The busiest months of my life to date continue + #555writers

Somewhere among editing a big hardcover book, writing and teaching a university course, submitting reviews and an essay, teaching workshops in SA, Vic and Tas, being interviewed for radio and newspapers about Captives, talking The Trip on the Death by Consumption podcast, filming a TV appearance (for Jennifer Byrne Presents: The Seven Deadly Sins—more on that soon), and working in a whisky bar, I have been reading the works of the authors on the #555writers tour, coming up this Friday!

railwayman's wife ashley hayThe Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay explores loss, chance, love and nature. It’s a moving book that manages to tackle difficult themes (around death and grief, on a small and large scale) while being infused with energy and light—mainly due to the descriptions of setting and the warmth of the main character, Anikka.

I was sent Nick Earls’ The Fix and read it before I realised he has a newer book—oops! But I’ll catch up with Analogue Men this week or on tour. Here’s the publisher description:

Andrew Van Fleet is 49 and feeling 50 closing in. He’s bailed out of his private equity job for something that’ll let him spend more time at home, but the house is overrun by iPads and teenage hormones and conversations that have moved on without him. Plus his ailing father is now lodged in the granny flat, convalescing from surgery and with his scrappy bulldog in tow. 

And then there’s Brian Brightman, the expensive fading star at the radio station Andrew’s signed up to manage, whose every broadcast offers fresh trouble. He’s 49 too and, like Andrew, starting to wonder if the twenty-first century might prove to be his second best.

lifeboat zacharey janeI read and adored Zacharey Jane’s The Lifeboata book published in 2008 that will hopefully continue to find an audience. It’s about a young interpreter who has to solve the mystery of an old couple who wash up on the island where she works, with no idea who they are. The old man and woman’s interactions are almost Beckettian—’I don’t know me either’—and the prose is lyrical and emotive, at times sensuous. It could be interpreted politically as well; on the island the processes don’t allow the narrator much time to find out the true story of these two people, and her superiors are ready to simply ship them off to wherever they think they came from. The narrator’s ability to empathise with the castaways (and imagine their possible pasts and future) is what makes her the hero of the novel.

Zac is also the hero (already) of this tour, doing the organising, booking, etc., and even putting her kids to work on a banner and some t-shirts! Exciting stuff.

Samuel Wagan Watson is the tour’s award-winning poet, with a new book due out next month called Love Poems and Death ThreatsIf you come to one of the tour events you’ll no doubt get a sneak preview. I’m hoping our tour bookseller Luke Burless may have copies of one of Sam’s earlier collections, like Smoke Encrypted Whispers, for me to buy. Sam’s also going to be the tour DJ (and thankfully heartily approved of my ’70s and ’80s requests).

tree palaceFinally, I began reading Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace, and was completely absorbed in it, but then my bag was stolen, including my copy of the book (with notes). There’s another copy waiting at my PO Box (thanks Text Publishing) but I’m sad to have lost my notes. I’ll go pick it up tomorrow, and will tell you more about it (and Craig, of course) from Friday onwards.

Again, the whole tour schedule is here. Events are free and open to the public in Tweed Heads, Lismore, Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Lennox Head. I’ll be blogging here, plus updating my Instagram, Twitter (hashtag #555writers), and Facebook page with tour text, pics, video, and audio.

I suppose there’ll be a dearth of single malt whiskies in the Northern NSW pubs that we visit, yeah? I’ll either pour some of my Lagavulin 16 into a flask, or reconnect with my younger Coffs Harbour self and drink Jim Beam and coke. Or maybe Wild Turkey. I won’t go so far as a goon sack.

Until Friday…!

Captives available for pre-order!

CaptivesFCR (1)In her first book of fiction, writer and literary journalist Angela Meyer demonstrates her gift for painting vivid pictures with a few adroit, restrained brush strokes.
—Jennifer Peterson-Ward, Books+Publishing 

You guys…

My first fiction book is being published in May: Captives. It’s a petite, dark collection of flash fiction, with a cover and layout beautifully designed by Sandy Cull. Here’s the blurb:

Captives opens with a husband pointing his gun at his wife. There’s a woman who hears ‘the hiss of Beelzebub behind people’s voices’, a photographer who captures the desire to suicide, a man locked in a toilet who may never get out, a couple who grow young, and a prisoner who learns to swallow like a python.

Angela Meyer’s Captives is a collection of shimmering story wafers, each of which hovers at exactly the sweet spot of just enough. Individually piercing, Meyer’s fiction slices fit together like the best poetry does, amplifying what came before and chiming with what comes after. —Tania Hershman.

