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Allen & Unwin, 9781742374161, 2011
(Aus paperback, ebook + US/Kindle)

Bright and Distant Shores is hugely imaginative historical fiction. It’s set just before the dawn of the 20th century in Chicago and the South Pacific. Owen Graves is sent by Hale Gray, the president of Chicago First Equitable, to collect some ‘special items’ to display on top of the tallest building in the city. Graves is dubious about the morals of the expedition but wants the money so he can finally marry his girlfriend, Adelaide. In Melanesia, a mission houseboy called Argus loses his master, but not his faith. He seeks out his sister and they are soon promised new prospects by the man on a ship from Chicago… This book travelled with me around the globe recently. Back at home I got in touch with its Australian-American author, Dominic Smith.

AM: I was swept up in every element of this vast story – the tensions at sea, Owen and Adelaide’s relationship, Argus caught between worlds, the skyscraper sliding into the ground – and I wondered, was it difficult having so many balls in the air while writing? You draw them all together seamlessly and somehow keep the pace steady throughout.

DS: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled along! Writing this novel was sometimes akin to running between spinning plates, giving them each another nudge as I darted by. I was conscious from the beginning of the scope of the novel and thought about ways to handle all the moving pieces. Some of my favourite literature includes sprawling narratives and plots with many moving parts. I think of Dickens and George Eliot especially… I feel like one of the things I tried to do was to keep the plates spinning. So that meant even when we are at sea it’s worth taking a dramatic pause in the nautical action to check back in with the Chicago characters. It builds more tension – in both the Chicago and Pacific narratives – and allows the narrative to skip through passages of time. It increases the pace. I also tried to create some friction between the interweaving narratives, so that the ideas and predicaments of one storyline might echo with the storyline that is juxtaposed next to it.

It’s set in a fascinating time-period, when all the islands had already been somewhat ‘infected’ by ships of explorers, collectors, naturalists and missionaries and would never be the same again. What was it about this era that drew you in?

The 1890s was a fascinating period for both Chicago and the Pacific. When I was doing research for the novel I was shocked to discover the widespread fear among collectors of the late-19th century that ‘the bathtub had already been drained.’ There was a feeling that it was easier to get good curios in London or New York than in the Pacific islands. That surprised me. So you saw a huge collecting impetus by many museums and private collectors as the new century dawned. They were trying to get the last of the loot. So by 1900 the Pacific was already awash with European white culture; islanders were more likely to want Winchesters, ammunition, and cigarettes, than beads, glass, and ironwork. This is also a time of missionary zeal, when the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics are divvying up the Pacific, sometimes along tribal boundaries. Meanwhile, in Chicago, you have a dozen or so business tycoons who make millions from meatpacking and railways and insurance. They pour much of it into building cultural institutions – libraries, symphonies, museums. Marshall Field, of department store fame, donated $1 million to set up a museum in his name. There was a widespread interest in the exotic and ethnographic after the World’s Fair of 1893. So I was fascinated by how the tribal Pacific and commercial America could intersect in ways that were both strange and compelling. The 1890s, for me, is a crazy mash-up of conflicted ideas and visions.

You capture that mash-up very well! Some of the characters are ‘in between’ the two worlds (the West and the Pacific life), none more so really than Argus. He’s also caught, in a way, between loyalty to Malini, his sister, and to Owen; and between his past and his faith. His character is representative of some of the strongest themes running through the novel, but he’s very empathetic, three dimensional. Could you talk a bit about creating him?

I struggled with Argus and with my own misgivings about trying to represent someone with a tribal background. In the end, I gave myself license to explore his psychology. One of the things that made that easier was to make him a character who is caught between two worlds, between the Euro-Christian way of seeing things and the Melanesian tribal way of seeing things. He – like the writer – feels pulled between these opposite poles. So in some ways I gave Argus my own misgivings; he has to chart those waters on the writer’s behalf. Characters who have inner conflict are dramatically interesting, I think. Argus has a kind of visceral connection to faith; it’s in his blood. He’s also ambitious and wants to explore the world he’s read about at the mission.  So those forces of curiosity, doubt, faith, and ambition ground his character. They pull him into the future but not without uncertainty. That is perhaps one source of empathy for him as a character.

You play with issues of class through the character of Adelaide, and through her relationship with Owen. They are both strong characters: determined, charitable, hard-working. Can you tell us a bit about shaping their relationship? Of course the distance between them does also add great tension to the narrative.

In some ways Adelaide (and Malini) are the moral core to the novel. Argus and Owen are filled with ambition, but they’re also capable of a certain kind of ruthlessness. With the relationship between Owen and Adelaide I was interested in exploring class and privilege, in addition to a love story that would seem of the period and compelling for contemporary readers. Adelaide comes from money but throws herself into charity. Owen comes from poverty and on some level thinks charity is a rich person’s enterprise. So when the voyage comes up – the prospect of bringing back natives to Chicago so that Owen can receive a windfall – there is a real divide wedged into the romance. Owen struggles to reconcile the morality of the Pacific trading scheme with the pragmatic need for money. He slightly resents what he imagines Adelaide – with her blue-blooded philanthropic ways – will think of this equation. I think these are the kinds of issues people deal with in relationships every day. How does one person’s actions reflect on the other? Relationships are evolving narratives and we sometimes want our partners/spouses to add coherence to the story we’re trying to tell the world. So in addition to their obvious admiration for each other, they struggle with how to integrate their pasts. Until Adelaide, Owen has never ordered a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Were classic adventure novels an influence? I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels, and thought perhaps your book has a subtle element of social commentary to it as well? Ambition and wonder are present in your novel – as you’ve mentioned – and on some scale are seen as unrewarding and even destructive. I keep thinking about the ambitious insurance firm building sliding down into the earth…

I certainly thought of Treasure Island and Moby Dick when writing this novel, but also more recent novels, like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. These latter novels showed me it was possible to render a seafaring story in an interesting, nuanced way, while still having fun with the tropes that come with sea voyaging and lore. There is social commentary in Bright and Distant Shores, though I think I’m more interested in paradox than a set of thematic statements. Ambition and wonder abounded in the 1890s, but so did naivete and exploitation. The early insurance companies saw their enterprise as somehow noble and they were paternalistic towards their employees. They had this idea of their clerks never needing to leave the skyscraper – they could get haircuts and eat in the cafeteria and take night school all under one roof. The insurance towers eclipsed the church spire as the tallest point in the city and the tower was seen as a kind of totem, but also a beacon of hope for the populace, with its clock tower a suggestion of life ticking away. This is obviously capitalism on a grand scale, with the delusion of benevolence for an under-insured populace. Corporations often think they have enlightened interests when in fact it’s really about selling insurance or widgets.

Not only is Bright and Distant Shores a ‘ripping’ tale, the writing is delightful. I found myself gasping at certain turns of phrase. And yet it never obstructs the story, it is not showy – just beautiful. Some of the descriptions: ‘spandrels of moonlight’, ‘a crapulous German clipper captain’, and the ‘fusty nooks and fetid warrens below deck’. It makes it such a pleasure to read. How much time do you spend with the book on a sentence level? Does that all come in final drafts, or do you craft the language carefully as you go?

Thanks for those nice comments. I do think a lot about language – it’s what draws me to reading fiction in the first place. I used to write skeletal drafts of things with very little attention to language, and then I would go back and polish things. Now I seem to write very slow and deliberate first drafts. It’s a gamble, because you may end up throwing out much of what you write in a first draft. But I seem to like feeling that a sentence does its job, that it’s more than a place holder, before I move on. I really try to work at the sentence level as I go.

You grew up in Australia but live in the US and have published over there. This is your first novel published through and Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin. How does it feel? Can you tell us a bit about your other works?

It has been very gratifying to publish a novel in Australia and I’m thrilled to have had it shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year and the Vance Palmer Prize. That means a lot to me; it’s a kind of sweet homecoming present. Allen & Unwin have been incredibly attentive. I was back in Australia for a month in June with my family and it was such a treat to share places and memories with them. My first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a historical novel that re-imagined the life of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype who supposedly suffered from mercury poisoning. The second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was a contemporary story and focused on the average son of a genius. It’s a story about a boy who is 15% above average in everything he does. His father, a renowned physicist, is convinced that the son harbors some greatness and desperately tries to uncover it.

Thank you so much, Dominic.

More details about Dominic Smith’s books can be found on his website.

By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham, HarperCollins (Aus pb, Aus ebook, US and Kindle, UK)

Over the past few days I’ve been in the audience of four sessions featuring my favourite American author Michael Cunningham. Cunningham’s latest novel is By Nightfall. I’ve drafted a few posts on it since I read it, but was never able to adequately capture what he does. Now I can mix my words up with his own and hopefully provide some picture of the work, and of Cunningham himself.

How to write about an author who provokes in the reader the very surges and distances he skilfully writes of? Those flips between detachment and passion? In By Nightfall, Cunningham is writing about art, youth, maleness, beauty; and he is simultaneously making art. For me By Nightfall was not The Hours (a book so close to my heart) or Specimen Days, but I appreciated its focus. Where those two novels spanned eras and sets of characters (though still thematically focused), here Cunningham gets intimate with Peter Harris, a middle-aged, middle-class gallery owner in New York. And so explores the complexity of an individual life.

