Commentary

Dec 23, 2009

5 comments

In 2009…

Christos Tsiolkas said c**t

Steven Amsterdam, Tom Cho, Kirsten Reed, Krissy Kneen, Josephine Rowe and Kathy Charles were forced to ‘respond’

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

I was published in The Death Mook, Wet Ink, Australian Book Review, Through the Clock’s Workings and I reviewed for ABC Radio National’s The Book Show

I was called ‘lit-head’ and ‘blogonaut

I flooded the bathroom

Nathan Curnow and Sean Whelan were poetic heroes

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

The Miles Franklin shortlist was a sausage-fest, and Tim Winton’s Breath won

Some authors showed me their writing spaces (yeah)

I saw Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Neil Young (OMG)

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

Mr Celluloid Tongue and I read and saw Revolutionary Road, Watchmen,

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…

Poems were shared by Geoff Lemon, Bel Schenk, Sharanya Manivannan

I sometimes thought I was invincible

You guys liked the confessional posts, the personal, experimental, and stream-of-consciousness

I started reading Ulysses… Um

Michael Jackson died and I was sad, sad, sad

I attended an Overland Masterclass which got me thinking about literary heroes

I fell off my bike

My 3rd person post (stars in my eyes) on the Macquarie PEN Anthology launch attracted some nasty comments, and your kind responses

I launched Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Kathy Charles’ Hollywood Ending

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 failed at being cool when I met MJ Hyland, and my voice cracked when I questioned Peter Goldsworthy

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 became acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, where I worked full-time through all of 2009

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

bad-santaNo 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?

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…

Alex_Miller_Conditions_of_FaithSee 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!

Self-indulgence

Dec 17, 2009

5 comments

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?

walt_disney_salvado_dali

 

  

  

 

 

 

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?

DOS.

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?

42.

Nothing more than a code of 0s and 1s?

As above.

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.

Answering

1 + 1

1 + 1

1 + 1

Answering

everything

else

with

zeros

I had a question about that

but I got distracted.

prochownikSee 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.

carpentaria-fullFurther, 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.

DSC04218

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?’

DSC04226

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’.DSC04219

 

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.DSC04222

DSC04221I 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’.

DSC04227

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.

DSC04224This 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 similarDSC04225 sort of thing – magical, when you were young; disappointing, stinky and out-dated, when you get older.

DSC04228

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.

WorldBeneath_LRScribe
September 2009
9781921372964 (Aus, Grove US)

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.’

1_MillerAlex1See also – ‘part one: on the origins of a contemporary story‘.

My feature interview with Alex Miller on his new novel, Lovesong (Aus, US), was published in Readings Monthly. You can find it here.

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.

Angela's Publications

Dec 6, 2009

5 comments

* 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.

Kafka* 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

5 comments

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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 Allison_Browning_22012007059_my_black_and_white_versionshe 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.

Allison Browning is a writer and freelance editor with a mildly abnormal obsession for natural bodies of water. You can find slices of her work here and you can be privy to her tidbits here.

Interviews + Profiles

Dec 1, 2009

5 comments

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…

landscapeBefore 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.

See part two, three and four.

Commentary

Nov 29, 2009

5 comments

Just some of the treats in boxes shipped down by my ‘rents this week…
(Thanks Mum & Dad! x)

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Missed my Marilyn collection!

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I am a movie buff, yes.

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Hello childhood!

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Macauley Culkin is my boyfriend.

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The Roald Dahl box sets were a present from Mum and Dad when I was about nine, and my sister about seven (one was for me, one for her). As you can see, I have a lot more to thank them for than just sending boxes of books down. Many of the books shown above shaped the course of my life.

Have you spotted any of your own favourites here? Any you’d like to comment on?

neon pilgrimNeon Pilgrim
Lisa Dempster
Aduki Independent Press
9780980335170
October 2009 (Aus, US)

Neon Pilgrim is Lisa Dempster’s memoir of walking the henro michi in Japan – a challenging pilgrimage, particularly in summer, and particularly for someone who chooses to ‘sleep rough’ as much as they can – a purer way to complete the walk. I asked Lisa a few questions about her incredible journey, and about writing the book – another journey in itself…

Your purpose in undertaking the pilgrimage was to get better, mentally and physically. For me, it also seemed you started out quite determinedly self-destructive – ‘do it or die trying’. You were willing to go to the edge (or, you were already there). Can you tell us a bit about this?

