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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.

pleasedonotfeedA sun-drenched and possibly superficial series of blog posts

On Friday I had my first three panels. I won’t go into too much detail, but there were highlights – such as being on stage alongside Tom Cho on one, and Krissy Kneen on another (and not as a chair, but fellow writer); meeting Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald; and getting to hear Susan Maushart’s and Alvin Pang’s differing takes on social media. Susan took her family ‘off the grid’, away from technology for six months – and that time is recorded in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect. She’s also incredibly smart, funny and lovely. Susan and Alvin spoke about a divide between the ‘real’ and ‘online’ worlds and selves. I spoke about that divide not existing so definitely for me – that I didn’t really think about my online activity so much as being separate from my real life, that it was more integrated for me.

Another highlight was my afternoon session, on which I chaired Kirsten Tranter, Brenda Walker and Georgia Blain – talking about books and family. Each author had literary influences in their lives as children, particularly their literary mothers. Kirsten and Brenda even run their manuscripts by their mothers and take on board their criticism – Georgia was fascinated by this as she felt she couldn’t really do that. We spoke about favourite books, too, and childhood memories of books (such as illustrated fairytales). I loved getting to chat to these three talented authors about personal and professional crossovers.

Later, at the close of the festival, author Marele Day pulled me aside and said she’d caught the session and that she wanted to tell me what a great job I was doing chairing. I can’t say how wonderful this is to hear. When you’re up there on stage, often you have no idea how you’re going. You are juggling your knowledge of the books, with the topic, with the author personalities, with audience interest – it’s a balancing act. And you must guide, but also take up the authors on interesting points, and make sure they each get enough air-time. So, thanks, Marele, and other audience members who let me know what worked over the festival. I appreciate it.

On Friday night I was lucky enough to be invited along to a small dinner with a few Text Publishing authors, dapper publisher Michael Heyward and publicist Jane Novak. Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers) was there, and his wife/partner Hannie Rayson, the playwright – what a charming pair. Susan Maushart was there, and my friends Dan Ducrou and Krissy Kneen. The steak was amazing and the conversation ranged from ’70s arthouse/erotic films to the way social media is influencing publishing. Half-way through, Dan got a text from his girlfriend, the wonderful Phoebe Bond. She had just attended the Bret Easton Ellis event with Ramona Koval and reported that he’d been very misbehaved. We awaited her arrival to get the full story.

Over the next few days I only heard snippets of the story, so this is all second-hand, but it will be played on Radio National’s The Book Show so you can make up your own minds. Many people thought he was being a wanker – tapping his feet, looking around and talking about how hot Delta Goodrem was. Some others thought Ramona was being antagonistic and should have followed along, playfully. (Again, this is all second-hand.) Many thought it was performative. I think he was being absurd, which I like, but then I really like Ramona, too, and can imagine how hard it would have been! She’s one of our most experienced interviewers and broadcasters. Anyway, enough speculation. Were any of you there? Can you give us your opinion in the comments?

I did see BEE do a one-on-one with Simon Marnie on Sunday and he was much better behaved. Some of Simon’s questions were deflected but Simon found a way to wiggle around to the info anyway. BEE, to me, seemed funny, intelligent, and actually quite authentic. He just honestly doesn’t know how to answer some of the questions about the ‘why?’. He can’t really talk about process because ‘writing a novel is not a logical, practical thing.’ It’s an emotional thing, he says. He was amused, in a way, by how the interview went the other night. He said ‘people assumed I’m a much more serious literary figure than I actually am.’ People think he’s depressed and dour. I’m going to save the rest of my notes from that session, as I’m interviewing him this Thursday, and can work them in. But maybe we’ll just talk about pop music! I will just quickly say, that he does view his books as each being quite cathartic, and he doesn’t censor himself because he needs the voice of the narrator to be authentic. And he absolutely loves that American Psycho comes in a little ‘sandwich bag’ in Australia. He thinks it’s cute.

fragcrowdBut back to Saturday now. On Saturday I had my last two panels, I was chairing both. In the morning, a panel on ‘Fragmented Identities’ was packed-out – more than likely because of crime star Michael Robotham. Georgia Blain and Patrick Holland were also on the panel. I think Holland was a star with his articulate explanations of character complexity. I wish I’d recorded him. I’ll be posting a review of his book The Mary Smokes Boys very soon on here. This was one of those panels where I had no idea how it was going on stage. I kept being unable to find the right words (a bit fatigued by now) but once it was over both the authors and audience seemed to have had a wonderful time. So I was happy with that.

