A dystopic vision: The Ark by Annabel Smith

theark-annabelsmith

When I first heard about Annabel Smith’s project, The Ark, I was intrigued. Here was an excellent literary author (I’m a big fan of her novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) tackling not only speculative fiction, but a whole different format. The Ark is about the inhabitants of a sealed seed vault, in a near future where resources are rapidly dwindling. It was released as an interactive ebook, and is also available as a print book. The story is told through a series of technological documents. As the blurb says:

The Ark delves into the fears and concerns raised by the environmental predicament facing the world today, exploring human nature in desperate times. At its heart it asks: can our moral compass ever return to true north after a period in which every decision might be a matter of life and death and the only imperative is survival?

The book is thought-provoking, well-paced, suspenseful, and a satisfying read. If you enjoy dystopias like Brave New World, or books with confined settings (which are great for building tension between characters) then this one is for you. I asked Annabel a few questions about The Ark:

Annabel Smith

Annabel Smith

The story is told via the communications of a variety of characters. There is a certain amount of unreliability, for the reader, particularly at the beginning. Was it a difficult process to decide just how much information to give? Or did it happen as you developed the voice of the characters?

The sense of unreliability, and uncertainty about whose version of events to trust was very important to me. I wanted the reader to feel continually wrong-footed by the shifts in narrative voice and by the gaps created by the narrative form. I wanted them to be always wondering what was going on outside the margins of the documents; what was being left unreported? To that end, I was very careful about both when certain pieces of information were revealed, who they were revealed by, and in what type of communique.

The character of Ava has stayed with me, in particular. She’s a classic ‘Winston’-style sci-fi character, seeing what others do not. Can you tell us a bit about developing her?

Of all the characters in the novel, Ava is the character who I consider most like me. That is not to say she is autobiographical, only that she was perhaps the easiest to write because her similarities in age, gender, education level etc. made it relatively easy to get inside her head and get a sense of her worldview. I see Ava as a highly emotional character, surrounded by a group of scientists who tend to rational explanations for all things. She is the odd one out, trusting her heart where they use their heads. Her high emotional intelligence, and her sensitivity, makes her prone to anxiety and depression, which adds another layer to the complexity of her situation. Is she paranoid? Or is she actually switched onto things that others are slower to perceive?

Do you think a speculative story is well suited to the medium you’ve chosen? (More suited, perhaps, than straight realism?)

The epistolary novel is a very old narrative form. Contemporary iterations of it, in which letters are replaced by blog posts and emails seem to fit well with speculative fiction, but I think the form would work equally well with any story set in the present and exploring contemporary themes. At the same time, there has to be a compelling reason to tell a story through documents—the form has to feel intrinsic to the story, otherwise it runs the risk of coming across as a gimmick.

Once you decided to make The Ark an interactive ebook/app, how did the writing and editing process change?

Strangely, not much at all. It was really important to me that I write a book that could stand alone and be appreciated without the app. So, I finished working on the book before I started working on the app. having said that, I did of course have ideas for the app as I was writing the novel but the development of the app didn’t change the book in any significant ways. There was one occasion where I was tempted. It was when the architect who designed the bunker for the app showed me the 3D model of the space inside the Ark called the GARDEN (Growth Apparatus for the Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment). The space looked so incredible, I thought about going back and rewriting some of the scenes to take place in there.

Are their other forms of storytelling you’re interested in, or other ways of presenting a novel (even if published ‘traditionally’)?

I’m interested in all forms of storytelling. Though I love reading traditional realist novels—in fact, they still comprise the bulk of my reading—I’m not particularly excited by the prospect of writing another book like that. I like to experiment with form and structure. My fourth novel, Monkey See, which I’ve almost finished a first draft of, is an epic quest with a speculative fiction twist. And the novel I’ve just started tells the story of a woman working her way through a self-help book, and includes extracts from the self-help book.

Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in SoutherlyWesterlyKill Your Darlings, and the Wheeler Centre blog. She holds a PhD in Writing, is an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellow, and is a member of the editorial board of Margaret River Press. Her digital interactive novel/app The Ark has just been released. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Best Australian Stories 2014, ed. Amanda Lohrey

best australian stories 2014I’ve really enjoyed reading this year’s Best Australian Stories (which includes my story ‘Too Solid Flesh’, originally published in Island 137). One commonality I found between the stories, which reminded me of the power of fiction (what it can do), was an emotional complexity that can only be ‘shown’, not explained. For example, in Julienne van Loon’s ‘Bring Closer What is Left to Come’ there is a moment where the protagonist, a married woman who desires her colleague, thinks she sees her crush from behind on the stairs:

‘and she watched the way he walked and the desire sparked in her so fast and so quick it was almost painful to keep walking…’

But by the end of the paragraph she sees the man she desires in the office and realises that the person on the stairs had been someone else. The protagonist’s feelings are not elaborated upon and the reader takes on the complex emotion of such a case of mistaken identity. There is also a minor epiphany that occurs regarding the directionless surge of the woman’s desire. And this is only one moment.