I was extremely depressed and withdrawn when I went to Japan – I felt like I had nowhere left to go. I find it quite hard to talk about and usually crack a joke about being on the dole and living with my mum when I do talks about the book, but it was really serious. I was functioning but only just, I was drinking too much, I was on anti-depressants, I was completely unmotivated, I was withdrawn from my friends, and I couldn’t see any ways out of the funk I was in. I lived with my mum for a few months before I went to Japan, and that was the culmination of about two years of feeling progressively worse and more trapped and depressed with each passing month; it wasn’t just a little bad patch or anything, I was really sick.

Lisa_by Bronwen HydeThe idea of patching things up step by step, either through therapy or drugs or whatever, just seemed too enormous – much bigger than tackling a 1200km pilgrimage! When the 88 Temple Pilgrimage fell back into my life, I became fixated on the idea that the pilgrimage would save me, that it would make me better. I pitched the manuscript idea to my publisher and when she accepted it, I grabbed onto the idea that doing the pilgrimage and writing a book about it (thus realising two dreams) would fix up the mess I was in. I couldn’t think beyond the pilgrimage really, because I knew if it didn’t ‘cure’ me then I was going to be in deep trouble mentally. I was desperate when I went overseas and, as you say, I was very much on the edge.

Photo by Bronwen Hyde.

The journey itself was grueling, often lonely and incredibly difficult. What about revisiting it all in writing the book? What kind of experience was that?

It was really hard. I thought walking the pilgrimage would be the hard part, but writing about it was tough as well, though obviously in different ways. Writing about the physical discomfort and loneliness of the pilgrimage wasn’t difficult, though – it was very easy to revisit the pain when I was comfortable, clean and sitting on the couch within grabbing distance of my phone.

But I found it very hard to write about my internal journey. As I said, I had naively gone on the pilgrimage hoping to be ‘fixed’ both mentally and physically, but I was still deeply depressed when I came back, and I found it almost impossible to write objectively about my feelings for that reason; I was frustrated with how certain parts of the hike had turned out and found it easy to dismiss the gains that I had made because I was feeling so low while I was writing. So it was a struggle to write something balanced and representative, when I was really feeling like screaming ‘WHAT A FUCKING WASTE OF TIME, I’M STILL SICK!!!’ But in the end the writing was quite therapeutic, and by the final copy I was starting to feel on the up and could see that the hike had been beneficial. That’s one of the worst things about depression, it clouds the way you perceive things.

I love your descriptions of the people you met along the way. Could you share with LM readers a story or pic or two?

Sadly I don’t have photos of anyone I met. I don’t really have any photos at all. I’m a rubbish photographer and don’t really think in terms of the visual. In fact one of the early suggestions my editor made was to put more about the scenery and the landscape into the manuscript.

But here are a few pics for you…

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Me after I got drunk and hacked all my hair off.

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Cape Ashizuri-Mizaki, a popular suicide spot in Japanese folklore.

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Kobo Daishi, the first henro.

You didn’t see many women walkers in summer did you? Have you heard about many since then?

I saw only a handful of female walkers when I was hiking, and the majority of them were doing the henro michi in sections, rather than all in one hit. I don’t know how normal that is. Most bus and car henro are women, and I tend to think that probably it’s typical that women don’t often walk. There are massive gender stereotypes in Japan that make me feel quite uncomfortable – like, women are weaker, women need to be protected, women are home-makers not adventurers – so it’s not surprising that not a lot of them hike the henro michi.

I haven’t heard about any women hikers since I got back. There is so little information available about the henro michi in English that I haven’t really heard anything about the pilgrimage since I got back!

Despite not being a particularly spiritual person, you had some enlightening moments, and did feel a strong presence of Kobo-Daishi. Has your spiritual outlook altered much since you’ve been home?

I went to the henro michi to do a hike and a personal pilgrimage, rather than a religious one. But I was surprised by what a spiritual experience I ended up having. As you say, I did feel the very strong presence of Kobo Daishi, or as I called him, the Daishi. I had some wild experiences that I didn’t expect, spiritual encounters that are hard to talk about because they’re so rare and unexplainable.

A lot of people ask me if I became a Buddhist on the pilgrimage, but I didn’t. I did develop a stronger interest in Buddhism though. It’s appealing because the religion focuses on spirituality and being a good person rather than appeasing a god or following arbitrary rules to gain some kind of benefit. I still wouldn’t call myself a very spiritual person, but I’ve absolutely become a bit more open-minded about that kind of stuff. Rather than become a Buddhist I’m more interested in finding my own path, a way that I can reconcile my place in the world and feel happy within it.

