Over the last few years Gabriel Bergmoser has proved one of Melbourne’s more prolific playwrights and authors in the independent and Young Adult space respectively. Off the back of Movie Maintenance and Boone Shepard, Bergmoser struck out in search of his next big project, and landed a two-book deal with Harper Collins Australia including The Hunted.
The Hunted is profoundly different to Bergmoser’s other work, and also a natural evolution in many ways. Paradox is at the heart of this story. It’s a full-throttle thriller set in the Australian outback, revisiting ideas Bergmoser explored during his time on Movie Maintenance, and sees the return of the shotgun-wielding Maggie at the core of its mystery. I sat down with Bergmoser via video call to discuss his writing process, the new novel and what’s next for the Mansfield author. I started by asking him to describe the story in his own words.
“The Hunted is a thriller that takes place on a dusty, desolate, deserted highway in the middle of nowhere Australia,” Bergmoser explained. “It centres on Frank who is an aging roadhouse attendant. He’s been living out there by himself for a long time. You get the impression there’s something in his past he’s running from but when we meet him his young grandaughter has been sent to stay with him, who he’s never really had a relationship with. It’s very awkward between them and they’re both essentially just wanting to get through these two weeks that they’re together with the least amount of interaction possible. And one afternoon in the roadhouse [...] this car comes careening up the front. It comes to a halt at an odd angle, almost taking out one of the fuel pumps. The door opens, a girl steps out covered in mud and blood, and the only thing she says before she passes out is don’t call the police.”
This hook propels us into the rocket-fueled siege, alternating between the present at the roadhouse, and a past narrative that explores Maggie and how she came to end up in this situation. These two timelines collide in the finale, a crescendo of violence that calls on Tarainto’s violence and Thomas Harris’ psychological distress.
The past narrative follows Simon, a reserved young man who strikes out from Melbourne in a dingy car to discover the real Australia. Most reviews dote on the action: the page-turning pacing, the horror, the cinematic plot and so on. This is well-tread ground for Bergmoser, who’s background in screenwriting places him to craft visually arresting set-piece. The gas station explosion. The secret farmhouse. The house siege. All dynamic, compelling, and gory. Knives go through eye-sockets, shotguns cave in skulls: this is an adult story, a contrast to Bergmoser’s whimsical Boone Shepard trilogy.
“I’ve never really seen myself as the kind of writer who can be very easily pinned down in terms of what I write,” Bergmoser said. “If you look at the broad spectrum of [...] what I’ve done over the years… especially the Boone Shepard books which are quirky, adventure, steampunk-y, Tin Tin meets Doctor Who set in the world of Lemony Snicket. Very odd, very left of centre. Off-beat.”
In contrast, of course, to The Hunted and it’s bloody, violent portrait of the Australian badlands.
“Writing something that was more gritty and visceral and full-on like this [The Hunted]. It was just sort of, in some ways, just adding another…” Bergmoser hesitated, and laughed, catching himself. “This sounds so wanky but almost adding another feather to the cap, in a way.”
And it is, in a lot of ways, different territory for Bergmoser. It’s the first of his stories I’ve read that uses non-linear structure, the then and now scene changing. Bergmoser explained the book evolved from a novella, Sunburnt Country, a straightforward action story featuring Maggie as the protagonist. He looked to expand the narrative, but realising that any change to this core story would be detrimental to the pacing. He toyed with a straight forward structure. Split the story into part one and part two, siloing the two chronologies.
“Part one is the material with Maggie and Simon in the town, and part two is the siege in the roadhouse,” he said. “But there was an issue there because when I looked at it in terms of building narrative momentum it would essentially mean that part-way into the story you’d reach a climax and then the story would jump. Then you’d have a whole set up of another group of characters. And building them and their demons and everything. And then it would sort of pick up from there. That felt like a frustrating way for a story to unfold.”
Armed with the solution to alternate between the two timelines, Bergmoser had a new problem to solve: how to connect them thematically, how to ensure coherence.
“In both timelines there is fundamentally the same mystery at the start of both, which is who is Maggie. In the past timeline, Simon, our audience surrogate [...], runs into Maggie in a bar. She’s got a cigarette burn scar on her collarbone, she’s got a bag full of money, she’s clearly running away from something. But he’s attracted to her, he hasn’t really had any company for a long time. And he’s very compelled by her so can’t help but wonder: who the hell is this girl? Whereas in the present timeline, she turns up at the roadhouse covered in mud and blood. She’s clearly been through hell. And these people turn up chasing her. For those characters the question is: what has she done.”
This centralises Maggie in the story. She’s the focus of both timelines as the story explores where she’s a good or bad person. The work of the story is not in answering this question, but in exploring her motivations, and the mystery of why she is so capable of great violence. The chronology and themes run in parallel. As the timelines collide, we get our answer then: Maggie may not be a good person, but she is certainly the victim here.
