It's a freezing cold Canberra morning when I interview Malcolm Knox. Already there's a breeze blowing down from the Brindabellas, which are dusted with snow, and the sky is grey and flat.
I've been reading his latest novel, Bluebird, and something feels off. This is a book that you should read at the beach, catching too much sun because you want to get through another chapter; when you finally settle into bed late at night for a few more, sand leaks from between the pages onto your sheets.
I mention this to Knox and he understands. The beach has always fascinated him. Two of his previous novels, Summerland and The Life are set on the beach, and he lives by Sydney's northern beaches with his wife and children. He surfs and walks and swims. If you have to live in Sydney, there's nowhere better, he says.
Does he agree that much of Australia's identity is centred around the idea of the beach and that coastal lifestyle?
"It does, but it's the kind of two-edged sword there that I wanted to really get to in this book," he says.
"The clash, if you like, between, on the one hand, that idea of the beach offering freedom and space and the idea of the horizon out there, and the limitless ocean and the feelings that that gives you.
"This clashes up against the sense that in many ways the coast is a claustrophobic place, because so many people are rushing towards it and all end up competing for the same sort of scarce resources.
"And then from the other side, as we've seen recently here in Sydney even, the ocean closing in there are houses falling into the sea at places like Narrabeen and Wamberal, there's really a sense for me of the coast as a place of compression.
"And as a novelist, that's kind of perfect territory for exploring the way people react, because you always want to see your characters put under some kind of stress or pressure and just seeing where that takes them."
Bluebird is the story of the fictional town, Bluebird Beach - fictional maybe, but recognisable to many people who call the beach home.
Our hero is Gordon: middle-aged, his marriage on the rocks, he's lost his job and his sense of direction. The only thing that keeps him anchored is his home, The Lodge, prime real estate in one sense. But is it, like his life, about to topple into the sea?
There's a whole stream of thought running through the book about how we try and hold onto myths and memories.
Not only of towns but of our own youth as well.
"Places like Bluebird have such a hold on the imagination that your desire to hang on to it, even if you're just kind of hanging on by your fingernails, is overwhelming," Knox says.
"It kind of even runs counter to the evidence, which in the case of Gordon is so much of the evidence is pulling him the other way and saying, you know, you're mad, you're mad to hang on here and it's hurting all the people around you.
"But there's a kind of instinct, nostalgia, personal history, all that stuff that keeps you hanging on."
Knox is 54, and he's managed to capture middle-age rather well in Bluebird. The beachside town seems populated by 50-something men back living with their mothers, going by the name of Red Cap and Snake and Firie Sam and the obligatory Macca and Chook.
"I live at the beach and I surf and my daily experiences involve getting beaten to the punch, beaten to the waves, by younger people and seeing people all around me having a bit more fun than I'm having and getting a bit more out of it because they're younger," he says.
"The kind of dynamics that come out of this are socially really interesting to me, because there's always been that thing at the beach, in the surf, between old dogs and young dogs and competitiveness and whether respect should be shown and all that kind of stuff.
"But basically the code, the code of respect, is just a bluff pulled by old people to try and get a wave or two."
He never intended to write a book about the beach, or, indeed, middle age.
"The initial motivation was to do a certain type of story and it was a family story, a family drama, and kind of a crowd-pleasing type of story.
"My previous two novels were both a bit more experimental with the form and I just wanted to do something completely engrossing that you sink into, and was about the life around you.
"And for me the material that was to hand that enabled me to get into this story happened to be that sandwich-generation story, a life so many of us are leading."
Knox has always been a novelist. He spent his teens and early 20s writing, and produced a handful of novels before Summerland was published in 2000.
In his late 20s, he diverted into journalism with The Sydney Morning Herald, and won three Walkley awards along the way.
Does he find it hard to switch between the two?
"Not really, I'm not a full-time journalist anymore. It takes up a certain amount of my headspace for a certain amount of time.
"But it's not like I'm going in every day and chasing stories and working really hard as a journalist. I think that would be tricky, to switch between that brain space and the novelist brain space. When I'm in novel mode, it takes over everything else."
I've always admired his journalism, particularly when he writes about sport; he's never been a "and in the thirty-second minute team x scored a try" kind of journalist.
It's always been about the people and the human space behind the story. I tell him I have some umbrage with a story he wrote for the SMH a few weeks back about the polarising Melbourne legend Cameron Smith and why we must learn to love the Storm captain before he retires at the end of the season.
Knox understands that too. Even his own son asked him what was wrong - had he started liking the Storm? Reading the piece again, there's a lot there about holding onto memories and myths and whether we can put people squarely in the camp of hero or villain.
Perhaps that's what good stories always ask of us.
- Bluebird, by Malcolm Knox. Allen & Unwin. $32.99.