You had an extra challenge finding sustenance, being a vegan on the henro michi – a term the Japanese don’t have a specific word for. But you describe some delicious, well-earned meals – udon, mochi etc. What was the best meal and why?

Being vegan was an extra challenge, because in Japan there is little understanding of the concept of vegetarianism even, let alone veganism. Most people equate vegetarianism (which usually involves still eating fish) with either illness (most commonly cancer) or dieting. I was constantly being asked why I’m so fat if I’m vegetarian, because the image of vegos in Japan is of elegant and thin young ladies who ‘deny’ themselves meat in order to stay slim. In a perverse kind of way I quite enjoyed bucking those stereotypes.

My best meal was definitely when I tried Sanuki udon for the first time. I love udon and ate a lot of it when I was hiking, especially because it’s easy to veganise. So when I heard that the final province on my hike, historically called Sanuki, has Japan’s best udon, I was excited to give it a try. I’ve had so much good udon in my time that I was also a bit sceptical – how could Sanuki udon be better? But someone I met on the hike told me that the udon is so silky you can eat it without even chewing!

So as soon as I could I went out to try some traditional Sanuki udon and it was mind-blowing. They don’t serve it in a typical broth, rather the noodles come with a soy sauce which you dip the udon into before eating. Anyway, the noodles were a revelation. They were amazing and I had to eat my scepticism. I was so taken with them that I ordered another serving as soon as I’d finished my first. And then I ate Sanuki udon pretty much daily after that. And yes, you can swallow without chewing without too much trouble, though I continued to chew (and slurp!) my noodles.

Lisa, would you do it again? What’s the next big adventure?

Would I do the henro michi again? Yes – by bike. I could knock it off in two weeks by bike. I can’t see myself setting out to hike the whole thing again, though of course, never say never. I might find myself having a mid-life crisis aged 50 and hit out on the pilgrimage path again.

I don’t know what my next big adventure is, though I am planning one. I have always been drawn to epic, long-distance travel, and I want to do more of that. Active travel is also really important to me… I want to hit out and explore the world by bike, or foot, or canoe. I ride a pretty good touring bike but haven’t broken it in with a 1000km+ journey yet so maybe that’s on the cards next. As to where that might be, though… I have a few ideas but nothing set in stone. There are just so many amazing places in the world that I want to explore.

words we foundBesides being a writer, you are the publisher of Vignette Press, and you’ve just edited The Words We Found: the Best Writing from 21 Years of Voiceworks Magazine. It’s just out – could you tell us a bit about it?

Voiceworks started in 1988 and thus turned 21 this year, and to celebrate Express Media put out an anthology of writing from across the history of the magazine. Voiceworks has helped launch many fabulous writers and artists over the years, but what I was amazed by was the quality of writing by people I’d never heard of. Voiceworks has quite a distinctive style – it features writing that is raw and honest and experimental, it’s very powerful. I tried to capture some of that magic in The Words We Found.

Working on The Words We Found was fantastic. I loved going through all the back issues of the magazine – 21 years worth of reading! It was a bit of a wake-up call actually. At times I get a bit jaded about writing and the lit scene, and reading such brave and original writing reminded me of why I was drawn to writing and publishing in the first place – because it can zap you like an electrical current, make you feel something or think about things in a totally fresh way. Voiceworks writing definitely did that for me, and has done that for countless young writers and readers over its history. For that reason alone (and many others) Voiceworks is worth its weight in gold.

Lisa Dempster also runs a fantastic blog covering writing, publishing, the book industry and food, called Unwakeable.

andanotherthingcover420And Another Thing…
Eoin Colfer
Penguin
9780718155148 (Aus, US)
Reviewed by Rhys Tate

I’ll admit when I heard that Eoin Colfer was ghostwriting a sixth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy volume, nine years after the death of original visionary Douglas Adams, I fired up the torches and pitchforks and got me a good old fashioned village mob together. It’s more than the fact that handing the reins over on signature projects is, in general, a horrible idea; it’s that Hitchhiker’s was a brilliant trilogy* that spawned very good radio and television serials, and eventually a middling big budget movie. The Law of Diminishing Returns did not offer a kind projection on Colfer’s chances.

And Another Thing… starts much as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did, with situational heroes Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect et al. in imminent danger from aliens contracted to destroy the Earth because it’s ‘in the way’. But where Adams populated this scenario with fresh characters and immediately riffed off the ensuing chaos, Colfer is obliged to prove to the fans his familiarity with the inhabitants of the Galaxyand ability to handle same. Cue forty pages of bickering and Adamsesque observations which fail to mask that the story isn’t actually going anywhere quickly.

