Menu lock

Interviews + Profiles

Jun 18, 2009

5 comments

Tom Cho’s surprising, funny, sexy, postmodern short story collection Look Who’s Morphing is out now with Giramondo, ISBN: lookwhosmorphing_cover9781920882549.

Prompts: LiteraryMinded

Answers: Tom Cho

Auntie Ling

Of the many impulses that the act of reading evokes, there are two that are especially irresistible. These are: 1) equating a text’s narrator with its author, and 2) equating the narrator’s aunties with the author’s aunties. So it’s no wonder that people sometimes ask me, ‘Tom, how true to life are your stories? The narrator in your book – is that you? And what about the family characters – are they your real family?’

I often discuss such issues of literary interpretation with my Auntie Ling. You may be interested to know that my Auntie Ling is very pleased with how she is depicted in my book. In fact, she says that my story ‘Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang’ is her favourite piece in the book. She says that I did a very good job of rendering the real-life dinner that she and I had in 1988, in which an army of orcs entered the house and attacked us. 

LM:

ba

The apron with breasts attached: novelty gift or sexy outfit – or something else entirely?

In Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook, Bornstein describes genderfuck as ‘the intentional crossing, mixing, and blending of gender-specific signals all at once’ (p. 19). She also describes passing as ‘the opposite of genderfuck. Passing is getting as many signals as possible all lined up’ (p. 20). So the above picture demonstrates an interesting fact: that the apron with breasts attached is a greatly under-rated piece of attire for genderfuck. 

In my story ‘The Exorcist’, the character of Auntie Wei buys an apron with breasts attached:

‘I warn my auntie that the breasts on the apron will look very fake on her because the breasts look so obviously made out of plastic. However, Auntie Wei is more concerned that the breasts on the apron will look very fake on her because they are of Caucasian skin tone.’

As shown in that excerpt, the apron with breasts attached can skew many kinds of signals; its ability to ‘fuck with the signals’ isn’t limited to the realm of gender. In this respect, as a writer, I found the apron with breasts attached to be the novelty gift that keeps on giving.

Blah, blah, blah and yada, yada, yada.

We’re still in the same territory of the apron with breasts attached: we’re still fucking with signals. It’s probably best to illustrate this by quoting the instance in which the use of ‘blah blah blah’, ‘yada yada yada’ occurs – the beginning of my piece ‘Learning English’: 

‘When I first arrived in Australia, I did not know a word of English.  I began English lessons through a migrant settlement program soon after I arrived, but I found it all very difficult.  Yet things did improve a little once I learnt the trick of replacing words I did not know with phrases like “blah blah blah”, “yada yada yada”, “whatever”, or the name of a celebrity. Australia is very different from my homeland. I was born and raised in a town called Rod Stewart.’

So, rather than neatly lining up the ‘linguistic signals’, we’re disrupting established relationships of meaning.

Why my interest in fucking with signals? Well, it’s fun. And, as a writer, I have an interest in signals. But there are other motivations at work too. In this case, via the use of  ‘blah blah blah’, ‘yada yada yada’, etc, linguistic signals are shown to be mutable in some way (i.e. you can change a message via the technique of substitution). If the signals are shown to be mutable, the attitudes and behaviours associated with these signals are also suggested as being mutable (or ‘morph-able’). 

So what does this amount to? Well, firstly: we don’t have to make the signals line up neatly in accordance with established beliefs. And, secondly: in fucking with the signals, we have the possibility of morphing these established beliefs.

LM:

terminator2_1

When I used to do a lot of work in producing community arts projects, I once entertained the idea that the community arts projects of the future would involve doing artistic collaborations with robot communities. (As someone with a fetish for writing funding applications, I probably also entertained the fantasy of being the person to write the funding applications for these projects.)

These digressions aside, I really enjoyed my adventures in sci-fi when I wrote the story ‘I, Robot’. As reflected in that story, I was intrigued by the character of C-3PO – specifically, the fact that a highly competent, protocol-driven robot would nonetheless be prone to vexation and anxiety. I soon discovered anxious robots – or moments of anxiety from robots – in many other pop cultural texts. To give just one example:

What really intrigued me, though, was the idea that these robot anxieties ultimately reflected human anxieties. Cyborgs, being part-human, seemed especially suggestive of this.

