Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part seven: debuts, exquisite short fiction, the bleak outsider, and erotic celebration
Aug 29, 2009
Debut With Style was chaired by Mr McSweeney’s, Eli Horowitz, and on the panel were Evie Wyld, Reif Larsen, Hitomi Kanehara (pictured below) and Lisa Unger. All had a different experience of ‘debuting’. Larsen had a ‘burning desire’ to write The Collected Works of TS Spivetand the publication was almost a bonus. Unger wrote four novels with another publisher before her ‘debut’ with literary crime thriller Beautiful Lies, which took her to a much wider readership. Wyld took herself around to indie bookstores in London. As a bookseller she knew how many great books she was competing against. You ‘have to get out there’, she said. Kanehara experienced a ‘storm’ of attention with her first novel, having won Japan’s famous Akutagawa Prize at 21.
All agreed that without the ‘hunger to get back to that lonely place’ (as Larsen put it) after your work has been out and well-received, you couldn’t really call yourself a writer. They write even when they are on the road – there’s a powerful ‘drive to be in the moment with your work’ said Unger. Those alone moments are what the job is all about.
Kanehara was asked an interesting question, being the youngest on the panel and the one with little life experience before the storm. Horowitz asked if she ever felt like living another life for a while, getting into the dirt of things. Kanehara (quite a vision – strikingly thin, elegant, charming) replied that she has always wanted to write, since she was 11 years old – and she continues to write about what she knows. She is hard on herself though, going through many edits and revisions with her publisher – and admitted she is worried that her forthcoming short story collection won’t sell so well.
Larsen was funny talking about the first drafts – ‘stinking it up’, and ‘trusting that the writing will get better’. All agreed that genre didn’t really come into it, that genre chooses you, in a way. During her creative writing course, Wyld told her teacher she wanted to write a ‘Schwarzenegger-style action thriller’, because ‘it would be fun’, but it didn’t work out because when she sat down more contemplative words came out.
Watching this panel, I was curious about what my company was thinking – sitting in the row were a successful debut novelist, a debut memoirist who writes fiction, and a writer whose debut novel is coming out next year. The main reason I was at the panel was for Larsen and Kanehara, as I’m interested in their books. There was one voice missing from the panel – all of the panellists were first published overseas and it would have been great to have an Australian voice.
I bought Kanehara’s award-winner Snakes and Earrings after, and got my copy of Larsen’s book signed. Turns out we are to be in the same issue of The Lifted Brow at the end of this year, and we both have Norwegian heritage. Nice. I’m looking forward to dipping into Spivet.
Chris Flynn interviewed Wells Tower in the Festival Club at lunch time. Tower enthralled the room, and this was definitely one of the best sessions I’ve been to this year. I’ve been wanting to read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned for a while, so bought a copy and got it signed after (I know… so many books). I won’t write too much about this session as Chris Currie has interviewed Tower for LM and it will be up in the coming weeks. Just a few things:
Tower revises the shit out of his stories, taking at least three months on one, even rewriting it from scratch from different angles and perspectives. I actually found this really encouraging (as opposed to daunting). I look forward to the day I can spend that much time on writing and rewriting. Tower feels he is ‘doing the most I can with the time I have’, by choosing to write fiction, as a job. He is a ‘huge believer in literature, to make life richer’. Amen to that. ‘If you’re writing to be published you’re going about it for the wrong reasons’. That is something I just love to hear. I come across people a lot (and some are friends) with an obsessive glint in their eye. They think I’m insane because I haven’t given my ms to all the publishers who have asked for it. I can understand, on one hand though – they believe that publishing will give them more time to write afterwards. In Australia, this is not necessarily the case. Royalties are slim. But there is more of a chance to go for grants and awards, I guess. Time is what the writer most wants…
Wells Tower’s favourite (recent) reads (off the top of his head):
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
The Known World – Edward P Jones
The Moviegoer – Walker Percy
Flannery O’Connor’s short stories
Richard Yates’ short fiction, particularly ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’
Barry Hannah’s short stories
Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson
Not only is MJ Hyland an incredible writer, she’s a very attractive woman, and keen to engage with an audience. I’d highly recommend seeing her at any writers’ festival, if you get the chance. She began by reading the opening of This is How. What a f**king treat – the best part of the book. Then Michael Williams, after pointing out the alienated characters in her three books, asked if she needed a hug. She said ‘yes’. And they stood and embraced!