Things pick up, though, as things usually do. There are some inspired sequences featuring Gods struggling through job interviews, and mobs of personal trainers who have run off from their resorts and turned feral in the bush. Colfer stays faithful to Adams’ style without being toofaithful (a critical distinction), and his dry, self-deprecating humour is well judged, much of the time. He admits to crippling doubt as he was writing the novel, to the point that he began to steer clear of the fan backlash brewing online. This, however, did not save him from the ravages of Facebook, which one day merrily suggested that he join the ‘The Stop Eoin Colfer Writing Hitchhiker’s Society’. Not only did he join, but began to post messages along the lines of, ‘Yes, Eoin Colfer is an arsehole. I’ve known him for many years and I don’t like him’ – messages that eventually won him letters of support from the very people who hoped to stop him.

It’s impossible to think of the Hitchhiker’s series without comparing it to its fantasy equivalent, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. But where Pratchett wrote stand-alone books featuring very different sets of characters that could be largely picked up in any order, And Another Thing…cannot be recommended to the casual reader. It’s a novel for fans familiar with the backstory who long to visit Adams’ mindspace again, and on this note, it delivers. However, I can’t help wondering what Colfer might have achieved if he was allowed to leave Arthur, Ford, Zaphod and Trillian on the shelf and write a Hitchhiker’s Guide sequel that was truly his own.

Rhys_Tate_2* In five parts! Aren’t the English absurd?

Rhys Tate has never been into space, not even in a story, and thus feels entirely unqualified to review science fiction.

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2700 words of fiction.

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http://thefastertimes.com/fiction/2009/11/14/nabokov-in-audio/ (via Meanjin)

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Best Australian Fiction of the 21st Century #3, #2, #1.

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‘When I have acted like a human being for a few hours, as I did today with Max and later at Baum’s, I am already full of conceit before I go to sleep.’ – Franz Kafka’s entry in his journal, 28 December, 1911.

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Commentary

Nov 19, 2009

5 comments

Some years ago when I was a bookstore girl, I became intrigued by this massive brick of a book called Cross Stitch (Outlander in the US), which many middle-aged women would get flustered over: ‘You haven’t read it?’ they’d ask.

I read it, and it was great fun – particularly the raunchy historical Scottish sex, and the time-travel element. I gave it to my sister (now a bookstore girl herself) and she went on to read the whole series.

I found out the author, Diana Gabaldon, was going to be in town at a dinner event hosted by Dymocks Camberwell on my sister’s birthday, on the back of her new book An Echo in the Bone. I took Sonja along for her birthday, and followed it up with a few questions about what it’s like to meet your favourite (and a very famous) author…

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Pictured: Diana Gabaldon, Sonja and I.

It was a massive event, hey? What did you think of the crowd and the other fans?

Yeah, it was a big event – but then I haven’t been to any other author dinners so I’m not sure what’s normal. I believe there were 200 people in attendance. The crowd was generally women in their 40s and 50s, I was possibly the youngest person in the room. This wasn’t surprising, considering that the themes in her novels generally appeal to that audience. I must be weird.

You’re not weird! Maybe other young people just haven’t discovered her because her books are marketed a certain way? When we walked in the room, you were talking about the role that authors seem to play in this day and age – as presenters and actors. It contradicts their actual job – sitting in a room alone, forming this massive work, yeah?

This I definitely don’t understand! Writers seem more inclined to be of the ‘hermit’ variety of human (at least at times). Creatively, they like to be alone where they can get their head around how best to execute their art. It seems so odd to me that part of the job for a highly successful author these days is to stand up in front of a massive crowd and deliver a perfectly memorised 45 minute speech, before sitting down to sign books with their perfectly practiced plastic-looking camera-smile. All for the sake of sales. What if you had stage fright? I would be wondering when it was I signed up to be an actress.

Yeah, there’s a real contradiction there – though DG did seem quite happy to talk to us all. What did you think of her in person? And what of her speech?

DG as a person exceeded my expectations! She was very professional – she seemed comfortable in displaying herself and grateful to us for appreciating and supporting her work. She was a shortish gypsy-looking woman with long hair and an attractive face that seemed younger than her years. Her voice surprised me: a raspy fast-paced American accent that gave the impression she could barely keep up with her own thoughts, and with it she successfully entranced us. Her talk was witty, honest and delightfully nerdy. A scientist by trade, she is clearly intellectual. I loved that she had the guts to read one of the great erotic scenes from An Echo in the Bone. She knew what we would want, and she delivered!

echoShe did speak super fast, like her brain was working a million miles an hour, though she also managed to come across as calm and comfortable! You had a bit of an awkward moment when you got your books signed, though, didn’t you?

