Appearance on Jennifer Byrne Presents: Envy

Angela Meyer J Byrne

I was honoured to be a guest on Jennifer Byrne Presents, an offshoot of the First Tuesday Book Club, to discuss one of the seven deadly sins, envy, along with Greg Sheridan, Lyndon Terracini and Kate McClymont. The show aired on 19 August on ABC, and will be available for a limited time on iview. There’s also an outtake up on YouTube, where I discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What was it like? It was a surreal and wonderful experience. I always suffer from nerves, a terror that I will say something incredibly stupid or not be able to say anything at all. I worry that I will freeze, say ‘uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ until everyone wonders why the hell I was invited to be on the show, let alone do anything in public, ever. The nerves are physical. You can’t tell on screen but my knees were juddering the whole time.

My reading around the subject was crammed; the shoot happened during the busiest period of my life so far. But I did find I had plenty of opinions on the topic of envy, and books from which I could draw. Study comes naturally to me. I love to read deeply, probe books through to their guts and bones (meaning, themes, context, structure). I probably don’t have to mention that—it’s why I do so much of what I do!

As soon as I knew about the appearance I saved to buy a dress just for it. Funnily enough, the green was an accident. Which is quite embarrassing to admit. The dress was chosen for me by Tracey at Frocks & Slacks in St Kilda, who is incredible and knows your size and what will suit you just by looking at you. I didn’t realise I was dressing to theme until Jennifer called me out on it (she was going for subtle green). It might sound like a superficial detail, but dressing up, wearing make-up (thanks ABC make-up department), doing my nails—these are part of preparing for the stage or a camera. Not armour; more coaxing out the confident part of myself, trying to sneak her past the quivering, doubting part. Because of course I want to do this, am capable of doing it, and may even be good at it. 

It was all a bit of a blur, because of the adrenaline. Walking onto the set was exactly how you’d imagine it would be: bright lights, lots of cameras pointed in your direction. There was a small studio audience, which I found very helpful. I’m more used to speaking to an audience.

I didn’t remember much of what I’d said, afterwards, so I felt relief when I watched the show the other day and realised I did just fine. Jennifer also said some kind words to me afterwards. It’s not that I ever fear I don’t have the knowledge (because I always prepare); it’s more a worry of being unable to articulate what I know. I imagine being caught in this absurd, Beckettian loop of miscommunication. ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.’ I also have a shocking memory, which fails me more when I panic.

When I left the ABC studios, I was on a high. It did feel like a step in a new direction, and that’s been confirmed by the amount of people in my Facebook feed who never normally talk to me but suddenly think I’m famous. (Publishing a book wasn’t enough for ya, ay?) But I’m also aware it’ll fade, as anything does. I’ll just enjoy this glow for a little longer, while getting on with my work. Dentist bills are certainly keeping me down here on earth.

One other thing: out of the other guests I most enjoyed meeting Lyndon Terracini, the director of Opera Australia. We clicked over Kafka, and I found him a very warm person. That’s something I’m grateful for, with all the travel and gigs I get to do: meeting interesting people. Jennifer Byrne, as you can probably tell from her screen presence, is also incredibly warm, smart, and funny.

Thanks to all of you who watched, and those who have come by the blog afterwards. Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to see more of me talking to camera about books!

LiteraryMinded is seven; Captives is born; writing-work balance

CaptivesFCR (1)I missed my blog’s birthday. For the first time. You can imagine why. Something else I’ve written has just been released, my tiny book of short fictions, Captives. 

Actually, there’s more to it than that. I haven’t felt like I’ve had a proper chance to let publication wash over me, that now when I say to someone ‘I’m a writer’, and they ask, ‘what’s your book?’ I have an answer.

It’s just that I’m back in extraordinarily-busy-saying-yes mode… That’s why I truly missed my blog’s birthday. I’m working on two contracts (one editing, one writing), have started an awesome new casual job at Nant whisky bar, have two reviews, one essay and one academic paper due, am judging two writing competitions, preparing to report on a conference, preparing an interview, preparing for a HUGE amount of festivals, events and workshops, and trying to keep on top of social media etc. around my book’s release (and continuing to promote The Great Unknown). I’m a little stressed, admittedly, but I’m also grateful. When I got back from overseas it was so difficult, at first, to find work. I’d much rather have too much work, than too little. And everything feels (almost) balanced: a little reading, some writing, a bunch of emails, some editing, and then whisky.

