Oliver Mol on surviving a 10-month migraine attack: ‘If I didn’t tell this story, it would rot inside me’ | Australian books

WWhen Oliver Mol’s contemporary autofiction volume, Lion Attack!, was released in 2015, he was hailed as one of the bright youngsters of Australian literature. But in its aftermath, he was left with a 10-month migraine that sent the author into a state of “catatonic panic.”

The pain was so unrelenting, so monstrous, that Mol could no longer read or write. Screens were an agony; even texting a friend was unbearable. His new memoir, Train Lord, tells the story of those 10 life-shattering months and their reverberations. “I had the feeling that if I didn’t tell this story, it would rot inside me,” explains Mol during a nightly Skype conversation. “As if something in me would die.”

I’ve been haunted by chronic migraines for 30 years and it’s an almighty myth that the body forgets pain. Remembering is half the torment, the anticipatory terror. I think about what it feels like to be stuck in the middle of an attack, those cruel hours when I yearn for oblivion. The boredom of it. The anger. Being stuck in that hell space indefinitely would be a slow-motion death of the soul. “Two things have happened,” Mol writes about his ordeal. “I became a writer who stopped writing, and a person who could no longer communicate with the modern world. In literature and in life I started to disappear.”

‘I had never met a more diverse group of people in my life’: Oliver Mol. Photo: Penguin Random House

Train Lord is not a story of recovery – of pain overcome and a self triumphantly recovered – but a story of tentative recovery. A self made remake. When Mol came out of his migraine, estranged from his calling and his body, he took a job as a train guard. “I had never met a more diverse group of people in my life,” he says, “all different nationalities, all different professions. There were doctors, pilots, taxi drivers, fast food attendants. There were people as young as 18 who just got out of high school and hoped they could make some money. And there were people of 84 years old. We all came for it for our own reasons.” During his first shift, there was a suicide. The railway, Mol learned, was both a place of reckoning and a place of refuge. He liked both.

On the trains, Mol returned, very slowly, to telling stories. At first he started making jokes in his passenger announcements (“Next stop is Como, I would say, named after the Holden Commo-dore”); then he used the two to three minutes between stations to sketch snippets on the back of timetables—just a few sentences. Those fragments became short monologues that Mol performed in the attic bedroom of his shared house for friends; then a one-man show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. Now there’s Train Lord: a memoir in essays. A fragmented whole.

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When Mol talks about his book – his hard-won, beautiful book – the analogy he uses is not a locomotive but a planetary one. “I kind of imagined that the migraine was like a sun and that each of my chapters would be a planet, and the planets would all be at different distances and offer different reflections. They would each reflect some kind of truth.” The analogy that comes to mind is physical – that Train Lord mimics what it feels like to be in pain: loops and twists of thoughts, ruminants and repetitions.The heightened attention and effect of a mind on fire.

With Train Lord, Mol joins a growing brotherhood of Aussie writers — including Lech Blaine, Michael Winkler, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad — who are rattling the well-soldered cultural cage of masculinity. “I would be lying if I said it was my intention to write about masculinity,” admits Mol. “I just wasn’t. I tried to understand myself. But as you go through that, other people’s stories start to mingle with yours, and it very quickly becomes apparent that something terrible is going on.”

He tells me about the men who had come to his one-man show—these grizzled old guys in their fifties and sixties—and how they waited for him afterward so they could quietly share stories they never thought they could. tell someone else. And from his own father, and how it took the migraine’s mighty power—its forced vulnerability—to find a language they could communicate with.

As Mol Train Lord wrote, he was haunted by an image: “I had a feeling there was a little Oliver, who wasn’t exactly me (but was more or less me), who existed in a narrative world. I knew that if I couldn’t produce this book, it would be stuck there forever. And if I let him down again, I couldn’t forgive myself.”

The memoirs deal with the art, craft and alchemy of storytelling as well as healing. Or perhaps, his book suggests, they are one and the same. “I do believe,” he says sincerely, “that the stories we tell ourselves are the stories that come true.”

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And so he and I exchange stories in the dark. We talk about Mol’s literary heroes and mentors – Roberto Bolaño, Alejandro Zambra, Scott McClanahan, Amanda Lohrey – and the wild necessity of hope (“My book wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t a book of hope”). We’re talking about the thin line between romanticizing, patronizing and honoring working-class Australia and the democratizing linearity of train travel. We talk about the petty shame that Mol feels about his first book (“I was extremely young and terribly ambitious”), and the humility he feels about his second. And we talk about love.

“This is a love story,” Mol writes in Train Lord. “I fell in love with writing, and then I stopped. I’m trying to figure out if I can fall in love again.”

I ask him if he realizes it. If he’s been able to get past the purifying urgency, he felt he was writing Train Lord for something a little kinder.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Absolute.”

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