The story is framed by the woman’s cycling commute to and from work. Time shifts, and there are references to speed, the bike in time: descending, airborne, stuck. The structure relates to the woman’s psychological state, but there is ambiguity: again, making the story emotive rather than explanatory.

In the beginning, the reader is at a distance from the woman as the woman herself is from others and from herself; the reader is then drawn in closer but the constant shifts indicate uncertainty (which relates to us: we cannot really know what we want, we are caught up in desire, we will have moments of pedaling backwards). I can see why editor Amanda Lohrey opened the anthology with this powerful story.

There are so many that stood out for me, but two that have resonated in particular are ‘The Panther’ by David Brooks and ‘The Green Lamp’ by Leah Swann, which follow each other in the book. I loved ‘The Panther’, which is about a panther in a painting that becomes real for the writer in the story. There’s a mood hanging over this story: elegant, haunting; a lounging loneliness. And it’s unashamedly self-conscious. The ending produced in me a shivery thrill.

Swann’s ‘The Green Lamp’ is a genuine and empathetic story which captures in micro a contemporary masculinity. It’s about a young tradie who gets laid off and takes a job in a pizza shop. He lives with an older, intellectual woman. At one point he blunders when something happens to a young women he works with. Throughout, the reader has access to his thoughts, and they reveal a curious and poetic soul who is unable or reluctant to articulate his deeper self. They also reveal someone-in-becoming; through these small experiences in the narrative he is finding out what he thinks and feels. And relevant to the contemporary climate there is a complex mix of arousal, self-loathing, knowing, not knowing, wanting and not wanting. Besides this excellent study of character, the story overall reminds the reader that you never truly know what is happening in someone else’s head.

I won’t mention every story but there were so many that gave me shivers or that I found myself thinking about hours or days afterwards. From the sense of uneasy desire in Lucy Neave’s ‘The Horse Hospital in Dubai’ to the overanalysis of self (to the obliteration of self) in Nicola Redhouse’s ‘This is Who You Are. You’ll See’. Claire Corbett’s story-essay ‘Snake in the Grass’ is rich—a story in which you can wallow. Fiona Place’s ‘Now I See’ lingers long due to its deliberate calm execution.

Kate Elkington’s ‘The Interpreter’ is deft, moving, and sneaks up on you. Arabella Edge’s ‘The Peacock’ is a great lesson in giving the reader ‘just enough’. The peacock at the centre of the story is a symbol—something about the way we attach/what we are attached to, in a crisis and more broadly in our lives. JYL Koh’s ‘Civility Place’ is a welcome foray into the speculative/surreal: Richard Yates meets Philip K Dick, about the inescapability of commerce. Ryan O’Neill’s ‘The Stories I Read as My Mother Died’ definitely gave me shivers. It explores the different ways emotion is expressed, and inadequacies of language (what can be told and what can’t, having words but having none). Kirsten Tranter’s ‘Pet Name’ is a story about curiosity (the curiosity itself revealing layers about the character) and is fascinating and alive. Don’t read ‘Blood and Bone’ by Lisa Jacobson if you have to do anything afterwards, it’s absolutely weighed down with grief. So beautifully sad.

Lohrey has pulled together a very strong anthology with much emotional resonance. I’m absolutely honoured my story is nestled among the above. I’d love to know what your favourites are, if you’ve read the anthology. I’ve got Best Australian Essays 2014 and Best Australian Poems 2014 sitting here too…

Review of The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion in The Australian

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of the review here.

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

Bodies, effort, straws: The Special by David Stavanger

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David Stavanger, myself, Jennifer Compton.

I had the pleasure last night of launching The Special by David Stavanger, winner of the 2013 Thomas Shapcott Prize. The book is published by UQP and available now. David and I didn’t know each other beforehand, but connected through words (in emails, but mainly through our work) and it was a wonderful night, with much warmth. David asked me to read a few pieces from Captives before launching his book, which was kind. The legendary Jennifer Compton read also, and it was great to meet her. Her next book will launched in a couple of months.

My launch speech also acts as a review of The Special, so I’ll share it with you now:

The special

What I came away with from this collection was a series of images, connected meanings, and a mood. I can try to explain or capture that mood through this speech, but it may end up being slightly different for each of you. A poet allows for space in between the words, words that either spill like bodily fluid, or that are drawn slowly and agonisingly, like impacted teeth. The space becomes yours, the reader’s.

