The Great Unknown authors: Guy Salvidge

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the sixth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown this month, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Guy Salvidge’s speculative neo-noir story ‘A Void’ was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award. Salvidge’s latest novel is Yellowcake Summer and he has a great blog: Wrapped up in Books.

What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular theme?

guysalvidge (2)As soon as I saw the guidelines for this competition, I was determined to enter. I often struggle to write stories for specific themes, but this one appealed to me for a number of reasons. Short fiction competitions often have very stringent word limits of 3000 words or less, which is a stricture I often struggle with, but I (just) managed to cram what I wanted to cram into 4000 words here. While no aficionado of The Twilight Zone (see below), I am a longtime reader and writer of speculative and slipstream fiction and thus I was well within my comfort zone in writing for this theme. I also enjoy writing about Melbourne, a city I’ve visited many times but never lived in, and so I enjoyed deploying some of my favourite places in Melbourne in ‘A Void’.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

‘A Void’ is the third in an ongoing series of stories featuring Tyler Bramble, an alcoholic and sometimes suicidal detective (or Seeker) living in a near future Melbourne. The first of these stories, ‘The Dying Rain’, was written at the request of Andrez Bergen, who was putting together a spin-off anthology set in the universe of his debut novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. I ended up co-editing that anthology with Andrez, and the book, The Tobacco-Stained Sky, has recently been released by US publisher Another Sky Press. I enjoying writing ‘The Dying Rain’ so much that I wrote a second Tyler Bramble mystery, ‘Blue Swirls’, which appeared earlier this year in the first issue of Tincture Journal. Here, in Tyler’s third adventure, he must contend with the unintended side effects of the drug ‘Void’ and a frigid Melbourne day that starts poorly and goes downhill from there.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?

Confession time: I’ve never watched an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits! I didn’t let that dissuade me, however. As a (somewhat disturbed) child I used to watch The X-Files and the ‘true story’ show The Extraordinary that followed directly after. At that age (twelve or thirteen) I was obsessed with cheerful topics like nuclear fallout and the prophecies of Nostradamus. From the age of eighteen, I fell in love with the work of American SF writer Philip K. Dick, who charted territory in novels like Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch similar to that that I’ve explored in ‘A Void’. J. G. Ballard is another major influence. His stories, such as ‘The Voices of Time’, as well as novels like The Atrocity Exhibition and The Unlimited Dream Company, helped to expand my own mental horizons as both a reader and writer.

What thoughts do you have on the current status of genre fiction?

I do think that certain genres are considered more prestigious and highbrow than others. For most of my life I have been writing some mutant variant of science fiction that is a recognisable descendant of the works of writers like Dick and Ballard. I have realised lately, however, that science fiction novels are very much a niche market in today’s publishing landscape. In response to this, I have quite consciously decided to change genres (in my case to crime fiction) to potentially reach a larger audience. This is a pity, because while I do enjoy reading and writing crime (such as the novels of Raymond Chandler, Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell)  my first love is for fantastical fiction by writers like William S. Burroughs, John Crowley and Ursula Le Guin.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Kathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Kathy Charles

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the fifth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown this month, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Kathy Charles captures the voice of a hard-done-by bloke perfectly in her eerie (and funny) story ‘Baby’s First Words’. Charles is the author of John Belushi is Dead (first published as Hollywood Ending). Today she shares with us the effect that one spooky show had on her imagination as a child…

Kathy_Charles (2)One early summer evening when I was around six years old, I was sitting on the seagrass matting of my bedroom floor, playing with my Barbie dolls and occasionally glancing up at the small black and white TV with the coat hanger antenna, when I became enraptured by the story playing out on the screen. Even at that young age I remember being chilled by it, as if even though the concepts were not entirely clear to me, the tone of what I was witnessing meant for me to be frightened, and boy, was I frightened. The story I saw on that small black and white TV screen was about a lady who was driving in a car across the American countryside, and every time she stopped for gas or turned an abrupt corner, she would see the same man hitchhiking at the side of the road, as if he were unconstrained by time and space. At the end of the episode the woman discovers (SPOILER ALERT) that she has in fact died in a car accident, and the man in an angel charged with taking her to heaven. It was, of course, a particularly harrowing episode of The Twilight Zone, and it still haunts me to this day. No matter how many times I see it, ‘The Hitch-hiker’ still has the ability to make my blood run cold. It was, I believe, one of my first introductions to the great unknown that is death, especially the inherent mystery of it. It was both devastating and exhilarating to watch, and I am certain that my first experience with The Twilight Zone, glimpsed as a child growing up in suburban Victoria, has influenced my writing ever since.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Ali AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Ali Alizadeh

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerThis is the fourth in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Today, Ali Alizadeh tells us about the process behind his story ‘Truth and Reconciliation’. Alizadeh’s most recent book is Transactions (UQP).

