Janet Frame is one of my all-time favourite authors. Her writing is surprising, absurd, knowing, funny, sad, dark, moving, imaginative and honest. She was an incredibly hard-working writer, often having to work in uncomfortable or strange conditions (while overcoming much personal tragedy). I’ve read quite a few of her novels; plus her short fiction, her poems, and her memoirs, and when I heard about the novel to be posthumously published, In the Memorial Room, I had to have it.
I was also glad to review it for The Australian. It felt like a weighty task, in some ways, to review the posthumous novel of (arguably) New Zealand’s most famous author, for a national newspaper. But it also wasn’t difficult because as soon as I began reading the novel, it was like sitting down very comfortably with an old friend; a very smart, witty, entertaining old friend. And I felt confident that I was a good listener for her.
It’s different than many recent posthumous novels, too, as it was intended for publication after her death. It’s not one of those cases where the executor has failed to burn the manuscript, resulting in questions around literary ethics. This book is, instead, quite perfectly posthumous…
The review begins:
In the Memorial Room is not just a brilliant novel but a considered and poignant posthumous literary act, a curtain call by one of the world’s greatest authors, New Zealander Janet Frame, who died in 2004.
It’s the story of a young author of historical fiction, Harry Gill, who receives the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship, allowing him to work in Menton, France. Harry has taken the fellowship despite the fact his sight seems to be failing.
Please click through and read the rest here.
You might also like:
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.
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 Memory of Salt
Alice Melike Ülgezer
August 2012 (buy)
reviewed by Walter Mason
One so rarely encounters God in modern Australian literature that it comes as a shock to see the word, especially so early on Alice Melike Ülgezer’s The Memory of Salt, an extraordinarily lyrical and original novel. The novel’s narrator, Ali, hears the name of God at the same time as she encounters a pointless and unexpected death. She realises that it is this call to the divine that has both swept her up in a mystical, though unconventional, devotion that comes close to defining her, and made her feel alien in a culture to which she has some claim.
Ali is an alien trapped between two different cultures. It is not just the conventional ethnic division, but the more profound divisions that fill this novel: divisions between secularism and faith, music and science, rationality and insanity. Her father, a carefree Turkish traveller, impresses her with his sense of freedom and his complete lack of attachment to the material realities of work, accommodation and even national belonging.
The Memory of Salt tells the story of her parents’ love affair, an ill-advised and doomed thing between a temporarily distracted middle-class Australian girl and a peripatetic Turkish Sufi. Theirs is a physically charged, intensely sexual attraction, and the intensity of their intentionally exotic love is played out in forbidden couplings in foreign hotel rooms, the call to prayer ringing in their ears as they fuck, smoke and doggedly ignore the impossibility of any kind of future together. Sex, too, is charged with a quasi-religious quality:
While they made love her body became a hymn calling out through the shadows and the fruit, through the streets and the lights… And as she spirited herself like an incantation across the city she became higher and higher until all the voices of all the children, and all the city lights were one.
The child of this mystical union, Ali, returns to Turkey to attempt to rescue her hopelessly stoned father, and while there she is drawn into the embrace of his family’s singular religion. A newly-pious aunt convinces her that this return to her ancestral religion is an act of grace and an exercise in destiny, and she urges the bookish and clever girl to read the Masnawi, the long, mystical poem of Rumi that addresses God as a lover and the ultimate source of being.
This is a rich and delicious novel. It brings to life modern Turkish Sufi culture in a unique and unexpected way, and is, in its own way, a particularly Australian literary artefact, blending cultures and experiences in a way that only this country and culture would seem to allow. While it demands to be read closely and attentively, it rewards with its sad and constantly surprising story. I think it marks a fascinating and important contribution to Australian literary culture, and shines some light on a world I have rarely encountered in books.
Disclaimer: I must declare that this book is published by Giramondo, a publishing house headed up by my erstwhile academic supervisor Ivor Indyk. And while I have complete faith in his academic advice, we don’t always see eye to eye in matters literary. In this case, however, I have been won over by the writing of Alice Melike Ülgezer, an author I am yet to meet, and this review represents my honest and uninfluenced opinion.
Walter Mason is a travel writer and speaker with a special interest in spirituality. His first book, Destination Saigon, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2010 to great critical acclaim. Walter has also featured in Vietnamese language broadcasts, and articles by and about him have run in the Vietnam Airlines in-flight magazine and other popular magazines in Vietnam. His book is sold in pirated editions in the backpacker districts of Saigon and Hanoi, where he is assured it’s a popular item. Destination Saigon was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of the Ten Best Travel Books of 2010.
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.
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.’
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.
Then, 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.
