In 2009... Christos
I also interviewed Eva Hornung, Max Barry, Jon Bauer (whose debut novel has since been picked up by Scribe and will be out in 2010), Toni Jordan, Josephine Emery, Adam Ford, Emily Maguire, Lisa Dempster, Mischa Merz, Sarah Manguso; and Chris Currie interviewed Wells Tower for me
Of course, I also interviewed one of my favourite authors, Alex Miller
A blog post let to a hot date with an American (he had a Springsteen-vibe and carried around a copy of Moby Dick)
I wondered whether I was related to Stephenie Meyer
I had an internet stalker (comments mostly deleted)
The Productivity Commission looked at abolishing territorial copyright laws. Loo-hoo-se-hers.
I was interviewed here and there – most extensively in Voiceworks
I performed or chaired at the Newstead Short Story Tattoo, the Format Festival, Emerging Writers’ Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival (like a mother to a son), National Young Writers Festival, Ubud Writers & Readers Festival
I rode my bike in 46 degree heat
Robert Pattinson was my cardboard cut-out date to a party
My home-town flooded
I developed an interest in graphic novels/comics
I was number one on Copywrite’s ‘Top 50 Australian Blogs on Writing’ list
Synecdoche New York was my film of ’09 and I even contributed to a podcast about it
Sometimes I was lonely
I went to the gym on average three times a week (plus walking/riding to work each day)
I drank alcohol on average three times a week
There were terrible bushfires
My friends – old, new, strengthened, over interwebs & in person, created the best memories
Dr Geoffrey Miller informed me about human evolution and the mating mind, and I developed a little crush on him
I developed a crush on a bartender who reminded me a bit of Brian Wilson
I developed a crush on China Mieville’s arms
I got a hug off Christos Tsiolkas
There were secret meetings (not with any of the above)
I joined Twitter in February
I guest fiction-ed (at first as a secret ‘celebrity’ horse) on Chris Currie’s Furious Horses, and may have written one of the anonymous posts on Krissy Kneen’s blog…
I sometimes thought I was invincible
I started reading Ulysses… Um
Michael Jackson died and I was sad, sad, sad
My 3rd person post (stars in my eyes) on the Macquarie PEN Anthology launch attracted some nasty comments, and your kind responses
I rewrote, was asked for, had rejected, and semi-retired a novel manuscript (my second) with a missing key
I wrote 15,000 words of another one
A very popular post was ‘Embracing the medium: what makes a successful cultural blog’
This blog post felt the best to write
I attended the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards
My beautiful sister moved to Melbourne
I got a badge with the face of Albert Camus on it (aka Uncle Bert)
I performed poetry for the first time
I shared a few things I’d learnt about chairing writers’ festival panels
My book collection became complete
I told Readings my best books of ’09
I went blonde
I attended lots of book launches and events (too many to link ’em all)
I read and reviewed a lot of books and had some lovely guest reviewers do the same
No doubt I’ll think of something else today to add to this. And you know what? 2k10 is set to be just as crazy-amazing. Already I’m lined up for two festivals – Perth and Byron (more on those soon), I’m teaching a workshop in Horsham in January, and I’m on some panels in February at events at the SLV, I’ve got a couple of articles due, and a story, I might be doing some stuff at the Wheeler Centre, and on top of all that there will be some MAJOR changes to my life, even this blog… all will be revealed soon.
Should I just, like, take a breath and feel satisfied?
A happy whatever to all of you. Thank you so much for reading. Party hard, love hard and read hard. I’m taking a break until 11 January – well, I’ll try to anyway…
Interviews + Profiles
Dec 20, 2009
See also – part one: on the origins of a contemporary story; part two: on wisdom and imagination and part three: on cross-eyed novels, the time we have, and liberties of language. My feature interview with Alex Miller on his new novel, Lovesong (Aus, US), was published in Readings Monthly. You can find it here.
Here’s something I don’t do enough, re-read books. Miller said: ‘Re-reading books is a big deal to me. If I’ve been impressed by a book, if I really like it, then I will say okay, in a year or two, I’ve gotta go back and read it. While there is still some of the energy of the first reading left, but, in a sense you’ve almost forgotten everything. It’s really weird. I’ve been having a big splurge of re-reading Nabokov lately. I’ve read about seven of his books in a straight row, and a couple that I hadn’t read before, like Invitation to a Beheading, and The Eye. But then I thought okay now it’s enough, it’s time to go back to Alexis [Wright]. It’s amazing the similarities in a sense. She’s another one who rips into the language – not in such a self-conscious way, although Nabokov is kinda assailed by his verbal imagination. Alexis is also assailed – she’s liberated herself from the norms – she’s relaxed in a sense, into her own familiar idiom. And the idiom changes and swerves and moves around, from the idiom of Aboriginal people who’ve grown up on the tips on the edge of town – and educated people. And it swerves around in between all these, but it does it with huge energy and confidence. A truly great book. You don’t always recognise that at first reading, because it’s so new and so different, like music.’
