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Left: A burrowing owl [source]

In the back of my notebook is the beginning of a drawing of an escalator. I was hiding between things, being alone; couldn’t sit still, started tweeting. Should have gone outside and found some birds.

I attended the session Birds of a Feather mainly because I love to hear people talking about their passions. But I’m also bird-curious. In England G and I visited The International Centre for Birds of Prey, where they breed and fly all kinds of raptors (as well as rescuing sick or injured birds). We nibbled from the picnic Aunt M and Uncle D packed, sipped cider from a relative’s orchard, and watched owls burrow, kites dip, falcons dive, eagles soar (naturally) and vultures look magnificently intimidating. It was one of the best days of our trip, spent entirely in curiosity, awe and fascination.

One brave woman at the beginning of the festival session raised her hand when Michael Veitch asked: ‘have any of you never heard of either of these writers?’ (being Jonathan Franzen and Sean Dooley). She was there for the birds. Many were there for both. Unfortunately some audience members were there for Franzen only, and asked non-birdy questions about how exactly he does the planning for his novels, as though there exists some magic formula. Veitch also swung a lot of questions Franzen’s way, but he graciously reflected them back to Dooley as well. I wished there had been more of Dooley, though. He’s a highly knowledgeable ‘twitcher’ – the editor of Wingspan magazine, in fact – and a funny guy to boot. I once met him in another life at a Dymocks conference when his first book The Big Twitch was coming out, but was too shy to go up and chat to him at the MWF party the other night. Oh well. Bird on, Dooley. Bird on.

Anyway, about the session. Since Franzen became a twitcher (about 10 years ago) he said he gets to see all the places he travels to in a second, and better, way. There’s something ‘truer’ about the birds – a deeper and more lasting part of the place. Dooley took him to the Werribee treatment plant, an environment which accidentally became a kind of wetland habitat. About 370 species of birds have been sighted there over the past 50 years or so.

Birdwatching for both of them is a kind of ‘sublime’ activity. Franzen had been so angry about what was happening to the environment, since college, and for years it kept him inside. When his eyes became open to bird life he said he had no choice but to go back outside. Even though its so much more upsetting now. Writing about nature is difficult, said Franzen, because you have to avoid ‘too much’ appreciation of nature. People know that it’s beautiful. But they also know terrible things are happening to it. It’s easy to bore a reader (and Franzen himself has been bored by much nature writing).

Dooley said writers since antiquity have imbued birds with certain qualities, even moral qualities. He revealed that though magpies do stay with one partner for life, it’s often found that their offspring are not all from that partner! They also mentioned cliches of nature. Of course nature can be very cruel. A lot of the birds I saw at the falconry in England, for example, might make a lovely meal out of the cerulean warbler.

Dooley attested that birdwatching is actually one area where ‘citizen science does make a difference’. Data is collated through backyard sightings, for example. For Dooley it turns something that is for him a passion and indulgence into concrete facts – facts that ‘you can throw up in the face of industrialisation and people who want to destroy habitats’. For Franzen, it’s also good just to do something for its own sake. He has a ‘protestant work ethic’ and has to analyse and justify the worth of everything he does (I know that feeling). With birds, he found a new form of pleasure, or felt he’d never really ‘enjoyed’ pleasure, or happiness, until then. He admitted though that he will still often try to justify those blank, happy hours later, perhaps by writing about it.

Is writing in any way like birding? It can be, said Franzen, when its really happening – when the work is finally happening after the years of planning. ‘There is that timelessness’. In writing, as in birding, he can disappear from himself for several hours a day.

An audience member asked about birds disappearing and arguments used against prioritising the issue (ie. what about all the starving people in the world). Franzen’s answer was elegant. He said there will always be multiple priorities, and that ‘everyone finds what they are passionate about, and there should be a conversation there.’ He said ‘there is no moral trump card’. But Dooley pointed out, powerfully, that ‘any monoculture is a dangerous thing, is an unnatural thing’. The planet needs as much biodiversity as possible, for many different reasons, he said. A focus on birds ultimately helps the entire ecosystem.