Except for one thing: not enough creative writing going on. I’m managing about once a week at the moment. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Do many people manage to write a lot when they’re in the throes of promoting the current book? And how do other authors manage balance between book promotion (and career building) and making enough of a living? This is a question that’s been fascinating me, last year (when I finished my doctorate) and this year: what is the ideal job for a writer? Is my bar job ideal, because it’s casual and flexible, and still stimulating (I love the smells in the bar, and hearing people’s different stories about how they came to like single malts—it often involves travel). Or is freelance editing ideal? I just love putting that logical part of my brain to work: problem solving; knitting text, spaces and punctuation into something neat. I get to put the control freak to work, purge her a little. Editing feels powerful, I think. But it does use up a lot of brain power, not exactly from the same area as the writing (at least the drafting) comes from, but close by. Enough to drain you of words for the evening. I don’t think I’d want to edit full time.

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I don’t think I want to do any one job full time.

Can I manage this ‘juggling’, then? And still write, and still pay the bills? I’m going to try.

A grant would be helpful, of course! Or an advance. I am so enjoying writing this novel and it would be great, after some of these contracts ended, to have more time in the week to immerse myself in remote 19th century Scotland.

But hang on, let me take a moment here. I have a book out! (Always thinking of the next thing.) And it’s even receiving some lovely reviews and attention. The other day I received an email from an author whose book I very much admired, telling me she admired my book! It made my day. I couldn’t quite believe that she’d written to me as a peer (I know, but I’ve admitted to my inadequacy complex on here many times over these past seven years).

I’ve linked in the past few weeks to some of the guest posts/interviews I’ve been doing around the book’s release, but recently Captives has also been reviewed in Readings Monthly by Brigid Mullane, and Bronte Coates interviewed me for the Readings blog. Author Annabel Smith also interviewed me (on the writing process) on her blog.

And The Great Unknown is kicking on! It received a review in the Australian last weekend, by Kirsten Krauth, alongside the latest Sleepers Almanac. I still have to put up the last of my author posts from TGU on here. Will do soon…

Please also check out my events page while you’re here!

And while I’m rambling on, I must say that I’m reading some incredible books for upcoming festivals: Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is bowling me over, and Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals is lingering long in my mind. I put a small note on that one on Goodreads.

But I also feel I’ll never catch up on all the books I want to read: Alex Miller’s Coal Creek, Chris Womersley’s Cairo, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (not to mention Carpentaria), Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, Emily Bitto’s The Strays, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, and now Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel, The Wonders, has just landed on my desk. And I have an advance proof of Jessie Cole’s Deeper Water… (!)

All the books.

OK, I best get on with my work for the day. Thanks for coming by, it’s been swell.

Dear anonymous

Thank you, whoever you are, for renewing my Writers Vic membership for the next two years. What an incredibly generous gesture.

Since, it seems, you are interested in my work, let me reveal where the manuscript I’ve just begun is partly set, via Brian Cox:

Which is close to:

In the realm of the estate of:

South of:

And I conducted research while staying in:

Hopefully one day we can share a dram. Thank you again, it means so much x

Merry everything to you

bedfordshire

I’m tucked away in the English countryside with my partner, sister, her girlfriend, a puppy called Beauly, and David Copperfield on my ereader. We have a chook and a ham, plenty of booze, and space all around us. The puppy is hard work! But when she looks at you with those big black eyes, you forgive all the nips and crying in the night.

It’s not long until our adventure is over! We’ve spent a good deal of time in England, Scotland, Norway and Spain. We’ve worked and volunteered. I finished two books (editing one and writing another) and the corrections for my doctorate. We’ve had snow and sun; we’ve walked up mountains and around lochs and fjords. We’ve dug holes, felled trees, looked after people’s children and dogs. We’ve eaten local foods and drank local booze. We’ve spent all our money.

But the timing was perfect. And travel is important to us. I think travel (especially the kind where you live with locals) can help build empathy in a similar way that reading can: seeing how other people have dealt with the days; the challenges they’ve faced and choices they’ve made. There are so many ways to live.

We’ve made a lot of friends by sharing work and meals on this trip. And I do like the idea of having a nice place where they are welcome to come and stay anytime, back in Oz. (How many times we’ve fantasised on this trip, though, too, about having an apartment in Spain, or a cottage in Scotland; the thing is that we’d still want to be in Aus as well, because we’re both close to our parents.) I realise how Gen Y this sounds, actually: we’ve grown up in a society where we have so many choices. But then G and I don’t have rich parents or anything either—we’ve always worked and made out own savings, paid for our own uni etc.—so it’s really only a matter of choosing one thing at a time. And travel has won out over saving for a deposit or whatever else. And I love that. While I think I’d like some more stability over the next few years, a ‘room of one’s own’, even, I don’t feel we’d be suited to an ‘A4 life’, to put it the way the Norwegians do.

