The alpha brother: Annabel Smith on Whisky Charlie Foxtrot

Fremantle Press, November 2012
(buy paperback, ebook)

Whisky and Charlie are identical twins, but they couldn’t be more different. Whisky is in a coma after a serious accident, and Charlie has to face up to the kind of brother—and person—he’s become. Whisky Charlie Foxtrot moves between the brothers’ earlier lives and their difficult present. It’s a great read; warm, multi-layered, moving, and satisfying. I asked the author, Annabel Smith, a few questions about the novel…

I’d like to ask first about the brothers. Very slowly throughout the narrative you reveal that, while Whisky is certainly no angel, Charlie may have also been pretty hard on him. Could you tell us a bit about developing the relationship between the brothers?

In my first draft of WCF I believed I was writing a book about a decent guy and his wanky, unscrupled ‘evil’ twin. I got to around Chapter seven (Golf) and Whisky was getting pasted. Then, my friend and mentor, Richard Rossiter, guided me to introduce a crisis into the story, to add drama in the relationship, and thus, Whisky’s coma was born. After that it became challenging to hold onto my idea of Whisky because it feels wrong to tell nasty stories about someone who is in a coma! As my perspective on Whisky shifted, so too did my perspective on Charlie. Charlie’s realisation—that Whisky might not be all bad and that he himself might have played a part in the demise of their relationship—was really my own realisation about the truth of their relationship.

It’s great that you’ve maintained that process of realisation for the reader. So when you decided to make a coma the crisis, how did you go about it? It seems like you’ve done research not just into the coma state but into the ways that people deal it.

You’re right, I had to understand coma both in a medical sense and also in terms of its impact on family and friends. For a long time, I wasn’t sure whether Whisky would recover from the coma or not. So I needed to know for how long someone could plausibly remain in a coma; what kind of therapy they would receive and other health threats they might face while in a coma state. In case Whisky woke up, I researched recovery, rehabilitation and the physical and mental implications of long-term coma states. In the event that he would not recover, I explored right-to-life issues and the euthanasia process. The last thing I wanted was for readers to pick holes in the science. So I gathered statistics, diagrams of the brain, explanations of testing procedures and diagnostic tools etc. I don’t really have a science brain so it was pretty heavy-duty reading for me!

I used both medical and anecdotal sources and came across some amazing recovery stories and also many heartbreaking accounts without happy endings. There are lots of forums on the internet for the loved ones of comatose patients and they were an excellent source of material. People contribute advice about things they’ve learned along the way, tips on what helps them get through; some just need an outlet to share their stories with others who understand what they’re going through.

As well as information that had dramatic possibilities, I gathered details that would help to make the story feel real, especially to readers who might have some knowledge of coma, all of which were collated into a giant tome which I printed out and carried round with me for months on end. I was so happy to retire that wad of papers, I can tell you.

I’d like to ask about using the phonetic alphabet to build the structure of the book, and to introduce characters and themes. I think it works so well. Did you have that in place from the beginning? Were there ever any issues adhering to it?

The alphabet was in place right from the start. It was a great springboard for giving me ideas about episodes in the twins’ lives. But it also posed some challenges. Any of the chapters with names (Charlie, Juliet, Oscar) were simple—they became character names. But ‘Yankee’ kept me awake at night. For a long time I had no idea how I was going to work that in. Others posed problems in terms of chronology. X-ray, for instance, was an easy idea to work in, given that Whisky was hospitalised, but I really wanted that information to appear earlier in the novel. I had to do some tricky manoeuvring, like using flashbacks, to make some of the chapters work.

You said you received some valuable advice from Richard Rossiter while writing the book. At what point do you show your work to others? Is it something you’d encourage all writers to do?

