All book links are to Readings Bookstore, supporter of Indigenous Literacy Day and official MWF bookstore.
Aug 27, 2008
The second annual Indigenous Literacy Day aims to help raise urgently needed funds to address the literacy crisis in remote Indigenous communities.
So what can you do to help?
Find out the participating bookstore near you and buy a book on the day. It’s that easy! I’m sure I’ve given you plenty of ideas with my reviews and interviews. Participating publishers and booksellers will donate 5% or more of their takings on September 3rd to the cause. There are also events to be held across the country, and businesses are encouraged to pause at work and read to support Indigenous literacy, and make a gold coin donation.
Overseas and still want to help? Make a donation.
Find out what was achieved in 2007.
Feel free to bombard me with ideas of what book/books I should buy on the day…
Sometimes Augusten Burroughs’ memory stretches deep and wide, a vivid pool. It is due in part to an element of autism in his bloodline. This is how he remembers looking through the saltine cracker at his mother at one-and-a-half, as described in A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father.
He decided to finally write about his sadistic, sociopathic father in this book, after his father died and Augusten felt true freedom for the first time – different to the unhindered ‘freedoms’ of his unconventional late childhood/teen years. ‘I wish I could say I wrote the book for the readers… I wrote the book for me’, he told the audience last Thursday night at Melbourne’s Town Hall.
Burroughs is an endearing, energetic presence – slim and fidgety, he constantly arches forward in his seat when expressing (or confessing), and readjusts the cap on his bald head, which he refers to as his ‘toupee’. He writes about himself because he knows himself, not who the man is with the briefcase in the front row. People enjoy his memoirs, he thinks, for two reasons. Some extract the rawness, the hurt, and confusion and say ‘me too’! Others read it and say ‘thank God it’s not me’! And both of these aspects make memoir appealing. Burroughs himself reads for the ‘me too’ realisation, and the moment when this occurs, he says ‘an incredibly profound change occurs in your body on a molecular level… an understanding – I’m not alone’. He says people read because they are ‘hungry for truth and connection’, and he even relates this to the enormous popularity of social networking.
Writing came about for Burroughs in the death throes of an incredible alcoholism. One addiction (for the written word) thankfully supplanted the other. On the verge of dying; a skeletal mess living in a shithole in his own filth; Augusten dared himself to face the pebble in his shoe rather than comfortably giving up – that he had never yet tried properly to write. Seven days later he had his first novel.
‘To heal’, Burroughs says, ‘is a TV expression’. Heal is a TV word – because when we lose someone, or experience abandonment or pain, we never really ‘heal’, eventually we just overcompensate somewhere, somehow. ‘Your soul might become more muscular’. Burroughs shared on the night what was the most difficult experience to write about. The confident performer almost faltered when he told us about the makeshift doll he made of his Dad when he was a child, peppered with his scent, so he could curl up with it and be overcome with drowsiness.
Burroughs was always determined not to have the mentality of victimisation, which he witnessed in his mother. The world will not come to you. He lives now close by to some of the horrors of his early youth, in order to be near his brother and nephew. When Jennifer Byrne asked how he could be so close to these horrible memories, he answered that the ‘horrible and the beautiful coexist’.
On the way home, everyone in the tram I was on smiled at a different level of story playing out. A 70-year-old woman wouldn’t accept a seat – she was out for a few wines and a night with her husband of fifty years. She was originally from Runcorn, with a lime green bridge. In the early days of their marriage they cycled everywhere together in tune. They want to go to Hawaii for their anniversary, she told us all.
‘He’s a beautiful man’, she said with sparkling eyes as he patted the seat next to him. She went to sit and kissed him with a smile and sparkling eyes, proudly and publicly.
Everyone thanked the tram driver as they stepped off smiling into the chilly night.
Saturday August 23
Paroxysm Press Book Launch – gritty readings from a small press which has lasted ten years. A few beers in the arvo and catching up with Varuna friend Amy Jackson, who has a great piece in the book. Review to come.
Hearing diverse readings from Alexis Wright (Carpentaria), Jeff Sparrow (Communism: A Love Story), and Kevin Rabelais (Landscape of Desire). Kevin Rabelais himself too desirous to be married (pictured). Alexis Wright an absolute treat, such a beautiful writer. Jeff Sparrow very interesting – bought his edited Overland. Panel chaired by Louise Swinn, and the focus being that all have studied through RMIT, showing the success of its course.
Checked in at the Festival Club. Had bought a copy (finally) of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. Was telling everybody far and wide about it including the lovely Cate Kennedy (my interview with her forthcoming in Southerly in November), and Cate told me Helen was standing right in front of me. I felt bad catching her on her downtime but she very kindly signed my copy. I am slapping myself now because I babbled on about myself and told her of my enormous to-read list, instead of remembering to tell her how amazing I found her short story The Life of Art. How much it moved me, how much I related to the female characters, and how it’s one of the best short stories I have ever read… As time travel is currently impossible, I’ll just have to hope I have the chance to tell her again some day.
