Interviews + Profiles

Jan 29, 2009


Note: This review/interview is uncensored and contains swearing.

The Slap (Aus, US) is a novel that grabs you by your tender spots, squeezes, and doesn’t let go. It’s yelling, not at you, but in general frustration, at the edge of a cliff, at the end of the world. The end of the world might be Australia. An Australian city and its suburbs in the age of almost extreme political correctness and ensuing confusion. A man slaps another person’s child at a barbeque, and the narrative branches out into the lives of several characters who were present. From teenagers to aged immigrants, and many middle-aged characters in between. While strands relate back to the incident, and opinions surrounding it, the themes are much broader, more challenging, and voracious. Issues such as racism (and reverse-racism), crossing the line (in many circumstances), new conservatism, domestic violence, adultery, the family, home, surfaces and secrets, notions of honour, generational conflict and differences, lust, eroticism, homoeroticism, forbidden desires, lies and half-truths, the institution of marriage, parent/child relationships, feminism, work vs motherhood, suppressed rage, pedophilia, drugs, and teenagers. Phew. It’s a cliché to call a writer ‘brave’, and I don’t think Tsiolkas suits any clichés. I think he is wonderfully necessary as a brutally honest and angry writer. The character portraits, too, are so well-drawn. How does he know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, for example, or an old man? Because somehow he does. The only thing that really overlaps chapter to chapter is a kind of rage. In some characters it springs from stubbornness and assuredness, in others, from confusion. Reading the book is part-epiphanic, part-assuring. Tsiolkas spoke to a deep part of me, the part that swears inside my head when someone is taking too long in the line in front of me, where sometimes words pop into my head that aren’t me, that aren’t said aloud. He speaks for the stoppers on us, the bottle cap. The novel never goes into right and wrong – everyone is an a**hole, everyone is weak in some way, everyone is stinking with humanness. I was absolutely stoked when Christos agreed to answer a few questions for me about the novel:

One of the main themes through the book, to me, seems to be the notion that we live now, in Australia, in an age of new conservatism and over-the-top political correctness. Is this something you wanted readers to think about?

At one point while working on the second draft of the novel I was tempted to put a prologue and an epilogue, the prologue being just before the ‘Tampa’ election and the epilogue being just after Rudd wins the most recent election. I’m glad I didn’t do that as it is obvious that readers can do that work for themselves and that it might have been misread as an end-of-an-era critique which is not how I imagine the world and communities the characters in The Slaplive in. It is too simplistic and facile to place all that is unsettling or ugly or uncomfortable in contemporary Australia on John Howard’s shoulders and not to see the continuity in politics and practices between Keating, Howard and Rudd, for example. It seemed to me that a significant change occurred in Australian society over the last twenty years that has seen a withering away of traditional notions of Australian class and of a supposed ethos of egalitarianism. That was a very conscious decision to set the novel in the backyards and bars and coffee shops of a new middle-class which does not necessarily look or sound anything like the middle-class that usually inhabits the pages of Australian fiction or is on our cinema and television screens. This is a middle-class as much wog as it is anglo, a middle-class that emerges as much from the working class as it does from the world of universities and the eastern suburbs. This shift in the cultural landscape of urban Australia is about money, the global economic boom of the nineties and early twenty-first century, and because it is about capital and status the values embodied in this shift are conservative and materialistic. In a strange way the book may turn out to be an end-of-an-era work not because of the electoral shift from Liberal to Labor but because of the consequences of the contemporary economic crisis. 

Last year I was very fortunate to be asked by Sydney PEN to contribute an essay on ‘Tolerance’ alongside essays by Gideon Haigh and Alexis Wright. I argued in my essay that political correctness has proven to be a straight-jacket for the left, restricting argument and debate. It seems that in Western democracies, contemporary labour parties have abandoned left economic philosophies and have retained only the authoritarianism of traditional socialism. (That’s not throwing the baby out with the bath water but rather throwing the baby out and keeping the bath water). I don’t see conservatism and political correctness as diametrically opposed, which is how many commentators from both the right and the left would have it, but as linked, part of an escalating punitive moralism that has affected politics, religion, culture, our media. 

I don’t want to pretend that a writer I sit down and carefully plot out connections between my political or philosophical ideas and the work of fiction that I am creating. The Slap is a novel and it arose from the imagination. It was not as much that I set out to ‘make’ readers think about the above questions but rather that the above questions and challenges confront, perplex and invigorate me intellectually and I assume an informed intelligent reader that will also be enervated by such questions. 

I thought the individual portraits of characters were so skillfully drawn. I was fascinated by how well you got inside the mind of teenage-girl Connie, for example. Was it difficult to write from the point of view of such different characters?

This book was a joy to write. I’m saying that because my previous novel, Dead Europe, was a much more difficult experience. Dead Europedealt with very difficult themes of anti-Semitism, the end of utopianism, the lust for death and war, and inhabiting those worlds proved unsettling – no, worse – it was often distressing. Not that there wasn’t also pleasure. I think any writer will speak to you of those moments when the work becomes an obsession and it feels like you are driven to write; that certainly happened while working on Dead Europe. I think it is impossible to complete a novel without that surrender to obsession. But because the terrain, the landscape of that novel was so dark and forbidding there were many false starts, many moments where I had to abandon it. That was not the case with The Slap. I enjoyed taking on personas as I was writing the novel, being female, male, an old man, a teenage girl. I feel like I should say that it was difficult to write in those voices but that’s not true. Maybe I have been lucky that I work in theatre and I have been educated in the craft of performance by actors. Often in the process of writing The Slap I would try and speak in the voice of one of the characters, try and imagine how they used their body, how they spoke. I was observing people, not only how they looked and talked, but also how they moved.

In the writing of The SlapI was meeting regularly with three other writers, Jessica Migotto and Jeana Vithoulkas, and with Angela Savage, and they offered consistent critical commentary as I developed the novel. I asked them lots of question about the female characters in the book, especially when it came to shaping the nature of the friendship between Aisha, Anouk and Rosie. I suppose there was a certain trepidation about whether as a bloke I could successfully write the experience of women. In the main I got thumbs up. The most illuminating discussions were about the writing of women’s sexual experiences, about the sensations of the body during sex. ‘The women are orgasming like men’, a friend dryly commented after reading an early draft, ‘Think about writing with a cunt not with your cock.’ It was great advice.

Many of the characters have ingrained prejudices – racism, generationalism, chauvinism, etc. Do you hope the reader is challenged by the blatant expression of prejudices by some of the characters?

It may be that I am constitutionally unable to understand the desire for moral absolutes. I love crime novels, for example, but most of them end up disappointing me because of the too easy division of the world into the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. I think it would be impossible to read my work in good faith and not realise that I am deeply engaged in trying to understand racism, how it works, how it hurts, how it exhilerates, how it punishes and how it destroys. My experience has been that while racism against oneself is always a shock, debilitating, the real difficult areas to deal with are the moments when I have realised my own racism, or have had to negotiate with the racism of someone I love, be they a friend or a member of my family. What I hope is that a reader of The Slap comes away trying to understand some of this complexity, whether it comes to questions of race and culture, to questions of gender and sex, or to attitudes to younger or older generations. But you can’t lead a reader to any conclusion. Again that comes down to a question of trust, a trust that I believe is crucial: a faith that the reader of your work is intelligent, questioning, an ethical human being. But of course that is not always the case. Am I responsible, then, for how a racist or fascist reader experiences my work? Am I accountable? That is a big question and I understand that there are people who would say, yes, that I am responsible. My argument would be that to venture down that path one is led to censorship, to totalitarian restrictions on art. (I don’t believe that censorship is effective because I do think that, in the end, the repressed does always re-emerge).