I was part of a writing trio (with Amanda Curtin and Robyn Mundy) while writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, so I started showing drafts to them almost from the start. I found it really helpful to have feedback at an early stage, when I was still uncertain about the voice, the style and whether the story was appealing or compelling to readers. Once I got on a roll with it, I had more confidence and felt less in need of ongoing feedback. After finishing the first draft, I sought more feedback, and from a wider circle. I think it’s critical to have perceptive readers whose feedback you trust to look at your work. If you can find the right person/people, they can support you when you lose faith in yourself, brainstorm a way through issues in the text, and notice things you can no longer see because you’re too immersed in the work. I have no doubt that the feedback I received made my book stronger and more satisfying to read.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Guest review: Greg Westenberg on John Mateer’s The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009

Fremantle Press, 2010 (Aus, US, UK)

Remember that Renaissance sculpture you admired, briefly, in a Roman or Florentine church, cool and hard and chiselled and, perhaps a little too dramatically posed? Reading John Mateer’s collection of poems The West, gives an analogous sensation. The sculptors worked in marble that kept its material nature, the hardness lost in their flow. Mateer’s poems are worked out in words that never seem spontaneous, which, although natural in sound, are the result of hammer-work and chisel; and which are not the worse for it. His pieces also have the same static tension as those sculptures, they are expressed with the same realism: a stylised realism – though perhaps with less ease. There is nothing in The West, for example, to match the casual pose of Donatello’s David in the Bargello museum. Mateer is too self-conscious for that.

That self-consciousness marks another parallel, in another medium. Mateer’s persona is expressed through abstraction in even the most personal moments; the voice is remarkably similar to Bowie’s Thin White Duke of the Station to Station era. Bowie’s music in 1976 was built on rhythms that have nothing to do with dance, marking time behind glass in the same way as might an electric motor on display in some educational institution. It’s a trick taken from The Velvet Underground and then-contemporary ‘krautrock’ (which they in turn had from Glass, who had it from others; but this isn’t the first chapter of Matthew), and it’s an abstraction of the rhythm – intellectually comprehended rather than viscerally. So Mateer gives his reader passion and emotion, but the mood isn’t that of passion. The mood is of a curator.

A two poem suite, ‘The Sunlit Room’, illustrates both these aspects of Mateer’s work. When he writes in the first of the poems, ‘Her Ethiopian Crucifix,’:

When I’d stood watching
            her on the bed, her lying with back
propped by her elbows, I had wished
for a photographic memory. I had told her I’m always embarrassed
by poems that aren’t specific enough.

it’s almost a set-piece of his virtues, as if a student had been set the exercise of writing Mateer rather than Cicero. I’ve said his work reminds its reader of Renaissance sculpture in its natural and yet difficult language. Taken in short fragments these phrases might be anybody’s: ‘When I’d stood watching her on the bed’, or ‘I had wished for a photographic memory’. These phrases could be heard on the train, allowing perhaps for the more frequent elision of spoken words (‘I’d wished…’ is more likely to be produced than ‘I had wished…’, but the point is still the same). Taken together they would have been said by nobody. I doubt even Mateer speaks like this. It’s everyday language, as everyday as even Wallace Stevens could demand, but it isn’t transcribed speech.

The difference is in the rhythm and the poor fit of the words with the moment (which is not a complaint). The rhythms, although irregular, are not chopped up, not prose: ‘I had told her I’m always embarrassed/by poems that aren’t specific enough’. After a couple of anapaests at the beginning, we transition to the falling off dactyl of ‘memory’; the sentence then settles into succeeding iambs which make a textbook piece of iambic tetrameter. Mateer’s triumph is that most readers won’t notice this as the poem’s foundation. As in Bizet’s idée fixe, iambic tetrameter reappears often enough to bring unity without ennui. This again is his affinity to the Renaissance sculptures, who created tension from geometry hidden beneath emotion.