I am looking forward to seeing people I’ve missed, and being reunited with my books.

But endings are always sad.

Who knows what’s next though? We almost have a clean slate. Different kinds of adventures await, literary and otherwise.

I hope your end of year celebrations are just the way you like them to be, and I hope you have a good book to read by the pool or the heater, depending on where you are! And, lovely readers, may your 2014 be full of warmth, adventure, inspiration, great insights and moments of beauty (like a puppy curled up on your feet while your partner prepares sweets and your sister is reading on the lounge).

And, in case you were wondering, my book of the year is Janet Frame’s In the Memorial RoomGlorious.

x

Vertigo

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Yesterday I climbed the mountain Beinn Eighe, and it was breathtaking. I get a bit of vertigo; when there’s a drop by the path I have to lean away from it and not look down or else my legs crumble and my head spins. As I laid in bed last night, my muscles humming with tiredness and pleasure, sleep came upon me as a drop, my head spun and I kicked out.

We’re staying on a small island, accessed by a footbridge. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Like, ridiculously stunning. Photographs can’t capture it. Today, G and I were digging out a campsite in the rocky earth of a smaller island that joins this one, and we paused to watch a pod of seals swim by. But I’ve also felt uneasy since we’ve been here, with all those annoying physical symptoms I experience—from hardcore heartburn to a twitching eye—and I’ve been trying to analyse why.

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It’s because I’m feeling a little unmoored, and it’s a difficult feeling for me to embrace, though I’m aware that’s partly the point of (long term) travel. I feel very ‘in-between’ things, despite the fact that I do have projects on the go, being at the point of editing one, and spreading the word about another. I’ve also started researching a novel over here, but the idea is large and only slowly taking shape (the plot, the characters, what it’s ‘about’), and I’m incredibly impatient. I want to start writing it properly, but there’s a period coming up where we’ll be staying with relatives and I know I can’t be at the beginning stages of a novel then. I want to spend quality time with my relatives and thinking about the novel even more than I already am might impede that.

What we’re trying to make happen is a month after November where both G and I can just write. But we don’t really have the dough. We’re only able to travel for so long because we’ve been working, and working for board, and staying with very kind rellos, and we’ll have to continue in that vein. Of course, that has been amazing, and I am not underestimating the wealth of knowledge we’ve gained, not just the places and characters and gestures that writers can’t help collecting, but identifying birds, digging holes and making paths, ironing sheets (!), how to run a B&B, what to wear on long walks in the rain, what pleases a seven-year-old, how to make Banoffee, the best Speyside whiskies, the geology of a mountain, fables and histories, how to pronounce ‘Eilean’, and many other items.

I guess my problem is staying present, and trusting that I haven’t gone ‘off the path’. I was fine in Speyside, on our last Workaway assignment, probably because I had a firm routine. And this makes me laugh at myself. Because when I’m ‘stuck’ in a routine, at home, all I want to do is bust out of it. Writing this out is helping, though.

An added layer is that my 29th birthday has just passed. There was so much I thought I’d do before 30, and now that’s only a year away. I’ve been mentally readjusting my goals for a while now, taking in reality and everything that crops up, but… it’s pretty ingrained. Mostly ambition is pretty positive—the dreaming drives me—but the flip side (focusing on ‘failures’, disappointment, whatever) makes you see everything through a fog.

It’d be great to just feel ecstatic about everything I have going on right now: a long working holiday, two forthcoming books with my name on them, an incredible relationship… Yes. Let’s stop there.

I climbed a mountain yesterday. Sometimes I got dizzy. Occasionally I wandered off the path. Sometimes I struggled to see the next marker. But I always found my way back.

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‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll’

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip (2010)

First published on the Stoffers blog.

You have to allow yourself one indulgence while travelling: one wild night, one big purchase, two nights at a five star hotel… I just had my one indulgence for this trip. And it relates to a 2010 TV series (that was also turned into a film) called The Trip, starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.

In The Trip, Brydon and Coogs play themselves on a restaurant tour of the north of England. Coogs was meant to go with his girlfriend, but she has gone to the US and he (reluctantly) takes his friend/colleague/competitor Brydon instead. They bicker, they tease, they do impressions, they eat and drink (a lot) and both annoy and charm the viewer.