Peter has been married for many years to Rebecca. Their daughter has flown the nest and distanced herself emotionally and physically from her parents. They enjoy martinis in the afternoon and they attend parties for the sake of attending parties. In the opening scenes they are on their way to one of these parties, and the detail around their almost-fight reminds me of the intricate observations in Richard Yates’ writing. Peter is distracted by what appears to be an older man in a car full of youths, Peter is still surprised by things about his wife (and will continue to be throughout the narrative, despite the fact he convinces himself there isn’t really much more to know). Cunningham said that he was writing about a particular kind of curse that exists, with Peter and Rebecca – a ‘good enough’ marriage. In his novels, Cunningham likes the number three – three characters, three eras, etc. ‘I’m all about three,’ he said.

And so the third element in By Nightfall is Rebecca’s younger brother, Mizzy (short for ‘the mistake’). He’s coming to stay and Peter has mixed feelings about it. When Mizzy arrives he is many things, but one of them is a catalyst for Peter to turn inward – to think about youth (nascence is Cunningham’s favourite word in the novel), art, tragedy and beauty. ‘Peter wants his life to explode, to dismantle itself’, said Cunningham. Related to the ‘dismantling’ come thoughts of his daughter, of his wife as a young woman, of his brother who died of AIDS when he was in his early twenties. The semi-eroticised pull he has toward young Mizzy (and he analyses the nature of it intensely throughout the novel) is related to these other people in his life – and is related to where he is in his life and the things that he isn’t. He isn’t, for example, a dramatic or tragic figure – and there is some envy in that.

Peter loves art, he is drawn to it, but his life is not a work of art, and this is something he is becoming aware of. It was also important for Cunningham to make Peter heterosexual. The erotic pull, as mentioned, is complex – associated with nostalgia, envy and other kinds of longing. Death in Venice was an influence, one of Cunningham’s favourite books – ‘the definitive work on human longing’. ‘Most of us are gawping at something,’ Cunningham said in Sydney. And whatever we identify as, ‘we’re incredibly erotically complex.’ One individual’s sexuality isn’t anything like anybody else’s, there’s ‘erotic individuality’, and writers exist ‘to complicate the world’, he said.

Peter is a gallery owner, as mentioned, and is in crisis over his definitions of art and beauty. I saw Cunningham on a panel with Betty Churcher (chaired by Rowena Danziger), entitled ‘The Pursuit of Beauty’. He spoke about his disdain for contemporary art and its incessant irony. He wanted to write about a man who was ready to dismantle his life in pursuit of an annihilating beauty. Art is a fixation of Cunningham’s, and all his novels have arisen from a fixation of his (such as Virginia Woolf, with The Hours). He actually started out training as an artist. ‘The impulse to create, to produce something beautiful and lasting has been with me a very long time.’ But with visual art he found he lacked some capacity and focus (to develop his talent). It was upsetting to him, but then the idea of creating ‘something like life’ with just words and ink and paper ‘held a bottomless fascination’ for him. He still paints, takes photos, just for pleasure. As his writing has become more recognised he’s felt an increasing need to ‘make things that are not for sale’. He’s even learnt silversmithing. He finds something ‘vital’ in creating something just for himself.

Churcher and Cunningham both praised Duchamp, and touched on Warhol. Churcher spoke about the work of art being what takes place between the artwork and the viewer. A hat rack by the wall is a hat rack, a hat rack on the roof can be a work of art – it’s a matter of perception. If you don’t get it, it’s not a work of art for you, said Churcher. (And all this is riffing on Duchamp’s philosophies.) Churcher said Duchamp was the most influential artist of the 20th Century and Cunningham agreed. When he agrees with something wholeheartedly, he does this face, which I call his ‘exquisite’ face. It’s like a pulling-in of all his features, as if to say oh, yes. Exquisite. It’s like the bottom part of a nod, held and exaggerated.

Cunningham explained his disdain for contemporary art a little more. ‘I see a lot of art in New York City. Okay, I get it. I think I get it… and yet I find myself wondering – where’s the transcendence? Where’s the consolation? Where’s the sense of accompaniment?’ And when he said that, it made me realise how successful he is as a novelist, as an artist. Because those intentions are realised in his work. He said that earnestness is ‘out’ and art is wry, ‘snarky’. ‘I keep thinking that we who care about art are not doing too well on our beauty-free diet’.

Both spoke about art as a commodity, acknowledged that it always has been, but spoke about a certain parallel now with the art world and consumer and celebrity culture. That people would buy art because they ‘should’ have it, not because they love it. This, too, has always existed, but they both agreed that it’s now more pervasive. All Cunningham wants is for an artwork to ‘drive an icepick through my heart’, or turn his head 360 degrees. There is a character in By Nightfall – an art collector – who truly does love art for art’s sake. And this was important to Cunningham, to avoid stereotyping, to ensure all the characters were at some level able to be empathised with. A novel is an ‘engine of empathy’, he said. He’s fascinated by the fact that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. As a novelist you try and express the fact that ‘no one is insignificant and everyone makes sense of themselves,’ and also, ‘everyone is visiting the novel from a novel of their own’. In this way, novels are also inherently political (if they achieve this). Because ‘fiction is the best-known way of producing empathy’ – it shows the reader what it’s like to live as someone else, gives an intimate portrait of the ‘beingness’ of another. Doesn’t that then train you to be more considerate of the multitudinous complexities, the histories, of others?

But Cunningham has been politically active in real life. It was a big ‘slap in the face’ for him and his friends in the ’80s to learn that Reagan and Bush Snr didn’t care about the ‘kind of people’ who contracted and were suffering from AIDS. Certain pharmaceutical companies, too, were withholding information and drugs, and Cunningham was part of the Act Now movement. He was part of a group who disrupted the New York stock exchange, and they were arrested. The epidemic and its aftermath (and of course, it has not gone away) makes its way into his novels, because he is a writer that is interested in reflecting the time that we live in. He does not, however, think a novelist, or an artist is obliged to write about the issues of their time. They are only obliged ‘to write the best damn novel [they] absolutely can’.

For Cunningham – and this is one reason I think his novels affect me so – beauty is threaded with a certain element of mortality. He spoke about when he met his partner, 25 years ago, and how that profound love was entwined with a certain ‘horror’. One, because there was ‘no big romantic surprise still to come’, and two – you’re confronted with your combined mortality. A sense of mortality is ‘threaded through’ the love. And this is also what he’s pursuing in great art: ‘you have to be a little bit fearful’.

Cunningham is so skilled, in his work, at drawing the distances between people – the way that bodies and hearts can be aligned in moments, while minds are on different planes. How rare it is to truly know the motivations of another, the dreams of another. By Nightfall is viewed through Peter’s lens, but the reader can see that even Peter doesn’t know or remember what his wife is like, who his daughter is and where, exactly, he went wrong with her. And not just that – but there are moments when he is surprised by the way other people describe and think of him. He is distant from his own self-in-the-world. It is a study in complexity – and in capturing it, the dark and the light and the attempts to grasp the transient, rare moments of passion (which one still might see as meaning something different later on).

On his own art, Cunningham is oft quoted as saying his idea for a novel exists as a ‘cathedral of light and fire’ in a bubble above his head. The finished book is just that – a book, an object. (And there’s a part in The Hours where Clarissa goes into a bookshop and observes just this – that books are inseparable from the world of objects.) However – this is part of what makes art interesting, that gap between intention and achievement is one of the ‘animating concepts’ of art. It’s interesting because of ‘what it says about human limitations’, he said. He also said, ‘if you’re not trying to do more than what you’re capable of doing, then go away’. The effort and the intention create meaning.

By Nightfall is a book of secrets. A moment of secret pleasure in the thought of mortality, gruesomeness. The quick rage Peter feels in a moment at the party (which you feel in the writing, too) and keeps to himself. Feeling that drug users are ‘romantic, goddamn them’. Thoughts on the sexual self. One of my favourite lines in the novel is: ‘What could be more mortifyingly personal, what veers closer to the depths, than whatever it is that makes us come? If we knew, if we could see what’s in the cartoon balloons over other guys’ heads as they jerk off, would we be moved, or repelled?’ Peter wonders, with mixed-emotions, where the visionaries have gone in a practical, commericialised era of art. There are thoughts on the forbidden, on dirt, on anything but normal normal normal. After psychoanalysing himself Peter says: ‘All this is useful information. Now what?’ This all makes more sense after hearing Cunningham talk about the novel. Peter plays out some of the author’s conflicts (over art, beauty), but he is also a product of them. The character himself is someone who has kind of failed in terms of effort, passion, intention. It was essential to Cunningham that Peter be a 2nd-tier dealer, someone with an immediate ‘feeling of doubt’. He likes writing about people who are not at the top of their field, who are not winners. An early (and continual) influence are the modernists, ie. Joyce and Woolf. As a teenage boy it made him delirious, the idea of the ‘epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives’, the idea that you could ‘bore in like that’ to some ‘subatomic level’ of the everyday.

Peter, in By Nightfall, is struggling between the thought and the act (of art). People are moved by art and then they go on with their lives. How often are they compelled to become art? Do they ever feel they should? Should they? It reminds me of the character of Laura Brown in The Hours. Reading Virginia Woolf is one of the things that makes her decide she must act. That, in fact, she will die if she does not. Peter’s struggle is a more contemporary one. Look at all the choices he potentially has. But Peter’s disposition means (and this shouldn’t give it away but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it) Peter chooses art. He chooses the challenge. The struggle. Cunningham also said he wanted to write about the ‘friendless man’, a type of person he meets who is fascinating and mysterious to him. He wanted Peter to be introspective and complicated (he succeeds). As mentioned, Peter is rhetorically engaged, throughout the book. This was partly about his character, but also partly about rhythm. Language is about meaning, Cunningham said, ‘but also about music’. The Hours was a Schubert sonata, A Home at the End of the World was rock ’n’ roll. By Nightfall was Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Lou Reed. (Side note: he’s met Lou Reed. ‘I fainted, of course’, he laughed.) He teaches creative writing to some lucky mofos in the US. In teaching, his aim is to ‘bring out the voice’. Basically, he suggests things for them to read. When he studied creative writing years ago a teacher told him to mark up a piece with ‘A’ for the best sentences and ‘B’ for the okay ones. Then she make him take out all the As. He learnt that there’s a difference between telling the story and ‘advertising your sensitivity and craftmanship’. This has always stayed with him.