Hyland says she doesn’t consciously choose ‘outsider’ characters, but they become so, nonetheless. He asked if she had a bleak worldview. ‘I don’t think of it as bleak’, she said. She writes to capture ‘weight’, not ‘bleakness’, like the books she enjoys – ie. Camus’ The Outsider (I knew it!), and Crime and Punishment. ‘Could you characterise that as bleak?’ she asked. The audience were like um, yes. This is going to get a bit gushy, but I was ecstatic with what she said – I am always accused of having ‘depressive’ tastes – but prefer to think of them as texts that have weight and a core of reality: discomfort, uneasiness, ill-fitting, death, disappointment, loneliness – YES.
Hyland has always been interested in tragedy, and her characters just end up coming out ‘wrong’ or ‘off’ in the world. Williams described her charcater Patrick Oxtoby as unlikeable, and she vehemently shook her head. (I knew it again!) I liked Patrick, in an uncomfortable way. I wanted to like him from the start and I did. My flatmate disagreed – he hated him and was incredibly frustrated by his thoughts and actions (but still loved the book). With Patrick (and all her characters), Hyland doesn’t want there to be a ‘neat cause and affect’ to their actions. People insist on pathologising them, but ‘he’s not a victim and he’s not suffering from any mental illness’. She wanted him to be ‘as complicated as we are’. Don’t you love her?
Hyland deliberately leaves out technology in her books, though she’s not entirely sure why – something to do with the 19th Century literature she enjoyes, she thought. Also, the language is ‘pared back’ in later drafts from the first. She needs to know the backgrounds of the characters herself, then she puts that material aside to tell the story in the ‘most unadorned’ way she possibly can.
After the session I got This is How signed. Here are the things I was thinking of saying while in the line: ‘I’m a big Camus fan’; ‘I like Patrick too’; ‘I love books and films that people classify as bleak’; ‘I’ve read it already and I adore it, thank you’. None of these came out when I got schoolgirl tongue-tied (and there was a huge line). I mumbled something about having read it but it was a proof copy and now I have the real one and bla bla she smiled hard at me and said thanks and I ran away in shame. Later, in bed last night, when you go over the shouldhavesaids, I realised it was actually the most apt MJ Hyand encounter one could have – just like one of her characters would have – with the words coming out wrong, strange weight and expectaton that only one is aware of, funny little needs, and disappointment. I felt better about it after that.
Put Your Hands All Over My Body was chaired by Peter Veitch, and featured Krissy Kneen, Linda Jaivin and Nikki Gemmell. This was an enlightening session, rounding out a spectacular day. Veitch seemed a funny choice for this panel. He opened with some words about sex and pleasure, and he was a bit sweaty and bulgy and stumbly and I couldn’t help imagining him in the throes of ‘pleasure’. His first question was about guilt (which seemed a very masculine one) and all three women shot him down immediately saying their books were a celebration. Jaivin is exciting – bright red hair, and references to ‘connecting with eros’. She’s a woman truly in touch with physical joy. Gemmell is still coming to terms with her status as a writer of sex and erotica (The Bride Stripped Bare was first released anonymously), but at times in the discussion, her eyes lit up – talking about ‘tenderness’, and the freedom of not just writing about sex, but indulging in literature. Kneen was the star of the night – Veitch seemed unaware at the start that her book was actually a biography! The audience directed most questions to her. Jaivin and Gemmell both said they ‘take their hat ff to her’ for her bravery. I was so enthralled in this session I forgot to take many notes, so I can’t report much more. But the authors said reading erotica is ‘healthy’, and they were ‘writing about something essential to human connection’ (Jaivin).
Jaivin and Kneen didn’t think there was much distinction between erotica and porn, nor should there be – that erotica could still be ‘brutal’. They did mention ‘good writing’ though. Gemmell thought there was a more defined line. Gemmell said she would love to read something from a man’s point of view, about his ‘secret life’, and that she hadn’t really come across that yet. I thought immediately of Alex Miller’s Prochownik’s Dream. Anyone else have any suggestions?
Phew, still here? Melburninas, come see me interview SPUNC authors and publishers at 6:45pm tonight and tomorrow night in the MWF Festival Club (ACMI building), totally free.