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!

Whisky Literature: I’m playing with video again

This is the first in a series called Whisky Literature (combining two loves), where I will muse on literature, discuss recent reads, or read aloud over a dram of whisky.

This episode features Ardbeg Uigeadail and the books Deeper Water by Jessie Cole, The Empress Lover by Linda Jaivin, and Tampa by Alissa Nutting, with mention of The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss and Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Expect a mix of passion, enthusiasm, absurdity, and tipsiness.

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.

#555writers: Grafton to Lennox Head

This’ll be a short one. It’s the fifth day of the five writers, five towns tour. We were all heartened to see Sam looking perkier this morning, after a good rest at the Quality Inn in Grafton. As for the rest of us…

tired dog

I think by the time we separate we will be both relieved and terrified to navigate the world on our own. When Nick tells his anecdote about the smartphone and the clicking hip for the 80th time tonight I will think, simultaneously: thank god I never have to hear that again, and I’m gonna miss that guy.

We’ve become so close that today at lunch we spoke at length about rowing for Cranbrook. OK, that’s an in joke. We have in jokes now, and some of them are unblogable.

Last night at the Clocktower in Grafton was great. The crowds are growing every night, and apparently we’re expecting a full room in Lennox tonight. Hopefully we will all be awake enough to finish the tour in style. I wish I could stay up partying afterwards, maybe have a dry martini with Craig, but I’m teaching a workshop tomorrow (which is great, of course, but I don’t want to have to teach with sunglasses on, excusing myself every ten minutes to go in search of carbs. Though if any of my students does want to bring me a Bloody Mary you’ll be my instant favourite).

Authors, coffee, sun.

Authors, coffee, sun

This morning I was going to go to Nick’s Word Hunt event, but there was the beach and its siren call. I did cartwheels in honour of Annika, the protagonist in Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife. Craig advertised his book on a rock. So the beach was literary, after all.

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What else happened? Well, we drove past a house where someone had once been beheaded, so that was macabre. We headbanged to Nirvana and the Violent Femmes. And we learnt that Zac once had drinks with the guy who invented the barcode. She’s also met R2-D2 and C-3PO. And Sam told us about the best literary gig he ever had. He was due to do some events in New Zealand, but when he arrived no one picked him up from the airport, and when he took a taxi into town the arts part of the embassy was closed. Apparently, this was something to do with the invasion of Iraq, but a guy came downstairs with a wad of cash and handed it to him and said: ‘enjoy New Zealand’. Indeed he did.

This will probably be the last ‘on tour’ blog post, though I’ll try to write something after our last panel all together at Byron Bay Writers Festival this weekend. And I’ll post Tim’s no doubt FASCINATING film of the tour when it’s done.

Thank you for reading, and thanks a bunch to the Australia Council, Byron Bay Writers Festival, the Co-op Bookshop (Luke in particular!), all the wonderful venues that have hosted us, and all the people who have come along to see us ‘on the road’.

x

#555writers: Coffs to Grafton

This morning Zacharey Jane interviewed Craig Sherborne and myself in the Coffs Harbour Library. The crowd was fantastic, and asked lots of intriguing questions. Coffs all up was WONDERFUL. I’ll never say a bad word about my home town again. Maybe.

Poor Nick Earls is right now performing his Word Hunt talk at the Grafton Library for the third time today. All of us have been hungry for audience questions because we’ve been talking to each other for four days. (Now being the chair of the pub events, I’m also trying to mix things up, but of course it’s not just about the authors, it’s about the audience and what is interesting to them.) We’re all looking a bit eye-bagged and saggy, but none of us are as bad off as poor Sam, who is still suffering his lurgy, and currently resting up in our Hacienda-style motel in Grafton.

At the Coast Hotel, Coffs Harbour

At the Coast Hotel, Coffs Harbour

Today we went to Grafton High School and walked into a packed hall of teenagers. I just about fainted. For this event, Zacharey Jane, Craig Sherborne, Ashley Hay and myself read a little and then answered questions from the teens. Craig chose a passage about breastfeeding, containing words like ‘nipple’, which caused a few titters. I thought it was great that he was treating the teenagers as mature; as being able to handle the material. Later he said he just hadn’t thought it through.

I did want to be a little controversial and read my story about the teenage girl keeping a child in her room. They were pretty quiet by the end, so I think it went OK. Overall, they were superbly behaved, and asked awesome questions, such as ‘do you ever want to just keep writing and writing?’ and ‘Have you read 50 Shades of Grey?’ which led us into talking about genre and literary fiction.

One of the best was: ‘How do you know when you’ve gotten to the ending of a story?’ But we found out later a PE teacher had paid a kid a dollar to ask that, as it’s something he always wanted to know.

Grafton High put on quite a spread for lunch (lasagne, drool) and we talked Shakespeare with the English teachers.

Our conversations in the car today included a puzzling over the logistics of a seed bank. Questions asked included: if the earth was so wrecked after a disaster, would the seeds even grow? If the seeds are kept underground in a bunker, how would anyone find them? Will a seed ‘banker’ be the last remaining person on earth? Yes, there’s story potential. Ashley has claimed it.

