August 2009, Australia
Three children – one insular, one bold, and one stubborn and growing – dare each other to undertake dangerous or humiliating tasks in the ‘danger game’. Their lives are daring enough, with an unstable father and a mother on-edge, and mature secrets inside each of their little heads.
Only two of them live in the present – sisters in different cities who in the course of this narrative band together again and take on new challenges. Louise, the bold one, wants to find her mother. Alice is older, in admiration of her sister despite the needle-marks and fantastical lies that spout from her mouth. Alice gets caught up in relationships and politics, but it isn’t until her sister arrives that she really acts. Louise comes to Melbourne with the idea of not only finding their long-estranged mother, but finding out what really happened the day her twin, Jeremy, died. Alice has plenty on her plate already, with the school she teaches at under threat of closure. But their efforts become harmonious – their struggles rendered in some of the most shockingly brilliant prose I’ve read.
As the present events unfold – searching but stubborn Alice in first person; and the magic, clever, simultaneously vulnerable and resilient Louise in second person – the reader is also made privy to the events of that day, unfolding in the past, with Jeremy – the lost. As such, Jeremy becomes like a ghost upon the present. And finding out what really happened is just one of the narrative drives (along with what will happen with Alice’s school and relationship situation, and whether Louise will find her mother and stay away from drugs). Having Jeremy’s chapters throughout the book also acts to show the continuing impact of the death of a family member – especially one so young, unformed and unknown – on the present.
The father is a sad and ambiguous character, mentally ill, and still present in the girls’ lives. There are other secondary characters. Alice’s married lover Jon (someone she clings to though she herself is not even sure why); some of her students; and Alice’s best friend Sarah – whose purpose I didn’t first understand, but came to as the narrative moved along.
Ordinary life is richly rendered in this very contemporary novel, which is not only enjoyable, and literary, but political too, at its heart. Alice’s struggles – trying to keep the school open, alongside other struggles in the book – are about fairness, strength and daring. Realistically, the quiet and alone and hard-done-by characters don’t always come out on top, such as young Jeremy. Layered within the themes, descriptions and dialogue, too, are references to confusion and alienation, consumerism, youthful dissatisfaction, drug use and other modern societal issues. I can’t emphasise enough, though, how fulfilling the writing itself is, so that while a chord is being struck deep and low, your imagination is ensconced in the characters and their rooms, cafes, schools, backyards, city streets; and deep within their vivid, colourful and sense-filled childhood.
Another of the themes is imagination and escape, not just for children with a difficult home and school life, but escape in an adult present, both physical and mental. And the effect of great escapes (such as their mother’s physical one, or their father’s – into the bottle) on generation next. Louise’s drugs and Alice’s sex are other complex explorations of that fine line between retreat and daring. When does it hurt others? When is that actually inevitable? When is it okay to escape and when is it time to stand up?
The dialogue flows very naturally, but there were times (and this is my only, tiny qualm) where every character was very open and said what they meant. Occasionally this crossed into unbelieving territory for me. I wish that people spoke like that. And people like Alice and Louise might do… but at points, every character states their thoughts a little too defiantly.
Ashton shows us a difficult world, an unfair and confronting and complicated world, where comfort and pieces of happiness come out of living right on that edge of brave and daring. And she writes lively, originally, masterfully, unexpectedly. I was completely absorbed.
A LiteraryMinded review of an Australian classic.
Dark Places charts the life of a pitiful, self-absorbed and knowingly empty man, Albion Gidley Singer. From a young age he attempts to fill a void that exists within him – a void associated with his lack of knowledge of the feminine. He stuffs it at a young age with mother’s secret cakes; he tries to close it over with an outward construct of able manliness and power later on. He defies the void through the ownership of women in mind and body – through manipulation, put-downs, shame and despicable sexual acts. The novel is told confrontingly and effectively in first person – and I have to say – I love a challenging narrator who both repels me and draws me in. On the whole I was fascinated by the way Singer saw the world around him. Grenville is a very accessible writer, at times a little too close to lacking subtlety. I found this too when I read The Secret River, but friends encouraged me to go back to the earlier works. And Dark Places did captivate me more than River. I have a feeling I would also like Lillian’s Story, which I will get to, later on. Grenville is certainly skilled at rendering a historical world, and the relations between characters within it – including notions of propriety (within gender, class, the workplace, etc.) – in this case, Sydney, late 19th Century.
