John Clanchy has been thinking a lot about trust. It is the essential element to any relationship, a kind of invisible bond painstakingly built and readily destroyed. Trust is hard to pinpoint and yet people know when they have it - and can feel it viscerally when it has been lost.
"Trust, I mean it's a cliche now, isn't it? Of this age," Clanchy, 76, says, speaking in the front sun room of the Ainslie house that has been his home for over three decades. "So this is a period in which trust has been destroyed."
He points to governments, banks, data and internet giants, wondering whether we can still really trust what is being done and whether it is in the interests of ordinary citizens.
"The media, I mean, who trusts in a Trump, post-truth world what you read? What about the big corporates? Do we trust data? Do we trust people like Facebook, Amazon, and Google with our data?"
But Clanchy's new novel, his sixth, is not about the decline of trust in the digital age, where political support has splintered and reconfigured and our every move is recorded by technology we carry. He has written about a past that has slipped from living memory, exploring relationships between people who must meet face-to-face.
In Whom We Trust follows Father Pearse, a priest close to retirement who is forced to reckon with his actions and inactions, knowing that any move he makes will have all kinds of reverberations in his own life and those who placed trust in him.
Fiction does allow you to vivify and to range across experiences you haven't had, but within that you've got to find truthJohn Clanchy
The St Barnabas Home for Children in Melbourne, where Father Pearse takes confessional and offers communion, is a depraved and vicious place for the British children in care, shipped out to Australia to clear the streets of London with the promise of a better life.
Years later, Thomas Stuart, after escaping from St Barnabas and enlisting to fight in the Great War, seeks out Father Pearse in country Victoria for help, revealing the brutal abuse the home's first-in-command, Brother Stanislaus, inflicted on him and Molly, a girl at the home who worked as a domestic servant.
Father Pearse feels the moral weight of the situation as his relationship with Thomas deepens and the trust between them grows over a single night spent together. Father Pearse knows he has to act, come what may.
It is a story of how people are compelled to behave, and Clanchy says the novel deliberately avoids direct and graphic descriptions of the violence committed against children. Although it is a dark story, the violence is not the true focus, he says.
Clanchy is worried the novel might be seen as literary opportunism, but he is quick to stress that is not the case. He says he had written half a draft well before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which revealed the extent churches and other institutions had perpetrated and then covered up grave abuse against children.
And while that is not what the book is intrinsically about, Clanchy says, it does have very similar themes. "I have this kind of slight anxiety about that which is why, partly, I put it in a historical context. It's over 100 years distant from what's been happening [recently]," he says.
Although Clanchy grew up in Melbourne and had a Catholic education, he stresses the novel is fictional. "Well, if you're writing very strictly from your own experience, then you're in a different territory, aren't you? You're in memoir. You're trying to be fairly accurate about what that experience was.
"I think that one of the differences is that when you're not dealing with your own experience, of putting yourself into a context is people are socially aware about, you're trying to be accurate to the emotional and psychological nature of that experience, rather than its facticity, you know, its strict adherence to historical truth," he says.
"So fiction does allow you to vivify and to range across experiences you haven't had, but within that you've got to find truth, but it's a different kind of truth. It's an emotional truth, a psychological truth, moral truth."
Clanchy's stories started appearing in Australian literary magazines in the 1980s, a vibrant decade for the form with plenty of magazines in which to publish.
Authors knew each other and there was a healthy climate of cross-pollination, Clanchy says, but now he is worried the short story might have fallen into abeyance, with the number of literary magazines dropping, too.
"So all of that vigour - and I don't know why it went, where it's gone. Because the rationalisation you hear from a lot of people is, 'People should be into short stories. You can read them quickly, you can sit on the bus and read a short story on the way to work'," he says.
But we're speaking about Clanchy's new novel, which he says could be his last. Novels, Clanchy says, can take four or five years to write, while the author is never quite sure if it will all work and come together.
"It has all of its possibility for bypass, the big canvas, lots of characters and so on, and that's fine. It's obviously a great and more popular form than the short story so I've come back to it in this case," he says.
I put it to Clanchy that despite the historical setting, In Whom We Trust has a contemporary feel. He says he did not get bogged down in the research, took a few artistic liberties with locations, and the novel's freshness comes from its real focus.
"It's not a diatribe or a polemic I'm writing. It's a story about these two people and it's got resonances with what's happening now on a larger level, perhaps out in society, but it's coming out of these two people," he says.
Clanchy has long been interested in how these kinds of relationships in his fiction, with his short stories often bringing into sharp focus the way two characters reveal their natures in opposition to each other.
For a Canberra author, Clanchy has resisted writing much about the city. Indeed, he says, the "Canberra author" label is actually negative in Australian publishing. But it is an inspiring environment, in its own way, and there are plenty of "very fine writers" working here.
"I don't write about Canberra very much at all, it's just a nice place to be," he says.
In Whom We Trust is the second book Clanchy has published with Finlay Lloyd, a small press run by Julian Davies and Phil Day in Braidwood. Day provides the art and design - the book, a handsome thing, is a tall paperback, modelled on French sizes uncommon in English publishing, with a dust jacket, also unusual - while Davies edits the manuscript.
"They're not going to make dramatic money out of their publishing, but they're doing fine things. They have a real dedication to the book as a physical object," Clanchy says.
There is no electronic version of this novel. It can only be read on the printed page, which Clanchy thinks is just fine.
In Whom We Trust by John Clanchy. Finlay Lloyd. 246pp. $28.