I can only speak for myself. I can try and pretend that I don’t have racist or sexist or ugly or violent or misanthropic or homophobic thoughts but that would be a pretence. I try and think through why I have such emotions and thoughts, try to educate myself, try to make sense of them. My writing is one of the ways I do this.

My favourite books all in some way explore the subtext of conversations – what is left unsaid. There is a lot of this in Hector and Aisha’s relationship, and it’s fascinating how when some half-truths are finally admitted, Aisha is repulsed by her husband. Ignorance is safety, ignorance is easiness. Do you think people generally prefer things left unsaid? Can literature provide honest release and honest relation?

The question of what literature is and what it can do is enormous. Everytime we are drawn to make conclusions about art we enter the realm of generalisations and absolutes and I become nervous. I was whole-heartedly agreeing with you that my favourite books speak the unsaid, the hushed, the whispered (I was thinking of James Agee’s A Death in the Familyand Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Richard Ford, but then I was reminded of the fierce power of the polemical and brutal (Journey to the End of Night or American Psycho).

I think that people, in the main, are terrified of conflict and that ignorance seems preferable in that sense because getting to truth is often not safe. I talked above about trusting the reader and I know that as a reader I am elated when I feel that trust has been reciprocated by a writer. Illumination is what I think good and/or honest and/or beautiful and/or savage art can offer.

When someone says of a book or a film or a play that it was ‘too hard’ I think they have been made conflicted, uncomfortable. That discomfort is sometimes what is most precious to me about great art.

Who or what is influential on your work as a writer?

A tendency in interviews is to reduce one’s life to a simplistic narrative that one can call up again and again. The narrative that I construct for myself begins with the vigor and dynamism of mid-20thcentury US writing (Miller, Mailer, McCullers, Kael), being fortunate enough to be an adolescent film geek influenced by the decade of Altman and Godard, and equally fortunate to be alive and excited and on drugs at the moment of post-punk music.

It is a narrative and as a narrative it simplifies. There is so much that has been an influence. In the end, those US mid-20th century writers have been most influential because they too use the English language but they created a rhythm and a syntax and a vocabulary and an expression that was uniquely theirs, that can be called an American language. I think Australians are still floundering with that, have not yet found a way to cut loose from Mummy Britain’s apron-strings.

(Also US writers such as Mailer and Roth were also children and grandchildren of immigrant Jews and I found their work corresponded to my reality as a ‘wog’ youth in a way that Australian literature of that time didn’t).

That being said I also love the breadth and scale of the classic European novel and some of my favourite writers include Tolstoy and Dostoevski, Stendhal, Kazantzakis. It sounds as if I prefer the Eastern Europeans to the Western Europeans? Maybe I do. My favourite classic English writer would be Joseph Conrad and he was really a Pole. (Stendhal, of course, was French so there are always exceptions). Though I am an athiest I was raised Orthodox Christian and there is something about the fatalism in Greek, Russian and Slavic writing that I respond to.

The writers that have made the most impact on me the last few years are Richard Ford and Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk’s grace as a writer and the formidable strength of his intellect make me want to think and write better. Richard Ford reminds me to look around at my world anew, to take nothing for granted. He is the best antidote for this false culture of celebrity and excessive materialism that I know.

Without ruining the end of the book, I felt elated by it. You could have easily taken a darker approach. Can we be comfortable only by figuring out and clutching our few certainties?

I was initially going to give the ending of the Richie chapter a much darker ‘hue’. But in writing the character I recognised that he didn’t deserve it. He began a little bit like Ari in my first novel Loaded and then he completely changed and I’m glad for that. The characters in The Slap that come of worse are those around my age, in their late thirties and early forties. It is possible that we are most critical of our own generation but I can’t help but think my generation has been a particularly materialistic and selfish one. Am I romantic about a younger generation? I don’t think so. I think as someone who has been often pissed off by the ‘babyboomers’ dismissing the politics and yearnings of the generation coming after them I didn’t want to replicate that ‘bad faith’. Does that make sense?

(Having used a term such as babyboomer I don’t want to reduce it all to the level of generational abstracts i.e. my mother, by birthdate, could be considered a ‘babyboomer’ but as a woman who lived firsthand through World War II and a civil war I doubt that the the term can be applied to her. All such journalistic shorthands are reductionist. They are useful as shorthand but cannot take the place of informed analytical debate. That is why I am suspicious of any attempt to define a ‘generation’. What is excluded in such a definition?)

Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe, in hindsight, and only in hindsight, form a trilogy in my mind to do with the loss of faith. The faith in absolutes, political ideology. In a sense The Slapstruck me as a novel in which I didn’t want to simply reiterate that loss. I guess that is why I wanted an ending that was more optimistic. That being said I still am someone who is confronted by the sense of hopelessness that comes from the abandonment of faith, in whatever sense that is understood, and inevitably that will inform my writing. Hector, Anouk, Rosie, Manoli and Aisha in their different ways are dealing with that experience. Connie and Richie have yet to confront it (though they have intimations of it). Harry is the only character who is unambiguously committed to the notions he believes in. That is why he is so dangerous.

How different has the process been in writing each of your novels (Loaded, Head-on, The Jesus Man, Dead Europe and The Slap), and where did you begin? Why did you start writing literature?

My first love was film. From primary school I would fill out exercise books with synopsis and scripts of films I would want to make. But in a real sense I became a writer when I decided to give up full-time work and dedicate the hours to actually writing, to treat it as work. That is what happened in the middle of writing Loaded. I gave myself five years.  It was a process of apprenticeship and though there is a place for something called talent or inspiration, the reality is that the discovery of being a writer is the discovery of the process of work: putting in the hours, sitting at the desk and writing. Reading is another part of it. That’s part of the learning.

The difficult ‘second novel syndrome’ arises, in part, from the difference between being a published and a not published writer. Once you are published you are part of an economy that may not necessarily have been an aspect of your thinking when you were working on your first novel. I wrote Loadednot knowing anything about the publishing world. I was fortunate to have a good friend and mentor in a writer called Sasha Soldatow who I worked with on a collaborative book called Jump Cuts: An Autobiography. That was immediatley after Loaded, which Sasha partly edited. Working on Jump Cuts was a reminder of the joy in play and experiment that is part of what made me want to be a writer in the first place. It is so easy to get caught up in the ego and ‘celebrity’ of being published. Good work, however, requires something more: dedication, thought, craft. The Jesus Man was rushed, I wish I had spent more time on it. Nevertheless the lessons from Jump Cutswere crucial: play is important and though there is real work and labour that goes into writing it is a privilged life to be a ‘writer’. Not a wealthy life, not an easy life, but a privileged life just the same.

Dead Europe was hard work. Writing The Slap was pleasurable.

At the Overland 193 launch, in conversation with Antony Loewenstein, you said that sometimes you feel you wish you could do what he does – write nonfiction about important world issues. While I am a fan of Loewenstein’s work, I am someone who strongly believes in the power of fiction, art, poetry – as tools of awakening, beauty, change, and as something that shows us what we have to live for.  Has a work of fiction, or art, or poetry ever shaped you as much as real life, philosophy or nonfiction?

Anna Akhmatova’s poem ‘Requiem’ made me confront the fallacy of my faith in Bolshevism. Stendhal’s The Scarlet and the Black made me want to recreate myself anew. Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Manarticulated a dissonance that I, before I read it, thought was undescribable. I could go on. There is a space for fiction that illuminates the emotional life of us as humans that, no matter how old-fashioned it may sound, I still espouse. My response to Antony had to do with the central importance of investigative non-fiction to make us aware of what is happening in the world. Fiction is not enough. We need to know facts, truth, reality. There are two terms that have emerged in the last decade that fill me with despair and melancholia: ‘collateral damage’ and ‘the embedded journalist’.  I wish I was a better writer to give full voice to the outrage and inhumanity of such terms.

