In which I defend highbrow lit-ra-cha!
This is the first in a series called Whisky Literature (combining two loves), where I will muse on literature, discuss recent reads, or read aloud over a dram of whisky.
This episode features Ardbeg Uigeadail and the books Deeper Water by Jessie Cole, The Empress Lover by Linda Jaivin, and Tampa by Alissa Nutting, with mention of The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss and Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke.
Expect a mix of passion, enthusiasm, absurdity, and tipsiness.
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.
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’.
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:
This 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 Booktopia, Readings, Avid Reader, Fishpond (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?
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 Flynn, Helen Richardson, A.S. Patric, Marion Halligan, Guy Salvidge, Kathy Charles, Ali Alizadeh, Ryan O’Neill, Carmel Bird, Rhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.
This 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 Booktopia, Readings, Avid Reader, Fishpond (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’.
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.
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.
In the young adult section, Barry Jonsberg won for My Life as an Alphabet. He 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’. 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 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 researching 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 Rites. Kent thanked independent booksellers for really 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.
This 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 Booktopia, Readings, Avid Reader, Fishpond (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…
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.