Alizadeh pic (2)

What did you enjoy about writing to this particular brief or theme?

I loved using this brief as the excuse for indulging in far too many hours of The Twilight Zone. Very cathartic. It was also great to use and experiment with the format of a short, weird story. It’s quite interesting and challenging to quickly create a setting and then subvert it via a bizarre, unexplainable narrative twist. I quite enjoyed doing that.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

The bizarre, unexplainable narrative twist in ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ is our love and worship of sport. Why are we so enamoured of frankly banal, manipulative, egomaniacal mediocrities who can apparently run really fast or swim really fast or cycle really fast or somesuch? It’s an infuriating kind of fetishism, in Marx’s sense of the word, a kind of value which has nothing to do with the use-value of things. What precisely is the use of any sport? And why are we so willing to put up with the deceptions and annoyances of athletes? I think my story is about that sort of thing.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? 

I’m not your classic The Twilight Zone fan. I’ve always been appreciative of the phenomenon, but had never really engaged with it, until Angela invited me to write a story for this book. Now that I’ve watched so many episodes as research for this project, I can confidently claim to have become a fan. I’d never really been a fan of a TV show, but I used to be quite an avid fan of certain alternative bands in the 90s—Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, that sort of thing—and the comic book Sandman.

Despite her success as a writer of quality macabre and psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith was, to her great disappointment, never published in The New Yorker. Has anything changed? What thoughts do you have on the current status of writing genre fiction?

I really don’t think getting published in something like The New Yorker is such a big deal. I can understand why popular genre fiction writers may crave being recognised by the literati—people often want what they can’t have—but I honestly don’t think anyone, including proper literary writers, really care all that much about self-important literary cliques and their trivial little publications. Best to ignore such markers of ‘critical success’ and just write, read, live, etc.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Ryan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Ryan O’Neill

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerThis is the third in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Ryan O'Neill (2)Today we hear from Ryan O’Neill (The Weight of a Human Heart) regarding his story ‘Sticks and Stones':

What did you enjoy about writing to this particular brief or theme?

Though I’ve written stories in many different styles and forms, I had never written a story that departed from realism, or at least, realist themes. It was liberating to imagine how a character might react in a wholly fantastic situation, but also a challenge to ensure their reactions were plausible.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

‘Sticks and Stones’ is a ghost story about a haunted book and the effects it has on those who read it.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories as a kid? 

I have very vivid childhood memories of watching The Twilight Zone, especially of the episodes where a woman on an isolated form battles a malicious little alien, who is later revealed to be an astronaut from Earth. I also vaguely remember an episode of The Twilight Zone, or perhaps The Outer Limits, where a group of characters are revealed, at the end of the episode to be puppets. It scared the living daylights out of me. It was a short step from The Twilight Zone to The Dead Zone, the first Stephen King book I read, and from there to the weird tales of HP Lovecraft, Clarke Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood and Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve always admired the skill necessary in constructing a ghost story, or weird tale, and was excited to have a try myself with ‘Sticks and Stones’.

What thoughts do you have on the reception of genre fiction, or of writing in a genre?

I haven’t read much modern supernatural fiction, as I think the emphasis has come to be on blood and gore rather than chills. Any genre, whether horror, SF or Fantasy, can become a ghetto if the writers working in it look inward, or are happy to keep repeating the same old formulas. For instance, at the moment it seems impossible to imagine anything original left to be done with zombies or vampires.