I’m so excited that some of my fiction has found its way out into the world, thanks to Inkerman & Blunt. You can follow the publisher on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Captives is now available for pre-order! If you order from Inkerman & Blunt directly before April 30, you’ll receive a signed copy (only $14.99)! You can also order it from your favourite local or online bookstore (the ISBN is 9780987540126).

I’ll be doing plenty of events around the release of Captives, which I’ll announce mainly via Facebook and Twitter. I’ve also started a dedicated events page here on the blog.

Thanks, as always, for reading. (Can you believe this blog will be seven years old the month Captives comes out?) 

Chairing panels and interviewing authors on stage: a few things I’ve learnt

Short story session @ Bellingen Readers & Writers Fest 2012 with Marele Day, Robert Drewe and Charlotte Wood

Short story session @ Bellingen Readers & Writers Fest 2012 with Marele Day, Robert Drewe and Charlotte Wood

It’s been five years since I first wrote a piece like this, and after seeing the topic come up in an author’s Facebook thread, I figured it was time for an update.

I’m sharing what I’ve learnt about chairing and interviewing authors on stage, particularly through watching good, mediocre or bad sessions at festivals, not just due to my own experience chairing panels at writers’ festivals in Australia and overseas. Let me acknowledge that I’m well aware, compared to many of my colleagues, that I’m still green-ish (in terms of years ‘in the field’), and that I’m not saying I’m an authority or have mastered all of these points. Like anyone, I have good days and bad days, and times where I’ve simply taken too much on. I also suffer from nerves.

This post is not intended to target anyone in particular; I hope it will benefit people both chairing for the first time, and those who’ve become a little too comfortable (and perhaps even over-confident) in their methods. I mention this last point because I’ve had a few recent conversations with friends where we’ve agreed that a panel or interview was badly chaired, but the interviewer is generally a ‘good egg’ and we don’t know how to broach the subject, or whether it is our place to.

To the person I later found out had snorted cocaine before chairing a writers’ festival panel: no. Just no.

These are simply observations from someone who has spent a lot of time (enthusiastically) at these events in the past few years, someone who thinks the general standard can be better. Please feel free to add your own tips, observations, experiences and stories in the comments section below.

Writers Who Blog panel at Sydney Writers' Fest 2013. Mark Forsyth, Tara Moss, Lorraine Elliott &  myself.

Writers Who Blog panel at Sydney Writers’ Fest 2013. Mark Forsyth, Tara Moss, Lorraine Elliott & myself.

1. Prepare well. Read the authors’ latest books, and if you have time, dip into their backlist as well. Both the authors and audience appreciate an in-depth knowledge of the work (as long as you don’t show off about it). If it’s relevant, also read up on the topic. For example, I recently chaired a panel with Margaret Drabble and Rabih Alameddine called ‘Grand Allusions’, and so I dug out my Oxford Dictionary of Allusions to swot up on literary allusion and reference.

2. Get in touch with the authors in advance. You don’t have to overwhelm them with information, just let them know that you’re preparing the session and that the channels of communication are open. Then they can let you know if there’s anything they are really keen to focus on, or avoid. I also contact them again the week before the event to give them an idea of some questions and topics I may raise on stage, so they have time to ponder them beforehand, or select an appropriate reading. I’ve also found this helps to assure the authors that the conversation will have direction and that you’ll get to certain topics, so they don’t feel they need to explode on the first question and say everything they have been thinking about.

3. That said, you don’t want to exhaust the topic before the panel or interview even begins, leave plenty of room for spontaneity.

A New Frontier: Blogging, Dissent & Solidarity at Ubud Writers & Readers Fest 2009: Dian Di SudutBumi, myself, Ng Yi-Sheng and Antony Loewenstein.

A New Frontier: Blogging, Dissent & Solidarity at Ubud Writers & Readers Fest 2009: Dian Di SudutBumi, myself, Ng Yi-Sheng and Antony Loewenstein.

4. On the day, keep the introductions brief and respectful. Use the information the author has provided to you/the festival. Also give a brief general introduction to the panel topic.

5. Try to use the names of the authors’ books when referring to them, instead of saying ‘your book’. It will help the audience to remember the titles.

6. Be sure to ask individual questions of each author, as well as more general ones. This will allow more in-depth insights into their individual works, and the audience will leave knowing more about them. It’s also respectful to the authors, and shows you have read the books carefully.

7. That said, don’t over-analyse the authors’ books as part of your question. This is the first tip under ‘it’s not about you’. It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move, especially if they think you are wrong but want to remain polite. Don’t treat your preparation the same way you would if you were writing a review or essay. As an example, instead of telling the author and audience that the book has strong female characters, you might ask the author about a particular character and then prompt them from there to give their own opinion or analysis. The audience wants to be party to the author’s own insights, not yours.