I’m obsessed with it.

So the other day I did the nerdiest thing. I visited one of the locations in the show which also happens to be a very classy restaurant and accommodation called Holbeck Ghyll.

Holbeck Ghyll

Holbeck Ghyll is a former hunting lodge, built in the late 19th century. The taxi took us up a steep driveway and emerged on a hilltop with a stunning view of the surrounding Cumbrian countryside.

The view from Holbeck Ghyll, taken by Stoffers Abroad

Inside the building we were greeted as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, and treated immediately to pre-lunch cocktails, breadsticks and a cream cheese and truffle dip. My choice was a martini (shaken not stirred).

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We ordered our lunch and were then taken through to a table near the window, almost exactly where Brydon and Coogan sat in the show. Perhaps it was our Aussie accents that got us such a good table.

I sat facing the window and was able to watch robins attending a bird feeder in the garden, as well as a dog nosing about (England is SO dog-friendly, they’re everywhere).

We ate scallops, ham hock and beef, we drank white and red wine (‘farewell to the white wine, hello to our old friend the red’), and whisky too. We forgot to care about the bill (I’m sure that’s why cocktails are offered first). And then we finished with the most incredible cheese we’ve ever tasted.

ALL the cheese.

ALL the cheese.

We were treated so well. The restaurant is out of our usual budget range, yes, but it’s not snooty. There were some ‘moneyed’ customers (you can tell by cars, fabrics and conversation) and then others dressed casually in shorts. We did overhear a couple of guys quoting from The Trip, as we were, and then overheard another couple on the bus the next day as we drove past. It’s a phenomenon.

We acted out all the classic parts of the episode, taking note of the salt, which is arranged like a line of cocaine (‘bit weird, Rob’), saying ‘come ‘ere with a cracker’ to the cheese, and acting out the part where the restaurant is name checked:

‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. You might remember me from Follyfoot. I’m here to tell you about a wonderful new walk-in bath. And softly softly.’

Before we left, and the large hole in our wallets was revealed, I made sure to lather on as much as I could of the expensive hand cream in the loos. It was worth it—for the meta-restaurant experience,  imitating the imitators, and because of the incredible food (the portions were real-sized, too). We had to go take a nap afterwards.

‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. Goodnight.’

LiteraryMinded is six!

Let’s celebrate by reading Janet Frame’s ‘Gorse is Not People‘.

Or by watching this:

Or by wearing something glamorous.

Or by drinking this (I wish):

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Or you could make my day by entering this, or reading something here, or giving me some work, or just donating to the ‘research fund’ for my next planned novel (see the top of the sidebar).

Catch me soon interviewing Hannah Kent at Readings Hawthorn and at Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Thanks, as always, for reading x

Amsterdam

My travel story/memoir ‘Amsterdam’ won the Australian Festival of Travel Writing 500 word short story comp and was published in the April issue of The Victorian WriterWriters Vic have kindly allowed me to reproduce the story here. I hope you enjoy it.

amsterdam moetAmsterdam

My last week in Europe. All the dorms at the hostel are full, so I’ve been placed at the top of a tight, winding staircase in a tiny attic room sliced in half by the roof.

I sit at the bar alone, trying to own the romance of loneliness. For the rest of the month I’d thrived on being alone, even trying for days to shake off Brisbane-boy who followed me from Venice to Vienna.

Maybe it’s because I’m so close to going home.

I look around the bar, my stomach twisting, annoyed at my own desperation (‘but you love being alone’, I remind myself) until an olive-skinned young man comes over to talk to me. His name is Fadil and he’s from Cairo. He produces a cartoonishly large, cigar-shaped joint from his pocket and asks me if I’d like to join him. We go up to the back of the bar, and smoke and talk. He answers his phone a few times, displaying his popularity, then invites me to hang out with him for the night. I’m relieved and grateful.

We enter a pool hall above a café, filled with smoke and Arab men. Fadil doesn’t play but needs to check in with about eight different people. I stand back shyly but not too awkwardly, relaxed by the drug.