At the end of the session a lady at the front commended Franzen for mentioning the ‘cat bib’ in Freedom, a kind of collar that inhibits a cat’s ability to catch a bird. Franzen proceeded to demonstrate how it works, putting the bib around his neck. I wish I’d gotten a picture.

Bird on.

Commentary

Aug 27, 2011

5 comments

It’s that time of the year again, where authors, poets, thinkers and drinkers congregate in Melbourne, and we go along to hear their thoughts about work and life. As I was away in the lead-up, I’m not doing any chairing or official duties this year. I get to go along and enjoy the talks, readings, performances and panels.

I missed the Franzen opener as I was still feeling wretched (and I hear I missed a pretty inspiring evening) but yesterday I set out to a few sessions:

First was Writing in Lab Coats. Jo Chandler’s book Feeling the Heat grew out of a journalistic assignment documenting field research in Antarctica. She was ‘absolutely beguiled by field science’ and in the book she travels back to the Antarctic, but also to other areas – hot, cold, wet, dry – where she knew active field research was going on. The focus of the book is climate change, and what’s going on at the forefront – in these delicate and necessary environments and ecosystems. As a non-scientist, she said she could ask all kinds of questions, and then she had to find ways of communicating the science, and also the experience, to the reader. And it sounds like she had some amazing and confronting experiences. Chandler told us about hanging out the back of a Hercules, her tears turning to ice at the aching beauty of the Antarctic landscape. The rainforests were more claustrophobic, with leeches that could even get behind your eyeballs.

Jane McCredie was always interested in the area of gender, and then a court case in Melbourne four years ago – where a young girl wanted to become a boy and halt female puberty – set her on the path to write her book Making Girls and Boys. ‘We like to think we have these nice categories we can put people into’, she said, and ‘people get upset when it’s not that simple’. McCredie spoke about working through her own reactions when she was meeting up with all manner of transsexual and intersex people. It sounds like a fascinating read. McCredie sees herself as ‘a friend of science’ who, like any friend, has to at times be critical. ‘There are very few people who completely fit the stereotypes of male and female’, she said. I agree wholeheartedly, and her book may be a great step toward making people more open-minded about the idea of an in between.

Elizabeth Finkel had been wanting to write about the genome since the completion of the $3 billion human genome project in 2001. She is an ex-scientist, a geneticist, and now a journalist. At first she had a ‘wall of facts and figures’ and couldn’t see the stories in them. ‘The valid way to communicate science is to tell the stories’, she said. She eventually found the stories, and found her voice for the book, The Genome Generation. One challenge was giving a visual sense to the minuscule, but from her reading yesterday, I’d say she has managed it very well.

In The State of the Literary Nation four editors of Australian literary journals spoke about where they are at (and more generally, where the scene is at) in this extended transitional period between old and new technologies. And new and new technologies (let’s face it: we’re in a constant state of flux and will continue to be). Ivor Indyk has of course ended the ‘book’ version of HEAT, but is keen on a reinvigorated magazine. There is a balance to be struck between older, dedicated members of the HEAT reading community, and newer audiences, including international readers. Indyk is interested in the idea of a digital presence, but possibly along with a different print presence. I spoke with Indyk a bit later and while I can’t reveal any particulars, I’ll just say that there are some very exciting ideas going around the table for this. It’ll be something you want to read in ways you’ll want to read it.

Griffith REVIEW, as founding editor Julianne Schultz told us, has been going strong with its print edition, but also provides some content online, and some in ebook format. Island, edited by Sarah Kanowski did an epub version of their last issue, too. But both Kanowski and Dominique Wilson from Wet Ink, a magazine-style journal also sold at newsagents (including internationally) said they still preferred, personally, to read in print. I think a lot of people feel the same, young and old, and I think it’s interesting (though quite natural, I guess) that these conversations do always turn into a discussion of formats. I would have liked to hear a bit more about content, ie. what kind of exciting things are they publishing? Where are the stories and essays coming from? What is their editing process like? I’ll admit that I’m just getting a bit over the whole digital vs print debate (you may have noticed I haven’t written about it much lately) and have settled into a calm acceptance that most of us who read will read on both screen and page. Of course, I’m not a publisher or a bookseller and can sit back and say that – I don’t have to make any difficult decisions. But talking about the ‘casing’ all the time seems, well, like talking about surfaces. I love stories, no matter what form or format (or even medium) they come in.

