I met the talented, vivacious Singapore-born American writer Wena Poon last October, sharing a taxi ride from Denpasar airport to Ubud, Bali, for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. In that taxi and during her panels I learnt that Wena was dauntingly ‘together’ – interweaving careers in writing and Law, travelling the world, and seeming like she was having a fantastic time with all of it – the busyness, the art, the work, the sights. The award-winning author of Lions In Winter, The Proper Care of Foxes, and The Biophilia Omnibus is intelligent, warm and great fun. I’m very happy to host her her on LiteraryMinded on her virtual book tour for her new YA novel Alex Y Robert (Aus, US/Kindle).
Alex y Robert is a modern bullfighting novel, published by Salt (UK), set in Spain. The protagonist is Alejandra, a young American woman determined to become a matador. She is the grandchild of a famous Spanish matador, who died alongside his best friend in 1959. The book combines cultural critique and travel adventure, and looks at a new generation’s take on an ancient and controversial spectacle.
Alex y Robert has also been selected by BBC for its Radio 4 Books At Bedtime show, to be serialised on radio over two weeks in September.
At each stop on Wena’s virtual book tour the blogger is given a scene from the novel, and the questions are derived from this. Enjoy!
Why did you decide to write a novel about teenage matadors, and particularly a female one, Alex?
I was commissioned to write a Spain bullfighting story. Not only was I not interested in Spain, I disliked Hemingway and that macho stuff. It started out as a challenge, a simple dare between two women artists. Can I do something so alien, so distasteful, even? It was going to be 100% artistic risk. This was outside my comfort zone. That alone was appealing to me.
So, rather doubtfully, I went to Spain to chase a story. I told my friend who had commissioned me, ‘You’re a woman. I’m a woman. Do we really have to do a story about a matador? If we don’t cast a woman in the lead role, it’s a missed opportunity.’ So I made the matador a woman.
Immediately things got really exciting.
I’d written four volumes of a sci-fi action adventure series starring an incorrigible heroine called Imogen, called The Biophilia Omnibus. Imogen is cute, fierce, loyal, and brave – and really funny – and fights alongside the boys. I had a lot of fun creating that character. So when I had to do Alex y Robert, I thought, I’m gonna Imogenify bullfighting! This was the result.
Roberto, the young matador who helps her break into Spanish bullfighting, is also really cool. When he’s not bullfighting, he plays videogames and draws graphic novels. Many great matadors of old were painters; I just updated his profession.
People are nuts about Roberto. I have friends on Facebook currently bidding for a (fictional) night out with him. Watch the YouTube videos I made on my website for more insanity.
Alex y Robert is a hangout ‘movie’. I even made an iMix soundtrack for this ‘movie’ for you on my website, which you can sample for free and buy from iTunes. It’s got The Doors, The Human League, Of Montreal, and various Spanish rock on it.
In the scene I read from Alex y Robert, the young female matador is preparing for a big bullfight using a combination of spiritual rituals. Could you talk a bit about this?
In doing this book, I wasn’t keen on repeating age-old stereotypes about matadors. I discovered that modern teenage matadors-in-training are very contemporary. They Facebook and listen to their iPods. Alejandra, the American Texan girl matador, is a quintessential Generation Y teenager. She initiates herself before going into the bullfight through yoga and a Sanksrit chant for the bulls.
A matador is a bit like Spiderman – ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Alex is vegetarian, she loves animals. Part of her responds to bullfighting the way many Northern Europeans do: she is haunted by the killing. Yet she has inherited the bullfighting gene from her Spanish grandfather, who was a famous matador. She’s intensely loyal to his memory. She tries to synthesise modernity with tradition. It makes for a fascinating character to create a novel around.
Was it fun, when writing the novel, to play with a mix of tradition and the new; and with characters from different cultural backgrounds who nonetheless live in a very connected, modern world?
A lot of my stories are about unexpected cultural encounters and connectedness. A lot of my fiction is political and says things about race and culture – so far no one has noticed. I think some reviewers in Asia don’t get it.
At the London Lit Fest, I said that my literature is often about ‘Chinese people in strange places’. My life is transnational. I’ve lived in many different cities around the world. I’m a Chinese Singaporean American woman emailing you now for this interview while travelling on a bus in the Isle of Skye, Scotland, using mobile broadband on my laptop, and you’re in Australia. Just to the right of me is a Brazilian girl from Sao Paolo who is chatting with me about the World Cup (Brazil’s playing today and she’s got the flag in her hair).
Now that we have Facebook, I have friends on every single continent who talk to me and to each other everyday, sometimes showing one another the most intimate of thoughts, the most inspirational of photographs.
How could a 21st century writer not be inspired by the ease of travel and of human connectivity through technology?
So yes, it was fun doing Alex y Robert, but the story practically wrote itself. It is taken directly from my real life.
Where can Australian and New Zealand readers buy this book?
For those of you outside the UK, you can buy it now online with a credit card at Salt’s webpage, where you can read the first 25 pages for free, listen to me reading a chapter, and watch a funny video. Click on the UK bookstore on this link, which will ship worldwide. A 20% discount off cover price is usually offered when you buy direct from Salt.
