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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)
9781921640896

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.

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)
9781847081032

Super.

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.

Sad.

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.

True.

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’.

Love.

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.

Story.

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

the-passage-justin-croninThe Passage
Justin Cronin (Aus, US)
Orion
9780752897851

Reviewed by Chris Flynn

It’s funny how movies influence books so much these days. The fact that The Passage was optioned by Sir Ridley Scott for $1.75 million within a week of Cronin settling on a $3.75 million publishing deal for his vampire apocalypse trilogy is unsurprising given large sections of this first volume read like a movie script. Quite how the Robin Hood director will handle turning this 768-page monster into a 2-hour feature film is a mystery only a knight of the realm can solve. Given his recent form, there will be some sort of grey/blue washed-out filter over everything, Liam Neeson will have a supporting role and there will be at least one scene featuring an arrow-filled sky. The good news for Sir Scott is that there are arrows and blades a-plenty in Cronin’s behemoth. Also Humvees. And characters making physically impossible dramatic leaps through the air whilst firing their weapons, narrowly avoiding the Moors/French/Bad Vampires.

Cronin’s pedigree as a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and winner of the Pen/Faulkner award lends this daft sounding Mad Max cum 28 Days Later mashup a certain credence but don’t be fooled into thinking this is highbrow literature taking on popular tropes. Cronin, whilst eminently more of a wordsmith than Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, is still no Raymond Carver. He’s more of an undisciplined Steven King. There’s something odd about the structure and tone of The Passage, which is in itself split into three sections. The first is really tight and suspenseful, as Cronin introduces us to the world of 2018 and the discovery of a virus that the military wants to use to create super soldiers. As everyone knows, this never turns out well and the bat-like blood-sucking ‘virals’ escape from the complex. Before you can say, ‘Oh Edward, you’re just so sparkly,’ the world has been flushed down the toilet, civilisation as we know it has been destroyed and there are 42 million of these virtually indestructible bad-tempered creatures hanging under bridges waiting to tear you from arsehole to elbow.

So far so I Am Legend. Just when you’re starting to actually like some of the characters, Cronin propels the narrative forward 92 years to focus on a rag-tag bunch of survivors living inside a floodlit complex in California. This is the slowest section of the book, and it’s a bit of a trial having to start caring for a whole new cadre of characters, most of whom are not very likeable. This is where the crossbows come in and probably where Ridley Scott sat up in his seat and rubbed his palms together in anticipation. Cronin goes to great lengths explaining how difficult it is to kill the virals, with only one sweet spot on the breastbone able to be penetrated by an arrow, bullet or knife. Conveniently all the survivors are really, really good shots. The romp picks up again when the central character of Amy, a girl who we are told will live a thousand years, turns up to drag a group of survivors off on a quest, of sorts. Despite being the key to everything, Amy’s character is strangely underdeveloped. Cronin makes us privy to the inner thoughts of everyone except her, though perhaps this will be amended in the next two episodes of the trilogy.

I’m making this sound like a load of old bollocks, but it’s good fun for the most part. The writing gets lazier and more clichéd as the book progresses, it sags badly in the middle and sections honestly do read like a cheesy action movie script but it’s a much better effort at ‘blockbuster literature’ than we’re used to, so I won’t complain too much. If nothing else it restores vampires to their rightful status as terrifying creatures of the night that you definitely do not want to be staring moodily across a meadow at. The main point of contention I have with The Passage is not the book itself, but the marketing. I read that bookstores are being told not to place this alongside Twilight or Vampire Academy as it is definitely not for sensitive teens. This is utter nonsense – a gross underestimation of the reading capabilities of young people and typical of the saccharine coating and condescension teenagers have to put up with. Yes it’s a scary book and people swear sometimes but duh. Cronin and his 9 year-old daughter came up with the idea when he was out running. She rode her bike alongside and told him his books were boring. When he asked her what sort of book he should write, she naturally said it should be about a girl who saves the world. Oh, and don’t forget the vampires. Every good book needs those, right? 42 million of them in here, though sorely lacking in werewolves. What was this guy Cronin thinking? Russell Crowe would have been perfect.