So who does he write for? He writes for Helen. Let me explain. When he was starting out as a writer, he worked in a restaurant in Laguna Beach – the Boom Boom Room, wearing a grass skirt. Helen worked in the restaurant, had been left by her husband, had four ‘criminal’ children, a bunch of debts and also another job. And she was a voracious reader. The reading hour, at the end of everything, was the ‘jewel’ of Helen’s day. She was reading some crime and mystery stories and Cunningham suggested Dostoevsky. Helen read it, she liked it. ‘He’s a lot better than Ken Follett,’ she told him (Cunningham paused for effect here) and then she said: ‘…but not as good as Scott Turow.’ And this idea that Helen would pick up any book, with no sense of pedigree, was thrilling to Cunningham. He decided that maybe it would be more interesting for him ‘to try and write a book for Helen’. Something with depth, with content – but satisfying for her after those incredibly long days. Now he writes with about five specific friends in mind, as ‘gifts’ for them, and that kind of focus aids his process.

In Melbourne he spoke a little more about his process. He walks about 20 minutes to his studio in the mornings, puts on some music to ‘set the molecules in the air going’. Then he sits down to write for at least four hours, six on a good day. He writes daily so as to ‘create and sustain and convince [himself] of a kind of parallel reality’. He is ‘enormously disciplined’, but he leaves his work at the studio and is fully present in the rest of his life: his emails in the afternoon, hanging out with his partner at night. As a young writer it was harder for him to switch off – but he doesn’t want to see the world continually through a lens, of everything being potential ‘material’.

When he submitted The Hours to his editor, they said ‘you know we’re gonna lose all our money on this’. No one had even the remotest idea that it would do as well as it has, would reach so many people. Cunningham’s advice, from this, was: ‘you might as well do what you want to do, because you can’t know.’ The new novel that he’s working on, of which we were treated to an extract at The Big Reading at SWF (Cunningham loved being a part of the reading, with authors he ‘bows down to’, like David Mitchell) is in some ways a ‘companion piece to By Nightfall’ as it looks at a very different body of people who don’t have the money and advantages of the people in BN. He wonders about the search for beauty and transference in those people.

Cunningham has worked on screenplays, too, and he loves film. Writing for film is a wonderful experience as it’s so collaborative, he said. He is not precious about his books being made into films – it’s just an extension of the work, of the process. ‘It’s not the fingernail of a saint’, he said, regarding the book, and you ‘spend your life learning how to write a novel and die trying to make a novel, so… it’s not sacrosanct.’ His favourite book is always his most recent book, and in Melbourne last night it was mentioned that he’s just signed a contract with HBO – not sure if it was for By Nightfall, or something else. I’m looking forward to finding out.

He spoke, too, about endings. And that’s probably a good point to end on. What he tries to do with his novels is end on an ‘expected surprise’, so the reader doesn’t necessarily see it coming, but they can go back through and identify the clues. They don’t see it coming but they think ‘of course it should end like that.’ He often doesn’t know what the ending is going to be. Planning too much feels mechanical, to him. He has to let himself go – pull things up from the magma. ‘That sort of intuitive thing, that permits you to be more insightful than you really are, that allows you to smell things that aren’t really there, only exists if you allow that [non-mechanical exploration] to happen’. How lucky we are, that Michael Cunningham is so successful at pulling those things from the magma, and shaping them into satisfying, complex novels, like By Nightfall.

Thanks so much to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

Vintage, 9780099535379
(Aus, UK, US)

Reviewed by Alice Grundy

The cover of Adam Ross’ first novel, Mr Peanut, is swathed in praise from no lesser lights than Stephen King and Michiko Kakutani. The title page features a reproduction of Escher’s ‘Mobius’ flagging the role of the double in the plot. All the signs point towards a serious literary work. One which is dark and twisted.

And Mr Peanut is indeed a disturbing book, opening as it does with a husband – who happens to share my husband’s name – plotting to kill his wife, who happens to share my name. David is a successful games designer, working secretly away on a first-person novel. He’s become tired of his life and is struggling in his relationship with his obese wife. Barely 20 pages in, David is sitting in an interrogation room, the detectives having concluded he’s killed Alice. Not least of their evidence is David’s novel in which the protagonist, David, hires a hitman to murder his wife, Alice.

To further complicate matters, David’s questioner is Sam Sheppard, a fictionalised version of the 20th century American doctor who was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, but was then acquitted after ten years in prison. In Mr Peanut, Sheppard has turned detective and judges David to be ‘Guilty, guilty as sin’.

The middle section of Mr Peanut takes place in 1950s America. It retells the Sam Sheppard story from the perspectives of Marilyn, the murdered wife, Richard, the cleaner and Sheppard himself. Ross’ imagining of this time vibrates with as much energy as the contemporary sections, with added tension generated by our modern imaginings of what kind of life Marilyn could have expected if she’d been born as a bright middle-class woman fifty years later. His characters are people we know; their internal lives are fully formed. Each of them is at the centre of their own universe.  The exception to this is Alice who always feels a little under-realised. But perhaps this is intentional given this is a book about marriage, its overwhelming intimacies and irrevocable distances. It seems Alice remains something of a shell because David is never quite able to comprehend all of her.

The novel spirals in on itself, winding tight like a slinky as the final third returns us to David’s meta-fictional project; his novel, and Alice’s remarkable transformation shedding tens of kilos and the days which lead up to her death.

While the plot is twisty and the devices self-proclaiming, I prefer to read an exciting project – a suggestion for the future of the novel – as Ross offers here. For the first time in a while, reading this debut novel made me feel as if I’d struck on something new. Last year, with the release of Franzen’s Freedom and the associated media frenzy over dark-rimmed glasses and Oprah’s Book Club, I was feeling flat about the future of fiction. Certainly Franzen is a master of his craft but I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading him. I didn’t fly through the pages and wish that I could read them again for the first time to feel that shiver of wordy delight. When the world feels as if it’s collapsing, reading needs to feel essential.

At times it does seem as though Ross’ devices are overtaking their characters or that, at other moments, the plot has been over-exposed – perhaps for fear of losing readers in the complexity – and so the images become washed out. But for the most part this is a genuinely scintillating read. It is not only intellectually stimulating but has that special quality, the reason why we still reach out for greatness, of making time seem irrelevant and the world fall away.  

Alice Grundy lives in Sydney and works in publishing by day. By night she edits a magazine for new writing, Seizure, which is launching in June 2011.

Scribe Publications, February 2011 (Aus, US, UK)

Reviewed by Matthia Dempsey

Laura van den Berg has particular skill in capturing the strangeness that can come at times—the sense of being a stranger to your own life and the world. For many of the women in her stories this feeling is the result of a specific grief, but it also confronts characters who cannot point to an easily identified cause.

In ‘Up High in the Air’ a woman who finds herself being unfaithful to her husband and ‘taking her life apart piece by piece’ captures this strangeness when she describes her ideas about what to do next as being ‘at once intensely possible and as intangible as fog’. In ‘Still Life With Poppies’ a woman whose husband has left her and disappeared struggles to adjust: ‘Her marriage ending was not a shock. It was the spectacular strangeness of it that had left her staggering. She had been an ordinary person with an uneven marriage and a good job and the occasional adventure, unprepared for this life of peculiar and slippery grief.’

Van den Berg’s protagonists are women who have found themselves in lives they don’t want and in cities or countries they don’t belong, from Scotland to France, the Congo and Madagascar. Some have left a former existence willingly and others have had new cities, countries and responsibilities bequeathed them by circumstances such as death, separation or the will of another. Some know exactly how they ended up where they are, others try painfully to puzzle it out.

Peculiar and slippery grief is everywhere here. In the opening story a would-be actress jokes about channelling personal pain into her performances. ‘Only it turned out that nobody wanted to see real suffering, that no director or casting agent wanted the kind of pain that would, even for an instant, make anyone want to turn away.’ Van den Berg’s sights are fixed firmly on this kind of pain. In ‘Goodbye My Loveds’, a young woman who has taken on the care of her younger brother after the death of their parents wants to tell someone how ‘sometimes it felt like we were the only people out there with losses so raw and gaping’, but senses the woman she is talking to will not want to hear it.

The story brings us close to heartbreak, not because of the young woman’s grief, but because her experience is that universal one of responsibility versus freedom, writ large: ‘It still came on every now and then when I watched Denver toss in his sleep or stare too long at his map of South America—nothing more than a shudder of strange, liquid energy, but sometimes I had to stand outside the apartment until it passed, the air sweeping into me like some kind of cleansing light, pushing out thoughts about voices and solitude and the possibility of living a different kind of life’.

In this, my favourite story, and in others, van den Berg acknowledges not just the way grief can change a person, but ‘the way one life can collapse into another and different people can stir within the same body, like bats thrashing inside a secret hollow’.

Read in one sitting, the narratives in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us can blend together. Themes overlap and images echo across stories. A character in the opening tale dreams of a time when the world was nothing but water, and in the closing story a woman gives her daughter a postcard with the eponymous description of the world without any water left. Husbands and partners in these narratives are dead, missing, have left or been left.