If you don’t have a credit card, print the book’s ISBN from the Salt webpage and ask your local bookstore to order it for you.
I am always happy to meet readers and sign books, so sign up on my Facebook Fan Page and I’ll announce whenever I am reading in any city in the world. Hope you like it! Write me if you do!
I’ve been in a lot of aeroplanes lately – flying out from Melbourne, flying in novels, and in dreams. Sometimes the ports look similar. Familiar, unfamiliar. My life is literature, is writing, is reading, and always passion, and there are good and bad things about being intertwined with fiction, about consistent imagining. It can be expansive, but also irrepressible. It can thrill or bother me at three o’clock in the morning.
But then, flying somewhere to talk about it – to share on stage, in a workshop, over a glass of wine – these habitations of the mind, connections formed on the page, worlds opened up, emotional educations or confirmations.
The next chance to do this is somewhere close to where I grew up – Byron Bay. I can’t wait to dig my feet in the sand, and to dig deep into the minds of authors. Will you join me?
Here’s my schedule:
Workshop: On my own, blogging and self publishing
These days it’s so easy to create your own path and have fun experimenting in new or alternate mediums. From the basics of blogging and self-publishing, through to tips on embracing social media, and promoting yourself online and off, Angela Meyer will show you how to form communities of readers, how to choose what medium is right for you, what not to do, and how to maintain balance in your writing life while embracing technology. You don’t need a publishing contract or a massive audience to be able to write and create meaningful connections. The tools are there for you.
Thursday 5th of August, 9.30am -12.30pm, SAE Institute
Our whizzing, whirling world: can writing reign supreme?
Tom Cho, Angela Meyer, Peter Skrzynecki
Chair: Susan Wyndham
Friday 6th of August, 9.15am- 10.15am, BLUE MARQUEE
Kindle, blog, tweet: what the hell does it all mean?
Krissy Kneen, Angela Meyer, Susan Maushart, Alvin Pang
Chair: Janet Steele
Friday 6th of August, 12.45pm-1.45pm, SCU MARQUEE
The firm: when writing is the family business
Georgia Blain, Kirsten Tranter, Brenda Walker
Chair: Angela Meyer
Friday 6th of August, 4.00pm- 5.00pm, ABC3 MARQUEE
Fragmented identities: fractures, flaws and fears
Georgia Blain, Patrick Holland, Michael Robotham
Chair: Angela Meyer
Saturday 7th of August, 10.15am-11.15am, SCU MARQUEE
Fantastical and magical: expanding the conventional world
Kim Falconer, Maria van Daalen
Chair: Angela Meyer
Saturday 7th of August, 4.00pm- 5.00pm, BLUE MARQUEE
Yes, there has been a lot of reading to do…!
My BBWF bio can be found, here.
And don’t forget, I’m blogging officially for Melbourne Writers Festival this year. My posts have begun, and I’ll collate them here at a later date. Enjoy everything.
Other People's Words
Jul 20, 2010
For me, The Big Issue is like a tub of Neapolitan ice-cream. It’s reliable. It’s unpretentious and doesn’t pretend to be anything except exactly what it is. You buy it every fortnight, just when you feel that craving slowly creeping on. Each time you marvel at the value for money. It’s to everyone’s tastes, whether you’ve a penchant for light-hearted strawberry-sweet writing, unadorned and honest vanilla-esque insights, or fiendish and indulgent chocolatey pieces. And it’s always soul-affirming stuff, both for its dependably excellent content and the underlying motives behind its publication.
This year’s special fiction edition (the sixth) not only satisfies your fortnightly craving, but exceeds it. Imagine finding your preferred brand of Neapolitan is on special, and is 25% larger (this edition is 8 pages longer than normal) and then you open it and discover that the recipe of each flavour has been improved. Co-editors Jo Case and Melissa Cranenburgh have whipped up a 54-page bumper edition that will keep any reader (over 154,000 Australia-wide) company during these long winter hours. The stories included are varied, from the abrasive and the realistic to the surprising and the magical.
Michael Faber’s terrifically titled ‘Down the Up-Escalator in a Race Against Science’ instantly plonks us into the viewpoint of Zephaniah, a simpleminded ticket inspector in the London Underground on the hunt for a lost child. Zephaniah’s straightforward manner is reminiscent of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with thoughts like: ‘Other people on the escalators looked at him as though he was waving his willy at them.’ Faber has created a recognisable and believable character who, by negotiating his surroundings and the people in them, shows what it means to be both human and humane.
‘The Vaulting Maid’ by Linda Jaivin lays bare a world that feels instantly familiar, though it’s doubtful many readers have sat around a living room in China and discussed their ‘aiyi’ – a maid – who is rumoured to have been an Olympic gymnast. Without hurry or hustle Jaivin’s characters reveal themselves, bit by bit, and the ending, while not entirely unforeseen, still manages to have an effect.
Christos Tsiolkas has a massive reputation, and his story ‘Salt’ demonstrates why he is revered. It really is a cut above, somehow blending the gritty and violent nature of a coal mining town with some elements that might be labelled ‘magical realism’. For mine, ‘Salt’ is the best story in the edition, mainly because of the mounting air of menace that looms as ominous as the black coal clouds; a feeling of approaching threat that plays against its unpredictability.
