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A screen grab of what goes through my head when I'm interviewing an author.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I’m interviewing an author.

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.

Enjoy.

*

‘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

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The Beach Volcano cover: stony, bony goodness.

The Beach Volcano cover: stony, bony goodness.

There’s something about visibility, coming out of the shadows, being seen. But the visibility I’m talking about is more than that – it’s about exposure, true exposure, so much so that it’s frightening. Of course, I am being just a little (or quite a lot) dramatic. Because all I really want to tell you is Blemish Books have released the cover for the third and very much final novella of mine, The Beach Volcano.

You can see it right there, accompanying this post, in all its moody, melancholic, mysterious…is ‘beauty’ too strong a word? Perhaps not. I love it, the cover (and wouldn’t it be terrible to say that it’s not really my cup of tea). The stones in their gun-sight pattern; they’re also reminiscent of dinosaur bones. It’s just so very apt.

Though what would I know. All I’ve done is spend the last four years trying to make the story sit up and sing (and ‘sing’ , let me tell you, is just as appropriate as those bone-like stones).

The Beach Volcano follows I’m Ready Now (2012), which took two and a half years from first draft to publication, and Fall on Me (2011), which shot out the gates at a mere 18 months. I should say, however, that all three of these novellas existed as ideas in my journal for some time before the first pen-stroke on the page. I wrote down the thought that would become I’m Ready Now in 2003, nine years before publication. Surprisingly (to me) the initial scratchy recording of The Beach Volcano is dated January 2010, a mere five months before the first draft, but that was four and a half years before publication. What’s happened since the first draft? Rewriting, editing, polishing, delete delete delete, rewriting, editing, polishing…until nervous exhaustion set in. Again I’m being ridiculously over-dramatic, though there is some truth to what I’m telling you.

But what’s the bloody thing about?

Well, here’s the blurb:

How should we deal with what’s lost? And how should we deal with what’s to become, something unknown but so very much desired?

After years of estrangement, Canning Albury, a revered and irreverent singer-songwriter, returns home to celebrate his father’s eightieth birthday. His welcome is mixed, at best. But Canning has made the trip for more than just a glass of Pol Roger and an eyeful of Sydney Harbour at sunset. He carries a secret about his family’s murky and uncharted past—a secret that could be explosive. The Beach Volcano is a fearless exploration of life’s many compromises, and the burdens we bear for those we love. 

Has anyone read it yet? If so, what do they think? Yes, it’s been read – by none other than Melbourne novelist Andrea Goldsmith. Who had this to say:

Nigel Featherstone’s new book plunges into the loves and loyalties, the secrets and outward appearances of the wealthy Albury family. This is an insightful and at times disturbing story. Assured and compelling, The Beach Volcano holds you to the last page and beyond.

How does that make me feel? Grateful. So very grateful.

So, that’s the latest. Blemish is gunning for a late August/September launch from Canberra. And then, from that point onwards, a little book called The Beach Volcano will be out of my control. Is this really the end of the line for my novellas? I’m pretty sure it is. I’ve loved dreaming them into existence; I’ve adored hearing of reactions from readers. I can’t deny that the reviews and awards and short-listings have, in fact, meant a great deal, if only because they might have resulted in the novellas finding more hands (and hearts?) in which to be held. When all is said and done, it’s all just a drop in the ocean, isn’t it: three more books in an endless sea of books. I’m just glad – say it again: grateful – that they’ve taken me on such a ride.

AirshipA quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did.  McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond.  His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers.  And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago.  This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice.  It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.

Best 100 Poems of Dorothy PorterIf there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter.  Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart.  Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live.  No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him.  It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.

BarracudaI’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size.  It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender.  Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality.  Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws.  As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.

DeserterStaying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones.  Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013).  What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.

The Hired ManJust going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013).  Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict.  In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’

I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds or is it an approaching bushfire?

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds on the horizon or is it an approaching bushfire?

It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.

All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.

On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.

Keep reading at Overland.  Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.

Following on from his other autobiographical explorations, Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee continues to bugger around with the whole prose caper, mixing up fiction and non-fiction in Summertime (Knopf).  There’s something about this writer that really gets me going (Disgrace is a favourite novel of mine, and it was great to see the Australian-produced film version living up to expectations).  Whilst Coetzee can undoubtedly be a self-absorbed misery guts – the narrator, a researcher writing about a ‘John Coetzee’ who is dead, describes his sexual modus operandi as having ‘autistic’ qualities – there’s a palpable sense of playfulness in this book.  I was only half a dozen pages into this when I decided that it would be placed on my shelf marked ‘If the house is burning down, risk life and limb to rescue these books’.

Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (Text) is a tale of a Moscow boy’s relationship with a pack of wild dogs.  Grim for sure, but what an extraordinary piece of  imaginative prose.  I can’t look at The Old Lady of the House without recalling Hornung’s story, and I can’t walk the peaceful, beautiful streets of Canberra without feeling thankful for being born an Australian and not a Muscovite.  The last few lines completely knocked my bloody socks off, but I won’t quote them here as it would suck the life out of this work, and piss you off, dear reader.  So go on, don’t be scared – give this book a whirl.  You might have nightmares for days afterwards, but the warmth and tenderness in the prose (it is there, it’s just not lashed on like honey spread across toast) will linger with you for a very long time.

Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith (4th Estate) has so much in it: an exploration of relationships, how they can shift deliciously though painfully between love and in love; and a thirst for knowledge and purpose, particularly in a global world that doesn’t really know where it’s going.  And that’s just for starters.  This is a slow-burner of a novel, but ever so subtly it gets under your skin and before long you find yourself caring about these people, which, of course, is the real test of a piece of fiction.  Ultimately, Reunion is a novel about friendship, and I’ll read great prose about friendship until the cows come home.

A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard (Allen and Unwin).  Reading young-adult fiction is a guilty pleasure of mine, usually because these books can be gobbled up in one sitting, and, perhaps more importantly, there’s often a lack of over-complication and pretension that can exist in adult fiction (I wanted to write ‘grown-up’ there…which, it seems, I’ve now done).  Like Reunion, Millard’s novel is a book about friendship, this time between a young boy and an old man within the context of an Australian city – Melbourne – that’s experiencing war (it’s a difficult conceit to pull off but Millard does it very well here).  These two unlikely people gather others to their lives, and soon find themselves forming the strangest though most intimate of families.  A surprisingly complex book filled with the deepest of love for its characters.

The Bee Hut by Dorothy Porter (Black Inc.)  This isn’t a novel, but as Dorothy Porter made the verse novel her own, and she completely and utterly rocked in every possible way, I’m including her final collection, The Bee Hut, in this list.  Everyone talks about Dorothy’s high-octane writing, the sensuality, the cheeky wit, and the jaw-dropping intelligence, and it’s all on show here.  From the first line, ‘The most powerful presence/is absence’ (‘Egypt’), to the last, from ‘View from 417’, the final poem she would write, ‘Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck’, I can only shake my head at the depth, the skill, and the sheer power of these poems.  If you buy one book of poetry this year… (Disclosure: I have other reasons for including The Bee Hut in this list, but I’m not discussing them here.)

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