There is one central idea in this novel – Singer’s emptiness, his ‘shell’- or ‘husk’-like being. I see it as a kind of subversion of the female being the receptacle – the one who is hollow, to be filled-up by a man. Singer is baffled by the feminine, though he attempts to decipher and categorise women throughout his life. He is upset by women. He tries originally to model his daughter Lillian after himself as a young boy, but ends up finding her alien when she reaches puberty. Nonetheless he seeks something in her, he seeks something in all women – an affirmation of self, a filling-up, a fleshing out, a becoming. But a man so naturally shallow and selfish, a false man, can only fail. Did I empathise with him? Not much, even though we see him from his beginnings. But it didn’t inhibit my fascination, and my curiosity.
What Grenville captures is a man whose true condition is an at-times incapacitating lack of depth, which causes him to be deceptive, derisive, judgmental, angry, controlling. A way to fill the gap, to get a handle, to become less inadequate – is to belittle others, particularly women, who threaten him with their presence, their secrets, their bodies and their fullness and purpose of being.
part blog-post, part insight into current creative development
I ate banana pancakes this morning. I saw an old man on a bike in matching denims and a stackhat. I looked into somebody’s eyes. There are nine paper tasks on the floor.
They will give me new parts like Frankenstein’s monster.
A producer this week told me about Roger Corman bringing his lunch in the same paper bag each day.
I saw publishers pitch their books to filmmakers. Some of them compacting story, theme and character into 90 seconds. Some of them getting it wrong. [email protected]: I am reporting on it for work. I will tell you more about it later.
I’m developing three poems. Images: churning and swishing in my head. I try to be open but then a touch is like a burn and I retract.
This is what the poems will be for. I’m intimidated by the company. But then… this is the best. This creative cocktail of colours unexpected in my head. Are you with me, here?
I had so many dreams this week: the man with no face in the tree, torturing me with a drill. I wouldn’t tell him where my sister was. The green interior of a haunted house with large bookshelves. Nick Cave and I finding a semi-secretive spot at a party. This one was not a nightmare…
Link-a-thon Sunday: Frank McCourt, sadly, passed away. Entries for the 2009 Davitt Awards (crime) are now open. Griffith Review is accepting submissions for a special summer fiction edition ‘Stories for Today’.
Today. Begun. Begot. Flipped upside-down. (Soon) gone.
I’d like to introduce you to some of the writers who also participated in the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers, a week-and-a-half ago. Simonne and Maxine have written summaries of the workshop, if you want to know what it was all about. The dynamics were interesting – the ‘progressive’ themes varied greatly, and were executed differently by each writer. We began to discuss – amongst ourselves, with Overland’s Rjurik Davidson, and with the guest writers Tony Birch, Cate Kennedy and Lucy Sussex – how one’s political interests might be resonant in fiction, without being didactic (unless that was the aim of a specific piece – i.e. propaganda).
Personally, my thematic concerns came about through writing fiction, and through reading. This is how I learnt about what is important to me, and what I would like to explore, engage with ideologically, and have other readers’ eyes opened to. I managed to sneak a bit of what I write ‘about’ in fiction, into my Melbourne Writers Festival biography.
But enough about me. Following are some writers you should definitely keep an eye on. All have talent, and different ones’ work may appeal to you, depending on the kind of genres and themes you engage with and enjoy…
My name is Koraly Dimitriadis and I am a fiction writer. I was raised in the northern suburbs of Melbourne and originate from a Greek-Cypriot background. I have always been creative and have a deep passion for the arts. I have been a serious writer since 2007 and currently study professional writing and editing at RMIT. With the guidance of my mentor Christos Tsiolkas, I submitted my first novel Xenos to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and currently await the results. I have also written numerous short stories and poetry. All my work is of a progressive/political nature as I am driven to provoking change within our troubled world. More information about Xenos, my short stories and also my blog can be found at my website.
