My interview with Melbourne lawyer-turned-author Elliot Perlman featured on the Domain Review cover this week. COVID-19 restrictions have delayed the print edition, so here’s a link to the story (also pasted below), as well as pics showing the print layout, including great pics by Julian Kingma.
Perlman has been picked up by Paramount Television Studios in the US, who want him to adapt his latest novel, Maybe The Horse Will Talk, for tv. They also want his unique voice, so they’ve made him executive producer on the show as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book in preparation for our chat and can recommend – particularly if you have some connection with the law or lawyers (and let’s face it, who doesn’t!). Looking forward to the day when I can visit some of the great places mentioned in the book!
Elliot Perlman adapts his Melbourne-based novel Maybe the Horse Will Talk for US television
Coffee in the city at Degraves Street Espresso Bar. Cocktails at Romeo Lane. Beers at the Grosvenor in St Kilda. Late nights upstairs at the Espie’s Alfred Felton bar. At this moment in time, one can’t help but feel a sense of jealousy, loss, or perhaps grief, following the exploits of characters in Elliot Perlman’s latest novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, which came out last October and is set in pre-COVID Melbourne.
Perlman, best known for Three Dollars (made into an award-winning film with David Wenham in 2005) and Seven Types of Ambiguity (adapted into an award-winning television series in 2017 and screened on the ABC), was recently asked by Paramount Television Studios to adapt his newest book for the US small screen and be executive producer. It’s an “incredible opportunity” says the writer, who lives in the inner-south-east of Melbourne with his wife and two young sons.
Maybe the Horse Will Talk starts with second-year solicitor Stephen Maserov fighting for survival at cut-throat Collins Street law firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche. At home in Elwood, he’s father to two young children, but the ex-teacher’s marriage is falling apart, he’s about to lose his job as a solicitor and life is spiralling out of control. In desperation, Maserov buys more time by getting himself seconded to one of the firm’s biggest clients: a construction company battling multiple sexual harassment claims.
The story that follows is a darkly humorous, well-observed account of corruption, abuse of power, corporate bullying and the precariousness of modern life.
While these are universal themes, Perlman’s peppering of references to Jeff Kennett, northside craft beer and pale-faced lawyers lurking in their Hawthorn heritage houses make the novel unmistakably Melbourne. Sadly, that will all have to be cut for the television version. “The whole deal with Paramount is that they want me to adapt it for an American city with everybody being American. So, the only thing that remains Australian about it is me.”
But maybe, just maybe, that’s how a piece of our city slips in – via a Melburnian who was specifically chosen to tell the story in his unique voice, which Perlman describes as “a little bit, I guess, darkly comic, a little bit caustic, a bit cynical, at least in this novel”. Sounds kind of Melbourne to me.
Although the American setting is still to be decided Perlman says cities such as LA or New York are out, in favour of more ‘generic’ metropolises such as Chicago. And while it’s uncertain on what platform the series will screen, Paramount has indicated its preference for streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV or premium cable, such as HBO. “The beauty of that is that you can be edgy, people can still swear, people can say things a bit more honestly,” says Perlman.
Perlman wrote the book over five years and in between other gigs, including a theatre script and his new children’s book sequel, Catvinkle and the Missing Tulips, due to be released this October. The lapsed lawyer and barrister (he hasn’t practised for 20 years) says the idea for Maybe the Horse Will Talk came from a children’s fairy tale his father told him, by the Sufi philosopher Nasreddin. In it, a court jester falls out of favour with the king but manages to stay his execution for a year by promising to teach his ruler’s prized horse to talk.
“I thought, let’s tell a story of adults in this incredibly precarious world of work where so many … people are subject to what gets called ‘work-family conflict’ – that situation where the demands of the world of work are incompatible with the demands of family and social bonds,” Perlman says.
“You can’t properly satisfy both. And that’s the case whether you’re experiencing over-work in a competitive workplace or insufficient work and insufficient income in the ever-growing, ever-threatening sideshow that is the gig economy.”
At the heart of his novel Perlman has created an environment where workers are in constant fear of being sacked by their all-powerful, unstable overlords; where sexual harassment is routine, and corruption is rife – material all gleaned from Perlman’s own early days as a lawyer and by talking to younger lawyers and professionals today.
“I didn’t suffer as badly as Maserov did, personally, but I saw people who did,” he says. “And I didn’t love it. I much preferred my life as a barrister to my life as a solicitor.”
Perlman recalls secretaries coming into his office, closing the door and crying. He became a shoulder to lean on.
“And all I could do was tell them that maybe they should try to work for somebody else. You know, it was pretty basic advice but I didn’t know what else to tell them because the powers-that-be didn’t care.”
On the day we speak, sexual harassment is again in the news, this time in the highest court of the land with allegations of sexual misconduct made against former High Court justice Dyson Heydon QC. Meanwhile, the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has weakened job security even further, making the stakes of speaking up against improper behaviour at work even greater.
Perlman is under no illusion that his tale will start a revolution but hopes at the very least it will help some people feel less alone: people who are too busy keeping their head down at work to think about these issues.
“I’m telling them, ‘You know how you do this, and you do that? Isn’t it crazy? Isn’t it unhealthy? Do you realise that everybody is feeling this way?’ Nothing is going to change if we don’t start talking about it.”