In which I defend highbrow lit-ra-cha!
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
Actually, there’s more to it than that. I haven’t felt like I’ve had a proper chance to let publication wash over me, that now when I say to someone ‘I’m a writer’, and they ask, ‘what’s your book?’ I have an answer.
It’s just that I’m back in extraordinarily-busy-saying-yes mode… That’s why I truly missed my blog’s birthday. I’m working on two contracts (one editing, one writing), have started an awesome new casual job at Nant whisky bar, have two reviews, one essay and one academic paper due, am judging two writing competitions, preparing to report on a conference, preparing an interview, preparing for a HUGE amount of festivals, events and workshops, and trying to keep on top of social media etc. around my book’s release (and continuing to promote The Great Unknown). I’m a little stressed, admittedly, but I’m also grateful. When I got back from overseas it was so difficult, at first, to find work. I’d much rather have too much work, than too little. And everything feels (almost) balanced: a little reading, some writing, a bunch of emails, some editing, and then whisky.
Except for one thing: not enough creative writing going on. I’m managing about once a week at the moment. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Do many people manage to write a lot when they’re in the throes of promoting the current book? And how do other authors manage balance between book promotion (and career building) and making enough of a living? This is a question that’s been fascinating me, last year (when I finished my doctorate) and this year: what is the ideal job for a writer? Is my bar job ideal, because it’s casual and flexible, and still stimulating (I love the smells in the bar, and hearing people’s different stories about how they came to like single malts—it often involves travel). Or is freelance editing ideal? I just love putting that logical part of my brain to work: problem solving; knitting text, spaces and punctuation into something neat. I get to put the control freak to work, purge her a little. Editing feels powerful, I think. But it does use up a lot of brain power, not exactly from the same area as the writing (at least the drafting) comes from, but close by. Enough to drain you of words for the evening. I don’t think I’d want to edit full time.
I don’t think I want to do any one job full time.
Can I manage this ‘juggling’, then? And still write, and still pay the bills? I’m going to try.
A grant would be helpful, of course! Or an advance. I am so enjoying writing this novel and it would be great, after some of these contracts ended, to have more time in the week to immerse myself in remote 19th century Scotland.
But hang on, let me take a moment here. I have a book out! (Always thinking of the next thing.) And it’s even receiving some lovely reviews and attention. The other day I received an email from an author whose book I very much admired, telling me she admired my book! It made my day. I couldn’t quite believe that she’d written to me as a peer (I know, but I’ve admitted to my inadequacy complex on here many times over these past seven years).
I’ve linked in the past few weeks to some of the guest posts/interviews I’ve been doing around the book’s release, but recently Captives has also been reviewed in Readings Monthly by Brigid Mullane, and Bronte Coates interviewed me for the Readings blog. Author Annabel Smith also interviewed me (on the writing process) on her blog.
And The Great Unknown is kicking on! It received a review in the Australian last weekend, by Kirsten Krauth, alongside the latest Sleepers Almanac. I still have to put up the last of my author posts from TGU on here. Will do soon…
Please also check out my events page while you’re here!
And while I’m rambling on, I must say that I’m reading some incredible books for upcoming festivals: Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is bowling me over, and Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals is lingering long in my mind. I put a small note on that one on Goodreads.
But I also feel I’ll never catch up on all the books I want to read: Alex Miller’s Coal Creek, Chris Womersley’s Cairo, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (not to mention Carpentaria), Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, Emily Bitto’s The Strays, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, and now Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel, The Wonders, has just landed on my desk. And I have an advance proof of Jessie Cole’s Deeper Water… (!)
All the books.
OK, I best get on with my work for the day. Thanks for coming by, it’s been swell.
It’s been five years since I first wrote a piece like this, and after seeing the topic come up in an author’s Facebook thread, I figured it was time for an update.
I’m sharing what I’ve learnt about chairing and interviewing authors on stage, particularly through watching good, mediocre or bad sessions at festivals, not just due to my own experience chairing panels at writers’ festivals in Australia and overseas. Let me acknowledge that I’m well aware, compared to many of my colleagues, that I’m still green-ish (in terms of years ‘in the field’), and that I’m not saying I’m an authority or have mastered all of these points. Like anyone, I have good days and bad days, and times where I’ve simply taken too much on. I also suffer from nerves.