Ha! I knew you would bring this up. You had been telling me earlier I should say something to her, and I didn’t know what to say because I know I am just another number and I don’t want to try and say something clever just to be remembered. Anyway, without anything planned we leaned in for a photo and I thought it would be nice to just connect with her for a moment. So I said (stupidly) ‘Ha, everyone must smell like wine’ (because they have to lean over her for the photo). It seems she didn’t even hear me, as she replied ‘There you go, thank you’, handing me my signed book. I walked off in a state of embarrassment and started giggling my arse off with you as soon as we were out of hearing distance. Ergh. I blame the wine.

There were some hardcore fans aiming accusations at her about the books and characters, weren’t there? It was almost like they felt they had this sense of entitlement and ownership over the works and the author as well, yeah? And then there was the dog lady…

Oh the dog lady. During Q & A this lady asked a question about DG’s many dogs and then proceeded to have a conversation with her about breeding and the appearance of her own canines. Hello? She doesn’t care, and the whole room is listening! As you said, another woman was almost making accusations at DG rather than asking a proper question.

As far as their feeling ownership, I agree that it seemed that way. It was DG’s brilliance that brought this imaginary world into our lives in the first place – so what gives these people a right to the way the story goes?  It is her creation. I guess some people see it differently. It was so good though how when DG didn’t understand one of the ‘smart’ words in the aggressive woman’s question she just said ‘Sorry, I don’t understand?’ which made the woman look totally ridiculous.

You don’t think an author has some responsibility to his/her readers? The people who are supplying them with an income?

Well, to some extent. Especially when working on a series such as DG’s ‘Outlander’. There needs to be consistency in both the content and writing style from book to book. Otherwise readers’ expectations will be understandably upset. But my point is some people seem to feel a need to challenge someone who has been more successful than them. I’m not sure why. As you know, I’m also bothered by the slow pace in her most recent novel, Echo in the Bone, and the depth in which she describes her characters’ movements. If she loses my interest then yes, there is obviously something she is doing wrong. But if I were inclined to ask her about it, I don’t think I’d do it in an assuming, superior sort of way that attempts to put her off and make myself look good in front of others.

Hehe, I’m glad. But then I know one question I asked at a recent writers fest I really stuffed up, and it seemed accusatory. Sometimes it’s an accident I think.

Does it make a difference, meeting an author (to the reading experience)? Would you want to meet anyone else?

I don’t think it makes a difference to the reading experience. Do you? But I suppose I can now see parts of her own personality that she has put into her main character, Claire, and I like that I can see this. It makes Claire even more real, somehow. But when I said this to one of the ladies at the dinner, she hadn’t noticed. I will probably think of her more now as I read, I don’t know. There are plenty of authors I would love to meet, if only to see what they are like. I don’t think it changes anything unless you love their book and they turn out to be a nasty person. I wonder if you would be loyal to them anyway because of their work or write them off because of their personality? I’m sure you have had experience with this.

Well, with some it has enhanced the experience, with others … I’ve never read their books again. Meeting both Gail Jones and Alex Miller (my two favourite Aus writers) were memorable experiences. Another author (who I shall not name) treated me like a little girl. I’d travelled pretty far for that event too. So, regardless of the fact I like this author’s writing, I have been turned off picking up their books! So it can have an effect.

Which author would you most want to meet then? Let’s make it fun and say – alive or dead? And lastly, what was the highlight of the evening?

Hmm, tough one. At the moment I would probably say Vladimir Nabokov. I am intrigued by him, as are many. But there are still so many authors I haven’t read so it could change later.

The highlight of the night for me would be the reading. I particularly remember the point where she said unflinchingly in her accent: ‘A shiver ran through him at the warmth of my mouth and I lifted my hands involuntarily, cradling his balls.’ Ha! I love her unabashed countenance and wish I had such a quality without worrying about putting people off. Care to share your highlight?

Okay – mine was when she said how when people asked her: ‘why would you have a thing for a man in a kilt?’ her reply was: ‘You can imagine it’d only be ten seconds before he had you against the wall’. Aye!