In the afternoon I was introduced to Eliot Weinberger, by Ramona Koval. Weinberger is an American writer, translator and literary critic. He is known for his essays, on a huge range of topics, which have an ‘avant-garde’ or poetic form. He was wonderful. I adore curious people and, as Koval described him, Weinberger is the ‘embodiment of infectious curiosity’. He says he doesn’t make anything up, in his pieces –  ‘I think it’s because I basically have no imagination’. Instead, they are made up of verifiable things, or things people believe to be true. He comes to some of these ‘facts’ and ‘strange things’ via books. ‘One of the traditional uses of literature is talking about strange things.’ He might condense a huge book into a two-page essay. He also comes to them from news stories. He read us three pieces set in India, one of which (about a young girl being married to a frog each year in an Indian village) he got from the local press while over there.

As literature began with ‘strange stories and going to other lands’ he finds the tendency for realism ‘very curious’. He’s not sure realist fiction really provides Melville’s ‘shock of recognition’. Perhaps a ‘slight throb of recognition’, he said. He also doesn’t like when middle-class American authors talk about ‘risk’. There’s a kind of ‘risk fetishism’ going on, but there’s a real risk going on with people writing in countries where they could be prosecuted.

He said the essay is still largely unexplored territory and there are huge possibilities for writers. He was amazed at the reception of his ‘What I Heard About Iraq’ in the London Review of Books, a ‘collage of soundbites’ from the lead-up to and beginnings of the war in Iraq. He said that perhaps it was so successful because there ‘was almost nothing else’, compared to in the Vietnam War where songs and poetry were being written about it all the way through. He said perhaps his essays also work because they are not over-explanatory; he leaves gaps, the way one would with poetry. There is also a musicality to them.

Weinberger was very prescient about the internet, predicting its influence many years ago in a talk and being booed off by people (‘yuppies with laptops aren’t going to change the world!’). He also said he couldn’t imagine the Bush years without the internet, as the mainstream media in America were truly only reporting what the government wanted them to. ‘The internet is a great place for minority interests’, he also said, such as poetry.

Weinberger started translating Mexican writer Octavio Paz in high-school. When he was a hippie (‘with beads and stuff’) university drop-out someone sent Paz his translations. They were then to work together for 30 years. He dropped out of Yale because ‘everyone there was a brand name’ like Bob Colgate or Bill Schick. There around the same time was George W. Bush, and you must read Weinberger’s review of the Bush autobiography. (He invokes Foucault’s ‘death of the author’ in relation to the ghostwriting team who actually wrote the memoir.)

I’ve heard that An Elemental Thing is a great book of his to start with.

Friday 28/8

1tsDebut With Style was chaired by Mr McSweeney’s, Eli Horowitz, and on the panel were Evie Wyld, Reif Larsen, Hitomi Kanehara (pictured below) and Lisa Unger. All had a different experience of ‘debuting’. Larsen had a ‘burning desire’ to write The Collected Works of TS Spivetand the publication was almost a bonus. Unger wrote four novels with another publisher before her ‘debut’ with literary crime thriller Beautiful Lies, which took her to a much wider readership. Wyld took herself around to indie bookstores in London. As a bookseller she knew how many great books she was competing against. You ‘have to get out there’, she said. Kanehara experienced a ‘storm’ of attention with her first novel, having won Japan’s famous Akutagawa Prize at 21.

All agreed that without the ‘hunger to get back to that lonely place’ (as Larsen put it) after your work has been out and well-received, you couldn’t really call yourself a writer. They write even when they are on the road – there’s a powerful ‘drive to be in the moment with your work’ said Unger. Those alone moments are what the job is all about.