One of the central issues of Miller’s life, he said, is the ‘difference between storytelling and storywriting’. ‘I gave it to Sabiha [in Lovesong] to say that storytelling is a communal thing. You’re in a group, you’re sitting around in a group, chatting. Dad used to tell us stories every night when I was a kid. For Dad it was the company. The company made the story. When I wrote my first novel, he said “so what?” Because it wasn’t an improvement over telling – it was a lessening, a reducing of experience. Because it’s a solitary thing. Y’no Sabiha says, looking at John reading in bed, she says “men are lonely, look at them”. He’s in there alone with that book. Why is he reading that autobiography? He’s trying to find himself in there he’s trying to find an echo of his own life in it. And reading and writing are solitary experiences. And it’s the imagination that gives you your company. In a sense it’s a very self-centred thing, both reading and writing. And I can’t live without either of them, but so what? Y’no? But telling a story, you’re with company and to tell the story is an improvisation, always. It’s always different. Someone tells you a good story and you think “I’d love to tell that story” and sometimes you dare to. And you have to change it…’
After I told him a bit about a story I ‘found’ on the tram on the way to Carlton to meet him he said: ‘So that’s it isn’t it, partly what we do. We celebrate the stories … To me it’s very important that the people you write about acknowledge themselves in what you’re written.’
We talked a bit about Conditions of Faith as it’s the one I was reading at the time of our interview, and is set in the time of Miller’s mother’s youth.
He said: ‘I was doing a reading in Sydney and the young woman down the back selling books was glaring at me. She had her arms folded. During discussion time, she stood up she said “yeah, you really disappointed me. Meeting you today is a big disappointment for me.” She said “I read your book and I knew the woman who was writing it. And I imagined the woman who was writing it. I believed in her”. It didn’t have a photograph on it [the book], and obviously she didn’t do any enquiries and didn’t know me before … she said “when I met you today I thought, this can’t be right”. So I had a chat to her about it afterwards, and she finally cracked a smile, but she was seriously upset! But I thought – it’s a great compliment … I don’t have a problem writing as a woman. Why should that be different or difficult? I mean, Sabiha [in Lovesong] is the main character. I didn’t set out to make her the main character. She became the main character. When I read Mum’s memoirs, what there were of them, I just saw my mum as a young woman in Paris. She didn’t know Dad, she didn’t have kids, didn’t have anything like that. The whole world lay before her. What was she gonna do? And it was all so exciting. That was where I started from.’
I hope you’ve enjoyed this four-part insight into one of Australia’s best writers, and one of my personal favourites. Again, Miller’s new novel Lovesong is just out – a great Xmas pressie in hardcover, but I would also recommend all of his backlist, particularly Prochownik’s Dream (if you’re a creative type), Landscape of Farewell (to anyone) and Conditions of Faith (to anyone who has stared out a window wishing to be somewhere else). And I hope Santa brings me The Ancestor Game for Xmas, because it’s just about the only one I haven’t read!
I was thinking about A.S. Patric’s recent post on the Overland blog all of yesterday afternoon. I thought I’d have a go at responding to his piece, just off-the-cuff. Note: the words in bold are Alec’s.
Are we more disconnected?
I know how late my crush goes to bed.
Are we more superficial?
Skin is a surface.
Does the internet cripple the creative life?
There’s a book in that.
Are we more distracted?
I was thinking about the present, and then someone hyperlinked the past.
Debased and disillusioned?
Our placards have dimension.
Do we abandon a spiritual centre for a cyber stratosphere?
Did you ask for God on the telephone?
Or is it merely two centimetres of distraction?
I have been distracted by many paintings, less than a centimetre thick.
Are we ourselves filtered through the thoughts of others?
And through the thoughts of ourselves, given to others.
Are we distillations of the failures and successes of our parents, or perhaps, just our social networks?
He wanted his too too solid flesh to melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew because of his parents (and his social networks then helped him).
How much of myself is originated solely from the private recesses of the singularity that is my ego?
Just the affection.
How much of me is already historical, global, communal, whether I want it or not?
How much of me is Bart Simpson?
Where is all this going?
Where is all this happening?
In the Matrix.
Is there some point of culmination where consciousness experiences itself as a collective phenomenon?
Why don’t you crowdsource the answer to that one?
