circle Award. 

His subsequent short story collection, The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, was a bestseller in America. The answer was now stark. He was a writer, not a lawyer. 

“I recognise that it has been good for me to study law and practise it. Just as it was good to study economics and politics. I chose those three areas because I wanted to know how the world worked, and without a bent for maths I couldn’t go into the sciences. 

Perlman’s writing – while not about economics, law and politics – is steeped in these things. He’s interested in how people maintain a life within economic and political systems, and how they interact with each other and those systems. 

He’s also very influenced by the idea of research; in his case empirical research. He researches his fiction like a journalist would research an issue – from the ground up. 

He’s now back living in Melbourne after nine years in New York. He’s working on a new novel and agrees that the big theme in all his work is the connection between humans. 

“Everyone’s connected in ways you can never begin to imagine,” he says. “We’ve got to care about each other because that guy over there is me, it’s for whom the bell tolls.

“This tendency that our species has to divide ourselves into groups then select another group for really appalling treatment, it needs to be corrected. We never fully conquer this.”