My greatest fear? That the apparatchiks have won.

Thank you so much Christos.

Other People's Words

Jan 27, 2009


I get emails quite often from people who read LM, usually a few lines saying they enjoy the blog, or letting me know about an event coming up, or a book I might be interested in. But this is by far the best ‘fan’ email I have gotten, a story in itself. Michael said I could use his name, but not where he lives. He has written me another great ‘scene’ from his life since, which I will share in the coming weeks…

Hey Angela aka LiteraryMinded or may I call you lit-head? I’ve refered to myself as a ‘lit-nerd’ in the past (to distinguish myself from the garden-variety ‘RPG’ or ‘computer’ nerds) and I guess I am one.    

I’m at work right now on the night-shift at a taxi call-centre in [insert small town], NSW. It’s my home town, a long way from Melbourne – where I myself lived for two years.  

Well, it’s the quietest shift I’ve had in the four months or so I’ve worked here, and the first time I’ve bothered to email anyone, so I hope you appreciate that and don’t mind the intrusion. At first I thought I might be able to study on these shifts, but no, not even that. You see it’s hard for me to get going on something when I feel that any second I could be interrupted, so even writing an email to a complete stranger (I found you on Crikey, btw) is the most literary thing I’ve ever done to pass the time on a night-shift. Usually it’s anything from Four Corners re-runs on iView, the complete second series of Scrubs (last week’s effort), seeking the bizarre on YouTube – I did read some of Lolita once – (and that reminds me) soft porn, streaming episodes of The Family Guy, etc etc.  

Of tonight’s eight-hour shift, there’s about two hours when I actually have to pay much attention – the first and last – and we’re into the second quarter of it and the [area] is asleep, in its post-Christmas, post-January sale, lull. Red Bull and leftover pizza is on the menu tonight.  

Well let me congratulate you on finishing a manuscript – that’s no small achievement. All this blogging and e-stuff must take up a lot of time, too. I liked your review of Overland too – I haven’t read an issue in years. Do they still publish Meanjin?  

Hey, let me see if I can remember a little poem I wrote the other day (after last week’s night-shift in fact)…    

Composing a message, I work for minutes –
thumb-to-fingers, thumb-to-fingers, like a human –
                                                                I press a button
                            the message flies away      

What do think? A cheap effect? Well it’s better than a punch in the blogg…  

Well I guess the long and short of it is that if you want, I’d love to get a dialogue going with you. We’re roughly the same age (I’m 29), I’m currently working on my first manuscript (Stumplewiltskin, I call it), I’d love to have someone to talk about lit stuff with, if only now and then… ah, yes, and you’re researching a novel set amongst high school students in 1995? About consumerism? Well, I graduated in ’97… and my own novel is set amoung uni students in 2005. And it’s partly about consumerism (and body dismorphia). So how about that? I can give a very grunge perspective on high school in the 90’s. It was just that kind of school.  

If you’d like, I can give you a small example using the rockbands Nirvana and Silverchair. While Silverchair’s debut 1995 album Frogstomp and 1997 release, Freak Show were by all means decent guitar-heavy thrash albums of good promise, at my school they were regarded as a bit of joke next to Nirvana, whom it seemed obvious they were (unsuccessfully) emulating. The release of the hideous Neon Ballroom in ’99 seemed for myself and my exact contemporaries to confirm our position that the band was a middling talent without an authentic voice, and comparisons to the great Kurt Cobain – having passed away only a few years previously – were absurd. And Neon Ballroom had four top-fifty singles.  

My point as a sociological observation is that between ’95 and ’99 something had changed, something that allowed a cringe-making, flacid, phony song like ‘Anthem for the Year 2000’ able to be number three on the Australian charts, but more to the point, something that caused the teenagers only two or three years younger than us not to see the difference. Think about it!  

I don’t actually think about this as much as it might seem, I had a lot of Wikipedia help to get my point accross…  

       oh my god  

it’s 3:45 am and it is booor-ing!  

I actually just had about an hour where I had to do stuff (and I just got a call then, can you believe it? The nerve of some people. Actually that was 12 Wyralla Rd: ‘[small town] Taxi’s,’ I say. ‘Any delays?’ he asks. (He’s a regular). So now I’m actually getting quite tired. Did I mention that I work these shifts alone? I guess you might have figured. I’m having another Red Bull…  

…and taking my sneakers off… What else? On your favourite books list I have only read Steppenwolf, but I’ve read most of Sylvia Plath’s poems and The Bell Jar, I have, shamefully, not read to complete works of Shakespeare or even more of a third of it, although he does come to me highly recommended. I own a charming T-Shirt with Shakespeare’s portrait on it and the words ‘Prose Before Hos’. Sound advice indeed, although I think the shirt would have worked better with Hemingway, and who I am better versed in: last year I read his correspondances, essays and stories. All of ’em. I’ve been meaning to read Janet Frame’s memoir, but I can’t imagine reading the Kafka diaries anytime soon unless I visit my dentist and get a good supply of happy-gas. Oh yeah, and you’ve piqued my interest in Gail Jones.  

Ah, well. If this hasn’t gone straight into your spam shoot, it’s been great talkin’ with ya. I have to go and surf YouTube now to unwind before the airport bookings start… I hope you drop me a line sometime! Until then…  

much poetry and romance in your life!  

Michael Lawrence


Jan 24, 2009


F**k. I just wrote a whole post and it completely disappeared. Yes I was saving as I went. I blame the Establishment.

Anyhoo. I had an energetic, positive week with a few sharp downcurves, followed by quick recoveries. Here’s a small summary. Monday – work, die hair, yoga. Tuesday – lunch w/ Krissy Kneen (yum!), SBS World View radio youth forum talking about online communities, met great young net lads, will blog podcast (blogcast?) when it’s available. Wednesday – satisfying gym sesh at lunch, beer w/ David Ryding after work to discuss Emerging Writers’ Festival. Thursday – started feature article at work (fun), Revolutionary Road, bottle of wine alone, shouldn’t have gone on Facebook. Friday – blew up breakfast, two fillings at dentist, delicious lunch (risotto) with work colleagues @ Orange on Chapel, flooded bathroom and the carpet still smells. And somewhere during the week I got a wonderful email from a reader (I get a few, thanks! But this one was long and fascinating and a story in itself. I’ll introduce you to him soon…). Saturday is excitement, waiting for my sister and her gf to arrive. My good buddy Sam from Sydney arrives in the city today too. And tomorrow my bestie and other old friend get here from Coffs. I get to show off my new home to them all for the first time. And Big Day Out is going to rock on Monday… And I did read a book and a half this week too.

Here are a couple of things I want to share with you this week:

* Sean M Whelan performs his incredible poem ‘Dear Elliot’ on New York’s IndieFeed podcast site. This poem kills me, and this is a great recording. I love the birds… While you’re there, check out Emily Zoey Baker and alicia sometimes, who are also awesome.

* Want to join me at the Emerging Writers’ Festival? Check this out:

The Emerging Writers’ Festival wants you!

In other writing festivals, attendees go to listen to writers talk, but at the Emerging Writers’ Festival you come along to talk to writers and we are interested in hearing from people who want to be an active part of the festival, as presenters, hosts and panellists.

You don’t have to have a big body of work published or be a name or have a book you are selling but you do have to be passionately a writer; opinionated, informed, informative and happy to public speak in front of 300 people.

