Interviews + Profiles

Oct 31, 2008

5 comments

The Boat, Nam Le, 2008, Penguin – Hamish Hamilton (Aus, US), 9780241015414

Sentences – LiteraryMinded

Responses – Nam Le

*

The terminal point, point of contemplation.

The idea of terminus is critical to narrative: what (and where) is the point that occasions the narrative?  What needs finishing in order for articulation to start?  Because a narrative, no matter how it’s structured, is a linear thing – word comes after word comes after word – one at a time – and on the whole we read conventionally, that is, from one side of the word to the other, from one side of the page to the other, from one side of the book to the other.  From start to finish.

A dizzying array of cerebral and experiential assumptions are embedded into such a teleological mode of reading.  I’m interested in time.  Narrative time and time in narrative.  I’m interested in the techniques of temporal manipulation; how we – as writers as well as readers – can map the movement of consciousness, and its experience of time, onto the page.  What’s that line from “Little Gidding”? – We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.

Stillborns and stagnation.

From the start, physicists have set aside ideas of the existence of other kinds of matter – ether, dark matter – to account for empirical systems of understanding that seemed demonstrable and relatable in other respects.  From the start, biologists and chemists have been unable (or unwilling) to steer fully clear of vitalism, the doctrine that posits the existence of some vital principle, some élan vital, that distinguishes ‘life’ from ‘non-life.’  Theologists and philosophers are arguably referring to some version of this principle when they speak of the ‘soul.’  For me – from this vantage – the argument seems persuasive that nothing of real worth comes into being without a determining mystery at its heart.

Per Marilynne Robinson, in a Paris Review interview: “If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.”

Who knows what it is that brings a narrative to life?  Who knows what it is that separates something flawless, polished, perfect – but stillborn – from something else that, despite its imperfections, breathes?  I’m convinced it’s unknowable, this something.  I’m convinced that that’s what makes its manifestation valuable, even primal – and maybe – like ether, or dark energy – even extra-human.

Inadequacies. Miscommunications.

We all know Forster’s exhortation: “Only Connect.”  But the rest of it:  Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, / And human love will be seen at its height. / Live in fragments no longer.  Not passion to passion, nor human to human, love to love – but prose to passion.  See previous.  What a heroic (if quixotic) idea.  Live in fragments no longer.  This seems to me particularly apt now, and the word as instrument of ligation – of human love – particularly important.  What an idea.

Lightbulb. Headlights.

It was E.L. Doctorow who likened writing to driving a car at night – you never see farther than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Geographical variations.

I was on a plane the other day, flying from Hong Kong to London, when a man opened the port window over the wing (I’d scammed an emergency exit row seat) and woke me up. “The Himalayas,” he announced.  And it was incredible – to think that there was a correlation between the mountains out the port-side windows and, to plagiarise a phrase, the mountains of my mind.  Such moments – coming smack-bang against real-life referents – are simultaneously epiphanies (“They exist out there – these places housing so many happenings of my inner life!”) and impositions (“How dare these places exist?  How dare they crowd out my imaginings of them?  And what trumps what?”).  Geography in fiction, of course, is almost always interactive with human concerns.  Its variations are governed by human discriminations (see, eg, this map, which I like because it both highlights and diminishes our stamp on a basically unchanging surface.  (An aside – is it just me or does Australia seem still to be stuck in the mostly dark ages?)).  As a result, the proper apprehension of geographical variation in fiction ends up being much more than an exertion of the imagination – it’s nothing less, to my mind, than an epistemological discipline, a constant coming home, as we talked about above, to a different place.

‘Seated at a table in full sun outside the Ferry Building and sipping pineapple juice, Le retraced his unlikely path to a widely heralded early success.’ (San Francisco Chronicle) ‘He lifts a forkful to his mouth. “I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what panna cotta was,” he says, his Australian accent stretching out each vowel like Silly Putty. He tastes. “It’s quite good.”‘ (The New York Times) ‘But his capacity for the self-puncturing insight is frequently on display.’ (The Age) ‘I write because I read’ (You).

I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what Silly Putty was.

The human mechanism. Old man stands up in the bath.

When people talk about what it is we all have in common, they tend quite naturally to focus on anthropological or cultural rather than biological characteristics.  See, for example, this list of ‘human universals’ – one of the most interesting and provocative lists ever compiled (by Donald H. Brown, collated by Stephen Pinker).  Of course Brown’s interest is primarily anthropological, but I think it still speaks to my point that our greatest commonality is so self-evident it’s often overlooked.  Namely: our bodies.  No matter where you fit on the materialist spectrum, you can’t refute the proposition that we exist with – within – because of – and not without – our bodies.  Thought, character, conditioning, impulse, situation – all these, as human characteristics, are contingent on first-principle physicality – and the perishability it presumes.  And it’s precisely that physicality – the machine and not the ghost – or, perhaps more accurately, the machine impelled by its own ghosts – that sites our greatest, most enduring, most relevant mysteries.

Inside other people’s pages.

Metafiction.

According to Wikipedia: “Metafiction is a literary term for a type of fiction that systematically and self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, including the relationship between fiction and reality and the uses of irony and self-reflection.”  I’ll take it.

‘…pixellated it and everywhere turned it to plastic.’ (Meeting Elise)

Now you point it out, this is probably a clumsy elision of metaphors.

Juan Pablo. Juan Pablo.

John Paul.  Funny, I never intended that papal reference but I guess it’s quite at home in the scheme of the story. 

Kafka 1920: ‘8 December. Spent Monday, a holiday, in the park, the restaurant, and the Gallerie. Sorrow and joy, guilt and innocence, like two hands indissolubly clasped together; one would have to cut through flesh, blood, and bones to part them.’

That’s a great quote.  One of my favourite quotes also comes from Kafka; I’ll try to remember it off the top of my head: “You can stand aloof from the sufferings of the world.  That is your right, and it may even express your nature, but perhaps that aloofness is the one suffering you could have avoided.”

Generosity.

