#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:

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Interviews in The West Australian and Tincture

Picture by William Yeoman for the West Australian.

Picture by William Yeoman for the West Australian.

In the West Australian:

‘I thought of (Captives) as a pillbox of stories,’ Meyer says. ‘There are different coloured pills – a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one—and they produce different effects and maybe you can’t take too many at once. And they’re a little dark and a little strange. But I think they have to be that way to get across those ideas of fear and that we’re captives within our own minds. We can’t escape ourselves. I hope Captives taps into peoples’ fears—but in a good way.’

Read the rest.

And interviewed by Daniel Young for Tincture Journal (where some of my stories have been previously published):

‘[The themes are] definitely something that emerged organically, although I’ve been aware for a while that my best writing tends to emerge from the place where my anxieties lie (which is not far removed from my passions). There’s a knife’s edge between happiness and melancholy, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, and my writing is attuned to that. The knife’s edge also separates what is considered ‘normal’ from what is not. That’s something that fascinates me and is another theme that runs through the book.’

Read the rest.

x

LiteraryMinded is seven; Captives is born; writing-work balance

CaptivesFCR (1)I missed my blog’s birthday. For the first time. You can imagine why. Something else I’ve written has just been released, my tiny book of short fictions, Captives. 

Actually, there’s more to it than that. I haven’t felt like I’ve had a proper chance to let publication wash over me, that now when I say to someone ‘I’m a writer’, and they ask, ‘what’s your book?’ I have an answer.

It’s just that I’m back in extraordinarily-busy-saying-yes mode… That’s why I truly missed my blog’s birthday. I’m working on two contracts (one editing, one writing), have started an awesome new casual job at Nant whisky bar, have two reviews, one essay and one academic paper due, am judging two writing competitions, preparing to report on a conference, preparing an interview, preparing for a HUGE amount of festivals, events and workshops, and trying to keep on top of social media etc. around my book’s release (and continuing to promote The Great Unknown). I’m a little stressed, admittedly, but I’m also grateful. When I got back from overseas it was so difficult, at first, to find work. I’d much rather have too much work, than too little. And everything feels (almost) balanced: a little reading, some writing, a bunch of emails, some editing, and then whisky.

Except for one thing: not enough creative writing going on. I’m managing about once a week at the moment. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Do many people manage to write a lot when they’re in the throes of promoting the current book? And how do other authors manage balance between book promotion (and career building) and making enough of a living? This is a question that’s been fascinating me, last year (when I finished my doctorate) and this year: what is the ideal job for a writer? Is my bar job ideal, because it’s casual and flexible, and still stimulating (I love the smells in the bar, and hearing people’s different stories about how they came to like single malts—it often involves travel). Or is freelance editing ideal? I just love putting that logical part of my brain to work: problem solving; knitting text, spaces and punctuation into something neat. I get to put the control freak to work, purge her a little. Editing feels powerful, I think. But it does use up a lot of brain power, not exactly from the same area as the writing (at least the drafting) comes from, but close by. Enough to drain you of words for the evening. I don’t think I’d want to edit full time.

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I don’t think I want to do any one job full time.

Can I manage this ‘juggling’, then? And still write, and still pay the bills? I’m going to try.

A grant would be helpful, of course! Or an advance. I am so enjoying writing this novel and it would be great, after some of these contracts ended, to have more time in the week to immerse myself in remote 19th century Scotland.

But hang on, let me take a moment here. I have a book out! (Always thinking of the next thing.) And it’s even receiving some lovely reviews and attention. The other day I received an email from an author whose book I very much admired, telling me she admired my book! It made my day. I couldn’t quite believe that she’d written to me as a peer (I know, but I’ve admitted to my inadequacy complex on here many times over these past seven years).

I’ve linked in the past few weeks to some of the guest posts/interviews I’ve been doing around the book’s release, but recently Captives has also been reviewed in Readings Monthly by Brigid Mullane, and Bronte Coates interviewed me for the Readings blog. Author Annabel Smith also interviewed me (on the writing process) on her blog.