I’ve already invoked some of the imagery in the book right there, that of bodies. Bodies tattooed, divided, diseased, under floors, naked, flying through air, young and old, on a plastic sheet, and featuring ‘so many exit points’ (that line being from the very affecting ‘Inheritance Triptych’).

There are throats, lips, chests, colons and legs tumbling into feet (‘Baby’). The bodies are a source of fascination, but also of weight. It’s an effort to be bodily, to have conversations with other parents at the school gate. With his father, the poet states: ‘I am the ghost and he is the father.’ The body doesn’t fit right. Sentience is floating, not necessarily tied to the body. It may even be found in objects, like a fridge in the flood. A fridge that ‘mourns broken seals’ and ‘once dated an esky’.

The emotional state is often worry, like when the ghost worries about his father. Worry plus a sense of fatalism leads to an absurd sort of humour. The worry doesn’t hide behind the humour, it’s present in it. The poem ‘The Future’ is a pinnacle of this, the worry almost seems a precursor to the events in this piece. There’s a sense of: yes, everything bad can happen, has happened, is happening, will happen. We just have to open another door, or keep walking a dead dog. And what else can we teach our children but to do this also?

There’s also an expression, overall, of a sense of effort—the effort that everyday living requires. The poem ‘Digestives’ really sums this up: minding someone’s place, being alone and heartbroken, then locking yourself out, having to spend all your money on a locksmith, having nothing to eat but digestive biscuits. Then there’s ‘In the Palace of Broken Men’ which has lines like ‘sighing is the first act of the morning’, and ‘an unnamed smell in the bedroom’, and ‘bins put out not brought back in’. Just think about that for a moment, the bins still out on the street.

The horror of the ordinary, it’s what a lot of people with mental illness face. And some of the poems here reference David’s time as a psychologist, and his own personal and familial experiences with mental illness. Some poems push boundaries, mainly I noticed in their treatment of the desire for oblivion, or in their respect for other states of being other than the continually shrinking idea of ‘normal’ in an overdiagnosed society. ‘Jack, the Moon’ is a brilliant poem, a record of the poet’s maternal grandfather, who had bipolar. The final lines are:

Madness is not fully measured by the harm done,
it’s in the beauty only lunar suns undo.
Who was I, at seventeen, to deny the ascent.

Complementary to these themes is a thread of control. Having it, letting go, and others having it over you, even through words. A panic, but perhaps an inevitability, too, over a loss of control, is captured in one of my favourite poems ‘Straws’, where straws exist to keep mouths at bay, because the sensations of glass and ice would be too much. There’s definitely humour in the line: ‘feeling better if something is between: clothes, surnames, bodies of water’. And the final stanza, which I won’t ruin for you, makes you both smile and feel a short buzz of panic. The poem seems a parody of a human being who is trying to keep some distance from physical sensations and the effect they may have on them.

Or perhaps it is a parody of the writer himself, fascinated by the straw between the mind and the words on the page, always some distance between them. Or, perhaps, it acknowledges the straw between the writer and the world. The writer as a person, always feeling, but as a writer, always looking down on the scene from above, distant from their own self. Maybe this is the distance between David and Ghostboy, his alter-ego.

This kind of writerly distance, tied with a vision both warm and dark, made me think about a state or outlook described by Janet Frame, looking back on the time she was in a mental hospital and thought her plight was hopeless. It’s an incredible description, and I hope David and some of you find it relevant.

I inhabited a territory of loneliness which I think resembles that place where the dying spend their time before death, and from where those who do return living to the world bring inevitably a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession; at times I think it must be the best view in the world, ranging even farther than the view from the mountains of love, equal in its rapture and chilling exposure, there in the neighborhood of the ancient gods and goddesses. The very act of returning to the world, however, tends to remove that view to the storeroom of the mind described by Thomas Beecham as ‘the room two inches behind the eyes’. One remembers the treasure and the Midas effect of it upon each moment, and sometimes one can see the glitter among the ordinary waste of each day.

And with that I declare The Special officially launched.

The quote is from Frame’s An Angel at My Table.

Read an interview with David Stavanger on Verity La.

Watch David’s performance as Ghostboy at Tedx Noosa (where he recites a couple of poems from The Special).

Review: Slush Pile by Ian Shadwell, for The Australian

Slush Pile

Sometimes an author will have one big hit and then … nothing. When we meet Michael Ardenne, the antihero of Ian Shadwell’s Slush Pile, it has been more than a decade since he won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel Ephesus. Now, he is ‘as dry as an old dog turd’. Instead of writing, he pseudonymously occupies message boards about his own book, watches porn, drinks his cellar dry and leers at the teenage girl next door.

Read the rest of the review here.

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

tree palaceYesterday:

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

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

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

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

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne

Today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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