Then there was the industry party. A wonderful night with a stream of enlightening conversations. Met some amazing people (poets, writers, publishers, editors, radio producers and speakers – all readers!) and caught up with others. Ended up talking about my own writing here and there and feeling surreal for who I was talking about it with, but not invalid. A room weighty with ideas, triangle sandwiches, and wine. A tall, glass and silver cross-haired roof in BMW Edge theatre in Federation Square. Lots of sparkling eyes of interest and enthusiasm. Really feeling like the UNESCO City of Literature.
Sunday August 24
Barry Maitland discussed crime fiction with Peter Mares, broadcast today on the ABC Book Show. Interesting for anyone interested in crime, genre in general, or writing. Maitland is an ex-architect, and Bright Air is his first novel set in Australia, and not written from a 3rd person police-procedural point of view.
A session called ‘The Honest Trader’. A sobering discussion with Heikki Patomaki, Ken Davidson and Duncan Green about free (or unregulated) trade. What came out of it for me was a more firm commitment to responsible consuming (eg. seeking out fair trade goods). The most interesting and frightening point made was about correlations between continuing population growth and the impossibility to meet emissions targets to prevent global warming. This is something that has to be looked at immediately, or in another 20 years results will be catastrophic. Great to see a packed session with both old and young.
David Rakoff (pictured) was very entertaining, as introduced by Max Barry in ‘Don’t Get Too Comfortable’, a session sharing the name of his book. Rakoff writes not out of being ‘disappointed’ with everything as such, but because he is ‘constantly vibrating with anxiety and fear’. He read out a great passage expressing the ridiculousness of an expensive restaurant and the focus on consumer-level luxuries, eg. the tastiest olive oil, or pretentious and unnecessary focuses such as ‘bruising’ a leaf for its scent, and eating one sole date for dessert (there’s no way I can adequately capture the way he writes about these things). Rakoff says he finds writing ‘astonishingly difficult’, like ‘pulling teeth from his penis’, but he does it because he does ‘like to be listened to’.
I was very excited lining up for the session with Jim Sharman (pictured) and Barrie Kosky. Not because Geoffrey Rush was casually standing about a metre away, but because (as you all know) I’ve read and adored Sharman’s Blood & Tinsel (review+interview). I ended up being a little disappointed, though, that the focus of the conversation was almost exclusively theatre. I don’t think the audience would have left knowing much about what either of the books were about (Kosky’s is On Ecstasy). I did learn a lot of the political elements of Australian theatre, and Sharman still provided wonderful insights, such as when he spoke about the tensions between extremes of profundity and a dirty, gritty vulgarity in Australian theatre and film tradition. The ‘vulgar and the sublime’, and the high/low culture mix as opposed to the middlebrow are how both directors work, and I suppose this is also evident in Blood & Tinsel. Sharman ended on an interesting and characteristically perceptive note, saying that he feels a new wave is ready to rise but it is most certainly also through a new medium, which is being ignored by the larger and older culture, and I felt proud of this blog and its growing readership. Perhaps I can ride that wave.
The new golden age of the short story is starting to be spoken about, and one writer who has certainly contributed to this internationally is Nam Le (pictured). His wonderful collection The Boat explores a variety of themes, settings, voices and even metafictional concepts in a highly accessible, engaging way. Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading it knows that the stories are each wholly absorbing worlds of their own and end on a perfectly rounded note of contemplation. Nam had a chance to speak about his endings (the ‘terminal point and point of reflection’), and various other topics not only to a Melbourne audience, but via satellite to Edinburgh, the other UNESCO city of literature. Despite the technical newness which Sophie Cunningham and Nam had to quickly become accustomed to, the session was fresh and interesting. I hadn’t yet known about the scrapped 700 page novel (‘a learning curve’), and the way Nam became besotted with the short story form relatively recently. I also loved how he spoke about writing as an act of courage, that it’s about a certain ‘push’. But I’ll let Nam explain better when I interview him on the blog soon…
Sunday evening in the Festival Club was a quiet but privileged place to be. I shared a wine with my friend Brigitte, and her friend Emily. They were there too to see Emily Zoey Baker, who gave a wonderfully entertaining poetry performance, from her sexy feminist songs to her Twin Peaks love note, she is clever and on the money with every word.