Issue 1, December 2011
Reviewed by Dallas Angguish
Southpaw describes itself as ‘a journal of writing from the global south’. This notion of the global south draws on and intersects with the recent critique in scholarly circles of the Northern hemisphere bias in critical theory, cultural studies (especially literature and film studies), social theory and the academy in general. One of the first, and most potent, elucidations of this bias appears in Raewyn Connell’s book Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. In Southern Theory, Connell starts with a critique of Northern hemisphere sociology then relates social thought from cultures and theorists in the southern hemisphere which, by highlighting the biases and blindnesses of much north-oriented social (and cultural) theory, provides fresh and sometimes challenging insights.
Southpaw’s editors (Alison Caddick and Chris Beach) have taken up the notion of a uniquely southern hemisphere worldview or ‘position’ and applied it to the domain of writing. This is unique in itself although not unexpected. Much of the theory and criticism coming out of the southern hemisphere has been about literature. The theme for Southpaw’s first issue is ‘displacement’, a potent idea that draws on postcolonial theory and writing on colonialism, globalisation and the spectre of mass population displacement (refugees) due to the twin horrors of northern hemisphere driven (and funded) war and ecological catastrophe.
The journal includes a diverse range of writing (poetry, fiction, essays etc.) from an even more diverse cohort of writers. Issue One has contributions from and/or about many places in the global south: Australia, India, New Zealand, Oceania, South Africa, South America and Asia. The writers are all positioned in the global south either geographically or theoretically. Many are members of the cultural and ethnic diasporas that are a reality of life below the equator.
Ali Jimale Ahmed’s poetry opens the issue and provides perceptive reflections on the irreality or constructed nature of the borders between north and south. Ahmed elucidates this notion when he writes that a ‘poetic swoon’ provokes a reorientation to the south which may or may not be a return to another (or an ‘other’) way of seeing things. Paula Tavares’ suite of poems ‘Mukai (Woman)’ engages with the notion of displacement in a more bodily sense. These poems reflect beautifully on the displacement of being a woman in a masculinist world. Tavares’ poems suggest that the female body provides links (umbilical cords) to the earth and the past that might help to counter this displacement. Although this idea might evoke (for a certain type of scholarly northern mind) the problematic of essentialist ways of seeing the body, it also suggests that perhaps there is a way of linking the body to ecology and history that northern theory has missed.
Although the poetry and fiction contained in this issue are all of a high standard, the strengths of Southpaw are mainly in its essays and non-fiction. For me, Martin Plowman’s essay ‘Traveller’s Guide to High Strangeness’ is among the best contributions to this issue. In this perfectly tuned essay, Plowman relates his ongoing fascination with ufologists (UFO boffins) and UFOs as it plays out in a journey to South America. Plowman uses the term ‘high strangeness’ to describe the conspiracy-filled, paranoid and intriguing world of ufology. The term comes from ufology itself and means ‘total uncertainty, a complete lack of meaning.’ Plowman’s essay is expertly written, engaging, informative and humorous.
‘Traveller’s Guide to High Strangeness’ also provides a moment of relief to the other longer contributions which are, in many cases, somewhat heavy. Many of the pieces are negatively skewed encounters with displacement (and the southern hemisphere perspective). This is not to say these other works are not well written. I just found that the journal did not quite balance out the tensions between light and dark, pain and pleasure, in the way that I prefer.
A really good journal should provide the reader with a challenging and informative but also enjoyable reading experience. For me, the profit of reading is as much about enjoyment as it is about illumination. For what is the point of illumination if it brings us only sadness and no pleasure? Not that Southpaw is a total downer. The journal has definite highs (such as Plowman’s essay and the poetry of Tavares), but one definitely leaves the issue feeling pessimistic. There is not enough exploration into the positive possibilities that might be found in displacement. But that is a minor weakness and only my opinion.
Overall, Southpaw is a commendable journal. It’s ideological (and ethical) orientation is worthy. Certainly, the works included in this issue deserve the space the journal has given them. Many of the works deserve wider circulation. I hope, therefore, that the journal is taken up by as broad a readership as possible.
Dallas Angguish is a writer and editor based in Northern NSW. He has been published in a number of journals including TEXT, Lodestar Quarterly, Retort Magazine, Bukker Tillibul and Polari Journal (of which he is also the editor). Dallas’ work has appeared in the anthologies Bend, Don’t Shatter (2004), Dumped (2000 and US edition 2002) and When You’re a Boy (2011). A collection of his short works, Anywhere But Here, was published in 2006 and his collection of travel tales, America Divine: Travels in the Hidden South, was published by Phosphor Books in 2011. Dallas is also an Associate Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Writing at Southern Cross University. For more info: www.dallasangguish.com
I first met AS (Alec) Patrić when we were both participants in the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers, back in 2009. Alec is an incredibly hard-working, dedicated and talented writer. Since we met he has been published in almost every Australian literary magazine, has won prizes and has released two collections of stories. His latest is Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge). He is also working on a novel. I got in touch with Alec to ask him a few questions about his latest collection.