Not to say the text valorises her behaviour. Maggie herself acknowledges that leading Simon on to get what she wanted, which results in his demise, was morally reprehensible. And yet the story toys with her accountability. Sure, Maggie does lead Simon on and use him for transport to the rural town. But she can’t be held accountable for the townspeople turning out to be murderous crazy people.
Bergmoser and I went back and forth about this because Simon repeatedly expresses his concerns to Maggie. He feels immediately uncomfortable in the town, and is unable to dismiss his fear. Maggie ignores him. In no small part because she’s able to fit in with these beer chugging, pig-shooting hooligans. Or, at least, she pretends to fit in.
Simon is not capable of being macho, of being bombastic and loud enough to satiate these rednecks. I’ve known Bergmoser for a few years, and Simon reminds me of Bergmoser himself: a Melbourne city kid with a degree who finds himself aware of his own cliched ideals. Someone unable to square the cognitive dissonance of being a man in Australia failing to live up to the masculine ideals of the country.
“Simon, as a character, is the archetypical privileged Uni student,” Bergmoser told me. “He’s somebody who’s had a middle class upbringing, never really faced an adversity in his life. But he’s not unaware of that. I’d argue in some ways that’s the crux of his character. He’s aware of how sheltered he is, and in some ways bravely making an active choice to try and push himself outside his comfort zone. But I didn’t want Simon to be a caricature and be somebody who is there to be mocked or laughed at. Because in a lot of ways he’s just me.”
And the two do share similarities, but rather than an author stand-in as wish fulfillment, Simon is almost a self-critique.
“I think that there are assumptions about author insert characters. It’s like Christopher Paolini telling everybody that Eragon is based on him. Where you go: oh, of course, you’re a heroic swashbuckler who gets to romance the sexy elf-girl. It’s like Lee Child saying that Jack Reacher is him.” I laughed at this, almost spitting my coffee. And he’s right: author inserts attract certain tropes and cliches, and while Simon does adhere to some of these, there is nothing about Simon’s story that is particularly enjoyable. He doesn’t get the girl. He doesn’t become the hero. He’s afraid, small, and dies in a quiet corner of nowhere begging for his life.
“When things turn sketchy he panics, and he runs. He literally tries to give up Maggie to save himself. And I don’t think that makes him a bad person. I think that makes him a human being who ends up in a genuinely horrifying situation. And if you say oh what a scumbag, I’d turn around and [say] you get in a situation where you’re surrounded by shotgun toting people who are going to hunt you for sport, and you tell me that you’re going to act any braver than he [Simon] does.”
“I would end up at that town and I would end up like Simon,” he admitted. And I can’t say I’d do any different myself. In some ways we, as media critiques, lack the right verbs for this discussion. While we can readily point to author stand-ins (and sub-genres like fanfiction) and identify power fantasies or wish fulfillment, it’s more challenging to nail down how exactly one goes about self-reflection via author-inserts. Made more complex by the particular brand of masculinity Simon comes up against.
The text’s approach to these themes is rendered clear during Simon’s first night in the town. He and Maggie attend a bonfire, and while she is able to fit in, slam tinnies and project masculinity, Simon cannot. He trails Maggie the whole evening like a lost puppy. The real Australia he was seeking turned out to be far more confronting than he bargained for, leaving him well out of his depth.
“In Simon’s case I was harkening back to the past where I’d been in similar situations, but as you said, with his proximity to Maggie in that scene, haven’t we all been to that party where we think we’re getting along with this girl and then she seems to constantly slip away, talk to somebody else, do something else, and you have that growing sense that I’m not doing as well here as I thought I was. But you’re also the only person I know, and I’ve spent all night talking to you so I kind of have to pathetically cling to you even though it’s very clear you’re not interested but I’m too out of my depth to talk to anybody else.” We sat in brief silence after that, basking, momentarily, in our own recollections of this exact sensation.
The problem with this behaviour, of course, is not the behaviour itself. Feeling uncomfortable at a party and out of one’s depth is a normal part of socialising for most people. It’s the judgement that comes with it in Australia that reveals Simon’s deep insecurity in his masculinity. He does not exude the traits a man in Australia is expected to: he lacks bravado, he can’t stomach the strong beer, he doesn’t smoke, he finds the other men intimidating.
This absence follows Simon, and is an ailment he seeks to cure by discovering the real Australia. In confronting adversity, he hopes to discover this true manliness he’s always lacked. Simon’s quest to cure this absence results in his death. In a way, the text suggests that this brand of Australian masculinity (loud, obnoxious, blokey) is a falsehood: it’s a mask for the hunters, and people like them, use to excuse behaviour and reject any who do not conform to these characteristics.
“I was building on themes I’d discovered in some of my favourite plays like The Golden Age by Louis Nowra. Which is probably one of the best explorations of the stunted nature of Australia, or at least white Australian, that I’ve ever read. But also Black Rock by Nick Enright.”
Bergmoser was alluding to the violent side of young male masculinity. The sensation that a group of young, loud drunk guys are one joke and challenge away from exploding into violence.