Mythical creatures recur too, from the aspiring actress who dresses up as Big Foot and scares hikers who have paid for the privilege; to the narrator of ‘The Rain Season’ who watches locals in the Congo draw pictures of the fearful Mokole-mbembe in the dirt; in ‘Up High in the Air’ the narrator’s husband becomes obsessed with the fabled mishegenabeg of Lake Michigan; and in ‘Inverness’ a group of scientists search for the Loch Ness Monster. The search for mythical and not-so-mythical creatures—scientific adventure is a recurring thread too—provides a sense of purpose for many of the secondary characters in these stories, but the women themselves are usually at a painful loss for anything more than survival to give their lives direction.

Early in the book a character says she feels as if there is ‘no room for anything except staying above the tide’ and the phrase seems to apply to each of these women; for tales so packed with myth and exoticism, there is little sense of wonder. It’s not that these women aren’t searching for precisely that, and in some stories there are flashes—the thrill of a watching a meteor shower, delight in watching a tropical fish, bought on impulse—it’s just that through grief or, it sometimes seems, an inability to look in the right places, these moments of wonder are few. Instead, in personal relationships we hear ‘the truth’ about ex-husbands’ irritating qualities, but little about what made them loved in the beginning. In exotic locations we frequently find the mundane. In the end, it makes for bleak reading.

The modern world can be this strange and stark, where endless freedom of choice still runs up against a reality in which people die, people leave, wars break out. Van den Berg captures that disconnect: her women are surviving the big tragedies of their lives while second-guessing the steps along the way, trying to work out where they’ve taken the wrong path, with a sense that if they could just stop a moment they could work out how to get back on track.

This is where the strangeness comes from—the gap between a life where an endless ability to choose gives the illusion of control, and a concurrent life in which the big events are uncontrollable. How to find meaning? Van den Berg gets this messy struggle onto the page. The result is a collection of stories where ‘strangeness is everywhere and everything makes you tired in the end’.

Matthia Dempsey is a writer, reviewer and editor of Bookseller+Publisher Online and the book blog Fancy Goods.

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

‘A great many people give me the impression of never having for a moment felt anything’ – Isabel Archer, The Portrait of a Lady.

Why did I want to read it?

Well, first of all, Henry James is one of the ‘great’ novelists and I have never read anything by him. I was also interested in reading it as Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy is based on Portrait. Kirsten and I have another panel together at Perth Writers Festival in March.

When was it published?

It was first published (as a serial) in 1881, and a revised edition was published in 1908. My edition is from the Vintage Classics range. All Vintage Classics (with their gorgeous covers) are now only $12.95. Overseas readers, check out Amazon and Kindle editions (+ UK).

What’s it about?

Isabel Archer comes from America to England to stay with her aunt, uncle and cousin. From the outset she is painted as someone with a hunger for knowledge and experience, who would be unwilling to sacrifice her independence for marriage or anything else. She has a preference for solitude, is very self-aware and in many ways ‘modern’ and she has a complex nature which admires both those who are outspoken and vivid, and those who are respectful, ‘decent’ and quiet. Two-hundred pages into the novel, there is a large shift in her situation. It seems as though she will be much freer to pursue her ‘ideas’, but other hands come into play, other influences…

Tell us more about the author.

Like many of his characters, Henry James moved from America to England, and spent the last 40 years of his life there. He was a key figure of 19th Century realism, and apparently his novels were some of the first to go into such depths of consciousness and perception (through the musings of the characters). He wrote many respected novels, but also short stories, reviews, biographies, plays and travel books. He was born to a wealthy, intellectual family on 15 April 1843 and lived to 28 February 1916.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

‘Do you know where you’re drifting?’ Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.

‘No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see – that’s my idea of happiness.’

I found this a very absorbing read. James creates a complete world – from the details of afternoon tea in the opening pages, to the way he dips in and out of settings and the thoughts of the characters. In some chapters you wonder – ‘why am I with this character now and how is it relevant?’ But everything ties back in with, and has an effect on, our protagonist, Isabel.

It is so interesting to read this now, in a feminist sense – we cannot help but cheer Isabel on in her hunger, in her desire to be true to herself. And James allows her decisions to appear complex and murky. Her feelings change – she changes – through the course of the novel, and it is so sad. I read it and thought of all the women reading it over the years – young women at the turn of the century, travellers to Europe, women who’ve come into money, married women in all different eras. Sure, everything in society has changed. We no longer have to pretend that we’re okay for the sake of decency, when we’re unhappy. Or do we? We no longer have to choose between travel and self-development, and the ties of marriage. Or do we? The book still has the ability to make you think about your position.

The other characters in Portrait – Isabel’s cousin, Ralph; Lord Warburton; Madame Merle; Osmond – display a range of multilayered (though self-serving) motivations, and Isabel is caught up in their web. Isabel’s opinionated and outspoken writer friend Henrietta Stackpole may be the only character who gets what she desires, in the end.

I could say a lot more – particularly about desire and gender roles – but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I went in knowing nothing and it takes some time for events to unfold (but how rich the set-up is) and it was better not knowing.

What I will say, is how much I enjoyed the descriptions, not just of the characters, who are so well-sustained, but of the house at Gardencourt, of Florence and Rome, of items of clothing. The novel is detailed but not florid, sentences are lengthy yet elegant. A few times reading on hot days I found myself lost and had to go back a few paragraphs, but on the whole it’s extremely readable.

What’s next?

I have a great deal of preparation to do for Perth Writers Festival, but I think the next books will be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Have you read Henry James? What are your thoughts? Let’s allow spoilers in the comments…

05_Flatbed_2 - OCTOBERVintage, 1989
9780375713347 (2002 edn) (Also Aus, US, UK)

Miss Olympia is an emotional, hunchbacked albino dwarf, and the complex narrator of this wonderful novel. In the present, Oly secretly watches over the remaining members of her carnival-of-freaks family: her daughter, Miranda, and her mother, Crystal Lil. Why her observance and care is secretive is revealed through a long, rich, detailed history of the Binewski family, which makes up the bulk of Geek Love.

The Binewskis were a carnival family – and a deliberately constructed band of freaks. Papa Al Binewski and Mama Crystal Lil experimented with drugs and other methods to create malformed children. Their greatest successes were Arturo, the Aqua Boy (sprouting fin-like limbs); Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia; and a baby boy, Fortunato, nicknamed Chick, whose power was too awesome to even be revealed to the public. Chick looked like a ‘norm’ and so held a complex position in the family – being simultaneously envied and chastised, abused and berated, particularly by Arturo (or Arty).

Much of the drama in the novel comes from the intense emotional connections, undercurrents, and power-plays within the family – particularly in relation to the potently jealous though rapturously charismatic and manipulative Arty. Arty, through the course of the novel, even ends up with his own cult of followers: emotional ‘freaks’ who choose to remove body parts to become externally what they are on the inside. Oly’s life is devoted to Arty, she loves and slaves for him. She is affected by the hurt he inflicts on others but always returns to his altar. Later in life Oly is still susceptible to the pull of a different tortured and destructive being, but is wiser to the origins of the woman’s sympathy.

Oly was luckily blessed with an engaging show-voice and so escaped the fate of another ‘useless’ Binewski experiment – a child who wasn’t quite freakish enough and who expired when a pillow ‘fell on her head’. Several failed survivors – at fetus or infant stage – were also on display in jars on the Fabulon Carnival showgrounds.

It’s tempting to tell you every wonderful little thing about this book but so much of the joy in reading it is the compelling way it’s structured so that you know a conflict, a resolution, a conflict and a big resolution are due – and then it is constantly and joyfully surprising just how the author makes those conflicts and resolutions unfold. There are moments of laughter, horror and knowing. There is emotional engagement (and struggle), there is sexual tension, there are moments where you have sick in your throat. There is also a complete immersion in the smells, colours and sounds: ‘The sky above Molalla was aching blue but I walked from Arty’s tent to our van in the same air I’d sucked all my life. It was a Binewski blend of lube grease, dust, popcorn, and hot sugar. We made that air and we carried it with us. The Fabulon’s light was the same in Arkansas as in Idaho – the patented electric dance of the Binewskis.’

Little Chick is a heart-breaking, memorable and magical character. But it’s not just the family featured in the novel. Dunn holds together a cast far larger: Fabulon workers like the redheads, the pin-cushion kid, the nurse, the legless McGurk, a reporter who begins as an outsider and is then pulled in, and a terrifying man with no face.

Geek Love was a National Book Award finalist in 1989. From what I’ve been told (by my lovely partner who recommended the book to me) it is not so easy to get these days, but it is somewhat a cult classic – and I can absolutely see why. Besides the absolute richness of the world and story, its cohesiveness and compelling nature, the writing itself is inventive, surprising and delicious:

‘I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself. To warm my spine in the dark? To change the face in my mirror every morning? It was none of Arty’s business that I loved him. It was my secret ace, like a bluebird tattooed under pubic hair or a ruby tucked up my ass.’

Geek Love was Dunn’s third book and after that she was working on a fourth novel, called The Cut Man. That novel has still not been released, though a fantastic excerpt appeared in The Paris Review this year, called ‘Rhonda Discovers Art’.  Try not to want to read more! Though it seems a long time between novels, Dunn has been busy with nonfiction books, magazine writing, radio and more. There’s an extensive interview with her, from 2009, here. When my partner was in New York earlier this year he attended a show which was a tribute to Geek Love and included a spoken word rendition of one of his favourite Dunn poems. You can read about that here (scroll down to mention of Geek Chic). Geek Love itself took many years to write and I think it shows – it’s truly something rich and delicious. If you haven’t checked out Geek Love and like freaky, lovely, meaty things – do.

super sadGranta, September 2010, through Allen & Unwin in Australia (Aus, US, UK)


Here’s a too-easily-imaginable near-future world where everyone is attached to a device, books are obsolete, people walk around half-naked and rate each other’s bits, the American empire is failing, and it’s hard to make a true and lasting connection.