‘But what can I talk about?’ you cry ‘What’s the programme?’ well we can’t tell you…yet.

We want to hear what drives you, what you are passionate about. We don’t want people responding to what we have proscribed. If you ring some bells with our programme then we may have need for you.

Please note. A few points:

We cannot sell your book. Sorry. The EWF is more interested in what you are doing not what you have done. We don’t have a book shop partner, so we can not help with getting your book out and about. What we do provide are writers with the chance to engage with other writers, off all experiences, of all ages and of all genres. We are about the process the product.

We won’t make you rich.

We have such a small amount of money that we can’t fly many people from around Australia. (But yes I did say many not any…).

Of course we do have many guests locked away already but the EWF values an inclusive festival where people can have an opportunity to participate in all aspects of the festival.

So…to put your hand up to be part of the festival email [email protected] with a simple

1.         what you write and

2.         why you write it

And yes we said simple, no need for pages and pages. Also please put subject line Panellist Callout. We could insert a small rant about writers not reading their briefs here but we are sure you can all keep it to the guidelines.

When by? Monday the 2nd of February.

We look forward to hearing from you.

You may not here from me for a few days but you are going to love my completely uncensored interview with Christos Tsiolkas, up sometime next week.

Now I have to go and get something to get this smell out of the carpet.

And in honour of one of my all-time favourite musicians who I am actually going to get to see in the flesh this week:

Vintage, 2008, 9781740513845

Ruth comes from a line of artists, but preferred to study medicine and become a doctor like her father. When her father passes away, she is forced to leave the city and head home to arrange everything. A man called Douglas Grant calls, who had written a biography of her grandmother – bohemian artist Annie Swift. He is after the diaries of Ruth’s mother, who was also an artist – of woodcuts, illustrations and picture books – Zelda Steele. Ruth says she knows nothing about the diaries, and at that stage she doesn’t. But she will.

The reader is treated to Ruth’s present, alongside Zelda’s childhood, adolescence, and first years of motherhood. The novel also glimpses the worlds of Annie Swift and Ed Steele, young artists on the cusp of success in Australia’s war years. The first chapters of Zelda’s diary entires are slightly annoying, as they are from a girlhood point of view, with far too many (intentional) caps and exclamation marks. They nonetheless give you a genuine feel for the character.

This novel is very rich in scope, era, place, and character development. It is stylistically jumpy, going from straight fiction, to the lyrical toward the end. I enjoyed the latter lyrical chapters, where Zelda’s mental state is unbalanced and her emoting becomes creative. It’s quite moving to follow a character through their childhood, first kiss, awkward moments, devastating first love, and into motherhood.

Ruth’s story in the present is hearty as well. She has left a partner back in Sydney but deals with burgeoning feelings for someone else – a man called ‘Salty’, who has had a rough life but is endearing, strong, and positive. Her story holds a lot of interest as she slowly learns about her mother, her real background, and decides what to do from hereon.

The character of Zelda grated at times, for a probably purely subjective reason, in that I’m often drawn to characters who strike out against the norm (such as Ed and Annie) wheras Zelda for much of the time argues for the fact of becoming more ordinary, more conservative even. But it is also quite a refreshing point of view, and she grew on me (but only when things got a little darker for her down the track). The character portrait is not overly consistent, but I do think this is a deliberate action by the author as people do change through the course of a life, and the events that would change a person are rendered throughout.

An enjoyable aspect of the novel, too, is the art scene in Sydney and surrounds through the eras, as has obviously been heavily researched by James. The fashions, fabrics, hairstyles, moods, art movements, foods, and social situations of Australian art world from the 30s, through to the 70s, are vivid and absorbing. As are descriptions of city versus country, and Zelda’s boarding school, among others.

I would recommend this book to someone who enjoys getting to know their characters intimately, who wonders about how someone’s background and upbringing has influenced them, who enjoys considering nature versus nurture, and engaging in thoughts of motherhood versus the creative self. If you’re also into art you would enjoy the references, and if you know your Australian art history you would probably pick up the parallels with similar real-life figures from the eras written about.

Interviews + Profiles

Jan 19, 2009


Sean M Whelan, photo by Sudeep Lingamneni

Sean M Whelan’s and Nathan Curnow’s poems are very different in both style and theme, but come from much the same place.

Nathan captures the poignancy of childhood and the wonderment of parenthood, nostalgia and love in his chapbook No Other Life But This through tiny observations – an arm through a sleeve, a question, a coffee cup, a bird, make-believe, a moment in the car and so much more. These moments are rich, and significant.

Nathan’s poems show no sign of deliberation or flourish, but are perfectly crafted. Sean’s poems are collectives of an intertextual, emotional consciousness.

Sean’s poems (as in Tattooing the Surface of the Moon) are more all-encompassing – but the largeness is also ordinariness – extraordinariness, bundled within. Astronauts for stars, abstracts, musical references, surreal dreams, words on cigarettes, birds flying from mouths – moments still played out in bedrooms and on beaches.

Both poets write about a kiss – acknowledging this common, yet spectacular, occurrence. When reading both these chapbooks lunches went cold, hand went to chest, pen circled lines. Nathan’s I savoured over a month, never wanting it to end. Sean’s I devoured in an hour, then turned back to the front.

If I were a philanthropist I’d send these poets to far corners of the world just so I could see it through their eyes, and because people who see so much in a moment, deserve a variety of moments – even though both do show us that this one right now might be just as full, rounded, altering and significant as any other. Here are my questions for Sean and Nathan:

Nathan, one thing I got from No Other Life But This is that there is a kind of renewed innocence and wonderment that accompanies becoming a parent. Was that something you felt you had to express?

The themes of No Other Life But This weren’t particularly apparent to me until I arranged the manuscript. It was only then that I realised what I’d been writing about for so long. Parenting is definitely a large theme but I never sat down and said ‘this is what I have to say with this book’. I never knew if I’d have one published.

Nathan Curnow during the Static performance at the Melbourne Writers' Festival

Poets are always looking to see the familiar in new and fresh ways, and children do provide an innocent perspective. But whenever you write about life you are also saying something about the human condition, the reality of death. Children provide you with a renewed sense of time, and of it passing. It’s one of their confronting gifts.  

Both of you have done poetry as performance, as well as on the page – what is different in the creation process?

Nathan: I have always made a clear distinction between my ‘page’ and ‘performance’ poems, although sometimes (not often) I find a poem that will work in both contexts. When writing for performance I try to keep in mind things like movement, volume/pitch of voice, speed of delivery, use of space, props, costume etc. These help to support the words. When writing for the page you are pitching onto a white background, a blank space, and that has completely different demands. The line breaks, spaces, size of the characters etc become the visual representation of the poem, whereas when performing it is the poet themselves.
And yet while there are differences, I find that rhythm and sound are common elements, and ones I pay particular attention to when writing both. 

Sean, what do you think of the ‘surrealist’ label that can be applied to your poems? I think of a line like ‘1987 sits there on the beach, tempting them in the moonlight’ (from ‘Seven Dead Astronauts, Seven New Stars’).

I have no problem with the label, although oddly a lot of ‘surrealist’ poetry I just can’t stand myself. I think because a lot of it comes from a cold, distant core. Surrealism fails for me when the atmosphere becomes so alien that there’s nowhere to place your own emotions into. If I offer a surrealistic moment in a poem it’s just another chapter in the everyday. I always start from a point of solid rock reality and then let the flowers of another world grow from that place. That way the reader (and myself) always has somewhere to trace back to, like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the poem. I’ve never wanted to write about ‘strange’ people and places, it’s not strange, weird or surreal to me because they live in my head and I’d hate to be a stranger to my own imagination.

