The Meanjin Tournament of Books

I’m the round one judge in Meanjin‘s Tournament of Books (short stories) this year, which is so exciting. I’ve always wanted to be asked. My judge’s notes have just gone up, on Katherine Susannah Prichard’s ‘Happiness’ vs Tom Cho’s ‘Today on Dr Phil’. Check it out here, and continue to follow along with the ToB, it’s lots of fun and hopefully you’ll discover some authors and stories along the way.

Byron Bay Writers Festival 2010 diary, part 2

A sun-drenched and possibly superficial series of blog posts

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…

Peter Goldsworthy on Gravel

9781926428192Gravel
Peter Goldsworthy
Hamish Hamilton
March 2010 (Australia)
9781926428192

Gravel is Peter Goldsworthy’s new collection of short stories – amusing and moving – covering a range of predominantly white middle-class characters in conflict with their own egos. But there are also stories exploring erotic awakening (something Goldsworthy did well in Everything I Knew) and others where the drama is suspenseful, sad and intense. The amusing stories, though, are so memorable. What would you do if a stalker was secretly and gently stroking your ego? What if you were a teenage woman who genuinely fell for an older man? What if you were a happily partnered woman who welcomed the flirtatious attentions of a female shop assistant?

Goldsworthy’s excellent earlier collected works, The List of All Answers, is one of my favourite books, and I found Gravel to be a rewarding, entertaining read. I was happy that Goldsworthy agreed to answer a few questions for LiteraryMinded. Enjoy.

If you met someone unfamiliar with your work, and they asked about what you do, where would you start? Novels? Plays? Opera? Short stories? Poetry?

I’m just a writer.  All these forms have their own different freedoms and constraints.  Each offers something to the others. I learn about the power of narrative structure from film and theatre; from poetry I found a way of writing the dense, resonant and economical prose I like best. The clarity and simplicity of songs helps poetry. In writing novels I learn about character.  So there are always lessons to learn and take across the boundaries.

Gravel features some very amusing stories where characters are in conflict with themselves due to the unsolicited attentions of others (‘Mirror, Mirror’, ‘The Fourth Tenor’, ‘Get a Life’). Why is this a topic of fascination for you?

I enjoy seeing people – especially the pious, and self-righteous – hoisted on their own petards. That includes me in my most pious moments, as painful as it has often been. I like stories that tell us about ourselves, even if we don’t want to hear what they say at first; stories that speak to our hearts even before we understand them with our heads – or that we resist with our heads, even as they fuck with them.

Many of your stories had me asking, as a reader, ‘what would I do?’ Such as, ‘what would I do if I feel for the person I babysat for?’ or ‘what would I do if I had to choose between the farm and my old dog?’ Is this often how the stories come to you?

Well – I guess those emotional trajectories we have all lived, even if  on a smaller scale, or in parallel situations. There aren’t many new stories in the world;  maybe ‘Shooting the Dog’ is one.

You’re skilled at capturing that moment of erotic awakening, in ‘The Nun’s Story’, and also in Everything I Knew. It’s the kind of topic that draws the reader in through memory, the senses and the imagination. Is the best kind of art, for you, something that stirs the intellect, emotions and physical body all at once?

Exactly. Too much literary fiction is pure confection – all head; too much popular fiction is cheap emotions – all heart. There are great exceptions; there is nothing human – nothing of the heart – in Borges’ best stories, and they are wonderful. But he knew to keep them short; he would never risk boring us with a novel. I want – unhumbly – to speak to all the organs at once. I’ve often written about this – as essay called the Biology of Literature, for one – how writing can make us weep and laugh of course, but can make the goosebumps rise (Robert Graves’ test of great poetry), or make our hairs stand up on end, or fill us with awe, or stop us sleeping for days.

Which story in Gravel was the most difficult to write, and why?

Hard to say. They are always a mixture of pain and pleasure. ‘Sometimes pus, sometimes a poem – but always pain’, the poet Yehudi Amichai wrote. ‘Shooting the Dog’, perhaps – a story that was given to me by my wife Lisa, from her days as a young teacher in the bush. Or the last one, on the love between a middle-aged man and a school girl.

You’ve produced quality work consistently for many years now. Can you tell us a bit about your writing practice? How do you know what form an idea will take? Do you draft a story quickly? What is the best thing about writing?

I write each morning starting about nine. I practice medicine each afternoon starting about two. It’s a perfect balance; they are complementary in many ways.  Ideas eventually find their ideal form, although sometimes they try out another form first. I keep a log of story ideas as they come to me, but they generally need to wait for their time, till they are ready, or for some other ingredient, or missing piece of their puzzle. The unconscious usually connects these over time.