Zac also revealed that as she gets to know people she associates them with certain breeds of horses. Mainly these are hers, but I have chosen Tim’s (because they didn’t quite decide on one), and Craig has chosen Zac’s:

Nick Earls: Irish Cob

Irish Cob

Ashley Hay: Welsh Pony

Welsh pony

Samuel Wagan Watson: Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse

Craig Sherborne: Thoroughbred

thoroughbred

Tim Eddy: Akhal Teke

Akhla Teke

Zacharey Jane: Palomino

Palomino

And apparently I am an Arab Horse

Arabian

#555writers @ the Coast

Just a quick post before bed. I was nervous when I blogged earlier today, but the ‘home town’ pub event was really great. We had our best numbers for a night gig on the tour yet.

Coffs… You’re alright.

Tomorrow the schedule is very full. More events in Coffs, and then we hit Grafton. I’ll get online when I can!

#555writers: Lismore to Coffs

Listening faces as Zacharey Jane reads from The Lifeboat at the Tatts in Lismore.

Listening faces as Zacharey Jane reads from The Lifeboat at the Tatts in Lismore.

With limited time, these blog posts just have to flow from my head onto the screen. Please forgive all unfiltered thoughts, badly chosen words, grammatical errors and digressions of narrative and theme…

I want to start with what just happened. I invited the five writers Zac, Craig, Ash, Sam and Nick, and filmmaker Tim, into my parents’ home in Coffs. They needed a good feed, and I knew Dad’s homemade bread and pesto would suffice. There was quite a spread, and the red wine flowed. As we were arriving in Coffs, I began to shake, which I think nobody noticed. I always get a bit shaky here. Nothing very bad ever happened, but I was often in a bad place when I lived here, and I had wanted to leave, but remained for a variety of reasons. Let me just say that this had nothing to do with my folks, they’re great people; it was more my own psychological ‘stuff’. One way I dealt with it was to start this blog more than seven years ago.

Here we were. Old worlds and new, colliding on the back veranda. And it was lovely.

#555writers in the Meyer house. Dad's pesto received five-star reviews.

#555writers in the Meyer house. Dad’s pesto received five-star reviews.

Memory and the past can be fuel for writing. Craig Sherborne has spoken a lot about his mother on the trip (and you would be familiar with her if you’ve read his memoirs Hoi Polloi and Muck). He has described her as ‘big, loud, intimidating and proper’. She both pressured and smothered him, and for him there was deep love and deep antagonism.

Ashley Hay’s grandfather was killed on the railway, and her grandmother was employed as a librarian for the railway, which made Ashley think about what it would be like for her grandmother to hear the noise of the trains, constantly; to be reminded of her husband’s death over and over. This was part of the impetus for writing The Railwayman’s Wife. 

The past is layered through Samuel Wagan Watson’s work. In Lismore, when the topic of literary influences came up, Sam went to childhood and Saturday mornings: Scooby Doo, Land of the Lost, and Cheech and Chong (with a perfect impression). The poem ‘Hallowed Ground’ opens on Saturday morning on Logan Road in Brisbane. The poet is taking his lady to a cafe. Four stanzas are indented within the poem, emphasising the past in place. Here are two:

Dinosaurs are buried here with the remains of their
tracks; this place was one only known as Central.

This place was where my mum and dad had their first
kiss on the tram!

His lady says, in the poem, that he is distant, but he is ‘very HERE’, he writes; he is taking in past and present all at once. At the end he is moving across the table to attempt a kiss, sealing past and present together, ‘safe from chaos for the time being’.

At the SCU Campus bar, Lismore.

At the SCU Campus bar, Lismore.

The Lifeboat came out of experiences in Zacharey Jane’s past. She didn’t realise until years later that seeing an old couple at various times on a holiday, and then seeing the old man die in a storm, had had such an effect on her. When she was leaving Mexico, the whole novel came to her as she wondered what would happen if the ferry sank, and there were no markings on the lifeboat, and one’s memory was erased. It was an old couple who became her castaways in the novel.

Nick Earls told us an amazing story from his past (related to someone else’s past) that has never gone into a novel, because no one would find it plausible. When he was a doctor, he saw a woman in emergency who was having some trouble she’d never had before. She was perplexed by people playing cricket on TV, and was wondering why her hands looked so strange. He asked her some questions and she told him her father was a bootmaker, and that they’d come over from England on a big ship. She said she remembered her father taking her to Southampton to see a ship like the one they’d leave on. She knew she’d gotten to Australia but she had no idea that the ship she saw had in fact sunk. Nick realised that her father must have kept the news from her, about the Titanic, so she wouldn’t be afraid of the journey on another large ship not long afterwards. So Nick was talking to a woman who had not only seen the Titanic, but who had no idea (in that present moment) that it had sunk. It turned out that the memory loss was a very rare side effect of her medication, and the remaining years filled in once that had been adjusted.

So stories arise from the past. And in the present, a writer collects (knowingly and unknowingly) images, moments, bits of dialogue and anecdotes which may become story sparks. Craig aptly summed up this process in Tweed Heads: ‘As a writer, you’re a parasite.’

I’m sure this trip will result in many more stories.

Comedians are parasites, too. We had a good laugh seeing a couple of them at the Tatts Hotel in Lismore last night after our gig. With the magic of YouTube, I can share the experience with you. Here’s Loz, he’s good at wordplay:

And bringing more LOLs, here’s Matthew Ford:

Tonight we’re at the Coast Hotel, a place I associate with short shorts, Smirnoff Ice, sneaky cigarettes, and finding a $50 note. WORLDS COLLIDE.

Here’s a cool dog we saw in a car today. He treated the #555writers tour with skepticism:

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