So I want to ask first about your process of discovery. Las Vegas for Vegans reaches far and wide in terms of subject, setting and style. Before we get to the philosophical and psychological elements, can I ask about the process of selecting and engaging with the material aspects of the stories? Why hotel rooms? Why insects and gods?
Until now I didn’t realise how many of my stories are set in hotel and motel rooms. Then there are stories set in a post office and a book shop, rooms in hospitals and shelters, a boarding school and an acting academy, an airplane toilet cubicle and even a spaceship. Those settings open doors to insects and gods, and vitally, the stories themselves. ‘The Eternal City’ takes place in a hotel room in Rome but that material aspect is fundamental to the story. It’s not just a location. I don’t think it could be set in a Melbourne flat. ‘Las Vegas for Vegans’ takes place in a hotel that looks out at the Mojave desert and that’s just as crucial to the characters and ideas in that piece. ‘The Mirage Inn’ revolves around a motel on the edge of the Simpson desert, but the difference between the two deserts is significant. In one, a character has more of a chance to find himself, and in the other, he’s likely to lose himself—one man wants to find his way home and the other wants the opposite. If a story is set in the family home, as with ‘Beckett & Son’ or ‘Daughters of Vesuvius’, it’s because family is the chief feature of those stories. Whenever I write a short story or novel, the first thing I look for is a vehicle for the characters and ideas I want to explore. If you’re asking me specifically, why a hotel room, my answer is because it strips a person down to a fundamental state of transition, and the ways we change, moments that transform us for better or worse, is what interests me most about the characters I’m creating or discovering in books when I’m reading.
I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘in-between’ space of hotels and motels, too, so I really enjoyed those stories. Out of the settings and characters in Las Vegas for Vegans comes a range of intellectual, philosophical and moral enquiries. At least as a reader I was faced with questions about love, family, society, history (and personal history), death and what may or may not come after; space, existence… Do you see the stories like this? Or do you think there is more of a single overarching concern?
I don’t write stories with a theme in mind or to explore a philosophical idea or examine a moral, though I do feel gratified that you found yourself responding to those things in my book. I don’t want to educate my reader, but if there are those features you mention in Las Vegas for Vegans, they arise because what I’m doing is testing my own existence in each one of the stories. (I think that’s why writing can be so hard, even though it seems the simplest of activities—to sit comfortably at a desk and tap away at a keyboard). Despite the highfaluting rationale, the primary concern for me is always the dramatic potential of narrative and vitality of character. Hopefully, this translates to nothing more complicated than a great story and my motivation is as basic as wanting to be a compelling storyteller. Anything else is a bonus.
I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your interest in flash fiction, or very short stories (of which there are a few in the collection).
A flash fiction might seem an exotic bird but they’re as common as canaries. Any three-minute song you’ve ever enjoyed is a flash fiction. Lyrics have word counts of 500 words or less and they open up the world through a window we call ‘story’. That’d be my technical definition of a flash fiction. Interesting articles in the newspaper might qualify as well, perhaps even a blog post or a weekend anecdote told at work Monday morning. And yet when we’re offered the same creature on a literary page it’s a dodo. A song has a singer and musical instruments (often an accompanying video) to help the story out the window, so it’s not easy getting the same story to fly off the page with so few words and none of those accoutrements. Creating a character, an involving narrative, satisfying beginning/middle/end—with tens of thousands of words—is a lot easier. That’s why many readers think the novel is the only place to find what they’re looking for. I don’t think we’re really interested in birds though; how big or small, how high they fly or how pretty the feathers. It’s still all about the song and what it does to our heart/mind/soul. The only question for me is whether that song gives us another way to fly.
It seems like you do want to play with different ‘effects’ though, in terms of what a story does to heart/mind/soul. Some of the stories in Las Vegas for Vegans are warm and tingly, like ‘Below Zero’; others have a kind of blank emotional tone. Numbness itself is a theme of the story ‘Measured Turbulence’. Are these tonal explorations deliberate? Or do you find it happens organically depending on what mood or state of mind you’re in when you sit down to begin a story?
It’s a lovely irony that the warmest piece in Las Vegas for Vegans is a story called ‘Below Zero’, but you’re right of course. It’s a flash fiction that is essentially a burst of love. It’s about falling for a person before they’re born. I wrote it when my eldest daughter was in the womb and I was delighted to be able to read it to her recently. Summer is almost three years old now. ‘One in a Million’ is at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the coldest story in the collection. It’s about emotional isolation and so that blank tone was certainly intentional. That sense of ice-cold reality is what I wanted to capture. The emotional tone was primary. Tone is usually secondary to most other stories. ‘Measured Turbulence’ was inspired by Bunuel, Lynch and Fassbinder, and I have found in many of their films there’s a kind of placid tone that drifts along until very disruptive events storm through the narrative.
