#555writers: Coffs to Grafton

This morning Zacharey Jane interviewed Craig Sherborne and myself in the Coffs Harbour Library. The crowd was fantastic, and asked lots of intriguing questions. Coffs all up was WONDERFUL. I’ll never say a bad word about my home town again. Maybe.

Poor Nick Earls is right now performing his Word Hunt talk at the Grafton Library for the third time today. All of us have been hungry for audience questions because we’ve been talking to each other for four days. (Now being the chair of the pub events, I’m also trying to mix things up, but of course it’s not just about the authors, it’s about the audience and what is interesting to them.) We’re all looking a bit eye-bagged and saggy, but none of us are as bad off as poor Sam, who is still suffering his lurgy, and currently resting up in our Hacienda-style motel in Grafton.

At the Coast Hotel, Coffs Harbour

At the Coast Hotel, Coffs Harbour

Today we went to Grafton High School and walked into a packed hall of teenagers. I just about fainted. For this event, Zacharey Jane, Craig Sherborne, Ashley Hay and myself read a little and then answered questions from the teens. Craig chose a passage about breastfeeding, containing words like ‘nipple’, which caused a few titters. I thought it was great that he was treating the teenagers as mature; as being able to handle the material. Later he said he just hadn’t thought it through.

I did want to be a little controversial and read my story about the teenage girl keeping a child in her room. They were pretty quiet by the end, so I think it went OK. Overall, they were superbly behaved, and asked awesome questions, such as ‘do you ever want to just keep writing and writing?’ and ‘Have you read 50 Shades of Grey?’ which led us into talking about genre and literary fiction.

One of the best was: ‘How do you know when you’ve gotten to the ending of a story?’ But we found out later a PE teacher had paid a kid a dollar to ask that, as it’s something he always wanted to know.

Grafton High put on quite a spread for lunch (lasagne, drool) and we talked Shakespeare with the English teachers.

Our conversations in the car today included a puzzling over the logistics of a seed bank. Questions asked included: if the earth was so wrecked after a disaster, would the seeds even grow? If the seeds are kept underground in a bunker, how would anyone find them? Will a seed ‘banker’ be the last remaining person on earth? Yes, there’s story potential. Ashley has claimed it.

Zac also revealed that as she gets to know people she associates them with certain breeds of horses. Mainly these are hers, but I have chosen Tim’s (because they didn’t quite decide on one), and Craig has chosen Zac’s:

Nick Earls: Irish Cob

Irish Cob

Ashley Hay: Welsh Pony

Welsh pony

Samuel Wagan Watson: Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse

Craig Sherborne: Thoroughbred

thoroughbred

Tim Eddy: Akhal Teke

Akhla Teke

Zacharey Jane: Palomino

Palomino

And apparently I am an Arab Horse

Arabian

#555writers @ the Coast

Just a quick post before bed. I was nervous when I blogged earlier today, but the ‘home town’ pub event was really great. We had our best numbers for a night gig on the tour yet.

Coffs… You’re alright.

Tomorrow the schedule is very full. More events in Coffs, and then we hit Grafton. I’ll get online when I can!

#555writers: Lismore to Coffs

Listening faces as Zacharey Jane reads from The Lifeboat at the Tatts in Lismore.

Listening faces as Zacharey Jane reads from The Lifeboat at the Tatts in Lismore.

With limited time, these blog posts just have to flow from my head onto the screen. Please forgive all unfiltered thoughts, badly chosen words, grammatical errors and digressions of narrative and theme…

I want to start with what just happened. I invited the five writers Zac, Craig, Ash, Sam and Nick, and filmmaker Tim, into my parents’ home in Coffs. They needed a good feed, and I knew Dad’s homemade bread and pesto would suffice. There was quite a spread, and the red wine flowed. As we were arriving in Coffs, I began to shake, which I think nobody noticed. I always get a bit shaky here. Nothing very bad ever happened, but I was often in a bad place when I lived here, and I had wanted to leave, but remained for a variety of reasons. Let me just say that this had nothing to do with my folks, they’re great people; it was more my own psychological ‘stuff’. One way I dealt with it was to start this blog more than seven years ago.