Samuel Rutter’s ‘Your Father is Disappointed in You’ evokes Roberto Bolano’s writing – a little bit metafictional, a little bit humdrum, and a little bit remarkable – with its tale of a son, a father, a last will and testament, and a South American town. The second-person viewpoint works too: ‘You order a whiskey. You don’t like whisky, but you feel that if you were a character in a story, now would be the time to order a whisky. Double whisky, on the rocks.’ Rutter has recently and repeatedly been identified as ‘one to watch’, and his short fiction is certainly causing people to sit up and take notice. It’ll be interesting to see in which direction he heads – hopefully he continues to combine his fondness for all things Latin-American with his ability to make the everyday extraordinary.
‘They Were Beaching Themselves Again’ by Romy Ash refuses to sugar coat anything – not the attempted rescue of whales, not the notion of travel, not the core of people. Every line is real, grounded, alive, and is a lesson in understatement. You know you’re in the hands of a great writer when character names are unnecessary and each paragraph stirs up a new and deep-rooted emotion.
The other stories in the collection deserve remark: Emmett Stinson’s painfully neurotic narrator would belong in the film Death at a Funeral; Karen Hitchcock’s ‘Blackbirds Singing’ weaves cakes, cattiness and closeted secrets in the men’s clothing section of a department store; Toni Jordan reveals small town scandals in Anytown, Anystate, Australia; and Patrick Allington’s ‘Trumpet’ goes back in time to 1884 Adelaide to give voice to a failed old explorer. Not to forget everywhereman Oslo Davis’ graphic story ‘You, Me & My Grey Hairs’, which manages to express as much as any written piece.
Talking visuals, mention must be made of the artworks accompanying the stories. It’s so easy for such artworks to either distract or diminish, but these carefully strewn illustrations, photographs and collages are complementary in every instance. Of particular note are the pieces by Shaun Gladwell and Stormie Mills. The Big Issue is to be commended for providing, alongside its writers, the opportunity to some of Australia’s best and up-and-coming visual artists.
The editors of this The Big Issue clearly have an eye for quality (although probably unnecessary are the subtitles provided for each story, as they are a tad gimmicky and read like hastily-written blurbs, reducing some of the stories to two-line summaries). Every story within the magazine is a standalone piece of deftly crafted fiction, and each demonstrates, in subtly different ways, the author’s ability to hold back, to not give everything over, but instead allow enough room for the reader to enter each distinct setting, to enter each narrator or protagonist’s mind. In their editorial, Case and Cranenburgh, referring to the 300-plus fiction submissions, say that ‘the quality of this edition can be determined as much by what you don’t see on its pages, as what you do.’ But all we have to go on are the ten stories, so it’s fortunate that they are of the highest quality indeed.
Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.
Reviews + Analyses
Jul 18, 2010
How a Moth Becomes a Boat
Hunter Publishers, 2010 (Aus)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bryer
In Meanjin 67:2, 2008, Wayne Macauley describes the painstaking process he underwent in his search for a publisher for his allegorical novel, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, which went on to receive rave reviews and was even picked for the VCE English recommended reading list. In the article he describes self-publishing as ‘the hyphenated horror word that makes most literati reach for their revolvers. Family histories, bad story collections, worse poetry.’
That, certainly, is self-publishing’s reputation. But, Macauley goes on to ask: ‘Why not something else besides? Brilliant poetry by front-line poets, innovative fiction by the best going round, new unclassifiable genres of writing that might reach a whole new readership’.
He advocates a change in structure in Literature Board grants more akin to the Theatre Board’s model, whereby writers, in their grant applications, would outline their marketing strategy, distribution model and costings, and then, if successful, would receive funds to self-publish. Such self-publishing, meanwhile, would lose the usual stigma because it would carry the Literature Board’s (as opposed to a publisher’s) stamp of approval.
A great idea, I thought, but, in the meantime, with such grants still just an idea, surely writers would continue to seek publishers’ endorsement by having their manuscripts do the rounds of all big publishers’ slush piles? Because, I imagined, what good writer would be brave enough to contend with that stigma, to choose to refrain from sending the kind of writing that is ‘brilliant’ and ‘innovative’ to publishers, but rather to self-publish said writing in an act of defiance that could so easily be misinterpreted as the final resort opted for after the writing didn’t manage to pique the gate-keepers’ interest? What good writer would be brave enough to choose to risk that their baby languish in the same category as the ‘family histories, bad story collections, worse poetry’?
As it turns out, my rhetorical question showed itself to be something other than rhetorical because it has an answer: St Kilda-based Josephine Rowe – who has self-published her collections East of Here, Close to Water; Asynchrony and How a Moth Becomes a Boat – she is that gutsy writer I didn’t think existed. In a LiteraryMinded responsive interview, Rowe states: ‘For some reason I have more faith 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’.
So, then, we readers have insomnia to thank for her courageous move, which has led to How a Moth Becomes a Boat being commercially re-issued by Hunter, who have done a wonderful job on the gorgeous cover design.