My last panel was late in the day and I spent some time down by the lake, watching ducks, and these other beautiful birds with blue bellies (which I’ve found out are Purple Swamphen), and catching up with Matthia Dempsey from Bookseller+Publisher and Peter Bishop from Varuna. Matthia is going on the annual trip for the Indigenous Literacy Project – she will probably be doing some updates on the Fancy Goods blog if she gets a chance. On this day at some stage I was also in the Green Room and heard a very familiar voice from behind me. It was ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke! I was only a wee lass when he was PM. I was too shy to say hello, but I saw many people do so. How different would it be if it were little Johnnie Howard? On Sunday I also got to thank Clive Hamilton for his 2004 book Affluenza, which I’ve read several times and really made me think about my country, and my society, Western society, consumer society, differently. I talked about my doctorate a bit and he gave me some more authors to follow-up.

To be continued…

Commentary

Aug 9, 2010

5 comments

A sun-drenched and possibly superficial series of blog posts

Around 9pm on Wednesday night I rolled into Gold Coast airport. My talented friend Omar Musa was on the same bus into Byron and we decided we should go out and wreak some havoc. Havoc was kebabs and a quiet pub where a young blonde man by the name of Matt Buggy played pub ‘classics’. Omar and I kept forgetting his name and ended up with variations of Billy Buggy Ballbag, and we admired the way he, winkishly, asked ‘how ’bout this one?’ to the drunk, uncoordinated punters.

When we’d had enough of Ballbag Billy-Bob we found ourselves in a strange little club full of twelve-year-olds, tequila, and a very severe gothic bartender (she was pretty hot). First we just chair-danced but as soon as Billy Jean came on the seats were abandoned and Omar and I cut a rug.

workshopgroupOn Thursday morning I had my workshop (I was fine – a slight hangover actually helps the nerves). The workshop was in a recording studio within Byron’s impressive SAE complex. Twenty-four people (a sell-out) filed in through the thick, sound-proof doors. Three hours went incredibly fast. Participants had their curiosity sated, and many walked out buzzing with ideas. I really enjoyed meeting and hearing about them all. Afterwards, it was nachos and a radio interview on ABC (regional NSW), after which I began shaking unexplainably. I’m pretty sure it was after-shocks of adrenaline. Bodies are fascinating, aren’t they? A beer next door with Omar and a chat on the phone to my boy cured all.

Thursday night was the opening party. Lots of champagne and not quite enough finger food to soak it up made the rounds. I caught up with various lovely faces and met some new ones. It was wonderful to see my friend Amy Barker (author of Omega Park), though we didn’t get to have a proper chat until later in the festival.

At some point I looked over and saw the PanMacmillan ladies (publicists Tracey and Kate) with a boyish Bret Easton Ellis. I wondered what it would have been like for him, in this room full of strangers, in a country he’s never been to, knowing he was one of the festival drawcards (at his first ever writers’ festival, anywhere). Later on stage he wondered aloud why he had chose Byron Bay Writers Festival as his first – a kind of absurd choice as the punters aren’t even really his demographic. He wondered whether he was escaping something in California, whether something was wrong. But he’d always wanted to come to Australia, because a friend said ‘people are hot and they drink a lot’.

partybatBut I’m getting ahead of myself. Besides hot people drinking a lot in the room, there was Terry Denton’s stick with little rubber animals on it (wtf?) and a mass exodus to the verandah when the speeches started. I was standing with the lovely Krissy Kneen, and she said ‘why do people keep looking out here? Are we talking too loud?’ But then we realised their looks were those of envy, at the space away from Di Morrissey’s speech. I can’t actually judge as I didn’t hear it. I hear Robert Drewe rescued the crowd afterwards. (I know, I was very rude talking outside while the speeches were on.)