Here we were. Old worlds and new, colliding on the back veranda. And it was lovely.

#555writers in the Meyer house. Dad's pesto received five-star reviews.

#555writers in the Meyer house. Dad’s pesto received five-star reviews.

Memory and the past can be fuel for writing. Craig Sherborne has spoken a lot about his mother on the trip (and you would be familiar with her if you’ve read his memoirs Hoi Polloi and Muck). He has described her as ‘big, loud, intimidating and proper’. She both pressured and smothered him, and for him there was deep love and deep antagonism.

Ashley Hay’s grandfather was killed on the railway, and her grandmother was employed as a librarian for the railway, which made Ashley think about what it would be like for her grandmother to hear the noise of the trains, constantly; to be reminded of her husband’s death over and over. This was part of the impetus for writing The Railwayman’s Wife. 

The past is layered through Samuel Wagan Watson’s work. In Lismore, when the topic of literary influences came up, Sam went to childhood and Saturday mornings: Scooby Doo, Land of the Lost, and Cheech and Chong (with a perfect impression). The poem ‘Hallowed Ground’ opens on Saturday morning on Logan Road in Brisbane. The poet is taking his lady to a cafe. Four stanzas are indented within the poem, emphasising the past in place. Here are two:

Dinosaurs are buried here with the remains of their
tracks; this place was one only known as Central.

This place was where my mum and dad had their first
kiss on the tram!

His lady says, in the poem, that he is distant, but he is ‘very HERE’, he writes; he is taking in past and present all at once. At the end he is moving across the table to attempt a kiss, sealing past and present together, ‘safe from chaos for the time being’.

At the SCU Campus bar, Lismore.

At the SCU Campus bar, Lismore.

The Lifeboat came out of experiences in Zacharey Jane’s past. She didn’t realise until years later that seeing an old couple at various times on a holiday, and then seeing the old man die in a storm, had had such an effect on her. When she was leaving Mexico, the whole novel came to her as she wondered what would happen if the ferry sank, and there were no markings on the lifeboat, and one’s memory was erased. It was an old couple who became her castaways in the novel.

Nick Earls told us an amazing story from his past (related to someone else’s past) that has never gone into a novel, because no one would find it plausible. When he was a doctor, he saw a woman in emergency who was having some trouble she’d never had before. She was perplexed by people playing cricket on TV, and was wondering why her hands looked so strange. He asked her some questions and she told him her father was a bootmaker, and that they’d come over from England on a big ship. She said she remembered her father taking her to Southampton to see a ship like the one they’d leave on. She knew she’d gotten to Australia but she had no idea that the ship she saw had in fact sunk. Nick realised that her father must have kept the news from her, about the Titanic, so she wouldn’t be afraid of the journey on another large ship not long afterwards. So Nick was talking to a woman who had not only seen the Titanic, but who had no idea (in that present moment) that it had sunk. It turned out that the memory loss was a very rare side effect of her medication, and the remaining years filled in once that had been adjusted.

So stories arise from the past. And in the present, a writer collects (knowingly and unknowingly) images, moments, bits of dialogue and anecdotes which may become story sparks. Craig aptly summed up this process in Tweed Heads: ‘As a writer, you’re a parasite.’

I’m sure this trip will result in many more stories.

Comedians are parasites, too. We had a good laugh seeing a couple of them at the Tatts Hotel in Lismore last night after our gig. With the magic of YouTube, I can share the experience with you. Here’s Loz, he’s good at wordplay:

And bringing more LOLs, here’s Matthew Ford:

Tonight we’re at the Coast Hotel, a place I associate with short shorts, Smirnoff Ice, sneaky cigarettes, and finding a $50 note. WORLDS COLLIDE.

Here’s a cool dog we saw in a car today. He treated the #555writers tour with skepticism:

photo (37)

#555writers: Tweed Heads & Kingscliff

Ashley Hay, Craig Sherborne and Nick Earls at Salt Bar, Kingscliffe.

Ashley Hay, Craig Sherborne and Nick Earls at Salt Bar, Kingscliff.

