Reading as resistance: The Taksim Square Book Club

Love these pictures from Taksim Square. Communal standing and communal reading as peaceful protest. As Al Jazeera reporter, George Henton, says: ‘The chosen reading material of many of those who take their stand is reflective, in part, of the thoughtfulness of those who have chosen this motionless protest to express their discontent.’

by George Henton for Al Jazeera

by George Henton for Al Jazeera

Take a look at them all here.

The books of life: By the Book by Ramona Koval

By the Book Ramona KovalThis feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 421.

Text Publishing
November 2012 (buy hardcover, ebook)

Ramona Koval’s enthusiastic explorations of literature would be familiar not only to those who enjoyed her long-running ABC Radio National program, The Book Show, but also to audiences at writers’ festivals around the world. As an interviewer, she is informed, curious and bold, coaxing a multitude of insights from her subjects. In By the Book, Koval swings the spotlight on herself and asks how a life of books has informed her as a person.

Central to Koval’s development, growing up in St Kilda and North Balwyn in Melbourne, was her mother, a Polish Jew with an amazing story of her own. Koval opens By the Book with an image of her mother, stretched out on the divan, lost in a book. Koval’s mother read in multiple languages and had a fondness for banned books. She would regularly take her young daughter to a mobile library, which ‘introduced her to a different world’. This was important, Koval writes, because as a child she ‘didn’t exactly have wide horizons to survey’. Books provided those.

Ramona Koval

Ramona Koval

Koval describes the books we keep close as presenting an ‘archaeology of interests’, and says those she selected for discussion in her own book were ‘the ones that were crucial milestones for me in some kind of way’. From the works of French novelist Colette to books on polar exploration, European and absurd literature, language books, feminist books, and the poetry of science, Koval’s reading interests have been broad. In her reflections on reading, she wonders about whether there is a ‘right time’ to encounter a certain work while arguing that books can, undeniably, shape you. Koval felt this acutely while gripped by Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower just this year, and believes if she’d read the novel at a young age, it might have changed the course of her life. ‘I saw several episodes in my own life mirrored in its pages,’ she writes.

On the other hand, Koval admits that worth classics she’s interested in reading—such as the Sagas of Iceland—have sometimes failed to draw her in. ‘You’ve got limited time,’ she says. ‘I always think that if you give a book a while and then you don’t fall into it, you just have to put it away and come to it another time, or not come to it at all.’

Along with genuine insights on reading itself, Koval’s book is personal. We learn about the author’s young life, her passion for science, and her adventures (and disappointments) in love. We also get to travel with her, through her own experiences and through associated literature. One such adventure is going dog-sledding in the Algonquin State Park, three hours north of Toronto. Koval also shares some of her encounters with authors, such as Grace Paley and Oliver Sacks.

She acknowledges the privileges her career as a broadcaster has afforded her. ‘It has been fantastic; my own Open University,’ she says. ‘You can learn a lot of things by reading books, but for some books I think you do need to have a tutor—some fantastic person who can say to you “look at this” or “this means that”’.

Koval herself has opened up worlds for others in her years as a broadcaster. She admits that her reading choices have mainly been governed by whatever happened to interest her personally, ‘whether it was a book about sand or some short stories from Romania’.

It’s a formula that seems to have worked. ‘It turned out that other people loved [these works] too,’ Koval says. ‘Many people sidled up to me and said, you know, “your program was my education. I never would have read those books if I hadn’t heard about them”’. Koval always enjoyed this aspect of her work. ‘It’s not like you’re powerful; it’s more like you’ve got something to share that’s valuable. People are enriched by it.’

Koval is now working on, and planning, multiple projects that will make the most of her enthusiasm and talents. And she continues to be a great reader, keeping up on reviews in various publications. ‘Reviews are so hard, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘Because you have to trust the reviewer, and even then you’ve got to know a little bit of backstory about why they feel that way about that book, or whether they’ve got an axe to grind in some way.’

There are still many books on Koval’s shelves and in her ereader that she’d love to get to. ‘Sometimes you feel like: I’m actually gorging on books and I’m going to be sick if I don’t stop it,’ she laughs. ‘You know, you can have too much ice cream.’ But reading, for Koval, is a unique pleasure; something she describes in By the Book as ‘private and reverential’. It’s an activity that can transport us ‘from our prosaic lives to anywhere we care to imagine’. She writes: ‘While our world looks small on the outside, it’s huge on the inside, in the magical spaces between the page and our absorption.’

Reading for pleasure

The last week of my overseas trip and the week to come (in Fremantle for my best friend’s wedding) were and are my final weeks of leave from Uni, so I was keen to sneak in some ‘pleasure reading’, which basically means that I don’t take notes. Nonetheless I wanted to share with you some of the books I’ve enjoyed and am enjoying.

On the flight over to the US, on Halloween, I devoured the second novel in Tara Moss’ Pandora English series, The Spider Goddess, which I’d been saving up for just that purpose. I’m going to grab a copy of the third book, The Skeleton Key, very soon (the first is The Blood Countess). The series is about Pandora English, an aspiring writer who moves in with her great aunt (who looks unnaturally young) in the hidden New York suburb of Spektor. Pandora is discovering not only that there is a secret (and often sinister) world behind things, but that she has some special talents of her own. The series is ridiculously fun, especially if you, like me, are a fan of that dark aesthetic (think Hammer Horror films, or Tim Burton). The books are also partly satirical of the fashion world, while maintaining a genuine interest in style, or glamour. If you’ve read interviews with Moss, or her blog and tweets, you’ll know that for a long time she’s loved the macabre, and that she has a crush on Bela Lugosi. These books are born of genuine interests. I’m a fan.

On the flight over I also began Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, because, as mentioned, I was giving a paper on her previous novel Eat the Document, and because I’d been meaning to read it since it came out. I finished it in New York, and am still thinking about it. It’s crazy that she’s not more lauded, more well known. Even in the US I did not meet one person who had heard of her, and I talked to a lot of bookish people. Her books so keenly reflect aspects of Western contemporary life (though that is too broad a description) that perhaps they’ll only be properly appreciated once the present is past. In Stone Arabia, there is a brother and sister; he’s a musician and an obsessive chronicler, she cries over the news and spends hours googling symptoms. Again, I’m going to point to James Bradley’s review, as he’s done a great job of summing up the novel.

I began Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World on the flight home and already it is getting inside of me, as his other books have. I don’t know how he imbues his sentences with such weight. It’s difficult to describe what this book is about. It’s about people. At the beginning, there are two families shaped by loss. The two boys, Jonathan and Bobby, come together, and grow, and the reader also follows the point of view of Alice, Jonathan’s mother, and Clare (but I’m not up to her yet). Last year I wrote quite a long post about Michael Cunningham, after he’d been in Australia. You can read that here.

Finally, in Brooklyn at PowerHouse Books I picked up a copy of New York Stories (Everyman’s Pocket Classics), and I’ve read about half. Highlights have been Truman Capote’s ‘Master Misery’, John Cheever’s ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ and Shirley Jackson’s ‘A Pillar of Salt’ (a great story about how a big city can overwhelm and ultimately disable you). Most of the stories so far have been along the lines of broken dreams, and a city that draws you in with bright lights but then gets you down or takes advantage of you. The stories are set in the New York of Mad Men and back much further. There are some contemporary ones to come. I’m hooked on them. Though I had such a great experience of the city I’m sure for many it still is a place of broken dreams. Aren’t all big cities? So much promise, but so many people. So expensive.

I learnt a new word while reading this collection. Many of the characters, the down-and-out ones, ate at Automats. I said to Gerard, ‘what is that? Do they still exist?’ We looked it up and it seems that an Automat was a fast-food restaurant which basically consisted of vending machines. Patrons put in a coin and pulled out their wax-wrapped food. The kitchen was on the premises. Here’s a great description (and image) of the Automat. I’m not sure why but the Automat has captured my imagination. Perhaps it could be the setting for a story of my own…

On blogging, social media, reading & writing

I was recently interviewed by David Minh Tran at The Signal Express, a publication by Express Media. He asked me about my long-term blogging life, my thoughts on social media, my short stories, and he asked some very tricky questions about favourite books and authors. You can check it out here.