Pop Gulliver: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5KAJw4y8wE

In being rendered as a ‘Pop Gulliver’, Michael Jackson is – literally and perhaps egotistically – being ‘writ large’ in this clip. In fact, Michael Jackson extended this idea via the cover and promotion of his HIStory album. When the HIStory album was released, Michael Jackson was accused of egotism for the fact that his album cover depicted a giant statue of himself. Sony’s promotion of the album also involved the actual use of nine giant statues of Michael Jackson. Here’s the DVD cover:

michaeljackson

What kind of artist depicts a monument of himself – someone who is making it all about themselves, perhaps?

And yet it’s possible to read my own book as containing egotism and other supposed excesses of self-involvement. Maybe we should start at the cover. What kind of author puts a photo of himself on the cover – someone who is making it all about themselves, perhaps? And, in terms of the actual stories in my book, what should we make of the excesses to be found there, particularly those in the final piece ‘Cock Rock’? In this piece, the narrator is literally writ large in the text – he becomes a 55 metre tall cock rock star who is tied down with ropes and pleasured by twenty adoring fans in what might be read as a kinky version of Gulliver’s Travels. Again, what kind of author writes a piece like that – someone who is making it all about themselves, perhaps? So maybe Michael Jackson has his ‘Pop Gulliver’ and I have my ‘Cock Rock Gulliver’.

Given all of this, here’s an interesting and fun question to consider: can my Cock Rock Gulliver be read as being a Mary Sue?

Writing as endurance

It took me 9 years to write my book. One of the reasons why it took so long is that the book kept morphing (as did I). I also incorporated the writing of the book into a PhD, which added a few years onto the process. So writing my book was as much a test of endurance as, say, a test of artistic ability.

During those 9 years, I did have a period of a few years where I couldn’t and didn’t work on the book. At the time, I felt some guilt for this but, as I’ve told myself at various times in my life: sometimes writing has to make way for living.

Paradoxically, writing has also seemed pretty essential to my way of living. I’ve always been suspicious of strict demarcations between ‘professional writers’ and those who are deemed artistically inferior for deriving ‘therapeutic benefits’ from their writing. At the very least, the state of my writing has usually been a pretty good barometer for how I’m doing in general. Writing well has been quite important to me living well.

In a sense, then, writing has been a test of endurance for me and yet also an act that has enabled me to ‘endure’. 

Let’s play Chinese Whispers. Listen carefully and repeat what I say. (Here) 

TC:

 

Gender

Gender, like my book’s broader theme of identity, is underpinned by so many absurd assumptions and instances of false logic that it offers great opportunities for play.

At the same time, despite all that is assumed and claimed about gender, it ultimately holds great mystery. On the one hand, this has been daunting for me as an artist and also as a human being. At times, gender has seemed somewhat impenetrable and unknowable to me. As an artist, how can I possibly describe it? As a human being (and someone who used to go by a different gender), how can I possibly embody and ‘live it’?

On the other hand, the allure and richness of these mysteries can lend itself to good art – and, as I’ve discovered, good living too.

See Tom Cho’s website and blog here.

twdsccvr1Read the LiteraryMinded review of Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Sleepers Publishing, 9781740667012, 2009 (Aus, US)

Prompts – LiteraryMinded.

Responses – Steven Amsterdam.

Beginnings

I was inspired by a few loose pieces in the news, from life, the partisan splay of the 2004 election in the US, and my nervous mind, so I wrote ‘The Theft That Got Me Here’. When I wrote the last line, ‘I’ll keep going as far as the money takes me,’ I realised that it could be part of something bigger. I sent it out as a stand-alone piece, but started fishing around the pond of my brain for what other excitement this guy could get into.