Flynn bio picChris Flynn writes for The Book Show on ABC Radio National, The Big Issue & Australian Book Review. In 2010 his work appears in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings & Harvest. He runs Dog’s Tales, a weekly storytelling night in St Kilda.

Interviews + Profiles

Aug 20, 2010

5 comments

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.

FIN.

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.

dome9780340992579
Hodder
2009 (Aus, US)

I sometimes wonder when Stephen King will stop. Having published more than 150 books, it’s hard not to wonder when the ideas will dry up. What’s next Stephen, a killer broom monster? A giant ribbon that wraps itself around its victims and strangles them of life? A giant dome that comes from the sky and traps a small village of tortured locals inside with no escape?

This last idea is exactly what King has gone for with his latest book, Under The Dome.  Reminiscent of The Simpsons Movie in concept, though far less friendly than anything that would occur in Springfield, the citizens of Chester’s Mill awake one morning to find that a massive, impenetrable dome has completely trapped them inside their small village.  A gardener reaching for a pumpkin on the town’s border has her hand sliced off as the dome comes down across her wrist. A jet taking off for a flying lesson hits the side of the force field and bursts into flames. Other changes are less immediate, such as the black smog filling the sealed air, and the expanding new police force, with no outside power able to stop them from dishing out their own arrogant forms of justice.

It’s an idea of some simplicity, and it’s unclear initially whether King’s going to be able to pull it off.  But what glues the tale together is its citizens – more than a hundred of them –  among which lurk some of King’s most vivid personalities. The greatest of them is the father and son team of James and Junior Rennie, who use the segregation of the dome to commit unpunishable atrocities and further their own ambitions. There are drugs, murders, rapes, riots and arson attacks, as the sensible sleepy town begins to show its darker side.

It’s been touted in publicity as King’s best book since The Stand, but I’m not sure I agree.  The thing King does best is horror. Truly scary spine-tingling stuff. There are a few dream sequences and moments of character interaction where things are a bit frightening here, but they’re never terrifying, and King loses out by not exploiting what he does best. That said, for those with the stamina, the book still marks a great achievement in King’s canon. ‘Big Jim’ Rennie is his most sinister villain ever, with his vaulting ambition and power coupled with furious and unrelenting religious certainty, making him both a frightful force for evil, and a man of shockingly real-world misguided conviction.

The story is over-the-top, but the people are believable, so you don’t question the authenticity of the situation, or the way Chester’s Mill splits into those who see the dome as a chance to tackle adversity for the greater good, and those who see it as a political opportunity. 

Under The Dome’s greatest asset is as a piece of dramatic writing. King’s secret skill of making the innocuous terrifying is trumped only by his skill to place characters in the most unlikely and insane situations, and instinctively know how to make them act as if they lived right around the corner. Plus, the man can write, and the power and ease with which he constructs such cinematic prose, and makes you beg to hear the truth about the dome, is reason enough to give Under The Dome a go.

lyndon_bio_pic_literarymindedLyndon Riggall is a young writer whose criminal obsession with words is catching up with him. Police believe that this may be his blog, and suspect this is his Twitter page, but are calling on the public for more information.

Commentary

Nov 19, 2009

5 comments

Some years ago when I was a bookstore girl, I became intrigued by this massive brick of a book called Cross Stitch (Outlander in the US), which many middle-aged women would get flustered over: ‘You haven’t read it?’ they’d ask.

I read it, and it was great fun – particularly the raunchy historical Scottish sex, and the time-travel element. I gave it to my sister (now a bookstore girl herself) and she went on to read the whole series.

I found out the author, Diana Gabaldon, was going to be in town at a dinner event hosted by Dymocks Camberwell on my sister’s birthday, on the back of her new book An Echo in the Bone. I took Sonja along for her birthday, and followed it up with a few questions about what it’s like to meet your favourite (and a very famous) author…

DSC04007

Pictured: Diana Gabaldon, Sonja and I.

