A dystopic vision: The Ark by Annabel Smith

theark-annabelsmith

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:

Annabel Smith

Annabel Smith

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 SoutherlyWesterlyKill 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.

Best Australian Stories 2014, ed. Amanda Lohrey

best australian stories 2014I’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…

Submit to Cuttlefish

cuttlefish

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 rleach@plc.wa.edu.au 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!

Captives reviewed in Cordite

CaptivesFCR (1)Jo Langdon has written a beautiful and perceptive review of Captives for Cordite Poetry Review.

‘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 publisherReadingsBooktopiaAvid ReaderFishpond (free worldwide shipping), or your local bookstore. The ebook is available on KindleGoogle Play, iBooks, Kobo & more.

Blog narrative

‘Yet the clock is time, and time is lost, is bankrupt before it begins’—from Owls do Cry, Janet Frame.

Recently I made two early blog posts private.

Many times I have gone to do this but never have. When I taught blogging I would tell my students that the blog itself formed an overall narrative. Mine certainly does. From 22-year-old bookseller living in Coffs Harbour to Dr Meyer the published author, a Melburnian and a frequent traveller, now 30.

baby blogger

Baby blogger, 2008, in Tiergarten, Berlin.

There was something about those early posts (the naivete, the openness, the enthusiasm perhaps all part of it) that made people champion me. I’m amazed when I look at the comments (on such cringe-worthy posts). It seems I even taught Emilie Zoey Baker what a meme was. The writing really was shocking, though. More so, I have changed and I can’t help feeling embarrassed at some of the earlier ‘personal’ posts, and well, poems. And so I might prune a little, here and there, from now on. I feel guilty about it. As though it’s dishonest.

But the narrative has spread out, to my published reviews, articles and stories, and the books I’ve now edited and written. Not to mention on social media, where ‘personal’ and even experimental expression continues. I’ll keep reflecting on the broader narrative (and journey) here. LiteraryMinded will always, in some shape or form, be my home on the internet.

Angela Meyer

Older, wiser (?), more filtered.

I just turned 30, while at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. A satisfying, literary-minded way to spend my birthday. I was on a panel about short stories on the day, with Nic Low and Dias Novita Wuri, chaired by Lisa Dempster. The audience was so engaged, and afterwards I was chatting with some teenagers who said they’d been reading stories from Captives aloud to one another. It’s always cool when someone tells you they’ve been reading your work, but I hadn’t previously realised these (often dark) stories would resonate with teenagers. It was great to meet them, and a special shout out to Julia. This is for you:

cumberbatchglasses

G and I spent the afternoon of my birthday at Bali Bird Park, absorbing sounds and colours; feeling the weight of parrots and hornbills on our arms, shoulders, and heads, and holding iguanas.

iguana

There are some photos and other commentary from the festival on my Facebook page, and on Instagram. I most enjoyed Michael Cathcart’s interview with Can Xue, the avant-garde Chinese writer:

‘You experiment to know how big your spiritual tension can be and how high you can scale the heights of art.’

This shift, though, from being firm about never deleting old blog posts to deciding it’s OK, reflects a wider shift that’s been happening in my life. I’ve noticed it since I got back from overseas, and since Captives was published. Questions have been raised (mostly internally) that relate to values I’ve always held, and I’ll find that something I always firmly believed (so much so that it had shaped who I was) has entered some slipstream, and then I watch it float away. How strange, I’ve found myself thinking. How strange to find that you have changed so much. To know you could change so fundamentally.

What’s still present in me, from the early blog days? The enthusiasm, definitely. The mad crushes on books and people. The dark bits. The wanting to go deeper. The desire to write fiction. The commitment, though the focus has shifted to different projects. The need for balance. Unfortunately, the self-consciousness. But it’s gotten much better. I set my mind to doing things and I do them. I am capable. I am most definitely grown up.

I will miss my 20s. The last five years in particular have been incredible, despite a few rough patches. One thing I’ll miss is the fact that people are forgiving of you when you’re young. And your achievements seem larger. People are proud; they nurture you. But my writing is in a good place (I’ve made it into Best Australian Stories for the first time, out November), and I’ve had a few work experiences since my doctorate that have made me realise what I do and don’t want to do. And I want to have kids and other life stuff like that. The 30s will be different, but I’m certain they’ll still involve writing, reading, love, travel, and whisky. And that’s enough.

whisky

Review of The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion in The Australian

The Rosie Effect reviewI reviewed The Rosie Effect, Graeme Simsion’s follow-up to The Rosie Project for the Weekend Australian. It’s a warm read, and a successful sequel. Following is an extract from the review.

As with the first book, these incidents are humorous and cause cringing; the reader observes the miscommunication, the unravelling, and longs to step in as an interpreter. This is enhanced by the first-person point of view: we experience each incident through Don’s eyes and can only imagine what the other characters are thinking […]

There is genuine emotional intent. Don grappling with the idea of a baby and how it will fit into his and Rosie’s lives is relatable on a broad level: trying to find some structure when life is changing shape or feels chaotic.

The Rosie books are partly about control. Life events take their course, and it is sometimes difficult to confront the idea that we have no control over them. We can relate to Don’s desire to be prepared for the birth, to play a part and to understand. His ineptitude makes us laugh, but his failure to recognise his partner’s needs strikes on a deeper level.

Read the rest of the review here.

Here you’ll find an interview I did with Graeme Simsion for The Big Issue on the release of The Rosie Project in 2013.