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.

photo (43)

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

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

The Great Unknown authors: Deborah Biancotti

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the eleventh post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadingsAvid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Deborah Biancotti is a regular on genre fiction award lists, writing across a range of urban fantasy, horror, science fiction and steampunk. Her books include Bad Power and A Book of Endings. Today she answers some questions about writing ‘See-Saw’ for The Great Unknown.

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

dbiancotti_v0202 201108 (2)I love unexplained stuff. Weird stuff, stuff that happens that doesn’t have any kind of logical explanation. I always wanted spontaneous combustion to be real, you know? Also reincarnation. And ghosts, I’d like ghosts to be real. Though not at my place, and not after dark. All those creepy photos of ghosts you see, right before they’re debunked by experts – I love those.

I like to think that the walls of reality could just fall the hell apart and we’ll be left with chaos. Something that would blow our minds into tiny, tiny pieces. And then I want to think that the ones who survive the end of reality will be the people like me, who’ve been reading and writing and living the weird since we were kids.

But, writing something that was inexplicable without being alienating, that was hard. Trying to fashion a world that felt coherent and yet pliable, trying to fit in events that were strange but convincing, trying to hold it all together, that turned my brain into a pretzel. This is where the writer relies on the smarts of the editor to help her fashion just the right balance to intrigue a reader without just, y’know, being annoying about it.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

For some reason I went with a kind of French influence. In my story, ‘See-Saw’, I built a crowded little city and one loveable rogue of a protagonist, and then I said to myself, ‘well, what would be weird in this world? And what would be awesome?’ And I built something that was weird and awesome for my cigarette-smoking, lazy liar of a protag. I hope she enjoys it.

After all, there’s no telling if it will last.

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

Some of those stories really stuck in my mind. Like the guy who sees the demon on the wing of the plane. And the guy who is challenged by the Devil while he’s trying to solve a maths problem. And the guy for whom all language falls apart when everyone around him starts to use the word ‘dinosaur’ when they mean ‘lunch’. Those weird, challenging ideas rolled around and around in my head for decades.

And then, oh man, there were the Creepshow movies. A part of my brain is still dedicated to memorising lines like ‘Thanks for the ride, lady!’

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

Patricia Highsmith was a consummate writer of believable, psychological horror. I hate to think she was disappointed by anything. Has anything changed? I think the states of reading and writing change so much, so often, that by the time I could fashion any kind of summary statement about it, the world will have turned upside-down and none of what I have to say will be relevant any longer.

Which is just the way I like it.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Chris FlynnHelen RichardsonA.S. PatricMarion HalliganGuy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

The Great Unknown authors: Chris Flynn

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the tenth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadingsAvid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

Chris Flynn is the author of A Tiger in Eden, and his second novel, The Glass Kingdom, will be out later this year. Here Flynn tells us about the impact the 1983 Twilight Zone film had on him, and introduces us to his story ‘Sealer’s Cove’.

chrisflynn_72 (2)Re-runs of The Twilight Zone played on late-night TV in Ireland and I watched them assiduously as a boy (my dad taped them for me) but one of my strongest memories of the show came with the release of the ill-fated 1983 film version. Remaking three classic episodes, the movie is a mixed bag. Spielberg’s version of episode ‘Kick the Can’ is overly sentimental and Joe Dante’s take on ‘It’s a Good Life’ is fairly nutty, but Aussie George Miller does a great job of remaking ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, with John Lithgow in the role of the paranoid airline passenger who thinks he sees a creature fiddling with an engine during a storm. William Shatner memorably played the part in the original episode, one of the show’s best.

John Landis directed the opening and closing segments of the film, and the first segment, ‘Time Out’, is based fairly loosely upon the 1961 episode, ‘A Quality of Mercy’. In the Landis version, a drunk, racist businessmen played by Hollywood veteran Vic Morrow rails against three different minority groups. Upon leaving the bar he is somehow thrown back in time and subsequently mistaken for the people he bemoans. In a sort of moral lesson against the dangers of prejudice, Morrow undergoes persecution by the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and American GI’s during the Vietnam War. He ends up in a train en route to a concentration camp, paying the ultimate price for his folly.