Who or what is influential on your work?

Sean: Everything, all of the time. Influences are a steady, full flowing body of water. I think I’m fairly impressionable. With books I’m reading I am sometimes conscious of reflecting too much of that particular writers style in my own work. So I usually have two or three books on the go at the same time to diffuse that. The first two schools that really turned my head were the Dirty Realists of North America and the magical realists of Latin America. And even though I don’t seek out those writers as passionately as I used to I think they’re probably still pretty strong watermarks in my work. A kind of ‘dirty magic’, if you will.  Films do it for me. What’s better than disappearing in a dark room every now and then? Music definitely does it for me. Musicality and rhythm in text have always been important to me. Even though it’s not something I’m very conscious of in the crafting process.

Nathan: So many things excite me! But I am particularly interested in short forms and what can be done within a limited amount of words. Poets like Kevin Brophy and Judith Beveridge have been a big influence, and I love reading the short stories of Margo Lanagan.

I am also constantly listening to music, so lyrics are a big thing for me. I get stuck on certain artists and tracks. At the moment it’s Kanye West and The Killers but it’s just as likely to be Dolly Parton and Diana Ross next month.

Nathan, can you tell us about your ghost poetry project?

The Ghost Poetry Project is an account of my adventures staying overnight at ten haunted sites around Australia, from Port Arthur to the Old Fremantle Lunatic Asylum. Funded by the Australia Council it was very much an experiment under duress, an exploration of courage, story and the creative process itself. The collection intertwines an extreme, personal journey with ghost stories, historical facts and the complexity of suggestion. The Ghost Poetry Project is forthcoming with Puncher & Wattman in 2009.

Sean, you’re off to Canada soon, can you tell us a bit about that?

Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. Myself, Emilie Zoey Baker, alicia sometimes and Justin Ashworth have been invited to appear at the 8th Festival Voix d’Amériques in Montreal. It runs from  February 6 to 13, 2009. It’s an eight day festival completely dedicated to Spoken Word, and from what I understand is really fresh and dynamic. And is about putting on ‘shows’ rather than readings. Which is something I’ve been interested in for a long time now. It’s a great honour to be guests at such an event.
We also have dates booked in Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Chicago. We’re performing at the Bowery in New York. An amazing full time poetry venue, which is really quite unique. I was first exposed to it through the amazing New York poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. She’s been to Melbourne a few times now and launched my first book way back in 2003. Our Chicago gig is at the famous Green Mill Cocktail Lounge which hosts the Uptown Poetry Slam. The place is famous for being the birthplace of Poetry Slams way back in 1985. Began by Marc ‘So What’ Smith. I was lucky enough to co-host a Slam with Marc at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2006. He brings an amazing energy to everything he does.

I’ve never been to Canada, I have performed in the States before but I feel like I was a much different reader back then. I didn’t have anything memorised, so I’m really looking forward to having new audiences and performing without a net this time. It’s much more liberating to perform without the page, it’s easier to really get inside your work.

You’ve collaborated on the Static performance with alicia sometimes – how did you come up with the personas and the overall theme of that performance?

Nathan: We tossed around a few ideas and somewhere between vampires and toast we settled on the theme of ‘static’ ie. transmissions/messages/white noise. It was a concept that seemed large enough to explore. We then went about tackling it separately. After years of writing and performance we all have completely different styles and it seemed wise to go with our strengths, and to juxtapose them. 

I ended up with a piece about a country boy who is looking to the stars, aliens and the Bible for escape. I had been interested in close-encounters for a little while and I had a poem from years before about a kid who had to pick up his father’s severed fingers… so when I found the boy’s voice, it all came together.  

Sean: Static was an incredibly rich collaborative experience. Working with alicia, Nathan, musician Quinn Stacpoole and director Kieran Carroll was such a joy really. We were all very appreciative of Going Down Swinging giving us the opportunity by specially commissioning the work. Us writers decided quite early that we wanted a theme to hang our hats on. Something to kick start to process and also to give the show some glue. We came up with the idea of Static, thinking about messages that live in the shadows, that come in and out of focus. The pieces were written separately but then we came together and found ways to walk in and out of each other’s work. I really loved the process of watching Quinn hearing the performances and then trying on different musical arrangements until finding something that fits. I wanted to write a piece about death that wasn’t morbid, that took the view of death being more a process of change rather than finality. I think we’d all like to further develop Static too and possibly tour it more widely next year.

Nath, I remember telling you after Static that the voice of your piece was perfect short fiction (not to mention your great acting). Tell us something you can’t do?!

Wow. Thanks Angela. There’s lots I can’t do. I mean you wouldn’t believe!

The piece does have a strong narrative. So yes, very ‘short fiction’ as well as ‘dramatic poetry’ perhaps. I’d like to do more with prose in the future, so that’s nice to hear. A big thanks to Going Down Swinging who commissioned the work in the first place. 

Sean, do you know why you often express things intertextually, through pop-culture or esoteric references? Is it a shortcut to relatability in a world of signs and myths (in the semiotic sense)?

My first and most vivid experiences of love (outside family) were all through movies and music. They became a mainline to emotions. Transformative emotions that turned sadness a different shade of blue. I was turned upside down by The Breakfast Club. I saw the emptiness there too but found such solace in the bubblegum sincerity. This was also the time of ‘alternative’ bands featuring heavy on soundtracks, bands like The Cure, New Order and The Smiths, so suddenly my two great crushes of music and film were getting in bed together to make out. How could I not draw on this?

This is the first time this has really occurred to me but when I first started writing, music and film were much more influential than books. Although I was fairly obsessed with Henry Miller and Anais Nin for a while there. But the veins of inspiration really go back to the songs and stories I was hearing and watching rather than reading. This has really struck with me.

Using pop-culture references in literature is definitely a warm jab to the heart for me but I’m not sure if it’s so carefully constructed on my behalf more than just naturally occurring.

The truth is writing is still very much a complete mystery to me.

I would like to suggest I have a better understanding of the process than I actually do, because that would infer that there’s some kind of reliable workhorse I saddle up at will. But the fact of the matter is that almost every time I sit down to write it feels like I’m doing it for the very first time. It just doesn’t seem to get any easier. I know if I sit in the same place for long enough something will happen, I’m just not sure how to get there. And I often take completely different, bewildering, sometimes excruciating paths to get there.

Can I ask you both to share a few lines from one of your poems?


From Eight Different Sections of His Body:


He isn’t a joke

but he sometimes feels that way.


She isn’t a punchline

but she loves being the last thing reflected

in his eyes before he goes to sleep.


Some holes will never close.



From Bunyips (4)

                                         Borrowing light

march ahead, though with each step you come apart

to meet the mystery within you, imagine this

there are mysteries you cannot imagine


Jan 18, 2009


Ah, to write. To do it for the joy alone. I am addicted to creating and recording. I am also addicted to discovery. How does that writer do it? How did they come up with that? How did they capture just how that feels, or what it would feel like, or how it would feel to be someone else?

Smells and sounds. I love seeing how writers describe these, and I love trying to do it myself. I love the challenge, too, of trying to write something that is unique, allowing it to be yours, but learning from what has already been done. It really, really is hard. It really is a challenge. And it is wonderful. I would like to be challenged by this all my life.

Now, the ol’ weekend round-up. A combination of me things and literary links and happenings that I feel like commenting on.