Readers – have you had the chance to meet any of your favourite authors? Was it wonderful or woeful? Who would you most like to meet?

tier manThe Tiger Man of Vietnam
Frank Walker
Hachette (Australia)
October 2009
9780733623660

Reviewed by Pamela Wilson

When you’ve got a story full of intrigue, deception, torture and murder, you’ve got the makings of a good thriller. When that story is true, you have the makings of a great one. Because of this, I snapped up the chance to read and review The Tiger Man of Vietnam, by Frank Walker. Given the choice, I will always pluck from the shelf a biographical account that promises a good story as well as enlightenment of a foreign place, era, or event; and, on all accounts, I wasn’t disappointed with Walker’s book.

The Tiger Man of Vietnam recounts the two years that Australian war hero Barry Petersen spent heading a covert CIA mission to train up a paramilitary force deep in the Vietnam jungle. In this short space of time, Petersen honed his skills in guerrilla warfare, mastered the cultural requirement of skolling home-made rice wine – even when grit and wriggly weevils were present – and was instrumental in quelling a rebellion that would have resulted in bloodshed. He made friends and enemies everywhere he went. But few in the Australian government even knew he was there; before long, few in the CIA wanted him to remain.

Sympathetic to the Montagnard – the tribespeople being squeezed by both the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese forces – that he was training, Petersen got too close to them and their cause. Revered and honoured, he became a demi-God. So, when the CIA asked him to turn his troops, The Tiger Men, into assassination squads, he refused. Shortly after, he found himself to a target on the CIA’s own assassination list.

When I target the bookstores, I always aim to get the best bang for my buck, to get value for money. I expect something worthy from the words I read, whether it is entertainment, insight or knowledge. I got all three with The Tiger Man of Vietnam. I learned that the Vietnam War, as it was run by the Americans and allies, was even more abhorrent and unforgivable than I previously realised. I was horrified to learn the true extent of the CIA’s dirty tactics and, worse still, that they continue today. I was surprised to discover that for many years a ‘torture school’ existed at the School of Military Intelligence at Middle Head in Sydney. Even better, I got all this from well-formulated prose and description, and not in the format of extended teachers’ notes that some historical books bog us down with.

However, as gripping and fascinating as Barry Petersen’s story is, I tired of this man who seemed too good to be true: a champion of the wretched, a soldier with a conscience, a man enough brave to stand up to authority. To Walker’s credit, he launches into a series of interviews with men that Petersen worked with, about two-thirds of the way into the book. Here, we begin to see Petersen in a new light, as a man who gets ‘carried away with himself’ and ‘a megalomaniac who fancied himself as another Lawrence of Arabia’, but it came a little too late for me. I would have liked to have seen this side of Petersen’s character sooner so I could get to know him properly – warts and all – from the start.

Despite this, Walker has done a thorough job in fleshing out this important story. As you would expect from a journalist with 32 years experience in newspapers, this book is meticulously researched and the interviews are informative and insightful. Walker’s knowledge of military and defence is evident from the years he spent covering these topics, along with security and politics, for the Sun-Herald newspaper.

I would highly recommend this book. In fact, I already have, to a number of colleagues, friends and family. This is a story for anyone who enjoys the feeling that they are not only being entertained, but that they are learning something when they sit down for a quiet night in with a good book.

Pamela_Wilson_colour_headshotPamela Wilson is the freelance writer, journalist and editor who talks a little too much and laughs a little too loud. She also facilitates author ‘in conversation’ events, teaches a freelance feature writing course at the Sydney Writers Centre and writes a blog for aspiring writers. (www.writesmart.com.au)

brettWith a million things due and a million to organise (not to mention the inbox) I’m running away today to go for a walk in the mountains with some dear friends. I really, really need it. Yesterday I came back from a business trip to Sydney. It was great meeting people from some of the biggest publishers, and I stick by something I’ve said before – the publishing industry in Australia is nice. What was interesting were the offices – they varied from suave to rat-race cubicle farms, from central to industrial (with no places to eat). Lots of free books were thrust upon us. I know – I’m lucky.

Pictured: Opera House – Brett Whiteley.

This is a whole other blog post sometime but while in Sydney I had an urge to reconcile my bad feelings about the city. See, I lived there for three months when I was 18. I will tell you the whole story sometime. It’s hard to, though, because it was one of the most difficult and depressing (and I don’t use that word lightly) times of my life. I used to spend a lot of time at the state art gallery, and yesterday I went there, for the first time in years. I stared hard at some of the paintings that were my favourites, and I tried to remember what I was looking for in them, back then. It surprised me to realise I could see much more around the edges now. Fascinating, how visual art, much like books, is a two-way communication between artist and viewer/reader – perhaps even more-so than books because two people could interpret a painting or sculpture so differently. One of my favourite things about galleries is discovering art and artists I didn’t know of before (or didn’t know I liked). The finalists for the Dobell Prize for Drawing were on show, and I discovered an artist called Tanya Chaitow. See some of her work here.

