ANDREW McGahan is having fun. Lots of it.
The man whose novel Praise burst onto the Australian scene as so-called literary grunge with lashings of sex and drugs is writing seafaring fantasy for young adults and having the time of his life.
Not that he would have ruled out doing so all those years ago. He has never stopped reading fantasy and he loved sea stories but it's just that at the time he was writing that book - the early '90s - he was consumed by the works of the master of the low-life, Charles Bukowski, and a similar lifestyle.
McGahan has never been a writer easy to pigeonhole.
Praise, which won the Vogel for an unpublished manuscript in 1991, and 1988, were largely autobiographical renditions channelled through the experiences of his antihero, Gordon.
He followed them up with a crime novel, Last Drinks, and The White Earth, a Darling Downs gothic novel that won the Miles Franklin and The Age fiction book of the year. He has produced an overtly political novel in Underground and Wonders of a Godless World, a fantasy about a man who keeps on being killed but cannot die.
He is entirely relaxed about his switching of genres. ''I don't know why more writers don't jump around. But perhaps from a career point of view it's not a good idea.'' He pauses, reflecting on the fact that he has signed up to write a four-book fantasy. ''I'm not remotely bored with four books. It's actually nice to stay with one character.''
McGahan was speaking yesterday at a session for school students at the Melbourne Writers Festival, which explains why when he came to discuss Praise, the second novel he wrote but the first that was published, he said it was about ''sex and drugs - but I can't go into detail about that here''.
Seafaring was a different matter. He has always loved sea stories, his problem was how to write about the sea. He dismissed non-fiction as he wasn't a sailor; histories fell by the wayside as he wasn't a historian, and he wasn't interested in the reality stories such as the Hornblower books or Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series.
It had to be fantasy so the ocean could be more dramatic and the stories bigger. The first book in the series, Ship Kings: The Coming of the Whirlpool, started in his mind's eye with an image of a boy below decks on a sailing ship having to climb up through its levels until he reaches the deck, shimmies up the mast and sees bigger ships.
''Who is this kid?'' I wondered. ''Why is he on the boat, whose ship is it? My books always get started with those sorts of daydreams. It's how I ended up here [at the festival].''
McGahan reckons that he'll return to adult fiction once the Sea Kings series is finished - ''I'm keen to write a ghost story'' - but he does worry about the future of the mid-range literary novel. The boom areas he identifies are crime, young-adult and fantasy.
And with that he's off to edit the final 20 pages of the second instalment, The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice. He promised his publisher he'd get it to her yesterday afternoon and in real life he can't fiddle with time.