Pictured: party bat

Omar tells me later he was walking by a group of people when one of them said ‘Oh, I missed the speeches’ or something along those lines, and Omar said ‘Oh – lucky you! Jesus. They were fucking boring.’ One of the voices said ‘I gave one of the speeches’, and smiled, bemusedly.

I was introduced to Bret Easton Ellis sometime in the night, and he was a very friendly dude. Told me he was enjoying the Aussie sparkling wine. And I told him Kathy Charles and I were interviewing him in Melbourne next week, which he thought should be fun. I introduced him to Jack Heath, an Aussie boy wonder, with four novels under his belt at the age of younger-than-me. I honestly don’t remember much else of the conversation. Later we were at another bar, a group of us, and you could see the stars, and there was a discussion about fear of flying. BEE thought it was all about the fear of not having control, which I’d agree with. I still get it, and I fly quite a lot. When I think about the conversations, at one point I was shouting across the table to Kate how my WIP was going, and I was aware that BEE (in-between) was listening. I wonder how I embellished it. Do you think it’s possible to be genuine and still construct an image of yourself to suit different presences, different conversations? I’m fascinated by this. Obviously, as I have 3 1/2 years of a public, written, constructed self (that I feel is nonethless pretty genuine). And then, of course, there’s the ‘truths’ that come out only in fiction…

To be continued…

byron_jpgI’ve been in a lot of aeroplanes lately – flying out from Melbourne, flying in novels, and in dreams. Sometimes the ports look similar. Familiar, unfamiliar. My life is literature, is writing, is reading, and always passion, and there are good and bad things about being intertwined with fiction, about consistent imagining. It can be expansive, but also irrepressible. It can thrill or bother me at three o’clock in the morning.

But then, flying somewhere to talk about it – to share on stage, in a workshop, over a glass of wine – these habitations of the mind, connections formed on the page, worlds opened up, emotional educations or confirmations.

The next chance to do this is somewhere close to where I grew up – Byron Bay. I can’t wait to dig my feet in the sand, and to dig deep into the minds of authors. Will you join me?

Here’s my schedule:

Workshop: On my own, blogging and self publishing
These days it’s so easy to create your own path and have fun experimenting in new or alternate mediums. From the basics of blogging and self-publishing, through to tips on embracing social media, and promoting yourself online and off, Angela Meyer will show you how to form communities of readers, how to choose what medium is right for you, what not to do, and how to maintain balance in your writing life while embracing technology. You don’t need a publishing contract or a massive audience to be able to write and create meaningful connections. The tools are there for you.
Thursday 5th of August, 9.30am -12.30pm,  SAE Institute

Our whizzing, whirling world: can writing reign supreme?
Tom Cho, Angela Meyer, Peter Skrzynecki
Chair: Susan Wyndham
Friday 6th of August, 9.15am- 10.15am,  BLUE MARQUEE

Kindle, blog, tweet: what the hell does it all mean?
Krissy Kneen, Angela Meyer, Susan Maushart, Alvin Pang
Chair: Janet Steele 
Friday 6th of August, 12.45pm-1.45pm,  SCU MARQUEE

The firm: when writing is the family business
Georgia Blain, Kirsten Tranter, Brenda Walker
Chair: Angela Meyer
Friday 6th of August, 4.00pm- 5.00pm,  ABC3 MARQUEE 

Fragmented identities: fractures, flaws and fears
Georgia Blain, Patrick Holland, Michael Robotham
Chair: Angela Meyer
Saturday 7th of August, 10.15am-11.15am,  SCU MARQUEE   

Fantastical and magical: expanding the conventional world
Kim Falconer, Maria van Daalen
Chair: Angela Meyer
Saturday 7th of August, 4.00pm- 5.00pm,  BLUE MARQUEE   

Yes, there has been a lot of reading to do…!

My BBWF bio can be found, here.