8. On that note, don’t show off. Don’t over-quote, or take too much time to delve into the book’s relation to (insert your own specialist area). One or two well-placed quotes or references can be incredibly effective, but I’ve seen panels and interviews where the chair will throw in a quote before every second question. Though the author is undoubtedly very smart and well read, you may be putting them in a potentially awkward position (or risk them thinking you’re a smart-arsey douche). The audience, too, will be groaning inwardly, or outwardly. They’ve come to hear what this author thinks about love, writing, death…

9. In sum of these last two points, keep the lead-in to your questions brief, and actually ask a question. One that works well for me is: ‘Could you tell us about…’

Relaxing with a drink by the authors' yurt, Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013.

Relaxing with a drink by the authors’ yurt, Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013.

10. Be flexible. I’m definitely someone who over-prepares, and writes everything down. I would panic if I didn’t have my notebook on stage with me. However, I don’t entirely follow the questions as a script. I try my best to listen for the moments when an insight can be taken further, or when I can take something the author has said and tie it to another idea we’ve discussed, or throw it to the other author/s. If you’ve read your panellists’ books carefully, and also studied them and their careers, you’ll be able to carry off this segue action more easily.

11. That said, it’s nice for a panel to have an arc. So if you sense your panellists are giving away too much of the gold too early, or there’s a point you want to lead to, communicate that to them and the audience. It’s as easy as: ‘OK, that’s fascinating, I definitely want to come back to that, let’s just get more of a feel for your character. Could you tell us…’ And then, if you have a bad memory like me, make a squiggle in your notes so you do remember to bring it back to that awesome point.

Eleanor Catton, Tom Cho and I at the signing table at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

Eleanor Catton, Tom Cho and I at the signing table at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

12. Try to avoid um, ah, kinda, sorta, ‘sorta thing’ – oh I hate myself when that comes out of my mouth on stage – and upward inflecting too much when you speak, particularly in the introduction (that’s one I’ve tried to tackle after a nasty tweet at Edinburgh International Book Fest). Also, don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much. Nodding is good, but try to avoid lots of ‘yep’, ‘aha’, ‘cool’, ‘right’, and so on into the microphone.

13. Watch your feet. Are they jiggling, or swinging out whenever you laugh? Remember that your feet on stage can be at the eye level of the audience. Lots of movement can be quite distracting.

14. Most of the authors you end up chairing will be experienced, and will know how to talk about their book in a way that is genuine, insightful, and interesting. But wow, there can be some wildcards. Sometimes authors are nervous and can barely speak, other times they’ll completely hog the microphone. My hardest interview was with someone famous, who was used to performing solo. To the last minute he kept asking me to remove questions from my plan until I was panicking I’d have nothing left. Then he paced wildly, lay on the floor, and performed all sorts of other personal rituals before going on stage. I’ll admit to having a shot of whisky before that session… Luckily, it went fine, because his book is fantastic and he’s funny and smart, and I’d read and researched thoroughly. The point is, people are people, just be as open-minded and diplomatic as you can be. Be aware of both author and audience, and if someone is going on too long, try to butt in gently. If you’re chairing a complete arsehat, well, sh*t happens – try to channel their negatives into insights, or at least try to frame it as entertainment for the audience. It’s not always gonna work. Have the whisky ready for afterwards.

15. Sometimes, no matter how well you’ve prepared, and how great everyone is on stage, there’ll be a strange lack of chemistry. This has happened to me once or twice, and I’ve spent far too much time thinking about it afterwards. One time I think there just wasn’t enough to the topic, and it was difficult to draw the works together in relation to it. Another time I think I just didn’t prepare the best questions. Or maybe there was a full moon. Who knows. Just make sure you do the best you can.

16. Also, if you get nervous like I do, or if you’re tired, sometimes you might just completely blank. It can be hard to juggle ideas: seeking those titbits to carry further in the conversation versus going to the next planned topic or question. There’s a lot you have to hold in your head. Just try to breathe, relax, and be there. The notebook, again, can help. If your blank causes dead air, just be honest and apologise to the authors and audience, have a laugh, and then get back on track.

Bad pic of one of my favourite sessions: interviewing Alex Miller at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

Bad pic of one of my favourite sessions: interviewing Alex Miller at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

17. Individual festivals/venues will have their own guidelines for audience questions. Some audiences will be hanging out to get in on the action, especially with well-known authors. Other authors or topics won’t attract so many questions. Ten to twenty minutes is usually how long you’ll give over to audience questions. Make sure you still have some yourself in reserve in case there aren’t any. And be prepared to be tough with audience members who grandstand or try to make a long comment instead of a question (you know the type). The rest of the audience will get cranky if you don’t keep them in line! That said, some audience members are just nervous and may take a little while to get around to a really great question… It’s your call.