I have a background in theatre and write theatre reviews for Australian Stage Online. Currently I’m squirreling myself away with another draft of my first novel, which landed me a residency at Varuna in 2008. I’m also the blog administrator, with Charlotte Wood, for the newly launched Varuna Alumni Writers’ blog. Recently I was the recipient of the 2009 Ada Cambridge Prize for biographical short story writing. This story, ‘Broken Light’ has just been picked up by the Director of the Immigration Bridge project in Canberra and will soon be featured in their campaign.
My writing, despite (no doubt) efforts to be otherwise, usually comes back to themes of gender or immigration, often with an underlying element of spirituality that creeps through. I guess, if you want to get to bottom line stuff, I write about hope. This has countless traps and pitfalls, of course! The tendency towards sentimentality being the obvious one. I often find myself killing characters off – maybe it’s my subconscious effort to be as unsentimental as possible, who knows? I was one the writers for the 24 Hour Play Project in WA a few years back and ended up writing a 15 minute play loosely based on my father and grandmother and ended up killing the old man off. He was somewhat surprised at his gruesome demise. Toughen up, Dad, was my response, this is business.
I also write Numerology Charts for people and have recently started writing charts for my fictional characters, which is proving rather intriguing thus far. I’ve been writing a blog called into the quiet since 2007, which has links to all of my reviews for Australian Stage, and can be found here.
The Overland Master Class was a fantastic experience; one I would do again without hesitation, and one I’d recommend to any writer.
Talking about myself is a bit difficult. I feel like I’m creating a character called Alec Patric – He’s a writer of stories and poetry, dabbling in something called Literary Fragmentalism, and all kinds of word experiments. He can write ‘normal’ as well, he is quick to assure you. He’s got a wife and they both love Elwood, though occasionally concede that moving somewhere more affordable might be necessary with the advent of children. And when asked what his motivations or principles are, feels souls glazing over like so many 7-Eleven doughnuts, because this kind of stuff feels like making loving physical contact via sporadic internet connections. A.S. Patric is an emerging writer, publishing in Quadrant, Going Down Swinging, Etchings, Blue Dog, Etchings (again), and Wet Ink – that’s Alec Patric. I stand behind the ventriloquist doll and assure you I’m a lot less interesting than the characters I create, and a lot less beautiful than some of my best poetry. http://aspatricink.blogspot.com
Hi, (imagine something witty here). After incarnations as a cleaner, engineer, bushland regenerator and general dogsbody I completed RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course last year. Since then I’ve had short stories published in Southerly and Wet Ink. My non-fiction, mostly hiking articles, has been published in The Age, Wild and Great Walks. In January, Red Dog books will publish my book on Tasmania’s Overland Track – it’s going to have photos and maps and pictures and everything. As I can’t direct you anywhere on-line to read my stories, I virtually don’t exist.
I have escaped from full-time paid work and insist that I am a full-time writer. I am passionate about putting the world to rights, especially railing against injustices and bullying, as well as stupidity and dishonesty. I express this through short stories, verse, plays and essays and am working on laying it all out in a ‘serious’ book and two YA fiction books. In the past four years I have had almost twenty pieces shortlisted in competitions – which means anything from winning to being commended. Apart from competition anthologies, I have a story (title ‘Dead’) in Award Winning Australian Writing 2008. One of my plays won a prize and has been publicly read. I edit a writers’ magazine for the FAW and used to edit a medical journal. I post my weekly musings at www.thinking-allowed.com.au and have some of my writing and photos on www.seventh-house-communications.com .
Workshop leader and Overland associate editor Rjurik Davidson, who did this all in his own time, is a writer himself:
Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and teacher. He mainly writes speculative fiction, ranging widely across surrealism, magic realism, fantasy and science fiction. He has won a number of awards. He is also Associate Editor of Overland magazine and writes a great deal of non-fiction, mainly on Australian film. He has traveled widely, speaks crippled french in a perfect accent and is particularly interested in political fiction. His collection The Library of Forgotten Books will be published by PS Publishing later in the year.