I want to talk about David Foster Wallace.  I thought he was one of our best.  One of our brightest lights.  An incomparable mind lashed to a mighty heart.  I thought he was unfailingly brave and, to me, of late, that’s become the real yardstick.  It’s so sad to read back over some of his stories – everything takes on a pall of anguish and prescience and portent now.  To know what we now know – that he was living in hell – renders his work the fruit of almost unbearable generosity.  May we make the most of it.

The person sitting next to you on the plane. Waiting for luggage. Smiling at the hotel desk. Sitting in the hotel room. Talking in front of many faces.

Apparently, 700,000 people pass through Grand Central Station in New York every day.  I once saw sped-up footage from a camera situated above the main concourse; what was most remarkable was that all these people – many moving at a fast Manhattan clip – fell into an eerie, communal rhythm wherein they barely touched each other.  Almost the whole floor was filled with people, yet there was an elegant, evolved choreography at work that, in keeping people from each other, I found a thing of great beauty and sadness.

Not describing bombs.

Listen here.

‘Kids believe in Santa; adults believe in childhood’ (from A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear, Cate Kennedy).

I wish I had my copy of Dark Roots with me – I left it in Australia – it’s full of lines such as these, steeped in humour and wisdom.  I’m hanging out to read her novel.

Sarah and Parvin, two parts of one whole?

So much is bundled up, isn’t it, in this idea of ‘one whole’?

Ending with loss.

Next.

Explanation: I deliberately chose an unconventional interview method with Nam. One reason is that he has done many wonderful interviews elsewhere (many present on his website) – I wanted to give him a chance to just have fun and be creative in reflecting on his work and writerly self. Another reason is that I think the blogging medium allows for experimentation, originality and flexibility. I instructed Nam to respond to the sentences however he wished. I derived them from The Boat, my reactions to it, and from things I heard Nam speak of at Byron Bay and Melbourne Writers’ Festivals – such as writing, short fiction, and more. He could also choose not to respond, or use links, other’s words, and/or images.

Thanks to everyone who has emailed, messaged, posted things etc. I’m incredibly grateful to get your own personalised remembrances of the mid 90s. Feel free to keep on sending. Did anyone know anyone who was in a band in Australia then? Perhaps MySpace can help me with this. Wiki, YouTube, and eBay have all been great tools thus far – the internet is my friend – immersion in those music film clips again, the magazines, the movies. It’s one reason this novel is set ‘just prior’ to net-explosion. There are more big reasons for the choice of 1996 as year of setting, which some of you have figured out, and most of you haven’t and won’t. But that’s okay, because you’ll read the book.

So here’s the plan:

Research/immerse/remember up until the end of November. Make timelines; create workable plotlines with imagination space but defined peaks and valleys; name and shape the secondary characters (I will name one after the eBay seller who had all the Dolly and Girlfriend mags – Joey). Take notes, form scenes, write down every idea.

Then in December – just write.

Going with some advice from a writer I admire and respect I’m going to trial getting up one hour earlier and writing in the morning. In the quiet, when the dream-fabric has just lifted. I’m excited.

~ I’m also putting together a project with my photographer friend Sudeep Lingamneni involving my ‘consumerism/materialism/technology’ short stories, and photographs he is taking inspired by them. The photographs will be their own little narratives and we think as a book, with these cultural themes, the visual aspect will be quite apt. I’ll blog about it soon and show you some of Sudeep’s amazing work. Click the link here for his site.

Sudeep and I are both in Sketch, a newbie lit journal, too. I’ll post the launch invite next week. We also both made it into Story To… zine. Yes, we’ve been sending to the same places, but by being accepted by these same places it seems like we’re destined to work together. And don’t forget to come to the Page Seventeen launch if you’re around Melbourne next weekend.

Nam Le on here tomorrow!

Other People's Words

Oct 29, 2008

5 comments

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

I did the old-style traditional stint as a cadet journalist on a newspaper but most of my life has been spent doing hard news fast as a newswires reporter, correspondent, bureau chief and editor in charge. Tight 350 word news stories. In the mid 1990s I fell into the business side of news and now swim in the online content sea where I’ve been for so long I have sepia-toned wrinkles. In my spare time I write what could be called creative nonfiction but I to me they are stories, long stories.

What is one of your favourite books?

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty.

How do you describe this book when you recommend it to other people?

It’s an epic western novel about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. There are so many main characters (I count 12) that the narrative should be crowded and it should be hard for the reader to relate but it isn’t. Larry McMurty also breaks rules. On one page I recall he has three different points of views … and it works. Lonesome Dove is a fabulous read from page one. McMurty won the Pulitzer Prize for it and amazingly an excellent television mini series was made. I recall Christopher Skase, the late failed Australian entrepreneur, was involved so in that at least he did something good. Larry writes about the American West and in 2006 also won an Oscar for the best adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. If you saw the telecast, he was the scruffy bloke who gave a speech to the glitterati about the value of books. Fabulous.

How old were you and what was going on in your life when you first read it?

I think it was the late 1980s and I had moved back to Sydney from Adelaide (via Papua New Guinea). Sydney was in the fast lane and excess was in; French champagne; expensive cars; luxury holidays. Lonesome Dove is gritty and has strong values. Sydney was plastic and weak on the value side.

How many times have you read it?

At least twice.

Who wouldn’t you recommend it to?

Can’t think of anyone but I do sometimes find it hard to convince people to read a western. That’s all about Clint Eastwood and spaghetti westerns, isn’t it?

Do you have a crush on one of the characters, or the author? Or do you want to be one of them?

I like the two former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, who start the cattle drive as one last push against the advancing years. They are not perfect but they sure do look after their mates. They represent a cleaner, less complicated, purer existence. You want them to win because that means you have a chance at winning … the right way.

Have you read other books by the author? If yes, what did you think of them? If no, why not?

Yes, I like most of Larry McMurty’s work and much of it has ended up in Hollywood — The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Texasville – but I like best the books with those two Texas Rangers: Dead Man’s Walk; The Streets of Laredo; Comanche Moon.        .

What do you love most about it?

This is one book you can lose yourself in, love the characters, that world and leave yours behind.