This post is not intended to target anyone in particular; I hope it will benefit people both chairing for the first time, and those who’ve become a little too comfortable (and perhaps even over-confident) in their methods. I mention this last point because I’ve had a few recent conversations with friends where we’ve agreed that a panel or interview was badly chaired, but the interviewer is generally a ‘good egg’ and we don’t know how to broach the subject, or whether it is our place to.
To the person I later found out had snorted cocaine before chairing a writers’ festival panel: no. Just no.
These are simply observations from someone who has spent a lot of time (enthusiastically) at these events in the past few years, someone who thinks the general standard can be better. Please feel free to add your own tips, observations, experiences and stories in the comments section below.
1. Prepare well. Read the authors’ latest books, and if you have time, dip into their backlist as well. Both the authors and audience appreciate an in-depth knowledge of the work (as long as you don’t show off about it). If it’s relevant, also read up on the topic. For example, I recently chaired a panel with Margaret Drabble and Rabih Alameddine called ‘Grand Allusions’, and so I dug out my Oxford Dictionary of Allusions to swot up on literary allusion and reference.
2. Get in touch with the authors in advance. You don’t have to overwhelm them with information, just let them know that you’re preparing the session and that the channels of communication are open. Then they can let you know if there’s anything they are really keen to focus on, or avoid. I also contact them again the week before the event to give them an idea of some questions and topics I may raise on stage, so they have time to ponder them beforehand, or select an appropriate reading. I’ve also found this helps to assure the authors that the conversation will have direction and that you’ll get to certain topics, so they don’t feel they need to explode on the first question and say everything they have been thinking about.
3. That said, you don’t want to exhaust the topic before the panel or interview even begins, leave plenty of room for spontaneity.
4. On the day, keep the introductions brief and respectful. Use the information the author has provided to you/the festival. Also give a brief general introduction to the panel topic.
5. Try to use the names of the authors’ books when referring to them, instead of saying ‘your book’. It will help the audience to remember the titles.
6. Be sure to ask individual questions of each author, as well as more general ones. This will allow more in-depth insights into their individual works, and the audience will leave knowing more about them. It’s also respectful to the authors, and shows you have read the books carefully.
7. That said, don’t over-analyse the authors’ books as part of your question. This is the first tip under ‘it’s not about you’. It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move, especially if they think you are wrong but want to remain polite. Don’t treat your preparation the same way you would if you were writing a review or essay. As an example, instead of telling the author and audience that the book has strong female characters, you might ask the author about a particular character and then prompt them from there to give their own opinion or analysis. The audience wants to be party to the author’s own insights, not yours.
8. On that note, don’t show off. Don’t over-quote, or take too much time to delve into the book’s relation to (insert your own specialist area). One or two well-placed quotes or references can be incredibly effective, but I’ve seen panels and interviews where the chair will throw in a quote before every second question. Though the author is undoubtedly very smart and well read, you may be putting them in a potentially awkward position (or risk them thinking you’re a smart-arsey douche). The audience, too, will be groaning inwardly, or outwardly. They’ve come to hear what this author thinks about love, writing, death…
9. In sum of these last two points, keep the lead-in to your questions brief, and actually ask a question. One that works well for me is: ‘Could you tell us about…’
10. Be flexible. I’m definitely someone who over-prepares, and writes everything down. I would panic if I didn’t have my notebook on stage with me. However, I don’t entirely follow the questions as a script. I try my best to listen for the moments when an insight can be taken further, or when I can take something the author has said and tie it to another idea we’ve discussed, or throw it to the other author/s. If you’ve read your panellists’ books carefully, and also studied them and their careers, you’ll be able to carry off this segue action more easily.
11. That said, it’s nice for a panel to have an arc. So if you sense your panellists are giving away too much of the gold too early, or there’s a point you want to lead to, communicate that to them and the audience. It’s as easy as: ‘OK, that’s fascinating, I definitely want to come back to that, let’s just get more of a feel for your character. Could you tell us…’ And then, if you have a bad memory like me, make a squiggle in your notes so you do remember to bring it back to that awesome point.
12. Try to avoid um, ah, kinda, sorta, ‘sorta thing’ – oh I hate myself when that comes out of my mouth on stage – and upward inflecting too much when you speak, particularly in the introduction (that’s one I’ve tried to tackle after a nasty tweet at Edinburgh International Book Fest). Also, don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much. Nodding is good, but try to avoid lots of ‘yep’, ‘aha’, ‘cool’, ‘right’, and so on into the microphone.