Do we understand where we have been?
I was once a twinkle in my Dad’s eye.
Do we understand where we will be?
‘From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity’ – Edvard Munch
Have we seen all the tools we have made, and all the tools we will build, for the machines that are our past and future?
Has an everlasting moment always slipped through our fingers?
I decided to look time in the face but it ran away from me.
Do we stand alone below the stars?
Each star is surrounded by space.
Have we always wondered how to see them properly?
It’s difficult to look into someone’s eyes if they’re focused on the sky.
Have we always wondered how to see you properly?
It’s hard for me to look into someone’s eyes.
Are there really nothing but questions?
Nothing more than a code of 0s and 1s?
Combinations of such broken figures?
Broken things are more interesting.
Just so many broken fingers?
Fingers are older than numbers.
Do you think in such fractured circles –> wear such incomplete rings?
The beginning and the ending don’t meet.
Have we been little things?
Almost all of the time.
Have we been voiceless?
You’ll have to speak up, I’m wearing a towel.
Have we been a sum on the other side of the sun?
Is music part of your equation?
Have we dreamed and found all our answers and then forgotten such sunless places?
Smell is a sunless thing.
Have I known you and lost you?
You knew only the avatar.
Have I misplaced our misread faces?
You’ll draw another one (to you).
Printed them wrong, forgotten and gone?
The paper from the printer is warm.
Will we now drift?
Continental drift is a natural occurence.
Each from each?
Like ‘Ratso’ Rizzo from Joe Buck.
Clusters of poetry turning into rings, barely detectable, and spinning around Jupiter?
I’d prefer to be a Martian poem.
Powdering out in white dust as far away as Pluto’s underworld?
It’s where all the cool kids are. Like James Dean.
What were we when we discovered that our planet offers us an absolute answer to everything we could ever ask?
We thought ourselves no longer ridiculous. Of course, we were wankers.
1 + 1
1 + 1
1 + 1
I had a question about that
but I got distracted.
Interviews + Profiles
Dec 15, 2009
See also – part one: on the origins of a contemporary story and part two: on wisdom and imagination. My feature interview with Alex Miller on his new novel, Lovesong (Aus, US), was published in Readings Monthly. You can find it here.
When asked what his favourite is of all his novels, Miller smiled and said he was fond of all his children – ‘even the ones with the crook legs and the turned-in ankle. I kind of defend them even more’ he laughed. ‘Don’t mention the fact that one of my books is cross-eyed. I’m very sensitive about that. Or has acne. Never mention the acne.’ I didn’t press him but I was quite curious to know which he found more flawed. I told him Prochownik’s Dream was my favourite (though since our interview I have finished Conditions of Faith and it might be taking over). He said a lot of people cited Prochownik’s Dream. ‘I wonder why?’ I’m not 100% sure myself – other than my complete immersion in the main character’s (an artist’s) passion, and failures. I read the book in one go.
What about what Miller is reading? And what are his favourites? ‘The Great Australian Novel which I’m reading for the second time – and the book itself is starting to fall apart a bit, the pages are starting to come out – is Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.’ I expressed dismay that I still haven’t read it. But Miller was comforting: ‘Well look, don’t worry, you’ve got your life.’ Later on, when the tape was turned off, he also reassured me about the time I have to find the missing ‘key’ in my semi-retired novel manuscript.
Further, on Carpentaria, he says Wright ‘has wrenched the form of the novel in Australia out of alignment and into a new cultural alignment. She’s done that. So it’s the truly innovative piece of writing of our generation, of our time. There’s nothing else like it. Everything else that attempts so-called innovation is just tweaking the edges. She’s done it in a massive way. It’s a huge act of the imagination, that book. It’s not going to be repeated. Not by her or anybody else. And it’s hugely energised. The language itself is a liberty, in her use of the language. And it’s a crossover language. It’s the world seen from the Indigenous perspective of people who live on the town dump … it’s this amazing place. It’s where everything good comes from. So that’s the book that’s really… I’m reading it for the second time and the first time around I loved it. I thought yeah, wow, fantastic. Second time around I realised, god, I’m reading the great Australian novel mate. Come on, this is it. There is nothing else like it … She’s the Australian Joyce and Rabelais rolled into one, with that book.’
We talked about long-haul flights giving you time to read. Miller said ‘People say “I’m too busy [to read]”. Well, I’m not too busy to keep fit, I’m not too busy to read, I’m not too busy to write. That’s it,’ he says.
Most readers of this blog will know those are my sentiments exactly.
There will be more snippets from my conversation with Alex Miller in the coming weeks.
