In which I defend highbrow lit-ra-cha!
‘I’m compelled to write about the whisky bar. One reason is that my job as a commissioning editor is still so new and exciting, I’m learning so much, and I think I can write about that better down the track. Another reason is that I won’t have the bar job forever, and I want to capture something of it while I can.
‘I fell in love with single malt whisky, as many people do, in Scotland. It was a warm June day in 2011 when my partner Gerard and I walked into The Whisky Experience on The Royal Mile in Edinburgh. We were on a 10-week trip across the UK and Europe, with a tour of the Scottish Highlands to come. I’d spent a few days previously in Edinburgh in 2008, travelling alone in winter. The city, all stone and fog, got under my skin, and I knew I wanted to see more of the country. But I’d missed whisky in 2008. I was only 22, after all. My main squeeze, as far as alcohol went, had been bourbon and coke, like many regional Australians. I’d also had a particularly bad experience with the cheapest and nastiest variety of blended Scotch whisky. So I didn’t think I liked Scotch, and I hadn’t yet learned what the differences were between a blend and a single malt, and had very basic knowledge of the differences between whiskeys (including bourbon) and whiskies. On that one day in 2011, everything changed.’
Read the rest over at Writers’ Bloc.
It’s been a while since I updated, so I’ll shove it all in one post. First of all, Happy New Year! 2014 was an incredible year for me, though it started out rocky (I was unemployed for about two months). The highlights were finishing my doctorate, publishing Captives, and having a story included in Best Australian Stories 2014.
Another highlight was reworking a chapter of my thesis and having it included in this book: The Simpsons Did It! Postmodernity in Yellow (eds Martin Tschiggerl and Thomas Walach-Brinek). I wrote about Lisa Simpson as a nonconformist, the prominent voice of the show’s critiques of dominant consumer society (while being complicit to it, as the show is). If you’re interested, it’s available on Amazon. I’m looking forward to my copy arriving on the 4:30 autogyro.
I was also delighted to contribute recently to The Lifted Brow: Digital 15;2, with two new flash stories: ‘Close Like This’ (set in a strange underground bar) and ‘The Washington Irving Hotel’ (set in an abandoned hotel I saw in Granada).
Soon I’ll be contributing to a cool online project, Dear Everybody Collective, where artists and writers collaborate back and forth and the results are published on Instagram. I’ve really enjoyed following so far, particularly the collab between Rose Jurd and Melinda Bufton. Follow and scroll back here.
Speaking of online projects, I’ve decided to release the current short story I’m working on, plus a couple of new flash pieces and perhaps some audio in a package on Gumroad, to try something different rather than publishing new work through literary magazines. Of course I’ll continue to do that, I just like the idea of having a button here where people can always find new work from me, if they’re interested. Perhaps at some point I’ll release an extract of my novel-in-progress, or even digitise one of my workshops. What do you think? Editing is important so Daniel Young (of Tincture Journal) is on board to help me curate and polish the pieces. If you’d like to find out when I’ve released anything this way, add your email here (it won’t be too often/spammy).
And now the opportunity: I’ve been invited to be a judge for the Thiel Grant for Online Writing, which awards $5000 over a year to a writer who will produce 50 pieces (roughly one per week). There is more info here. There has been some criticism of the prize, namely that it’s not enough money per piece of work. These criticisms come from writers whose work is valued (financially) at a professional rate (as it should be) but I just want to take a minute to describe my own reaction to first hearing about the grant, and explain why I support it.
First of all, I thought it was generous, as it’s a personal donation made by a writer and teacher who has produced great volumes of online writing (mainly for interest, innovation and pleasure), so knows what it takes. Secondly, in my experience over seven and a half years of blogging, there were times when I wondered why something like this didn’t exist. Before and after writing for Crikey, for example (who only paid for a short while, by the way, when it was in the budget), I certainly would have applied for it. I was writing two posts per week for no immediate financial gain (though peripheral opportunities arose), and had a strong readership.
I experimented with advertising and it was never lucrative, though I know some people make it work. There are many types of blogs (ie. literary, experimental etc.) that would never attract advertising. Also, having ads on your blog requires admin work, or for some bloggers even requires you to (arguably) compromise your content with ‘sponsored’ posts on particular subjects. While this grant ‘sponsors’ a writer, the entire concept for the posts will be the author’s own, and there will be no editorial intervention.
People who are professional freelance writers are paid more than $100 for a piece (although many publications in print and online still only pay around that, I know because I’ve written for them), so I can see why some might have an issue with this grant. But those writers have put in the hard yards and are on a different tier, I think they can acknowledge that this grant is just not for them. Who is it for? There is a massive ‘blogosphere’ (and social media-sphere) of all kinds of writers (creative, critical, personal, you name it) who put a lot of time into their online writing, and who do it for love, and this is who this grant is for. They will already have a strong concept, and they will already write regularly. Off the top of my head I think about two of the blogs that inspired me at the beginning: Christopher Currie’s ‘Furious Horses‘ (the 365 stories project) and Krissy Kneen’s ‘Furious Vaginas‘. These blogs were updated with regularity and were a kind of discipline for the writers (and they have both gone on to be traditionally published authors) as well as being unique, stimulating and entertaining for the reader. I’m sure there are other writers like this to uncover, who will be excited to have their work acknowledged and financially supported. And I’m looking forward to discovering a range of voices and ideas as a judge of the Thiel Grant. Again, click here if you’d like to learn more or apply.