Kanehara was asked an interesting question, being the youngest on the panel and the one with little life experience before the storm. Horowitz asked if she ever felt like living another life for a while, getting into the dirt of things. Kanehara (quite a vision – strikingly thin, elegant, charming) replied that she has always wanted to write, since she was 11 years old – and she continues to write about what she knows. She is hard on herself though, going through many edits and revisions with her publisher – and admitted she is worried that her forthcoming short story collection won’t sell so well.

z4761062xLarsen was funny talking about the first drafts – ‘stinking it up’, and ‘trusting that the writing will get better’. All agreed that genre didn’t really come into it, that genre chooses you, in a way. During her creative writing course, Wyld told her teacher she wanted to write a ‘Schwarzenegger-style action thriller’, because ‘it would be fun’, but it didn’t work out because when she sat down more contemplative words came out.

Watching this panel, I was curious about what my company was thinking – sitting in the row were a successful debut novelist, a debut memoirist who writes fiction, and a writer whose debut novel is coming out next year. The main reason I was at the panel was for Larsen and Kanehara, as I’m interested in their books. There was one voice missing from the panel – all of the panellists were first published overseas and it would have been great to have an Australian voice.

I bought Kanehara’s award-winner Snakes and Earrings after, and got my copy of Larsen’s book signed. Turns out we are to be in the same issue of The Lifted Brow at the end of this year, and we both have Norwegian heritage. Nice. I’m looking forward to dipping into Spivet.

*

3751980836_a8a00e0c18Chris Flynn interviewed Wells Tower in the Festival Club at lunch time. Tower enthralled the room, and this was definitely one of the best sessions I’ve been to this year. I’ve been wanting to read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned for a while, so bought a copy and got it signed after (I know… so many books). I won’t write too much about this session as Chris Currie has interviewed Tower for LM and it will be up in the coming weeks. Just a few things:

Tower revises the shit out of his stories, taking at least three months on one, even rewriting it from scratch from different angles and perspectives. I actually found this really encouraging (as opposed to daunting). I look forward to the day I can spend that much time on writing and rewriting. Tower feels he is ‘doing the most I can with the time I have’, by choosing to write fiction, as a job. He is a ‘huge believer in literature, to make life richer’. Amen to that. ‘If you’re writing to be published you’re going about it for the wrong reasons’. That is something I just love to hear. I come across people a lot (and some are friends) with an obsessive glint in their eye. They think I’m insane because I haven’t given my ms to all the publishers who have asked for it. I can understand, on one hand though – they believe that publishing will give them more time to write afterwards. In Australia, this is not necessarily the case. Royalties are slim. But there is more of a chance to go for grants and awards, I guess. Time is what the writer most wants…

Wells Tower’s favourite (recent) reads (off the top of his head):

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
The Known World  – Edward P Jones
The Moviegoer – Walker Percy
Flannery O’Connor’s short stories
Richard Yates’ short fiction, particularly ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’
Barry Hannah’s short stories
Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson

*

hyland_thisishow5b15d20australian20coverNot only is MJ Hyland an incredible writer, she’s a very attractive woman, and keen to engage with an audience. I’d highly recommend seeing her at any writers’ festival, if you get the chance. She began by reading the opening of This is How. What a f**king treat – the best part of the book. Then Michael Williams, after pointing out the alienated characters in her three books, asked if she needed a hug. She said ‘yes’. And they stood and embraced!

Hyland says she doesn’t consciously choose ‘outsider’ characters, but they become so, nonetheless. He asked if she had a bleak worldview. ‘I don’t think of it as bleak’, she said. She writes to capture ‘weight’, not ‘bleakness’, like the books she enjoys – ie. Camus’ The Outsider (I knew it!), and Crime and Punishment. ‘Could you characterise that as bleak?’ she asked. The audience were like um, yes. This is going to get a bit gushy, but I was ecstatic with what she said – I am always accused of having ‘depressive’ tastes – but prefer to think of them as texts that have weight and a core of reality: discomfort, uneasiness, ill-fitting, death, disappointment, loneliness – YES.

Hyland has always been interested in tragedy, and her characters just end up coming out ‘wrong’ or ‘off’ in the world. Williams described her charcater Patrick Oxtoby as unlikeable, and she vehemently shook her head. (I knew it again!) I liked Patrick, in an uncomfortable way. I wanted to like him from the start and I did. My flatmate disagreed – he hated him and was incredibly frustrated by his thoughts and actions (but still loved the book). With Patrick (and all her characters), Hyland doesn’t want there to be a ‘neat cause and affect’ to their actions. People insist on pathologising them, but ‘he’s not a victim and he’s not suffering from any mental illness’. She wanted him to be ‘as complicated as we are’. Don’t you love her?