Besides my Oma, the person who most encouraged my writing when I was a child was my year 3 teacher, Mrs Grant. She was an exchange teacher from Canada and we all grew to love her so much that it was devastating the day she left. She was so sweet that one time, when my best friend Genna and I were having a fight, she started to cry, and she couldn’t teach the class until we had made up. She was super funny too – she played a trick on us on April Fool’s Day, making us line up, thinking we were getting needles – it was terrifying and hilarious. She also cast me in my very first play – The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. ‘Santa, why are you taking our Christmas tree?’
Mrs Grant showed me how enjoyable reading could be, and she also was one of the first people to get me writing fiction. We read our stories out loud to the class – and the stories I found yesterday have chapters and cliff-hangers (including my favourite – ‘Michael Jackson and the Magic Hat’). I remember 1993 as being one of the happiest and most inspiring years of my life. And this was confirmed yesterday when I also found the diary Mrs Grant made us keep. There are so many things I’d forgotten, such as the fact that when Mrs Grant read to us, the session was called ‘Reading Like a Thinker’.
Going back through the 1993 school journal also makes me see how encouraging Mrs Grant was, not only of my school work and writing, but of my general kiddie happiness. What I can also see though, is how I constructed myself for her – some of the events in the journal I remember as being sad or confusing or scary – but I always relay them to her with enthusiasm. Or I write ‘oh well’, after something bad has happened. And it’s so interesting to see how much of your child-self still exists. The teenage diaries are a lot different, and a lot changed – but so much of my personality is still 9-year-old wanting-to-do-well and please people and be surrounded by things she loves Angela.
I wonder how different I would be, if I hadn’t had her encouragement? If she hadn’t read to us? If she hadn’t made us write stories and keep a journal?
My friends and I had a movie night yesternight – and as we’re all movie buffs (them even moreso than I) we often end up talking about pivotal film moments. We got onto Jurassic Park and I told them how I found the entry in my year 3 journal from when I saw it. We actually ended up on a big trip down memory lane and watched Aladdin, which I also found reference to in the diary today! We talked about how we didn’t get some of the Genie’s jokes when we were kids, because they were intertextual (my generation learns almost everything backwards – from reference or homage to original) and this is exactly what I had noted in my journal: ‘Dad understands it more than us because the face of the Genie and what he turn’s [sic] into are faces of comedy people from other movies’.
It seems I watched The Simpsons often that year and would tell Mrs Grant what I found funny. This would have been about season four of The Simpsons, and as most fans know – seasons four through about eight are the ‘golden era’ episodes, yes? Another cool thing about Mrs Grant is she watched them too, and wrote in my margins, or after my diary entry ‘I liked the bit where Marge was Bart’s teacher!’ If only all teachers could relate to their students like this.
1993 was also a big Michael Jackson love-year. He was touring and I watched the Dangerous concert on TV. I noted his 35th birthday in my journal, too, and how I celebrated with wizz-fizz and teeth lollies from the corner shop. It was the year he was on Oprah – how exciting that was to watch! It was the first year I watched Moonwalker and the full version of Thriller too.
This was the year when I had dreams of flying so vivid I was convinced they were real, when I imagined dinosaurs walking beside me to school, when I thought UFOs might be real, when I had secret crushes on two blonde boys in the choir (but didn’t everyone?), and – something I’ve always remembered as setting my imagination on fire – when my family visited Storyland Gardens. I wrote about the forest, the animals, the fences, the three little houses for the three little pigs, and the rusty old train track. A branch fell from a tree and hit me in the face, and I wrote, dramatically ‘It made me jump right out of my socks!’ I called the goat a ‘greedy fellow’ because he snatched the bag of pellets out of my hand and gobbled them down. Thinking about it now – I wonder what Storyland Gardens was like for my parents. No doubt the rust, weeds, decay, and animals in tiny pens looked less wondrous than they did to me, and the day was probably quite boring, from their point of view (except to see their kids happy). I never want to go there again, because I’m afraid of how different it would look – that is, if it even still exists. Being from Coffs Harbour, the monorail at the Big Banana was a similar sort of thing – magical, when you were young; disappointing, stinky and out-dated, when you get older.
Another thing about 1993 – and man I miss my parents when I read this journal – is how I didn’t ever write about wanting or needing anything. Every weekend my sister and I did something fun – we were taken somewhere, we played with the neighborhood kids in the street, we invented games, went for adventures, watched movies, and did heaps of reading. And my family were never super well-off. I’ve worked ever since I was 14, along with study. But we had an idyllic childhood – we were given the space, time and encouragement to develop our imaginations – and importantly, to have a lot of fun.