Did I reconcile my bad feelings about Sydney? It was an incredible, sunny day on Saturday. It was difficult to feel negative in that kind of weather. Sydney and I are learning to become friends, but we can only handle each other in short bursts. I can’t see myself living there again. Now Melbourne – Melbourne and I like each other much better – you might even call it love.

I was very excited to hear that an independent anthology out of Toronto, which I contributed to, has come out. It’s called Goodbye Billie Jean, the Meaning of Michael Jackson. It has quite an impressive list of contributors (Pulitzer Prize-winner, monk, drag queen). The pieces are thoughts, opinions and ideas on the meaning of MJ. You can get it online (details here). It’d be cool to see an Australian micro-publisher or zine distributor pick it up here also.

Also, a couple of days ago, the Charter for Compassion was revealed. I think this is a great way to get us all thinking about our contribution to the greater good, in a broad way. It’s a universal charter – not coming from any one belief system. It quite simply enhances the word ‘compassion’ so it is more present in our lives. Learn more about it through these links:

Australians on Compassion Video.
Website.
Facebook.
Twitter.

A bit more about the project:
‘The Charter for Compassion is the result of Karen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Prize wish that seeks to bring together voices from all cultures and religions, and remind the world that we all share the core principles of compassion. The Charter has already been affirmed by world leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen Noor of Jordan, Deepak Chopra and author Elizabeth Gilbert.’

Okay, I’m off to breathe some fresh air, have D&M conversations, and use my muscles they way they’re meant to be used.

hollywood endingKathy Charles’ debut novel Hollywood Ending was recently released in Australia by Text Publishing (John Belushi Is Dead, MTV Books, US). In my review for the October issue of Australian Book Review I said: ‘Kathy Charles creates a world both familiar and strange … Despite being highly, if darkly, entertaining, the book hints at deeper issues, such as the extent of superficial distraction in contemporary Western society; hence the nostalgia for meaningful films and stories about the past, plus the effect of this superficiality on emotionally perceptive youth, drawing them to seek meaning in the most harrowing aspects of existence.’ I called it ‘subversive, engaging and energetic’. So here, for your pleasure, is a ‘responsive’ interview with the author of Hollywood Ending – Kathy Charles.

Prompts: LiteraryMinded
Responses: Kathy Charles

LM:

john

I have this photograph of John Belushi as a canvas print in my hallway. Recently a friend asked me why I had a picture of Guy Sebastian hanging on my wall. Guy Sebastian aint got lapels like this.

History (destroyed, captured, mythologised).

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the idea of ‘Dark Tourism’, which is when people visit places where death and suffering have occurred. When bad things happen there is an inclination to erase any evidence of the event, which is understandable, but I think it is just as natural to want to see these places for yourself. Los Angeles has a booming Dark Tourism industry, due to the number of scandalous incidents the town has played host to. But LA is also a town that constantly reinvents itself, and so many of theses sites, like the Ambassador Hotel where Senator Robert Kennedy was assasinated, are being lost to development.     

Fame.

I was once a paid-up member of the David Bowie Fan Club. This was mainly so I would be one of the first to be able to buy tickets to his Melbourne concerts. The first night I was in the front row, within spitting distance of the man himself. I like to think we made eye contact on more than one occasion. The second night I was way up the back, but Bowie decided to mix things up and play the entire first half of the album Low which more than made up for the crappy seats. David Bowie is an architect of our modern idea of fame, and managed to combine both style and subtance without forsaking one for the other. In an interesting side note Gus Van Sant directed this music video. He also directed a music video for the boy group Hanson of ‘MmmBop’ fame. Someone once told me that my head was so full of trivial pop culture nonsense that there couldn’t be much room for anything else. I guess they had a point.

‘For every two minutes of glamour, there are eight hours of hard work’ – Jessica Savitch

I once saw Paris Hilton shopping in Bel Air. There was one lone photographer with her and it seemed pretty obvious in the way they interacted that she had enlisted him to follow her around. Celebrity is largely an illusion. When the young and beautiful hit the town in Hollywood they have their publicists send out a press release so the paparazzi will know where to find them. The same actors who shield their faces and beg for their privacy know very well that if they choose to lunch at The Ivy they will be photographed. The reluctant star is a very carefully constructed persona that plays on our sympathies. It takes a lot of hard work to make it look so unwanted.