Think about the feeling it gave, or gives you. What could you most closely relate that to?

Like a lot of westerns, and the detective genre, there’s a clear divide between right and wrong. It’s that simpler life we all crave.

Can you share with us a favourite moment, passage, or line in the book?

The two ageing Texas Rangers stop at a town during the cattle drive and wander into a bar trailing dust. On the wall is a photograph of them as young men, saviours against the threat of Comanche raiders. The bartender, a young bloke who was probably not weaned when these men were heroes, gives them cheek about being dirty and one of the lawmen pistol whips him. If you’ve ever had to stand in a queue for hours to be told by a bureaucrat that you can’t have what you want or if you’ve been treated offhandedly by a bank teller, you know the feeling. The two Texas Rangers also have a touch of the easy style of the Australian digger in the face of danger. They have a quick chat to decide which one of them will track down a gang of bandits to rescue a kidnapped a woman. One of them! I’d take an army.

Do any other books come close? Name a couple if so.

I can’t think of any. I do like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. He also writes about the west, mostly a violent west, but The Road is scary on a deeper level. It’s like a long, quiet poem that drags you step by stumble deep into hell. While Lonesome Dove stays with me, comforts me, The Road unsettles, can’t be embraced.

Win!

Chris Pash is the author of The Last Whale. LiteraryMinded has six limited edition Last Whale bookplates (to stick in the front of books) to give away signed by the author and real life characters within the book. To enter, pop me an email at literaryminded (at) gmail (dot) com with the subject line being your favourite book. Please put your name in the body of the email.

Coming this FRIDAY – Nam Le interview…

9780980416541, WilkinsFarago (2008, Australia)

After reading Faces in the Water by Janet Frame about a year ago, I vowed I would read more of her work. The prose was absorbing and raw, and really striking. When I heard that Melbourne publisher WilkinsFarago were bringing out a collection of her poetry I couldn’t wait to dive into it. The poems in The Goose Bath are posthumously collected and arranged by Frame’s niece Pamela Gordon, as well as Denis Harold and Bill Manhire. The poems were literally from an unpublished pile in a ‘goose bath’, which, in Pamela’s words ‘had originally functioned as the base of a small fountain’, but as it required much cleaning and maintenance, the novelty wore off and it became a playbath for Janet’s geese. Later, she took it back to the city with her and it ‘evolved into a convenient receptacle for Janet’s burgeoning pile of poetry manuscripts’, Pamela writes.

Janet Frame only published one collection of poetry in her lifetime. Pamela believes, though, that she was foremost a poet. It was publishers who preferred her prose. But Bill Manhire’s introduction also explores the fact that Frame had doubts about her poetry. She confessed to him at a dinner once that ‘none of them are any good. I can’t keep them on a plane. They don’t end, they fall away.’ But Manhire insisted that it was just this which often gave poems ‘grace’ and ‘authenticity’.

When reading through the collection I found that some of the poems did have a certain awareness of themselves, and of the writing process in general. There are many about language, and I felt that some were ‘working out’ poems during the writing of prose pieces. Or a looking out the window stream-of-consciousness. But they are graceful. But then there are constant surprises – joyous and dark, on nature, people, history, psychology, family, love, nature (particularly birds, trees, flowers), sex, and a variety of landscapes. Some utilise fairy tales or classic narratives, and feature cultural references. Some are from the point of view of an object, such as a piano. The poems are not sharp, but wandering. They are stories of place and of consciousness, projecting. Some took my breath away, others simply made me smile. For fans of Frame’s novels and memoirs this is a whole new insight into the many sides and layers to the writer, not just her aesthetic consciousness, but her process of writing, as well as thoughts on language and influence.

I’ll mention just a few poems that I really enjoyed, but I find with poetry that sometimes it’s difficult to sum up exactly why. The editors choose to open with I Take Into My Arms More Than I Can Bear To Hold, and this was my favourite also. I believe it sums up the writer as an observer who is often floored by a sense of overwhelm to all the (both positive and negative) elements of a life, a consciousness, an environment. It then is a perfect precursor to the collection where individual elements are explored, often with this sense of a heaving significance behind a simple line about a bird, or a colour. Colours are mentioned in surprising ways, as are patterns – ‘I refuse to listen/ to the geometric noises/ of black and white’ (I Do Not Want to Listen), and in Choosing Postcards she mentions a ‘technicolour suicide’. Some poems refer to the hospitals, such as The Room, which those familiar with Frame’s work will recognise. Some poems display an awareness of progress and technology, often in almost surreal or fantastical ways, such as The Underground. There are humorous, playful poems, such as Wrong Number, which is literally about the annoyance of someone calling incorrectly. There are short and long poems, love poems, and some that seem to have grown from a perfect phrase or line. One of these (and that line is the title) is Let a Fox Come By and the Porcupine Night Shine with Starry Icicles. Some are built around an extended metaphor, such as Weekend, where the city rush is likened to an ocean ‘…where the high tide/ of five or six o’clock casts to shore/ the stray drift and wreck of commerce…’ There are poems about death – the influence of the dead, the deaths around the poet, and looking toward her own. There are writerly inadequacies, influences, experiences – one that I really related to was Stung by Ideas, a powerful, metaphoric poem – ‘…and the only comic film/ is old age clouding the eyes/ and a swarm of hiveless bees in the head.’ It makes you wonder which bees didn’t get the chance to break out, when there is so much ground covered in this worthy collection.

Unfortunately I didn’t make it to NYWF this year, an annual literary alchoholic-ginger-beer-fuelled fest held in Newcastle as part of This is Not Art (TiNA). So I asked a few friends to share an experience or two of their weekend in early October.

Amy Vought Barker:

Our remix masterclass was great. We did cut ups of Danielle Wood’s How to Domesticate a Pirate. And they were all so artistically done that I’m going to have to scan these cut ups, rather than just type them up. Scott-Patrick Mitchell, who was running ‘The Trickster’s Bible’ – public poetry throughout Newcastle streets – even did our first ‘fold in’.