The last modern writer of weird fiction whose work I enjoyed was Thomas Ligotti, whose stories, despite (or perhaps because of) being almost entirely free of bloodshed or violence, are frequently terrifying. Ligotti is aware of writers who have gone before him, but is wholly original, and like the best of genre writers, he is, first and foremost, a great writer.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Carmel Bird, Rhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Rhys Tate

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerThis is the second in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from BooktopiaReadingsFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Rhys Tate 500 (2)Rhys Tate on writing his Carmel Bird Award shortlisted story ‘The Koala Motel':

What did you enjoy about writing to this particular theme?

I don’t scare that easily—the last time I really had the heebie-jeebies was when we broke into the boarded-up shell of an asylum out here in the country—but I found that during the editing of the piece, midnightish, empty house, I was starting to skeeze out a little. That was fun.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

The Koala Motel was a very real place out to the west of Colac. As I drove past when it was operating, I used to wonder who the hell would stay there, and after the place went bust and was progressively vandalised to the foundations, I wondered who the hell would even stop. It was a strange and strangely isolated little corner of Australia.

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? 

Oh lordy. Doctor Who and the Terrified Toddler Crouched Behind the Couch. That scene in The Twilight Zone where the girl’s mouth is missing, replaced by a blank piece of skin. The Faces of Bélmez in Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Someone let me watch Poltergeist when I was nine. I read The Amityville Horror at twelve and slept with the light on for weeks. Of course this had a huge effect on me, as did the fact that I’ve always been a poor sleeper and vivid dreamer. (Luckily, most of my nightmares are written from the third person point of view.) I tend to find the indie stuff has the best level of chills and thrills these days: creepypasta like ‘Ted’s Caving Page’, and Salad Fingers on YouTube.

Despite her success as a writer of quality macabre and psychological thrillers, Patricia Highsmith was never published in The New Yorker. Has anything changed? What thoughts do you have on the current status of writing in a genre?

Mmm, at a particular time some genres fit more closely to what is considered literature than others: Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood with their dystopian fiction, for example. Perhaps we’re not impressed any more unless the entire world is dying. Anyway, didn’t postmodernism invalidate this line of thinking? People should enjoy what they enjoy and damn the critics. Life’s too short to worry.

You might also enjoy reading about Carmel Bird’s story ‘Hare’.

The Great Unknown authors: Carmel Bird

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

This is the first in a series of posts leading up to the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from Booktopia, Readings, Fishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.


Carmel Bird on writing ‘Hare’

I live in Castlemaine which is a small country town in the centre of Victoria. The earth in this part of the world is scarred by the workings and remains of old goldmines, and the streets of the town lead, not to more streets, but to the edge of the forlorn and haunted bushland. Silent, mournful, mysterious forest is never far away. In the town, in all the little towns around here, and sometimes alone in the forest itself, nineteenth century churches, firm and handsome, survive in warm redbrick confidence.

When Angela asked for a story for The Great Unknown, it was these churches, with their promise of the ancient supernatural contained, that first presented themselves to me as inspiration. But—as I was beginning—a friend told me that twice on her daily walk in the local bush she had encountered a strange rabbit at dusk. It stood still and looked at her, and she thought it was going to speak. Saving the churches for another day, I was up and running.

Dusk, when the light is unstable, when shadows shift and things are not what they seem. Or are what they seem, and what they seem is eerie and threatening. When the corner of the eye offers the clue to mysteries as yet unthought. The rabbit was from a twilight zone, that nowhere place into which a boy could roll through the bedroom wall, never to return.

At the time when I was writing the story, the case of Jill Meagher was often in the news. Jill Meagher who disappeared in the city and whose body was later found buried in the bush on the outskirts of the country town of Gisborne. Whenever I drove through Gisborne, in fact whenever I drive through Gisborne, whenever I hear the name Gisborne, I think of the horrible story of Jill Meagher. The woman in ‘Hare’ owes something to that story. Of course, burying a body in the bush is nothing new, but I am examining here, insofar as I can, the workings of my imagination as I wrote ‘Hare’.

The rabbit suggested to me the hare—the rabbit in my friend’s story shifted easily into a hare. The hare as pyschopomp, the hare as trickster, has always fascinated me. I paused in my writing and wallowed for a while in my books on the subject, and in the story you will find some of the details of this dallying.

Once I have these ingredients—the hare, the old goldmines, the disappearance of the woman—the characters and their problems seem to appear of their own will. I more or less have the idea of the story, and now I need the angle. What is the hare up to, and how does the goldmine figure?