Unfortunately I didn’t get a bio from everyone. Do check out Maxine Clarke’s blog though – she’s amazing. I’ll have to try and feature her in a different way down the track…
Dastgah is an account of Australian writer, journalist and editor Mark Mordue’s first trip overseas: a one-year journey through the regions of India, Nepal, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Iran, and the cities of Paris and New York. The blurb calls it ‘a refined diary’ and ‘an existential journal for the modern traveller’; both are accurate. Effort has gone into lifting the standard of the writing from the scribblings of a travel journal into a coherent narrative, but the fragmentary style and nature of a diary lingers. This ultimately proves to be both Dastgah‘s greatest feature, and a contributor to its partial downfall.
As narrator, Mordue is repeatedly stretched to the limits of his emotions, whether it be joy, despair or sheer wonder, and we are dragged along for every bit of the ride. There are action sequences, moments of humour and plenty of tears. Add to this the various passages of considered introspection, flashing anger, dream-writing, chapters simply consisting of titbits of overheard conversation, and punches of poetry. Dastgah is thus multifaceted: a shattered mirror through which we see slivers of Mordue’s nature (and our own), but slivers only. And it’s just not enough to satisfy.
Dastgah was published in 2001 by Allen & Unwin, and is Mordue’s first published book. It spent four weeks in the Sydney Morning Herald Non-Fiction Bestseller list and was shortlisted for the City of Brisbane/Qantas Asia-Pacific Travel Writing Prize in 2002.
Parts of Dastgah are simply outstanding, especially when Mordue’s voice quietens and the story takes over. Such sections (following the creative writing mantra: ‘show, don’t tell’) are magnetic: the chapter about Nepal is colourful and affecting; the New York experience is exciting; and the caring welcome of the people of Iran and Turkey is enviable – not many in the Western world would open their homes, wallets and hearts as these people do.
However, the travel journal feel of Dastgah prevents the reader from truly connecting with the book. Those remarkably written sections are interspersed with bits that just don’t quite succeed: the poem ‘Never Enough’ sounds like bad rock ‘n’ roll lyrics; the four or five pages about the recent history of Turkey reads like a textbook; and the omnipresent, never-fully-realised nature of Mordue’s girlfriend is distracting. There is also a scene in Turkey where Mordue treads very close to Western snobbery, when he feels ‘pity [for] both the women and men here: what they are; what they can never be’. Granted, this could simply be a harmless musing, as Mordue embodies the exact opposite ideals. Only a few pages on, he clarifies his mental state: ‘But maybe all I curse is being a tourist’. This is one of many questions Dastgah asks: does having the means to travel to other cultures also give you the right?
Mordue did intentionally fashion Dastgah in a fragmentary style to share with the reader the electrifying bedlam and emotion that accompanies international backpacking. The title refers to a term in Persian classical music: ‘dastgah’ is complex, labyrinthine, fluid. But overall, too much happens too quickly. The subtitle of this genre-straddling debut is diary of a headtrip, and is an apt description for the jarring experience, for author and reader alike. Perhaps we can look forward to his next work, a novel being completed as a M.A. in Writing, where Mordue’s exceptional talent for introspection and description might be more coherently realised.
Sam Cooney is a writer, dedicated to fiction. Born and bred in Melbourne, he has also published literature and arts reviews, as well as a range of articles. Sam is proud to be a small part of the Australian reading and writing community.
Wow, what a week!
On Monday afternoon I fell off my bike, gorifying one knee, but it is starting to heal up. Unfortunately my bike is still f**ked. The front brake is in love with the front wheel and won’t let go of it. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to get it looked at soon.
On Tuesday evening I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I haven’t been to the movies for aaaaaages, and that’s insane for me. Seems a lot of the fans were disappointed but I enjoyed it. Got quite lost in it and didn’t want to come back to the real world. But that might say more about my tired and busy state. I still hadn’t caught up on sleep from the Overland workshop and party the weekend before.