We encountered the ‘serial pest’ in the festival club on the Saturday night. You know the guy? Peter Hore. He had his own novelty sized mic and at one point stipped off all his clothes. We thought he was ‘part of the act’ (you know, there’s some pretty out there performance stuff that goes on during the festival) at first. Apparently in previous years he has had a pet cat draped over his shoulders but was solo on this particular night. I made the mistake of sitting right next to him trying to get a front row seat for Bel Shenk’s (Artistic Director of Express Media) poetry reading from her new book which was supposed to be launched on the night but has been delayed by her publisher, Wakefield Press. I managed to block the serial pest and his personal commentary out and focus on Bel’s reading. So impressed was I that I was determined to buy the pages she read from and was prepared to pay $5 for them but by the time I approached her someone else had got them for the bargain price of $1.

The famous alcoholic ginger beer was pooh poohed by everyone, apparently it was a different type/manufacturer than previous years. The free champagne was cheap and nasty and left me with a killer hangover on Sunday.

Kieran and I apparently offended quite a few people (being a little bit outspoken and opinionated about various issues including smoking and writing cred)…

But my highlight was the ocean baths at East Newcastle, where just 20 metres away from where we were swimming Kieran and I watched a pod of bottle nose dolphins, including a baby, surfing the waves. It was a magical sight and I felt it was a gift for my novel Omega Park – in the final scene Dingo sees a dolphin out in the surf and I’d tried to research this but just had to make it up while I was in Ireland. Now I’ve felt what it was like to be that close to wild dolphins first hand, and watched the surfers’ reactions. It’s just mesmerising.

And of course the festival just wasn’t the same without Miss LiteraryMinded…

Amy’s book Omega Park was one of my ‘Best Unpublished Books’ earlier in the year. She has since won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and will be published by UQP in 2009.

Luke Stickels:

There was a pretty interesting panel on Saturday arvo, ‘mining the personal’. One of the panellists was pretty impressive at batting away anything the moderator sent their way, such as ‘would you like to say something about your experience…’, replying ‘no not really…’. It was pretty obvious the panellist wasn’t pulling weight, especially with the others being so generous and candid with their experiences and their immediate thoughts.

A classic moment was when the panellist was asked a question about whether they thought all journalists were ruthless individuals wanting to turn a writer’s personal history into pulp for their own ends (as they had suggested). The questioner said ‘I’d like to think not all your experiences with journalists have been so negative and self-serving’ and the panellist’s answer was her question: ‘you’re a journalist aren’t you?’ which everyone thought was hilarious but wasn’t followed with any further comment, that WAS the answer, and pretty disrespectful. Spoke with a few people that night who weren’t that impressed…

Otherwise, I didn’t see any reckless public groping, vomiting etc from festival attendees. There was some drinking in the park, where my dream was fulfilled to at least feel like I was part of an early Silverchair music vid.

The main space had often-conflicting utilities: serving drinks, people chattering away vs stage performances from folks who needed some quiet, who didn’t get it, who started heckling the talkers up the back, who took, generally, no notice. I was one such talker who was trying to extricate himself from a conversation so I could listen, but it’s more about the space being set up in a kind of contradictory way.

Luke is a writer from Melbourne. His short story ‘Guerillas in Your Midst’ is published in the most recent issue of Meanjin.

Josephine Rowe:

Some things make more sense at two in the morning, after inhaling half a bottle of tequila and showing your underwear to complete strangers. A wall mounted deer head lip-synching to ‘Rawhide’ is one of these things. Our hotel (okay, it was a motel) had Buck the Talking Stag mounted in the dining room, much to the amusement/disturbance of numerous shickered TINA guests.

Josephine is a Melbourne writer and poet.

And last but certainly not least, Nathan Curnow talks about his ghost poetry session at the festival on his blog.

Come and see me shimmer (due to nervous shakiness) on stage, reading from my shortlisted short story ‘Mentioning Ben’ which features dinosaur bones and ghosts of marriages past…

I would love to meet some of my Vic readers. And I know at least three people on my blogroll will be there if you’ve been enjoying them too! What will we be like without chains and desks? Probably drunk. Come and find out:

Page Seventeen Issue 6 Launch.

Issue 6, another 180 page bumper issue, will be launched by Lee Kofman on Saturday November 8 at the Queen of Tarts cafe, 1710 Burwood Highway, Belgrave from 2.30pm.

This bumper 180 page Issue features work from new writers alongside stories, poetry and haiku from Lee Kofman, Amelia Walker, Earl Livings, Kevin Gillam, John Egan, Nathan Curnow, Derek Motion, Zenda Vecchio, Jennifer Mills, Jules Leigh Koch, Graham Nunn, Anna Ryan-Punch and more.

Copies will be available at the launch for the discounted price of $15 (cash only), after which time they will revert to $19.95. You can also pre-order Issue 6 here.

Photo borrowed from www.unexplainedstuff.comNever have I felt this burning, scorching, bubbling of my insides so intensely before. I have previously likened the process of idea and inspiration for a story as being like a ‘brew’. The ingredients begin to react together inside your mind and pop and spit until it spills over onto the page as a draft.

But this time… I fear I’m going to explode. I’ll sizzle then burst quickly, leaving a pile of ashes, and perhaps one charred foot, as seems to happen. I was awake at 2am last night writing four pages of notes about this story. I am losing more and more sleep and yet I don’t know when I can write it. I work full-time now, I read on my breaks, I read and draft blog posts in the mornings. I go to the gym in the afternoon (I must have this time away, even if just to let my eyes recover for a bit). I get home and read or write reviews. I have other projects. I see friends and the occasional movie.

But I have to start. I have to get it out of me. It is growing so large that it is a great, searing weight. It is making me excited, anxious, frustrated, frightened, in love in love in love. Somehow I will write it. My last manuscript (which I am still deciding exactly what to do with) I drafted while working, studying, and in a serious relationship. I wrote 1000 words a day. I don’t have the study or boyfriend now, but life is big. Perhaps this time I can make it 500, with a little more time on weekends. There is no way I can’t write it. I will surely become a pile of ashes.

