Literary heroes

Today was the first day of the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers. There are nine of us, giving (hopefully) constructive feedback of each others’ stories, plus taking in feedback from Overlandassociate editor Rjurik Davidson. Each day, an established writer also participates in the workshop, and today it was Tony Birch. Tomorrow will be the incomparable Cate Kennedy, and Sunday will be Lucy Sussex.

I won’t go into the session too much, but my story was one of the ones looked at today. It’s an existential and bleak story about an alcoholic children’s book sales rep, who loses everything. His job is usurped by technology, his wife can’t take it anymore, etc. The feedback was very valuable – especially when the majority agreed on the same things. In my case, the beginning section needs reworking to make the protagonist more apparent. I also need to work on a few abstract phrases, and moments of ‘telling’ (rather than showing). Rjurik was also great at giving examples of where more drama and tension could be brought into the work. Too much just happens toRichie, my character, and I don’t give him a chance to make a clear decision (and make it even more bleak and tragic…). In general though, the feedback was positive and encouraging. I was pleased to have affected the other writers in ways I intended (feelings of bleakness and hopelessness through a challenging and flawed character). It’s brilliant to know with a few more drafts, it should be a publishable work, expressing themes I’m intersted in and passionate about – obsolescence, predominantly; consumerist society, technology, gender (masculinity and expectations of it); and self-destruction, alienation and hopelessness brought on by these environmental factors. Everyone seemed to like the title: Obliviated.

I got a lot out of the short time with Tony Birch: think about your ethics in writing, don’t be afraid to re-iterate a theme or issue in your body of work, be tuned-in during your creative observation, and more. He also spoke about literary heroes, and this is something I really relate to. This is why I dog-ear books – so I can go over those passages that grab me, surprise me, challenge me, awaken me. To learn from them, even if not to write like that author. And I think your literary heroes need not be just other writers – sometimes musicians, filmmakers, and other artists stimulate you in the same creative vein.

Here are just a few of mine:

ziggy_stardust_david_bowie_1_tif_big3David Bowie

I discovered the thin white duke in Year 12, around the time I was working on my first lengthy writing project – a screenplay. My interest in him and his music is more than just a relaxed disassociation, but an intellectual engagement. Lyrically, he astounds me. And he pulls off oddness, and pushes boundaries – two things I would like to do in my writing. Sometimes I ‘jam’ with Bowie. On those rare nights at home when I’ve completed all my work, I might pour a glass of wine and put on his DVD. I’ll pull up a blank page in my notebook or on the screen and I’ll explore the mood of the music, plus be stimulated by the colourful, daring visuals. His film clips are very inventive too – some are noir, some cartoonish, many dark. The musical runners-up in the literary hero field are Pink Floyd, Cream and Supertramp.

Gail Jones

Someone I have called my ‘favourite Australian writer’ for a few years now. Sometimes when I read something else and I question this, I think back to Dreams of Speaking. This is pretty much a perfect novel to me. It’s slim, rich and intellectual. Every page engages with complex ideas about modernity, romanticism, violence – and all done in a vivid, stylistic, yet effortless-to-read manner. The characters are memorable – Alice and Mr Sakamoto. There are locations both familiar and strange. The writing is (to use a Jones-esque term) luminous. I could read it again and again.

kafka_studentFranz Kafka

I have read all of Kafka’s works. I am fascinated by his life and his belief that he was ‘literature, and nothing else’. I relate to that sometimes, feeling like some kind of creative vessel with a purpose, and I relate to the sadness and aloneness of that too. The short story ‘In the Penal Colony’ is devastating to me. I’m going to be terribly abstract here, but Kafka feels correct to me. Injustice, black telephones, miscommunications, fleeting moments of awkward intimacy, bla bla I could go on forever. And I shared this piece before about visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague. If you care to read it again, it captures what I feel. And, to be really honest with you, one of my biggest fears in life is to be Max Brod, as opposed to Kafka…

Janet Frame

Tony Birch got me thinking about her because he gave us a copy of his favourite opening. I think my favourite opening is the first page of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water. It was a seminal moment, reading that, realising I did not need to punctuate a sentence formally. To realise I could create movement and rhythm with sentences and in that way create impact, and emote, stylistically – rather than just through word choice. Runners-up in this vein are Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and also for her prolificness (with consistent quality) Joyce Carol Oates. Woolf and Oates are heroes too for the strength and creativity of their nonfiction and critical work.