Around that time, I picked up a copy of Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs. He was a general (for the good side) in the Civil War and president from 1869-1877, two presidents after Lincoln. In retirement, he toured the world, very well loved. During a financial boom and bust in the 1880s, he lost most of his savings by investing his money with some scammers. Suddenly in deep debt, he did what people do when they want to make money fast: he became a writer. He serialised his life story for $500 a pop, which is not at all bad. Turned out he was a good storyteller. He finished his memoirs (Mark Twain was his publisher) just before his death from throat cancer. The book earned his family close to half a million dollars in royalties which paid a lot of bills back then.

Reading his stories, I loved the notion that a person of this stature and ongoing national importance was still subject to the times, (war, assassination, financial turmoil). I was also struck by the fact that his stories didn’t always hinge on the importance of the historical moment he was living through. Instead they were often filled with details of interpersonal oddities, behaviour.

At first I was going to ape Grant’s whole thing, take some key moments and storify them in my imagined future. That quickly became too confining and dull. Still, I held onto the idea that the character would become president at the end. I was sure of that.

Urban setting:

blader21

We all know exactly what the city of the future is going to look like, right? Either shiny and sleek or grimy and run by gadgets gone bad. The first story I wrote (the second chapter) took us out of the city. What would nature look like? What would it look like just outside of the barricades? Who would live there still? What privations would they suffer? The next one, ‘Dry Land’ goes on and explores that idea, with the urgency of a biblical/climate change rainstorm in the background. The narrator is an urban character, by birth, but for most of the book he is roughing it outside of a city. A city boy myself, it was fun to roam the countryside and imagine this changed landscape.

Sickness

People don’t get sick enough in fiction, unless it’s sick fiction (and then it’s the whole point). But everybody in the real world gets sick sooner or later and one of the major reasons they feel like crap about it (on top of the prognosis or the limitations that come with it) is that they haven’t seen enough people being incidentally sick in fiction and movies. I wanted illness, not just bird flu and the like, to have a part in this future.

Ok, on rereading what I just wrote, it sounds like a con. I didn’t write the book to uplift sick people everywhere. This is the problem with interviews, or at least ones you can take your time with. I fabricate too easily. This is why I don’t keep a blog.

Still, there’s a truth in there somewhere and that led me to imagine a scenario, kind of like the world we live in, where people live well beyond their die-by date, but medical technology can keep them going further and farther. It’s not a huge leap to extrapolate adventure tourism for people with advanced cancer.

Worrying

I wouldn’t have latched onto the various scenarios that the character endures if I wasn’t susceptible to a bit of worry myself. I have been known to worry about many things, including Y2K, pandemic, climate change, war. You name it.

The End of the World: A History (here)

This book by Otto Friedrich was last printed in 1994. Chapter by chapter, he looks at the accounts of people who lived through devastating wipeouts – plagues, earthquakes, Pompeii, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. It’s healthy reading for a worrier, because the point is that the world keeps going (just maybe not with you in it). The book was written in the 80s, so it has this fear-of-nuclear-war spin to it. Remember nuclear war? Remember Chernobyl? How come we don’t worry about meltdowns anymore? Did that problem get all sorted out or did we move on to other concerns?

Getting the future wrong:

I was well aware that trying to write a big dystopian book was a thankless exercise in some regards. I hadn’t read enough to know what had already been done. I didn’t know enough about politics and technology to be able to begin to meaningfully predict what would happen. Remember 1984? Because of that book, so much meaning attached to the year as it drew near. All that remains in my mind now is Reagan’s reelection and a song from the Eurythmics. So what did we learn when New Year’s 1985 came around? Nothing works out, least of all worst-case scenarios.

So I wondered, Why should I get stuck describing one doomsday? This freed me up from getting caught in a particular groove (eg. drought), and let me explore all the terrible futures that are thrown at us every day. It also freed the book from being a standard dystopian extravaganza. Shoot wide, I say.

In ‘The Forest for the Trees,’ where the narrator watches Robocop in some tank-like vehicle ten years from now, and smirks at the poorly-predicted future, that’s my out for everything I get wrong. The book is less of a prediction than an exorcism of my fears.

