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An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.
The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.
Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.
With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.
‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short
‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy
‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith
‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome
‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest
‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington
‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold
‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould
‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young
‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason
‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith
‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville
‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward
One anthology (two anthologies)
It’s beautiful in design, it feels good, actually it feels perfect – how it all holds together in colour and shape and form and texture. A glistening cover, inside the gorgeous black and white and sometimes sepia images, and thoughtfully composed essays and short stories and poems and memoir from some of Australia’s best writers – Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Alan Gould, Susan Hampton et al. It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly constructed object. Which is utterly apt for an anthology with Canberra as the theme. Meanjin should be congratulated for getting together this particular edition, and the context couldn’t be more fitting – Australia’s national capital turns 100 this year. And for having the guts to do it: across this crusty, leathery old country of ours there isn’t much love for the little southern city, and, rather predictably, there’s a persuasive view that nothing much happens there beyond political and public-sector hot air, and, so the story goes, there’s nothing much of literary note either, which is, of course, complete bollocks. There’s another anthology about Canberra out at the moment, The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press; editor Irma Gold), and that more than proves the point.
I lived in the ACT for the best part of 25 years, from 1987 to 2010, and these days I’m only an hour away. I moved to Canberra from Sydney by choice, to go to university and start my adult life. However, university wasn’t the real reason: it was about escaping a city that had leached into my bloodlines (I have ancestral connections to that part of the world dating back to 1797) but had also overwhelmed me with its hedonism and dark heart; moreover, it was about putting myself in an environment which I believed would open me out so that, at last, I might be properly alive. I knew little about Canberra beyond what I’d gleaned from a handful of trips to visit family friends, but I knew it was different in look and feel to anywhere else I’d been. Even as a child I understood the territory to be fresh and forward-thinking, and this appealed to someone who was born and bred amongst the well-heeled conservatism of one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, and I had the sense that a new way of being in the world was required.
Much of this Canberra edition of Meanjin focuses on built form and town-planning, which is both unsurprising and perfectly reasonable for a city famous for being designed from the ground up. And it was certainly a resonating experience to undertake my first degree, landscape architecture, in a place where landscape and architecture are so important. However, these things are not what I enjoyed the most; these things are not what have ultimately made me remember my time in Canberra with great fondness, often love. In Canberra I discovered who I was, I met people, I fell in love. Critically, it seemed – and still seems – a place where pre-judgement isn’t the preferred modus operandi. Is there really much difference between getting drunk or getting stoned? Do we wish to demonise people who sell sex and people who pay for sex? For some years now, Canberra – the society of 380,000 people, not the hollow, hill-top political machine – has been asking the question about whether or not marriage is about gender. And isn’t it time that the nation stood on its own two feet and became a republic?
Almost three years I moved out of Canberra into neighbouring regional New South Wales. Why? Cheaper housing – most writers can’t afford big-city mortgages, even the rent. And I appreciate small-town life. And old stuff. Canberra has a rich heritage – Aboriginal, natural, and built – but it’s not the crumbly, slightly depressing sort. And I’m a big fan of the crumbly, slightly depressing sort. So these days I live in my little old 1895-era cottage called Leitrim, and I spend my weekends patching up cracks that keep appearing in the walls and I collect firewood for a fire on these cold, damp nights, and I’m as happy as Julia Gillard on a Sunday arvo sitting on the couch in her jim-jams with a glass of red while watching Bruce Willis bash it up in Die Hard. I love walking down to the mainstreet to visit the post office, which is a truly spectacular late nineteenth-century marvel, and doing a few transactions in a bank where the people know my name, before wandering home through hidden laneways. When Goulburn’s good, she’s heart-stopping spectacular.