18. I just want to say it again: it’s not about you. Mention your own book or who you are in the intro, and then that’s it. Be curious about the person/people with whom you get to spend this hour. You have the power to create an enjoyable, memorable experience for both them and the audience. It’s a great gig, you’re privileged to be up there. Do the job well.

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.

Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2014

Sweaty lit crowd

Sweaty lit crowd

This year, the Premier’s Awards were held at Government House, in a palatial room of cream, blue and mint, complete with thrones. I arrived just as the talking began, on a dry, hot Melbourne night, and found a place to stand and fan my face with the nominee form.

my life as an alphabetIn the young adult section, Barry Jonsberg won for My Life as an AlphabetHe dedicated the prize to the memory of his Norwegian father, and two characters called ‘Sneaking Blanket’ and ‘Rolling Toilet Lid’, who featured in his father’s tales.

Jennifer Maiden took out the poetry prize, and then was the overall winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature, for her collection Liquid Nitrogen. Maiden coudn’t be present to accept the prize, but her editor told us about how well she articulates the politics of violence. Her publisher, Ivor Indyk, spoke about poetry as ‘the most powerful, personal and political of forms’liquid nitrogen. In Liquid Nitrogen Indyk said that Maiden, who has a painful condition which inhibits her movement, allows her imagination to soar and go to places her body cannot. He also said the work holds conversations, between the poet and herself, with the figures in the poems, and with the reader foremost. There was a collective excited gasp around the room when Liquid Nitrogen won the main prize. It was a good day for poetry!

The drama prize went to Savages by Patricia Cornelius. She commended fortyfivedownstairs for taking on independent, risky work. She also thanked the judges for choosing an original work over an adaptation, and one that is brutal over a work that is life-affirming.

The Forgotten WarThe non-fiction winner was Forgotten War, by Henry Reynolds, about the conflict that occured on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists. Reynolds thanked people who put their personal and professional lives in the service of literature (you’re welcome), particularly publishers and booksellers. The booksellers received a huge clap. He also commended the Victorian government for the award’s continuity, citing the Queensland government as an example of how it can all go wrong.

The fiction prize went to one of my all-time favourite authors Alex Miller, for Coal Creek, which I shamefully haven’t yet read (as you know I’ve been travelling and Coal Creekresearching a big project of my own). Alex was his usual self, both warm and dry (like the night, I suppose). He spoke of writing Coal Creek, that the pleasure of the process was reward enough. In reference to the premier’s comment about being halfway through and enjoying the book, he joked that he must have been able to put it down to come to the awards! Miller spoke of literature enduring and surviving in communities, despite constant obstacles.

The People’s Choice Award went to Hannah Kent’s gorgeously dark Icelandic tale Burial RitesKent thanked independent booksellers for Burial Ritesreally getting behind the book and giving it a good start in the world.

After the announcements, I finally got my hands on some bubbles, and had conversations with many gorgeous people in the Melbourne literary community—writers, editors, publishers, library folk, festival peeps—all readers. Some people thought I’d been away a lot longer than I had. Is that a good or a bad thing? Either way, I was welcomed back many times, and that was incredibly sweet. By the end of the night I’d set quite a few ‘proper catch-up’ dates, and possibly lined up a couple of articles. I honestly don’t try to ‘network’—though that word possibly just means being friendly, engaged, and sharing ideas about what you’re interested in and working on.

I don’t have a job, yet, but after last night, and then seeing Readings’ list of most anticipated books today, I’m feeling very good about what 2014 will hold.

Congrats to the winners of the Vic Prem’s! Have you read the winning or shortlisted books? Would love to hear your thoughts.

with Kat Muscat & Karen Pickering on the red carpet (pic c/o Karen Pickering)

with Kat Muscat & Karen Pickering on the red carpet (pic c/o Karen Pickering)

The Great Unknown authors: Helen Richardson

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the ninth 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.

Helen Richardson is a writer and editor who lives in the Blue Mountains. She was a finalist in the Carmel Bird Short Fiction competition. Her story, ‘Navigating’ is about a wayward sat nav that leads a family into unexpected territory… 

Helen_Richardson_pic (2)What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular theme?

