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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.

For the past week I’ve been thinking about the writing of this post and I should be truthful and say that I’ve been struggling a little.  I’ve been struggling a little because at first very few books that I’ve read this year jumped out as being absolutely essential.  But I worked it out in the end.  Compared to this year’s crop of albums, which has been nothing short of mind-blowing for their immediacy (more on this in a forthcoming post), in terms of reading, 2011 has been a year of books that slowly and almost imperceptibly wrapped their arms around me until the best wouldn’t let go.

I’ve also noticed that my reading habits have changed, probably, I think, because as co-editor of Verity La I spend many evenings and weekends reading submissions before working to publish them.  This is an honour, particularly publishing the poetry, because by the time a poem appears on screen it feels as though it’s become a part of me and me a part of it.  This year I’ve judged the Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award, which is run out of the ACT Writers Centre – what gems come to the surface during these competitions. All this has meant that I’m reading more on-line, and by the time I get to the end of the day I’m looking for something short and punchy, which I’m finding in literary journals like Overland.

Amongst all this has been my own reading program.  What follows is a list of five books I’ve read this year that have ended up on the top shelves in my library, meaning they’re books that I must risk life and limb to rescue if the house is burning down.

I’m pleased to report that two books in the list are short story collections.  Finally this year I read some Raymond Carver, commencing my journey into this much-lauded oeuvre with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Vintage, 2003; first published in 1981).  What a joy are these stories. Except joy isn’t the right word, no, not at all; these are melancholic stories, told with an uneasy simplicity which reaches for a depth of humanity.  The prose is accessible, almost prosaic, but try writing like this and you’ll discover how much of a story-magician Carver was.  Elmore Leonard said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it’, and it feels to me as if this was Carver’s modus operandi, too.  The next time I’m in a second-hand bookstore I’ll walk out with a bucketload of this bloke’s books.

The second short story collection is Marion Halligan’s Shooting the Fox (Allen and Unwin, 2011).  Here the Canberra-based Halligan reveals her artful playfulness – she has such damn good fun with words and characters and stories!  As opposed to Carver’s stories, Halligan’s are closer to poetry, although not in a pretentious sense; she simply asks the reader to work just a bit hard to nut it all out.  Throughout the year I’ve found myself thinking about many of these stories or telling friends about them.  If Raymond Carver’s stories have been boiled down to their essence, Marion Halligan’s are the most fluent and lively that you’ll find – they’re almost mischievous. You can read more about Marion Halligan here.

And then there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape, 2011).  A friend asked me to recommend a good book so I recommended Annabel because I’d read a glowing review, not because I’d actually read it myself, which is always dangerous, I know, but this is how it happened.  My friend ended up loving it and recommended it back to me, so I read it and…wasn’t as moved as I expected.  The story concerns a child born in 1968 in a remote part of far north-east Canada with male and female genitalia and follows him – for much of the book he’s known as Wayne – until early adult-hood.  Annabel is beautifully written, but perhaps too much of it goes in tangents so the end result isn’t as dramatic as it could have been.  However, like Shooting the Fox, I’ve found myself thinking about this book, especially Winter’s Wayne/Annabel character, and hoping that the world ends up treating him-her with kindness.  I’m convinced that I’ll come back to this book and a greater depth will be revealed.

Bite Your Tongue by Francesca Rendle-Short (Spinifex Press, 2011) is a brave book for two reasons: it explores life in Queensland in the 1960s and ’70s with an ultra-zealous, ultra-conservative, book-burning mother; and it’s a creative memoir, combining elements of the novel with elements of the straight memoir.  Somehow Rendle-Short manages to create a work that is loving, tender, critical and hard-hitting all at once.  It is a resolutely original book.  You can read more about Rendle-Short and Bite Your Tongue here and over at Verity La.

