FOR many years, John Hughes would drive to Port Stephens, but for him the pleasure lay as much in the journey as it did in the destination.
"I just loved ... that drive over Stockton Bridge, for instance, and the way in which Newcastle just seems to spread out before you, and the mouth of the Hunter, the ocean, the cathedral there on the hill," he recalled. "It's just so spectacular.
"It's such a visceral experience and, to me, it's such a magical one as well."
The award-winning author, who grew up in Cessnock and lived and studied in Newcastle, has taken that drive once more, only this time in words and through memories.
Newcastle and Port Stephens feature in Hughes' new novel, The Dogs.
"Definitely it was a lot of going back over very familiar territory for me," he said. "Even though I no longer live in that place, it's very much still my imaginative world."
For Hughes, art not so much imitates life but taps into it for The Dogs, as his characters journey through snippets of the author's past, from driving to Newcastle Airport and having a couple of drinks at the Kent Hotel ("I lived in Hamilton one of the years I was at Newcastle Uni. I used to go to the Kent very much") to swimming laps at Newcastle Ocean Baths.
"Whenever I go to Newcastle, it's a pilgrimage for me," Hughes said. "I must go back and swim in those baths. I love those baths."
When it comes to exploring his own past through his writing, John Hughes is a seasoned traveller.
Hughes' first book, The Idea of Home, was a collection of autobiographical essays about his childhood and his family, especially his maternal grandparents, John-Paul and Alexandra Mahl, who were from modern-day Ukraine and had emigrated from a ravaged Europe after World War Two.
Moments and observations from his younger years flowed into his fiction as well, with Cessnock and Newcastle threaded through Hughes' previous novel, No One, which was shortlisted for Australia's most prestigious writing prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, in 2020.
The writer's past and his imagination have gone on another road trip together in The Dogs. While the novel is vast in its sweep of time and places, reaching back to World War One Russia and Europe during the Second World War, a lot of it is set in Port Stephens, an area Hughes knows well.
As a boy, Hughes would travel to "the bay" to visit his grandparents, who had retired there from the Coalfields, "when Port Stephens was still basically these little fishing villages with a lot of bush".
"There were a couple of caravan parks and weatherboard and fibro cottages and various other things, but not much else," he said. "You go there now and they're basically like densely populated suburbs of Newcastle really."
The new novel has been fed by those locations, and by those close to home. In The Dogs, the narrator has returned to Port Stephens to visit his elderly mother in a nursing home. She has dementia. While her mind is crumbling, she remains imprisoned by memories of World War Two. And those memories have shaped her relationships, including with her own son.
In real life, Hughes would drive from Sydney to visit his grandmother, who spent the final period of her life in a nursing home, as she had dementia.
The writer explained the story in The Dogs was not biographical but from his imagination. However, those visits to his grandmother helped him find a platform for a book he had been wrestling with for years, and it gave him another avenue to explore the power - and the cost - of memory.
"It's crucial to us, because, basically, what are we, what's our identity, if not what we remember?," he said. "But at the same time, if what we remember is so horrific, so abominable...? And I guess this is one of the big questions of the novel."
In The Dogs, Hughes has also explored the issues of assisted dying and euthanasia, with his characters holding opposing views.
As for the author himself, "I would certainly like to have the right to be able to decide when I wanted to die."
"I can see a whole range of reasons why people are opposed to euthanasia, and, although I don't agree with them, I can see and accept their reality."
While the past haunts those in the novel, John Hughes loves travelling back there in his mind, particularly to places from his childhood.
"That place becomes what I sometimes call the Childhood Hotel," he said. "It's the place we keep on going back to. It's not real estate. It's unreal estate.
"Memory is a creative faculty perhaps much more even than a preservative faculty.
"So for the writer, it's the Magic Pudding. There's never any end of nourishment that comes from the past."
In The Dogs, when the narrator is driving through Newcastle's "dirty, industrial suburbs in which the country town is forever playing hide-and-seek", he describes it as "this fraud of a city".
"I do not endorse his views!," protested the author, adding, "Newcastle was a city for me growing up, but I still feel like there is something of the country that is hiding in there, that has remained in there, in some way.
"I take great pleasure in bringing Newcastle and Port Stephens to life in this book.
"I hope Newcastle and Hunter readers will recognise that place, and maybe think I've done a reasonable job in bringing it to life."
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: