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I was recently asked to write a blog post for Collaboration, the blog of the Book Industry Collaborative Council (BICC), explaining what I do and how I came to be involved in so many different facets of the book industry. It took me a while, as it felt strange to ‘explain myself’! If you are curious about how I got to be an all-rounder, though, in terms of books and writing, you may like to have a read.
Ramona Koval’s enthusiastic explorations of literature would be familiar not only to those who enjoyed her long-running ABC Radio National program, The Book Show, but also to audiences at writers’ festivals around the world. As an interviewer, she is informed, curious and bold, coaxing a multitude of insights from her subjects. In By the Book, Koval swings the spotlight on herself and asks how a life of books has informed her as a person.
Central to Koval’s development, growing up in St Kilda and North Balwyn in Melbourne, was her mother, a Polish Jew with an amazing story of her own. Koval opens By the Book with an image of her mother, stretched out on the divan, lost in a book. Koval’s mother read in multiple languages and had a fondness for banned books. She would regularly take her young daughter to a mobile library, which ‘introduced her to a different world’. This was important, Koval writes, because as a child she ‘didn’t exactly have wide horizons to survey’. Books provided those.
Koval describes the books we keep close as presenting an ‘archaeology of interests’, and says those she selected for discussion in her own book were ‘the ones that were crucial milestones for me in some kind of way’. From the works of French novelist Colette to books on polar exploration, European and absurd literature, language books, feminist books, and the poetry of science, Koval’s reading interests have been broad. In her reflections on reading, she wonders about whether there is a ‘right time’ to encounter a certain work while arguing that books can, undeniably, shape you. Koval felt this acutely while gripped by Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower just this year, and believes if she’d read the novel at a young age, it might have changed the course of her life. ‘I saw several episodes in my own life mirrored in its pages,’ she writes.
On the other hand, Koval admits that worth classics she’s interested in reading—such as the Sagas of Iceland—have sometimes failed to draw her in. ‘You’ve got limited time,’ she says. ‘I always think that if you give a book a while and then you don’t fall into it, you just have to put it away and come to it another time, or not come to it at all.’
Along with genuine insights on reading itself, Koval’s book is personal. We learn about the author’s young life, her passion for science, and her adventures (and disappointments) in love. We also get to travel with her, through her own experiences and through associated literature. One such adventure is going dog-sledding in the Algonquin State Park, three hours north of Toronto. Koval also shares some of her encounters with authors, such as Grace Paley and Oliver Sacks.
She acknowledges the privileges her career as a broadcaster has afforded her. ‘It has been fantastic; my own Open University,’ she says. ‘You can learn a lot of things by reading books, but for some books I think you do need to have a tutor—some fantastic person who can say to you “look at this” or “this means that”’.
Koval herself has opened up worlds for others in her years as a broadcaster. She admits that her reading choices have mainly been governed by whatever happened to interest her personally, ‘whether it was a book about sand or some short stories from Romania’.
It’s a formula that seems to have worked. ‘It turned out that other people loved [these works] too,’ Koval says. ‘Many people sidled up to me and said, you know, “your program was my education. I never would have read those books if I hadn’t heard about them”’. Koval always enjoyed this aspect of her work. ‘It’s not like you’re powerful; it’s more like you’ve got something to share that’s valuable. People are enriched by it.’
Koval is now working on, and planning, multiple projects that will make the most of her enthusiasm and talents. And she continues to be a great reader, keeping up on reviews in various publications. ‘Reviews are so hard, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘Because you have to trust the reviewer, and even then you’ve got to know a little bit of backstory about why they feel that way about that book, or whether they’ve got an axe to grind in some way.’
There are still many books on Koval’s shelves and in her ereader that she’d love to get to. ‘Sometimes you feel like: I’m actually gorging on books and I’m going to be sick if I don’t stop it,’ she laughs. ‘You know, you can have too much ice cream.’ But reading, for Koval, is a unique pleasure; something she describes in By the Book as ‘private and reverential’. It’s an activity that can transport us ‘from our prosaic lives to anywhere we care to imagine’. She writes: ‘While our world looks small on the outside, it’s huge on the inside, in the magical spaces between the page and our absorption.’
Why did I want to read it?
Because I already know and love the story so well (mainly via Scrooged and A Muppet Christmas Carol) and I’ve been meaning to read the original around Christmas-time for years!
