#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)

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.

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.

Travel update

Shakespeare's Birthplace @ Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s Birthplace @ Stratford-upon-Avon

A ‘working holiday’ is kind of how we’re describing it, though it’s hard to explain to strangers the work I’m doing: preparing for a book festival, writing occasional travel blog posts (many of which I can re- or cross-post here), editing an anthology and writing a chapbook. Not to mention the research I want to undertake now that we’re here in Scotland. Luckily we have a bit more space in our AirBnB places in Edinburgh. Hostels and staying with people have been fine (and great!) but it’s been very hard to sneak away and work.

Yes, we’re here! I love Scotland. As soon as we crossed the border on the train my mind seemed to shift into a state of literary inspiration, filled with worlds and characters and plots.

Tomorrow the book festival starts here in Edinburgh and I’m going to see Salman Rushdie first. I have no doubt I’ll be inspired this month, but it’ll probably be a matter of working (hard) and absorbing what I can, then letting it unfold when we’re up in the Highlands doing an entirely different kind of work in September and October: at guesthouses and restaurants.

But England was great, despite feeling stressed about my workload. We went to Stratford-upon-Avon, and walked on the floor where young Shakespeare walked. We went to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere. I’m a nerd for literary and cultural tourism. I like to see the places that shaped these minds, and inspired them. Much is known about Wordsworth’s house, garden and lifestyle due to his sister Dorothy, who kept a journal—with all the requisite Romantic references to nature, and emotive writing. Of course, because she was a woman, the needlework unfortunately took precedence over writing. But to her brother she was very inspiring. Like a later inhabitant of Dove Cottage, Thomas De Quincey, Dorothy had quite a fondness for laudanum… I enjoyed learning about her.

We were told about how Coleridge moved to Keswick to be close to Wordsworth in Grasmere, and how the two men would walk across this stunning landscape to visit each other (it would be a very long walk). Sometimes Coleridge would arrive past midnight and Dorothy would make some food for him, and the two men would sit up all night talking and sharing new work. One time Coleridge showed up extremely distressed and carrying a branch as he’d been attacked by a cow on the way over!

G and I could relate to this as we had a very long walk around Lake Windermere in the pouring rain and at one point had an intimidating passage through a herd of cows, some of whom seemed to have escaped from behind a fence. ‘Surely they don’t attack,’ I said to G, but was anxious. They were baying and mooing at us. We realised soon that we were lost and had to pass them again. I’m glad I hadn’t heard the story about Coleridge before that…

Hungry hearts: Big Ray and Big Brother, guest post by Kylie Mirmohamadi

Michael Kimball, Big Ray, Bloomsbury Circus, 2012, 9781408828052 (paperback, ebook)
Lionel Shriver, Big Brother: A Novel, HarperCollins, 2013, 9780732296384 (paperback)

Guest post by Kylie Mirmohamadi

big-rayAn armchair, lumpy with indents left by a sitter of some bulk, adorns the cover of Michael Kimball’s 2012 novel about grief and a childhood shaped by the looming presence of an abusive and overweight father. A similar chair is part of the furniture of Lionel Shriver’s 2013 novel, Big Brother, which explores the emotional fallout of a visit from the narrator’s obese brother to her blended home in Iowa. Late in the book, Pandora Halfdanarson registers a shock of sadness when she sees ‘the empty, broken-down maroon recliner at the head of the table’ that had been moved there to accommodate the bulk of her brother Edison. These empty chairs are apt indicators of the emotional traces left by this pair of remarkable books, which share a sense of loss and haunting, and which leave their imprint long after reading.

Big Ray is narrated by Daniel Carrier, the adult son of a man who has died ‘alone in his one-bedroom apartment’ at some undetermined date, from what was almost certainly complications of his obesity. The novel moves freely between the past and present as Carrier—whose name suggests both the burden of his father’s anger and violence and a fear of their replication in himself—tracks the conflicted process of grieving for a man who seemed ‘inescapable’ when Daniel was a child, and remains so after death. The novel’s representation of grief is unflinching and evocative. The narrator, for example, observes that ‘Everything I do now, I do it with a dead dad.’

In short chapters that echo the staccato bursts of a reluctant confessant, Kimball builds a complex, layered and cumulative account of a life lived in the shadow of a man whose verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse dominated the lives of his family, just as his sleeping body filled their living room with an uneasy and volatile presence. The incremental narrative represents the narrator’s drive, literally as well as metaphorically, to get the measure of his father. Units of measurement and assessment abound in Big Ray—weights, numbers, grades—as Daniel compulsively represents his father in terms of size, proportion and comparison. The most persistent and poignant of these comparisons is, however, the one between Daniel and the man he fears becoming (and yet also longed to surpass in strength and stature).

big-brother_customIn Big Ray, Daniel recurrently encounters and remarks upon the detritus left behind by Ray’s body: odours, stains, ‘a human film’ on all his furniture. Big Brother’s Edison Appaloosa is a more tangible bodily presence. From the moment when he is wheeled from his flight into the terminal and his sister’s horrified gaze (once she has finally recognised him) the reader is acutely aware of the space that he fills, and the impact of that filling. His presence in Pandora’s house disrupts the fragile equilibrium of the household. He clashes with her health-conscious (or ‘nutritional Nazi’) husband Fletcher, insists on preparing large fat- and sugar-laden meals, breaks a beloved piece of furniture crafted by Fletcher, and, in a distressing scene, clogs the sewerage system following a bowel evacuation of monumental proportions.