"It became about this particular thing you see a lot in young Australian guys where something’s treated as a joke, until it’s not,” Bergmoser continued. “I’ve told this anecdote before in other interviews but when I was a teenager at school who would do this regularly.” Bergmoser told me this young man would shove him around, call him names, and so on. Until one afternoon he walked past the bully’s house by accident, and yelled something back. The bully picked up a baseball bat and came after Bergmoser: it’s all a joke, until it isn’t.
There is something insidious about this transition too. That this violence is right under the surface plays out on the micro scale in the story in the interpersonal interactions between Simon and the rednecks. Structurally, it plays out across the length of the story, as the presence of this masculinity eventually erupts into a bloody showdown. It rears its head in the form of a man bullying Charlie at a bar simply for being on a date with a woman. It reveals itself in the wife of a hunter telling Maggie to stay away from her man. Or in the constant leering of Maggie. But that Maggie dismisses the sexism and aggression as people ‘just being blokes’ is akin to ‘boys will be boys.’ Failing to challenge these behaviours allows them to percolate, allows them to escalate into the violence we see in the text, or that Bergmoser experienced as a young man.
I’ve been bullied like this myself throughout my childhood and even into being a young adult. Before lockdown, I was shooting a game of pool with my partner. Two blokes pitched up, and insisted on speaking with us. They challenged us to the next game, which we declined. They continue speaking to us, starting with little jokes. Until one of them made a comment about my partner, and it was suddenly apparent they might be violent if pushed, just a little. We walked away from the situation but I have a sour taste in my mouth to this day. Moments like this are obvious, others are not. It’s in the small interactions. The way we broaden our accent and say ‘mate’ more at the bar and so on.
“I have been criticised in some reviews, and online posts, for what is seen as a surface level suggestion that Australian masculinity means that all Aussie blokes are like the guys in the town,” Bergmoser said.
One Facebook reader, Kris, went further. “I was offended by the assumptions the author made toward this hunter mentality being inherently Australian,” she wrote on the Sunday Book Club’s Facebook page. “Big thumbs down from me.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Bergmoser confirmed. “If I was saying that I wouldn’t have the character of Frank in there.”
And he’s right. Frank is as blokey as they come: built like a brick house, singlets and thongs, owns a gas station. He’s kind and empathetic but strong, and ready to do violence to protect his granddaughter. If the hunters and Maggie represent a brand of toxic masculinity, Frank embodies a healthier version. By no means perfect, but a valid answer to the Australian Bloke. Frank had the chance to go down the road of becoming like the hunters, but chose not to.
Equally, Maggie’s displays of masculinity in the text are more aligned with the hunters than Simon. She comes across as the hard-hitting, hard-smoking biker chick. She can fit in easily. She goes unchallenged because she can perform the necessary markers to pass muster.
“Maggie fits in,” Bergmoser said. “Had Maggie stayed in the town she would have been fine. They even say that. You’re one of us. You fit in, you know? One thing Maggie grapples with is that in a lot of ways she’s not all that different to the hunters. But Simon is, and he can’t fit in. That’s what makes them turn on him. Nothing to do with where he’s from.”
Maggie fitting in is a point of arousal for the hunters, in both the psychological and sexual sense. There is some intrinsic relationship between this brand of toxic masculinity and an attraction to violence. That these men are drawn to Maggie because she exhibits these typically masculine traits is at odds with their sexualisation of women and their expression of only masculine characteristics. You would think these kind of men would seek out feminity in women, but not the case. This might risk a challenge to their ideology, to their beliefs. Instead they surround themselves with people who reinforce their behaviour and beliefs. They insulate. Safe in their beliefs. Safe in their community, safe from maybe feeling a feeling about anyone but themselves.
Their failure to challenge their own beliefs is cowardly.
This is the intricacy of the text. Maggie knows her dismissal of Simon’s concerns is in poor form, and further galvanises the hunters to continue performing their predatory sexism, to continue the journey toward that explosion into violence. But she ignores it to get what she wants, and ultimately it leads to the conflict at the roadhouse. In a very literal sense, Maggie dismissing the toxic masculinity as “blokes being blokes” gets a lot of people hurt, most of all the two young men in the story.
In a way Simon, as Bergmoser, is at the mercy of this sweeping brand of masculinity. By no means the victim, but powerless in its face when those with the power to challenge it fail. And this is the point, I think. That any time the behaviour appears, the men in the text fail to challenge it until it’s too late makes them complicit, so too with Maggie.
For most readers they may come away from the text thinking of the hunters are just the baddies, the opposition. But maybe this is oversight speaks to the necessity of this criticism. Reducing their behaviour to a binary is as dangerous as dismissing it entirely. Letting it go unchecked in the background, down a long dusty path in the middle of nowhere, through a thicket and along the path by the creek, allows it to fester: to grow malignant, and places the burden of the gun in their palm squarely on the shoulders of us, should we do nothing to stand up for what is right.