When was it published?
First published in December 1843. I read Gerard’s Great Writers Library edition (1987), which is a facsimile of the 1910 Chapman and Hall edition. The book also features other novellas by Dickens: The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth.
What’s it about?
Nasty old Ebenezer ‘Bah! Humbug!’ Scrooge is visited by his dead colleague Marley and the spirits of Christmas past, present and future.
Tell us more about the author.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
A resounding yes. A Christmas Carol obviously has one of the most memorable plots (and characters) in history. And the book has probably done more than anyone can imagine to contribute to the warm-hearted message as to what Christmas is really ‘about’. No matter what religion or nationality you are, or even whether you celebrate Christmas, the message is that kindness is absolutely vital.
While reading, I thought about how the anti-greed message was something instilled in me in childhood (perhaps in part through encountering this story and discussing it with my parents). This led to a lot of confusion as I got older and realised that the capitalist system was feeding me contradictory messages: that I should desire and have everything (and a new version, too); that I deserved to treat myself. Self-help culture also encourages us to be selfish. Of course, our system is morally dubious in more ways than one (I’m thinking of vast environmental degradation here). So, Scrooge today can also symbolise the one percent (as a whole), sitting there counting piles of money and having little regard for anyone or anything else. The descriptions of Scrooge toward the beginning are delightfully funny. I particularly like the line: ‘Foul weather didn’t know where to have him’.
The book leaves with you a series of dark images, like Marley’s face as the door knocker, the chilling spirit that does not speak, and the child spirits of Ignorance and Want—‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy [Ignorance], for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’. The prospect of seeing your own name on a gravestone is also confronting and eerie.
Marley’s ghost and the three Christmas spirits are inventive and exciting. As I read I recalled how frightening I found them in different adaptations as a child. I had forgotten about how Scrooge attributes the vision of Marley to indigestion: ‘You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’
And poor little Tiny Tim. The story may be earnest, but the humour and the cleverness of the plot mean that it’s effectively able to move you. And maybe it moves me, too, because of the despair I sometimes feel about issues mentioned above. But then again, like Scrooge at the end I often feel that ‘I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby’.
I’m still reading Gogol’s Dead Souls, and then I was thinking either more Nabokov or Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori.
Whisky and Charlie are identical twins, but they couldn’t be more different. Whisky is in a coma after a serious accident, and Charlie has to face up to the kind of brother—and person—he’s become. Whisky Charlie Foxtrot moves between the brothers’ earlier lives and their difficult present. It’s a great read; warm, multi-layered, moving, and satisfying. I asked the author, Annabel Smith, a few questions about the novel…
I’d like to ask first about the brothers. Very slowly throughout the narrative you reveal that, while Whisky is certainly no angel, Charlie may have also been pretty hard on him. Could you tell us a bit about developing the relationship between the brothers?
In my first draft of WCF I believed I was writing a book about a decent guy and his wanky, unscrupled ‘evil’ twin. I got to around Chapter seven (Golf) and Whisky was getting pasted. Then, my friend and mentor, Richard Rossiter, guided me to introduce a crisis into the story, to add drama in the relationship, and thus, Whisky’s coma was born. After that it became challenging to hold onto my idea of Whisky because it feels wrong to tell nasty stories about someone who is in a coma! As my perspective on Whisky shifted, so too did my perspective on Charlie. Charlie’s realisation—that Whisky might not be all bad and that he himself might have played a part in the demise of their relationship—was really my own realisation about the truth of their relationship.
It’s great that you’ve maintained that process of realisation for the reader. So when you decided to make a coma the crisis, how did you go about it? It seems like you’ve done research not just into the coma state but into the ways that people deal it.
You’re right, I had to understand coma both in a medical sense and also in terms of its impact on family and friends. For a long time, I wasn’t sure whether Whisky would recover from the coma or not. So I needed to know for how long someone could plausibly remain in a coma; what kind of therapy they would receive and other health threats they might face while in a coma state. In case Whisky woke up, I researched recovery, rehabilitation and the physical and mental implications of long-term coma states. In the event that he would not recover, I explored right-to-life issues and the euthanasia process. The last thing I wanted was for readers to pick holes in the science. So I gathered statistics, diagrams of the brain, explanations of testing procedures and diagnostic tools etc. I don’t really have a science brain so it was pretty heavy-duty reading for me!
I used both medical and anecdotal sources and came across some amazing recovery stories and also many heartbreaking accounts without happy endings. There are lots of forums on the internet for the loved ones of comatose patients and they were an excellent source of material. People contribute advice about things they’ve learned along the way, tips on what helps them get through; some just need an outlet to share their stories with others who understand what they’re going through.
As well as information that had dramatic possibilities, I gathered details that would help to make the story feel real, especially to readers who might have some knowledge of coma, all of which were collated into a giant tome which I printed out and carried round with me for months on end. I was so happy to retire that wad of papers, I can tell you.
I’d like to ask about using the phonetic alphabet to build the structure of the book, and to introduce characters and themes. I think it works so well. Did you have that in place from the beginning? Were there ever any issues adhering to it?
The alphabet was in place right from the start. It was a great springboard for giving me ideas about episodes in the twins’ lives. But it also posed some challenges. Any of the chapters with names (Charlie, Juliet, Oscar) were simple—they became character names. But ‘Yankee’ kept me awake at night. For a long time I had no idea how I was going to work that in. Others posed problems in terms of chronology. X-ray, for instance, was an easy idea to work in, given that Whisky was hospitalised, but I really wanted that information to appear earlier in the novel. I had to do some tricky manoeuvring, like using flashbacks, to make some of the chapters work.
You said you received some valuable advice from Richard Rossiter while writing the book. At what point do you show your work to others? Is it something you’d encourage all writers to do?
I was part of a writing trio (with Amanda Curtin and Robyn Mundy) while writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, so I started showing drafts to them almost from the start. I found it really helpful to have feedback at an early stage, when I was still uncertain about the voice, the style and whether the story was appealing or compelling to readers. Once I got on a roll with it, I had more confidence and felt less in need of ongoing feedback. After finishing the first draft, I sought more feedback, and from a wider circle. I think it’s critical to have perceptive readers whose feedback you trust to look at your work. If you can find the right person/people, they can support you when you lose faith in yourself, brainstorm a way through issues in the text, and notice things you can no longer see because you’re too immersed in the work. I have no doubt that the feedback I received made my book stronger and more satisfying to read.
This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.
The Age Book of the Year awards were announced last night at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2012 opening event, prior to Simon Callow’s enthusiastic, informative Keynote speech on Charles Dickens.
The awards, now in their 38th year and highly regarded, were presented by Age literary editor Jason Steger. They went to…
Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (Allen & Unwin)
The Brokenness Sonnets I-III and Other Poems by Mal McKimmie (Five Islands Press)
1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia by James Boyce (Black Inc.)
Overall winner / Age Book of the Year
1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia by James Boyce (Black Inc.)
Boyce was very humble about his win, he commended the Age for continuing to support literature and authors, and he very gratefully acknowledged author and historian Inga Clendinnen, who has been a supporter of his work.
This afternoon the winning authors will be reading from their work in The Age Book of the Year Reading. It’s a free event at 2:30pm at BMW Edge. Do come along.
Just in case I/we don’t get a chance to write about Simon Callow’s Keynote, his Lateline interview with Tony Jones is online, and of course, you can check out his writing. I can personally recommend (though not on the subject of Dickens) his essay in the latest Sight and Sound (UK) magazine on Orson Welles (another figure he’s passionate about, he’s currently working on the third volume of his biography). See also my Q&A with Callow on writing and playing Dickens.
This is cross-posted from the Melbourne Writers Festival 2012 blog.
Paul D Carter’s debut novel Eleven Seasons was the Australian/Vogel Literary Award winner for 2012. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the ’80s/’90s about Jason Dalton—Hawks supporter and burgeoning player—struggling to find room to breathe and grow and be himself. I asked Carter some questions about the novel:
Jason Dalton is a great character. His searching, his anger, his passion—all very believable. How did the character form in relation to the novel’s focus on both AFL and personal history/identity?
Jason appeared in earlier drafts of the book, at which stage the narrative focused on his entire family unit, including his mother and father (he was also following Footscray, and the novel began in 1980, not 1985). After writing some 40,000 words of this draft, I felt that the characters were being welded to the themes I wanted to explore, as opposed to the narrative emerging organically from the fears and desires of the characters themselves.