It was a massive event, hey? What did you think of the crowd and the other fans?

Yeah, it was a big event – but then I haven’t been to any other author dinners so I’m not sure what’s normal. I believe there were 200 people in attendance. The crowd was generally women in their 40s and 50s, I was possibly the youngest person in the room. This wasn’t surprising, considering that the themes in her novels generally appeal to that audience. I must be weird.

You’re not weird! Maybe other young people just haven’t discovered her because her books are marketed a certain way? When we walked in the room, you were talking about the role that authors seem to play in this day and age – as presenters and actors. It contradicts their actual job – sitting in a room alone, forming this massive work, yeah?

This I definitely don’t understand! Writers seem more inclined to be of the ‘hermit’ variety of human (at least at times). Creatively, they like to be alone where they can get their head around how best to execute their art. It seems so odd to me that part of the job for a highly successful author these days is to stand up in front of a massive crowd and deliver a perfectly memorised 45 minute speech, before sitting down to sign books with their perfectly practiced plastic-looking camera-smile. All for the sake of sales. What if you had stage fright? I would be wondering when it was I signed up to be an actress.

Yeah, there’s a real contradiction there – though DG did seem quite happy to talk to us all. What did you think of her in person? And what of her speech?

DG as a person exceeded my expectations! She was very professional – she seemed comfortable in displaying herself and grateful to us for appreciating and supporting her work. She was a shortish gypsy-looking woman with long hair and an attractive face that seemed younger than her years. Her voice surprised me: a raspy fast-paced American accent that gave the impression she could barely keep up with her own thoughts, and with it she successfully entranced us. Her talk was witty, honest and delightfully nerdy. A scientist by trade, she is clearly intellectual. I loved that she had the guts to read one of the great erotic scenes from An Echo in the Bone. She knew what we would want, and she delivered!

echoShe did speak super fast, like her brain was working a million miles an hour, though she also managed to come across as calm and comfortable! You had a bit of an awkward moment when you got your books signed, though, didn’t you?

Ha! I knew you would bring this up. You had been telling me earlier I should say something to her, and I didn’t know what to say because I know I am just another number and I don’t want to try and say something clever just to be remembered. Anyway, without anything planned we leaned in for a photo and I thought it would be nice to just connect with her for a moment. So I said (stupidly) ‘Ha, everyone must smell like wine’ (because they have to lean over her for the photo). It seems she didn’t even hear me, as she replied ‘There you go, thank you’, handing me my signed book. I walked off in a state of embarrassment and started giggling my arse off with you as soon as we were out of hearing distance. Ergh. I blame the wine.

There were some hardcore fans aiming accusations at her about the books and characters, weren’t there? It was almost like they felt they had this sense of entitlement and ownership over the works and the author as well, yeah? And then there was the dog lady…

Oh the dog lady. During Q & A this lady asked a question about DG’s many dogs and then proceeded to have a conversation with her about breeding and the appearance of her own canines. Hello? She doesn’t care, and the whole room is listening! As you said, another woman was almost making accusations at DG rather than asking a proper question.

As far as their feeling ownership, I agree that it seemed that way. It was DG’s brilliance that brought this imaginary world into our lives in the first place – so what gives these people a right to the way the story goes?  It is her creation. I guess some people see it differently. It was so good though how when DG didn’t understand one of the ‘smart’ words in the aggressive woman’s question she just said ‘Sorry, I don’t understand?’ which made the woman look totally ridiculous.

You don’t think an author has some responsibility to his/her readers? The people who are supplying them with an income?

Well, to some extent. Especially when working on a series such as DG’s ‘Outlander’. There needs to be consistency in both the content and writing style from book to book. Otherwise readers’ expectations will be understandably upset. But my point is some people seem to feel a need to challenge someone who has been more successful than them. I’m not sure why. As you know, I’m also bothered by the slow pace in her most recent novel, Echo in the Bone, and the depth in which she describes her characters’ movements. If she loses my interest then yes, there is obviously something she is doing wrong. But if I were inclined to ask her about it, I don’t think I’d do it in an assuming, superior sort of way that attempts to put her off and make myself look good in front of others.