Do you guys have someone pivotal who shaped your life? Are you still your 9-year-old self, in some way? What was the most inspiring year of your life?
And Linda Grant – we kept in touch for years, but I wonder where you are now? I’d love to know how you are, and for you to know that Genna and I – and many of the other kids you taught, still talk about 3G.
1993 – a brilliant year.
There’s no doubt Cate Kennedy is one of Australia’s most perceptive writers. Her short stories, which can be found in various journals and the collection Dark Roots, are rich in character and often contemplate moments of connection, all the misfires and failed connections, and their consequences.
In The World Beneath, Rich wants to reconnect with his 15-year-old daughter, Sophie. He hasn’t seen her since she was a toddler when he ran off, achingly restless, from her mother, Sandy. Sandy and Rich had been, in their own small way, trying to change the world, to save the environment, to do something and capture something worthwhile. Years later they are still clinging to this time, a few days in their lives when they were part of something bigger – the Franklin blockade in Tasmania.
Rich is still restless and moving about, lamenting the past loss of a photograph he took on the river, due to an embarrassing stumble. Sophie has become the focus of Sandy’s life – but through an idealistic lens. Sandy doesn’t believe in a suffocating and intrusive version of motherhood (she is avoiding being like her own mother). Sandy is, in the crudest of terms, a kind of ageing hippy, and in her daughter’s eyes – rather weak, annoying and useless.
Sophie is the most interesting character for me: deeply defiant, strict, harsh on herself and others, focused, insightful and resourceful. Her severe physical regimen of very little food and lots of exercise until she is exhausted and burning shows a determination to have some control over an erratic and uncontrollable world – in the home and outside it. She’s one of the first characters I’ve read (outside of YA fiction) who is a compellingly (and perhaps frighteningly) realistic representation of some women of a younger generation.
It’s difficult not to take on Sophie’s annoyance at Sandy and Rich, and to see their pathetic failures (as she might put them) through her eyes. Sandy is completely blind to her daughter’s problems, wrapped up in a tarot card haze – but you never doubt her love for her. It’s just that, frankly, she’s a little too self-absorbed and living in the past to try too hard to understand her daughter. Her willingness to let Sophie be could be a disguise for her fear for all the things she doesn’t understand about her and the younger generation. For example, when Sandy finds out about Sophie’s blog My Crap Life:
‘There was Sophie’s face on the screen, indisputably hers, glowering out from under a curtain of black fringe, so it must have been true. Fourteen years old, and this other life going on like a secret parallel universe, served up here now in a fait accompli, something for Sandy to accidentally stumble across when it was all too late.’
As Rich wants to reconnect with his daughter, he plans a six-day walk in the Tasmanian wilderness for the two of them. There are then the parallel stories of Sandy at a retreat (looking for answers, or simply distracting herself, through all sorts of ridiculous New Age rituals) and Rich and Sophie trekking. The themes of connection are strong: father desperate from a particular kind of admiration from estranged daughter; Sandy struggling to connect with her present and to a deeper extent, with her daughter; what it now means to ‘connect’ with the wilderness – to capture it, to trample over it, to just ‘be’ in it? And disconnection, too – between generations, with the aid of technology (such as Sophie’s continual iPod/mobile phone use), and between human beings and the environment.
While I was completely absorbed by the characters and the masterful, perceptive descriptions in this book, I had some trouble with the pace, and the beginning. It is Kennedy’s first novel, and it must be a difficult thing when such a well-known short story writer either decides or is subtly pressured into the novel form, as it is this culture’s norm. (I should note, Kennedy has also written poetry, and a travel memoir Sing and Don’t Cry.) On the whole, she is successful, but the beginning features too much of Sandy – the internalisations are humorous, but I also felt I was told too much in the first chapter about what kind of person she was, and I was annoyed at her. I was also confused about where I was being placed, in terms of the story to come.
It takes a little while for anything to happen and there seems to be many unnecessary flashbacks to Sandy doing the same thing (at the retreat) through the novel. Tension builds, mostly from an injury Rich has sustained and kept secret, but the tension doesn’t really build to a high point (or the climactic scenes continue at a yoga-breath pace). The chapters are like a series of very small realisations and revelations about one another – and the desire for more or stronger revelations from one another. But each chapter is worth it for the richness of perception in Kennedy’s writing – you just never know when she’s going to throw another gem at you:
‘God, the way a smell could bloom like a blown ember in your brain, fresh and sharp as turning over a log to expose all the dark life that swarmed beneath it. Sight and sound had nothing on smell. You unzipped your old sleeping bag, opened an old book, lit a mosquito coil, and it was like stepping on a mine. It made you realise everything was stored, nothing was forgotten, just waiting for the saturation of memory to overspill and flick some switch.’