In my second draft, I focused on Jason, and moved the narrative forward so that it encompassed the era dominated by the Hawthorn Football Club. I wrote the opening chapter in a week, and felt I was onto something much better—I cared more for Jason, and I could see more clearly the correlation between his football ‘dreaming’ and his life outside the game as a socially invisible boy.
I like how the novel interrogates different cultures around the game—good and bad—through Jason’s encounters. Was it important to you to shine a light on both the positive and negative aspects?
My greatest aim with this novel was to write a book that dealt with football but which non-followers of the game could appreciate. I wanted to get the reader to think of football as a sphere in his life that was interdependent with the other spheres in his life: his relationship with his mother, his relationships with his friends, his relationships with girls. Football is something he uses for a sense of selfhood and direction, in the same way that other people might embrace music or dance to provide themselves with these things.
This said, I felt it was important to look at the way the way football culture might inhibit him as much as it provides him with solace. I think it can be easy to escape the hard work of growing up and figuring yourself out if you are part of a club or institution that does this figuring out for you. I think this issue extends to cultural pursuits outside of football as well, but in football it is quite explicit.
Much of my PhD research informed the novel as I ended up writing a review of creative writing about football and the ways this writing has reflected Australia’s recent social history. This said, I wrote the novel mostly from the gut.
The best things about completing the novel as a PhD were that it created a window of time in my life that I could devote exclusively to writing, and it also gave me a timeline. Without this structure, I’m not sure I would have found the self-discipline to see the project through.
Eleven Seasons won the Vogel this year, and was subsequently published by Allen & Unwin. What was that road to publication like? Has your writing life changed much since then?
I had a very intense summer of 2011-12 rewriting the novel in line with the suggestions of the editors. They read the novel very closely, and very critically. I’m still unsure that I was able to deliver a revised manuscript that answered all of their criticisms. This said, the pressure to push myself above and beyond what I’d already done proved a terrific learning experience. It seems to me that one of the best ways to learn is to have someone believe in you and take you to task at the same time. As an English teacher, it’s a lesson I’m trying to take on board when working with my students.
On the subject of teaching—I’m in my second year as an English teacher, and most of my mental space is still occupied by it. It’s one of the most complex and taxing jobs there is, and my writing has taken a back seat for the time being. But I’m taking notes on a book that will deal with teaching and teenagers. This time around, I’d like to write more about women. I feel like I’m done writing about guys for now.
Carter will discuss what it’s like to be a first-time novelist with Chris Flynn, Eowyn Ivey, and Ruby J Murray on Saturday 1 September at 1pm, and he’ll be reading from his work at The Morning Read session on Sunday 2 September at 10am. Both sessions are free.
I’ve been meaning to add video content to LiteraryMinded for yonks!
I’ve interviewed authors on stage, I’ve read my own work aloud, I can write about books - but speaking alone into a camera is an entirely different kettle of fish…
On Friday I had my first three panels. I won’t go into too much detail, but there were highlights – such as being on stage alongside Tom Cho on one, and Krissy Kneen on another (and not as a chair, but fellow writer); meeting Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald; and getting to hear Susan Maushart’s and Alvin Pang’s differing takes on social media. Susan took her family ‘off the grid’, away from technology for six months – and that time is recorded in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect. She’s also incredibly smart, funny and lovely. Susan and Alvin spoke about a divide between the ‘real’ and ‘online’ worlds and selves. I spoke about that divide not existing so definitely for me – that I didn’t really think about my online activity so much as being separate from my real life, that it was more integrated for me.
Another highlight was my afternoon session, on which I chaired Kirsten Tranter, Brenda Walker and Georgia Blain – talking about books and family. Each author had literary influences in their lives as children, particularly their literary mothers. Kirsten and Brenda even run their manuscripts by their mothers and take on board their criticism – Georgia was fascinated by this as she felt she couldn’t really do that. We spoke about favourite books, too, and childhood memories of books (such as illustrated fairytales). I loved getting to chat to these three talented authors about personal and professional crossovers.