Express Media are a great organisation, I’ve previously run workshops for them around country Vic and appeared on a few panels and Q&As. They also produce the excellent magazine Voiceworks, which publishes writing by under-25s. Much of their activities are for/by under-30s, and if you’re in that age group I encourage you to check out the organisation.

I might also just *eh hem* remind you that if you like the cut of my jib, I’d be so happy if you clicked on the hearts in my SOYA profile, to put me ahead for the people’s choice award. It takes just a minute or two.

Update: I’ve also recently been interviewed by Benjamin Solah for Embedded Literati, on blogging and the Melbourne lit scene.

Writing on writing: guest post by Harry Bingham


I’ve been a professional writer for more than ten years,  but it was only recently, when asked to produce a How to Write book by A&C Black/Bloomsbury, that I came to think systematically about this craft of ours.

I mean ‘systematically’ in two different dimensions. First, there’s the whole area of technique. How, precisely, do you create a character on the page? What, precisely, are the golden rules of plotting? It’s easy enough to give good, general answers to those questions, but if you’re building a ship, you need more than some vague notions that a hull would be nice, maybe some masts.

The second dimension had to do with genre. It’s lazily assumed that literary fiction is good writing, and genre fiction is fun (but easy) writing. I more or less assumed it myself, but I’d never tested the assumption under fire. Given that I was writing a book that needed to give advice on every style and every genre, how would the different genres compare under close scrutiny?

My book relied on a huge number of examples drawn from recent high-profile fiction. I took great care not to stick with any one branch of writing, so I’ve had chapters that looked intensively at Bridget Jones / Eat Pray Love / The Devil Wears Prada, and ones that looked hard at Roth, Updike and Franzen. Using examples solved the problem of specificity. I could simply (for example) analyse dialogue by showing how Philip Roth writes dialogue and drawing out some of the most useful techniques.

And, you know what, some of those old, standard general approaches simply dissolved under fire. Take characterisation for example. The standard way to sketch out character while at the planning stage is you build up a character with little notes. Like these for example:

BJ is a late-twenties woman. Mildly but not seriously overweight. Social drinker, but sometimes very social. Ditto, when it comes to smoking. Uncertain self-esteem. Longs to be loved. No steady partner. Occasionally decisive, more often not. Sometimes awkward when in company, especially so with men.

DC is a mid or late thirties man. A business type. Charming, but deceitful and untrustworthy. There to bed women, not commit to them. Witty, however, and with some money and power.

What do you notice? I think you’ll notice how utterly clichéd these characters are. How lifeless. Any conventional ‘how to write’ book would tell you to scrap these characters and start again.

But then you read this:

Huh. Had dream date at an intime little Genoan restaurant near Daniel’s flat.

‘Um … right. I’ll get a taxi,’ I blurted awkwardly as we stood in the street afterwards. Then he lightly brushed a hair from my forehead, took my cheek in his hand and kissed me, urgently, desperately. After a while, he held me hard against him and whispered throatily, ‘I don’t think you’ll be needing that taxi, Jones.’

The second we were inside his flat we fell upon each other like beasts: shoes, jackets, strewn in a trail across the room.

‘I don’t think this skirt’s looking well at all,’ he murmured. ‘I think it should lie down on the floor.’ As he started to undo the zip he whispered, ‘This is just a bit of fun, OK? I don’t think we should start getting involved.’ Then, caveat in place, he carried on with the zip. Had it not been for Sharon and the fuckwittage and the fact I’d just drunk the best part of a bottle of wine, I think I would have sunk powerless into his arms. As it was, I leapt to my feet, pulling up my skirt.

‘That is just such crap,’ I slurred. ‘How dare you be so fraudulently flirtatious, cowardly and dysfunctional. I am not interested in emotional fuckwittage. Goodbye.’

The book is Bridget Jones, the author is Helen Fielding, and the result is terrific. The character definitions – which do suggest cliché – simply explode with life on the page. Indeed, a huge part of the book’s vitality arises from the way that Fielding took some chick-lit clichés and gave them new life. The trick isn’t in the character notes, it’s in the life.

The same example illustrates another thought too. Literary fiction is supposed to be deft with words. Commercial writers are thought to be just cranking out plots and letting the language go to hell. But take another look at that Bridget Jones passage. She says, ‘Had dream date at an intime little Genoan restaurant near Daniel’s flat.’