Have you discovered many of the newer Australian short fiction writers, such as Patrick Cullen, Tom Cho, Steven Amsterdam, Cate Kennedy or Paddy O’Reilly?

I’ve been enjoying the work of Kennedy and O’Reilly for many years; the others more recently. I was pleased – even ift was at the expense of a novel of mine – that Nam Le’s stories won the PM’s literary award last year. The short story is, after all, our strongest form historically, and I suspect – along with poetry – it still is. If not the most perfect, it’s certainly the most perfectible.

What is escape or relaxation for you – someone with an obviously active, creative mind?

The usual. Family, friends, food,  films,  football, and one or two other things that start with f.

Perth Writers Festival 2010 diary, part three: ‘I have just three questions…’

The last three days just slipped by. I thought I felt the Earth rotating beneath my feet on Monday night as I watched the sun set on Cottesloe Beach. My first sunset. A pink ribbon with little ships in it. Some people paused and others continued splashing and squawking like the rainbow birds.

On the University campus, there are inquisitive peacocks. They called out during the speeches at the Indigo V journal launch – an affair which had me a little awestruck, being massively serious and overwhelming my tipsy ears with thank you lists (my sister and I unfortunately got the giggles, drawing some dirty looks). The launches back home aren’t slapdash, but I guess there are so many journals in Melbourne, they’re more laid back, and no one sings other people’s stories with laaaaa and whispery bits added in. Sounds like a killer journal though – I have a copy back home and I’m looking forward to dipping in!

After the launch was Cottonmouth – a night of readings and performances. It began with some experimental music, which I was later told did its job of weeding out those whose minds were unwilling to be open for the evening. The music wasn’t my cup of tea, but Craig Silvey and I just continued a great D&M we’d been having about everything that gets in the way of writing. And that is: everything. Then we were treated to a number of performances – stand-outs for me being Tom Cho (always); Eleanor Catton reading the beginning of her next work – a 16th Century fantasy novel; Simon Cox’s God in a red candle image; Patrick Pittman’s female supercomputer; Judith Lanigan’s incredible hula hooping; and the treat of new words from Josephine Rowe (who received much praise for sitting on a couch surrounded by birdcages).

Side note: Simon Cox = one of the most mature and brilliant young short story writers/poets I’ve read/heard. He’s based in Perth. His work can be found in Sleepers Almanac and other places. I predict lovely things.

Speaking of lovely people: David Carlin. Just as you’d imagine, had you read Our Father Who Wasn’t There. I enjoyed meeting him.

So, snarky audience members. Overall, out of my FIVE sessions (on one, chaired four) I was lucky. But there was one session ‘Off Like a Shot’ with ‘debut’ authors Tom Cho, Eleanor Catton and Goldie Goldbloom. First of all, when I was giving the introductions, one old lady said (imagine the tone): ‘I can’t hear‘, and I said ‘Oh, I’m sorry, is this better?’ as I moved closer to the mic. A man yelled out ‘face the microphone!’ and I said ‘I think the microphone is actually cutting in and out,’ to which he replied ‘no, it’s you‘. I said ‘well, I’m very sorry, the microphones in here were fine yesterday’, and then a man on the other side of the audience yelled out ‘don’t listen to him! It’s the microphone!’ And I said ‘thank you‘.

All was well for most of the session until two of the authors had to deal with mic drop-outs a bit later on. Then came question time. There were some expected questions such as ‘how long did it take you to get published?’ etc. then one man stuck up his hand, and said:

‘Goldie, I have just three questions for you. Now, none of these are criticisms, bear in mind. One: why did you choose to write about freaks? Two: the events you’re writing about happened in the ’40s, not the ’30s, and Three: the flora and fauna in your book is not accurate to the flora and fauna in that area. But these aren’t criticisms – just wondering why…’

Goldie handled it very well. The reading she had just done was from a part set in the past, before the main events of the novel, and the flora and fauna were consistent with the historical record of the place at the time. Her main character, Gin, is has albinism (hence the ‘freak’ comment…ah, question).

I wanted to say ‘sir, there is also this word called fiction.’

I thought this might be as bad as it could get, but as we were leaving the stage at the end a hunched little old lady came up to me and shoved a piece of paper at me. ‘Can you give this to Goldie?’ Of course, Goldie was standing right beside me. As the spidery-handwritten little note made it’s way from my hand to Goldie’s I read the words ‘wheat belt’ (another ‘historical’ criticism, perhaps) and ‘You all say uhm too much’ at the bottom.

Why do they come to a writers’ festival, these people? It’s the great mystery of life.