‘If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.’

– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

My narrator, who started as a relatively opportunistic teenager, was never going to be wholly innocent. I wanted to maintain his passive sense of shiftiness in each part of the book. At one point, an early reader suggested that the story would work better in the third person. That’s one of those comments that writers love, up there with ‘why don’t you try rewriting everything from the dog’s perspective and see how it looks?’ I did try it, briefly, and immediately saw that we would absolutely lose sympathy for him if we didn’t have the closest view into his conscience. Additionally, being trapped there is what keeps the book intimate and concerned with the conduct of people, rather than the apocalypse.

In general, one should consider the greatness of Jane Eyre as much as possible. It’s got everything you need from fiction in one handy volume. It’s sugar as well as salt. Likewise Lolita (which has a particularly offensive narrator who we all seem to overlook). They’re both fully balanced versions of their form like The White Album (the Beatles’ and Joan Didion’s). I can think of no greater praise.

Track 29 (here)

Ok, this movie is probably awful and I haven’t seen it for years, but it still gets so much goodwill from me because I loved it when I was in my early 20s. It was written by Dennis Potter who dramatises the conflicted, happy sad moments of life so so so well.

Do you know The Candidate? It’s a Robert Redford movie from the 70s, where this smart, good guy, runs a long, difficult campaign for the presidency. In the last minute, he’s won, and he’s being led through hotel corridors and elevators to make his acceptance speech. (I may be remembering it wrong so, true fans, please forgive me.) He has a moment that I’ve always loved there, kind of like when they’re on the bus at the end of The Graduate. This candidate has gotten exactly what’s he’s been chasing and now he’s at a loss: What do I do next? I wanted the book to end that way, with him finding himself president and bewildered (as any of us would in the same position, really). In the end, Obama became too real a prospect and the American presidency was something that was getting way too complicated by modern-mythology to touch. I had to change my plan for my narrator.

But I liked that What do I do now? moment. Like Wile E. Coyote standing a few feet off of a cliff with a hint of victory still in his smile, in that split second between elation and terror. It seemed like a good feeling for each chapter to end on. Maybe not with the same doom as Wile E. Coyote, but with a similar sense of confusion and chagrin. Plus, the emotional uncertainty provides a more engaging close, I think, than an upbeat resolution or a downturn of events.

‘And all that mother-loving freedom’

Things We Didn’t See Coming

Mother-loving is a cleaned up version of a much stronger adjective that begins with the same first word. The narrator thinks it when he’s feeling utterly duped, dejected, and dumped. The last thing in the world he wants is freedom. Why he invokes his mother at that moment, I’ll leave to the shrinks.

Discontinuous narrative.

I like it that readers have to reorient themselves with each new chapter. It seems life-like: In the space of a few years, anyone can wind up with a new world of associates, a new job, a new set of priorities. (I know I have.) It was there in Grant’s Memoirs. You evolve with the times, for better or worse. Every cell in your body is new, and all that. You don’t really have a choice.

This gave me freedom to not write every moment of the character’s life, which let me focus on the exciting bits, which is good for the reader. At the same time, it kept me from feeling like I was working on anything as daunting as a novel, which was good for the writer. In my mind, I was working on short stories, not a novel. I wrote them without a complete plan and out of order (the last chapter was written second, the first chapter was written last). It wasn’t till it was mostly written that I became sure about the chronology. This arrangement, which I’ve since been informed is discontinuous narrative, served my mood, my insecurities, and my purpose.

Nothing Surprises (here)

For a while I kept hearing about couples where one partner worked hard, brought home the bacon and resented the one who stayed home looking after the house and kids. Of course this was the traditional role setup in Western families (of a certain class) for a long time. The resentment seemed strange to me. Another thing I’d been wondering about was heroes and their personal lives. Following these threads, I wondered what would happen if one of these stay-at-home fathers figured out he could fly. That’s ‘Nothing Surprises’.