But still I visit Canberra regularly, weekly in fact, and a hump-day highlight is careering through the rolling back-road Southern Tableland landscape, listening to music (the latest Frightened Rabbit has been getting a good run, which make me laugh in this context – the road’s awash with roadkill) and when I cross the border into the ACT it’s always a joy, a hopeful joy. Because to me that’s what Canberra is about: the future, and how we can craft it anyway we like, even as a society we can do this. We can honour the past, live in the Brindabella-boundary present – if you’ve never been around to see snow on those ranges then you’re missing the quintessential south-east Australian experience – but keep eyes open to move forward. It’s this youthfulness that I admire about Canberra – how my own youth once became a kind of ‘manhood’, whatever that is – and the unashamed optimism. And the fact that many of my friends still live there.
And that perfection might not be so unattainable afterall.
About a launch
Somehow it’s all happening at once, so to keep track of everything that’s happening, and to share some of the goodies, here’s a very rare mid-week Under the counter post. Firstly, just a reminder that my second novella with Blemish Books, I’m Ready Now, is being launched tomorrow (Thursday) night, at 5.30pm at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT; it’s a thrill to have journalist and biographer Christine Wallace cutting the metaphorical ribbon. Cue sleepless nights and trembling hands.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been leaking bits and pieces about I’m Ready Now, so to keep the tradition going for a little while longer, this novella manages to meander its way between Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, and northern Vietnam and south-west Ireland also get a mention. And ‘Sail On’ by The Commodores features, and this is a band that can apparently walk on clouds – make of that what you will.
Relating to I’m Ready Now, the increasingly influential literary blog Whispering Gums recently asked me for a guest-post. I wrote about novellas (no surprises there), raising children (yes, you read that right), and how family-life is the raison d’etre of the contemporary Australian novel (I really believe that). Oh, I also mention zombies. Massive thanks to Sue Terry for the opportunity.
An anthology of giants
More broadly, I’ve mentioned before that a story of mine, ‘Severance’, which was first published in the Canberra Times in 2003 and republished in Island in 2004, has been included in The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press), which celebrates the Centenary of Canberra in 2013. Creative Director of the Centenary – and singer, writer, and arts-luminary-in-general – Robyn Archer says in her introduction: ‘The anthology includes names such as Roger McDonald, David Campbell, Blanche d’Alpuget, Barbara Blackman, Rhyll McMaster, Alan Gould and Jackie French; but there are also equally beautiful emerging voices such as those of Omar Musa, Nigel Featherstone, Sarah St Vincent Welch and Melinda Smith. That so much good writing, past and present, should emerge from this region is a powerful challenge to the silly cliché of Canberra as a city without a soul.’ Needless to say, it’s a real treat to have work included in these pages.
Oh look, I’m now on YouTube
The tireless editor and project-manager of The Invisible Thread, Irma Gold, who is a very fine author in her own right, has video-interviewed seventeen of the writers involved, including yours truly. You can watch the interview here. Mostly I talk about how ‘Severance’ (which, perhaps, has turned out to be my biggest hit) was written, the benefits of living in Canberra and now Goulburn, and juggling everything that life throws at us. The Invisible Thread is being launched in Canberra on Thursday 29 November.
I hope you enjoy the links, but it’d be great to cross paths with you in person at the I’m Ready Now launch tomorrow night, or The Invisible Thread launch next week.
The city’s been good to me, one particular city, it’s called Canberra and it’s an hour down the road. I lived in the place from 1987 to 2010, over half my life. I moved there as an eighteen-year-old, escaping Sydney, that city of two million people at the time (it’s four million now), purposely leaving behind everything that it had been to me, for me, the rich district where I grew up, the private schools, the Mercedes and BMWs and Volvos and Porsches, the loveliness of all that, but also the dreadful emptiness – I’ve been disinterested in material wealth ever since.
In Canberra I enjoyed university life, group-house life, working my way into adulthood, finding myself (more or less), making friendships, many of who remain with me to this day, settling down, running amok, settling down again. In Canberra I met my partner Tim. In Canberra I rediscovered my love of reading and writing, committed myself to both, started writing poetry (the first thing I ever wrote and had published – under a pseudonym – is now embedded into the pavement in the heart of the city) but quickly moved onto short stories and then longer forms. I began doing freelance work for The Canberra Times, interviewing writers and artists, which has been such a pleasure. In Canberra I had a stroke of good real-estate luck, which now enables me to live in the country without debt. Now when I look at my resume I realise how good Canberra has been for my creative life.