I flew into the Gold Coast in glorious weather, staring out at the mountains and inlets, the blue green ocean. I was ready to get some sun on my skin.

When you thrust seven strangers together, there’s no guarantee they’ll get along. Some of us had gotten up at 5:30am, some were feeling poorly, and one—Zacharey Jane—had to do all the organising, driving, and lots of the speaking. But we crowded together in the van and got straight into the D&Ms: about family, writing, past careers and lives. And we met readers.

photo (32)

I spoke with Betty and Joy over scones at the Tweed Library, after Craig Sherborne and Ashley Hay spoke about resilience, chances, objects, history and more. Betty was a librarian in Sydney during the war in the late 1930s. Both Betty and Joy had radiant smiles. I swapped with them my own Nanna’s stories about the American GIs. Betty put on a perfect American accent. They both seemed delighted to be there, mingling with the writers.

We had to drive to Byron and back, to drop cars off and pick items up, and on the way saw the immediate aftermath of a horrible accident. Two cars, badly smashed; ambulance, fire, police, and a long line of cars which we knew we’d have to join heading back. I can’t find it in the news today, which may be a good thing. Hopefully no one was badly hurt. We gasped and shook our heads but none of us looked away.

Ashley and Craig spoke briefly, at Tweed Library, about objects, ‘those little domestic deities in our lives’. In times of crisis, or difficulty, or even anxiousness, some objects can signify ‘care being taken and love being given’, such as a cup of flowers next to a freshly made bed, for a house guest. Zacharey’s The Lifeboat also shows a fascination of the power of objects, and care taken in their choosing and placement. When the castaways are coming to stay with the interpreter, the main character in her novel, she throws away a half bar of soap and replaces it with ‘a soft cream bar’.

The new soap smelt of well-dressed women who didn’t do their own ironing; it came wrapped in white tissue. Small, crumbling fragments of soap were left behind, powdering the inside of the paper; I lifted it to my face and inhaled, then carefully folded it back over the crumbs to capture them.

She also puts fresh blue towels at the end of their beds, and matching flannels, and places ‘interesting books they might enjoy’ on the coffee table.

When I opened the cupboard in my hotel room this morning I noticed the coffee, tea and sugar packets were arranged with exquisite neatness. I know it’s different if someone is being paid to do it, but the care was evident—the employee’s fingertips pushing the edge of the sugar packet until it sat just so.

photo (34)We made it back up North and went to Salt Bar in Kingscliff for our first pub event. It was an intimidating environment to walk into. Huge extended families enjoying their parmas and chips, and football on the wall. But Zac is unflappable. She began setting up props and cutting up prompts for our word games. As each writer introduced their books and gave a little reading they were competing with squawking laughter and the scraping of forks and knives, but soon the background patrons moved away and we were left with our keen audience, who pulled their chairs even closer, and seemed to love every minute they got to spend in the company of Zac, Craig, Ash, Sam and Nick. Tim and I hung back at the start to be the eyes, though I’ll be chairing some of the sessions myself as we go on (yes, I’m nervous).

I loved Samuel Wagan Watson’s reasoning behind the title of his new book Love Poems and Death Threats: these are the daily workings of the writer; you could receive a love poem from your publisher one minute, or a death threat the next. And regarding poetry, he said, ‘we do live in a very violent world… it’s hard to put sunset and butterflies in the daily news’ (and so, too, in art).

Tour filmmaker Tim Eddy

Tour filmmaker Tim Eddy

Two other moments in the talk: Nick admitted that the fear of obsolescence in his character in Analogue Men may in fact reflect his own. This was when Zac was asking about autobiographical elements in the authors’ works. Even if it’s not on the basis of technological ineptness, as it is for Nick’s character, I think that statement is one all of us, on some level, can relate to. We can all become irrelevant in different situations. And one of Ashley’s final notes was a lovely one, she spoke about the stories we tell each other to get ourselves through—about friendship, about kindness. The Railwayman’s Wife is populated with these moments.

The audience joined in our fun game of ‘story stick’ (come to one of the events to find out more) and then we had pub food and a couple of drinks, then sang along to Bowie and passed around my flask of Lagavulin 16 in the van.

More soon…

Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace and Craig Sherborne, #555writers

tree palaceYesterday:

The plane is just about to descend as I draft this. Craig Sherborne is sitting in the row in front and I’ve just finished his beautiful novel Tree Palace. I’ve been completely lost in the story of this family of itinerants, or ‘trants’, as they call themselves in the book. The family—connected by both blood and companionship—have settled in Barleyville, a fictional town in North-West Victoria, after having been on the move for so long. Settling means many things: there’s the baby that Zara, a teenager, has just had; a child she struggles to recognise as her own. There’s also the fact that settling means the locals get to know the ‘trants’ better, including the police. It may be a bit harder for Shane and Midge, the brothers, to carry on their business of removing antiques from abandoned houses, and selling them on to a dealer.

The main character is Moira, Zara’s mother, who takes on the responsibility of baby Mathew, while her daughter deals with the trauma of birth. Moira is an incredibly sympathetic character; I ached for and along with her, even when (perhaps especially when) she lies, is selfish, or takes a situation too far. But the whole family is compassionately drawn; the novel is so compelling (I didn’t want to put it down) because you care how they’ll turn out. Tree Palace is engagingly written, in an omniscient style, moving in and out of different characters’ points of view (one of the hardest ways to write, in my opinion). The reader dips inside the characters’ heads and finds gems.

Moira couldn’t bring herself to like just one cup and saucer, however pretty and floral and only five dollars instead of a fortune. She’d had her heart fixed on a full, gleaming complement. She didn’t know why exactly. Some ladylike fantasy of being a better person in better times. Settling for one cup would ruin the fantasy and make her resent needing fantasies. Fantasies were just another way of saying your own life won’t do.

At the end of the chapter, she is happy to walk away with one floral cup and saucer. And proud, later, when her daughter hungrily sips tea from it.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne

Today:

Place is hugely important in Tree Palace. On a panel at Tweed Library yesterday with Ashley Hay, Craig spoke about the fact that when he first moved to country Victoria he hated it, and the wind-blasted plains. But then he became used to the landscape and learnt to love the wind, the fierce sun, the branches always bending down, and the rocks in the ground.

The wind is ever-present, and pertinent, in Tree Palace. Stirring up the earth just as the trants are trying to set their feet firmly upon it. And tinkling through the chandelier strung over a tree. The chandelier—a spoil from one of their raids on an abandoned house—is put up in a difficult moment, at a dimmed prospect of work, and is appreciated and treated with reverence by Moira.

Moira served a meal while above there was a meal for the eye: the Milky Way wore white gloves and brought its best silver service. The chandelier glistened as they dined.

There are wonderful descriptions of both peaceful and aching aloneness in the book. Moira loves her family and is often the one to draw them together, but she is also independent, and her needs are strong. Being alone for her can be a solace.

Aloneness freshens you. Makes you listen and look at the world properly without distraction. The wind sounds louder. Sometimes the sky has a moon all day and you remember to notice it.

Midge, Shane, Zara and Rory experience their own ways of being alone and apart from the family, by choice or reluctantly. Midge struggles with his place, being a sort of step-uncle to the kids, often held at arm’s length when he aches to hold, and give love.

You’ll learn more about this book—and the books of the other authors on the tour—in the coming days, as I follow them around and run a few of the sessions myself. I hope to also give an impression of the authors themselves. In this first post, what I’ll tell you about Craig Sherborne is that he likes his martinis very dry, and he skipped school to see David Bowie in 1978.

Learn more about the #555writers tour and click through to the program from here.

Zacharey Jane, Ashley Hay and Craig Sherborne at Tweed Heads Library

Zacharey Jane, Ashley Hay and Craig Sherborne at Tweed Heads Library

The busiest months of my life to date continue + #555writers

Somewhere among editing a big hardcover book, writing and teaching a university course, submitting reviews and an essay, teaching workshops in SA, Vic and Tas, being interviewed for radio and newspapers about Captives, talking The Trip on the Death by Consumption podcast, filming a TV appearance (for Jennifer Byrne Presents: The Seven Deadly Sins—more on that soon), and working in a whisky bar, I have been reading the works of the authors on the #555writers tour, coming up this Friday!

railwayman's wife ashley hayThe Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay explores loss, chance, love and nature. It’s a moving book that manages to tackle difficult themes (around death and grief, on a small and large scale) while being infused with energy and light—mainly due to the descriptions of setting and the warmth of the main character, Anikka.

I was sent Nick Earls’ The Fix and read it before I realised he has a newer book—oops! But I’ll catch up with Analogue Men this week or on tour. Here’s the publisher description:

Andrew Van Fleet is 49 and feeling 50 closing in. He’s bailed out of his private equity job for something that’ll let him spend more time at home, but the house is overrun by iPads and teenage hormones and conversations that have moved on without him. Plus his ailing father is now lodged in the granny flat, convalescing from surgery and with his scrappy bulldog in tow. 

And then there’s Brian Brightman, the expensive fading star at the radio station Andrew’s signed up to manage, whose every broadcast offers fresh trouble. He’s 49 too and, like Andrew, starting to wonder if the twenty-first century might prove to be his second best.

lifeboat zacharey janeI read and adored Zacharey Jane’s The Lifeboata book published in 2008 that will hopefully continue to find an audience. It’s about a young interpreter who has to solve the mystery of an old couple who wash up on the island where she works, with no idea who they are. The old man and woman’s interactions are almost Beckettian—’I don’t know me either’—and the prose is lyrical and emotive, at times sensuous. It could be interpreted politically as well; on the island the processes don’t allow the narrator much time to find out the true story of these two people, and her superiors are ready to simply ship them off to wherever they think they came from. The narrator’s ability to empathise with the castaways (and imagine their possible pasts and future) is what makes her the hero of the novel.

Zac is also the hero (already) of this tour, doing the organising, booking, etc., and even putting her kids to work on a banner and some t-shirts! Exciting stuff.

Samuel Wagan Watson is the tour’s award-winning poet, with a new book due out next month called Love Poems and Death ThreatsIf you come to one of the tour events you’ll no doubt get a sneak preview. I’m hoping our tour bookseller Luke Burless may have copies of one of Sam’s earlier collections, like Smoke Encrypted Whispers, for me to buy. Sam’s also going to be the tour DJ (and thankfully heartily approved of my ’70s and ’80s requests).

tree palaceFinally, I began reading Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace, and was completely absorbed in it, but then my bag was stolen, including my copy of the book (with notes). There’s another copy waiting at my PO Box (thanks Text Publishing) but I’m sad to have lost my notes. I’ll go pick it up tomorrow, and will tell you more about it (and Craig, of course) from Friday onwards.

Again, the whole tour schedule is here. Events are free and open to the public in Tweed Heads, Lismore, Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Lennox Head. I’ll be blogging here, plus updating my Instagram, Twitter (hashtag #555writers), and Facebook page with tour text, pics, video, and audio.

I suppose there’ll be a dearth of single malt whiskies in the Northern NSW pubs that we visit, yeah? I’ll either pour some of my Lagavulin 16 into a flask, or reconnect with my younger Coffs Harbour self and drink Jim Beam and coke. Or maybe Wild Turkey. I won’t go so far as a goon sack.

Until Friday…!

5x5x5 writer tour, Northern NSW

555 writers

I’m delighted to be invited along as the official blogger on this upcoming tour of Northern NSW, in the lead-up to the Byron Bay Writers Festival. As some of you know, I grew up in Coffs Harbour. It’s a part of the world with which I’m very familiar. It’s where I was living when I started LiteraryMinded seven years ago. Of course, it’s also a place I left, and my complicated relationship with the area will no doubt come through a little in the blog posts for this tour. But mainly, the posts will be about the stars of the (road)show, authors Nick Earls, Ashley Hay, Craig Sherborne, Samuel Wagan Watson and Zacharey Jane. Tim Eddy will be making a film of the trip, and I’ll be recording the happenings/shenanigans right here, and no doubt via InstagramTwitter and Facebook. I’ll use the hashtag #555writers. I’ve begun reading the authors’ latest books, so I’ll be able to weave in comments about their work as I get to know the authors themselves. I expect there’ll be explorations of reading, writing, and the industry, mixed in with observations of place and people (by the authors and myself), and some downright silliness and fun. I hope you’ll follow!