Let’s go back to reality for a minute. Something you can rely on in this part of the world is the art exhibition. And two other things are cars up on blocks, and guns.

Put all these elements together, and the only thing remaining to do is to tell the story. For there are two parts to any story—there’s the story, and there’s the telling. How stories are written is a bit of another great unknown.

You might also enjoy reading about Alex Cothren’s Carmel Bird Award-winning story, which appears in the anthology.

Love & logic: Graeme Simsion on The Rosie Project

The Rosie ProjectText Publishing (buy paperback / ebook)

This feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 425

The main character in the novel, The Rosie Project, has difficulty understanding social cues. ‘Wherever Don goes, chaos will follow’, says the author, Graeme Simsion. Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at the University of Melbourne, undertaking a self-assigned ‘Wife Project’, a 16-page questionnaire designed to help him find a life partner. Don is fit, successful, and possesses a variety of impressive skills. Social interaction, however, is not so straightforward for Don and although he never acknowledges it, the reader firmly suspects that he exhibits characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome.

‘It started off inspired by a friend of mine’, Simsion explains. ‘I’ve known this guy for over 30 years—we go jogging together—and he can be hard work at times. He’s got an opinion on everything.’ Simsion’s friend also has a particular way of speaking, which the author channelled when he began writing Don: ‘He uses computer words, like “this meal has a fault”, or “I’ll initialise my eating procedure”‘. Simsion’s friend, too, has had a tough time socially in his life. He eventually found a partner, but Simsion says, ‘for a guy who was fit, intelligent, wealthy’, it was a struggle.

Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion

Simsion did research into Asperger’s syndrome for The Rosie Project, mainly through first-person accounts of people with Asperger’s, or those living with them. ‘I made a very conscious decision that this [book] would be in first person,’ Simsion says, ‘Don is highly functioning enough that we can relate to him.’

Simsion was clear that he did not want Don to be the kind of character who ‘helped [other characters] grow because they [had] met him, which you see in a film like Rain Man.’ Being inside Don’s head (essentially an unreliable narrator) makes for good humour, as the reader can interpret certain social cues, or subtleties of language, that Don misses. Don’s first date with Rosie is thwarted, for example, by his showing up to a fancy restaurant in a Gore-Tex jacket and then, under stress, proceeding to ‘disarm’ the bouncers with his aikido moves.

The contrast between Don’s competency in some areas and his ineptitude in others makes for classic comedy. But it also makes for depth of character, since Simsion makes Don work for his skills. In one of the best scenes in the book, Don appears almost heroic when he manages to remember, and mix, a massive number of cocktails at a function. (It’s part of a surreptitious scheme to collect genetic material for a side project with Rosie, who is trying to identify her real father.) But Don’s cocktail knowledge, while extremely impressive, is not ‘magic’. Don has spent hours and hours with a cocktail book, testing and memorising recipes. Simsion says he didn’t want the knowledge and skills to come to Don easily. ‘There’s this cliché that if you have Asperger’s or autism you’ve got a gift.’ From his reading, and from talking to people—mainly people who have autistic children—Simsion found that this idea of giftedness is one stereotype many struggle against. ‘Don’s very focused, but he’s not magic,’ Simsion says, ‘I tried to make him human.’

Though the author has had incredible pre-release success with The Rosie Project, selling the rights into more than 30 countries, he, too, has had to work hard for it. After a mid-life career change (Simsion is from a science and business background), the project began life as a screenplay, which Simsion wrote during many years studying screenwriting. The project has changed significantly since its inception. One influence on the story’s eventual tone and shape was the romantic comedy genre, particularly classic screwball comedies. These films also helped with the development of the female character, Rosie. Simsion watched many of the classics, including His Girl Friday (1940), Bringing up Baby (1938), Philadelphia Story (1940), Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). He particularly noted the strong female characters featured in many of the films, and thinks of Rosie as being more in line with a Katherine Hepburn style character, than female characters in contemporary romantic comedies.