Next we walk down an alleyway and Fadil presses a buzzer on a metal door. Someone draws back a flap, like in the Wizard of Oz when they reach the Emerald City. A fat man in sequins lets us in and leads us ‘darlings’ to the upper level (past rooms cordoned off with cherry-red velvet drapes). The nightclub has one long, elevated lounge around its sides and café tables and chairs on the dancefloor. The music is slow trance and there are arty white-light projections on the walls. The people around the edges have bare feet and bottles of Moet in buckets. I think one of them is Ralph Fiennes. We sit at a table and chair, exposed, and I order a glass of Moet from a menu, because I never have.

The next day Fadil and I eat among Kama Sutra tapestries in an Indian restaurant. He pokes at his phone during dinner, frowning and complaining about having too many friends. It is as though he’s complaining about having to be with me. I have not risen to the top, the cream of his many acquaintances. I have not passed some invisible test. I feel underappreciated and disappointed, so I fight the terror of loneliness and leave him to the rest of them.

That night there are such storms over Europe: rib-cracking thunder and the sky swirling, like Van Gogh’s starry night without the light. The anxiety of the possibility of flight cancellations compounds my melancholy and I drink, alone in my hovel, until I feel sick.

On the last day of my trip I take 80 self-portraits with wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.

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Stella, and a digression on envy, work, inadequacy

The Stella Prize 2013, the inaugural prize, was awarded last week to Carrie Tiffany, for Mateship with Birds, which you know I enjoyed very much (here’s my Big Issue interview with Carrie from last year). She very generously donated $10,000 of the prize money back to the shortlist, noting that it was a selfish act because it gave the authors time and she was looking forward to their next books! Very sweet.

Helen Garner was invited to speak, prior to the prize-giving. She spoke honestly and personally about how prizes can be tricky, if you don’t win or aren’t nominated at all. You have to remember, she said, that prizes are judged by people, driven by unconscious urges. It’s also true that even the most intelligent, studied, insightful and well-read critic is a person. There is always a factor of subjectivity.

Slowly shedding the naive shell I carried when I moved to Melbourne five years ago, I’m starting to realise that the industry isn’t quite so humble. (Yeah duh, you’re saying.) I’ve been privy to conversations lately, at festivals and events, where people are wearing envy on their sleeves, often around writers who have received big advances or won multiple prizes. I’ve heard words like ‘prize-bait’, and ‘flashing their advance’. Among all the good and positive stuff, mind you, of which there is a lot. Sometimes it just slips out.

But it’s healthy to (privately) express such things, because the industry is tough and getting tougher. Honestly, many authors whom you would think of as famous and respected are getting such tiny advances, like $4000. These are authors who have published several books. So it’s natural, don’t you think, that hopes become higher, maybe a little desperation creeps in?

Since I consider that I’m at the beginning of my career, I’m realising that it is a smart idea to have other work—a day job, freelance work, or whatever—that is regular, enjoyable (or bearable) and can be relied upon for an income. It’s a challenge in itself to find this, because ‘artists’ are not always easygoing. ‘Regular work’ can be a big deal, especially if you’re nervy, neurotic or prone to anxiety or depression (as many creative people are—no, I don’t think it’s a myth, they need to be because they need to see the inner workings of things, even if they misinterpret them):

‘All writers—all beings—are exiles as a matter of course. The certainty about living is that it is a succession of expulsions of whatever carries the life force… All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land…’—Janet Frame, The Envoy From Mirror City.

My own envy swells up when confronted with artists who seem free to be artists. My biggest obstacle to that is not money (though of course that’s an obstacle), it is myself. My unfortunate absorption of others’ opinions of what I should be doing, and the distraction of other genuine but smaller goals, means that I often put my biggest, shiniest ambition last. It gets blocked. And then there’s all the life stuff.

And I’m not brilliant, anyway. I need to work on something a lot to make it any good. An author I very much like suggested the other night that publishing a book might actually hinder my career. But most Australian critics that I respect have published books, fiction and/or nonfiction; and secondly, I obviously don’t see my career in the same light as she does. And that’s kind of depressing. It effects me, and makes me think my ambition is lofty. And it’s hard to shake those words when I sit down to write. Who do I think I am? All the while I watch the musician on the cello, moving his head like a mad person, being pure music; passion, and I envy that.

There’s a reason, then, that I’m drawn to characters in both my reading and writing who feel inadequate (would that effect my critical bias? Maybe). But also, adversely, characters who are supremely confident. Or eccentric, or glamorous; even arrogantly so. Not hard to figure that one out. Characters and figures to relate to, to make you feel less alone, and characters and figures who possess traits you aspire to. Both types are outward expressions of one own ‘truths’ and desires, though how confused it often all becomes. Always Kafka and always glam rock.

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