And The Great Unknown is kicking on! It received a review in the Australian last weekend, by Kirsten Krauth, alongside the latest Sleepers Almanac. I still have to put up the last of my author posts from TGU on here. Will do soon…

Please also check out my events page while you’re here!

And while I’m rambling on, I must say that I’m reading some incredible books for upcoming festivals: Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is bowling me over, and Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals is lingering long in my mind. I put a small note on that one on Goodreads.

But I also feel I’ll never catch up on all the books I want to read: Alex Miller’s Coal Creek, Chris Womersley’s Cairo, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (not to mention Carpentaria), Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, Emily Bitto’s The Strays, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, and now Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel, The Wonders, has just landed on my desk. And I have an advance proof of Jessie Cole’s Deeper Water… (!)

All the books.

OK, I best get on with my work for the day. Thanks for coming by, it’s been swell.

Dear anonymous

Thank you, whoever you are, for renewing my Writers Vic membership for the next two years. What an incredibly generous gesture.

Since, it seems, you are interested in my work, let me reveal where the manuscript I’ve just begun is partly set, via Brian Cox:

Which is close to:

In the realm of the estate of:

South of:

And I conducted research while staying in:

Hopefully one day we can share a dram. Thank you again, it means so much x

Vertigo

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Yesterday I climbed the mountain Beinn Eighe, and it was breathtaking. I get a bit of vertigo; when there’s a drop by the path I have to lean away from it and not look down or else my legs crumble and my head spins. As I laid in bed last night, my muscles humming with tiredness and pleasure, sleep came upon me as a drop, my head spun and I kicked out.

We’re staying on a small island, accessed by a footbridge. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Like, ridiculously stunning. Photographs can’t capture it. Today, G and I were digging out a campsite in the rocky earth of a smaller island that joins this one, and we paused to watch a pod of seals swim by. But I’ve also felt uneasy since we’ve been here, with all those annoying physical symptoms I experience—from hardcore heartburn to a twitching eye—and I’ve been trying to analyse why.

island

It’s because I’m feeling a little unmoored, and it’s a difficult feeling for me to embrace, though I’m aware that’s partly the point of (long term) travel. I feel very ‘in-between’ things, despite the fact that I do have projects on the go, being at the point of editing one, and spreading the word about another. I’ve also started researching a novel over here, but the idea is large and only slowly taking shape (the plot, the characters, what it’s ‘about’), and I’m incredibly impatient. I want to start writing it properly, but there’s a period coming up where we’ll be staying with relatives and I know I can’t be at the beginning stages of a novel then. I want to spend quality time with my relatives and thinking about the novel even more than I already am might impede that.

What we’re trying to make happen is a month after November where both G and I can just write. But we don’t really have the dough. We’re only able to travel for so long because we’ve been working, and working for board, and staying with very kind rellos, and we’ll have to continue in that vein. Of course, that has been amazing, and I am not underestimating the wealth of knowledge we’ve gained, not just the places and characters and gestures that writers can’t help collecting, but identifying birds, digging holes and making paths, ironing sheets (!), how to run a B&B, what to wear on long walks in the rain, what pleases a seven-year-old, how to make Banoffee, the best Speyside whiskies, the geology of a mountain, fables and histories, how to pronounce ‘Eilean’, and many other items.

I guess my problem is staying present, and trusting that I haven’t gone ‘off the path’. I was fine in Speyside, on our last Workaway assignment, probably because I had a firm routine. And this makes me laugh at myself. Because when I’m ‘stuck’ in a routine, at home, all I want to do is bust out of it. Writing this out is helping, though.

An added layer is that my 29th birthday has just passed. There was so much I thought I’d do before 30, and now that’s only a year away. I’ve been mentally readjusting my goals for a while now, taking in reality and everything that crops up, but… it’s pretty ingrained. Mostly ambition is pretty positive—the dreaming drives me—but the flip side (focusing on ‘failures’, disappointment, whatever) makes you see everything through a fog.

It’d be great to just feel ecstatic about everything I have going on right now: a long working holiday, two forthcoming books with my name on them, an incredible relationship… Yes. Let’s stop there.