Classifying and cataloguing.

Some people believe that numerology plays a significant role in celebrity death. There is a group called the Forever 27 Club that refers to musicians who died at the tender age of 27. Members of this club include Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Chris Farley died at exactly the same age as his idol John Belushi. Then there’s John Lennon and his connection to the number 9. I think such superstitions help us fathom why people we love die and admire die so tragically. It gives us some kind of weird logic we can grasp onto.

LM:

hollywoodsign

In 1932 a young actress named Peg Entwhiste moved to Hollywood with dreams of being a movie star. She was signed to a contract at RKO Pictures but only ever received a small role in one film. When RKO decided not to renew her contract she walked up to the end of Beachwood Drive and made her way through the thick brush to the Hollywood sign. When she arrived at the sign she climbed the ladder to the top of the 50-foot letter ‘H’, looked out over the town that had rejected her, and jumped. She was 24 years old.

Tragedy.

It makes me sad when people who seem to have so much going for them die tragically and needlessly. Every time I listen to a Kurt Cobain song or watch a John Belushi movie I can’t help but wonder what else they could have achieved had they stuck around. Some days it’s enough to bring me to tears. Most people have little sympathy for celebrities who throw it all away, as they appear to have it all. I think the idea that you can be rich and famous and still miserable scares us. Sometimes it’s easier to judge than empathise.

kathy charlesEnd credits.

In the song ‘Sunset Strip’ Courtney Love sings: ‘Rock star. Pop star. Everybody dies.’ No matter how famous you are, in the end we all fade to black.

www.kathycharles.com

Text Publishing’s Hollywood Ending page.

Commentary

Nov 8, 2009

5 comments

Snapshot

Number of items on to-do list: Nine. Not too bad. The next five books I'm planning to read in no particular order: Jasper Jones (Craig Silvey), Siren (Tara Moss),

Number of items on to-do list: Nine. Not too bad.

The next five books I’m planning to read in no particular order: Jasper Jones (Craig Silvey), Siren (Tara Moss), Parrot & Olivier in America (Peter Carey), The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (J Randy Taraborrelli), The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood).

Time I got to bed last night: 3:30am.

Number of creative projects I’m currently working on: four.

Currently reading: Brothers and Sisters (ed. Charlotte Wood), Collected Stories (Richard Yates), Rushing to Paradise (JG Ballard), Ulysses (James Joyce) – yes, still – and various poetry books.

Recently framed photograph:

kafka_dog

(Kafka).

Books recently returned from friends: The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas), Conditions of Faith (Alex Miller).

New position at Bookseller+Publisher: Acting editor (of the print magazine).

Book my sister and two friends are going to borrow: The Boat (Nam Le). A huge congrats to Nam on his Prime Minister’s Literary Award win! So well deserved. Congrats also to Evelyn Juers, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.

Language I’m going to learn next year: French (I’ll explain more about this later).

Link of the week: ABR‘s Favourite Australian Novel (FAN) poll – get your nomination in.

Out of the fifty billion launches on in the next week, the one I’m most looking forward to: Iain ‘Huey’ Hewitson’s Bloody Good Recipes. Huey will be cooking lunch. Mmm, mmm.

Two launches you should go to if in Melbourne: Visible Ink (Monday); The Words We Found (Thursday) – or, on Thursday, you could go to the Victorian state final of the Australian Poetry Slam.

Recently interviewed in: An extensive one in Voiceworks #78: Fluid (interview not online – buy it!); an in-person one (part one, part two) with Chris Flynn on Fly the Falcon (he’s been doing a few with up-and-coming creatives, check them out); and Damon Young interviewed me about my favourite tool for writing.

Recent flights booked: To Adelaide for Adelaide Writers Week – Feb 28 to March 5. Join us.

Current craving: pretzels.

Coming up on the blog: Review of Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath; ‘responsive’ interview with Hollywood Ending author Kathy Charles; an interview with Lisa Dempster re her travel memoir Neon Pilgrim; more from my interview with Alex Miller – extended from our talk about his new novel Lovesong, in Readings Monthly; and more fresh faces bringing you guest reviews.

Want: An e-reader.

Number of bookshelves needed for new pad: About eight.

What I’m going to do now: Watch The Seven Year Itch.