There is one reason I really appreciate this novel and would recommend it, particularly to my parents’ generation, in the same way I might recommend The Slap. Why? This is a novel so deeply reflective of the effect of the failures of one generation on another. And particularly a generation who hoped for so much but settled quickly for less, who mostly turned from taking action to buying things – buying things that remind them of the time, and that fill up the holes created by rapid change and time speeding by. Who is this adult in front of me? Oh, it’s my daughter. Why is she so surly? It’s the technology, it’s society, it’s the media. It has nothing to do with me. Not that Sophie escapes any blame for her actions – she is a completely autonomous character, and many other readers (perhaps older) will feel differently, more confused and upset about her than I do. The failures aren’t just heaped upon Sophie, but are present in Sandy and Rich and their memories, their attempts and their distractions.
This, from Sophie’s chapter when Rich and her visit a museum in Tasmania and view the footage of the last Thylacine:
‘Terrible, wrecked world, she thought. All of it sinking and melting and going under, the patches of green turning brown. Nothing good left, everything torn up and eaten and destroyed, everything dumped in the next generation’s lap.’
Interviews + Profiles
Dec 8, 2009
See also – ‘part one: on the origins of a contemporary story‘.
Miller spoke proudly about his 18-year-old daughter, who told him, when he said he was writing a ‘simple love story’, with Lovesong: ‘Dad, love’s not simple, you should know that’. He told me: ‘I don’t believe in the old wise man theory of wisdom, but you, young people have wisdom. Kate [his daughter] is fortunate enough not to be totally dedicated to a career path or becoming the finest doctor in the world or marriage or whatever else, and she’s in a period of wisdom …’
Miller is originally from England, but has lived in Australia since the age of 16. He spent ‘a very lonely number of years trying to become a writer’ after different work experiences and studying English and history at university. He bought a farm for $12,000 and made a living off it, using the time to write. His first novel was published when he was 51.
I asked Miller, in regards to the character Ken, in Lovesong, who is a writer: when Ken decides to gather the story of this couple after witnessing the sadness in Sabiha’s eyes – does the spark (for the story) come from curiosity or empathy? He said:
‘The imagination is the ability to empathise. It’s the ability to – not necessarily consciously – quite unconsciously, find that you’re hugely sympathetic to someone else’s situation. So much so that you imagine a full realisation of it.
‘A really perfect example of that for me is in Landscape – in the scene where Dougald’s father beats him. And he sort of draws it upon himself – this violence to come. There is a deserved violence to come. And okay, life has violence in it, it always does. We’re not getting rid of it. Sometimes it needs to be expressed. In a sense he allows the family violence to be expressed safely, ‘cos he knows he can take it. That happened to me when I was a kid. I never thought of it. I never thought of it when I wrote the thing. It was someone else who pointed it out to me. When they did I was shocked. I thought, oh Christ you’re right. But I remember when I was writing it, I felt I understood the situation. And I maintained my empathy for both Dougald’s father, who was a lost man, and Dougald himself, who had the strength of his grandfather, holding him up. So he didn’t despair, didn’t lose his way. The kind of thing – at least it was helping him. Who knows what he would have done without his grandfather? Maybe he would have continued to stand up anyway. So yeah, I think it’s always a combination. Everything is always a combination of nearly everything else. We have words like imagination – what is that but a conversation with the unconscious?’
There will be more snippets from my conversation with Alex Miller in the coming weeks.
Dec 6, 2009
Brethren is one of my favourite words (but that has nothing to do with Peril, my best books of 2009, Kafka’s diary, or an Overland blog guest post)
* This week I went to the launch of Peril, edition 8: 'why are people so unkind'? It featured readings, and a fun, sexy
* This week I went to the launch of Peril, edition 8: ‘why are people so unkind’? It featured readings, and a fun, sexy performance by Ladies of Colour Agency that made me want to get up an shake it, baby. Maxine Clarke, who performed her poetry, gives a very warm of a rundown of the night here. I particularly enjoyed Tom Cho’s presentation where he f**ked with language. Check out the issue online here.
* I was asked by Readings to talk about the best books I read in 2009. Here’s what I said:
‘Some of my favourite reads of 2009 display the variety of books that come under the banner of “Australian fiction”. Steven Amsterdam’s enlightening post-apocalyptic novel-of-stories Things We Didn’t See Coming and Tom Cho’s brilliant, funny and imaginative ride through different types of transformation Look Who’s Morphing were major highlights. I’ve revisited parts of both. Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Gameis a haunting insight into loss, modern city life, and having political and emotional courage – and I loved the challenging narrator, Patrick Oxtoby, in M.J. Hyland’s This Is How, as well as the book’s existential nature.