When I first heard about Annabel Smith’s project, The Ark, I was intrigued. Here was an excellent literary author (I’m a big fan of her novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) tackling not only speculative fiction, but a whole different format. The Ark is about the inhabitants of a sealed seed vault, in a near future where resources are rapidly dwindling. It was released as an interactive ebook, and is also available as a print book. The story is told through a series of technological documents. As the blurb says:
The Ark delves into the fears and concerns raised by the environmental predicament facing the world today, exploring human nature in desperate times. At its heart it asks: can our moral compass ever return to true north after a period in which every decision might be a matter of life and death and the only imperative is survival?
The book is thought-provoking, well-paced, suspenseful, and a satisfying read. If you enjoy dystopias like Brave New World, or books with confined settings (which are great for building tension between characters) then this one is for you. I asked Annabel a few questions about The Ark:
The story is told via the communications of a variety of characters. There is a certain amount of unreliability, for the reader, particularly at the beginning. Was it a difficult process to decide just how much information to give? Or did it happen as you developed the voice of the characters?
The sense of unreliability, and uncertainty about whose version of events to trust was very important to me. I wanted the reader to feel continually wrong-footed by the shifts in narrative voice and by the gaps created by the narrative form. I wanted them to be always wondering what was going on outside the margins of the documents; what was being left unreported? To that end, I was very careful about both when certain pieces of information were revealed, who they were revealed by, and in what type of communique.
The character of Ava has stayed with me, in particular. She’s a classic ‘Winston’-style sci-fi character, seeing what others do not. Can you tell us a bit about developing her?
Of all the characters in the novel, Ava is the character who I consider most like me. That is not to say she is autobiographical, only that she was perhaps the easiest to write because her similarities in age, gender, education level etc. made it relatively easy to get inside her head and get a sense of her worldview. I see Ava as a highly emotional character, surrounded by a group of scientists who tend to rational explanations for all things. She is the odd one out, trusting her heart where they use their heads. Her high emotional intelligence, and her sensitivity, makes her prone to anxiety and depression, which adds another layer to the complexity of her situation. Is she paranoid? Or is she actually switched onto things that others are slower to perceive?
Do you think a speculative story is well suited to the medium you’ve chosen? (More suited, perhaps, than straight realism?)
The epistolary novel is a very old narrative form. Contemporary iterations of it, in which letters are replaced by blog posts and emails seem to fit well with speculative fiction, but I think the form would work equally well with any story set in the present and exploring contemporary themes. At the same time, there has to be a compelling reason to tell a story through documents—the form has to feel intrinsic to the story, otherwise it runs the risk of coming across as a gimmick.
Once you decided to make The Ark an interactive ebook/app, how did the writing and editing process change?
Strangely, not much at all. It was really important to me that I write a book that could stand alone and be appreciated without the app. So, I finished working on the book before I started working on the app. having said that, I did of course have ideas for the app as I was writing the novel but the development of the app didn’t change the book in any significant ways. There was one occasion where I was tempted. It was when the architect who designed the bunker for the app showed me the 3D model of the space inside the Ark called the GARDEN (Growth Apparatus for the Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment). The space looked so incredible, I thought about going back and rewriting some of the scenes to take place in there.
Are their other forms of storytelling you’re interested in, or other ways of presenting a novel (even if published ‘traditionally’)?
I’m interested in all forms of storytelling. Though I love reading traditional realist novels—in fact, they still comprise the bulk of my reading—I’m not particularly excited by the prospect of writing another book like that. I like to experiment with form and structure. My fourth novel, Monkey See, which I’ve almost finished a first draft of, is an epic quest with a speculative fiction twist. And the novel I’ve just started tells the story of a woman working her way through a self-help book, and includes extracts from the self-help book.
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in Southerly, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings, and the Wheeler Centre blog. She holds a PhD in Writing, is an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellow, and is a member of the editorial board of Margaret River Press. Her digital interactive novel/app The Ark has just been released. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
I’ve really enjoyed reading this year’s Best Australian Stories (which includes my story ‘Too Solid Flesh’, originally published in Island 137). One commonality I found between the stories, which reminded me of the power of fiction (what it can do), was an emotional complexity that can only be ‘shown’, not explained. For example, in Julienne van Loon’s ‘Bring Closer What is Left to Come’ there is a moment where the protagonist, a married woman who desires her colleague, thinks she sees her crush from behind on the stairs:
‘and she watched the way he walked and the desire sparked in her so fast and so quick it was almost painful to keep walking…’
But by the end of the paragraph she sees the man she desires in the office and realises that the person on the stairs had been someone else. The protagonist’s feelings are not elaborated upon and the reader takes on the complex emotion of such a case of mistaken identity. There is also a minor epiphany that occurs regarding the directionless surge of the woman’s desire. And this is only one moment.