How a Moth Becomes a Boatis a collection of short stories whose innovative, atypical format – the stories are very brief and the collection itself is also much slighter than standard collections – would never, I suspect, have made it off a commercial publisher’s slush pile, and not because it is not of the highest quality. In other words, this book holds between its covers exactly the kind of innovation that Macauley hopes would, if self-published, attract ‘a whole new readership’. It’s up to us, now, to be that readership.
How a Moth Becomes a Boat’s first story lucidly encapsulates the relationship between a daughter and father through detailing his teaching her how to break whisky bottles, should she ever need to defend herself. In just three pages, the oddity of the forms in which love can present itself, and the very incomprehensibility of its guises from the perspective of onlookers, is explored. In a brief moment we see the life the protagonist is living and the life in which she will be caught in the future, and the tentative understandings of children as opposed to adults are perceptively expressed through the daughter’s and father’s different conceptions of what, exactly, constitutes frightening.
This, for me, was the perfect story with which to open the collection because its central motif reflects how the book is structured stylistically: each piece is like one of the first story’s glass fragments, a thing in itself but also, in its very form, something that points towards a greater whole. In the case of each of the stories, we are presented with snatches of lives that tell us so much about the whole, while at the same time existing in themselves as perfectly complete constructions. Thus, we witness a woman deciding to leave her lover the day he ceases pushing his house key under the door for her. We feel the heady rush of a teenage joyride, and the fear of consequence afterwards. We are privy to a woman’s dreams turning mediocre after she falls in love.
The characters are haunted by memory and we often catch them in a moment of decision, or in the contemplation of one. Each story manages to lull you with its magic so that you think you know where it is headed until, with a flick of its tail, it disarms you in its final sentences.
Given its size, it is tempting to read the collection at a single sitting, but this can prove disorienting and doesn’t do the collection justice; instead, may I suggest that these stories be read one at a time at individual sittings. That way, the nuance of each story can be more wholly contemplated and appreciated, since the reader is left with the memory of one story each time, with distinct worlds can be imaginatively inhabited afterwards.
The narrator of ‘Over’ contends, ‘We are a small story, you tell me […] We are a small story, all the more beautiful, all the more poignant, because we know that it will one day be over’.
How a Moth Becomes a Boat’s stories are indeed small, but, like the relationship detailed in ‘Over’, they are all the more exquisite for it.
As for how a moth becomes a boat, you’ll have to read the collection to find out.
Elizabeth Bryer’s writing has appeared in Australian literary journals. She has recently started a blog on reading, writing and translation called Plume of Words
Jul 14, 2010
On the weekend I was up in sunny Brisbane for the Australian Booksellers Association 2010 conference. It’s a conference for members and friends of
On the weekend I was up in sunny Brisbane for the Australian Booksellers Association 2010 conference. It’s a conference for members and friends of the ABA – so, booksellers, publishers, and some librarians and media. I was officially there as a ‘blogger’ – on a panel called ‘Customers, Connections and Communities’, with Andrew McDonald from Readings, Jon Page of Pages & PagesBookstore and Kate Eltham from the QLD Writers Centre and if:book Australia. It was run by Elliott Bledsoe, a super-intelligent (and super-fun) copyright lawyer who gets to talk to people in all different industries about the way culture is shifting. Elliott also had an awesome Bowie shirt on later in the evening (obviously worth mentioning).
It was a fantastic experience. The audience were engaged and curious – many said they’d been wanting to use social media but just hadn’t really known how to go about it yet. What tools were out there, which tools would you use and why, what does it do for the business, exactly? I think our presence kind of revealed, too, the role blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc. were already playing in connecting books to readers. In creating community. Why shouldn’t bookstores be in on that? A lot was covered – who in the store might do it (or even a customer); why shouldn’t people use these tools and what shouldn’t you do if you do use them; how you can use existing channels; how these connections and conversations can create loyal customers, word of mouth, etc.; how having ‘personality’ online doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be ‘confessional’; and more.
Pictured: Richard Nash.
John McIntyre, from the Children’s Bookshop, in Wellington, NZ, said it was the most informative panel he’d seen in 20 years of conferences! Afterwards, all of us were verbally tackled by different people with different ideas and follow-up questions. The booksellers were enthused.
There had been three prior speakers on the day – all vaguely around the theme of connecting with and engaging customers. I’ll talk about Richard Nash last, because one should leave the best for last (BTW, here’s an interview I did with him in B+P). Just briefly, Gary Bertwistle was what I see as a more traditional kind of marketing guru – he was all about ‘branding’ the perception of your business into the minds of customers. At one stage there was a slide of a baby with tattooed logos all over it. *cringe*
Bertwistle had some good points about perception, but I disagreed with his general message. I think people are clever and skeptical, and will often buy products on recommendations from friends or trusted ‘authorities’ as opposed to going: ‘Woolworths says everywhere that they’re fresh, so that’s where I’ll shop for fresh food.’ He also said he looked at all the booksellers’ websites and that they had nothing to differentiate themselves from each other. I don’t think he looked very hard. A bookstore can’t be a cold, hard brand – bookstores remain in people’s minds because of the kind of culture, community and vibe they establish. I shop at Readings, for example, because the staff, and the reviews on the website, and the events, and their foundation, all show that this is a store for and run by people really interested in books. Same with Reader’s Feast. I chose my hairdresser because they were the cheapest on Acland Street but I keep going back because my hairdresser is lovely. And I’ve recommended her. I would have no idea what their ‘slogan’ is. Anyway, he mainly grated with me when he called authenticity a ‘global trend’.