‘The best book I read from across the sea was Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, about mistakes and failures, and choices made and violence done on small and large scales, most often quietly. Highly memorable. Other books that definitely will stay with me from 2009 are Nick Cave’s disgustingly compelling The Death of Bunny Munroand Krissy Kneen’s raw and beautiful sexual memoir Affection.’
Check out what other writers, editors, publishers and Readings’ staff had to say, here.
* Some of you may have spotted both myself and the lovely Josephine Rowe in the Melbourne Times and Emerald Hill Weekly this week. Unfortunately it’s not online to link to, but it was a piece about ‘overnight sensations’, and I was chuffed to be interviewed. If you’re visiting the blog because of the article, thanks! Hope you enjoy it – take a look through the archives for reviews, interviews and personalised commentary.
* I blushed hard at my desk the other day when I saw this blog post – though I was flattered and very touched. That is the first time anyone has dedicated a Kafka passage to me (or called me a ‘blogonaut’ – I like it). By way of reply:
From Kafka’s diary, 8 December, 1917: ‘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.’
And those are his drawings on the left. I got to see the originals at the Kafka Museum in Prague last year.
* Sorrow and joy, that’s kinda the way I feel when I watch this, too.
* But I got pure joy from this.
* I wrote a guest post for Overland‘s subscriberthon this week on the ‘perfect match’ between book and reader. It begins:
‘I’ve been savouring Richard Yates’ Collected Storiesfor about the past month now, and quite a few times as I’ve been reading, a friend of mine, Ken, has popped into my head. There is the small fact that in the wonderful story ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’, about male friendship, knowing one’s place, awkwardness, honour, social impressions (and so much more) the character is called Ken. But there are other things about the collection – working in offices, relationships, perceptions of self – things my friend and I have talked about, which made me exclaim to him vehemently the other day that he must read this book. It’s a book I would recommend to others, anyway, but not in the same way. With Ken I feel sure he will get something (a lot) out of it – more than passing entertainment. That ‘something’ is a kind of connection: an affirmation of a recognisable world (even through intertextuality or projection, say, in non-realist fiction – and in all its shades of light and dark) in which one is not alone in their ordinariness, their hope and their suffering.’
Read the rest, here.
* This week has also been one of champagne and new things. But more on those later…
Other People's Words
Dec 3, 2009
It was in an impassione
It was in an impassioned conversation with Miss Angela Meyer on the floor of a particular writers’ festival venue, relishing the taste of ginger beer, that I expressed my love for the sparsity of Chloe Hooper’s writing in The Tall Man. Angela and I continued to chat about those writers who have an understated way of inciting emotion and I remembered being affected by the withheld tone in Alice Sebold’s Lucky (Aus, US), in much the same way that I had been when reading The Tall Man.
With Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones soon to be released as a feature film it seemed a fine excuse to shine my desk lamp on the lesser known Lucky and the prose that just … got me.
I first fell in love with Lucky years back when stranded between European airports. The dignity in the writing left me red-faced and puffy-eyed, I must have looked like some forlorn woman—the kind who’s left a lover behind in some other city. Sebold’s dignified yet blatant and honest style of writing had me looking most undignified.
There is a difference between emotive and emotional writing. Sebold wins with the former. She delivers some brutal and confronting memories relaying the story of her own teenage rape and the aftermath, without a shred of self-indulgence. She has an ability to get the reader by the guts. But what I was most curious about, when I picked up the book for a second read, is why?
In an interview with the The Book Show (Sky Arts UK) Sebold talks about taking the time to really find the character who will tell a particular story. In taking this time she says, ‘their voice finally runs clear … there is no fat on it and they’ve got a story to tell and they see no reason to slowly introduce you to their sofa and their pets and their house. They’re in a certain situation and they begin their story.’
Lucky was a slow broil for Sebold. Published eighteen years after her rape there had been time for her own voice to run clear. She has a sparse and measured way of sharing her memories. While lacking in overt emotion, her storytelling is rich with insinuation, integrity and strength. There is so little fat on her story that what’s left feels like bare bone is exposed—it’s grotesquely beautiful at times. I love that what she leaves us with are the bits that matter most.
Sebold is a woman who wields the short sentence and a three word paragraph like a master. They bring contrast to her longer descriptions. The result feels like a visceral punch that gets right to the heart of her pain without describing it with the sorts of flowery analogies and explanations I’m not so fond of.
Sebold avoids gratuitousness in many ways but there is just one curious switch from first person to second that piqued my attention. It happens to be the only switch in the book and it works so well to avoid any notion of ‘poor me’.