But there is a somewhat traditional binary in the book, in that Rosie is the more impulsive and emotional character, while Don is the rational one. Simsion admits that some female readers have likened Don’s logic to that of ‘all blokes’, not just those with Asperger’s. Although the point is that Don is often ‘kidding himself’, says Simsion, when he believes he’s acting rationally. For example, when Don says, ‘I made a rational decision to go and see Rosie at the pub and help her find her father because that was good use of my time’, the reader thinks: yeah, right

But it could also be said that there’s a Don and Rosie inside all of us: the side that tries to make the best and most profitable use of time, and the side which encourages us to ‘stop worrying about it’, and is open to new experiences. One of the reasons the book is so successful, and humorous, is due the reader’s recognition of these warring aspects.

The books of life: By the Book by Ramona Koval

By the Book Ramona KovalThis feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 421.

Text Publishing
November 2012 (buy hardcover, ebook)

Ramona Koval’s enthusiastic explorations of literature would be familiar not only to those who enjoyed her long-running ABC Radio National program, The Book Show, but also to audiences at writers’ festivals around the world. As an interviewer, she is informed, curious and bold, coaxing a multitude of insights from her subjects. In By the Book, Koval swings the spotlight on herself and asks how a life of books has informed her as a person.

Central to Koval’s development, growing up in St Kilda and North Balwyn in Melbourne, was her mother, a Polish Jew with an amazing story of her own. Koval opens By the Book with an image of her mother, stretched out on the divan, lost in a book. Koval’s mother read in multiple languages and had a fondness for banned books. She would regularly take her young daughter to a mobile library, which ‘introduced her to a different world’. This was important, Koval writes, because as a child she ‘didn’t exactly have wide horizons to survey’. Books provided those.

Ramona Koval

Ramona Koval

Koval describes the books we keep close as presenting an ‘archaeology of interests’, and says those she selected for discussion in her own book were ‘the ones that were crucial milestones for me in some kind of way’. From the works of French novelist Colette to books on polar exploration, European and absurd literature, language books, feminist books, and the poetry of science, Koval’s reading interests have been broad. In her reflections on reading, she wonders about whether there is a ‘right time’ to encounter a certain work while arguing that books can, undeniably, shape you. Koval felt this acutely while gripped by Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower just this year, and believes if she’d read the novel at a young age, it might have changed the course of her life. ‘I saw several episodes in my own life mirrored in its pages,’ she writes.

On the other hand, Koval admits that worth classics she’s interested in reading—such as the Sagas of Iceland—have sometimes failed to draw her in. ‘You’ve got limited time,’ she says. ‘I always think that if you give a book a while and then you don’t fall into it, you just have to put it away and come to it another time, or not come to it at all.’

Along with genuine insights on reading itself, Koval’s book is personal. We learn about the author’s young life, her passion for science, and her adventures (and disappointments) in love. We also get to travel with her, through her own experiences and through associated literature. One such adventure is going dog-sledding in the Algonquin State Park, three hours north of Toronto. Koval also shares some of her encounters with authors, such as Grace Paley and Oliver Sacks.

She acknowledges the privileges her career as a broadcaster has afforded her. ‘It has been fantastic; my own Open University,’ she says. ‘You can learn a lot of things by reading books, but for some books I think you do need to have a tutor—some fantastic person who can say to you “look at this” or “this means that”’.

Koval herself has opened up worlds for others in her years as a broadcaster. She admits that her reading choices have mainly been governed by whatever happened to interest her personally, ‘whether it was a book about sand or some short stories from Romania’.

It’s a formula that seems to have worked. ‘It turned out that other people loved [these works] too,’ Koval says. ‘Many people sidled up to me and said, you know, “your program was my education. I never would have read those books if I hadn’t heard about them”’. Koval always enjoyed this aspect of her work. ‘It’s not like you’re powerful; it’s more like you’ve got something to share that’s valuable. People are enriched by it.’

Koval is now working on, and planning, multiple projects that will make the most of her enthusiasm and talents. And she continues to be a great reader, keeping up on reviews in various publications. ‘Reviews are so hard, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘Because you have to trust the reviewer, and even then you’ve got to know a little bit of backstory about why they feel that way about that book, or whether they’ve got an axe to grind in some way.’

There are still many books on Koval’s shelves and in her ereader that she’d love to get to. ‘Sometimes you feel like: I’m actually gorging on books and I’m going to be sick if I don’t stop it,’ she laughs. ‘You know, you can have too much ice cream.’ But reading, for Koval, is a unique pleasure; something she describes in By the Book as ‘private and reverential’. It’s an activity that can transport us ‘from our prosaic lives to anywhere we care to imagine’. She writes: ‘While our world looks small on the outside, it’s huge on the inside, in the magical spaces between the page and our absorption.’