So what I have to do first is solidify this world inside my head. I have to know it intricately before I let it all out. I will start taking notes for midnight relief, but I will also hone and build upon the world. I will write maps of characters, histories, connections, lines, interests. I will write a very basic here to there plot structure. I will think about person and tone. I already know some things – I know the main conflicts. I know some motifs and culturally significant links. I know it is a young adult novel. I know there is more than one main character. I know it is set in a regional Australian town in 1996. I know a lot more – delicious, rounded, frighteningly big things that I don’t want to tell anyone. I want to keep it to myself. Because sometimes that burning, interesting, important story is only that in your head. On the page, the flint is not struck. And that is why I will not tell you specifics until it is done. If it is done. If I want it to go out into the world.

All I know now is that I must start, I must try. I must. I am compelled.

There is one thing you can do to help me, lit-lovers. I want to go back to 1996. I don’t have a time machine, but I want to be a teenager/child in the mid-90s. Tell me where I can get magazines – Girlfriend, Dolly, Smash Hits, TV Hits, music mags, Cleo, Cosmo etc. Tell me what music you listened to in 1994/5/6. Make me a CD! Tell me the little things you remember, keeping in mind that anything you tell me I may regurgitate in fiction. Tell me about TV, movies, food. I will try and pay for any postage on the magazines, or CDs. Comment me here, email me – literaryminded (at) gmail (dot) com, or surprise me – PO Box 6266, St Kilda Rd Central, VIC, 8008.

I will end with one of my favourite parts from Kafka’s diaries, in 1913:

The tremendous world I have inside my head. But how free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.

Reviews + Analyses

Oct 17, 2008

5 comments

Overland is an Australian literary journal that has been around for over fifty years. It claims to be ‘temper democratic, bias Australian’ and is proudly left-leaning. I got my hands on the Spring issue (no. 192) at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival and have been devouring the eclectic selection of articles, poetry, stories, and reviews here and there since. That’s one great thing about literary journals – you can pick them up at random and often find something new and unexpected.

Editor Jeff Sparrow provides stimulating, varied material – I found myself argumentative, amused, moved, laughing, floating, jealous, worried, inspired and challenged by the pieces in this issue. Highlights include a personal account of female boxing by Aussie in New York Mischa Merz, called ‘The Sweetest Thing’. Merz draws you into the passionate, sweaty and often friendly world of Brooklyn’s famous Gleason’s gym where there are real, respected female boxers ‘…not boxacisers, not decorative side dishes to the main course, but genuine competitive athletes, more skilled than most Australian male boxers’, she says.

Also in non-fiction is the raw, devastatingly honest account of a miscarriage, ‘Lost’ by Catherine Ryan – an absolutely essential piece that must have been terribly difficult to write, and to write so well.

There is also a stimulating article on the ‘new atheism’ by Ned Curthoys; a look at the communist affiliations of Christina Stead, an oft-ignored or glossed-over aspect of the writer, by Michael Ackland; and a wonderful debate between Peter Craven and Ken Gelder which only added to my confusion about where I stand on classicism/canonical literature versus post-modernism, among others.

The three fiction pieces in this issue are amazingly varied in both subject and tone. It is always exciting to see a new piece of work from one of my favourite writers, and Paddy O’Reilly doesn’t disappoint with the haunting, ultra-short ‘Breaking Up’. Amanda Lohrey explores, in an unassuming tone, a character story within a detailed contemporary fictional world in ‘The Buddha at Blues Point’. My favourite fiction piece, though, was Steven Amsterdam’s ‘Nothing Surprises’, which did actually catch me by surprise. It is, again, quite unassuming in tone, but this lends such simple wonder to the magical aspects of the story – about a Dad who truly can fly. His young son calls him ‘Daddy Bird’ after witnessing it, and this talent lifts him out of the doldrums of being a oft-useless, unemployed husband. The story made me smile hard and I carried it with me for some time.

The poetry also shows variety, with well-known names mixing with newer ones. I found Joanne Burns’ two pieces clever. I am already a fan of Jill Jones and her usual open-eyed observances are present. Both these poets also express a kind of recklessness or rebellion in their subject, while being very readable form-wise. I vowed to read more of Dan Disney after ‘Wandering’ – an intertextual exploration and definitely my favourite poem of the issue. Along with more by him there are poems from Dorothy Porter, Lidija Šimkutë, Maria Freij, and Kim Cheng Boey.

I found the reviews comprehensive, but not necessarily stimulating reading.  Something like Nathan Hollier’s overview of recent Australian fiction is something that will become more important over time, as a record, but I still felt room for longer reviews of individual titles would be more effective, such as Zoe Holman’s review ‘Activist Antics’ of Tristan Clark’s Stick This in Your Memory Hole, which was much more readable. I was also glad she agreed with me about the positive, and the sore points of that book!

There are quite a few literary journals out there in the Australian landscape – signs of a healthy culture – but I think Overland has quite a unique place, stimulating discussion about a country, about political, social and literary issues, and with an admirable democratic commitment to representing a wide range of voices.

Coming soon:

A ‘responsive’ interview with Nam Le.

And my leg of Tania Hershman’s virtual book tour, as part of Salt Publishing’s new ‘Cyclone’ project.

Commentary

Oct 15, 2008

5 comments

Aravind Adiga, photo by Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

See, William? Those difficult, long-winded questions in the HSC English exam might actually nourish talent or passion in a writer, and s/he could go on to won one of literature’s most prestigious prizes!

For those of you who have been hiding under a rock or doona today (it’s always a good idea every now and then), you may not have seen the announcement e v e r y w h e r e of The White Tiger by sometimes-Australian, most-often-Indian author Aravind Adiga winning the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Click a letter above to get the prize goss and find out what the book’s about, or check out the WBN story.

So, have any of you read the book? I’d love to hear what you thought. I haven’t I’m afraid. But this extract from the Penguin website definitely makes me want to read on.

Adiga is the second-youngest to ever win the prize (reported as 33, and 34 on some sites), and only the third debut novelist.