And don’t forget, I’m blogging officially for Melbourne Writers Festival this year. My posts have begun, and I’ll collate them here at a later date. Enjoy everything.

Interviews + Profiles

Oct 31, 2008

5 comments

The Boat, Nam Le, 2008, Penguin – Hamish Hamilton (Aus, US), 9780241015414

Sentences – LiteraryMinded

Responses – Nam Le

*

The terminal point, point of contemplation.

The idea of terminus is critical to narrative: what (and where) is the point that occasions the narrative?  What needs finishing in order for articulation to start?  Because a narrative, no matter how it’s structured, is a linear thing – word comes after word comes after word – one at a time – and on the whole we read conventionally, that is, from one side of the word to the other, from one side of the page to the other, from one side of the book to the other.  From start to finish.

A dizzying array of cerebral and experiential assumptions are embedded into such a teleological mode of reading.  I’m interested in time.  Narrative time and time in narrative.  I’m interested in the techniques of temporal manipulation; how we – as writers as well as readers – can map the movement of consciousness, and its experience of time, onto the page.  What’s that line from “Little Gidding”? – We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.

Stillborns and stagnation.

From the start, physicists have set aside ideas of the existence of other kinds of matter – ether, dark matter – to account for empirical systems of understanding that seemed demonstrable and relatable in other respects.  From the start, biologists and chemists have been unable (or unwilling) to steer fully clear of vitalism, the doctrine that posits the existence of some vital principle, some élan vital, that distinguishes ‘life’ from ‘non-life.’  Theologists and philosophers are arguably referring to some version of this principle when they speak of the ‘soul.’  For me – from this vantage – the argument seems persuasive that nothing of real worth comes into being without a determining mystery at its heart.

Per Marilynne Robinson, in a Paris Review interview: “If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.”

Who knows what it is that brings a narrative to life?  Who knows what it is that separates something flawless, polished, perfect – but stillborn – from something else that, despite its imperfections, breathes?  I’m convinced it’s unknowable, this something.  I’m convinced that that’s what makes its manifestation valuable, even primal – and maybe – like ether, or dark energy – even extra-human.

Inadequacies. Miscommunications.

We all know Forster’s exhortation: “Only Connect.”  But the rest of it:  Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, / And human love will be seen at its height. / Live in fragments no longer.  Not passion to passion, nor human to human, love to love – but prose to passion.  See previous.  What a heroic (if quixotic) idea.  Live in fragments no longer.  This seems to me particularly apt now, and the word as instrument of ligation – of human love – particularly important.  What an idea.

Lightbulb. Headlights.

It was E.L. Doctorow who likened writing to driving a car at night – you never see farther than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Geographical variations.

I was on a plane the other day, flying from Hong Kong to London, when a man opened the port window over the wing (I’d scammed an emergency exit row seat) and woke me up. “The Himalayas,” he announced.  And it was incredible – to think that there was a correlation between the mountains out the port-side windows and, to plagiarise a phrase, the mountains of my mind.  Such moments – coming smack-bang against real-life referents – are simultaneously epiphanies (“They exist out there – these places housing so many happenings of my inner life!”) and impositions (“How dare these places exist?  How dare they crowd out my imaginings of them?  And what trumps what?”).  Geography in fiction, of course, is almost always interactive with human concerns.  Its variations are governed by human discriminations (see, eg, this map, which I like because it both highlights and diminishes our stamp on a basically unchanging surface.  (An aside – is it just me or does Australia seem still to be stuck in the mostly dark ages?)).  As a result, the proper apprehension of geographical variation in fiction ends up being much more than an exertion of the imagination – it’s nothing less, to my mind, than an epistemological discipline, a constant coming home, as we talked about above, to a different place.

‘Seated at a table in full sun outside the Ferry Building and sipping pineapple juice, Le retraced his unlikely path to a widely heralded early success.’ (San Francisco Chronicle) ‘He lifts a forkful to his mouth. “I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what panna cotta was,” he says, his Australian accent stretching out each vowel like Silly Putty. He tastes. “It’s quite good.”‘ (The New York Times) ‘But his capacity for the self-puncturing insight is frequently on display.’ (The Age) ‘I write because I read’ (You).