Irma Gold on The Invisible Thread + WIN a copy

The Invisible ThreadThe Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words is a new anthology featuring writers connected to Canberra, covering the past 100 years. There are stories, articles, poems and extracts by Judith Wright, Alex Miller, Jackie French, Les Murray, Omar Musa, Don Watson, Garth Nix, Kate Grenville and a huge range of writers new and old.

The anthology is edited by Irma Gold, who has answered a few questions about the anthology below. Gold, and the publisher Halstead Press, have also kindly offered to give away a number of copies of The Invisible Thread to LiteraryMinded readers. To go in the draw, leave a comment on this post that mentions a writer who is connected to Canberra. You can also write a tweet that mentions a writer connected to Canberra, but remember to tag it with @LiteraryMinded + #InvisibleThread. Due to postage costs this competition is open to Australia only. The competition will close on Friday the 21st of December at midnight and I’ll announce the winners on the weekend. Good luck!

Irma Gold

Irma Gold

Irma, how did you, and the Advisory Committee, select works to be included in The Invisible Thread?

The Advisory Committee spent a year reading through the work of over 150 writers. We tried to read as widely as possible through each author’s body of work. So between us we read hundreds of books, as well as individual essays, stories and poems published in various journals and magazines. We decided that the guiding criteria would be work of excellence, or work that ‘sings’, by writers who had a significant association with the region. The anthology is not about Canberra, so we were not limited by subject matter. From all this reading we put together a longlist, and I convened a series of meetings to debate the merits of each work. We then agreed upon a list of recommendations, from which I selected the final works that make up the anthology.

The Invisible Thread is divided into sections: ‘Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards’, and ‘Looking In, Looking Out’. Can you explain some of the choices behind the ordering and organisation of the anthology?

I spent last summer finalising content and deciding how to structure the anthology. This meant lots of time thinking, rereading, moving bits of paper around. At various points my office floor was completely covered in paper. There were so many different ways the anthology could have been structured. A chronological progression was one option, but this would have prevented the works from speaking with each other across the decades. I was looking to make connections between the works so that they could ‘sing’ together. In the end I settled on sections that are deliberately open-ended and kaleidoscopic. It’s this interplay that gives the anthology its richness. Like a choir of individual voices that together create a landscape of sound, the anthology is greater than the sum of its parts, creating a landscape of literature. I selected individual works based not just on their own merits, but also on the way they contributed to the whole. Readers often dip in and out of anthologies, which is part of the beauty of them, but there are greater rewards to be discovered reading The Invisible Thread from beginning to end.

Did you come to any other interesting conclusions, or make any notable discoveries (perhaps regarding Australian literature in general), while putting the book together?

One of the discoveries we made is that as a reflection of the last 100 years of publishing the anthology reveals the difficultly women have experienced in getting published and achieving recognition. Of the early writers included in The Invisible Thread it is the women who have slipped from our collective radar. Writers like Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Ethel Anderson who were highly regarded in their time but have now faded from view.

The disparity between the number of men and women in the anthology became evident only after I finalised content: one-third of the writers are female. There’s much debate at the moment about the undervaluing of women writers, and whether we—as a society—subconsciously preference male writers. In making decisions the committee was only thinking about the very best writing, but surely the committee hadn’t fallen into this mindset?

At the beginning of our search we were casting our net as widely as possible, without discrimination, seeking out every writer who’d had a significant association with the capital. I immediately went back to our initial list and discovered that only one-third of those writers were women, so the final selections reflected the imbalance of the broader pool. Recent stats show that women are still dramatically underrepresented in awards and reviews, and the newly established Stella Prize for women writers, named after Miles Franklin, is trying to redress that balance. I would like to think that the next 100 years will bring greater change.

What is the most ‘Canberra’ piece in the book, if you had to name one?

Such an interesting question and a tough one to answer (for starters, singling out one work from 75 is a terrible ask). The answer also hinges on how you define Canberra. Outsiders see Canberra as being dominated by politics, but for me what characterises the people who live here—and especially the writers—is a particular kind of thoughtfulness. This is a place of thinking, of ideas, of exploration. Most pieces in the anthology are set elsewhere, showing Canberra as a city connected to the world.

