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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
Summer is odd, especially in Australia.
The first dose of decent weather – as in clear blue skies, no wind, 35-degree temperatures, and, where I live, 50% humidity (or less) – brings a sense of optimism: finally we’re through the winter and can now go outdoors without worrying about being frozen to death or being blown off the face of the Earth. This week we at last had that feeling, because we had two days in a row of good summery weather. So, yes, optimism.
But this week has also brought sadness. The passing away of Nelson Mandela. Closer to home, we’ve had the death of eminent Australian contemporary artist Martin Sharp at the age of 71. It might be just a little strange to put these two names in the same paragraph, but I think it’s apt, not because of these two men having made similar contributions to the world – they didn’t – but because both lived such genuine and genuinely inspiring lives.
Martin Sharp was – and no doubt will continue to be for some time – Australia’s answer to Andy Warhol. There’s plenty written about him, and there’s certainly been quite a few thoughtful and informed obituaries, including this one from his colleague and friend Richard Neville. To many, Sharp will be remembered for being a founding member of Oz, a radical and irreverent magazine – today we’d call it a zine – that lampooned authority and tradition, particularly the church, including conservative attitudes to sexuality. He also designed some of the most iconic rock-music album covers from the 1960s/70s. Later, he’d become an obsessed champion of Tiny Tim, Ginger Meggs, and Sydney’s site-of-thrills-and-fun Luna Park. He continued to practice for the rest of his life, though became fond of spending years, if not decades, touching up his earlier work.
Amazingly, through sheer luck, in early 2011 I interviewed Martin Sharp in his Sydney home for the Canberra Times. He was warm, generous with his time, thoughtful, always choosing his words carefully, not because he was guarded (though he might have been), but, I think, he just wanted to be clear. He chain-smoked through the entire morning, constantly rolling homemade cigarettes, the tobacco in a bowl in the table as though it was merely just some kind of herb that he was about to use for cooking. I found him to be utterly unpretentious, and during the interview we spoke about his great love of Tiny Tim, Vincent Van Gogh (his life’s great inspiration), and that he thought the best art was being done by school children. He’d become religious in his old age, though in the broad, somewhat mystical sense that artists can become religious (I doubt he went to church), and I remember how he said that in certain contexts conservative thinking can be radical.
I asked him if he had any modern-day heroes, and without blinking an eye he said, ‘Susan Boyle.’ I knew only a little of Boyle, but when I got back home made sure to learn more about her. What was it about this UK talent-show contestant that had intrigued Sharp so? I remember how he said that she’d given her all, everything, put her whole being on the line, words to that affect. So I googled her and was amazed to find myself getting goose-bumps. When I could drag my way from Youtube I wrote up the interview and the resultant feature article – it wasn’t so much about Martin Sharp but about a new (at the time) gallery and arts facility in Goulburn called South Hill, of which Sharp was the patron – and I also wrote a short piece on how Sharp had given me goose-bumps while telling me about his love for Boyle.
Just before I left Martin Sharp’s house that January day, he gave me a copy of a Tiny Tim album that he’d produced (at considerable expense). For some reason I’ve never listened to it; perhaps I just didn’t want to take it out of its resolutely plastic-wrapped sleeve. Maybe I just wanted to keep it as perfect as it had been when it was given to me. Every time I saw the CD in my collection I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing day that was.
But I’m listening to it now. It’s hilarious. But also important: Tiny Tim, just like Susan Boyle, gives every fibre of his being to his performances.
Thanks, Martin, for your time, your wise words, and, above all else, your art.
If I make it to 71 I’ll be sure to remember that morning with you.