Book Bitches
7 min

Christian Baines, master of puppets

The author can’t stop pulling our strings

After the international success of his first novel, The Beast Without, a fresh take on vampires, Australian author Christian Baines has unleashed his latest anti-hero in Puppet Boy. Eric is a budding film director eager to get to LA by any means necessary and the high-school drama that is his life makes Cruel Intentions look like Sweet Valley High.

His career as a teenage gigolo gets complicated by a bisexual love triangle, an attempt to stop local parents from censoring his production of Shakespeare’s most notorious play, and the naked man he’s keeping tied up in his basement. Baines is clearly having a great time pulling Eric’s strings (and the reader’s) so I decided to turn the tables on him with a spontaneous trans-Pacific chat.

Scott Dagostino: Normally I’d do a more structured interview but, in honour of your controlling hero, I’d thought it’d be fun to put you on the spot a little. What would Eric say?

Christian Baines: Alright, so . . . you want to interview him, or are you asking what he’d say about something in particular?

Just what he’d say about me putting you on the spot. I love that you would do the interview as a character though.

Given that question’s not about him, he’d probably be pretty much disinterested. Eric has a strange concept of empathy. Not absent. Just odd. I tried writing the book in the first person and it just didn’t work getting inside the character like that. He needs that layer of distance.

Given that your last novel was from the point of the view of a vampire, I’m guessing you find the anti-hero a lot more interesting, yes?

Much more interesting. It’s not that they have further to grow necessarily, but I find their journey is much more interesting. Finding their vulnerabilities and needs, things you can relate to in a character you’d probably avoid in real life. Particularly in LGBT fiction. There are enough authors out there writing traditionally likable LGBT main characters in the current environment. Why not do something different? Plus, they’re a challenge, and they let me indulge in a little bad behaviour on the page.

That’s a big part of what’s fun in this book — from James Dean to Logan on Veronica Mars, everyone loves the teen rebel — but it was hard at first to sympathize with a character who’s struggling with so many crises caused almost entirely by himself. How difficult did you want to make things for Eric? And why?

He’s kind of Daria by way of Frank Underwood. He’s socially aware and critical of the absurdities around him, but his relentlessness and willingness to manipulate anyone to get his way — whether it’s to address those absurdities or accomplish a more selfish goal, undercut him a lot of the time. It’s that single-mindedness that blinds him to what he has. We never get an exact picture of how he’s been let down in the past. You can sort of piece it together from his thoughts and conversations, but whatever it is, it’s made him determined to be totally self-reliant. It’s both his biggest asset and his worst failing.

I liked that he empathized with Othello and Titus but found Hamlet dull. Says a lot. How big a Shakespeare fan are you?

Not as much as some. I love the tragedies. The comedies I tend to take or leave, but that I think just reflects my tastes. In the end, they’re still the best plays ever written with endless scope for interpretation, so that well is never going to run dry. There’s always a new way to interpret them. Eric’s mind is on a totally different planet to others a lot of the time, so it made sense for him to be drawn towards the less popular plays. As for Othello, I think he’s totally aware of his trust issues, even if he doesn’t want to address them, so of course something in that play speaks to him.

Yeah, his need for control is what makes him relatable and yet a bit scary, and I was intrigued how BDSM and sex work played into that need. Who’s really in control? Can a top ever truly be completely in command?

Absolutely not. I’ve always seen sex and particularly BDSM as a collaboration. It has to be. Most masters I know, when a submissive says “no limits” will walk right away from that submissive. Eric enjoys the sex work because of the control it gives him over the so-called “leaders” of society who hire him. As for that one character (you know the one I mean), Eric appears to give up all control, but it’s all as a means to an end. His clients need to put an awful lot of trust in him. He’s in control the entire time.

I think what I enjoyed most about the book was seeing all these puzzle pieces falling into place at the end, even as I’d hadn’t really been aware there was a puzzle at all. How complicated was the plotting for you? Did you start with the main character and work all this around him, or did your story require a manipulative kind of guy to pull it off?

The story wouldn’t work with a conventionally moral character. Eric has a goal from the story’s outset, and everything hangs off that. But the unreliable narrative made the plotting more of a challenge. I found myself questioning if certain characters even existed at certain points. But it also freed up the story in some important ways. There are some questions in there that do have definitive answers — in my mind at least — that aren’t explicitly stated. The book also didn’t have an ending until very, very late.

I liked that I found Joe almost entirely (and irritatingly) implausible until you revealed why and then I felt stupid. Thanks for that! 

You’re welcome! Would be kind of cool though wouldn’t it? Every household needs a Joe. I want a Joe. Potential housebreakers be warned.

I do want a Joe, yes! So, while I still have you as my puppet, a final round of questions . . . 

The imagery! Yes?

Everyone always wonders how autobiographical an author’s main character is (silly question as the answer is always, “all of them”) so with you, I’ll play a quick round of “Have You Ever . . . ?”

Have you ever been in a bisexual love triangle?

Depends how you define gender.

Fine answer! But I’ll need more detail than that, mister.

I’ve never dated a man and a woman at the same time, no. Any more detail than that is going to get me into trouble.

. . . been involved in a Shakespeare production?

Strangely no. Only scenes in an acting class. Even our high school only did “Christian” plays. Titus probably would have been less traumatic for all.

. . . had sex in a classroom?

Not that was good enough to remember.

. . . been physically attacked by an opera singer?

Only by her cat, for which she apologised. I thought it liked me!

. . . worn a dog collar?

Yes! And I’m told I give excellent scritches too.

. . . referred to yourself as having been born in Australia but not an Australian? (and what’s that about, by the way?)

I’ve kind of been doing the whole nomad, living-out-of-suitcase thing for almost four years now. But no, I have no problem telling people I’m Australian. I don’t quite have the chip Eric carries on his shoulder about it. I do cringe at a lot of the “Aussie” stereotypes though, like a lot of Australians. There’s an anti-intellectual attitude and tall poppy syndrome in Australia. Everyone’s aware it sucks, but we can’t quite shake it. A lot of Australian artists find it a real fight to be taken seriously or get their material out there. Forget the spiders, it’s the cynicism that can kill you! So a lot of Australian artists take off to the US or UK the first chance they get. It’s sad because Australia has the talent, but the market and appetite for it here is so small. Hopefully that’ll change. Who knows? Cultural nuances and all. For decades it wasn’t at all unusual for Aussies who felt they didn’t fit to take off to London and never look back, like they had this self-loathing about their nationality. I’m happy to claim where I’m from. Just as long as people don’t decide that’s “my place” and tie me down there.

Yeah, Canadian artists struggle with this too. Nobody loves them until the Americans do, and then it’s all, “Canada’s own . . .” Ugh.

Right? It’s hugely noticeable in theatre, because that scene is so small. I just finished reading Jordan Tannahill’s Theatre of the Unimpressed, and among other things it touches on a lot of this “national insecurity” in the arts. Australia and Canada are I guess the big “beta” Anglo culture markets, so there’s this pressure and self-doubt that’s there. Sometimes you just want to scream, “Quit trying to find the great Canadian/Australian novel! We already have people writing great novels!”

Indeed! Many writers say they love novels because, unlike the collaborative theatre or film arts, the author is in total control, manipulating the characters as they see fit. Other writers, however, often say that the characters take on lives of their own and the author becomes a mere conduit for their expression. Which were you here? Top or bottom?

I usually start at the top and work my way down. Some of my characters could use a few tips on being “gentle.”

In the end, we are all your puppets. Cheers for playing along and congrats on a terrific read!

Thanks for having me!