Hehe, I’m glad. But then I know one question I asked at a recent writers fest I really stuffed up, and it seemed accusatory. Sometimes it’s an accident I think.

Does it make a difference, meeting an author (to the reading experience)? Would you want to meet anyone else?

I don’t think it makes a difference to the reading experience. Do you? But I suppose I can now see parts of her own personality that she has put into her main character, Claire, and I like that I can see this. It makes Claire even more real, somehow. But when I said this to one of the ladies at the dinner, she hadn’t noticed. I will probably think of her more now as I read, I don’t know. There are plenty of authors I would love to meet, if only to see what they are like. I don’t think it changes anything unless you love their book and they turn out to be a nasty person. I wonder if you would be loyal to them anyway because of their work or write them off because of their personality? I’m sure you have had experience with this.

Well, with some it has enhanced the experience, with others … I’ve never read their books again. Meeting both Gail Jones and Alex Miller (my two favourite Aus writers) were memorable experiences. Another author (who I shall not name) treated me like a little girl. I’d travelled pretty far for that event too. So, regardless of the fact I like this author’s writing, I have been turned off picking up their books! So it can have an effect.

Which author would you most want to meet then? Let’s make it fun and say – alive or dead? And lastly, what was the highlight of the evening?

Hmm, tough one. At the moment I would probably say Vladimir Nabokov. I am intrigued by him, as are many. But there are still so many authors I haven’t read so it could change later.

The highlight of the night for me would be the reading. I particularly remember the point where she said unflinchingly in her accent: ‘A shiver ran through him at the warmth of my mouth and I lifted my hands involuntarily, cradling his balls.’ Ha! I love her unabashed countenance and wish I had such a quality without worrying about putting people off. Care to share your highlight?

Okay – mine was when she said how when people asked her: ‘why would you have a thing for a man in a kilt?’ her reply was: ‘You can imagine it’d only be ten seconds before he had you against the wall’. Aye!

Readers – have you had the chance to meet any of your favourite authors? Was it wonderful or woeful? Who would you most like to meet?

 

everything

Part the first of Christopher Currie’s interview with Wells Tower can be found here.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
Wells Tower
Granta, 2009
9781847080486 (Aus, US/Kindle)

In other interviews, you’ve talked about your stories having a ‘moral pendulum’ swinging between characters, and the importance of putting the reader slightly off-balance at the end of a story. Do think that’s more of a modern feature of a short story—the idea that the story doesn’t have to exist in a neat little world?

I suppose. Although with someone like Chekhov, he would write stories that would end at an uncertain moment. On the other side, you’ve got somebody like Roald Dahl or Somerset Maugham, where the stories are very carefully plotted out. I really enjoy reading those guys, but I have a hard time believing that everything is tidied up so neatly, without it feeling contrived. I think in the ending of a short story, the reader should be rocking back on their heels a bit. That said, a story should give a suggestion of how its inhabitants are going to wind up, where the momentum of their lives is heading at the end of the story.

I like the uncertain moment. A lot of Raymond Carver’s short stories were like that. I really like the freeze-frame, where the crockery is up in the air, and you’re waiting for something to fall. I don’t really know where I stole that impulse. I’m sure I lifted it from somebody. It never really occurred to me that I was doing something weird with my stories until people started telling me. I think my stories do have sort of “lights out” endings, where a master switch gets thrown.

The one ending in the collection that seemed different to me was in the final story [the title story, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned], those final paragraphs that talk about the balance between love and fear in a family. It was lovely, and it felt more like a summing up.

Yeah, it’s a nice bit. I like those paragraphs too. That was a pretty early story for me. It’s funny how it all felt like such simple carpentry back then. I’d written this quite grotesque story, and then I thought I’d better come up with some sort of counterweight to that so I’ll have this more heart-swollen conclusion. I just kind of riveted it on the end, but I think it kind of works.