That word: intime. Dear old Bridget doesn’t speak French, and if she did, she’s not pretentious enough to slip such words into her ordinary vocabulary. So she got it from somewhere else – almost certainly a women’s magazine which would itself be using the word in a fake, affected way. And Daniel Cleaver – we know, we guess – probably does have the class to use the word intime in a natural way. (He has the sophistication to pick not just an Italian restaurant, but a Genoan one.) All that – that characterisation, that subtlety, that precision – from one word. One word, which isn’t even pivotal to the scene or even the sentence.

So, my heartening conclusion? That good writing is good writing. Some will be fast-paced and fun good writing. Some will be thoughtful and beautiful good writing. But there’s no genre which doesn’t produce extraordinary books. There are no rules which can’t be trumped by authorial excellence. There are certainly techniques to deploy – my book will be full of them – but a technique is not a rule.

I learned a lot while writing my book, but the very best thing is that I became a better reader. More attuned, more satisfied. Enriched.

Harry Bingham is an author and boss of The Writers’ Workshop (UK). His book on writing will come out in 2012.

The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia

By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham, HarperCollins (Aus pb, Aus ebook, US and Kindle, UK)

Over the past few days I’ve been in the audience of four sessions featuring my favourite American author Michael Cunningham. Cunningham’s latest novel is By Nightfall. I’ve drafted a few posts on it since I read it, but was never able to adequately capture what he does. Now I can mix my words up with his own and hopefully provide some picture of the work, and of Cunningham himself.

How to write about an author who provokes in the reader the very surges and distances he skilfully writes of? Those flips between detachment and passion? In By Nightfall, Cunningham is writing about art, youth, maleness, beauty; and he is simultaneously making art. For me By Nightfall was not The Hours (a book so close to my heart) or Specimen Days, but I appreciated its focus. Where those two novels spanned eras and sets of characters (though still thematically focused), here Cunningham gets intimate with Peter Harris, a middle-aged, middle-class gallery owner in New York. And so explores the complexity of an individual life.

Peter has been married for many years to Rebecca. Their daughter has flown the nest and distanced herself emotionally and physically from her parents. They enjoy martinis in the afternoon and they attend parties for the sake of attending parties. In the opening scenes they are on their way to one of these parties, and the detail around their almost-fight reminds me of the intricate observations in Richard Yates’ writing. Peter is distracted by what appears to be an older man in a car full of youths, Peter is still surprised by things about his wife (and will continue to be throughout the narrative, despite the fact he convinces himself there isn’t really much more to know). Cunningham said that he was writing about a particular kind of curse that exists, with Peter and Rebecca – a ‘good enough’ marriage. In his novels, Cunningham likes the number three – three characters, three eras, etc. ‘I’m all about three,’ he said.

And so the third element in By Nightfall is Rebecca’s younger brother, Mizzy (short for ‘the mistake’). He’s coming to stay and Peter has mixed feelings about it. When Mizzy arrives he is many things, but one of them is a catalyst for Peter to turn inward – to think about youth (nascence is Cunningham’s favourite word in the novel), art, tragedy and beauty. ‘Peter wants his life to explode, to dismantle itself’, said Cunningham. Related to the ‘dismantling’ come thoughts of his daughter, of his wife as a young woman, of his brother who died of AIDS when he was in his early twenties. The semi-eroticised pull he has toward young Mizzy (and he analyses the nature of it intensely throughout the novel) is related to these other people in his life – and is related to where he is in his life and the things that he isn’t. He isn’t, for example, a dramatic or tragic figure – and there is some envy in that.

Peter loves art, he is drawn to it, but his life is not a work of art, and this is something he is becoming aware of. It was also important for Cunningham to make Peter heterosexual. The erotic pull, as mentioned, is complex – associated with nostalgia, envy and other kinds of longing. Death in Venice was an influence, one of Cunningham’s favourite books – ‘the definitive work on human longing’. ‘Most of us are gawping at something,’ Cunningham said in Sydney. And whatever we identify as, ‘we’re incredibly erotically complex.’ One individual’s sexuality isn’t anything like anybody else’s, there’s ‘erotic individuality’, and writers exist ‘to complicate the world’, he said.