* Did you read Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs as a kid? Well today is May Gibbs’ birthday (she’d be 131!) and if you’re in Sydney you can attend a celebration, honouring the author and her generous legacy – on her death in 1969, she left the copyright of her works to Northcott Disability Services and The Spastic Centre of NSW. The details are: Sunday, 18th January, at ‘Nutcote’, May Gibbs’ family home in Neutral Bay. There’ll be special birthday event with cake-cutting ceremony at 12.30. Address: Nutcote, 5 Wallaringa Avenue, Neutral Bay NSW 2089. Phone: 02 9953 4453. Nutcote is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 11.00am to 3.00pm. You might be interested in the author’s biography: May Gibbs: Mother of the Gumnuts, by Maureen Walsh (Sydney University Press).

* I went to the launch of The Lifted Brow 4 on Friday night. Unfortunately I was incredibly tired and in a bit of a blue mood so I didn’t stay for the whole show. Who was the special guest? I enjoyed Fulton Lights from Brooklyn, who had a bit of a Springsteen vibe (with more electro-edge). The rest of the skinny-geek-chic bands I found, honestly, a little boring. But then, I was already tired and moody. I have read a few stories in the issue so far and there have been a couple of goodies. The LB team decided to make this one a bumper issue and include many overseas ‘names’ – the cover boasts the likes of Neil Gaiman, Sarah Manguso and Joe Meno – some amazing writers, but from reading some of the stories one wonders if they did just accept anything from some overseas writers in order to maximise sales with names … but I will read on and see how I go with the rest. Christopher Currie‘s The Maverick is a hilarious and sharp story about a modern wannabe noir hero-cop. The journal is probably worth buying for this alone. The best part of the night though was when I’d been eyeing some immaculate-looking poser-type girls resting against the wall, and then in walks Josephine and Jess. They were such a contrast. They both dress very feminine but have such strong and forceful presence. Their eyes were a little glazed, they had massive smiles and gave massive hugs and were a little sweaty and just beating with life. It made me so happy to see them.

* A launcheroo is coming up for Torpedo 4, at Readings Carlton on 13th Feb. It’s their tribute issue to Richard Brautigan. See more info here. 

* The January 2009 issue of The Short Review is out, the best online review site for short fiction collections.

* And yet another launch coming up is one for the very respected yearly fiction journal Sleepers Almanac No. 5. Here’s the info from their email:

To kick-start the year, the Sleepers Almanac No. 5 is hot off the press and ready to be celebrated. Melburnians, please come along to:
Date: Thursday the 12th of February
Time: From 6pm till 8pm
Place: At the Trades Hall Bar on the corner of Lygon and Victoria Streets, Carlton – now enter via Lygon Street.

This year’s Almanac is an absolute treat, with stories by Eleanor Elliott Thomas, Virginia Peters and Patrick Cullen, amongst many other riches, and including cartoons from the excellent Oslo Davis and the brilliant Andrew Weldon. It’s our fifth and we’ve hit our stride; and as we’ve aged, we’ve also upped the font size!

At the launch, there will be readings, shenanigans, and a chance to meet many of the authors. The Almanac will be available on the night; and in all good bookstores after February 1st for RRP $24.95.

‘Sleepers continues to work a crucial nerve in Australian writing.’ – Nam Le

Sleepers Publishing has also ventured into novels. Their first two releases are due out soon – Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (remember I loved his story in Overland 192?); and Brendan Gullifer’s Sold. They’ve kindly sent me copies, so I’ll at least get around to one of them in the next few months. Really keen to read Steven Amsterdam’s.

* Today I’m having a drink with the lovely Krissy Kneen, who’s book will be coming out with Text later in the year (remember, she was one of my ‘Best Unpublished Books’? – so many of them are now going to be published!). After that, I’ll be meeting up with Lisa Dempster of Vignette Press, and Cassie Flanagan of the Adelaide Format Festival, which I’m also looking forward to. I’ll keep you posted on the festival, which will be held in March. It’s been a productive weekend overall after meeting Gerard to map out our screenplay, then writing 90s novel at the SLV for about three hours yesterday. Last night was Seinfeld and wine (well deserved, yes?).

* Writers at the Convent is coming up in Melbourne on February 13, 14 and 15 (I was in Venice that time last year!). See the program. Yay, Peter Goldsworthy and Charles Darwin-related things!

* This is a gorgeous article on Janet DeNeefe (via Beattie), who runs the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, which I really hope to get to this year. I went in 2006 and it was seriously amazing.

* I didn’t think I had much this week but this has turned out to be huge – sorry! Coming oh-so-soon: An introduction to two of my favourite poets; an interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap; and a combined book/film review of Revolutionary Road with my good friend Mr Celluloid Tongue. And just a week til I see Neil Young in the flesh!


Jan 16, 2009


I keep seeing my name around lately. One thing I’m glad of is that Stephenie pronounces it the same way as me. Not Mayer, but Mier. I haven’t read the books yet. Maybe I will someday. I don’t mind the odd bit of Undead sexual tension here and there. Sure, hype can often be a turn-off. And I’ve heard from a few trusted colleagues that the writing itself ain’t wonderful, but that she does tell a compelling narrative.

Sometimes it bugs me when people immediately roll their eyes if something is popular. Now, if you read this blog often you’d be quite aware that I prefer literary fiction, with well-drawn characters, complexity, layers, engaging issues, simmering subtext and hard-hitting themes or emotions. But I have been drawn into many narrative worlds that aren’t so dense, or aren’t realism, or are written to be fun, entertaining and/or escapist. There are many, various joys to be had through reading. Some texts I might find challenging and exhilarating, others I might speed through but be left compelled and satisfied.

I am personally a big fan of the Harry Potter series, for example. I began them as a teenager, before the films were released, and I have rarely had such an engaged, joyful experience of reading. There is a wealth of reference in those novels too for literary fans, history buffs, students of mythology and legend. I have met a lot of people who haven’t read the books but will judge me by my appreciation of them. I think this is strange.

So my point is, I won’t analyse this Stephenie Meyer ‘phenomenon’ until one day I feel compelled to pick up Twilight and have a look. And I will never roll my eyes at someone who loves the series. The only time I judge authors/books I have not read is when it’s clear the author/publisher is in the game for cash only and not for passion – when the books have the potential to dumb down; when the books are too easy, cliched and flat; when the books are now written by other people but the author’s name graces the cover, and he gets all the royalties while they get a one-off fee (you know who I’m talking about); when they hog the shelves every two months with a new release even though they have $40 million and could retire and write for fun. This kind of author leaves me steaming.

I don’t think Stephenie Meyer is like that, and hey, she might even be my third cousin or something. I seriously have religious Meyer relatives in the US. They’re quite distant. Not sure if they’re Mormons but wouldn’t be surprised.

I’d love to know who of you has read her? And what are your thoughts? Are the books crap? Are they amazing? Why/why not? Why do you think they’re so hot right now?

And do you see a resemblance?

Paul Morgan, author of Turner’s Paintbox, The Pelagius Book and The Art of Richard Hughes says:

I have no writing room. In fact, I rarely work in the house. I feel too vulnerable to distraction there, knowing that at any moment the phone could ring or someone might knock on the door and my ‘zone’ would evaporate. Porlocked. And that’s without the cat trying to sneak onto my keyboard every ten minutes (I think she likes the warmth on her backside).

Most of my real writing is done ‘on the run,’ while I’m walking, sitting on a tram, or in that floating state-of-mind between wakefulness and sleep. I scribble ideas and fragments down in a notebook which is always with me: a cheap newsagent’s pad, not one of those precious Moleskines, ‘as used by Hemingway and Chatwin’. (Great writers, but let’s face it, a pair of self-conscious poseurs.) These notes are typed up on my MacBook every week or so, when I have ‘writing days’ off from my other job. (I’m Deputy Director of SANE Australia, the mental health charity.)