I don’t think authenticity is a ‘trend’. How canyou connect, if everything is constructed, is surface, with a purely economic imperative behind it? And Richard Nash confirmed everything I thought about this. I’m actually writing up an article on his talk, which I’ll share here down the track, but very briefly, he talked about the problem with supply – that the process is stuck with a focus on ‘giving you something to put on your [bookstore] shelves’, where it should be ‘connecting writers and readers’. What’s the solution? Well, ‘algorithms don’t help with idiosyncratic, character-driven cultural artefacts’, Nash says. The data just doesn’t work – ‘you need humans’, like Oprah – a reader and a ‘human intermediary’. Reading is an ‘act of tremendous intimacy and commitment’ so for two people to share what they have read – this is a ‘tremendous commonality’ and thus, books can be ‘social glue’. He encouraged bookstores to dare to try, try and fail then fail better. And gave examples of booksellers finding ways to connect, ie. Northshire Bookstore (who have installed an espresso book machine), Boulder Bookstore (who not only do print-on-demand but have print and promotion deals also), Word Bookstore (who function partly as a bookish dating service through a bulletin board and singles evenings), and Changing Hands Bookstore (who have an in-store creative writing program).
Much later in the night, a few of us ‘connected’ over some wines. It was wonderful to see many familiar faces – my old bosses from Dymocks Coffs Harbour, Pam and Jon, (who now run the Brisbane store); the crew from Bookseller+Publisher; publishers; publicity folk; passionate booksellers. I particularly enjoyed meeting a few people whose online activities I’ve been following with interest, including Jon Page and Richard Nash – both intelligent, kind and passionate dudes. Nash did admit to me that he’s a ‘big softie’ and wears his heart on his sleeve. I’m so glad there’s at least one consultant/speaker out there who does that. Nash is traveling around a bit while he’s here in Aus, too, so do go and see him if you can.
Also, what have I been reading? Feel free to share your thoughts on these, too!
The Easter Parade – Richard Yates
Yates devastated me (again) in this tale of a woman’s life, specifically as tied to her sister. I felt sick and sad at the end – how a whole, sad, life can be contained, compressed into those pages. So many heartbreaking moments that have stayed with me. The characters never really stretch themselves for love, for people, or even for themselves. I loved it. Just as I loved the Collected Stories and Revolutionary Road.
Bereft– Chris Womersley (not out until September)
Absolutely wonderful. The best Australian book I’ve read for ages. I reviewed it for Bookseller+Publisher and I’ll share that review closer to the book’s release. HIGHLY recommended. I wanted to re-read it straight away, which is very rare for me. I remember it more like a film, than a novel, particularly the ending. So vivid. When I finished it, I just said. ‘Oh, cool…’
Darkwater– Georgia Blain
Blain is on two of my Byron Bay Writers Festival panels, next month. This is her YA mystery novel – set in ’70s Australia. A schoolgirl has been found dead and 15-year-old Winter wants to know what happened. I don’t read much YA but found this quite compelling. Easy to read, and a nice, consistent tone.
The Mary Smokes Boys – Patrick Holland
Holland is also on one of my panels. I reviewed this rich, literary character/s study for the Byron Bay Echo magazine, and I’ll post that here soon too. Here’s an extract: ‘I think about a book like Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, in terms of some of the setting and themes – friendship, violence, isolation and most definitely changes over time, and transience; combined with the insular, things-only-getting-worse, narrative of something like the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man; but with selective and beautifully rendered features of Australianness, like in Matthew Condon’s The Trout Opera – features which are contemporary, but… the novel as a whole feels old-fashioned.’
Bleed For Me –Michael Robotham
I don’t read a lot of crime fiction either, but this is one of the great things about chairing festival panels – you get introduced to new genres and authors. I’ve enjoyed Garry Disher (another Aussie crime writer) before and Robothom sure knows how to spin a yarn. Fantastic characters. I’m looking forward to asking him about his research, and about weaving a complex plot.
The Legacy– Kirsten Tranter
The book has a great, indulgent feel to it. Gorgeous details of rooms, houses, Sydney, New York. Overall I did feel a little detached from the characters, even the narrator and protagonist Julia. But there was plenty to enjoy. I know people adore this book – including quite a few of my Twitter followers. The novel is about three people who became close and then drifted apart, a triangle of unrequited love, and unanswered questions. Then something happens to the beautiful, enigmatic Ingrid. I was compelled to read on, and enjoy the scenery. Tranter is also on one of my Byron Bay panels.
Interviews + Profiles
Jul 7, 2010
Part one of this interview can be found here.
