#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: 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:

photo (37)

#555writers: Tweed Heads & Kingscliff

Ashley Hay, Craig Sherborne and Nick Earls at Salt Bar, Kingscliffe.

Ashley Hay, Craig Sherborne and Nick Earls at Salt Bar, Kingscliff.

I flew into the Gold Coast in glorious weather, staring out at the mountains and inlets, the blue green ocean. I was ready to get some sun on my skin.

When you thrust seven strangers together, there’s no guarantee they’ll get along. Some of us had gotten up at 5:30am, some were feeling poorly, and one—Zacharey Jane—had to do all the organising, driving, and lots of the speaking. But we crowded together in the van and got straight into the D&Ms: about family, writing, past careers and lives. And we met readers.

photo (32)

I spoke with Betty and Joy over scones at the Tweed Library, after Craig Sherborne and Ashley Hay spoke about resilience, chances, objects, history and more. Betty was a librarian in Sydney during the war in the late 1930s. Both Betty and Joy had radiant smiles. I swapped with them my own Nanna’s stories about the American GIs. Betty put on a perfect American accent. They both seemed delighted to be there, mingling with the writers.

We had to drive to Byron and back, to drop cars off and pick items up, and on the way saw the immediate aftermath of a horrible accident. Two cars, badly smashed; ambulance, fire, police, and a long line of cars which we knew we’d have to join heading back. I can’t find it in the news today, which may be a good thing. Hopefully no one was badly hurt. We gasped and shook our heads but none of us looked away.

Ashley and Craig spoke briefly, at Tweed Library, about objects, ‘those little domestic deities in our lives’. In times of crisis, or difficulty, or even anxiousness, some objects can signify ‘care being taken and love being given’, such as a cup of flowers next to a freshly made bed, for a house guest. Zacharey’s The Lifeboat also shows a fascination of the power of objects, and care taken in their choosing and placement. When the castaways are coming to stay with the interpreter, the main character in her novel, she throws away a half bar of soap and replaces it with ‘a soft cream bar’.

The new soap smelt of well-dressed women who didn’t do their own ironing; it came wrapped in white tissue. Small, crumbling fragments of soap were left behind, powdering the inside of the paper; I lifted it to my face and inhaled, then carefully folded it back over the crumbs to capture them.

She also puts fresh blue towels at the end of their beds, and matching flannels, and places ‘interesting books they might enjoy’ on the coffee table.

When I opened the cupboard in my hotel room this morning I noticed the coffee, tea and sugar packets were arranged with exquisite neatness. I know it’s different if someone is being paid to do it, but the care was evident—the employee’s fingertips pushing the edge of the sugar packet until it sat just so.

photo (34)We made it back up North and went to Salt Bar in Kingscliff for our first pub event. It was an intimidating environment to walk into. Huge extended families enjoying their parmas and chips, and football on the wall. But Zac is unflappable. She began setting up props and cutting up prompts for our word games. As each writer introduced their books and gave a little reading they were competing with squawking laughter and the scraping of forks and knives, but soon the background patrons moved away and we were left with our keen audience, who pulled their chairs even closer, and seemed to love every minute they got to spend in the company of Zac, Craig, Ash, Sam and Nick. Tim and I hung back at the start to be the eyes, though I’ll be chairing some of the sessions myself as we go on (yes, I’m nervous).

I loved Samuel Wagan Watson’s reasoning behind the title of his new book Love Poems and Death Threats: these are the daily workings of the writer; you could receive a love poem from your publisher one minute, or a death threat the next. And regarding poetry, he said, ‘we do live in a very violent world… it’s hard to put sunset and butterflies in the daily news’ (and so, too, in art).

Tour filmmaker Tim Eddy

Tour filmmaker Tim Eddy

Two other moments in the talk: Nick admitted that the fear of obsolescence in his character in Analogue Men may in fact reflect his own. This was when Zac was asking about autobiographical elements in the authors’ works. Even if it’s not on the basis of technological ineptness, as it is for Nick’s character, I think that statement is one all of us, on some level, can relate to. We can all become irrelevant in different situations. And one of Ashley’s final notes was a lovely one, she spoke about the stories we tell each other to get ourselves through—about friendship, about kindness. The Railwayman’s Wife is populated with these moments.

The audience joined in our fun game of ‘story stick’ (come to one of the events to find out more) and then we had pub food and a couple of drinks, then sang along to Bowie and passed around my flask of Lagavulin 16 in the van.

More soon…

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 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.