Edison’s visit not only exposes the fissures in Pandora’s marriage and household, it also raises unsettling issues surrounding the sibling relationship and the ongoing impact of shared childhood experience. Shriver cleverly entwines these explorations of her characters’ relationships with the issue of their relationship with food. When Pandora wonders quite early in the book, ‘why the rigidity of my husband’s diet should be driving us apart when after all it was only food’, the answer, of course, is embedded in the narrative. Food, in the pages of this novel, as in the society it depicts, is never ‘only food’. It is freighted with so much cultural and moral meaning in her own home that Pandora claims at one stage that ‘Every time I open the refrigerator I feel like I’m staring into a library of self-help books with air-conditioning.’

Big Brother also works to make the reader scrutinise his or her own responses to food and eating. The feeling that gripped me when Pandora and Edison embark upon their liquid diet, consisting of pre-prepared sachets of what they call ‘Upchuck’, with the prospect of days and nights unpunctuated by food preparation and consumption, can only be described (like Pandora’s reaction to the idea of real food when she is in the grip of this programme) as panic.

Shriver’s novel clearly has a sociological intent. When Pandora, after a dizzying search through food, diet and obesity chatter on the Internet concludes that ‘We no longer knew how to eat’, the ‘we’ denotes a social and national crisis as well as a personal one. The three basic body types manufactured in Pandora’s ‘Baby Monotonous’ doll factory may be ‘thin, average, and portly’ but the mid-American definition of ‘average’ is a shifting one. ‘Size is relative’, Pandora realises, ‘If everyone is fat, no one is fat.’

Even when Big Brother veers into the realm of pedagogy, the novel is rescued by its craft. Shriver’s writing is, above all, assured. Her characters are playfully named. ‘Fletcher’ evokes the history of food obsessiveness in its reference to ‘Fletcherizing’ mastication, and also suggests the flexing and stretching that must attend his cycling regime. ‘Pandora’, too, opens a number of nesting boxes when she brings her brother into the house, and is revealed, in the end, to be a far more complicated and slippery narrator than she first appears to be. Shriver’s authorly scope is most on show, however, in the narrative twist at the end of the novel which destabilises the reader/ narrator relationship, requires a re-reading of all that has gone before, and highlights the novel’s status as a work of bold imagination.

Much has been made of the biographical provenance of Big Ray and Big Brother in the marketing material and paratextual conversations that attend publication. It is frequently noted that Lionel Shriver’s brother and Michael Kimball’s father died of obesity-related conditions. But we do these fine books a disservice if we read them purely as responses to personal tragedy, and as biography rather than fiction. Their converging themes—of grief, conflict and love; of the intimate and yet universal entanglements of familial relationships; and the eternal hunger of lives lived out in privileged nations—are bigger than that.

Dr. Kylie Mirmohamadi is a Research Associate in English and History at La Trobe University. Her most recent books, co-authored with Susan K. Martin, are Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis [2011] and Colonial Dickens: What Australians Made of the World’s Favourite Writer [2012].

SWF 2013: writing & philosophy

Brooks_Conversation_webCross-posted on the Stoffers blog.

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week I went along to a session on writing and philosophy, and I thought a summary of the insights (and work of the panellists) might be of interest to some of you.

The moderator was Joe Gelonesi from ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone and the panellists were Damon Young (Philosophy in the Garden), Scarlett Thomas (Our Tragic Universe) and David Brooks (The Conversation).

Thomas’ books are fiction, but based on philosophical questions. In her latest, Our Tragic Universe, she asks whether it’s better to put ‘a neat narrative framework’ around ‘big questions’, or whether it is better to leave them open. She described herself as being oriented toward both the iPhone and the cave (simultaneously social, current, and reclusive). Her latest book ‘asks about philosophy without the characters sitting down and talking about philosophy’.

Brooks’ The Conversation is a discussion of love and life with philosophical underpinnings. It follows one five-hour meal, but took about nine years to write (!).

philosophy-in-the-gardenYoung’s nonfiction book is a more direct look at how writers are affected by philosophy. Why does Proust have a bonsai beside his bed? He says Proust is a Kantian. In Proust’s world, objects are a gateway to Kant’s noumenal realm, to the past, and to childhood.

For Thomas, fiction is indeed built out of small details, the material concrete moments upon which we can build up big concepts, such as ‘time’. Brooks said these small details have also made up his life as a poet. Small details have a double function: they anchor the world, but also, because they are chosen and focused upon (by the author/poet), they have an aura, a ‘poetic dimension’. He said, however, that you’re not completely in control of the writing, of choosing these details, and that is part of the magic of writing. Thomas mentioned TS Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ regarding these details: if the artist renders them properly, the reader gets to feel it too. Young mentioned Whitehead’s idea of philosophy being a flight, taking off and landing, taking off and landing. The palpable details are what you take off from, and come back to.

9781847670892Good fiction, with its small details, can provide this point of take-off and return, and can also dramatise ethical questions for readers who may not indulge in more explicit philosophical reading. Thomas said that drama is a central element: ‘Nobody is happy with what they’ve got. And therefore fiction happens’. Questions about life and how to live are always going to be there. She also mentioned Aristotle’s idea that fiction should be both predictable and astonishing. Young continued the idea that something that is ‘interesting’ (in fiction, but also generally in art, science, philosophy) is both novel and plausible; there’s a sweet spot between novelty and the familiar.

Other aspects discussed included the idea that ‘the animal’ (including the human animal) is where philosophy is currently most deeply challenged. All three panellists are or have been vegans. They also said that all of their relationships are informed by their writing. A favourite philosopher on the panel was Nietzsche.

Did you get along to any sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year? If not, you’ll find a good deal of audio and video at the Radio National website.

The books of life: By the Book by Ramona Koval

By the Book Ramona KovalThis feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 421.


Text Publishing
9781922079060
November 2012 (buy hardcover, ebook)

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.

Ramona Koval

Ramona Koval

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.’