I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what Silly Putty was.

The human mechanism. Old man stands up in the bath.

When people talk about what it is we all have in common, they tend quite naturally to focus on anthropological or cultural rather than biological characteristics.  See, for example, this list of ‘human universals’ – one of the most interesting and provocative lists ever compiled (by Donald H. Brown, collated by Stephen Pinker).  Of course Brown’s interest is primarily anthropological, but I think it still speaks to my point that our greatest commonality is so self-evident it’s often overlooked.  Namely: our bodies.  No matter where you fit on the materialist spectrum, you can’t refute the proposition that we exist with – within – because of – and not without – our bodies.  Thought, character, conditioning, impulse, situation – all these, as human characteristics, are contingent on first-principle physicality – and the perishability it presumes.  And it’s precisely that physicality – the machine and not the ghost – or, perhaps more accurately, the machine impelled by its own ghosts – that sites our greatest, most enduring, most relevant mysteries.

Inside other people’s pages.

Metafiction.

According to Wikipedia: “Metafiction is a literary term for a type of fiction that systematically and self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, including the relationship between fiction and reality and the uses of irony and self-reflection.”  I’ll take it.

‘…pixellated it and everywhere turned it to plastic.’ (Meeting Elise)

Now you point it out, this is probably a clumsy elision of metaphors.

Juan Pablo. Juan Pablo.

John Paul.  Funny, I never intended that papal reference but I guess it’s quite at home in the scheme of the story. 

Kafka 1920: ‘8 December. Spent Monday, a holiday, in the park, the restaurant, and the Gallerie. Sorrow and joy, guilt and innocence, like two hands indissolubly clasped together; one would have to cut through flesh, blood, and bones to part them.’

That’s a great quote.  One of my favourite quotes also comes from Kafka; I’ll try to remember it off the top of my head: “You can stand aloof from the sufferings of the world.  That is your right, and it may even express your nature, but perhaps that aloofness is the one suffering you could have avoided.”

Generosity.

I want to talk about David Foster Wallace.  I thought he was one of our best.  One of our brightest lights.  An incomparable mind lashed to a mighty heart.  I thought he was unfailingly brave and, to me, of late, that’s become the real yardstick.  It’s so sad to read back over some of his stories – everything takes on a pall of anguish and prescience and portent now.  To know what we now know – that he was living in hell – renders his work the fruit of almost unbearable generosity.  May we make the most of it.

The person sitting next to you on the plane. Waiting for luggage. Smiling at the hotel desk. Sitting in the hotel room. Talking in front of many faces.

Apparently, 700,000 people pass through Grand Central Station in New York every day.  I once saw sped-up footage from a camera situated above the main concourse; what was most remarkable was that all these people – many moving at a fast Manhattan clip – fell into an eerie, communal rhythm wherein they barely touched each other.  Almost the whole floor was filled with people, yet there was an elegant, evolved choreography at work that, in keeping people from each other, I found a thing of great beauty and sadness.

Not describing bombs.

Listen here.

‘Kids believe in Santa; adults believe in childhood’ (from A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear, Cate Kennedy).

I wish I had my copy of Dark Roots with me – I left it in Australia – it’s full of lines such as these, steeped in humour and wisdom.  I’m hanging out to read her novel.

Sarah and Parvin, two parts of one whole?

So much is bundled up, isn’t it, in this idea of ‘one whole’?

Ending with loss.

Next.

Explanation: I deliberately chose an unconventional interview method with Nam. One reason is that he has done many wonderful interviews elsewhere (many present on his website) – I wanted to give him a chance to just have fun and be creative in reflecting on his work and writerly self. Another reason is that I think the blogging medium allows for experimentation, originality and flexibility. I instructed Nam to respond to the sentences however he wished. I derived them from The Boat, my reactions to it, and from things I heard Nam speak of at Byron Bay and Melbourne Writers’ Festivals – such as writing, short fiction, and more. He could also choose not to respond, or use links, other’s words, and/or images.