So, for almost two and a half decades, Canberra was home, that most modern of cities, imagined from the ground up by the American architect and landscape planner Walter Burley Griffin and his professional partner and wife Marion Mahoney. The Griffins won the international design competition in 1912, and the first peg was hammered into the ground in 1913, so next year one of the world’s great designed cities turns 100, which is quite something, wouldn’t you say? But not everyone will be celebrating. To the majority of Australians, Canberra is just the place of Australia’s federal parliament and all the public-service departments that go along with that. Only ever experiencing the city via compulsory school trips, they see the intricate order of every street and street corner unnatural, as if the city isn’t Australian at all. Indeed, as a child and I’d visit Canberra with my family, I always thought that as we drove across the border we were stepping into another world, a bit like how it’d be travelling in Europe, so I day-dreamt.
It’s true that Canberra is quite odd; now that I don’t live there but remain close by I can see that now. It is ordered, it is polite. It is a city-state, which means to many it’s neither one thing nor the other. It can be the most beautiful city in the world – 70% of the Australian Capital Territory, of which Canberra is the centre, is mountainous national park, much of it getting dustings of snow in winter. Regrettably, to many it can also be the most boring city – it’s never developed the pub culture that makes a stack of other Australian places come alive. It should be made clear, though,that these days Canberra has many fine cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants, and the diversity and quality of cuisine matches or surpasses that available anywhere else in the country, even Melbourne and its ridiculous self-belief that it’s the centre of Antipodean culture.
In the end, however, Canberra is just a community of 350,000 people getting on with their lives – half of the residents don’t have a thing to do with the parliament or public service. In general the population is well-educated, well-read, and politically leans to the left. For a long time it has had progressive policies on recreational drug-use, prostitution and pornography, it was the only state or territory jurisdiction to vote YES in the 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic, and on Tuesday 14 August 2012 the ACT Legislative Assembly will vote in favour of the most advanced same-sex relationship laws in the country.
It’s not surprising, then, that Canberra is also a creative and cultural place. Statistics regularly reveal that the city’s rate of participation in the arts is higher than anywhere else in Australia, and many high-profile artists working in all forms of creative practice call the ACT region home. In particular, Canberra has for decades well and truly punched above its weight in terms of writing. The list of eminent writers from this neck of woods is long: Miles Franklin, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clark, Roger McDonald, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Alan Gould, Geoff Page… In fact, the list is so long that as part of the centenary of Canberra celebrations a major anthology is being published – it’s called The Invisible Thread. The book will be launched in November as part of the National Year of Reading, but will also have a long run through the centenary shenanigans. This in itself is very exciting, but it’s also personally very exciting because my work has been selected for inclusion, which is an almost unbelievable honour.
But here’s the rub: despite the project attracting a publisher, Halstead Press, and support from the ACT Government as well as other literary and related organisations, including my own publisher, Blemish Books, The Invisible Thread does not yet have enough money to get over the line. It says something about the status of writing – any kind of creative practice – in Australia when a book of this – dare I say it – importance has to put out its hand. Because that’s exactly what the project team, led by the tireless Canberra writer and editor Irma Gold, has done: it’s started a Pozible campaign to help pay for the marketing side of the book, to make sure the work has the best life possible out in the community. At the time of writing, 40 generous people have pledged $3,335 with the target being $5,000 . If you have a few dollars to spare, why not throw them into the Invisible Thread bucket; if not, perhaps you might pass this post onto someone who might be interested. There are 28 days to go to make this happen.
So, yes, Canberra has been very good to me. It’s where I found myself, where I found family and friends and love. How lucky I’ve been to have spent so long in a community where democracy is at the heart, where people like to think, where people have the long view and move forwards, where the diversity of its population is held up for all to see, where the reality of contemporary living informs policy and legislation, and where a book that celebrates 100 years of working words is about to spring to life.