One of the most impressive things about the book, and what has been attributed to it in other places, is this sense of it being ‘old-fashioned’ writing. I suppose what I see this as is that while you have very lean prose, you’re still not afraid of a confident simile or considered word picture.

Yes, I think my impulse is much more toward baroque sentence-craft. When I’m writing, often the first drafts are really antic, and just playing with language a lot, but then I go back and try to pare it down. I do think that with good writing, you feel the pulse of it in every sentence. There should be something exciting, gleeful, or artful in every sentence. I think when writing is too spare, it’s tedious. When you start to write like that, as a writer you stop paying attention. I think when you’re writing, you have to be incredibly invested in every word and every line of what you’re doing. When I’m writing well, I can find some sort of pleasure in every line of a story, but if I can’t, it needs work.

Sometimes I read work by writers, and you can see they’re not really thinking about how they’re putting sentences together, and I think that’s unforgivable. How can you possibly expect anybody to read your work if you’re not obsessively labouring over every word you put down? When I read work that doesn’t reflect that degree of intensity I get kind of angry.

wells-towerA lot of the stories in your collection have appeared previously in other magazines and journals. Is it ever a problem working with more than one editor, say one editor at Harper’s Magazine, or The New Yorker, and another editor at your publishing house?

It really isn’t. It’s rare to find an editor at a journal or a magazine who will beat up your fiction the way they will if it is nonfiction. A piece of nonfiction gets heavily edited—the editor has his handprints on every single bit of it. A magazine’s identity is decided very much by how its features are assembled. They want a kind of continuity of product. Whereas with fiction— I’m not sure if it’s a dismissive view of fiction on the part of magazine editors, or whether it’s a case of this is a piece of art, and we need to be more respectful of the artist. I don’t intend to get anywhere near the same kind of sweeping edits with fiction that I get with nonfiction, but it’s kind of a relief when I do.

Eli Horowitz at McSweeney’s [another guest of MWF] is very meddlesome editor, in the best possible way, in that he’ll really look at a story and think what is this story about? and how can we re-arrange it? We really go through a lot of drafts, and he’s really a lot of fun to work for, even though I think every story I’ve ever done with him, I get to a point where I just think there’s no way of making this story good, so can we please just not do this. For me, the more editing the better. I really relish it.

The first story of yours I read, ‘Retreat’, was in McSweeney’s 30. It was, as I found out, the second version of the story to appear there. I was fascinated by the essay in that issue where you talked about rewriting the story from the point of view of a different character. How did that come about?

One of my big commandments in my stories is no good guys and no bad guys. The story is about two brothers who don’t get along, and they get together and go hunting. The first version of the story was told from the point of view of the younger brother, and he’s going to visit his older brother, who’s kind of a blowhard, a bit of an asshole. The younger brother shows up, and the older brother is obnoxious, and continues to be obnoxious, and at the end of it, eats a bit of rotten meat. When I went back to edit it for the short story collection, it just seemed to me like a moral and an emotional monotone: here’s this guy who’s an asshole, and who’s punished for being an asshole. I thought it would be a much more morally complicated story to tell it from the point of view of the older brother, and try to curry the reader’s sympathy for the more despicable character. It just seemed like a more interesting assignment to give myself, and a much more honest one.

So, a novel is next?

Yeah, I’ve started on that.

wellstower_by Chris SomervilleHave you attempted longer pieces before?

I have, but not in years. I started writing some semblance of this novel back in 2001. It’ll be exciting to do it.

How much planning are you allowing yourself to do?

I’ve got a loose plan. It’ll be a family book. I’ve got a sense of where the tensions are in this family and how things may wind up. But really, I’m going to have to just write my way into it.

Then Wells started to ask about my novel, and I switched off the tape.

To read more about Wells Tower at MWF, you can read Estelle Tang’s review of the book; Thuy Linh Nguyen’s review of Wells’ short fiction workshop; and Jabberwocky’s overview of the In Conversation session.

Christopher Currie is a writer and bookseller. You can read his thoughts and writing at www.furioushorses.com. His first novel will be published by Text Publishing in 2011.

Illustration by Chris Somerville.