Peter is a gallery owner, as mentioned, and is in crisis over his definitions of art and beauty. I saw Cunningham on a panel with Betty Churcher (chaired by Rowena Danziger), entitled ‘The Pursuit of Beauty’. He spoke about his disdain for contemporary art and its incessant irony. He wanted to write about a man who was ready to dismantle his life in pursuit of an annihilating beauty. Art is a fixation of Cunningham’s, and all his novels have arisen from a fixation of his (such as Virginia Woolf, with The Hours). He actually started out training as an artist. ‘The impulse to create, to produce something beautiful and lasting has been with me a very long time.’ But with visual art he found he lacked some capacity and focus (to develop his talent). It was upsetting to him, but then the idea of creating ‘something like life’ with just words and ink and paper ‘held a bottomless fascination’ for him. He still paints, takes photos, just for pleasure. As his writing has become more recognised he’s felt an increasing need to ‘make things that are not for sale’. He’s even learnt silversmithing. He finds something ‘vital’ in creating something just for himself.

Churcher and Cunningham both praised Duchamp, and touched on Warhol. Churcher spoke about the work of art being what takes place between the artwork and the viewer. A hat rack by the wall is a hat rack, a hat rack on the roof can be a work of art – it’s a matter of perception. If you don’t get it, it’s not a work of art for you, said Churcher. (And all this is riffing on Duchamp’s philosophies.) Churcher said Duchamp was the most influential artist of the 20th Century and Cunningham agreed. When he agrees with something wholeheartedly, he does this face, which I call his ‘exquisite’ face. It’s like a pulling-in of all his features, as if to say oh, yes. Exquisite. It’s like the bottom part of a nod, held and exaggerated.

Cunningham explained his disdain for contemporary art a little more. ‘I see a lot of art in New York City. Okay, I get it. I think I get it… and yet I find myself wondering – where’s the transcendence? Where’s the consolation? Where’s the sense of accompaniment?’ And when he said that, it made me realise how successful he is as a novelist, as an artist. Because those intentions are realised in his work. He said that earnestness is ‘out’ and art is wry, ‘snarky’. ‘I keep thinking that we who care about art are not doing too well on our beauty-free diet’.

Both spoke about art as a commodity, acknowledged that it always has been, but spoke about a certain parallel now with the art world and consumer and celebrity culture. That people would buy art because they ‘should’ have it, not because they love it. This, too, has always existed, but they both agreed that it’s now more pervasive. All Cunningham wants is for an artwork to ‘drive an icepick through my heart’, or turn his head 360 degrees. There is a character in By Nightfall – an art collector – who truly does love art for art’s sake. And this was important to Cunningham, to avoid stereotyping, to ensure all the characters were at some level able to be empathised with. A novel is an ‘engine of empathy’, he said. He’s fascinated by the fact that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. As a novelist you try and express the fact that ‘no one is insignificant and everyone makes sense of themselves,’ and also, ‘everyone is visiting the novel from a novel of their own’. In this way, novels are also inherently political (if they achieve this). Because ‘fiction is the best-known way of producing empathy’ – it shows the reader what it’s like to live as someone else, gives an intimate portrait of the ‘beingness’ of another. Doesn’t that then train you to be more considerate of the multitudinous complexities, the histories, of others?

But Cunningham has been politically active in real life. It was a big ‘slap in the face’ for him and his friends in the ’80s to learn that Reagan and Bush Snr didn’t care about the ‘kind of people’ who contracted and were suffering from AIDS. Certain pharmaceutical companies, too, were withholding information and drugs, and Cunningham was part of the Act Now movement. He was part of a group who disrupted the New York stock exchange, and they were arrested. The epidemic and its aftermath (and of course, it has not gone away) makes its way into his novels, because he is a writer that is interested in reflecting the time that we live in. He does not, however, think a novelist, or an artist is obliged to write about the issues of their time. They are only obliged ‘to write the best damn novel [they] absolutely can’.