And I have to say, I think he’s a bit cute 🙂

Commentary

Oct 15, 2008

5 comments

Commentary

Oct 13, 2008

5 comments

Janet Frame’s amazing short story, posthumously published in The New Yorker:

‘Gorse is Not People’ – Take some time to click and read.

I was alerted to this story by Bookman Beattie and it has become one of my favourites. I recently got to meet Frame’s niece Pamela Gordon at the launch of The Goose Bath: Poems (review forthcoming) in Melbourne. Gordon is executor of Janet Frame’s work, and told me some very good news about her short fiction…

You’ll just have to stay tuned.

In other news –

I’m receiving a small trickling of news, highlights and gossip from the National Young Writer’s Festival in Newcastle, held the weekend before last, which will be posted soon.

Josephine, Clint and I.

My new friend Josephine and I had a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party for our birthdays on the weekend. We were planted on this earth only one day apart. Much fun was had by all – an interesting mix of Melbourne characters, many on the literary fringe. I will be introducing you to the talented lady and her work soon. One of the party highlights was a late night/early morning trek by five of us to the refreshing, quiet earth-scented greenhouse in the St Kilda Botanic Gardens. Yes, there was fence climbing involved.

Josephine and I plan to attend an exciting performance tomorrow night (Tuesday Oct 14) too. If you are in Melbourne, you should come along (it’s the last night). Here are the details:

The Confession Files.
What does it feel like to witness a crime and stay silent? How can you suddenly snap one day and hurt the person you love? Why ruin everything you have worked desperately to keep? Can there ever be absolution, atonement, forgiveness? The Confession Files is a night of monologues, poetry, passion and lyrical confession of crimes.
Join writers
Sean M Whelan,
Emilie Zoey Baker,
Paul Mitchell
and alicia sometimes
on a search to explain deeds that often defy explanation.
Directed by Kieran Carroll.

As part of the Exploration Series at La Mama.

12th -14th October.
Sun, Mon, Tue.
7.30pm
$12
La Mama Theatre
205 Faraday Street Carlton, Australia
bookings 9347 6948

Reviews + Analyses

Oct 10, 2008

5 comments

Company, Max Barry, Scribe, 9781921215643, 2008 (Aus, US)

Jones joins Zephyr as an enthusiastic employee, without even knowing what the company does. This doesn’t seem to be an odd thing at Zephyr, where Jones’ coworkers in the Training Sales department just accept that Zephyr is a ‘holdings’ company, and get on with their menial, perpetual tasks that often seem to have no point and no outcome.

Roger is concerned with who took his donut, and someone may even get fired over it. Holly gets through the day just so she can sweat out her exercise addiction in the corporate gym. Elizabeth falls in love with her customers, but not if they’re too easy or come on too strong. Freddy has been in the same position for five years and is thwarted in any attempt to get promoted.

It doesn’t take long for newbie Jones to realise there is something strange about Zephyr. No one has ever seen the CEO face to face, and the flirtatious receptionist Eve is never at her post, yet seems to earn more money than everybody else. His investigations take him to the forefront of the secrets behind bestselling business book The Omega Management System, which every manager carries, and into the secret labyrinthine depths of a controlling and soulless experiment.

I don’t want to give too much away about this little satirical gem. It’s a very easy and enjoyable read with romantic/ethical conflicts and plenty of corporate and personal intrigue. There were a few moments where characters disappeared that I had grown empathy for (but this may be a tool used by Barry to make us see the cruelty of the company), and a few needless descriptions of life outside the company, where the stiflingly contained world within would have sufficed. The characters are not exactly enlightening, but this is more a concept novel, and I think there should be more corporate satires about!

Gold moments (that are often frighteningly close to true situations) include the indecipherable company Mission Statement, and this exchange about why IT is on the ‘bottom’ floor:

Jones looks at the button panel. ‘What’s so bad about IT?’

‘Please,’ Freddy says. ‘Some of them don’t even wear suits.’

There are also innumerable references to outsourcing and company consolidation, and about rights at work. The Human Resources Department is like a nightmarish hall of mirrors with booming voices like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, while workers quiver like Tinman. There are references to the way business textbooks refer to employees as a ‘tribe’. The company intimidates people into working when they’re sick, embarrasses them for smoking, and finds other roundabout ways to discriminate in order to improve production time.

There are incredibly materialistic (and lonely) characters who look like soap stars and think they’re living in the ‘real world’ by ridding themselves of the worry of conscience.

There’s the big fat hopeful question of whether a company can be both profitable and democratic. Barry ultimately leaves you with a sweet taste in your mouth, not a bitter one, and the book is great entertainment. The fact that it might also simmer a little dissent behind some desks is a wonderful thing. Highly accessible fiction.

Max Barry’s website and really random blog.

Commentary

Oct 9, 2008

5 comments

Last night I went to that gorgeous old theatre The Astor to see the full-length version of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. I will soon be doing a discussion piece about this version and John Marsden’s recent novel adaptation (and express my enthusiasm for Shakespeare in more detail). For now, out of so many powerful scenes, I’ll share with you this small part of Hamlet’s monologue after the player (actor) has so powerfully performed a speech:

                                      Now I am alone. 
   O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! 
   Is it not monstrous that this player here, 
   But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, 
   Could force his soul so to his own conceit 
   That from her working all his visage wann’d, 
   Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, 
   A broken voice, and his whole function suiting 
   With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing! 
   For Hecuba! 
   What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, 
   That he should weep for her? What would he do, 
   Had he the motive and the cue for passion 
   That I have? He would drown the stage with tears 
   And cleave the general ear with horrid speech, 
   Make mad the guilty and appall the free, 
   Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed 
   The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I, 
   A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak, 
   Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, 
   And can say nothing; no, not for a king, 
   Upon whose property and most dear life 
   A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward? 
   Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across? 
   Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face? 
   Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat, 
   As deep as to the lungs? who does me this? 
   Ha! ‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be 
   But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall 
   To make oppression bitter, or ere this 
   I should have fatted all the region kites 
   With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain! 
   Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! 
   O, vengeance!

Why this monologue in particular strikes me is the way it acknowledges fictional empathy. The actor cries when Hamlet cannot. The actor stirs passion in him. The actor is like a writer, believing and living one’s character/s.