From that, I’ve written a few other stories about heroes. One was accepted for the Readings 40th Anniversary Anthology, the other I’ve just started sending around. I have no idea where this theme is going. All I know is this: I doubt it will turn into the book I imagine.

Cinnamon cookies

These were what I made for the Melbourne launch of Things We Didn’t See Coming. I wasn’t working that day and had to do something.

The recipe I have calls them Mexican Wedding Cookies, but I’ve also seen them called German Wedding Cookies and Austrian Wedding Cookies. I haven’t been to a wedding in any of those countries, so how can I know? The cinnamon is my addition, let’s add a pinch of salt, which never hurts and call them Launch Cookies.

Preheat the oven to 150 C. Paper line cookie sheets.

Take 120 grams walnuts and grind with 60 grams of caster sugar. (Note: The walnuts benefit immeasurably from being lightly toasted first; they give off a caramel-ish unctuousness that, I swear, makes a difference).

In a mixer, cream 450 grams of room temperature unsalted butter with 120 grams of sugar and a few teaspoons of vanilla extract (or a scraped bean).

With the mixer on low, pour in 500 grams plain flour and a teaspoon of salt., and two tablespoons of cinnamon. Mix until just combined, then add the nuts.

This batter doesn’t spread much, so just roll them into the size of small plums or large cherry tomatoes and put them reasonably close to each other on the baking tray.

Baking time depends on the size and the oven, so it’s not exact. Mine take between 20 and 30 minutes. They should just  be getting browned around the edges.

While they’re warm, pick them up gently, roll them in icing sugar and put them on another piece of baking paper. When they’re cool, do it again.

This recipe makes about 100 bite-sized cookies. The dough freezes well, so you can bake half a batch and save the rest for another time.

See also Steven Amsterdam’s official website.

LM ~ My first notes after I read East of Here, Close to Water – unedited:

‘You. He. She.

All the characters so close to memories – sensitive to the way they press upon the present.

Glimpses of a moment, rich – here and there. Empathy for a person – a man ‘howling on his doorstep’, a dancer, a woman waiting.

Sad vivid remembrances – relationships, lovers, emotions.

A little surprising magical element sparkling in the ordinary…

Changes, shifts, overtakings, missings, moving on and never moving.’

JR ~ I do seem to have an aversion to writing in the first person. And to naming my characters. Nameless characters are easier to relate to. I also try not to specify gender, when I can get away with it, as in Supposing. Writing in the second person feels much more natural to me than writing in the first person.

I’m big on little things. On finding beauty in the ordinary. On finding beauty in sadness.

A man came up to me after a reading last week to tell me that my writing made him sad. And I agree with the poet Sean Whelan – that sadness is a gift – but for some reason I still apologised.

He said, ‘No, no. It was beautiful. Thank you.’

I don’t think sadness can exist independently of hopefulness. Without hope there is only defeatism, which is not the same. If you’ve fully given up then there’s no room for sadness.

I think most of the stories in East of Here are very hopeful.

LM ~ ‘Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act’ – Leonard Cohen

JR ~ But we’re still acting, right? Only we’ve forgotten that we’re acting.

LM ~

JR ~ All of the fancy-dress parties which I’ve attended dressed as Rita Hayworth have ended badly. Especially the one whose theme was 1987, where I was dressed as Rita Hayworth on Prozac at her own funeral. That one ended particularly badly. Not surprising though, really.

LM ~ Self-publishing.

JR ~ Thank you, insomnia. For some reason I have more faith in myself at 3 in the morning. Call it delirium, if you want to. One particular 3 in the morning, I realised that self-publishing was in fact a valid form of publication.

Independently produced music and film are fairly well regarded, if not celebrated, whereas people tend to be skeptical of independently produced literature. I have to admit that I was initially among the skeptical, but it retrospect it seems ridiculous.

I do feel the need for validation – all art is a means of communication, and the only way of knowing whether you’ve communicated something effectively is for people to tell you, Yes, I understand this. Yes, this has moved me; I’ve taken something from it. And somebody willing to publish and essentially invest in your work is a confirmation of that. But several of the stories and poems that went into East of Here and Asynchrony had already been published, so I felt I already had that validation.