Children’s author Jackie French was coaxed into Aphrodite’s tent for LoveTV, where she basically opened up about sex, love, passion, and wombats. It was so enlightening to hear her talk about her husband who is incredibly different to her and yet they share something indescribable. Her obvious passion for him was beautiful, and with only about twenty people in the room I felt pretty lucky to see it – I can see where the joy in her books springs from. John Marsden was also present, quietly, in the room, and I caught up with Festival Director Rosemary Cameron for a quick word on how it was going. She was quite glad to have the satellite feed over, but otherwise still looked excited and sprightly, happy to be in the presence of who are obviously some of her favourite people.
Jackie French really struck a chord with me when she expressed the need to ‘live life with fullness of heart or there really isn’t much point’.
I’m looking forward to next weekend including Matthew Condon, Remix My Lit, Emily Maguire, Static poetry performance, Robert Dessaix, Toni Jordan, Delia Falconer, Antony Loewenstein and more!
George’s life consists of working in a bowling alley, staring wistfully at the tree where he and his ex shared their first kiss, keeping an eye on his grieving brother, and helping out his sad-but-ever-smiling Mum. George might be still focused on his ex, but easygoing Stacey provides a nice distraction, as they ‘practice’ being with other people – with each other. She helps him to feel safer at night, with dark memories of a midnight prowler still fresh in his mind. The Magda Szubanski dream sequences are surreal, beautiful, literary – her enveloping presence symbolises warmth, laughter, frivolity and sweetness. The tales of both George and his brother Matthew unfold in the narrative. The book is tragicomic, exploring the difficulties of communicating depths of feeling, and the ways we hold onto suffering. George’s first-person narration is honest, straightforward, often hilariously apt, and all too human. There are flashes of childhood moments that make or break a person’s innocence, and there is dealing with it all in the present, learning to let it pass through. This is an absorbing novel and obviously well deserved its Vogel win. It should appeal to most sensibilities, old and young. There’s some resemblance to Charlotte Wood or Alex Miller, with a little more youthful swagger.
See also my interview with Stefan Laszczuk.
And like Edvard Munch I am not very good at drawing hands, but the brushstrokes are instinctual. Sometimes there are later additions, even accidents. Sometimes canvasses are stripped bare. Sometimes I repaint the same one because I am afraid of losing something.
Interviews + Profiles
Aug 9, 2008
Blood & Tinsel, Jim Sharman, August 2008, HB (Australia) Miegunyah Press, 9780522853773 (
A doctor said to your parents when you were a child that you have the makings of a philosopher. You also mention your love of art that involves personal quests. Has writing your memoir been a kind of philosophical journey?
A walk through anyone’s life will consciously or unconsciously reveal the ideas that have underpinned that life. I’m no philosopher, but I may have a philosophical bent, and while I didn’t actively set out to explore this area, it may be that the book is revealing in this regard.
You mention a certain look in the eyes of Patrick White, shared by other ‘carnivorous’ artistic people you knew, met or collaborated with. Could you tell us a little bit about this personal influence?
If you look at, say, Andy Warhol’s Flower paintings, you are instantly struck by the colour – the intensity of the almost fluorescent flowers. This is because they’re silk-screened both on and over a black background. This is surprising, given the subject matter, but it is this that causes them to sear into your retina and your imagination. It’s like the death rattle in Maria Callas’ voice or the tragic-comic aspect in Patrick White’s writing, or the mysterious twilight on the faces in Bill Henson portraits. The Spanish poet and playwright Garcia Lorca wrote a marvelous essay about ‘duende’ or ‘deep soul’ and it’s this aspect, the recognition of death in life, and vice versa – the indefinable quality that Lorca describes that distinguishes a certain kind of artist and their work. It’s a quality I admire.
Other influences range from your vividly described boxing/carnival childhood, through rock music and opera, films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, art movements, Japan, and personal relationships. Your writing is rhythmic, visual, kinetic, visceral, and literary. Besides Patrick White, do you have any other influences of a literary nature?
As a director, I’ve worked with some marvelous writers and I am a reader, though a fitful one, so I’m sure all of these things have influenced me – but not consciously. While writing the book I deliberately avoided reading anything substantial, especially memoirs, in order not to be influenced. I did, however, listen to music continually while I was writing – sometimes for pleasure or distraction, but often to evoke particular periods I was writing about. Music triggered certain eras and its influence might also be felt in the overall rhythmic structure of the book.
Your story is contextualised with cultural and world events that transport the reader back to your experience of the era. Did you often notice the effect of them on you or your work at the time, or is it more in retrospect.
Do you have a particular audience in mind for the book? Is it the audience of Rocky Horror, Hair or Voss? Or do you hope someone unlikely will ‘open the book’ and ‘turn the pages’?
The book is dedicated ‘to those who come after.’ That was the readership I had in mind.
With many thanks to the inspirational Jim Sharman.