Perhaps the real book-reading treat this year has been discovering The Paris Review Interviews Volumes 1-4 (Picador, commencing 2006).  These interviews, many of which date back to the 1950s, offer illuminating insights into the writing process.  In the first volume alone there are interviews with Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, and Saul Bellow.  Perhaps I find these interviews so fascinating because I’m someone who writes, but also because I sometimes interview writers for The Canberra Times and Verity La.  However, anyone interested in books and ideas, in the creative process in general, will enjoy these conversations.  For example, who cannot marvel at this piece of wisdom from Gabriel García Márquez (from Volume 2)?  If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you.  But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you.  Sheer genius.

There is no doubt that years down the track, when someone asks me to nominate a quintessential experience of living in and around Canberra, I will say, That’s easy, the evening I spent with Marion Halligan.  I’ll remember it as if it was only yesterday.  A Thursday afternoon in early June, 5pm, that damp dark falling on winding suburban streets; a cold front had come through keeping daytime temperatures to single digits, as if the weather was giving us all a very specific single digit.

A fire is burning in the hearth of Marion Halligan’s Inner North loungeroom, books stacked here and there.  Within minutes I’m seated on a couch and being poured a generous glass of white wine.  I’ll need to drink the wine slowly because I have to keep my wits about myself.  I’m here to interview Halligan about Shooting the Fox, her new collection of short stories.  As a reader I have been floored by the razor-sharp intelligence on display between the beautifully designed covers.  I’m nervous: with one slip of the tongue I could be mincemeat.

Of course, Marion Halligan is well-known to Canberra readers.  As well as her short story collections, she is the author of five non-fiction books, and no less than ten novels.  She has been short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Miles Franklin Award, she’s taken out the ACT Book of the Year three times.  Readers of The Canberra Times will be familiar with the restaurant reviews Halligan used to do (which never shied away from the fact that sometimes we deserve better), the book reviews she still does from time to time, and her ongoing contribution via a popular column called First Words.  How lucky we are to have her ‘just around the corner’.

In person, Marion Halligan is excellent company: thoughtful, articulate and erudite.  In terms of admired writers she name-checks Javier Marias, Milan Kundera, Patrick White, David Malouf, Joseph Conrad, and Iris Murdoch.  Conversation flows easily, shifting from politics – “Why can’t our leaders be more passionate about the things that matter…and remind us how generous we can be?” – to family and food, to, of course, reading and writing.  She is a grandmother now, a role she clearly cherishes: “I look at my grand-daughter and think she’s just so gorgeous.”

She loves laughing, though it can be a cheeky laugh, one that suggests she has a naughty side.  But more of this later.

Shooting the Fox is Marion Halligan’s fifth collection.  Why another?

“Because I love writing short stories,” is her matter-of-fact response.  “I sent these to my agent.  She rang back and said, Oh Marion, short stories?  My agent sent them to my publisher, who said, Really, short stories?  There has been received wisdom for a decade and a half that publishers don’t want to do short stories.  But we know that readers like reading them.  My publisher took these with her on holidays to Bali and loved them.”

Short stories are a peculiar literary beast, closer to poetry than novels.  Halligan agrees.  “Yes, short stories are a bit elusive and elliptical at times.  Readers have to think, what’s really going on here, and put their minds to working it out.”  This particular author’s stories can be complex, dream-like, surprising, all the while exploring the possibilities of existence, asking questions, letting the answers emerge.  How does she bring them to life?  “I do think about them a heck of a lot before I write them down, and while I write them I like to think.  I write by hand.  Writing by hand is harder work, you’re scratching away and thinking, I won’t put it like that, I’ll put it like this, then you look at it and cross it out and do it another way.”

Is there an over-arching theme to Shooting the Fox?

“I think these stories are about people looking for happiness.  Whether they find it, I’m not always sure!”  Halligan’s face lights up; she laughs, takes a drink of wine, settles.  “Happiness lies in little things.  The stories in this collection are asking the reader to savour these moments because they will pass and the world will change.”