I find it liberating to leave the restraints of the ‘real’ behind. It’s fun to play with an idea, twist it, and see where it goes.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

My story, ‘Navigating’ is about a sat nav gone wrong. A while ago there was a plethora of stories in the media about cars being directed into rivers, or through ‘no entry’ signs etc. I took this idea and then thought, what if this wasn’t random; what if there was a ghost in the machine?

What memories do you have of watching shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?

I was very young when The Twilight Zone was on but I remember being unsettled by it while later on it was viewed more ironically. But this show, and others such as The Invaders, The Prisoner and The Avengers instilled in me a lifelong love of speculative and supernatural fiction. Nowadays there’s a lot of this around for young readers in the form of vampires, angels and demons etc. but I can’t help thinking a lot of this is romance dressed up in the paranormal. There are some wonderful authors, though: Suzanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell—incredible!), Neil Gaiman, Susan Hill, Alice Hoffman, Sarah Waters’ masterpiece of ghost writing The Little Stranger and a lovely book of short fiction Women and Ghosts by Alison Lurie.

What are your thoughts on the current status of genre fiction?

There is such a dearth of outlets in this country for short fiction in general, and genre short fiction, in particular. I think short, short literary fiction of the slice-of-life variety, is the only kind a reader is likely to encounter, possibly because literary magazines have continued to publish it (good on them but a tiny market) and because independent anthologies can still get financial support to publish ‘literary’ works. This is a pity because public transport commutes, new mobile technology, and today’s time squeeze, provides a space where the quick-grab of the genre story would absorb the reader perfectly for half an hour, or an hour.

As for recognition in mainstream outlets, genre has always been the poor cousin and where it is noticed, it is to lampoon the most egregious successes (Dan Brown, EL James) or because a ‘serious’ writer has crossed over—Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy.

Crime has managed to force itself into the literary pages but speculative, horror etc. is routinely ignored.

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

The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

The Waterfall Margaret DrabbleJane has just has her second child. She is recovering in bed in her too-warm room, dealing with complex feelings of isolation (experiencing both loneliness and a desire to be left alone). Her husband is gone. Her cousin Lucy and her husband James begin to drop in to look after Jane and keep her company.

James begins to stay overnight, and an intense passion develops between Jane and James in the confines of the room. Jane, in falling for James, is ‘drowned in a willing sea’. Much of her language around this affair is self-destructive; Jane is aware that she is becoming submissive, becoming ‘merely a woman’, wondering if the previous 28 years (of independence, perhaps, of being a writer) will emerge again at some point, to ‘take their revenge’. The husband had hit her, which she only mentions briefly—had slammed her head against a wall—and yet she blames herself for his leaving. So, overlaying the self-destructiveness, and submission, there is a strong current of guilt. This is a powerful read, and I imagine it would have been even more so in 1969, when it was first released.

The Waterfall shows its postmodern vintage (in a good way) through a mix of third person and unreliable first person narration: the story of Jane, the bed, the baby, and James and his fast car is told in (quite intimate) third person, and then Jane makes confessions or fills in gaps in first person. She tells us about the blood she hadn’t been able to mention, or the other people at the edges of their lives. She is a melancholy character, simultaneously sedate and ardent. The book is literary, psychological, concerned with inner states, and the betrayal of the external. At one point near the beginning, Jane is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and ‘she wondered how they all managed it, how they manage to keep alive, when life was so difficult’.

When she and James dare to take their affair out into the world, there are consequences, as she had supposed there would be.

I like the way people talk in this novel, too: emotional but casual and intellectual, delivered, you can imagine, like in a Godard film.

‘I’m very sympathetic towards that kind of madness.’

There are also many allusions and references to literary characters and writers’ lives, adding a layer to the narrative, believable in the context of the character’s writerliness. Regarding her guilt about sex, Jane wonders if perhaps she’ll go mad with it, like Sue Brideshead or Maggie Tulliver. ‘Those fictitious heroines, how they haunt me.’

I’m looking forward to familiarising myself with much more of Margaret Drabble’s oeuvre.

Carmel Bird Award shortlist

The shortlist for the 2013 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award has just been announced on the Spineless Wonders website. These are all excellent, imaginative stories, and I’m so excited that they will be joining those by the invited writers published in The Great Unknown (including Carmel Bird herself). They range from an existential story from the POV of a pet bird (‘Bluey & Myrtle’ by Mark O’Flynn), to two touching stories about women reconnecting with their families after strange happenings (‘Navigating’ by Helen Richardson and ‘Significance’ by Susan Yardley), to two very sharp speculative stories (‘A Cure’ by Alex Cothren and ‘A Void’ by Guy Salvidge) and one very spooky outback tale (‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate).

Congratulations to the shortlisted authors! The winner of the $500 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award will be announced soon.