Funnier still, is a question received by the authors in one of the children’s/YA sessions (and imagine Mark Walden, a Brit, retelling this as an elderly Eastern European woman): ‘My son is very interested in pole vaulting, have any of you written books on pole vaulting?’

Perhaps not quite as bad as the one Kalinda Ashton was once asked: ‘do you think power comes out at the end of a gun?’

Disturbing.

I went to a session on short stories toward the end of the festival. I was pretty fried so didn’t take a lot of notes, but it was with Tom Cho, Patrick Gale and Irvine Welsh, chaired by the lovely Kalinda Ashton. Best moments:

Patrick Gale saying that readers have told him they like reading short stories before bed, they’re nice and digestible ‘like a pill’.

Tom Cho saying that a reader told him they mistakenly read the story ‘Cock Rock’ on public transport and had to cover their erection.

Irvine Welsh saying everything. But particularly the C-bomb. I cannae get enough of his accent!

Argh – so Perth Writers Festival 2010 is over. Sadface.

BIG NEWS to be announced in my world later today… I may not get to blog about it until a wee bit later as my dear ol’ Dad is in town for a week. I’m so very excited to see him. Also – as promised, coming soon are some great interviews, plus maybe some pictures from PWF, and the link to the podcast of my Alex Miller Q&A. Did I tell you he gifted me Nabokov’s first novel, too? Lovely.

Soul-scorching voyage (bring it on!)

This is absolutely the best article I’ve read for a while on contemporary issues in writing – the way it’s talked about, taught, and so on: ‘A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale’, by Dani Shapiro. Shapiro says:  ‘the decisive factor is what I call endurability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without.’ And as Helen Garner said at the Wheeler Centre the other night – it never gets easier. I have already decided to commit to writing, so I’m willing to weather the storms, willing to embark on ‘ a life in which apprenticeship doesn’t mean a cushy summer internship in an air-conditioned office but rather a solitary, poverty-inducing, soul-scorching voyage whose destination is unknown and unknowable,’ as Shapiro says. Makes me think of Albert Camus, also, who said: ‘A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.’ It’s the way I am choosing to live. Of course, something like this resonates with me too, from the article: ‘They tweet and blog and make Facebook friends in the time they used to spend writing.’ So far it has not been a concern, because I am writing (and I have always used the internet, from 18, when I committed to writing). But still, I think I will work to more of a balance, and conserve more creative energy for fiction. But I do think blog posts, and tweets, can be their own morsels of imaginative expression.

Also:

The Commonwealth Writers Prize regional shortlists have been announced, and in the South East Asia and Pacific region I was stoked to see Kirsten Reed and Tom Cho nominated – and small press generally well-represented. Have a look at the full shortlists for Best Book and Best First Book here.

I offered a ‘daily proposition’ in Crikey today: ‘In this play, you are the star’. (Subscribers only.)

Bookseller+Publisher March is out in the world. This is the second issue I’ve edited, and I also reviewed Peter Goldsworthy’s new book Gravel within. We all love the Penguin cover, too.

On that note, I will reveal that an interview with Peter Goldsworthy is coming very soon on LiteraryMinded!

And speaking of B+P, we now have a blog too, mostly penned by my lovely ed-in-chief Matthia Dempsey (plus publisher Tim Coronel, publishing assistant Andrew Wrathall, assistant editor Katie Horner and sometimes me). It’s called Fancy Goods, from the original name for B+P, which was The Australian Stationery and Fancy Goods Journal, way back in the olden days – 1921. There will be a post up there tomorrow on literary iPhone apps, written by moi.

Bring. it. on.

Go west! Perth Writers Fest 2010 program released

I’ve never been to Western Australia. Isn’t that nuts? I’ve been to Europe, I’ve been to the USA and I’ve been to Asia, but never the other side of my own country.

Lucky for me, the lovely organisers of Perth Writers Festival have invited me along this year. Besides my sessions, I am expecting to catch up with quite a few online friends, check out the beach, and visit the guys from Fremantle Press. I will, of course, be blogging as much as I can.

The festival is happening at the end of February, as part of the wider Arts Festival.

These are the sessions I’m chairing:

Beneath the Veneer
Saturday, 2pm

Some of the most interesting characters are flawed, with families and relationships providing a goldmine of material. David Carlin, Emily Maguire and Wendy James explore the emotional landscape of human behaviour.

Off Like a Shot
Sunday, 9:30am

Three debuts, three very different styles. Tom Cho has written a very original and funny collection of short fiction; Goldie Goldbloom has produced an Australian outback tale like no other; and Eleanor Catton’s novel is an examination of the power of performance. They talk about their writing.