And how many times this play forces you to look upon skulls – not just Old Yorick’s – and think about worms and dust – but often too with such humour… but more on that later.

What are your favourite parts?

Loathing Lola, William Kostakis, Pan Macmillan, 2008, Australia, 9780330424165

You rewrote the whole book to be in first person (no mean feat!), in Courtney’s point of view. How did you come to this decision?

Okay, so originally, Loathing Lola was in the third person, with three leads, Courtney, Tim and Katie. Well, four leads, if you included me, because every five seconds, I’d literally take over and make a smart-alecky comment about the length of somebody’s skirt, and what that said about their personality. You know, really tasteful stuff.

When I eventually sat down with my publisher to discuss the completed draft, we spoke about what worked and what didn’t. We both agreed that the authorial intrusion was weighing the book down and overpowering the other characters – and some of the comments about the skirts were just downright offensive. I suggested first person. My editor said that it could work. It was just a matter of choosing which character.

I knew if I decided to write the book from Tim’s perspective, it’d be too tempting to amalgamate his and my voices, so, to stop myself from falling into that trap, I decided to step completely out of my comfort zone and try my hand at a sixteen-year-old female character’s perspective. Luckily for me, the gamble paid off. It let me deal with all the novel’s concerns in detail, and it also kept me at bay. Although, I do slip in occasionally for a cameo appearance when Courtney loses her cool and lets her tongue loose.

How long all up have you worked on Loathing Lola, and what compelled you to begin it?

I remember sitting in the back seat of my car, with my worn copy of Worry Warts on my lap, the back cover facing up. I’d imagine my face there instead of Morris Gleitzman’s. The caption would read ‘11-year-old author William Kostakis’, that was my dream… and then I turned 12, so that daydream became ‘12-year-old author William Kostakis’… That’s when I realised I should probably start writing something.

I finished a novel featuring Courtney and Co. by the end of Year 7, and my computer congratulated me with a terminal virus. It was the age of the floppy disk, and I hadn’t learned the importance of backing up the file, so, from memory, I restarted it in Year 8. I must’ve remembered more than was there, because the word count doubled (think: just falling shy of Harry Potter 5’s grand total). I left it for a few years, came back to it in Year 10, and after one more rewrite, I was content with it, so I started thinking about a sequel. What if they had a camera crew following them around? How would that change the way they acted, what they said, who they were nice to, who they weren’t? What would they hide? What parts of their characters would they accentuate? It didn’t take me long to realise that this would be a far more compelling read than the original novel I’d written, so, after my bajillionth rejection letter, I decided to restart from scratch. By the end of Year 12, I had Pan Macmillan on board. And now, in my second year of uni, I have a book out.

So, to answer your question in a non-round-about way, it took seven-eight years to write, and I started it because I wanted to be Morris Gleitzman. Only 11.

(LM aside – I also wanted to be Morris Gleitzman. I met him when I was nine and was over the moon. Thanks for inspiring us Morris!)

The only word I didn’t get was ‘d’urg’. I’m only a few years older than you so I can’t be the only one! Please explain?

It’s a mean sound to slip into impersonations of slightly less intelligent people? It’s like ‘d’uh’ only more pronounced. Come on Angela, Miss Gen Y, get with the times. 🙂

 

(How quickly one falls behind…)

One thing I noticed while reading is that the plot, dialogue and characters were very filmable. Do you think growing up in a visual culture makes it in some way inevitable that you’ll be as influenced by film (and other visual mediums) as by literature? If yes, what are some of your favourite films/directors?

I’m a bigger consumer of television and movies than I am of books, so I guess my writing style reflects that. The novel does have a very visual subject matter – they’re the stars of a reality TV, so it does instantly scream ‘FILM ME!’. Some parts – quite literally – read like a script. As I write, the story plays out in my head like a film. I imagine the camera angles, the editing, and that must influence what’s eventually put on paper.

It’s dialogue-heavy and description-light, simply because as a reader, I used to look at a page of block formatted text made solely of description and want to lynch myself. Don’t get me wrong, some authors can make describing a rock an enjoyable reading experience, but a lot can’t. There’s nothing like that feeling of absolute joy I’d get when I’d turn a page and see the next one is mostly dialogue. It’s fun to read dialogue, and I love writing it, and the result is something that’s quite unique. It’s a movie novel.

That said, there are little details that I don’t think would work as effectively onscreen. Courtney’s inner-monologues are really what define the book, and that’s hard to convey without being voice-over heavy. I wanted to immerse the reader in all things Courtney, and living her thoughts, breathing her opinions was a part of that immersion. Film doesn’t really lend itself to that personalisation. Courtney’s experiences are your own in the novel, whereas if it were a film, you would empathise with her, but she would be a character you saw, not a character you inhabited.

Now, as for movies… I have a theory that I developed my sense of humour from The Addams Family Values. I rewatched it the other day and am both proud and shocked that it was my favourite movie growing up. Other favourites are Superbad, Serial Mom, any Star Wars, The Matrix Reloaded (I’m one of 4 people on the planet who enjoyed it…), V For Vendetta, and anything by Tarantino or Pixar.

What authors do you enjoy reading, or who inspires you as a writer?

Terry Pratchett is a god among lesser authors. I have all his books… I’ve only gotten around to reading eleven-or-so of them, but they’re good. Amazing, even. I also enjoy reading the occasional Chuck Palahniuk. But I’m most inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is my aim as an author to never, EVER write anything as sinfully boring and unnecessary as that book. Granted, I was in Year Seven when I read it, so I might have a better appreciation of it now, but… it just hurt to read. It took me, on-and-off, a good ten months to finish.

I thought Loathing Lola was a great satirical book, not just satirising Australian media, television, and big business, but high school culture as well. Satire is a form of comedy that often subverts an issue or situation that is actually quite serious. Why did you choose to utilise some of the themes you did?