If forced to name one piece it would be Marion Halligan’s essay ‘Luminous Moments’. Over the years Marion has written so beautifully about Canberra in a way that has opened readers’ eyes to the everyday lives of the ordinary people who live here. But Marion’s essay is not just about what’s happening on the surface, it’s a moving and profound work about life and death. People have deep-seated negative perceptions about our city that have little to do with the reality of living here. Peel back the veneer and you’ll find a more subtle and complex place. That’s what Marion’s work does in an elegant and disarming way.

What do you perceive as being the role of a book like this, now and in the future?

Firstly, it makes evident the rich and diverse work Canberra has contributed to our national literature. Melbourne might be the official UNESCO City of Literature, but for a young city with a small population Canberra’s literary rollcall is impressive. The anthology also opens a conversation between works past and present. Readers can reacquaint themselves with writers now largely forgotten, discover writers who have previously been overlooked or not received the attention they deserve, and revisit the established greats. The Invisible Thread is a microcosm of Australian literary talent: worth reflecting on as we look to the next 100 years.

Don’t forget to enter the competition! (Details at the top of this post.)

See also The Invisible Thread trailer on YouTube, and The Invisible Thread Facebook and Twitter pages.

Trauma, kindness & starting with a bang: Jessie Cole on Darkness on the Edge of Town

Jessie Cole

Fourth Estate, 2012

(buy paperbackebook)

A woman crashes her car outside Vincent’s house. Vincent attempts to help the woman, and the baby in her arms, which may not have survived the crash. Rachel is her name and her arrival will have repercussions for Vincent and his daughter Gemma, and will draw attention (and judgment) in town. Darkness on the Edge of Town is Jessie Cole’s gripping and emotionally intelligent debut novel. Jessie and I have been getting to know each other for a little while now, sending missives from my urban jungle to her forest and back again, about animals, books, children, place, and more. I finally sent through a few questions to Jessie in order to introduce her, and Darkness, to you:

Darkness on the Edge of Town has ‘thrilling’ aspects, it moves along, it’s compelling, but I’d say it’s a character-driven novel. Could you tell us a bit about setting up the situation, and then letting it unfold? About pacing the story? How much of the whole story did you have when you began writing?

Good question! Firstly, the MS I’d written before Darkness was a very personal ‘family saga’ kind-of-story, set across several generations, and I decided after I finished writing it that I really enjoyed reading books that were more just a snippet of time. Stories that simply picked up in a certain part of someone’s life and stayed with them for a bit. I liked the immediacy of those stories, and the way they almost felt like they were told in real-time. And I suppose, I liked the smallness of them. And that was about as far as I’d gotten in terms of thinking consciously about what I wanted to write next. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was ‘a writer.’ Only that sometimes I wrote.

darkness on the edge of townThen, the whole of Darkness came to me in a one big blast late at night. Beginning to end. Hit me like a whack across the back of the head. I have no real explanation for why or how that happened, but it was a very powerful moment and I knew from the outset that it was something special, something whole. It’s difficult to explain how a fully-formed story could come all-at-once, how it could even fit inside a mind in one instant, but it did. I didn’t think at all about setting up the situation, I just sat down and let Vincent talk. I imagined myself as a stranger in a pub who struck up a conversation with him. Him telling me his story— among all the noise and cacophony—and the story being just so hard and so strong he had to get it off his chest. The intimacy of it thrilled me. I wrote the first 20,000 words in a week.

In my mind Vincent and Gemma and Rachel were all compelling characters in traumatic but oddly intimate circumstances, and I was enthralled by them. Part way through the book I realised that I was writing something with some elements of a thriller. This was not purposeful, it was just how it came out. I’m not much of a deliberate writer. I don’t like to plan or over-think things. I do know that when I write I am looking to be thrilled—to feel a kind of wave or nervous tremor of emotion or sensation—and I do use this as a guide to know I’m on the right track. I didn’t think about pacing, the story had its own momentum. I trusted it. At some stage I saw Sonya Hartnett speak at the Byron Bay Writers’ Fest, and she said something along the lines of: ‘I like to start with a bang and end with a bang and have lots of bangs in between’. And I realised that this was what I was doing with Darkness.