The poor fit of the words to the moment is pure Bowie. Like EM Forster’s Cavafy standing at an angle to his world, these words are incongruent, unparalelled to the emotion of the moment described. Like Bowie’s plastic-soul rhythms which never make you dance, for all their brilliance, Mateer doesn’t bring you into the scene, doesn’t put you behind the poet’s eyes. Instead he makes it an object of curiosity, to be apprehended with thought rather than the emotion from which, undoubtedly, the poem grew. Just like Bowie’s ‘TVC15’ which puts on show its relationship to disco indifferently, as if it were a friend’s family tree and not its own genealogy. This is also where Bowie and the Renaissance sculpture intersect, at this point of stylised representation. Plastic-soul is mannered, not a natural expression of what Nietzsche might have called the will to dance; Renaissance sculpture presents dramatic scenes as they would never have been acted; and Mateer’s word-painting is equally stylised, setting off one aspect of the scene the better to bring out the whole. It is realism, you feel it is from the poet’s personal history (although it might very well be entirely imagined), but it is not a photographed bedroom scene.

Another two-poem suite, ‘The Diwan’, illustrates the same properties. Here’s half its first poem, ‘New Year’s Eve’:

Behind the white gables of Perth Mosque,
around the corner from the block of flats where she used to live,

            she who held my heart in her hands like an injured bird,
whose laugh tinkled like a meditation bell waking me,

            down a narrow street of old workers’ cottages, in a friend’s backyard
a bearded man, whose eyes are Sumerian,

            whose deep voice is calm and burning like Zorastrian fire,
recites a classical Persian poem

The second couplet triggers more affect than did ‘Her Ethiopian Crucifix’, possibly because the emotion it expresses is the already indirectly nostalgic. There’s a twinge at the heartstrings. And still they words are too thought-out for undistilled emotion. They’re worked as 15th century marble was worked, with art and thought. In the uncertainty of self (‘a meditation bell waking me’) it could almost be Bowie singing ‘It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love’. Stylised realism comes again in the Sumerian eyes, chiaroscuro for the character of the bearded man. And its rhythms are a slightly free blank verse. (Mateer’s interest in the ancient world, here the Sumerians and their successors in the Tigris-Euphrates area, the Persians, elsewhere the Greeks and Romans, is another fascinating area, and might give a key to his control of his material; unfortunately there isn’t space here to discuss it).

It might seem a paradox that Mateer, poet of detachment, is weakest when writing from a less-personal point of view. Poems like ‘Adelaide’:

The city’s grid is a mirrored maze
surrounded by parkland only wide enough
to deter Russian cannonballs. Proudly
free of convicts, punctuated by statues
of a grimacing warhorse and four metre archangel,
office blocks crowd around Victoria Square

haven’t any force in them, seem anaemic. Interesting historical facts, sure, but it sounds more like a dull tourist brochure. The answer is possibly that his habit of abstracting only works when the original subject has sufficient force to animate the poem. The city of Adelaide is already an abstraction – nobody can experience the city all at once, it is a collection of associated ideas, so, further abstracted, it loses any interest at all.

The greatest weakness of The West is Martin Harrison’s introduction. ‘There is a personality, a grungy intelligence, a contemporaneity about his work; but, as a consequence, there is no room for a naivety or an indifference as to how the poem operates in the world’. Apart from the fact that the consequence does not follow from the antecedent, even in context, there is a very serious question as to what that actually means. What is ‘contemporaneity’ and how do we know Mateer has it? Why is his intelligence ‘grungy’? And then, four pages of adjectives and adverbs strung together list-wise gets tiring. Mateer’s poems deserve a better introduction.

They should have had more because their representation of the world has poise, in its Thin White Duke abstraction and Renaissance mannerism. Because in his stylised writing Mateer provides an answer to so much confessional poetry; because when you read his poems you think of Donatello and David Bowie. Who else can do that for you?

Greg_Westenberg_photoGreg Westenberg is a Sydney-based aspiring writer, whose reviews have appeared in Cordite and Blue Dog. It is his ambition to one day be taxed for writing.

[LiteraryMinded apologises for any formatting issues in the extracts that may have arisen through copying and pasting from Word to WordPress.]

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?