The main aspect of self-publishing which won me over was creative control – I knew exactly what I wanted these books to be in terms of length, content and appearance, and that a publisher would have little reason to see eye to eye with me, as it meant expensive paper stock and unusually short manuscripts. A bit of a gamble, and I’m not very well known.

I’m very happy with how the first two books have turned out, and how well they’ve been received. My friend John Skibinski very generously drew beautiful, intricate pencil illustrations for both East of Here and Asynchrony, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he does for the third book. I’m very much looking forward to finishing the third book. Maybe after this one I’ll approach a publisher.

LM ~ A clock.

JR ~ There are three clocks in my house and all are stopped – the grandfather at 9:49, the wall at 2:53, and the little square one on the mantelpiece at 7:41. I’m not sure what can be read into all that. I also seem to accumulate broken telephones. I suppose I’m a collector of things which have lost their purpose. At least their original purpose.

When something no longer has a function, can we call it art?

LM ~ http://au.youtube.com/results?search_query=cherry+knot&search_type=&aq=f

JR ~ It’s unfortunate that my one and only party trick is seasonal. From February to October I’m a very boring person. But from November through to January! I am also much faster than most of these fine people.

LM ~ Not-dates.

JR ~ Suggested viewing for a not-date:

Irreversible

Requiem for a Dream

The Ordeal/Calvaire

The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover

No Country for Old Men

Waltz with Bashir

Fateless

Pretty much any war-related film will suffice, so long as it isn’t directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Avoid anything directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Or Jeunet & Caro, for that matter – somebody will inevitably invite somebody inside for coffee or to meet their pet cat or to check out their broken telephone collection, and there’ll be no going back from there.

LM ~ Overland @ 19.

JR ~ The first piece of writing I had published. But if poems were children, then that particular piece would be the daughter who leaves home at sixteen and calls now and then from a payphone in Far North Queensland asking to borrow money for rent on a house she won’t give the address to, and while she doesn’t really feel like mine anymore, I still feel that I’m responsible for her wellbeing so I say sure, sweetheart, what are your account details again?

LM ~ Being referred to as a ‘poet’.

JR ~ Hey – you’re that poet, aren’t you?

I’m sorry, it’s just that it always sounds like such an accusation. It also makes me feel like a bit of a fraud, as I’ve written next to no poetry recently. Poetic fiction, maybe, but not much in the way of poetry. The last poem I wrote looked like this:

4/12/08

I am sorry that

we have nothing beautiful

to say anymore.

Call me a poet once I have departed the City of Despondent Haiku.

LM ~ St Kilda.

JR ~ Jerry’s Milkbar (which is technically Elwood, but only just). The Astor Theatre. The greenhouse in the Blessington Street gardens. The fish in the greenhouse in the Blessington Street gardens. The man who walks his alpaca along Acland Street. My little house. My little cat. A bottle of wine with a friend at the end of the pier in the middle of the night at the beginning of summer when it’s too hot to sleep.

And of course, the fits in my stairwell. The people sleeping in my stairwell. Cars slowing down for me on Carlisle and Grey Streets even though I’d have to say my style of dress is grandma-chic. All the lunatics on the 96 tram. Not one pub I could really call my local.

St Kilda is a sort of self-imposed exile. I think that if I lived in Brunswick or Fitzroy I’d never get anything done. There are just so many people to drink tea and procrastinate with over there.

LM ~ ‘You’d look out towards the wash of the city lights and think of how you used to dream of nights like this, of men like him, and you’d wonder what was missing, what had fallen away between the now and the then’ (from your ‘Outdoor Furniture Green’).

JR ~ ‘I know not anything more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.’

– Samuel Johnson

Josephine’s work available is from Readings. See also her website, and here is one of her stories ‘The Dancer’. If you enjoy this interview format, see also the ‘responsive’ with Nam Le.

Update, 2011: read Elizabeth Bryer’s review of Josephine’s book How a Moth Becomes a Boat (Hunter Publishers).

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.