For Cunningham – and this is one reason I think his novels affect me so – beauty is threaded with a certain element of mortality. He spoke about when he met his partner, 25 years ago, and how that profound love was entwined with a certain ‘horror’. One, because there was ‘no big romantic surprise still to come’, and two – you’re confronted with your combined mortality. A sense of mortality is ‘threaded through’ the love. And this is also what he’s pursuing in great art: ‘you have to be a little bit fearful’.

Cunningham is so skilled, in his work, at drawing the distances between people – the way that bodies and hearts can be aligned in moments, while minds are on different planes. How rare it is to truly know the motivations of another, the dreams of another. By Nightfall is viewed through Peter’s lens, but the reader can see that even Peter doesn’t know or remember what his wife is like, who his daughter is and where, exactly, he went wrong with her. And not just that – but there are moments when he is surprised by the way other people describe and think of him. He is distant from his own self-in-the-world. It is a study in complexity – and in capturing it, the dark and the light and the attempts to grasp the transient, rare moments of passion (which one still might see as meaning something different later on).

On his own art, Cunningham is oft quoted as saying his idea for a novel exists as a ‘cathedral of light and fire’ in a bubble above his head. The finished book is just that – a book, an object. (And there’s a part in The Hours where Clarissa goes into a bookshop and observes just this – that books are inseparable from the world of objects.) However – this is part of what makes art interesting, that gap between intention and achievement is one of the ‘animating concepts’ of art. It’s interesting because of ‘what it says about human limitations’, he said. He also said, ‘if you’re not trying to do more than what you’re capable of doing, then go away’. The effort and the intention create meaning.

By Nightfall is a book of secrets. A moment of secret pleasure in the thought of mortality, gruesomeness. The quick rage Peter feels in a moment at the party (which you feel in the writing, too) and keeps to himself. Feeling that drug users are ‘romantic, goddamn them’. Thoughts on the sexual self. One of my favourite lines in the novel is: ‘What could be more mortifyingly personal, what veers closer to the depths, than whatever it is that makes us come? If we knew, if we could see what’s in the cartoon balloons over other guys’ heads as they jerk off, would we be moved, or repelled?’ Peter wonders, with mixed-emotions, where the visionaries have gone in a practical, commericialised era of art. There are thoughts on the forbidden, on dirt, on anything but normal normal normal. After psychoanalysing himself Peter says: ‘All this is useful information. Now what?’ This all makes more sense after hearing Cunningham talk about the novel. Peter plays out some of the author’s conflicts (over art, beauty), but he is also a product of them. The character himself is someone who has kind of failed in terms of effort, passion, intention. It was essential to Cunningham that Peter be a 2nd-tier dealer, someone with an immediate ‘feeling of doubt’. He likes writing about people who are not at the top of their field, who are not winners. An early (and continual) influence are the modernists, ie. Joyce and Woolf. As a teenage boy it made him delirious, the idea of the ‘epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives’, the idea that you could ‘bore in like that’ to some ‘subatomic level’ of the everyday.

Peter, in By Nightfall, is struggling between the thought and the act (of art). People are moved by art and then they go on with their lives. How often are they compelled to become art? Do they ever feel they should? Should they? It reminds me of the character of Laura Brown in The Hours. Reading Virginia Woolf is one of the things that makes her decide she must act. That, in fact, she will die if she does not. Peter’s struggle is a more contemporary one. Look at all the choices he potentially has. But Peter’s disposition means (and this shouldn’t give it away but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it) Peter chooses art. He chooses the challenge. The struggle. Cunningham also said he wanted to write about the ‘friendless man’, a type of person he meets who is fascinating and mysterious to him. He wanted Peter to be introspective and complicated (he succeeds). As mentioned, Peter is rhetorically engaged, throughout the book. This was partly about his character, but also partly about rhythm. Language is about meaning, Cunningham said, ‘but also about music’. The Hours was a Schubert sonata, A Home at the End of the World was rock ’n’ roll. By Nightfall was Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Lou Reed. (Side note: he’s met Lou Reed. ‘I fainted, of course’, he laughed.) He teaches creative writing to some lucky mofos in the US. In teaching, his aim is to ‘bring out the voice’. Basically, he suggests things for them to read. When he studied creative writing years ago a teacher told him to mark up a piece with ‘A’ for the best sentences and ‘B’ for the okay ones. Then she make him take out all the As. He learnt that there’s a difference between telling the story and ‘advertising your sensitivity and craftmanship’. This has always stayed with him.