Hyland deliberately leaves out technology in her books, though she’s not entirely sure why – something to do with the 19th Century literature she enjoyes, she thought. Also, the language is ‘pared back’ in later drafts from the first. She needs to know the backgrounds of the characters herself, then she puts that material aside to tell the story in the ‘most unadorned’ way she possibly can.

photo_3_mj_hylandAfter the session I got This is How signed. Here are the things I was thinking of saying while in the line: ‘I’m a big Camus fan’; ‘I like Patrick too’; ‘I love books and films that people classify as bleak’; ‘I’ve read it already and I adore it, thank you’. None of these came out when I got schoolgirl tongue-tied (and there was a huge line). I mumbled something about having read it but it was a proof copy and now I have the real one and bla bla she smiled hard at me and said thanks and I ran away in shame. Later, in bed last night, when you go over the shouldhavesaids, I realised it was actually the most apt MJ Hyand encounter one could have – just like one of her characters would have – with the words coming out wrong, strange weight and expectaton that only one is aware of, funny little needs, and disappointment. I felt better about it after that.

*

affection1Put Your Hands All Over My Body was chaired by Peter Veitch, and featured Krissy Kneen, Linda Jaivin and Nikki Gemmell. This was an enlightening session, rounding out a spectacular day. Veitch seemed a funny choice for this panel. He opened with some words about sex and pleasure, and he was a bit sweaty and bulgy and stumbly and I couldn’t help imagining him in the throes of ‘pleasure’. His first question was about guilt (which seemed a very masculine one) and all three women shot him down immediately saying their books were a celebration. Jaivin is exciting – bright red hair, and references to ‘connecting with eros’. She’s a woman truly in touch with physical joy. Gemmell is still coming to terms with her status as a writer of sex and erotica (The Bride Stripped Bare was first released anonymously), but at times in the discussion, her eyes lit up – talking about ‘tenderness’, and the freedom of not just writing about sex, but indulging in literature. Kneen was the star of the night – Veitch seemed unaware at the start that her book was actually a biography! The audience directed most questions to her. Jaivin and Gemmell both said they ‘take their hat ff to her’ for her bravery. I was so enthralled in this session I forgot to take many notes, so I can’t report much more. But the authors said reading erotica is ‘healthy’, and they were ‘writing about something essential to human connection’ (Jaivin).

Jaivin and Kneen didn’t think there was much distinction between erotica and porn, nor should there be – that erotica could still be ‘brutal’. They did mention ‘good writing’ though. Gemmell thought there was a more defined line. Gemmell said she would love to read something from a man’s point of view, about his ‘secret life’, and that she hadn’t really come across that yet. I thought immediately of Alex Miller’s Prochownik’s Dream. Anyone else have any suggestions?

*

Phew, still here? Melburninas, come see me interview SPUNC authors and publishers at 6:45pm tonight and tomorrow night in the MWF Festival Club (ACMI building), totally free.

Commentary

Aug 22, 2009

5 comments

Stories everywhere: The guy in the ACMI cafe shares my love of David Bowie, and they make a mean ham toastie.

The title of the session Oranges are the Only Fruit alludes the the Orange Prize, which guests Anne Michaels and Kate Grenville have both won. Peter Clarke was a generous and intelligent chair, steering the conversation mainly in the relation of ‘process’, and how one gets to such a level of ‘literary art’, as he put it. For Kate Grenville, there is really ‘no such thing as a fact’, only interpretations. We are left with the ‘energy’ of history, and in that, something that asks questions about the present. When Anne Michaels is writing she may start with a collection of facts, but its the ‘meaning between the facts’ which is important. And this may take time to emerge.

Did you know? Kate Grenville has two early manuscripts in her bottom drawer. The reason they were unsuccessful was that she was trying to write to a plan, and wasn’t letting herself be taken down the roads of curiosity. Also, she did 30 drafts of The Lieutenant. And despite having written many novels, each time she feels a fear – one specifically related to being true to the imaginative potential of the material and the characters. ‘If you go honestly asking questions … something opens up in a meaningful way.’ So go forth, writers, with your ‘engine of curiosity’!