Although Sonya Hartnett does plot out her novels, with different coloured sticky notes for different characters or something like that, I’ve been told! That’s what works for her. It fascinates me how each writer approaches a book or a story so differently (and it can be different for each book, too).

Yes, everyone works very differently. Sonya Hartnett has written so many novels, she must have it absolutely down-pat! I guess I just meant that last comment about the bangs in terms of pacing. When I heard Sonya say that, I realised that’s what I was aiming for in the pacing of Darkness, even though I hadn’t really known it. And yes, I think each book is different. I like what Jonathon Franzen says about how you have to become the person who can write the book you want to write, and how with each book you probably have to become a new person.

The connection that forms between the two young women in Darkness, Rach and Gemma, adds a layer to the story. They each come alive a little bit, and maybe grow and make some sense of what is happening to them (separately and together) through their conversations. Could you comment on this aspect of the novel?

I’m very interested in the power inherent in the kindness of strangers. I think in some ways Gemma’s generosity towards Rachel is a bit of a surprise. Teens are notoriously self-centred and maybe—in the circumstances—it would be natural for Gemma to be quite hostile and territorial. But she isn’t. I think that’s because she’s got this wonderful mix of knowingness and openness; she’s also hungry for adult wisdom and it’s in short supply. People who’ve been deprived can start to bloom with the smallest smatterings of attention, and I think Rachel and Gemma give this to each other in as much as they are able. To be truly heard is a powerful thing, and a lot of the time we don’t give each other that gift. I suppose I wanted to show how a kind of openness to connection can build something worthwhile and healing between people, even in the least likely of situations. I’m also interested in the idea of family. In Darkness none of the three main characters are related by blood, but the bonds that they form are, in many ways, familial. In our culture ideas about family can be so narrow. So nuclear. I guess I wanted to question that a little. What makes a family? How do they form?

I want to ask about the small town Australian setting. It’s really as rich as a setting can be, with its history and tensions, and its rituals (thinking about Gem drinking Jim Beam and Coke from a bottle, fumbling in her friend’s bedroom). How is the setting integral to the story?

This small-town-question always leaves me a little stumped. I know that sounds ridiculous because Darkness is so completely a small town story, but it’s really hard for me to have a lot of perspective on that. I’ve lived in the same small town almost all of my life. It’s funny, when people come to visit who haven’t been to my place before, they always say something along the lines of: ‘Wow, you really live in the middle of nowhere!’ And I always reply: ‘What do you mean? This is the centre of the universe!’ Which is, of course, a joke. But in a sense it’s also true, in that it is the centre of my universe. It’s the only way of living that I really understand with any depth.

In terms of how the setting of Darkness is integral to the story, I suppose for the characters of Vincent and Gemma it is that ambivalent mixture of security and claustrophobia. That sense that they are ‘known’ by the people around them, which is in some ways affirming, but that they are also judged or pigeonholed by who they once were, or how their lives have played out thus far. In a small town the past is not a foreign country. It’s a tangible presence that everyone remembers. And on top of that is the way that the private can be translated in small communities. I mean, once you drive up your driveway in the country no-one knows what goes on inside your house. You have no close neighbours to listen to the rhythms of the household, so I think people make up stories about each other based on whatever facts are at hand, but often these stories lack subtlety, or even truth. Maybe the difference in the city is that people don’t assume they know anything much about the people around them, whereas in a small town more assumptions are made. In Darkness, Vincent struggled to communicate what was happening between him and Rachel. He knew that he’d never be able to explain, but that all sorts of judgments would be made. The friction between what is really happening in the private sphere and what the town at large assumes—and how these assumptions play out—creates a lot of tension in the story.

Just as an aside, I think our culture favours the ‘escape’ narrative. The story where we escape our past and start our lives anew. Makeover. Transformation. Alteration. Just look at how many films turn on that fantasy. Especially now, when moving is so accessible. In some ways it is seen as a type of failure not to leave your past behind. And it is almost a given that anyone with any prospects should leave a small town and make something better of their lives. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. And I’m interested in stories about people who decide to stay. I’m not sure how apparent it is in Darkness, but I feel there is a different kind of bravery required to live with your past, and it isn’t something that is celebrated all that much.

Check out Jessie Cole’s website.