On Wednesday night I met up with Michael Williams, head of programming for the new Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. I will tell you more about him and the Centre tres soon… Oh, but while we’re here, let’s fantasise a little. Readers – if you are in Melbourne or could come to Melbourne for an author event at CBWI with any living writer, who would it be? My quick answer was Michael Cunningham – share yours! (You never know, the head of programming might be paying attention…)
On Thursday I popped out of work for the Melbourne Writers Festival program launch. It was great fun! Director Rosemary Cameron had us all get on the City Circle tram (it was packed) and then stumble out at Fed Square for some impassioned speeches and delicious lamingtons. On the tram and afterwards I caught up with Joel Becker (Victorian Writers’ Centre director and recent game show star), David Astle(writer, teacher, cryptic crossword creator), George Dunford (writer, traveller), Steve Grimwade (MWF associate director, curator, writer, editor), Ronnie Scott (writer, editor, publisher, brow-lifter), Chris Flynn (writer, editor, publisher, falcon), Bel Monypenny (editor) and many others. I also swallowed my shyness and introduced myself to Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who I’m a huge fan of. He was lovely! There was just one thing wrong with this morning – when I opened the MWF program, my name had been changed to ‘Angela Meyers’. Steve Grimwade was very quick to tell me it was a compliment – because I do so much, there are obviously two of me. Oh no, the SECRET IS OUT!
On Thursday night – the highlight of my week – I got to launch Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat at Willow Bar in Northcote. There were readings by Jessica Anne Friedmannand Chris Flynn (reading Chris Currie’s stories and his own). Because I introduced Jess as ‘effortlessly glamorous’, I decided I should mention Chris Flynn’s appearance, and I said he ‘may even be wearing 3D underpants’. This was a little in-joke from a prop party where Chris wore 3D glasses and told us where they came from. Well, turns out he had them on! And we all got a peep. Sean M Whelan was also a fantastic DJ. Fleetwood Mac = awesome. Josephine’s reading from the book of course had us all mesmerised, and she very sweetly read my favourite story ‘Work’. My other favourite is ‘Leak’. Chris Flynn made a public prediction that Josephine would win the Miles Franklin Literary Award sometime in the next 20 years. I think he might be right. Buy How a Moth Becomes a Boat here.
This weekend I have refused to leave the house, because I am so behind on reviewing and writing. Unfortunately I missed the Voiceworks and The Lifted Brow launches on Friday night – if you made it, please do report. I did get a copy of the Brow which has been added to the 30-something book pile. I just accidentally wrote ‘book pie’ then. I like that.
Here are some linky-dinks:
A novella written by Mary Shelley a year before Frankenstein (one of my top 10 fav books) has just been re-released, called Mathilda (funnily enough, via Matilda). Looks like there are other versions available, too, on Booktopia. Stuck for ideas? Here’s a good blog for writing and/or art prompts, which you can choose to share back on the blog: The Monday Project. Gotta love it when your boss sends you hilarious things during work hours… have you seen all the adaptations of that angered-Hitler scene? Well, this is one of the best: ‘Hitler finds out Michael Jackson has died’ (via Tim Coronel).
This week was also a big week because the final report was released from the Productivity Commission re the parallel importation of books (and many in the industry were NOT HAPPY Jan). My editor Matthia Dempsey wrote up a great (and easy to understand) news story for the Weekly Book Newsletter. My publisher Tim Coronel has been keeping track of all the links in his Delicious account. And this was one of the best author responses I read – by James Bradley – ‘Rethinking Parallel Importation’. Here’s a sample:
I don’t want to waste my time engaging with the Commission’s risible suggestion that greater public assistance would produce better outcomes for Australian creators. I don’t want a handout and I don’t know any writer who does. But I do think it would be useful if we stopped talking about this issue as a contest between economic rationalism and cultural nationalism. Because for as long as we do we’re missing the real point, which is about the capacity of Australia and Australian creators to succeed in a global knowledge economy, and about ensuring we harmonize our policy settings with those of our major competitors overseas.
Now, back to the question above – which living writer would you choose to see?