Sometimes I do this in the garden, away from distractions, or go away to a friend’s beach house. I always listen to music when writing, usually fast jazz or funk music to get my neurones firing. The Necks always do the job.

This writing rhythm seems to suit me, although I sometimes daydream of a soundproof hideaway high above the city, like Proust’s cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. I work best of all in a faraway hotel bedroom: undistracting, comfortable, silent, air-conditioned and safe from any disturbance. I need a residency at the Westin on Martin Place. What books I would write there. I promise.

See Paul’s website.

See also Damon Young and Caroline Petit. If you’re a writer, feel free to email me something.

Reviews + Analyses

Jan 12, 2009


Summer 2008, ed. Jeff Sparrow, 9780980534603

Another stimulating issue of a journal that dares to challenge you. By this I don’t mean just political stimulation (thought there is plenty of that there) but through non-mainstream points of observation. Overland generally gives you a variety of pieces on topics you may not have even thought of thinking about, if you know what I mean. In my review of 192 I wrote about how much I enjoyed the piece on women’s boxing, something I had known nothing of previously. This issue, the standout nonfiction pieces for me were ‘The Last Fanzine’ by Andrew Ramadge, an interesting and informative piece about a provocative underground rock zinester; and ‘Death of the Father’ by Sandy Jeffs, a clear insight into schizophrenia. With the latter, I felt again that Overland had published something that everyone would benefit from reading – for a better understanding of people and their world. Two more that really should be pushed under people’s noses in this issue, even if not quite as lyrically pleasing as the previous two, are Alexis Wright’s introduction and tribute to the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal – and of course people should be reading an Indigenous voice on Indigenous issues, but so few of us do; and the other, who also argues for a depth and breadth of voices from different representatives on issues of importance is Antony Loewenstein, who in this issue gives us ‘The Resource Wars’. Loewenstein is not afraid to challenge you, give you a verbal slap here and there. It is needed. He follows the links between oil; invasion and war; the suffering environment; hegemony and rhetoric used by Western governments; and the ignorance of Iraqi deaths, plus more. It’s a fine essay and a good introduction/companion to The Blogging Revolution. Susan Lever’s follow-up to the Peter Craven and Ken Gelder debate on literature also had me quite enthralled. Lever gets much deeper into individual authors and texts in Australian literature’s past and present. I found her points on antagonistic voices; writers who make amends for the past; and the role of the literary academic all fascinating. I agree with her that ‘Fortunately, there are still Australian readers and audiences who know that language can transform our dull everyday lives with exciting possibilities, that it can make us see things we never imagined and apprehend the great mysteries and paradoxes of life.’ Amen!

One of the fiction stories was like a headbutt to the chest. I still haven’t gotten over it. This was Eva Sallis’ (now Hornung) ‘Life Sentence’. A bird’s point-of-view. A lifetime with its owner. A life of knowing and being forgotten, while never forgetting. Becoming hard. The last line just about had me crying over my sushi. The writing flows beautifully with in-built roughness. You should all read it. Now.

I’m afraid I almost forgot what the other two stories were about in comparison, except that they both had some semblance of coming to terms with, or even embracing a final ordinariness, after either dreaming of something else, or having it. These were ‘A Chink too Wide’ by Richard Lawson, and ‘The Modern Australian Short Stories Tutor’ by Louise Swinn. Swinn’s story also has a nice undercurrent of a secret, complex longing.

In the poems I found many explorations of space, such as the quiet between the words in Aden Rolfe’s, and the almost three-dimensional effect of Sarah-Jane Norman’s words. Ted Nielson’s were interesting – ‘i took the hand of a preacherman’ being playful and conversational, with ‘franchisee, revisited’ drawing up a mood of virtual and real worlds, a ‘pre-post-apocalyptic’ relationship (his words). And Kevin Gillam’s also has space, quiet,  and is of and about simple beauty. Very striking.

Again my one gripe was with the reviews. Absolutely no fiction one this issue! Otherwise, they were adequate and well-written summaries, particularly those on history books. The poetry review was hilarious. Elizabeth Campbell absolutely rips into John Kinsella, then Overland gave him the chance to defend himself (I don’t blame them). Still, I’m sure many of her points may be valid. Both writers’ anger, while intellectually-based, is actually really entertaining to read, and very human.

I look forward to what Sparrow and the team put together next. I’d love to see more stories from a mental health/emotional perspective – the personal/biographical, intelligently written. I’d also love more literary criticism in the vein of Lever’s piece, and at least one fiction review per issue! But then, I love the way that Overland surprises me, so I’ll just wait and see what I can learn (maybe something on Cricket, I’ve never quite gotten it…)

PS: It looks like you can read all of Overland online now. Don’t know how it will help the subscriptions, but it’s all here.


Jan 10, 2009


Getting back into the swing of things has been slow. Work has been busy, but reading and writing has slowed-up a little at the moment. ’90s novel’ is taking its time. I’m working on it a bit this weekend, but I have a few other focuses too. Working on some very cool things for the blog (a dual book/film review with my friend Gerard of Celluloid Tongue; an interview with Christos Tsiolkas about The Slap); and other gigs like a short film script, a long short story, another interview and so on. And I’m starting to think about international submissions…

Got to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds this week – *swoon*. I loved that they played ‘The Weeping Song‘. So many of the songs are narrative-based. Speaking of Cave’s narratives, here’s the latest news on The Death of Bunny Munro too (thanks G). Can’t believe it was so ‘easy’ for him to write!

I also saw The Wrestler this week. Heartbreaking. See it.

Awesome news. The date for The Death Mook launch has been set! Hope to see all you Melburnians there. I’ll probably be reading a bit of my piece (nonfiction – on suicidal biographical writers). Here are the deets:

Date: February 26th 2008 Time: 6:30 for a 7pm start Venue: Dante’s upstairs. 150 Gertrude St. Fitzroy. (in Melbourne).

I’ve been feeling down about the conflict in Gaza this week too. Not really knowing what I can do, but thanks to Antony Loewenstein for this link – getting news from the people on the ground.

And why can’t the Australian government have something like this? Gorgeous.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while too, from Neil Boyack:

The Newstead Short Story Tattoo

Calling all short story writers, orators and lovers of words!  The Newstead Short Story Tattoo is planned for May 2009 (15th, 16th 17th).  We need submissions from writers who wish to read their work, or storytellers/orators who wish to be a part of some live storytelling (around a big camp fire). This is the only event in Australia that celebrates the short story alone. The Newstead Short Story Tattoo seeks to involve community, families and individuals in active story telling, listening and participation. The breadth of story contained within this celebration is broad and includes flash fiction, local history, the child, traditional forms and influences as well as modern modes of story telling. Themed events have been staked out (Sleaze, Crime, Sport), but there will also be many non-themed events that will need short story writers from a wide range of areas.  I have already received some great submissions. There have been lots of enquiries.  Interested? All you need to do is submit some work and bio to me at [email protected] , or to TNSST, PO BOX 26, Newstead, Vic, 3462 and you will be in the mix to perform at this wonderful event.

And this is a lot of fun! Vote for the word of the year:

The categories have been selected, the nominations are in, and now it’s time for you to unleash your inner wordie and visit Macquarie Dictionary Online to vote for what you think is the most valuable contribution to the English language in 2008! This voting will determine the People’s Choice. The overall winner will be selected by the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year Committee.

Voting for the Word of the Year 2008 is open now and ends at midnight on Saturday 31 January. To vote, log on to and follow the links to the voting page (or check it out on facebook and search WORD OF THE YEAR 2008).

And I’ll leave you with a poem I like – ‘The Crunch’ by Charles Bukowski.