Tóibín has, to date, written or edited 21 books. I asked him which had been the most difficult to write, and which had been the most joyful. He said: ‘There’s a long story in the collection Mothers and Sons which I think is the best thing I’ve done, it’s called “A Long Winter”. And there’s a second story in that called “A Song”. “A Song” is probably only about six pages. And “A Long Winter” is probably 80 to 90 pages.’ The last time Tóibín was in Australia was when he wrote ‘A Song’. He would have a commitment, an interview like this one, ‘then I would go back upstairs, I would write another paragraph… it was on my mind so much and it came as though someone had opened a sluice gate and some water got out, and it kept coming out. And it was effortless, it was unbidden… I didn’t need it or want it, and I had an absolute compulsion to do it. And there it is.’ And ‘A Long Winter’ was possibly the hardest for Tóibín, as he ‘had to go back up into that landscape – the high Pyrenees in Spain, and really study it, trying to get all the details right. It was a very hard story. It also required an awful lot of work to make sure that it wasn’t tedious. Because it has all the ingredients of tedium.’
So does each story come in a different way? I asked. ‘Very much’ Tóibín nodded, ‘also in terms of how quickly it gets done or how lazy you get about it, how much you delay and don’t do it. All those sort of things.’ And Tóibín’s work has a lot of range, in terms of the setting. The story ‘The Night’ is set in Argentina. The novel The South is set in Spain. And then there’s The Master. But Tóibín said he thinks that’s now his territory, in those works. ‘There are a few recent stories that are set in New York, but they’re very much about outsiders in New York, Irish people in New York, people who don’t belong. I think that’s it now, I don’t think I’ll get any more places.’
In many interviews Tóibín does get asked about being an Irish writer, or a gay writer. I asked him how much he feels those aspects are integral to his work. ‘Well they’re fundamental, but then the page is not a mirror. So you don’t think about them.’ Tóibín said, in some ways, ie. if you’re a man or a woman, it has an effect on the way the world deals with you, but it isn’t as though it’s what you think of as you wake up in the morning. ‘It mightn’t effect how you deal with the page,’ he said, ‘if you’re writing a sentence.’ In a way it’s the writer’s job, according to Tóibín, ‘to get involved in areas of self-suppression and self-annihilation… whereby the page matters and you are the least burden on the page. But nonetheless, of course those things are important.’ I mention, for example, how Kafka’s context was important to the production of his work, it can’t be left out (writing in German in Prague, Jewishness) but knowing the context isn’t imperative to the reading of his work – it resonates through the internal states of his characters and the situations they navigate.
Of course, the writer has a life outside of literature – and literary influence. Art and music have both played a part in Tóibín’s creative life. He was an art critic for Esquire for three years, with a monthly column. You can find Tóibín speaking on Cezanne’s Route Tournante in the Guardian series ‘writers on artists’, here. Regarding art, ‘that business of looking very closely’, Tóibín said: ‘my eye has changed a lot in the last 20 years, so that I’m now terribly interested in a certain sort of minimalism. I’ve become fascinated by it. And there are a few painters especially – a Scottish painter called Callum Innes. There’s also Russian constructivist drawings, or even paintings, especially Mondrian. I mean, just the business of the line. And what the line can do.’
In terms of music, Tóibín was so pleased, when he got to Melbourne, to find the room had a CD player in it. ‘I’m coming from New York, New York to Auckland, so I had some CDs… I’ve been listening to Bach in the room, on my own CD. The radio is fine, even your iPod is fine, but it’s not the same as just putting on a CD.’ Tóibín listens to a lot of Bach, but no longer to any orchestral. ‘I can’t listen to Beethoven symphonies or Schubert symphonies but I listen to Beethoven chamber music and Schubert as well.’ He also listens to Irish ballads. But when writing – absolute silence is necessary.
Has writing changed for Tóibín at all, say, in the past ten years – with the internet, and the cult of the author? It sounds as though Tóibín steers clear of computers. He writes his books longhand, in an A4 size. And he thinks he was just getting started around the same time as the ‘cult of the author’. His first novel was published in 1990, ‘and I remember Ian McEwan said that when he published his first two books there was nowhere where authors were interviewed. And prose writers didn’t do readings. So you simply published your book and it was up to your publisher to market your book. But then somehow or other publishers got it into their head that a way of marketing a book was by the author.’ I wondered aloud at the authors who are naturally private or introverted, and how this part of the job (which is really quite contradictory to being in a room alone, writing) might affect them. As, I suppose, they have the right to just be their work. Tóibín agreed, to an extent. ‘You should havethe absolute right to become grumpy-boots, silent, difficult, combative.’ But it’s ‘become so normal’ to ‘do what your publisher used to do for you, which is sell your book.’
Tóibín really had the opposite problem, when he began: ‘when I published first, the book was published by such a small publisher in such a small way that everyone else was doing it except me. I watched what it’s like, if you’re on the other side of that, where your book and you are not at festivals, but everyone else is, and you’re certainly realising… no-one’s reading my book’. Tóibín never really recovered from that initial feeling of ‘oh wow, that’s a bandwagon actually I should get on’. If you’re not on it, he said, ‘you’re actually losing an awful lot, in that you’re not being read.’ Overall, Tóibín says, ‘I’m not sure it does any harm’. It’s part and parcel in the professional literary world, now. Tóibín also had the privilege, early on, of witnessing Irish writers who were ‘really superb readers of their own work’. Notably, Patrick McCabe and Anne Enright. ‘Therefore if you were on a platform with them, you were watching things they were doing with their voice and the audience – almost as actors, as performers. … you became much more skilled than you would have by being in that very good company’.