Tonal variation across a book (whether novel or collection) is vital to me. Many writers choose a narrative voice, rhythm, mode, and write in the same way in story after story, and often, novel after novel. That bores me as a reader. John Updike can be too persistently elegant in the same way that David Foster Wallace can be persistently pyrotechnic. As a writer, I want to do more than lull my reader into a narrative dream (or nightmare). I want to wake my reader up to an experience, jolt them with an idea, shock them with the warmth of an emotion, chill with a realization a few seconds later. And yet variation in tone is only valuable if it can open up the fissures of heart/mind/soul. A sentimental story like ‘Below Zero’ benefits from being very short—also from the brutal emotional tone of ‘The Mirage Inn’ which precedes it in Las Vegas for Vegans, and revivifies a reader ready to move on to the following story. ‘Boys’ is next, and I hope a reader at that point has no idea what might happen. Which is more true to life. And I suppose what I’m hoping is that I can offer a totality of experience with a book. One moment you have a careful hand to your wife’s womb waiting for a movement and the next moment the world breaks in with whatever comes next.
Alec also interviewed yours truly in 2011 for Verity La, an online magazine he founded. If you like our banter, you might want to check that out.
The last week of my overseas trip and the week to come (in Fremantle for my best friend’s wedding) were and are my final weeks of leave from Uni, so I was keen to sneak in some ‘pleasure reading’, which basically means that I don’t take notes. Nonetheless I wanted to share with you some of the books I’ve enjoyed and am enjoying.
On the flight over to the US, on Halloween, I devoured the second novel in Tara Moss’ Pandora English series, The Spider Goddess, which I’d been saving up for just that purpose. I’m going to grab a copy of the third book, The Skeleton Key, very soon (the first is The Blood Countess). The series is about Pandora English, an aspiring writer who moves in with her great aunt (who looks unnaturally young) in the hidden New York suburb of Spektor. Pandora is discovering not only that there is a secret (and often sinister) world behind things, but that she has some special talents of her own. The series is ridiculously fun, especially if you, like me, are a fan of that dark aesthetic (think Hammer Horror films, or Tim Burton). The books are also partly satirical of the fashion world, while maintaining a genuine interest in style, or glamour. If you’ve read interviews with Moss, or her blog and tweets, you’ll know that for a long time she’s loved the macabre, and that she has a crush on Bela Lugosi. These books are born of genuine interests. I’m a fan.
On the flight over I also began Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, because, as mentioned, I was giving a paper on her previous novel Eat the Document, and because I’d been meaning to read it since it came out. I finished it in New York, and am still thinking about it. It’s crazy that she’s not more lauded, more well known. Even in the US I did not meet one person who had heard of her, and I talked to a lot of bookish people. Her books so keenly reflect aspects of Western contemporary life (though that is too broad a description) that perhaps they’ll only be properly appreciated once the present is past. In Stone Arabia, there is a brother and sister; he’s a musician and an obsessive chronicler, she cries over the news and spends hours googling symptoms. Again, I’m going to point to James Bradley’s review, as he’s done a great job of summing up the novel.
I began Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World on the flight home and already it is getting inside of me, as his other books have. I don’t know how he imbues his sentences with such weight. It’s difficult to describe what this book is about. It’s about people. At the beginning, there are two families shaped by loss. The two boys, Jonathan and Bobby, come together, and grow, and the reader also follows the point of view of Alice, Jonathan’s mother, and Clare (but I’m not up to her yet). Last year I wrote quite a long post about Michael Cunningham, after he’d been in Australia. You can read that here.
Finally, in Brooklyn at PowerHouse Books I picked up a copy of New York Stories (Everyman’s Pocket Classics), and I’ve read about half. Highlights have been Truman Capote’s ‘Master Misery’, John Cheever’s ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ and Shirley Jackson’s ‘A Pillar of Salt’ (a great story about how a big city can overwhelm and ultimately disable you). Most of the stories so far have been along the lines of broken dreams, and a city that draws you in with bright lights but then gets you down or takes advantage of you. The stories are set in the New York of Mad Men and back much further. There are some contemporary ones to come. I’m hooked on them. Though I had such a great experience of the city I’m sure for many it still is a place of broken dreams. Aren’t all big cities? So much promise, but so many people. So expensive.
I learnt a new word while reading this collection. Many of the characters, the down-and-out ones, ate at Automats. I said to Gerard, ‘what is that? Do they still exist?’ We looked it up and it seems that an Automat was a fast-food restaurant which basically consisted of vending machines. Patrons put in a coin and pulled out their wax-wrapped food. The kitchen was on the premises. Here’s a great description (and image) of the Automat. I’m not sure why but the Automat has captured my imagination. Perhaps it could be the setting for a story of my own…