Vladimir Nabokovlolita

For Lolita. I will get to his others, eventually. I just think Lolita is the perfect book – challenging, lyrical, moving, funny, sad – unputdownable. My copy is severely dog-eared.

My Oma

My Oma wrote. Short stories and memoir. She also had eight children, emigrated from Holland to Australia, sang operatically and was a stage actress. She also travelled to Africa in her 80s, and had a boyfriend several years her junior. She told me romantic stories about my Opa, who passed away when I was two. When I was about ten years old, she read my story about an Antarctic researcher/explorer who was saved by a kiler whale (obviously influenced by Free Willy). She told me I had a ‘gift’, and that I should pursue it. She bought me my first diary, and I have kept one ever since (I have about 16). Without her, my Year Three teacher Mrs Grant, and my Dad, I’m not sure how I would have found my path.

There are many more (oh Christos Tsiolkas, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, the Simpsons writers, Edvard Munch. Must. Stop.). This is merely a little taster. Do tell, who are yours?

10 thoughts on “Literary heroes

  1. Who are mine??
    First novel I ever heard was The Hobbit, my kindergarten teacher read to us on cold winter afternoons. Of course, Tim Winton. My dad did two things: played John Lennon records, quoted JFK to me. I guess reading George Orwell, while in Paris, sets up a whole new level of hero status. Reading Helen Garner while at uni, Sofia Coppla, the lyrics of Neil Finn. I can’t imagine the 90’s without Tim Rogers. Everyday I am amazed at what young people can come up with…Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Margaret Attwood, Zadie Smith, Chris Sarr…I could talk all day…

    • Those are great ones. Yes, Orwell is a hero of mine too. And re Tim Rogers – it seems I am either doing something with him, or am simply on at the same time as him, in the festival club at Melb Writers Fest this year… you should come down for it!

  2. Ooh, ooh, I’m good at these. I’m glad your literary heroes bleed across into other mediums. I think cultural output is too blended these days to limit yourself just to writers.

    So *takes deep breath* Hemingway Greene Coetzee Winton Chris Cunningham Shaun Tan mclusky The Beta Band Michel Gondry PJ Harvey – PEEJ! – Nick Cave Cate Kennedy Nam Le *phew*

  3. Oh HOW did I forget Nick Cave? I ‘jam’ to his music too. Michel Gondry – good one. And of course, Cate Kennedy. Didn’t want to mention her too much in one blog post. I will absorb her wisdom today 🙂 Coetzee is a growing one for me. Must read more. And Nam, of course. Awesome.

  4. I love that you picked Bowie first! I’m impressed that you can write while listening to him, I usually end up dancing in my room like an idiot 😛

    I just nabbed myself a copy of a Jeeves omnibus by P.G. Wodehouse and he is one of my literary heroes. Some writers you read and appreciate, analyse, enjoy. Other writers inspire you to want to write and Wodehouse does that for me, especially so because comedy is so difficult to execute in writing (for me anyway).

    I also have to add here The Arcade Fire because they’re one of my favourite bands that’s still around, and also Michel Gondry ^_^

  5. Seconding Troy on the Shaun Tan front! His (and the devine Alan Lee’s) works make me yearn to wield a pencil half so well, and the imagination in Tan’s stories is so inspiring.

    I don’t think any work has ever influenced me so greatly as The Lord of the Rings, though. Nothing else has seeped into my life as much as this. The first time I read it I was so sad to reach the end that I promptly returned to the beginning and read it a second time.

    My modern day hero would have to be Stephen Moffat. I want to write like this man. Every time I watch his work I keep thinking “yes!” – his dialogue always hits the right note and makes me fall in love with the craft of scriptwriting all over again.

  6. ‘Some writers you read and appreciate, analyse, enjoy. Other writers inspire you to want to write’ I agree Elena! And what I do when I’m ‘jamming’ with Bowie is often more literary sketching than actual writing, know what I mean. I pretty much always need silence to write something formal.

    Jo – I remember one of my Yr 12 English teachers talking about LOTR wish such passion – like you, it was the book of her life, she read it at least once a year. It’s such a well-loved book (and trilogy). I personally, loved The Hobbit.

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