13. Watch your feet. Are they jiggling, or swinging out whenever you laugh? Remember that your feet on stage can be at the eye level of the audience. Lots of movement can be quite distracting.
14. Most of the authors you end up chairing will be experienced, and will know how to talk about their book in a way that is genuine, insightful, and interesting. But wow, there can be some wildcards. Sometimes authors are nervous and can barely speak, other times they’ll completely hog the microphone. My hardest interview was with someone famous, who was used to performing solo. To the last minute he kept asking me to remove questions from my plan until I was panicking I’d have nothing left. Then he paced wildly, lay on the floor, and performed all sorts of other personal rituals before going on stage. I’ll admit to having a shot of whisky before that session… Luckily, it went fine, because his book is fantastic and he’s funny and smart, and I’d read and researched thoroughly. The point is, people are people, just be as open-minded and diplomatic as you can be. Be aware of both author and audience, and if someone is going on too long, try to butt in gently. If you’re chairing a complete arsehat, well, sh*t happens – try to channel their negatives into insights, or at least try to frame it as entertainment for the audience. It’s not always gonna work. Have the whisky ready for afterwards.
15. Sometimes, no matter how well you’ve prepared, and how great everyone is on stage, there’ll be a strange lack of chemistry. This has happened to me once or twice, and I’ve spent far too much time thinking about it afterwards. One time I think there just wasn’t enough to the topic, and it was difficult to draw the works together in relation to it. Another time I think I just didn’t prepare the best questions. Or maybe there was a full moon. Who knows. Just make sure you do the best you can.
16. Also, if you get nervous like I do, or if you’re tired, sometimes you might just completely blank. It can be hard to juggle ideas: seeking those titbits to carry further in the conversation versus going to the next planned topic or question. There’s a lot you have to hold in your head. Just try to breathe, relax, and be there. The notebook, again, can help. If your blank causes dead air, just be honest and apologise to the authors and audience, have a laugh, and then get back on track.
17. Individual festivals/venues will have their own guidelines for audience questions. Some audiences will be hanging out to get in on the action, especially with well-known authors. Other authors or topics won’t attract so many questions. Ten to twenty minutes is usually how long you’ll give over to audience questions. Make sure you still have some yourself in reserve in case there aren’t any. And be prepared to be tough with audience members who grandstand or try to make a long comment instead of a question (you know the type). The rest of the audience will get cranky if you don’t keep them in line! That said, some audience members are just nervous and may take a little while to get around to a really great question… It’s your call.
18. I just want to say it again: it’s not about you. Mention your own book or who you are in the intro, and then that’s it. Be curious about the person/people with whom you get to spend this hour. You have the power to create an enjoyable, memorable experience for both them and the audience. It’s a great gig, you’re privileged to be up there. Do the job well.
After a stimulating Perth Writers Festival I joined writers Thomas Keneally, Rosie Scott, Debra Adelaide, Linda Jaivin, David Marr, Antony Loewenstein, and publisher Terri-Ann White at the Perth candlelight vigil for Reza Berati, the young Iranian asylum seeker who was tragically killed on Manus Island.
It was an understandably emotional event, as I’m sure were the countless other vigils going on around Australia in public places and private homes. We are shocked and ashamed of the way our government is treating asylum seekers: inadequately and cruelly. We can and must do better.
In Perth, we experienced a minute of silence and then a heart-wrenching traditional Persian song. We were all very moved by the speech of Sarah Ross, from the Refugee Rights Action Network, which is available on the RRAN website. Here’s the opening, and I encourage you to click through and read the speech in full:
I visited a friend in Curtin detention centre in December of 2013. I flew into Broome from Perth and rented a car. I drove that car halfway from Broome to Derby and camped overnight in what was insufferable heat in the middle of the bush. I drove an hour through the gateway into the Kimberley until I reached Curtin Detention Centre—one of the most remote and inaccessible detention centres in Australia.
I visited a man there who emanated an air of gentility and humility that still resonates within me so many months afterwards. He had been brutally tortured in Sri Lanka several times before finally fleeing. He sought asylum in Australia coming here by boat. He arrived in September 2012 and was then sent to Nauru Detention Centre where he witnessed rioting, abuse, self-harm and suicide. He was then transferred to Curtin Detention Centre where he was left to wait for months, and months, and months.