I climbed a mountain yesterday. Sometimes I got dizzy. Occasionally I wandered off the path. Sometimes I struggled to see the next marker. But I always found my way back.

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Carmel Bird Award shortlist

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

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

100 Story Building is about to open!

You may remember last year when I wrote about a new centre for young writers opening in Melbourne called 100 Story Building? Well, the doors are about to officially open!

Located in the heart of Footscray, 100 Story Building will support young writers (6-17 years) from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and marginalised communities ‘to discover and share their creative voices through storytelling projects’, as they put it.

100 Story Building will be open for workshops, programs and one-on-one support from September onwards, and will work closely with the local writing and publishing community. It’s a very worthy project to get behind! Here’s a flyer for the opening:

100SB EDM invite_ST

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

interestingsI’ll be brief as I’m on the road and very busy, but hopefully will write soon to tell you about going to the V&A in London to see the Bowie exhibition, and visiting Stratford-upon-Avon—Shakespeare’s birthplace and grave!

I just wanted to put up the panels/interviews I’m hosting at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, for which I’m busy preparing and am very excited about. I love Edinburgh but haven’t yet been to the festival. It’s wonderful to be involved. If you happen to be going to the book festival, I hope to see you there. To my friends in Melbourne, I hope you enjoy the MWF this year. I’m sure it will be amazing, given Lisa Dempster is at the helm. The two literary cities, and the two festivals, have a great relationship. And I’ll be trying to report back as much as I can around my festival duties and other work.

Here are the panels/interviews I’m hosting and their official blurbs:

Meg Wolitzer
13 August, 10:15, The Guardian Spiegeltent

Meg Wolitzer is one of America’s foremost contemporary novelists; she has been writing for 30 years and is often compared to the likes of Franzen and Eugenides. Her new book, The Interestings, documents the lives of six friends from Nixon’s America to the age of Obama. An astute and perceptive novel, it asks what happens to ambition, creativity and desire as time passes and times change.

Doug Johnstone & Laura Lippman

15 August, 18:45, Peppers Theatre

Two cracking thrillers from either side of the Atlantic provide the material for this event in which parents look after their young children while dealing with some nasty goings-on. Doug Johnstone discusses his heart-stopping novel Gone Again, about missing Portobello mum Lauren, while New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman presents And When She Was Good, about a suburban American mother with a secret life.

Sam Byers & Angela Jackson

16 August, 19:00, Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre

With his debut, Sam Byers has become one of the most talked-about young writers in Britain, garnering a place on this year’s Waterstones 11 list of promising novelists with his first novel Idiopathy. Also today, Edinburgh-based Angela Jackson presents her debut novel The Emergence of Judy Taylor. Both books tell hilarious and heartbreaking stories of characters living through a kind of social Armageddon.

Robert Newman

18 August, 21:30, Baillie Gifford Main Theatre

Did you know that the Mayflower was once an Ottoman slave ship? Or that there was an occupation of St Paul’s Cathedral in the early reign of King James? These are historical nuggets unearthed by Robert Newman, author of The Trade Secret. Formerly a comedy partner of David Baddiel, Newman’s alternative career as a novelist continues in this story set in the early days of capitalism.

See the website for the (massive) full program. More soon…

Fear, failure and fraudulence at the Wheeler Centre blog

I was very happy to be asked to springboard off my recent post Stella, and a digression on envy, work, inadequacy for the Wheeler Centre blog. Authors Krissy Kneen, Alan Baxter, Max Barry and Mel Campbell kindly and honestly responded to my probing questions about writerly anxieties and feelings of inadequacy, and some of their responses are included in the piece. I thank them very much.

It begins:

A writer’s life is fraught with fear, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. These feelings cluster around desires and ambitions, arise at the desk itself, hover about at festivals and events, attach themselves to advances, grants and prizes, lurk in one’s inbox and on social media, and pop up in one’s daily life. Even Sylvia Plath wondered about whether both her and Ted Hughes’ writing was ‘good enough’: ‘We get rejections. Isn’t this the world’s telling us we shouldn’t bother to be writers?’

Read the rest here.

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.