Does all lust start and
end like this? Don’t get me
wrong. I loved my wolf.
I held him tethered like
a pussycat. I nursed
the rumble in his belly
with hands gentle as a burglar’s.
He lived on milk
and blood and ocean. He
had violets for his furs.
It’s just that he was
beginning to devour me.
He nuzzled me with claws,
fondled me with fangs
sharp as yearning
He snaked a tongue so
hungry in its kiss it
turned my body to salt.
How do you douse a
dervish swirl? I asked.
Devour it, you said.
So I fantasised
about eating his balls,
rolling them in semolina
seeds and roasting them
golden. I got blooddrunk
on the thought of the
crisp tender cartilage of his ear,
left to simmer in tequila
and cilantro. The dry teats turned
sweet when baked with cinnamon
applesauce, or drizzled with chocolate.
The tangy musk of austerely steamed eyelid.
I set traps.
Mine is the deepest void,
the deepest void you’ll ever know.
And so I lured him to a well.
A wolf can drown in its own
wetness. But mine swam
and lapped and doggypaddled
until I waded back in to get him.
Mine is the darkest smoulder,
the darkest smoulder you’ll ever know.
And so I conspired to let him burn.
A wolf can poach in its own juices.
But mine danced on coals and leapt
ablaze, until I pussyfooted back in to get him.
I became desperate.
I preached to my wolf
about suicide, proselytized
about reincarnation. Come back
as a sleepy kitten, I said.
Come back as a hibernating bear.
Come back as a snail with a flag trail of surrender.
But my love was indefatigable. It was
volcano and oceanic tremor. It was a black lace bra and
too much jazz at 3 a.m.
My love was as big as betrayal.
I pleaded and pleaded until
you finally looked up and said,
You can only kill a wolf
you don’t want to have,
and only then did I see that
the size of two fists.
‘How to Eat a Wolf’ is from Sharanya Manivannan’s Witchcraft (Bullfighter Books), reprinted here with permission from the author. I savoured this book over several months, and read over certain poems (such as this one) slowly, and over again and again. The poems are about owning your heritage, your sex, your pain, your femaleness and your stories. They are responded to – like the best poetry – with both the intellect and the senses. Strong images recur – of stars, of blood, of earth – there are ruptures, pain, and stains. The language is of body and environment – cycles mythical and eternal. Love is celestial, but then, romance is attended to on earth, at its base, in its needs and nature and imperfections and the deep devastation of its loss. Some of the poems are dark, even morbid, in resonant ways. Others are celebratory, many are mischievous, inspiring and sexy. Have a look at Sharanya’s blog here, and follow her on Twitter.
ISBN 9780143009634 (paperback, August 2009)
It’s 1964 in small-town South Australia and Robert Burns (like the poet) is on the cusp of adolescence. ‘Happiness is a default state’, he narrates, looking back. Reading it, no matter when or where you grew up, one can relate to that simplicity, the time before ‘adult’ aspects of the world became magnified. Robbie has an as-yet uncomplicated friendship with Billy, an Aboriginal boy, whom he goes rabbiting with; and a cop for a father, so manages to get up to a fair bit of mischief.
High school begins and of course, everything changes. Robbie’s teacher is Miss Peach – a doll-like mod vision in ski pants and ballet flats, who travels on a Vespa and isn’t much older than the oldest students. Robbie is at first confused by the way she makes him feel, challenging his burgeoning sexual curiosity, along with his creative imagination.
Robbie experiments in his backyard with chemicals, and experiments on paper with intergalactic and far-future adventures. Soon these creative outpourings become tied in with his fascination for Miss Peach, who encourages him with his writing. She also tries to culturally influence the small, mostly disinterested town with appreciation nights – foreign films, poetry and so on. Her naivete means she fails to realise most of the participants come for their appreciation of her.