The writer of this book is a very perceptive man. He shows us that things are very tragic and sorta funny at the same time.


The main characters are Lenny, of Russian Jewish descent, who works in the ‘indefinite life extension’ department of a large corporation; and Eunice, a young, beautiful but insecure and damaged Korean-American.

Lenny falls for Eunice after they meet in Rome. She calls him ‘nerdface’.


Eunice majored in Images with a minor in Assertiveness. She loves shopping on AssLuxury, on her äppärät. She helps out the old people in the building and the displaced families in the park. She thinks her sister is fat and should stop being so ‘Political’. She doesn’t like Lenny’s friends, even though they are ‘Media’ and their broadcasts are popular. People aspire to work in Media, Credit or Retail.


Lenny still likes books, and has a wall of them. When he pulls one out on the plane, the guy across from him says: ‘Duder, that thing smells like wet socks’. Lenny struggles to learn all the acronyms. ROFLAARP. His boss, a father-figure, is receiving ‘indefinite life extension’ treatments and is getting younger.

Lenny is getting older.

This book is FM, FTW. <3 <3 <3

Interviews + Profiles

Aug 20, 2010


It’s very telling, you know?

Find part 1, right here, folks.

imperialKathy: My two very favourite novels of all time are Lunar Park, and Pet Sematary by Stephen King, which kind of makes perfect sense…

Bret: Yes, it does.

Kathy: I’m really interested in the idea that Lunar Park may be becoming a film. I’m wondering, how on earth is that going to happen? What kind of film is it going to be?

Bret: I don’t know.

Kathy: Is it going to be a horror film or a comedy or… ?

Bret: Well the irony to all of this is that I’m not writing Lunar Park, and the even bigger irony here is that the one big studio assignment that I was up for last year was the remake of Pet Sematary.

Kathy: Oh!

Bret: …which I badly, badly wanted. I had an entire pitch set up, I worked on it for weeks. I went into Paramount and we talked with the producers about it, and… they hired another writer. This is what happens.

Kathy: Oh god…

Bret: No, it’s what happens. They audition twelve or thirteen writers that they think might be right for the project, and so… I loved that book, I didn’t think that the first movie really did it justice, and I thought this was a great opportunity to, you know, reboot it. And I was crushed when I couldn’t get the Pet Sematary job. It wasn’t personal – it’s just business. The guy they hired is a guy who has done two very successful Stephen King adaptations, and they just felt safer with his take on it than mine – which pushed the violence a little bit too much. They wanted it to be more PG13 than R. So that was a problem. I wish I’d known that, going in. I still don’t think I could’ve delivered the movie they wanted, but that has been, for this year, my most disappointing… not getting a job. Because Stephen King’s a fan of mine, Stephen King loved Lunar Park, everyone thought: ‘oh, this is a no-brainer, you’re gonna get this job, you’ve got a great pitch’. It just so happened that, the studio needed a PG13 movie, and there was no way because of how gruesome I had made it – mine was pretty hardcore and scary.

So, Lunar Park – how are they going to do it? Well, there have been three or four directors attached, three or four actors attached – the last actor that was attached was Ben Stiller. I don’t think he’s doing it. And then Jude Law was attached for about six months.

Kathy: Benicio Del Toro.

Angela: Yeah, I heard that.

lunar_park_zoomBret: Benicio Del Toro, who is a friend of mine, was going to do it. Not doing it, definitely Benicio’s not doing it anymore. The people who are producing it are very (whispers) overly fastidious – they develop things to death. And I’m friends with them, so I can say that and it’s not off the record, it’s just… I have complained to them, I said: ‘you guys don’t make movies! Your production company develops things to death.’ So there’s a new director on it, Phil Alden Robinson – I have not read his script, but he’s writing  and directing it. He wrote and directed – of all movies, and I think this is why he got hired – Field of Dreams.

Kathy: Yeah, yeah I can understand that. I think that could work!

Bret: I read a not-good script that was making the rounds. I then begged them to let me write the script, they said no, we don’t want the writer to write the script. That happens a lot.

Kathy: But the book is about the writer!

Bret: That’s why they don’t want the writer to write the script. That is exactly the reason. And I just really wanted to concentrate on… I think it’s a horror movie, I really do.

Kathy: It’s a terrifying book.

Bret: I don’t know what’s gonna happen. The first director involved with it was a British director named Sean Ellis. And I really liked his movie, and he’s young, smart; he loved the book, had a great vision for it, and actually he was supposed to direct another movie of mine and that completely fell through then he moved on to Lunar Park and then that didn’t work out. What do you do? I don’t know. The movies never get made. The movies don’t get made. And Lunar Park has been in development now for five years. So who knows?

Kathy: But most of your books have been made into movies.

Bret: Yeah.

Angela: A lot more than most authors who get optioned.

Bret: Yes, that is true.

Kathy: I really loved The Informers, I’m sorry to say.

Bret: You don’t have to be sorry about that at all.

Kathy: I thought it was just fantastic. I felt that the tone was what I remembered of the book.

Bret: This is the problem – if I was just the writer brought in to adapt someone else’s novel and the movie didn’t turn out to my liking I would’ve been totally cool: ‘oh yeah, I loved working on The Informers, it was great’. The problem is that I was so involved with getting that movie made. I was so involved in the screenplay – did forty drafts of the screenplay. I was a producer on it, and it was based on a book of mine. And I know – and so do all the actors, and so does the other writer on it, Nicholas Jarecki – the big movie that was there. Now of course (whispers) you guys don’t. And so it just doesn’t bother you in the same way.

I’ve seen fifty different cuts of that movie. I’ve seen cuts of that movie that are thirty minutes longer, that have much more of a resolution to them. There’s a scene at the end where Mickey Rourke drags Brad Renfro out into the desert and shoots him in the head and drives off in a van. Now, did you think that was gonna happen in the movie? Winona Ryder and Billy Bob Thornton die in a plane crash, outside of Vegas. Gone. Cut from the movie. The last scene of the movie… it was not supposed to be an ‘everyone gets AIDS and dies’ movie, which is what it ended up becoming. The last scene in that movie was a funny scene, well… it’s kind of a moving scene. It’s Jon Foster and the girl on the beach…

Kathy: I loved it.

Bret: No, we loved that too, but it was supposed… well, we had problems with the body make-up a little bit. We thought her body make-up was way too overdone.

(We all laugh.)

Kathy: She looked like she had gangrene or something.

Bret: Yeeeaah. And so that was a bit of a problem, and so it was supposed to be this much bigger ending with everyone… When Jon Foster and Austin Nichols are like laying in bed together, and Jon gets the phone call and goes: ‘what, where is she? What’s going on?’ Actually, what was shot there was this two minute scene between them where Austin goes: ‘what happened?’ and he says: ‘my dad, he’s dead. He went with Cheryl to Vegas. He was flying his plane, and it crashed.’ Austin says: ‘man, are you okay, what’s going on?’ And Jon Foster is really numb, and has a scene where he’s, like, just going through the motions and his hand shakes a bit when he tries to pick up something, and there’s a suggestion that they might have slept together the night before this weird scene with a lot of complicated things going on, and then boom, we cut to him out in the desert, inspecting the remains, and then Austin Nichols drives over to Kim Basinger’s house and fucks her again, and then the daughter, Susan, walks home – she’s in tears because she just found out that her father was dead, then she walks up the stairs and walks in on her mother being fucked by Austin Nichols, while Jon Foster is looking at the remains of Billy Bob Thornton and Winona Ryder… (Bret laughs) I know this sounds like the most horrible movie, but do you understand what that movie is?

Kathy: There is more, more going on.

Bret: And what you’ve seen now in the 97 minute version of it? So I’m watching it – and the freak-outs among everybody, the creative team are enormous. Billy Bob Thornton is enraged that his huge scenes were cut, and Amber Heard is really upset that her scenes were cut, and just, whatever, so… it’s a very different thing. But I am glad to hear that you liked it…

Kathy: I loved it.

Bret: It makes me happy, it makes me think that it’s not all for nothing, all those years working on that movie.

(Bret’s publicist waves to tell us to wrap up.) 

Kathy: Oh! Can I get my Hills question in real quickly?

Angela: Yeah yeah yeah sure…

Kathy: Okay: Spencer Pratt…

Bret: Okay.

Kathy: …has supposedly gone crazy. I just wanted your opinion on: what you think happened to him, if you think it’s real, or you think it’s false – or does it really matter?

Bret: It doesn’t really matter, at all. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or if it’s false… because that’s really not what The Hills is about – or that’s all that The Hills is about. And judging from that very last shot, of The Hills… do you remember that last shot?

Kathy: Oh yeah, absolutely…

(Angela does not know it, but nods and smiles. She is about to be enlightened…)

Bret: They didn’t quite pull that off the way I wanted them to. It really needs to be Lauren and Brody. Kristen and Brody in that – their relationship means nothing. You know, what’s much more heartfelt is that Lauren and Brody relationship, and then that turned to a friendship and that was much more heartbreaking and painful. Kristen Cavallari: if she was in a room, I’d think, she’s gonna eat it. She’s like, so scary. Isn’t she a terrifying girl? Would you be friends with Kristen Cavallari?