Alex Miller in Conversation
Sunday, 2pm

Masterful storyteller Alex Miller’s latest novel Lovesong seems like a simple enough story about love, marriage and people coming undone by desire, but his distinctive voice gives this ‘simple love story’ a resonance and gravitas that lingers long after you have finished the book. (Booking required.)

Girls and Boys
Monday, 2pm

The recent novels of Eleanor Catton and Craig Silveyare two very different coming-of-age stories. Eleanor Catton has broken free from the rules of realism to highlight the rituals, taboos and hierarchies of adolescent girls; while Silvey has utilised a more traditional narrative structure examining the lives of three adolescent boys and small town prejudice.

*

And of course, if you can make it, you’ll probably want to see people like Irvine Welsh and Sally Vickers, and many more. A swag of literary talent will be in attendance. See the full program and join me on the West-side…

I hope, while I am there, someone will quote Chon Wang from Shanghai Noon to me: ‘This is the West, not the East. The sun may rise where we come from… but here is where it sets.’ And then we’ll do this:

Una mas?

Brethren is one of my favourite words (but that has nothing to do with Peril, my best books of 2009, Kafka's diary, or an Overland blog guest post)

* This week I went to the launch of Peril, edition 8: ‘why are people so unkind’? It featured readings, and a fun, sexy performance by Ladies of Colour Agency that made me want to get up an shake it, baby. Maxine Clarke, who performed her poetry, gives a very warm of a rundown of the night here. I particularly enjoyed Tom Cho’s presentation where he f**ked with language. Check out the issue online here.

* I was asked by Readings to talk about the best books I read in 2009. Here’s what I said:

‘Some of my favourite reads of 2009 display the variety of books that come under the banner of “Australian fiction”. Steven Amsterdam’s enlightening post-apocalyptic novel-of-stories Things We Didn’t See Coming and Tom Cho’s brilliant, funny and imaginative ride through different types of transformation Look Who’s Morphing were major highlights. I’ve revisited parts of both. Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Gameis a haunting insight into loss, modern city life, and having political and emotional courage – and I loved the challenging narrator, Patrick Oxtoby, in M.J. Hyland’s This Is How, as well as the book’s existential nature.

‘The best book I read from across the sea was Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, about mistakes and failures, and choices made and violence done on small and large scales, most often quietly. Highly memorable. Other books that definitely will stay with me from 2009 are Nick Cave’s disgustingly compelling The Death of Bunny Munroand Krissy Kneen’s raw and beautiful sexual memoir Affection.’

Check out what other writers, editors, publishers and Readings’ staff had to say, here.

* Some of you may have spotted both myself and the lovely Josephine Rowe in the Melbourne Times and Emerald Hill Weekly this week. Unfortunately it’s not online to link to, but it was a piece about ‘overnight sensations’, and I was chuffed to be interviewed. If you’re visiting the blog because of the article, thanks! Hope you enjoy it – take a look through the archives for reviews, interviews and personalised commentary.

Kafka* I blushed hard at my desk the other day when I saw this blog post – though I was flattered and very touched. That is the first time anyone has dedicated a Kafka passage to me (or called me a ‘blogonaut’ – I like it). By way of reply:

From Kafka’s diary, 8 December, 1917: ‘Sorrow and joy, guilt and innocence, like two hands indissolubly clasped together; one would have to cut through flesh, blood and bones to part them.’

And those are his drawings on the left. I got to see the originals at the Kafka Museum in Prague last year.

* Sorrow and joy, that’s kinda the way I feel when I watch this, too.

* But I got pure joy from this.

* I wrote a guest post for Overland‘s subscriberthon this week on the ‘perfect match’ between book and reader. It begins:

‘I’ve been savouring Richard Yates’ Collected Storiesfor about the past month now, and quite a few times as I’ve been reading, a friend of mine, Ken, has popped into my head. There is the small fact that in the wonderful story ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’, about male friendship, knowing one’s place, awkwardness, honour, social impressions (and so much more) the character is called Ken. But there are other things about the collection – working in offices, relationships, perceptions of self – things my friend and I have talked about, which made me exclaim to him vehemently the other day that he must read this book. It’s a book I would recommend to others, anyway, but not in the same way. With Ken I feel sure he will get something (a lot) out of it – more than passing entertainment. That ‘something’ is a kind of connection: an affirmation of a recognisable world (even through intertextuality or projection, say, in non-realist fiction – and in all its shades of light and dark) in which one is not alone in their ordinariness, their hope and their suffering.’

Read the rest, here.

* This week has also been one of champagne and new things. But more on those later…