Goldsworthy is an exceptional and enticing writer, who gets you tangled-up in nostalgia through careful and relevant descriptions – the Beatles (though Miss Peach prefers classical music), the wonders of the universe, the social class distinctions and gender roles, the racism that even Robbie inadvertently inflicts on his best mate, and the language and fashions. The novel is also infused with sexual desire – the intensity of those first misdirected physical urges, mixed with emotion – described vividly. There are many memorable secondary characters. Miss Peach remains partly enigmatic all the way through, as seen through Robbie’s eyes, which is effective. There are her wine-swilling colleagues who make snarky comments and provide comic relief. There is a visiting poetry professor who we see as both intense and pathetic. Goldsworthy is a master at maintaining voice but allowing us insight through the rendering of gestures and actions.
I have been a fan of Goldsworthy since reading The List of All Answers, his collected short fiction, but this is the first novel of his I have read. The story slowly builds to a nail-biting dramatic crescendo. The events near the close are surprising, but I did find myself a little shocked, and almost disappointed. Goldsworthy attempts to counteract the shock with a drawn-out dénouement in the future/present. The closure is required, but I found myself wanting to stay back there in 1964 with fantastical dreams of the present. For the vivid, sense-charged depiction of story and character I will continue to work my way through the Goldsworthy oeuvre.
Overland Master Class for Progressive Writers: inspiring, practical, beneficial + connections made.
My party last night: 4am tequila, Trivial Pursuit, gender conversations, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, chips for breakfast.
My week ahead: 5 days of work, at least 3 blog posts, 2 meetings re Melbourne Writers Festival + Centre for Books Writing and Ideas, new Harry Potter movie, 2 book reviews due to different publications, doctor appointment, launching Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Becomes a Boat, gym sessions, not starting my tax and somewhere in there writing fiction.
Links I like: a literary take on social media with the absurdist tweets of Samuel Beckett character Winnie, from Happy Days (Malthouse Theatre); Affirm Press have committed to publish six short story collections in 2010; Hackpacker has interviewed Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin who will be a guest at the 2009 Melbourne Writers Festival; the next issue of The Lifted Brow is launching this Friday 17 July at The Tote in Melbourne; or you might choose to go to the Voiceworks launch on the same night at FAD Gallery; make a vote in the Australian Book Video Awards; Bird in the Hand zine distro has a new shop in Newcastle; fantastic essay by Arthur Phillips on writing about music in the Believer – can’t wait to (hopefully) meet Believer editor Heidi Julavits at MWF, who wrote one of the most amazing short stories I’ve ever read; a hilarious and original interview with Text Publishing editor Caro Cooper re Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, specifically that cover; if you’re not coming to Josephine’s launch on Thursday go to the launch of Jeff Sparrow’s new book Killing: Misadventures in Violence – 6 for 6:30pm, Bella Union Bar, Trades Hall, launched by Guy Rundle.
Soon: I would like to introduce you to the writers I worked with in the Overland Master Class. Also coming up are reviews of Kate Grenville and Peter Goldsworthy; a gorgeous poem by Sharanya Manivannan; a ‘responsive’ interview with Krissy Kneen; and my first few guest reviews…
Today was the first day of the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers. There are nine of us, giving (hopefully) constructive feedback of each others’ stories, plus taking in feedback from Overlandassociate editor Rjurik Davidson. Each day, an established writer also participates in the workshop, and today it was Tony Birch. Tomorrow will be the incomparable Cate Kennedy, and Sunday will be Lucy Sussex.
I won’t go into the session too much, but my story was one of the ones looked at today. It’s an existential and bleak story about an alcoholic children’s book sales rep, who loses everything. His job is usurped by technology, his wife can’t take it anymore, etc. The feedback was very valuable – especially when the majority agreed on the same things. In my case, the beginning section needs reworking to make the protagonist more apparent. I also need to work on a few abstract phrases, and moments of ‘telling’ (rather than showing). Rjurik was also great at giving examples of where more drama and tension could be brought into the work. Too much just happens toRichie, my character, and I don’t give him a chance to make a clear decision (and make it even more bleak and tragic…). In general though, the feedback was positive and encouraging. I was pleased to have affected the other writers in ways I intended (feelings of bleakness and hopelessness through a challenging and flawed character). It’s brilliant to know with a few more drafts, it should be a publishable work, expressing themes I’m intersted in and passionate about – obsolescence, predominantly; consumerist society, technology, gender (masculinity and expectations of it); and self-destruction, alienation and hopelessness brought on by these environmental factors. Everyone seemed to like the title: Obliviated.