The schedule is now live on the Byron Bay Writers Festival website. The tour will consist of a series of lectures, talks, workshops, readings, and fun pub nights. Hope to see you somewhere, or in the comments here. x

Review: Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool in The Australian

summer houseSummer House is a dark satire, scalpel-sharp and more cohesive than The Dinner, with a more complex unreliable narrator, a compelling structure, and a sutured but festering wound of themes.’

Read my review of Dutch author Herman Koch’s disturbing novel Summer House with Swimming Pool here.

I also reviewed his previous novel, The Dinner, for The Australian.

Flash fiction is like a good dram

Cross-posted from the SA Writers’ Centre blog. I wrote this post ahead of my flash fiction workshop at the SA Writers’ Centre in Adelaide (this weekend: 22 June, book here). I also have workshops coming up at Writers Victoria (see also my interview), the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre, and at Byron Bay Writers’ Fest!

Glencairn_Whisky_Glass

On my desktop is a whisky wheel, a device that’s supposed to help you with your tasting notes when sampling single malts. Does your drink have a touch of black pepper on the nose? Or is it orange blossom? Is it lactic or nutty on the palate? Is the finish more toward the end of mint or tobacco? And how long does it linger on the tongue?

Those who know me have probably realised I’d eventually get around to using whisky as a metaphor for writing. Flash fictions—stories under 1000 words—are like a good dram. You savour them, roll them around in your mouth, are left with resonant remnants.

Here’s a little guide to tasting flash fiction:

The nose

The tone, voice or mood is set in the first few lines. Or if it’s a really short one, in the first few words. Some flavours the opening might go for: intriguing, dark, buoyant, amusing, suspicious, arresting. Or, indeed, honey, smoke or cloves.

The palate

We’re into the story now. There’s a character or characters. Something happens, has happened or is about to happen. The flavours (if it’s a good dram of story) are working together to create a cohesive effect. Something could be coming through very strong, like smoke or desire. The flavours are setting off little pings of association in your brain: your childhood, your fears, his garden, her lipstick.

The finish

All good things come to an end. But there’s a lingering in a good, complex dram or story. Did it slide down smoothly? Or is there a hint of bitterness left at the back of the tongue? Are you experiencing a jolt of sweet sherbet? There might be a warming in your chest, a sudden clarity, or a fading melancholy.

How powerful some flavours are: fresh cut grass, wet dog, roses, butterscotch. The flavours themselves, and the associations they uncover, can remain in the memory long afterwards.

With flash fiction, you have so few words to work with – 30ml worth, perhaps. There are many different types of flash stories, though a series of them from one author might take on a certain flavour profile (like single malts from a single region). Reading a range of stories from different authors will help to build your palate, help you to find out what you yourself can do.

Join me in the bar and let’s enjoy a dram or two.

Review: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame in Readings Monthly

owls do cryI reviewed Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame (released with a new foreword by Margaret Drabble in the Text Classics series) for Readings Monthly, with the book still ringing in my head (hence the style of the review). When I read Frame I am reminded, too, that a writer might deliberately eschew grammar rules, in aid of rhythm or mood (and that’s the only nod I’ll give on here to something that happened last week). Here’s an extract:

‘[Frame] pierced the world with her eyes and her senses and we’ll always have the treasure, like this, her first novel, sitting among the best modern novels, so sharp and vivid a voice, so sure so early on, despite the hurt and horror of what she had already been through; a writer and a poet waiting always inside her (and here now) in the place of treasures and darkness, with her own sense of punctuating space, her own way of seeing how the world is like the body and how the body contains a torrent of images and worlds of associated sensations…’

Read the rest here. And then go and buy it (and everything else by Janet Frame).