Kathy: I wouldn’t be friends with any of them, they’re all terrifying!

Bret: But the show’s energy level really dropped, because Heidi and Spencer weren’t in any of the final episodes. The show became so meaningless in that last season. It was kind of hard to watch, and I think it should have ended with that moment when Lauren Conrad walks away from the wedding, of Spencer and Heidi, and gets into some weird black car. It’s like something out of Mulholland Drive, the David Lynch movie – she’s replaced by Kristen Cavallari!

(Kathy is cracking up.)

Bret: And Lauren is looking like really oddly sad in the back seat of this black car that’s driving her somewhere, we don’t even know where, and then the group of The Hills is outside a church, where these two monsters just got married, and that’s the end of the show.

I don’t think it matters, ultimately, about Spencer Pratt’s freak-out – maybe it was real – maybe he really was doing it, or maybe it was all an act, but that’s really what’s always been so fascinating about the show. Is it real? Is it not? You know I’ve seen Justin Bobby – and not in Justin Bobby mode – where he was super clean-cut, really smiley, pretty articulate, almost gayish, like: ‘oh god, I can’t believe it, I’m up for this part is a stage production and it’s really cool’, and then you see him on The Hills and he’s like this wet octopus, you know: ‘baby, what are you doing?’. The Justin Bobby that I met once at a party was clean-cut and cute and funny, and not this kinda stoner… so I don’t know – and that’s what I loved about the show. That it was this kind of scripted reality. It wasn’t so scripted as with a staff of writers – it really was about their lives in a way. Now you watch a reality show like the Kardashians and you know it’s all scripted. (TV voice) ‘Okay this episode, they’re going to Vegas, Scott is gonna get…’ Do you know what I’m talking about when I refer to the Kardashians?

Kathy: Oh absolutely.

Angela: No, I haven’t seen it! (Fades into the background.)

Bret: He starts to get drunk, and he’s gonna ruin Kim’s party and all this stuff…

Kathy: He’s gonna punch the mirror…

Bret: So they’ve got seven writers, a staff of writers, on the Kardashians.

How I always thought the final season of The Hills should have been – was we break the fourth wall. So what you do is you have scenes with them, with their agents and their managers talking to them: ‘I’m not doing the scene with Lauren, and if I’m gonna do this you’ve gotta up my price to 25,000’. And have those scenes with them – beautifully shot, with the camera crews, talking about being on The Hills. That is the drama, and that should have been the last season of the show.

Angela: The construction, to show it.

Bret: The construction. Because none of those jobs are real anymore, no one was working for People’s Revolution by the end! They were all making fifty grand an episode! And then in the last season, in the last season no one had a job. Who was working? Lo had her boyfriend, Whitney had gone off to do the city – which I thought was completely unwatchable and I wasn’t into it – but, it should have just slowly gone into this. Like Audrina – you know she did this very famous Burger King commercial where she’s in a bikini on a beach…

0801_audrina_patridge_carls_jr_ad2-1Kathy: Oh I haven’t seen that…

Bret: …eating a giant hamburger and it’s so salaciously shot, because it’s really not about the burger – it’s about her tits and her ass and everything, and she got a ton of money for it. She was doing it during the filming of The Hills – bring that in! Bring in Audrina, shooting the day of her Burger King commercial, and then seeing Justin Bobby at night, and Justin Bobby saying: ‘you know, I have a girlfriend, and I don’t really wanna do this scene with Audrina’ and have Adam DiVello going: ‘well, can’t you just give a little bit, say you miss her, there’s no one else like Audrina’, you know… showing that scene. ‘Man I just don’t think I can’t do it’, and then you’d show Justin Bobby’s girlfriend in the backroom going: ‘oh my god, Justin’, you know? They should have broken the fourth wall, and they didn’t.

That shot of Brody at the end in the studio, it’s too weird. What does it even mean? And we know Brody’s dating Avril Lavigne now – did Avril Lavigne demand this heartfelt final scene of The Hills, which I never would have thought in a million years would have been between Brody and Kristen Cavallari? That’s the climax of The Hills?

Kathy: I think they thought it was more clever than it was.

Bret: What was for about four seasons almost the great modern Jane Austen novel, about girls in LA, trying to find men, and being constantly disappointed by them, and their one friend marrying a cad… Even the names were like out of Austen – Audrina Patridge, Spencer Pratt, Lauren Conrad – I mean awesome, I mean, it almost seemed like a drama about manners and morals. No matter how shallow you think they are, the show made you invest in them. It was beautifully shot, you kind of cared about Lauren – as messed up as she was… See this is why I can’t talk about The Hills, I can’t stop talking about it!

Kathy: Well, what’s happening with your own show The Canyons?

Bret: Oh that’s gone. That’s been over for a long time.

Kathy: So that’s totally gone? That’s such a shame because that would have been fantastic, I was so excited about that.

Bret: That was… (whispers) a terribly black period. That was during the Imperial Bedrooms writing period and… that was a ‘letting it go’ moment, because I’d been involved with pilots, creating shows for networks, before, and they didn’t happen. I was like: ‘oh, I really don’t care’. I really cared about The Canyons. I really did. But this was my – we talked earlier about ‘letting it go’ moments. This was the beginning of it.

The Canyons seemed to be such a sure thing and Showtime was so into it. We had the entire season written out, and the pilot had been retooled, and it was just one of the best things that I’ve written, and it was like the coolest idea for a TV show, and yet suddenly, in that last week, Tim Robbins comes in, and he’s got this big show about the corruption of the pharmaceutical companies, and that was at the time a huge topic in America. They said: ‘we don’t have enough money to make two pilots, we have enough money to make Tim’s, and it’s Tim Robbins and he’s gonna get movie stars to be in it, and we’re gonna go with that.’ They shot it, it was horrible. They never aired it. They canceled The Canyons.

Kathy: That sucks.

Bret: I was in bed for a week, which was so lame – that was how depressed I was when that show wasn’t going on – and it doesn’t go anywhere, you know? They own that pilot forever. You don’t get to shop it around anywhere else. Showtime has it for like five years.

Angela and Kathy: What?

Bret: Because they don’t want competition.

Angela: Because they buy the rights, yeah.

Bret: Yeah they buy the rights, they don’t want HBO or anyone to get it.

Kathy: I want to see this show!

(Angela nods).

Angela: What is it about?

Bret: It’s The Hills with monsters.



Pictured: Carrie, Samantha, Carrie

Let’s begin at the end. After Kathy Charles and I finished our interview with the very engaging Bret Easton Ellis, we sat with his publicist over a couple of glasses of Chandon, waiting for Ellis to wrap-up with our friend Robbie Coleman.

Robbie emerged, white-faced and swearing, revealing that the interviewee had turned interviewer (see here). Ellis plopped down beside me, smiling, and leaned in toward us girls, as Robbie went for a drink. He said: ‘If you were a character on Sex & the City, who would you be? I’m Samantha.’

‘Oh… Carrie’, I said, ‘but, I’ve always felt a bit up-myself saying so – as she’s the main character.’ But she is a writer, and she has the same David Bowie shirt as me (well, in one episode). Kathy said she’d be Carrie, too. ‘Well, that makes sense’, Ellis said, ‘you’re both writers.’ And then he said: ‘Robbie is Charlotte.’ He concluded by saying, ‘it’s very telling, you know?’

I found Bret Easton Ellis fascinating. In fact, I miss him. I caught some of his sessions at Byron Bay Writers Festival (his first writers’ festival ever), including a wonderful Q&A with Simon Marnie, where Ellis spoke about the first things he wrote. He said he was never writing to be ‘meaningful’. He wrote what he ‘felt’ like writing, and was never conscious of putting in brand names, etc. I’m fascinated by Ellis as an emotional, dramatic person who also seems to act as a kind of cultural aerial. His works come from emotional states, but it doesn’t need to be said that they also tap into a zeitgeist – and they play, suitably, with surfaces. And not only in his work does Ellis play with this, or flit between masks and metaphysics – but on stage (and he only tours every five years or so). He also presents a kind of wearied, and simultaneously amused, presence. At his Melbourne Wheeler Centre event, for example, he began by asking the audience: ‘what the hell are you doing here on a Friday night?’

The purpose of his tour was, of course, his new novel Imperial Bedrooms, a dark, sad and sparse noiresque sequel to Ellis’ boy-wonder debut Less Than Zero, featuring the paranoid, haunted and controlling character Clay, a screenwriter. When I was asked to interview Ellis I knew I must invite Kathy Charles, author of Hollywood Ending (out in the US as John Belushi Is Dead), as she’s an Ellis-expert and I knew she’d be enthused about the chance to ask him about himself and his work.

In the spirit of ‘it’s very telling’, I’m leaving Ellis’ opinions about pop culture (and the general language he uses) relatively intact, as I do think it says much about his approach, his philosophy, his interests. This will be a two-part interview. Enjoy!

imperialKathy Charles: I’m really interested – because I’ve lived in and I’ve written about LA, and you live in LA again now – I find there’s a distinction between the real LA and the literary LA, so like the day-to-day living in LA compared to the LA we see in literature. Do you find that? Do you find your experience of living in LA, being a resident, is different to the literary world of LA that you create?