Readers have pointed out that there does seem to be more than a fair share of adultery in Halligan’s fiction.  “Adultery is things going wrong, people betraying themselves or their partners or their families, and that’s what fiction’s about.  One of the things that goes wrong in my fiction a lot is adultery.  I see adultery as a very bad kind of betrayal, and a very common form of betrayal.  You have to ask, what’s going on?  It’s interesting to look at little slices of life and say, this is how they are and we don’t know why on earth they’re like that, it seems mad, but there you are.”

There is a real sense of play in Halligan’s work.

“I’m very interested in watching my little grand-daughter, who’s not quite three.  She’s got a tea-set and she’ll put the napkins out, and she’ll put plates, and she’ll put cups, and then she’ll put a hair-clip beside it.  Then she’ll walk around and get some stickers and put the stickers in the cup.  You can tell that she’s thinking.  She’s not talking to me.  She’s not expecting anything from anybody.  She’s just in her own little world doing things.  Play is a great way of working out how the world works.”

You get the sense that, despite all this time, after everything she has achieved, Marion Halligan is still playing in order to find out what she thinks.

She’s also not averse to setting her work in and around the ACT.

“People say to me that I give them a completely different view of Canberra.  It’s a place where ordinary people live – the bushfires made people think that.  Up until then most people didn’t understand us.  I was saying to someone the other day that in Canberra there are families living under bridges and in cars with no money.  If you live in Queensland with no money you’re alright because you’re not going to freeze to death.  But in Canberra some people have no money for blankets or good food.  It can be a scary place.”

What about Seven Writers, that group of women authors, of which Halligan was a member, who met regularly between 1984 and 1997?  For younger scribes there’s an almost intimidating mythology about this gang.  “It was a curious phenomenon,” Halligan admits.  “Different people wanted different things from it.  What I got was the sense of colleagues.  I liked having people to talk to about writing.  In one novel I had a love-scene between two men and I got them to read it.  I said, tell me if it works.  And they said, How would we know, Marion, we don’t know anything about this.  And I said, I don’t know either, I just want to know if you think it’s convincing!

“It was also about the support.  Husbands were sick or dying or leaving or committing adultery, marriages were breaking up, several people had babies.  It was a group of friends and in those early days we had children around, and we were trying to cope with the whole business of writing – how do you be a writer in this environment, how do you organise earning a living and writing?”

And then it happens.  Perhaps it’s the small amount of wine I’ve drunk, or the deliriously warm fire that Halligan’s partner, the poet John Stokes, has faithfully attended, or the fact that I’ve been completely entranced by this master story-teller: I miss-phrase a comment along the lines of after all these decades of the hard-work of writing it must be tempting to call it a day.

“Of course I’m not giving up!  Jesus!”  Halligan is incredulous.

Bravely – or stupidly – I persist.  Really, why keep writing?

“Because it’s so exciting every time.  I love sitting somewhere and thinking, I want to write a short story, what should I write about, thinking it up from scratch – I find that such a pleasure.  My head is full of things that I want to put into fictions and give people chances to think about.  The older you get the more mental furniture you have and the more interesting it is to wander about amongst it all.  The other thing is I didn’t start very early.  I was 47 when my first novel came out.  I have a lot of time to make up.”

When Marion Halligan reflects on her creative life, what does she see?  “Well, there are the books.  There’s the sense of putting the world into words.  But the most exciting part is having readers who say, I read that and loved it.  The reader has the sense that somebody has understood them.  We all like to be understood.”  Halligan pauses, looks away to the hot bed of coals in the hearth.  She says, “Adultery is a perennial story, which is why I keep telling it.  It fascinates me so much, that people fall into this delusion.”  She turns back to me, her eyes alive with the sheer thrill of her ongoing literary task.  “Perhaps at seventy I should give up adultery!”  She laughs wildly.  “But not yet!  Not yet!”

 (First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 18 June 2011.  Thanks to Gia Metherell and Alan and Unwin. Gratitude to Marion Halligan.)

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