The way you wrote the question, statement, explanation, question… brought back horrible memories of the paragraph-long questions of the HSC English exam. If LiteraryMinded doesn’t work out for you, you should consider working for the NSW Board of Studies. They’d hire you in a heartbeat. Ahem, tangent aside…

I didn’t choose the themes. I didn’t sit there and make a list and go, ‘Oh, that’d just be a delightful theme to touch on lightly in the third act.’ I chose the story I wanted to write, and the themes, issues and concerns came attached to that story. They’re its extended family you inherit when you marry it.

I knew from the get-go that I didn’t want to take myself or the subject matter too seriously. I wanted to get out there, tell a great story, introduce some great characters, get a few laughs and throw a few punches… but let’s not pretend I wrote the next Animal Farm or anything.

I wanted to talk about grieving in a comic way, I wanted to talk about being completely screwed over by the corporate machine with a smile on my face, I wanted to write a light novel about deeper issues.

I’m 19. I started this incarnation of Loathing Lola in my mid-teens, I didn’t want to be serious. In one sense, I’d just lived an intensely serious part of my life (a close friend had just passed away), I didn’t want to write the typical angsty, woe-is-me drama, because there’s more to life than typical angsty, woe-is-me drama. Even in the darkest days of dealing with grief, there was humour. But nowadays, we have the movies written as Oscar bait, the books written for consideration in every award category under the sun – and there’s so much attention put on the darker side of life because the crying woman gets the Oscar. Literary merit and sob stories seem to go hand-in-hand.

The darker side is privileged in art. I remember I wrote a comedy story once, and came runner-up in a school competition. The judge, who shall remain nameless, said, ‘Usually, when you have a comedy and a drama up against each other, the drama wins, even if the comedy is cleverer and better written.’ I was shocked, a little bitter that I had lost, but shocked.

That was the day I made the conscious decision to specialise in comedy, and I didn’t let the themes attached to my subject matter stand in my way. I wanted to satirise the television industry, music industry, high school life, teen life, yes, but, at its core, while it is a satire, it is still centred in reality. It is more real-life than exaggerated satire, it’s just… a lot easier to swallow when we laugh and say, ‘Ha ho, only in fiction, eh?’

There’s a lot of comedy in real-life, it’s just, you’ve got to look for it 🙂

 

(Perhaps I’ll create a HSC English Extension module based on the half-full glass, or an exam question centred around the principle of ‘not crying over spilt milk’… and no, it’s not Animal Farm.)

Do you think people believe what they see on current affairs programs and read in gossip mags?

If people didn’t, would they still be in business?

Why are there so many cats on the internet?

There was a surplus of cheezburgers that needed attending to.

Can a 19-year-old novelist still get through the average doorway, or is his head too large?

A 17-year-old with a book deal foresaw impending problems, so he invested in larger household doorways.

Seriously though, it’s no mean feat, and I hope people realise that. What are you working on or doing with yourself now?

Right now, I’m focusing on uni (I’m a 19-year-old novelist balancing writing, uni and a casual job, how’s that for head-inflating?). By “focusing with uni”, I mean sometimes attending lectures, spending too much time on Facebook, and handing in rushed assignments three minutes before the deadline. I want to give myself time to recharge between books. Writing Loathing Lola and keeping afloat at uni was hell, and it’s something I don’t want to do again unless I have to. I’m still writing, plotting, drafting small things, but I’m taking my time. The last thing I want to do is rush a lacklustre second book. I have an idea I really love, I’m just letting it mature, and I want to give it the attention it deserves. Hopefully, it won’t be another seven-eight years before you see it on shelves.

Thanks William! I do indeed hope to read your next book before you are an ancient 27-year-old.

Read more of Will’s self-deprecating humour in his Age article from last weekend.

Reviews + Analyses

Oct 2, 2008

5 comments

Pan Macmillan, 2008, Australia, 9780330424165

Courtney Marlow becomes the star of new reality TV Show Real Teens despite the fact that she doesn’t watch much reality TV. Her boyfriend, Liam, had encouraged her to audition. Is she following through just for him? And how will she cope with cameras in her face just months after Liam has been tragically killed in a car accident? Courtney only goes through with it by deciding she’s going to be a role model – a shining beacon of goodness amongst all the plastic teen-girl models.

Of course, this is going to be harder than she thought. People around her want a piece of the action – like second-best friend Katie, and the leopard print-clad stepmother she’s only just met – Lola. Courtney is expected to play up her grief and abandoned daughter status as she’s thrown into challenging situations – a TV camera in her face every step of the way.

Loathing Lola is a clever and hilarious young adult novel. It is incredibly satirical – not just of Australian TV culture, reality TV and the media, but of high school in general. There are caricatures of students, teachers and parents, that are all too familiar. The only thing that worried me here was at the beginning the perpetuation of one cultural stereotype – that fat equals evil, and slim equals normal. But then this is counteracted at the end by a too-thin pop star. In fact, no one really escapes criticism. The flawed yet likeable second-best-friend Katie, I found to be quite realistic, and almost annoyingly endearing. The narrative is handled well by having Courtney as a moral compass, but with enough flaws of her own to make her relatable. There are many hilarious lines, which are mostly insults.

I was impressed by the way the young author maintained tone, pace and tension throughout the book. There is plenty of foreshadowing to create a sense of unease that more catastrophe is going to unravel, but the prose is kept alight with the constant humorous descriptions and jokes. The tone is set at the very beginning where Kostakis somehow manages to make a funeral scene seem both tragic and funny, where an irrational girl, Chloe, tries to steal the spotlight. She is referred to as a waah-waah (someone who overacts at funerals to get attention). There is a whole heap of slang in this book but don’t let it deter older readers, it simply adds to the immersion in a genuine fictional world.

Overall, I was highly entertained by the book, and also liked its anti-sensationalist media/TV stance. It’s quite an apt novel to have as an artifact of our times, young Australia in the noughties, and it’s great to see a young voice putting it out there. It is satire, it’s not meant to be life-altering, but it does exactly what it should, and I look forward to a long fiction career for Kostakis, immersed in and reflecting wittily upon his immediate culture.

See also my Q+A with William Kostakis on Loathing Lola, writing, filmic inspiration, and Gen Y slang.