It’s an interesting idea, if a little heavy-handed. The segment and the overall reputation of the film as a whole were forever mythologized because Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed during the final moments of filming when a helicopter crashed directly onto them. Morrow and seven year-old Myca were both decapitated by the rotor blades. The investigation into their deaths understandably overshadowed the film, and tainted the brand for many years to come. It marked me as a child because it seemed impossible that a leading man could be killed during the making of a movie. I don’t know that it has ever happened since.

Whilst my story ‘Sealer’s Cove’ is more light-hearted, the conceit of a man turning a corner and finding himself abruptly transported into the past is a nod to ‘Time Out’, a poignant thirty minutes of film that is terribly sad to watch. ‘Sealer’s Cove’ takes place in the middle of the night on a beach in Victoria’s Wilson’s Promontory, and like many works of fiction, contains elements based on real events. The parts that did not happen to me should be fairly obvious, although maybe not. We are, after all, treading the middle ground between light and shadow in this collection and entering a dimension of sight, of sound, and of the imagination, a frightening place that sometimes has no exit.

‘Sealer’s Cove’ is dedicated to Myca Dinh Le, Renee Shin-Yi Chen and Vic Morrow.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Helen RichardsonA.S. PatricMarion HalliganGuy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

Profits of Doom by Antony Loewenstein

Profits of DoomMelbourne University Publishing
9780522858822 (paperback)
9780522864366 (ebook)
August 2013

In Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein investigates the effects of predatory, vulture or disaster capitalism on individuals, communities, the environment, and future prospects of entire countries. Loewenstein’s work is powerful because he goes to Afghanistan, Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea, and other places ravaged by greed, corruption, complacency, and misdirected aid. He takes us there, and he talks to people at all levels, unafraid to present us with opinions that contradict his own (though reinforcing his own argument effortlessly through the picture he paints of the damage done).

In Australia, he visits detention centres, exploring the effects (on the detainees, the staff, and the wider community) of privatisation, revealing the fact that companies with dodgy track records are still given contracts. To avoid fines, there is also a culture of dishonesty: ‘… cover-ups of breaches [such as incidences of abuse] are routine and both tolerated and implicitly supported by the highest echelons of the Serco [company] hierarchy’. Loewenstein discovers a general ignorance of asylum seekers’ rights in order to maximise profits (ie. drawn-out processing times), and a dehumanisation of asylum seekers who, at the top, are referred to as ‘products’.

In Papua New Guinea Loewenstein visits ‘an abandoned wasteland’, Bouganville, where there are talks to reopen the mine which caused so much strife and continues to effect the environment. Disaster capitalism, as Loewenstein describes it in regards to PNG, is predatory corporations supported by foreign aid payments and tax concessions, insulated from media and political scrutiny, preventing a country from reaching true independence. In another village, Loewenstein hears of women selling their bodies for food because the company that has moved in has stopped them from fishing.

In Afghanistan Loewenstein looks at the local war economy, investigating private security personnel—their role in the conflict, how the officials see it and how the locals do.

In Haiti Loewenstein finds large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince still in pieces after the 2010 earthquake, and provides many examples of ‘canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of disaster, looking for business opportunities’. For those who argue in favour of job creation when multinationals move in, Loewenstein has found that it’s more likely that cheap, exploitative labour is the effect, in vulnerable areas, tying locals to an (often restricting, often polluting) corporation, removing other chances of sustainable growth in a community.

Loewenstein uncovered an unfortunate structural failure where many big NGOs (not all, there are some great examples of on-the-ground charities working with locals in the book) act as conduits to ensure Western business interests.

Profits of Doom provides essential, eye-opening information about systems of exploitative capitalism, how they operate, who profits, and the effects on the ground. It’s written in an accessible, engaging style, with quotes from people at all levels, and Loewenstein’s first-hand observations and experiences. I was a big fan of his 2008 book The Blogging Revolution, and will continue to read the work of a journalist whose concerns are undeniably relevant, who investigates and presents cases with care, rigour, and verve.

Antony Loewenstein’s website/blog is always a great source of information on current events.

Loewenstein will also be appearing at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.