I felt very privileged to be in ColmTóibín’s informative and very pleasant company for an afternoon. Brooklyn is published in Australia by Picador.
Interviews + Profiles
Jul 4, 2010
Acclaimed Irish novelist Colm Tóibín was recently in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival as well as events in Melbourne, including one for the Wheeler Centre. I caught up with Tóibín at his Melbourne hotel to ask him some questions about writing and his latest novel Brooklyn, which I recently had the pleasure of reading.
Brooklyn is a quiet and moving novel, about Eilis Lacey, who has to opportunity to move from her small Irish town of Enniscorthy, to Brooklyn, New York, leaving behind her mother and glamorous older sister. The book charts her journey – her adjustment, her job, relations to others, and romantic interest, Tony. Eilis is a memorable character, partly because she is unremarkable. Tóibín said part of the source for her character was literary: ‘there were a number of characters from the nineteenth century who interested me in terms of how they were created, one being Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, who seems the one always left behind, and the one who no one really thinks anything of. And yet because the reader is asked to concentrate on her, because the story is told through her eyes, then her desires become quite detailed, and absorbing.’
The other, he mentioned, is Catherine Sloper, in Henry James’ Washington Square, whose father doesn’t even think anything of her: ‘she seems a sort of dull girl’, and yet, Tóibín said, when you realise ‘the extent of her feelings,’ the novel gets interesting. So, too, then, is Eilis the girl who is more inclined to observe, than to sally forth. And this is very interesting, Tóibín told me, ‘because it’s the creation of a certain sort of consciousness in fiction … this is the girl who really wants to stay at home and be left alone’. So Tóibín prefers to ‘put the pressure’ on a character like Eilis, as opposed to her more confident and outward sister, Rose. ‘Her sister can go out and do all the brave things, but that business of inwardness of the self, the self alone, the self registering experience, the self as a noticer – all those things become her.’
‘Fiction lends itself to the powerless,’ Tóibín said, ‘in funny ways, so that if you were writing a novel about Napoleon … you’d certainly put it in his years of failure. You know, you’d have him on the island alone. Similar with Henry James, you have him on the years when there’s nothing much going on.’ And this is what Tóibín did, with his novel The Master, which has Henry James as its main character. ‘Fiction doesn’t really deal with triumph,’ Tóibín said.
I told Tóibín that this reminded me of a documentary I’d seen about a bullfighter, whose brother had given up his life to basically go on the road with his big-name brother, and look after him. I was so intrigued by the brother, how he’d come to his decision, what he felt – much more so than the bullfighter, who was the film’s focus. The brother would be that character in a novel. Tóibín said: ‘Yeah, I think if you’re a novelist and you look at a news photograph, you can’t really deal with the people in the main body of the photograph, but the blurred figure is the one you can most bring into focus.’
So does character generally precede the story for Tóibín? And does it differ, depending on the work? Tóibín had the story for Brooklynfirst, so he had to ask ‘what sort of character would she be?’ And *spoiler alert* ‘it all centred on the idea that she would be afraid to tell them when she came home that she was married. So that would mean then that she had to be someone who was timid, because if she wasn’t … she’d write home and she’d be open about herself.’ So Eilis had to be rendered the way she was, to make the story as poignant as it is. In this case, the plot dictated the character, for Tóibín. *spoiler over*
Tóibín’s writing style is highly praised. The Spectator said, on Brooklyn: ‘the writing is so transparent, so apparently guileless, that I kept wondering what trickery Tóibín had used to keep me so involved, so attached, so unaccountably warmed’. Tóibín prefers to think of it as being like ‘drawing in pencil’, or ‘listening to chamber music rather than just trying to “keep it down”’ (he whispered this last bit). But does that kind of writing come naturally? Or does it evolve through years of writing practice. Tóibín thinks style ‘is a DNA’. ‘I mean you can’t really change your style,’ he said, ‘you can try and make sure you don’t go into violent self-parody, by being seen to be so minimalist that you couldn’t read it because you’d think “this is just, someone being minimalist”.’ What he’s trying to do, he said, is make sure the reader doesn’t notice the writing, ‘so that after a page you think “what was it that hit me there?” And you wouldn’t really know.’
Tóibín is interested in poetry. He’s been reading two particular poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn, since he was 18 or 19, and has been thinking about them a lot recently: ‘I think both of them are really figures who are able to exercise an exquisite restraint on their material, while getting from that a maximum amount of expression,’ he said. A recent (but important) interest and influence is the American poet Louise Gluck. As a teacher, Tóibín is able to choose texts he likes to put on the course, and recently this has been Samuel Beckett’s Company, which he loves for the ‘absolute precision of it’. He’s also enjoyed and been inspired by the Irish novelist John McGahern, and ‘everybody, really’ from the nineteenth century – and also Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I asked Tóibín about Kafka, one of my personal favourites, as I’d read somewhere he liked him too: ‘Kafka’s a huge liberation when you’re a teenager, just the fact that the world is a sort of meaninglessly hard place, and you never know what’s going to occur next.’
When Eilis, in Brooklyn, is getting to know Tony, the Italian, the warmth toward him, along with the fear and fascination, is beautifully portrayed. From the novel:
‘The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted”. He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else.’