Bret Easton Ellis: Oh yeah, totally. It’s very different because the book is completely made up and it’s made-up situations with made-up characters and it’s far darker and more dramatic than my real life is where I’m, you know, just padding about my condo barefoot with jeans on and having beers with my friends, and we like to go to the movies and stuff like that, and we’re not being chased by Mexican drug cartels and we’re not like, raping young actresses or anything like that. No, the literary world that’s in Less Than Zero, or in Imperial Bedrooms, or in The Informers, the three books I’ve written placed mainly in LA, are like my other books – I mean, Lunar Park doesn’t really resemble the suburbs so much – it’s a ghost story, it’s a haunted house story, and American Psycho is about an American psycho in New York and I don’t think everyone is that psychotic – everything’s a metaphor, a novel’s ultimately a metaphor – it’s a reflection of something emotional that’s going on.

I don’t write journalistic pieces about LA, and I’m not writing essays about LA, not in the way that say that someone like Joan Didion did, or Meghan Daum, who writes a lot for the LA times, about her personal experiences, daily, in LA. I just tend not to work that way. And I also don’t lead that literary a life in LA, I mean I kind of wanted to escape the literary world of New York, which I found overwhelming, and I didn’t feel that I could really compete… I just didn’t really feel I was smart enough.

Angela Meyer: Can I just ask, along those lines, when you were talking about metaphor, I love the grotesque appearance of Rip, in Imperial Bedrooms, and that kind of plastic surgery monster – would you say that’s kind of a metaphor for a lot of things – his character and his appearance?

Bret: (whispers) He’s the villain. He’s the villain, and, as a literary device, how’s a villain going to make his entrance? I thought about it a long time and I thought – is it too obvious? Or, is this a noir – and is it okay? Is this really a screenplay being written by Clay, and would the villain announce himself in such a way, to Clay? I thought, yes, okay it’s fine. If I had done this in third person or if I had someone else narrate the book I don’t think Rip’s entrance would be as dramatic. But because of who’s narrating the book – it made sense to me.

Kathy: One of the things I love about your books that are set in LA is: there’s this sense that there’s something really primordial and primeval going on beneath the surface, and it’s like what you were saying about Lunar Park being a ghost story… I can’t help but think about the whole idea of things like Indian burial grounds and places where people lived, because there is such an energy in the place – the inhabitants kind of become cursed. I re-read Less Than Zero and there’s that fantastic image of the people who awake to see the ghost of the Indian in their room and it just really got me thinking – the characters in your books, do you think that there’s something within the landscape of Los Angeles that is actually impressing itself upon them, or do you think they’re just architects of their own undoing – or is there something more evil and…

Bret: I don’t think it has anything to do with any of that.

Kathy: No?

Bret: I think every place has that. I think every place… imprints something upon a person. I think it really depends on the person, I don’t think it depends so much on the place. At least the older I’ve gotten that’s how I see it. I think Imperial Bedrooms, for example, could take place anywhere, I think it could take place in the corporate world…

Kathy: Really?

Bret: …I think it could take place in Arizona. I think American Psycho could take place in Chicago, it could take place in Lisbon – you know?

Angela: But specifically in the Western world?

Bret: Yeah, yeah, in the Western world – and obviously because the books have (whispers) a lot of appeal around the world. I don’t know how much people are purely relating to the LA novels as ‘LA novels’. I mean, when I get letters from kids in India, who are in college, saying: ‘oh my god I just picked up Less Than Zero in a mall’ – they weren’t even born when it was published – and they say: ‘oh, it blew me away, I totally related to Clay’. So, that’s not really LA speaking to them, and I don’t see Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms as being novels about LA – I see Imperial Bedrooms as a novel about a very damaged man who’s a narcissist, who happens to be in that [the movie] business; and I see Less Than Zero to be purely about my own teenage alienation. And yeah, I grew up in LA so I set it there. If I was the same kid and I grew up in, you know, Miami or Tampa, I might have written the same book with the same cast of characters in a different locale. I guess it really depends on how big a sponge you are in letting a landscape make that imprint on you as a person.

Now having said that… let’s get to a reality check here. Imperial Bedrooms is a very dark book, it’s very bleak, and it ended up becoming a lot more hopeless that I initially thought, when I was thinking about it before I moved back to LA. So I was thinking about it in a lot of ways, I wanted to know where Clay was, and I said, well, do I really want to go back to Clay? What if Blair narrates this instead and it’s about Clay but it’s about her feelings? But then I wanted noir and I wanted to do a Raymond Chandler book – all these things came together, well fine, whatever, I had an idea for this novel. Not the happiest novel in the world, but – I moved to LA. And that’s when I really began writing the novel proper, in 2006. Finished it in May 2009.

2006, 2007, 2008 were terrible. (whispers) Dark. Black. Black period. Very black. And they were black for reasons that you could pinpoint and go – that’s LA black. Involved in a film that is becoming a disaster, people are lying to you, you’re becoming super paranoid, you are drinking too much because of this, you’ve gotten involved with some pretty shady people and people in the business, the casting couch has announced itself to you, you’ve taken advantage of it and you’ve been burned by it as well, and you’re going slowly crazy, and the world is a much, much darker place for you now, than it was before you moved to LA.

‘You haven’t gotten LA yet, you’re still lost in it’ – this is what friends would tell me. ‘You’re in the wrong places, you’re looking at it from the wrong angle, and it’s infecting you.’ And I’m going: ‘yeah, are you sure? Are you sure? I don’t know.’ And because of all these things that were going on – a little bit of a switch. And I noticed that Imperial Bedrooms was heading to much darker places that I initially thought. So – bit of a contradiction I guess. Yes, I don’t really believe that, I believe it depends on the person – and I know the person who lives in LA now – I would not write Imperial Bedrooms, I wouldn’t write it, it would be a completely different book – or I wouldn’t at all be interested in writing it. I’m over it. It’s done. It’s gone. And I would probably write a funnier, lighter book, because I’m just in a different place right now. So, I have to kind of agree with you, and then halfway think that’s not always the case.

Kathy: So you don’t, with your LA novels, you don’t sort of see yourself as akin to an LA literary tradition, with people like Fante and Bukowski…

american-psycho-cover1Bret: Well I do, yes, but I also wrote a New York novel I guess. But, again, I don’t see American Psycho as a New York novel – I see it as a novel about where I was at a certain point in my life, and I happened to be in New York. Just like, well, The Rules of Attraction I suppose is a campus novel, but it was also about, you know, my feelings about unrequited love and relationships and sexual stuff that was going on at the time.

Angela: So there’s personal landscapes…

Bret: It’s the personal landscape that encourages each book to be written, regardless of where I am.

Kathy: So, If you’d been living in LA at the time, American Psycho could have been about a movie producer, as opposed to a wall street banker?

Bret: Completely. Yes. Very, very true.

Angela: Just, about the darkness in Imperial Bedrooms – I heard you talk at Byron a bit about the Palm Springs sequence. I really like that sequence because it feels like Clay trying to regain control, in a way, and it’s through cruelty, and I just find that really fascinating because I think it does speak to a little part in all of us…

Bret: (nodding) Yes.

Angela: As much as it goes a lot further than the average person would go…

Bret: Because it’s a novel…

Angela: Yep, exactly, and some of my favourite novels kind of explore that, like Lolita, which I’ve heard you talk about. Just wondering if you could talk about, perhaps, Clay and control…

Bret: Clay has control issues. Well narcissists have control issues I guess…

Angela: Is that, something that interests you?

Bret: Well it interests me about everybody. It interests me who the biggest control freaks are, and – how far does that get you, being a control freak? Where does it get you? What happens when you hit the wall and you realise that you’re not in control of anything at all? What happens at that point when you just have to let it go – and realise: ‘okay, I get it, this is life. I’m not in control of it’. You know, some people never do that.

Angela: No.

Bret: I look at certain people that I know who are in their sixties and seventies – they’re not there yet. And yet I know people who are in their mid-twenties who say ‘I’m chill, this is it, I’m friends with death’, you know? ‘I’m friends with pain. It’s cool. This is what life is like’. And if you don’t do that, you’re screwed. Life is going to be this battle. You’re never going to be really in control of it… and you just have to, like, embrace the pain, embrace the fact that death occurs and this happens to us, and if you keep fighting it, you’re going to be in constant pain. Letting go is the key.

I noticed that I have been the least happiest when I have felt that I am in the most control. Odd isn’t it? You feel that you’re in control yet it’s not that satisfying in a way – it’s fear. It’s fear-based.

Angela: Because that’s just what you’re thinking about, is maintaining that?

Bret: Yeah, because you’re scared. That’s why you’re a control freak, you’re scared. Control freaks aren’t not afraid of things, they’re totally terrified and that’s why they’re control freaks. And being terrified is not fun! And to be terrified for years on end… uh uh (shakes head). Not good.

Kathy: That’s why the final line of Imperial Bedrooms is just so stunning – and it’s really the key to the whole Clay character, it’s – his fear.

Bret: Aha, yeah: ‘I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people’.

Kathy: And then The National song on their new album…

Bret: (laughs) ‘I’m Afraid of Everyone’, yeah.

Kathy: They’re great.

Bret: I wondered if he heard that… his wife is like the editor of the New Yorker. I wondered if somehow they got a copy of the manuscript… oh I like to flatter myself thinking that that led to writing that song! But the book was around for a long time in manuscript form. I don’t know. I haven’t asked them.

Kathy: While we’re on that, have you heard the Porcupine Tree album Fear of a Blank Planet?

Bret: You know what, okay, I haven’t heard it – I know that they like me and that they’re really into, I think Glamorama’s the novel that they really like? No wait I’m thinking of another band…

Kathy: Porcupine Tree – the whole album is based on Lunar Park.

Bret: Okay, okay I know exactly what it is now, but no I haven’t heard it yet.

Kathy: It’s great!

