While visual artists reared on skateboarding are increasingly commonplace, skate culture has only produced a handful of esteemed wordsmiths (Dave Carnie, Jocko Weyland, Max Olijnyk, Jason Crombie). You can now add James Turvey to that list.
The Newcastle-based writer has a new book out called Since Asbestos, which compiles short stories he has written over the last ten years. James says he’s always been driven to write, and knew from a young age that he wanted to be a writer; yet fiction is just one of his many creative outlets. In between working on short stories and his debut novel, James documents the exploits of his local skate crew in his (sporadically released) Sprawlers zine, as well as contributing to their videos , and constantly scheming up new ideas for his quietly overachieving streetwear label Come Sundown, which he co-founded with collaborator Marcus Dixon.
The short stories in Since Asbestos are striking: smart, funny, compelling, and often achingly familiar. Character-driven, they feature a fantastic range of settings and storylines, traversing the sweltering heat and creepily quiet streets of suburban Australia. When asked how James decides what to write about, the author replies that many are inspired by events in his own life, and in particular, his father’s life. Growing up in a rough suburb in western Sydney, Jim’s dad was a mechanic and a renowned street fighter, respected by local underground crime figures (who often also hired him to fix cars). He married a beautiful woman who was several years younger, and when James was an adolescent the whole family relocated to Newcastle where his mum’s family lived.
Skateboarding isn’t heavily featured within these stories, though it was a primary—and palpable—influence on James. For years, James says he led almost a double-life, not out of secrecy, simply because he viewed his zines as a place to publish his poetry and fiction, separate from the skate community with whom he was involved. Now the two worlds have crossed over completely, with skate material the main focus of his Sprawlers zines, and Since Asbestos published and available via Come Sundown.
James studied writing at university, and many of the stories in Since Asbestos were originally published in peer-reviewed and literary journals, alongside some brand new material. The strong drive James had to write was spurred on by early cryptic feedback from one of his university professors.
“It’s pretty immature I have to say, but I wrote a short story for a class that was basically making fun of what all the people around the table would say when I read it out loud,” explains James, over coffee on one of his frequent skate expedition day trips down to Sydney. At his uni roundtable readings, James explains classmates would regularly contribute uselessly positive feedback, often so nondescript they didn’t seem to have even been listening. “I just got tired of people taking the piss…” The feedback from his professor was that James was ‘going to be famous’—both then and now he’s unsure whether the professor meant for his talent, or as a shit stirrer. But it egged him on…
Another person who has been egging James on is his collaborater in Come Sundown, Marcus Dixon. “Marcus is the most motivated person I’ve ever met,” James enthuses. “It was his idea that I do this book. People would often ask where they could read my writing, and a lot of these stories have been hard to track down. Unless you’re part of the literary scene you don’t know those magazines…” Marcus provided illustrations and did the layout for the book.
For James to say that Marcus is the most motivated person he knows is really saying something, since their whole crew seems extremely productive. Marcus works as a graphic designer for brands including RVCA, Vans, Deus, Pass Port, and The Grifter, alongside making his own zines (check out Better You Than Me, Better Me Than You) and appearing in Sprawlers videos and publications. Andrew Nash is an avid phtographer, shooting rolls and rolls of actual film, which the other crew members sometimes persuade him to use for their zines. James Magin is primarily responsible for shooting and editing the videos, with other skaters like Simon Lyddiard helping out and Marcus Dixon handling animation. Then there’s the elusive H Foot, an icon around Newy who hangs with the gang. And Jason Campbell, who records and releases music under various names including Collector, Desert Peace, and an acclaimed recent release under his own name J. Campbell.
So what’s up with all these productive Novocastrians… is it something in the water? “I think like-minded people just gravitate towards each other,” James replies with characteristic modesty. He does note though that Newcastle has a reputation for punching above its weight in arts and culture. “There used to be a website that showed the disproportionately large number of artists from Newcastle.” James is enthusiastic about his hometown, explaining it’s been going through a renaissance for over a decade, though he bemoans there isn’t more live music happening there.
Since skateboarding had such a huge influence on James—as evidenced by his giant forearm tattoo of Mark McKee’s Jeremy Klein graphic done Norman Rockwell-style, and the author stating that he’s embarrassed by how much time he spends on the Slap Magazine forums—I was curious about his comments around the gentrification of skateboarding. “It used to be that if you met someone else who skated, you knew you’d have certain things in common,” explains James, adding that there’s “spots on the team” at school, empty due to those kids migrating to skateboarding. “Back in the day if you saw someone in skate shoes, you knew you could probably talk to them, hang out, and get along. Also, when I got into skateboarding in the early ’90s, it was more… intellectual for lack of a better word. Then it got pretty dumb for a while, though there seems to be a resurgence of interesting stuff with small companies…”
James is too modest to put himself in that category of “interesting stuff” fighting the dumbness and gentrification of skateboarding, but his book and his brand certainly fit. To celebrate the release of Since Asbestos, James and Marcus hosted a launch at Acrux Art Gallery, a relatively new space in Newcastle, releasing a limited range of Come Sundown shirts to be sold on the night as well.
The stories in this book are just an appetiser, as James explains he has way more. “Some of these stories are quite old, and I don’t actually like them that much anymore, but other people have said they really like them and they fit in with this collection.” He also has other projects in the works, like the aforementioned novel, which is based on dramatic and sometimes sensational true-life stories from his dad. “I actually spoke to him about it when visiting him [here in Sydney] last weekend,” James explains. “He was actually OK with it. We spent the rest of the day together and all afternoon he would remember things and say, ‘oh, you’ll have to include this story…” When asked if James has a dramatic arc in mind for the novel, he replies that he’s known the story since he was a teen, and even has written the first page. “I’ve written it in my head and actually gone on walks and thought about it and recited the opening paragraphs out loud.”
James is certainly not in danger of running out of ideas—or momentum—any time soon. He has several projects percolating, including a small zine that he dreamt up… literally. “For years I’ve been having dreams that take place in a made-up setting that’s a comic book store-slash-skate shop. I’ve been dreaming about it regularly, but it doesn’t really exist”. He has a plan for the launch, sometime in the next few months. As they say, watch this space—and James, his Sprawlers crew, and Newcastle in general—for more great stuff.