Tóibín said: ‘I think that she’s somebody whose affections would be won very, very slowly. She would not fall head over heels in love. But she would slowly realise that the attachment she felt was very deep, but she’s quite cold in other ways, so she’s complicated in that sense. But the thing about Tony of course is that he amuses her so much. And also, he’s so one dimensional. It isn’t as if there’s a complex character that takes loads of getting to know. It’s the opposite – as soon as she meets him he’s exactly who he displays. That for her is very unusual. He keeps no secrets. He makes it absolutely clear what he wants. And he’s funny. And he’s charming. And she thinks, surely, there’s something wrong.’ So often when they meet, Eilis is trying to locate something, a layer, that isn’t there.
You realise, though, Tóibín said, through their interactions, and even without seeing the world through Tony’s eyes, that ‘she must be attractive. You never know that up to then. Up to then you think she might actually go unnoticed, but you realise in the way he deals with her that he really, really wants her.’
Part two of this interview can be found here.
Other People's Words
Jul 1, 2010
Sydney-based arts and culture journal Ampersand Magazine sits somewhere between literary journal, art glossy, and street mag. Eschewing cool irony, it explores notions of humanity and societal change through rare, unorthodox topics with a historical or technological bent. The publisher, Ampersand, is now the local distributor of niche artistic and literary journals like New York’s Cabinet Magazine and San Francisco’s The Believer, which exert a clear influence on the journal’s style.
Janus Faces, the second and most recent issue, is tiny – postcard sized, with a pretty vintage-style cover depicting its theme: Janus, the Roman god of bridges and doors. Janus was often used to represent the changing from one state into another: past to future, coming of age, changing visions and universes. The theme is explored in creative and unpredictable ways, from found photographs, to self-written eulogies, erotic fiction, non-fiction pieces on the philosophy of fishing, whip cracking, the apocalypse and more. Serious subject matter is interspersed with attempted comic relief – time travel advertisements, fictional letters to the editor and love letters from time travelers. Unfortunately, these were a bit unfunny – their obscurity made them feel like in-jokes.
Yet a spirit of genuine intellectual enquiry underpins many of the pieces, such as academic Suzannah Biernoff’s analysis of a former surgeon’s drawings of the disfigured faces of wounded WWI servicemen. She attempts to explain why we feel shame when we gaze upon the maimed or disfigured. The portraits themselves are reproduced here – carefully, meticulously, almost intimately rendered – and Biernoff wonders whether they had a therapeutic impact on patients.
Journalist Lisa Pryor‘s travel essay offers a fresh perspective on that long fraught issue, immigration. Her trip begins as ‘The Sarcastic Bitch Tour of America, a journey to the heart of cliché’. Visiting the US-Mexican border forces her to rethink its greatest cliché – insularity. Half a million undocumented migrants are estimated to cross this border annually, compared to around 1000 asylum seekers received by Australia. It is we who are insulated from the global poor, Pryor points out, gently questioning any moral superiority we might feel we have, in this respect.
What happens when we act out our pain, simply to have it recognised by others, and thus alleviate our loneliness? Jazz Andrews’ simply told, affecting story about taking his clothes off in a supermarket is an attempt to answer that question. It’s unclear whether the story itself is fiction or non-fiction; if the character is mentally ill or simply fulfilling a dramatic fantasy. Either way, it’s intriguing.
Christos Tsiolkas’ review of the documentary Bastardy pays homage to the generous, indomitable spirit of its subject, Aboriginal actor Jack Charles, whom he says offers a possibility beyond despair for black-white relations. Because Tsiolkas is so insightful, and because we know he’s no romantic, we trust his glowing review.
Editor Alice Gage’s interview with costume designer and Fitzroy stalwart Rose Chong provides insight into the Pram Factory, a radical Melbourne theatre that became a hub of creative life in the seventies. The dynamics between Gage and Chong are laid open, revealing their similarity. Despite age differences, both somehow represent the counter-culture vibe of Fitzroy, with its uneasy combination of creative hedonism and adamant asceticism.
The journal is accompanied by a DVD performance of ‘Yelling at Stars’, the keynote address at Melbourne’s 2008 Next Wave Festival. It’s a message transmitted into outer space from the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl. Writer/director Willoh S. Weiland stands in a canoe talking about simple, human things: a girl’s first love, a boy she knew that died, her relationship with her mum. There’s something touching about her honest attempt to come to terms with the world; its earnest, cosmic focus offering a welcome pause from the irony, cleverness, and information we’re constantly bombarded with.
The visual art (sketches, collage, design, painting, photographs) and poems failed to make an impression on me, the exception being Eric Kessels’ found photographs: images of a Dutch woman taken in a shooting booth in nearly identical poses between 1936 and 2008. Ampersand’s media kit markets the journal as a ‘world unto itself’ and ‘an elusive audience to all but those within it’, but at times it’s a bit too elusive.
It took Alice Gage almost a year to produce this issue, and she solicited many of the contributions herself. Her hard work is apparent. Even though some of it falls flat, there’s some really exciting, surprising writing in Ampersand Magazine. It should be devoured by readers hungry for something new.
Raili Simojoki is a freelance Melbourne-based writer. You can read some more of her work here.