The story is framed by the woman’s cycling commute to and from work. Time shifts, and there are references to speed, the bike in time: descending, airborne, stuck. The structure relates to the woman’s psychological state, but there is ambiguity: again, making the story emotive rather than explanatory.
In the beginning, the reader is at a distance from the woman as the woman herself is from others and from herself; the reader is then drawn in closer but the constant shifts indicate uncertainty (which relates to us: we cannot really know what we want, we are caught up in desire, we will have moments of pedaling backwards). I can see why editor Amanda Lohrey opened the anthology with this powerful story.
There are so many that stood out for me, but two that have resonated in particular are ‘The Panther’ by David Brooks and ‘The Green Lamp’ by Leah Swann, which follow each other in the book. I loved ‘The Panther’, which is about a panther in a painting that becomes real for the writer in the story. There’s a mood hanging over this story: elegant, haunting; a lounging loneliness. And it’s unashamedly self-conscious. The ending produced in me a shivery thrill.
Swann’s ‘The Green Lamp’ is a genuine and empathetic story which captures in micro a contemporary masculinity. It’s about a young tradie who gets laid off and takes a job in a pizza shop. He lives with an older, intellectual woman. At one point he blunders when something happens to a young women he works with. Throughout, the reader has access to his thoughts, and they reveal a curious and poetic soul who is unable or reluctant to articulate his deeper self. They also reveal someone-in-becoming; through these small experiences in the narrative he is finding out what he thinks and feels. And relevant to the contemporary climate there is a complex mix of arousal, self-loathing, knowing, not knowing, wanting and not wanting. Besides this excellent study of character, the story overall reminds the reader that you never truly know what is happening in someone else’s head.
I won’t mention every story but there were so many that gave me shivers or that I found myself thinking about hours or days afterwards. From the sense of uneasy desire in Lucy Neave’s ‘The Horse Hospital in Dubai’ to the overanalysis of self (to the obliteration of self) in Nicola Redhouse’s ‘This is Who You Are. You’ll See’. Claire Corbett’s story-essay ‘Snake in the Grass’ is rich—a story in which you can wallow. Fiona Place’s ‘Now I See’ lingers long due to its deliberate calm execution.
Kate Elkington’s ‘The Interpreter’ is deft, moving, and sneaks up on you. Arabella Edge’s ‘The Peacock’ is a great lesson in giving the reader ‘just enough’. The peacock at the centre of the story is a symbol—something about the way we attach/what we are attached to, in a crisis and more broadly in our lives. JYL Koh’s ‘Civility Place’ is a welcome foray into the speculative/surreal: Richard Yates meets Philip K Dick, about the inescapability of commerce. Ryan O’Neill’s ‘The Stories I Read as My Mother Died’ definitely gave me shivers. It explores the different ways emotion is expressed, and inadequacies of language (what can be told and what can’t, having words but having none). Kirsten Tranter’s ‘Pet Name’ is a story about curiosity (the curiosity itself revealing layers about the character) and is fascinating and alive. Don’t read ‘Blood and Bone’ by Lisa Jacobson if you have to do anything afterwards, it’s absolutely weighed down with grief. So beautifully sad.
Lohrey has pulled together a very strong anthology with much emotional resonance. I’m absolutely honoured my story is nestled among the above. I’d love to know what your favourites are, if you’ve read the anthology. I’ve got Best Australian Essays 2014 and Best Australian Poems 2014 sitting here too…
I’m the flash fiction editor for a new writing and art magazine, Cuttlefish, from Sunline Press in WA. I look forward to receiving your pieces (anonymously) of up to 250 words. The publication will feature one artist’s work and also print poetry, up to 40 lines, and longer pieces up to 1200 words. There will be a payment of $40 for all works.
Here are the details:
All submissions will be selected anonymously so writers should send a hard copy to Sunline Press, 21 Jarrad Street, Cottesloe, 6011, with no name on the work. These should arrive by December 5. Writers should then send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with their names and the titles of their work after January 7 and before January 14.
Those selected will be notified by late January.
All submissions should be typed in 12 point Times Roman, with 1.5 spacing.
Short Fiction: Sue Midalia
Flash Fiction: Angela Meyer
Poetry Editor: Roland Leach
All the best!
‘The space beyond the stories is essential, and the words themselves appear with an illusory ease and simplicity.’
Read the rest here.
Captives is widely available, including from the publisher, Readings, Booktopia, Avid Reader, Fishpond (free worldwide shipping), or your local bookstore. The ebook is available on Kindle, Google Play, iBooks, Kobo & more.