LM ~ My first notes after I read East of Here, Close to Water – unedited:

‘You. He. She.

All the characters so close to memories – sensitive to the way they press upon the present.

Glimpses of a moment, rich – here and there. Empathy for a person – a man ‘howling on his doorstep’, a dancer, a woman waiting.

Sad vivid remembrances – relationships, lovers, emotions.

A little surprising magical element sparkling in the ordinary…

Changes, shifts, overtakings, missings, moving on and never moving.’

JR ~ I do seem to have an aversion to writing in the first person. And to naming my characters. Nameless characters are easier to relate to. I also try not to specify gender, when I can get away with it, as in Supposing. Writing in the second person feels much more natural to me than writing in the first person.

I’m big on little things. On finding beauty in the ordinary. On finding beauty in sadness.

A man came up to me after a reading last week to tell me that my writing made him sad. And I agree with the poet Sean Whelan – that sadness is a gift – but for some reason I still apologised.

He said, ‘No, no. It was beautiful. Thank you.’

I don’t think sadness can exist independently of hopefulness. Without hope there is only defeatism, which is not the same. If you’ve fully given up then there’s no room for sadness.

I think most of the stories in East of Here are very hopeful.

LM ~ ‘Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act’ – Leonard Cohen

JR ~ But we’re still acting, right? Only we’ve forgotten that we’re acting.

LM ~

JR ~ All of the fancy-dress parties which I’ve attended dressed as Rita Hayworth have ended badly. Especially the one whose theme was 1987, where I was dressed as Rita Hayworth on Prozac at her own funeral. That one ended particularly badly. Not surprising though, really.

LM ~ Self-publishing.

JR ~ Thank you, insomnia. For some reason I have more faith in myself at 3 in the morning. Call it delirium, if you want to. One particular 3 in the morning, I realised that self-publishing was in fact a valid form of publication.

Independently produced music and film are fairly well regarded, if not celebrated, whereas people tend to be skeptical of independently produced literature. I have to admit that I was initially among the skeptical, but it retrospect it seems ridiculous.

I do feel the need for validation – all art is a means of communication, and the only way of knowing whether you’ve communicated something effectively is for people to tell you, Yes, I understand this. Yes, this has moved me; I’ve taken something from it. And somebody willing to publish and essentially invest in your work is a confirmation of that. But several of the stories and poems that went into East of Here and Asynchrony had already been published, so I felt I already had that validation.

The main aspect of self-publishing which won me over was creative control – I knew exactly what I wanted these books to be in terms of length, content and appearance, and that a publisher would have little reason to see eye to eye with me, as it meant expensive paper stock and unusually short manuscripts. A bit of a gamble, and I’m not very well known.

I’m very happy with how the first two books have turned out, and how well they’ve been received. My friend John Skibinski very generously drew beautiful, intricate pencil illustrations for both East of Here and Asynchrony, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he does for the third book. I’m very much looking forward to finishing the third book. Maybe after this one I’ll approach a publisher.

LM ~ A clock.

JR ~ There are three clocks in my house and all are stopped – the grandfather at 9:49, the wall at 2:53, and the little square one on the mantelpiece at 7:41. I’m not sure what can be read into all that. I also seem to accumulate broken telephones. I suppose I’m a collector of things which have lost their purpose. At least their original purpose.

When something no longer has a function, can we call it art?

LM ~

JR ~ It’s unfortunate that my one and only party trick is seasonal. From February to October I’m a very boring person. But from November through to January! I am also much faster than most of these fine people.

LM ~ Not-dates.

JR ~ Suggested viewing for a not-date:


Requiem for a Dream

The Ordeal/Calvaire

The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover

No Country for Old Men

Waltz with Bashir


Pretty much any war-related film will suffice, so long as it isn’t directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Avoid anything directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Or Jeunet & Caro, for that matter – somebody will inevitably invite somebody inside for coffee or to meet their pet cat or to check out their broken telephone collection, and there’ll be no going back from there.

LM ~ Overland @ 19.

JR ~ The first piece of writing I had published. But if poems were children, then that particular piece would be the daughter who leaves home at sixteen and calls now and then from a payphone in Far North Queensland asking to borrow money for rent on a house she won’t give the address to, and while she doesn’t really feel like mine anymore, I still feel that I’m responsible for her wellbeing so I say sure, sweetheart, what are your account details again?

LM ~ Being referred to as a ‘poet’.

JR ~ Hey – you’re that poet, aren’t you?

I’m sorry, it’s just that it always sounds like such an accusation. It also makes me feel like a bit of a fraud, as I’ve written next to no poetry recently. Poetic fiction, maybe, but not much in the way of poetry. The last poem I wrote looked like this:


I am sorry that

we have nothing beautiful

to say anymore.

Call me a poet once I have departed the City of Despondent Haiku.

LM ~ St Kilda.

JR ~ Jerry’s Milkbar (which is technically Elwood, but only just). The Astor Theatre. The greenhouse in the Blessington Street gardens. The fish in the greenhouse in the Blessington Street gardens. The man who walks his alpaca along Acland Street. My little house. My little cat. A bottle of wine with a friend at the end of the pier in the middle of the night at the beginning of summer when it’s too hot to sleep.

And of course, the fits in my stairwell. The people sleeping in my stairwell. Cars slowing down for me on Carlisle and Grey Streets even though I’d have to say my style of dress is grandma-chic. All the lunatics on the 96 tram. Not one pub I could really call my local.

St Kilda is a sort of self-imposed exile. I think that if I lived in Brunswick or Fitzroy I’d never get anything done. There are just so many people to drink tea and procrastinate with over there.

LM ~ ‘You’d look out towards the wash of the city lights and think of how you used to dream of nights like this, of men like him, and you’d wonder what was missing, what had fallen away between the now and the then’ (from your ‘Outdoor Furniture Green’).

JR ~ ‘I know not anything more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.’

– Samuel Johnson

Josephine’s work available is from Readings. See also her website, and here is one of her stories ‘The Dancer’. If you enjoy this interview format, see also the ‘responsive’ with Nam Le.

Update, 2011: read Elizabeth Bryer’s review of Josephine’s book How a Moth Becomes a Boat (Hunter Publishers).

Angela's Publications

Jan 6, 2009


Orion, 2008, 9780752890715 (Aus, US/Kindle)

Ian Rankin is known for uncovering Edinburgh’s underbelly in his Inspector Rebus novels, but a different side again is exposed in Doors Open – the dark streak of rich, bored executives; art lovers; and software engineers in the Scottish capital.

Mike Mackenzie is a 37-year-old art collector who is offered a chance to do dirty. The adrenaline is just the hit he has been looking for. Along with Gissing – the art professor, and his banking friend Allan, Mike brings in Chib Calloway, renowned gangster, for some much-needed muscle and expertise.

But as more and more people come into the mix, demands rise, and the secret is stretched to breaking point. Will one’s paranoia be their undoing? Or the mean but civilised Norsk Hell’s Angel called ‘Hate’ who is chasing up Chib for money owed? Have the art-loving wannabe thieves gotten themselves in too deep?

This book is really great fun. If you love heist films like Oceans Eleven, or The Thomas Crown Affair (which are aptly referenced by characters in the book), or if you enjoy general crime fiction there is plenty to keep you entertained. Much of the enjoyment for me came from the Edinburgh setting – the favourite of the 12 cities I visited in UK/Europe in February. Much of the action takes place in areas I wandered.

One reason Rankin has been on my to-read list for a while, too, is due to his charming appearance on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club in 2008. Next time around I must get the audio book so I can indulge in the Scottish accent!

Overall, an easy and entertaining read with a fair bit of suspense and excitement. Good for summer.