For the last few days – these slow, almost alcoholic summer days – I’ve had on my dining table a pile of books, the books I’ve read in the past year. There are not many books in the pile, just fifteen in total, which isn’t much more than one book per month. It’s a busy life and this pile, so it seems, is all that I can manage. Of the fifteen books, twelve are fiction; there are three books of short stories; there is only one poetry collection, though in the pile is an essay by a poet, the same poet who wrote the collection. Seven of the books were written by Australians; only three of the books were written by women – two of them by the same woman, actually, the poet.
How I’ve loved having this tower of books on view! What worlds I’ve explored in the last twelve months!
Why, however, is the pile of books on my dining table in the first place? Because it’s good, good as in telling, to review the year’s reading. When I scan the covers, which make my heart skip a beat?
Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson was a completely edifying non-fiction read about a man who inherits a castle but then takes on the National Trust as he tries to return the estate to how he remembers it being when he was a child. No, it doesn’t sound much, does it, but ultimately it’s an exploration of place and belonging, and if there are two words I adore they are place and belonging. Into the bargain is the fact that Nicolson writes beautifully, which is handy because his grandmother was Vita Sackville-West.
The late Dorothy Porter’s Love Poems is an exhilarating collection of poems about love, desire, passion and obsession, the bliss, the poison, the sheer dangerous drug of it all. But this isn’t love poetry that could find its way into greeting cards, oh no, it’s not that. Try this on for size: ‘There’s a white-blue nerve burning/across my night sky/I wish it hurt to watch/because then/I might stop’ (Comets 1). Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, check out Love Poems. Please do. You might find yourself in love, or lust. If only with words.
Two other books that really did it for me are story collections from Tolstoy and Chekhov (which makes me sound dreadfully literary and stuffy and tweed, but I can only tell the truth): The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891 respectively. The sparse, intense and – yes – grim realism from these Russians can be breathtaking, and just a little humbling. Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’ is a good example of how short stories can achieve so much; the ending in particular is extraordinary, and really it’s just ink on paper.
Speaking of short stories, I finally read Nam Le’s The Boat, and it lived up to the hype, which is always a relief. ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which I’d already read in the Australian journal Overland, is one of the best contemporary short stories I’ve experienced in years. Oh bugger it, it is the best. And many of the others are very nearly as good, including the title story, which should be required reading for all Australians, especially at Christmas time. In this collection, Nam Le displays such a wide range of themes and styles that it’s almost unbelievable that this is the work of one person. Clearly a very good book by a writer a lot of people will be watching. Australia’s Franzen perhaps?
However, the two books of 2010 that truly moved me were In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (yes, I’m a little late getting to this) and The Lakewoman by Alan Gould.
I read Capote’s monumental work on the way to spend a month in Tasmania, which is rather apt considering that island’s terrible penal history, and I was overwhelmed by the author’s control of his material, the depth to which he plummets the characters and their situations in order to unearth the core of the tale, and the startling qualities of the prose. How’s this for a final sentence: ‘Then, starting home, he walked towards the trees, and under them, leaving behind the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat’. Ah the weight – and sheer life – of poetry. A bold, important book that appears not to have aged one bit.
Speaking of poetry, Alan Gould is a wizard of the craft and he brings this wizardry to his ‘romance’ (his term, or at least his publisher’s) about an Australian soldier who parachutes into German-occupied France during World War Two only to be rescued by a mysterious woman who emerges from the flooded battle-fields. Whilst magical, The Lake Woman is not magic realism, and I gobbled up the last third of the novel in one sitting. A full box of tissues needed to have been on standby. Not only was it the story that got me in the gut, it was the quality of the sentences, each and every one of them giving the reader something to savour. If you’re looking for a love story with depth and intelligence and written by a master of the English language, do hunt down this book. Stealing it from the grannie on the train-seat next to you would be justifiable.
So there it is: the best of my year of reading. What the dining-table pile says to me is that, yes, what wonderful worlds I’ve experienced in the last twelve months, and without these worlds, and without the music I listen to (music which, in its own strange way, can augment these worlds), life would be bereft of much of its meaning, worthless even.
Bring on the new worlds!