Bret: Well listen, I’ll, go upstairs and listen to it on my computer…

Kathy: It’s really good, yeah. It’s interesting because a lot of singers have written songs about your characters but Porcupine Tree are really interested in the prose as well.

Angela: While we’re on your prose a bit, I was going to ask, do you write really fast? Because the pacing in Imperial Bedrooms is really awesome, I mean, you read it very fast. Just wondering if it comes out like that, or if it’s a slower process?

Bret: Its only 169 pages – I thought about it eight years ago, it took me three years to work it out on paper – what is that? I’m really slow. I’m a really slow writer. I wish I was faster.

Angela: But the pace is wonderful.

Bret: Well… thank you. I don’t know how that happens. How does that happen? I mean, I guess there’s a technical aspect to that. And it also depends on who you are, I mean, there are a lot of people who say ‘American Psycho is so boring, I can’t get through it – all these lists, I can’t read this kind of book’, and yet they love Matthew Reilly.

Angela: Yeah, yeah.

Bret: Matt Reilly, he’s a very nice man, we had a lot of conversations in Byron Bay. Lovely man, haven’t read his books. I’m not sure I would like his books and he’s never read one of mine, I don’t think he’d like mine. I think it’s a case-by-case thing. There are people who find my books hard-going.

Angela: Is it very innate though, the way that you write, like you don’t really think about it – once you get inside the voice of the character?

Bret: I don’t really think about it – well, look, you’re always thinking about it, but it’s very emotional, for me, in terms of how I create a novel. It all starts with the narrator and everything flows out of the narrator. I figure out who the narrator is, what his thing is, what’s going on in his mind – and it’s usually a reflection of the pain I’m in at that time about certain things in my life, a fictional reflection. When I figure out who he is, where he is, what he’s doing, what his issues are, then I go: ‘oh, well because of all these things then this is the story, right?’ So, about seventy percent of the process is doing, what I used to refer to as ‘the outline’, the outline… it’s a first draft – but it also has notes to myself in it, and you know I don’t keep any of these, I throw all this stuff away. I don’t keep any of this stuff because I don’t want…

Kathy: You should put it on eBay!

Bret: …I don’t want any of it around. No, because I destroy everything that I think is bad! I don’t want anyone to read, like, lines of dialogue that I think are terrible or descriptions that I’m never going to use. No, so I’m just like, perfectly fine with getting rid of all of that stuff.

So the first part – the main bulk of the creation of the book, – is emotional, and going through my own creative process, and going ‘okay, well, you know what, I’m really feeling this right now’. So I’ll write a scene like, I don’t know, someone walking down La Cienega and almost cracking up. But I’m not gonna use it. It’s not gonna happen, but let’s see if it could happen. And it’s like that story about the wall in the restaurant…

Angela: The silver wall…

Bret: The silver wall that I was so proud of, I thought it was my best writing, I just loved it so much. I thought, it’ll be so cool to open up with those four sentences, then I realised (sucks in breath, whispers) Clay will never see it. He’ll never see it. He’ll never notice it.

Angela: It didn’t fit in.

Bret: He’ll never notice it! I think, he won’t notice it for four lines or five lines – well can I use just one of those lines? No. No you can’t. He’s interested in the actress and that’s what he’s focused on. So then, okay, the technician comes in. After this massive draft.

Lunar Park was about twice as long as what the final book came out. Imperial Bedrooms I would say two-and-a-half times as long maybe, in terms of like questions, alternate scenes, alternate takes. And then the technician comes in, very cool, calm. I probably walked away from the book for a month or so. Came back to it, thought: ‘okay, I know what the first line is, the last line is; the first movement in the book is sorted out, so when she goes to San Diego … then he’s gonna meet Rip there … then I’ll deal with that stuff later, and then you gotta cut this … and I’ve gotta track that…’ I’m keeping track, I’ve got like a basic outline. And that is its own kind of pleasure – that’s fun, because I’m writing this book for myself and for my own pleasure. The book is the book that I wanna read. So when the technician comes in, that’s it’s own kind of pleasure and very different from the messy and emotional, crazy side of the draft.

Angela: Yeah, that’s the control.

Bret: That’s the control aspect of the book, yeah. The first part is just no control at all. Everything – throw in everything.

Part two of the interview can be found here.

Imperial Bedrooms is widely available.

both waysAs the title indicates, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it (Text, May 2010 in Aus, Riverhead US), Maile Meloy’s engaging collection of stories, is about the fear, desire, pleasure, confusion and complications of wanting it both ways and sometimes having it so. It’s like Guido’s dilemma in Fellini’s 8 1/2 – he wants all the women and he wants none of them, he wants to make the film and he doesn’t. About the main character in his film, he says: ‘He wants to possess and devour everything. He can’t pass anything up. He’s afraid he’ll miss something. He’s drained.’ It’s a kind of paralysis I’m sure many of us are familiar with. Not really a weakness, but simply wanting too much. Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet – the characters face their dilemmas in the realms of family, love, sex, money and place. I was very happy that Meloy agreed to an email interview from her home in California. Enjoy.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, is, as the title suggests, a book about our often contradictory desires. Your characters want to be everywhere, and yet stay safe and comfortable; they also want to be with other people, without destroying what they know (and love). Why is this pull, this tension, so compelling to you as a writer?

Because it’s intolerable, that we should have things only one way—isn’t it?  I believe that choosing a path and embracing it can be fulfilling, but I also find it maddening that whatever you choose inevitably closes other doors—even if I’m just ordering off a restaurant menu. Why did I get the fries? Why didn’t I get the fries? Like that. I hope it’s human nature and it isn’t just me.  

The class of the characters, their jobs, and the settings are quite varied in the book. How do you decide on a character, occupation and setting? What comes first and where does it go from there?

Usually the setting is the given, when I begin. If the characters are on a ranch in Montana, or at a polo club in Paris, or in wartime London, then that’s essential to who they are, and what the story will be. Because it’s the given, I tend to take the setting for granted and it isn’t usually very present in the first draft. I start with dialogue, with the emotional situation between the characters and what they say, and how they reveal themselves. Then I go back and add in the important details of the setting so it’s vivid and the reader can see it. But I’m completely bored by things like descriptions of trees. I only put in landscape if it’s really essential to the story. I have a general sense of the characters at the start, but I figure them out as it goes along, as they talk to each other. Occupation usually has something to do either with the setting or with the important thing I know about the character at the beginning: he’s an injured cowboy, or he has a job building a nuclear power plant that he feels ambivalent about, because it’s the only job that’s available to him. The father in ‘The Girlfriend’ became an architect after I decided that his murdered daughter was in Montana because she loved wilderness, because The Lorax had set her on a path in life: it made it seem possible that the sky-blocking office buildings her father designs are the reason she flees New York for the West.   

I love how, in most of the stories, we are privy to the history and tensions of a particular relationship, then a spanner is thrown into the works, and the reader is left to form their own conclusions. Or, in something like ‘Red From Green’, the story concludes on the real cusp of this teenage girl’s adventures (though we’ve seen the world that has shaped her and formed her decision in moving on). Have you always been a fan of the more open-ended approach to short fiction? Or do you feel you give enough away for the reader to understand where this is all going?

I hope there’s enough for the reader to understand! I don’t want stories to tighten down too much at the end, because life isn’t like that. It’s ongoing, and out of every episode there are always choices and surprises and unexpected consequences. I want a story ending to land, like a gymnast lands at the end of a routine, but I also want it to seem like real life, in which we know that everything will go on: the gymnast will walk off the mat and go wait for her scores, and all the complicated relationships with her coaches and teammates and family will be waiting.

Your writing comes across as very natural, and your stories are in the realist vein. How did you come to your style and thematic interests? Can you tell us a bit about your history as a writer?

I started writing short stories when I was twenty-one and spent the next few years trying to figure out how to do it. One thing I was trying to do was to give a voice to the American West that I came from, which was very particular and seemed underrepresented in the books I had read. That seemed like something I could bring to the great, vast, intimidating world of books. My first book, Half in Love, was a collection of short stories, most set in Montana and Utah, although one was set in Paris and one in wartime London. But then I started to feel that I was in danger of being identified as that Montana-girl writer, and I was determined that my first novel, Liars and Saints, would never set foot in Montana, and never mention it. Liars and Saints is set mostly in California, with detours to France, Louisiana, and an American aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II. It was realistic, following a single family for sixty years and tracing the effect that buried secrets have on them over generations. After that I got restless about all the realism, and wrote a novel, A Family Daughter, that reads as a separate, realistic novel with its own emotional story, but also has a meta-fictional aspect if you read it together with Liars and Saints. It was a way of keeping myself on my toes, staying interested, and doing something I hadn’t done before. Then I wrote the new collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, and I just finished a young adult novel called The Apothecary, which isn’t like anything I’ve ever done before and was a great joy.

Who are some of your favourite short story writers, or what are some of your favourite stories?

JD Salinger’s Nine Storiesis one of my all time favorite collections, and the story I like best changes every time I re-read it. It used to be ‘DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period’, and then it was ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’, and then it was ‘The Laughing Man’. I also love and admire William Trevor, who seems unstoppable as a short-story-writing force; the Catalan writer Merce Rodoreda; Alice Munro, of course; Anthony Doerr, whose forthcoming collection Memory Wall will take the top of your head off; Richard Ford, who was my first fiction writing teacher; and Philip Roth, who doesn’t write short stories anymore but whose Goodbye, Columbus was an inspiration to me when I was trying to assemble Half in Love. And David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives is one of my favorite recent story collections, if it can be called that, which I think it can.