Anne Michaels spoke with sensitivity and insight about the ‘perilous’ journey of a book in formation. As human beings we naturally want to simplify or reach a conclusion about a difficult and complex issue or situation. Michaels says we should ‘respect the complexity of what we’re writing about’. Go there! Go ‘beyond what you think you can do’, she told an emerging writer in the audience.

Grenville and Michaels will be appearing at further sessions. I highly recommend seeing them – engaging and articulate speakers, who also read beautifully from their own works.

AND LiteraryMinded will feature an interview by Matthia Dempsey, with Michaels, after the festival. Stay tuned (or ‘clicked in’ as the term probably should be).

tdgSleepers Publishing
August 2009, Australia
9781740668132

Three children – one insular, one bold, and one stubborn and growing – dare each other to undertake dangerous or humiliating tasks in the ‘danger game’. Their lives are daring enough, with an unstable father and a mother on-edge, and mature secrets inside each of their little heads.

Only two of them live in the present – sisters in different cities who in the course of this narrative band together again and take on new challenges. Louise, the bold one, wants to find her mother. Alice is older, in admiration of her sister despite the needle-marks and fantastical lies that spout from her mouth. Alice gets caught up in relationships and politics, but it isn’t until her sister arrives that she really acts. Louise comes to Melbourne with the idea of not only finding their long-estranged mother, but finding out what really happened the day her twin, Jeremy, died. Alice has plenty on her plate already, with the school she teaches at under threat of closure. But their efforts become harmonious – their struggles rendered in some of the most shockingly brilliant prose I’ve read.

As the present events unfold – searching but stubborn Alice in first person; and the magic, clever, simultaneously vulnerable and resilient Louise in second person – the reader is also made privy to the events of that day, unfolding in the past, with Jeremy – the lost. As such, Jeremy becomes like a ghost upon the present. And finding out what really happened is just one of the narrative drives (along with what will happen with Alice’s school and relationship situation, and whether Louise will find her mother and stay away from drugs). Having Jeremy’s chapters throughout the book also acts to show the continuing impact of the death of a family member – especially one so young, unformed and unknown – on the present.

The father is a sad and ambiguous character, mentally ill, and still present in the girls’ lives. There are other secondary characters. Alice’s married lover Jon (someone she clings to though she herself is not even sure why); some of her students; and Alice’s best friend Sarah – whose purpose I didn’t first understand, but came to as the narrative moved along.

Ordinary life is richly rendered in this very contemporary novel, which is not only enjoyable, and literary, but political too, at its heart. Alice’s struggles – trying to keep the school open, alongside other struggles in the book – are about fairness, strength and daring. Realistically, the quiet and alone and hard-done-by characters don’t always come out on top, such as young Jeremy. Layered within the themes, descriptions and dialogue, too, are references to confusion and alienation, consumerism, youthful dissatisfaction, drug use and other modern societal issues. I can’t emphasise enough, though, how fulfilling the writing itself is, so that while a chord is being struck deep and low, your imagination is ensconced in the characters and their rooms, cafes, schools, backyards, city streets; and deep within their vivid, colourful and sense-filled childhood.

Another of the themes is imagination and escape, not just for children with a difficult home and school life, but escape in an adult present, both physical and mental. And the effect of great escapes (such as their mother’s physical one, or their father’s – into the bottle) on generation next. Louise’s drugs and Alice’s sex are other complex explorations of that fine line between retreat and daring. When does it hurt others? When is that actually inevitable? When is it okay to escape and when is it time to stand up?

The dialogue flows very naturally, but there were times (and this is my only, tiny qualm) where every character was very open and said what they meant. Occasionally this crossed into unbelieving territory for me. I wish that people spoke like that. And people like Alice and Louise might do… but at points, every character states their thoughts a little too defiantly.

Ashton shows us a difficult world, an unfair and confronting and complicated world, where comfort and pieces of happiness come out of living right on that edge of brave and daring. And she writes lively, originally, masterfully, unexpectedly. I was completely absorbed.

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.