I got a lot out of the short time with Tony Birch: think about your ethics in writing, don’t be afraid to re-iterate a theme or issue in your body of work, be tuned-in during your creative observation, and more. He also spoke about literary heroes, and this is something I really relate to. This is why I dog-ear books – so I can go over those passages that grab me, surprise me, challenge me, awaken me. To learn from them, even if not to write like that author. And I think your literary heroes need not be just other writers – sometimes musicians, filmmakers, and other artists stimulate you in the same creative vein.
Here are just a few of mine:
I discovered the thin white duke in Year 12, around the time I was working on my first lengthy writing project – a screenplay. My interest in him and his music is more than just a relaxed disassociation, but an intellectual engagement. Lyrically, he astounds me. And he pulls off oddness, and pushes boundaries – two things I would like to do in my writing. Sometimes I ‘jam’ with Bowie. On those rare nights at home when I’ve completed all my work, I might pour a glass of wine and put on his DVD. I’ll pull up a blank page in my notebook or on the screen and I’ll explore the mood of the music, plus be stimulated by the colourful, daring visuals. His film clips are very inventive too – some are noir, some cartoonish, many dark. The musical runners-up in the literary hero field are Pink Floyd, Cream and Supertramp.
Someone I have called my ‘favourite Australian writer’ for a few years now. Sometimes when I read something else and I question this, I think back to Dreams of Speaking. This is pretty much a perfect novel to me. It’s slim, rich and intellectual. Every page engages with complex ideas about modernity, romanticism, violence – and all done in a vivid, stylistic, yet effortless-to-read manner. The characters are memorable – Alice and Mr Sakamoto. There are locations both familiar and strange. The writing is (to use a Jones-esque term) luminous. I could read it again and again.
I have read all of Kafka’s works. I am fascinated by his life and his belief that he was ‘literature, and nothing else’. I relate to that sometimes, feeling like some kind of creative vessel with a purpose, and I relate to the sadness and aloneness of that too. The short story ‘In the Penal Colony’ is devastating to me. I’m going to be terribly abstract here, but Kafka feels correct to me. Injustice, black telephones, miscommunications, fleeting moments of awkward intimacy, bla bla I could go on forever. And I shared this piece before about visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague. If you care to read it again, it captures what I feel. And, to be really honest with you, one of my biggest fears in life is to be Max Brod, as opposed to Kafka…
Tony Birch got me thinking about her because he gave us a copy of his favourite opening. I think my favourite opening is the first page of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water. It was a seminal moment, reading that, realising I did not need to punctuate a sentence formally. To realise I could create movement and rhythm with sentences and in that way create impact, and emote, stylistically – rather than just through word choice. Runners-up in this vein are Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and also for her prolificness (with consistent quality) Joyce Carol Oates. Woolf and Oates are heroes too for the strength and creativity of their nonfiction and critical work.
For Lolita. I will get to his others, eventually. I just think Lolita is the perfect book – challenging, lyrical, moving, funny, sad – unputdownable. My copy is severely dog-eared.
My Oma wrote. Short stories and memoir. She also had eight children, emigrated from Holland to Australia, sang operatically and was a stage actress. She also travelled to Africa in her 80s, and had a boyfriend several years her junior. She told me romantic stories about my Opa, who passed away when I was two. When I was about ten years old, she read my story about an Antarctic researcher/explorer who was saved by a kiler whale (obviously influenced by Free Willy). She told me I had a ‘gift’, and that I should pursue it. She bought me my first diary, and I have kept one ever since (I have about 16). Without her, my Year Three teacher Mrs Grant, and my Dad, I’m not sure how I would have found my path.
There are many more (oh Christos Tsiolkas, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, the Simpsons writers, Edvard Munch. Must. Stop.). This is merely a little taster. Do tell, who are yours?