‘What you have after that is a family. Your sister has a dorm room for you to see. Your mother a panic attack to attend. Your father, well, he’s being ignorant, and you can shoulder the burden of educating him. It’s not all blacks, you will begin. These are the things you do instead of collapsing in the bright sun …’
It was on my second read of Lucky that I noted how much dialogue is used to drive the story. Fourteen years had passed between Sebold’s rape and her starting to write Lucky so memories of specific conversations would be vague. Yet I didn’t doubt their authenticity as I read. It occurred to me that Alice Sebold is what I like to call a reliable/unreliable narrator.
From the beginning of the piece as memories are relayed, she gently hints that her memory might be fuzzy in places, that she’s not entirely reliable: ‘I can’t remember how it first came up but …’ ‘My memories of my family that day are splotchy.’ Sebold occasionally drops in a rhetorical question to the effect of could that have been the case? Her admissions of did I remember correctly? are never blatant and might easily be skimmed over but it’s this subtle reminder of fallibility that has her ‘quoting’ aged conversations with our trust entirely on board; she’s been honest with us from the opening.
Sebold doesn’t always offer what the reader might be comfortable with. Her admissions, confessions and anecdotes, coupled with her delivery are not honey-coated. While her ‘characters’ are fleshed out and lovable, she does push buttons with an unapologetic delivery at times and she doesn’t justify herself. But she shows vulnerability in bucket-loads (in what she doesn’t say as much as in what she does). She delivers facts and makes them feel like fiction. Lucky is a page turner. Despite the sparse terrain of her writing it is gut-wrenching and emotive. And it’s difficult not to love her all the more for it.
Interviews + Profiles
Dec 1, 2009
Recently I interviewed Alex Miller about his new novel Lovesong
Recently I interviewed Alex Miller about his new novel Lovesong (Aus, US) for Readings Monthly. As many of you know, Miller is not only one of Australia’s finest authors, but he’s one of my personal favourites, so I took this wonderful opportunity to extend my conversation with him to his other works, as well as writing and life in general. Over the coming weeks I’ll provide you with some snippets…
Before telling me how Lovesong came about, Miller went into detail about the novel previous – Landscape of Farewell, which is a haunting and stunning work of fiction. Like many of his works it is simply told, but the sweet weight of it creeps up on you sometime later.
All the pieces of Landscape came together for Miller when he was sitting in his room at a hotel in Hamburg – ‘this amazing old room, bit of an old baroque ballroom they’d given me for some reason at the hotel’, he said.
‘I was just sitting there looking out at these trees, slapping against the windows, and it was raining, and … I was overwhelmed for the week or so I was there by the Holocaust, really, because the young people wanted to talk about it – the old people didn’t. The people who were the children of the ones who’d committed the crimes didn’t want to say anything or talk about it. Very rarely could I get anything much out of them except defensiveness – they were dismissive, angry, repressive, apologetic in a weary sort of a way … but the younger people, their children, they were just longing to talk about it. And also talk about Aboriginal dispossession. So it was really on my mind.’
Then there’s the character of Dougald, an old Indigenous man who Max, the German, comes to live with. ‘I know the Aborigines have strategic intelligence, and leadership. No one ever writes about that. A massacre has come to mean the killing of blacks by whites, in this country, exclusively’, Miller said. ‘They conducted a fantastically well-organised massacre, where there were no black casualties, not that day (although in months – yes, retribution).’
Miller talked about preferring to write it as a contemporary story – one that has the weight of history, but can explore the effects of it by being set in the present. ‘I live in a post-Holocaust world, y’no? I live in a post WWII world, I live in a post-Vietnam world. My mind is not around that stuff [in history], so I couldn’t do it, I knew I couldn’t do it. Some people can.’ But Miller did see how he could do it, how it would fit: ‘I didn’t quite see the complete logic of it, but it became a chessboard and I saw the pieces. I saw the King and the Queen and I saw the pawns all lined up. All the black pawns lined up … And it kind of started to make sense and I quickly wrote [he pointed to my scribbled half-sheet of question paper] no more than that, on the back of a notebook.’
Where did Max come from, besides Miller being in Hamburg when the idea came together? ‘I knew this professor of history at Hamburg. I got to know him. And he was a really good guy and he was the only one, sort of my age, who would talk about the Holocaust, openly.’
So then Miller had his components, ‘and it took two years. And I was fairly empty by the time I finished it. I was very glad to have a period off. No writing. Just reading.’ And after this, Miller began writing something lighter, fresher – the ‘simple love story’, Lovesong.