What is the point of this story? I got a phone call last week to say that after 16 months in detention, after surviving torture at the hands of a brutal regime in Sri Lanka, incarceration in Australia and abuse on Nauru, he would be getting released from detention next week.
When I told him that I had received the call we had both been waiting for, he was so happy. Even after 16 months in detention and everything that he had been through, he told me that his dreams and his future were coming ‘so soon’.
When he was in detention, I asked him if he’d like to study something when he got out. And he said, ‘Yes, I want to become a magician. Is there a university for magicians in Perth?’ He wanted to make children laugh. That is the type of person he is. I could now be at peace, knowing that if he still wished to do so, he was free to pursue his dream of becoming a magician.
Through all of the horror stories I have heard about people’s particular stories—news of his release struck a particular chord within me and I realised it was because I have a profound faith and belief that people can overcome their suffering.
Read the rest here.
If you are a writer, you may consider adding your voice to Writers for Refugees.
A Country Too Far is an anthology edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally featuring writings on asylum seekers by some of Australia’s best authors.
And if you want to learn more about the private companies which run our detention centres, Antony Loewenstein’s Profits of Doom is a good place to start.
This year, the Premier’s Awards were held at Government House, in a palatial room of cream, blue and mint, complete with thrones. I arrived just as the talking began, on a dry, hot Melbourne night, and found a place to stand and fan my face with the nominee form.
In the young adult section, Barry Jonsberg won for My Life as an Alphabet. He dedicated the prize to the memory of his Norwegian father, and two characters called ‘Sneaking Blanket’ and ‘Rolling Toilet Lid’, who featured in his father’s tales.
Jennifer Maiden took out the poetry prize, and then was the overall winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature, for her collection Liquid Nitrogen. Maiden coudn’t be present to accept the prize, but her editor told us about how well she articulates the politics of violence. Her publisher, Ivor Indyk, spoke about poetry as ‘the most powerful, personal and political of forms’. In Liquid Nitrogen Indyk said that Maiden, who has a painful condition which inhibits her movement, allows her imagination to soar and go to places her body cannot. He also said the work holds conversations, between the poet and herself, with the figures in the poems, and with the reader foremost. There was a collective excited gasp around the room when Liquid Nitrogen won the main prize. It was a good day for poetry!
The drama prize went to Savages by Patricia Cornelius. She commended fortyfivedownstairs for taking on independent, risky work. She also thanked the judges for choosing an original work over an adaptation, and one that is brutal over a work that is life-affirming.
The non-fiction winner was Forgotten War, by Henry Reynolds, about the conflict that occured on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists. Reynolds thanked people who put their personal and professional lives in the service of literature (you’re welcome), particularly publishers and booksellers. The booksellers received a huge clap. He also commended the Victorian government for the award’s continuity, citing the Queensland government as an example of how it can all go wrong.
The fiction prize went to one of my all-time favourite authors Alex Miller, for Coal Creek, which I shamefully haven’t yet read (as you know I’ve been travelling and researching a big project of my own). Alex was his usual self, both warm and dry (like the night, I suppose). He spoke of writing Coal Creek, that the pleasure of the process was reward enough. In reference to the premier’s comment about being halfway through and enjoying the book, he joked that he must have been able to put it down to come to the awards! Miller spoke of literature enduring and surviving in communities, despite constant obstacles.
The People’s Choice Award went to Hannah Kent’s gorgeously dark Icelandic tale Burial Rites. Kent thanked independent booksellers for really getting behind the book and giving it a good start in the world.
After the announcements, I finally got my hands on some bubbles, and had conversations with many gorgeous people in the Melbourne literary community—writers, editors, publishers, library folk, festival peeps—all readers. Some people thought I’d been away a lot longer than I had. Is that a good or a bad thing? Either way, I was welcomed back many times, and that was incredibly sweet. By the end of the night I’d set quite a few ‘proper catch-up’ dates, and possibly lined up a couple of articles. I honestly don’t try to ‘network’—though that word possibly just means being friendly, engaged, and sharing ideas about what you’re interested in and working on.
I don’t have a job, yet, but after last night, and then seeing Readings’ list of most anticipated books today, I’m feeling very good about what 2014 will hold.
Congrats to the winners of the Vic Prem’s! Have you read the winning or shortlisted books? Would love to hear your thoughts.