Later, at the close of the festival, author Marele Day pulled me aside and said she’d caught the session and that she wanted to tell me what a great job I was doing chairing. I can’t say how wonderful this is to hear. When you’re up there on stage, often you have no idea how you’re going. You are juggling your knowledge of the books, with the topic, with the author personalities, with audience interest – it’s a balancing act. And you must guide, but also take up the authors on interesting points, and make sure they each get enough air-time. So, thanks, Marele, and other audience members who let me know what worked over the festival. I appreciate it.
On Friday night I was lucky enough to be invited along to a small dinner with a few Text Publishing authors, dapper publisher Michael Heyward and publicist Jane Novak. Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers) was there, and his wife/partner Hannie Rayson, the playwright – what a charming pair. Susan Maushart was there, and my friends Dan Ducrou and Krissy Kneen. The steak was amazing and the conversation ranged from ’70s arthouse/erotic films to the way social media is influencing publishing. Half-way through, Dan got a text from his girlfriend, the wonderful Phoebe Bond. She had just attended the Bret Easton Ellis event with Ramona Koval and reported that he’d been very misbehaved. We awaited her arrival to get the full story.
Over the next few days I only heard snippets of the story, so this is all second-hand, but it will be played on Radio National’s The Book Show so you can make up your own minds. Many people thought he was being a wanker – tapping his feet, looking around and talking about how hot Delta Goodrem was. Some others thought Ramona was being antagonistic and should have followed along, playfully. (Again, this is all second-hand.) Many thought it was performative. I think he was being absurd, which I like, but then I really like Ramona, too, and can imagine how hard it would have been! She’s one of our most experienced interviewers and broadcasters. Anyway, enough speculation. Were any of you there? Can you give us your opinion in the comments?
I did see BEE do a one-on-one with Simon Marnie on Sunday and he was much better behaved. Some of Simon’s questions were deflected but Simon found a way to wiggle around to the info anyway. BEE, to me, seemed funny, intelligent, and actually quite authentic. He just honestly doesn’t know how to answer some of the questions about the ‘why?’. He can’t really talk about process because ‘writing a novel is not a logical, practical thing.’ It’s an emotional thing, he says. He was amused, in a way, by how the interview went the other night. He said ‘people assumed I’m a much more serious literary figure than I actually am.’ People think he’s depressed and dour. I’m going to save the rest of my notes from that session, as I’m interviewing him this Thursday, and can work them in. But maybe we’ll just talk about pop music! I will just quickly say, that he does view his books as each being quite cathartic, and he doesn’t censor himself because he needs the voice of the narrator to be authentic. And he absolutely loves that American Psycho comes in a little ‘sandwich bag’ in Australia. He thinks it’s cute.
But back to Saturday now. On Saturday I had my last two panels, I was chairing both. In the morning, a panel on ‘Fragmented Identities’ was packed-out – more than likely because of crime star Michael Robotham. Georgia Blain and Patrick Holland were also on the panel. I think Holland was a star with his articulate explanations of character complexity. I wish I’d recorded him. I’ll be posting a review of his book The Mary Smokes Boys very soon on here. This was one of those panels where I had no idea how it was going on stage. I kept being unable to find the right words (a bit fatigued by now) but once it was over both the authors and audience seemed to have had a wonderful time. So I was happy with that.
My last panel was late in the day and I spent some time down by the lake, watching ducks, and these other beautiful birds with blue bellies (which I’ve found out are Purple Swamphen), and catching up with Matthia Dempsey from Bookseller+Publisher and Peter Bishop from Varuna. Matthia is going on the annual trip for the Indigenous Literacy Project – she will probably be doing some updates on the Fancy Goods blog if she gets a chance. On this day at some stage I was also in the Green Room and heard a very familiar voice from behind me. It was ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke! I was only a wee lass when he was PM. I was too shy to say hello, but I saw many people do so. How different would it be if it were little Johnnie Howard? On Sunday I also got to thank Clive Hamilton for his 2004 book Affluenza, which I’ve read several times and really made me think about my country, and my society, Western society, consumer society, differently. I talked about my doctorate a bit and he gave me some more authors to follow-up.
To be continued…
Books I’ve been sent or given in the past few weeks:
And then I still haven’t gotten to:
(the Roald Dahl books I plan to re-read). And these are really only the fairly recent additions to the ‘tower of hope’.
…and a couple of others on my bedside table. You can see how hard it is for me to choose what to read next, as there are so many good-lookin’ books in there. What would you go for?