So who does he write for? He writes for Helen. Let me explain. When he was starting out as a writer, he worked in a restaurant in Laguna Beach – the Boom Boom Room, wearing a grass skirt. Helen worked in the restaurant, had been left by her husband, had four ‘criminal’ children, a bunch of debts and also another job. And she was a voracious reader. The reading hour, at the end of everything, was the ‘jewel’ of Helen’s day. She was reading some crime and mystery stories and Cunningham suggested Dostoevsky. Helen read it, she liked it. ‘He’s a lot better than Ken Follett,’ she told him (Cunningham paused for effect here) and then she said: ‘…but not as good as Scott Turow.’ And this idea that Helen would pick up any book, with no sense of pedigree, was thrilling to Cunningham. He decided that maybe it would be more interesting for him ‘to try and write a book for Helen’. Something with depth, with content – but satisfying for her after those incredibly long days. Now he writes with about five specific friends in mind, as ‘gifts’ for them, and that kind of focus aids his process.

In Melbourne he spoke a little more about his process. He walks about 20 minutes to his studio in the mornings, puts on some music to ‘set the molecules in the air going’. Then he sits down to write for at least four hours, six on a good day. He writes daily so as to ‘create and sustain and convince [himself] of a kind of parallel reality’. He is ‘enormously disciplined’, but he leaves his work at the studio and is fully present in the rest of his life: his emails in the afternoon, hanging out with his partner at night. As a young writer it was harder for him to switch off – but he doesn’t want to see the world continually through a lens, of everything being potential ‘material’.

When he submitted The Hours to his editor, they said ‘you know we’re gonna lose all our money on this’. No one had even the remotest idea that it would do as well as it has, would reach so many people. Cunningham’s advice, from this, was: ‘you might as well do what you want to do, because you can’t know.’ The new novel that he’s working on, of which we were treated to an extract at The Big Reading at SWF (Cunningham loved being a part of the reading, with authors he ‘bows down to’, like David Mitchell) is in some ways a ‘companion piece to By Nightfall’ as it looks at a very different body of people who don’t have the money and advantages of the people in BN. He wonders about the search for beauty and transference in those people.

Cunningham has worked on screenplays, too, and he loves film. Writing for film is a wonderful experience as it’s so collaborative, he said. He is not precious about his books being made into films – it’s just an extension of the work, of the process. ‘It’s not the fingernail of a saint’, he said, regarding the book, and you ‘spend your life learning how to write a novel and die trying to make a novel, so… it’s not sacrosanct.’ His favourite book is always his most recent book, and in Melbourne last night it was mentioned that he’s just signed a contract with HBO – not sure if it was for By Nightfall, or something else. I’m looking forward to finding out.

He spoke, too, about endings. And that’s probably a good point to end on. What he tries to do with his novels is end on an ‘expected surprise’, so the reader doesn’t necessarily see it coming, but they can go back through and identify the clues. They don’t see it coming but they think ‘of course it should end like that.’ He often doesn’t know what the ending is going to be. Planning too much feels mechanical, to him. He has to let himself go – pull things up from the magma. ‘That sort of intuitive thing, that permits you to be more insightful than you really are, that allows you to smell things that aren’t really there, only exists if you allow that [non-mechanical exploration] to happen’. How lucky we are, that Michael Cunningham is so successful at pulling those things from the magma, and shaping them into satisfying, complex novels, like By Nightfall.

Thanks so much to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

20 classics in 2011: blog project

I am going to read 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011.

All book-lovers have gaps in their reading – how could you possibly read everything? In recent years I’ve been fairly up-to-speed with newer books and Australian literature, but I’ll often find myself in conversation, saying ‘oh, I haven’t read such-and-such yet’. People often assume I would have, given my ‘literary-minded’ claims. I have to remind them I’m only 26. I read Shakespeare in high school, plus gothic literature, Jane Austen and a few other things; through my undergrad and honours (in film and literature) I was introduced to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, JP Donleavy, Italo Calvino, Thomas Mann, DH Lawrence, EM Forster, Anton Chekhov, and many other writers of the modern and postmodern eras. Since then I’ve obviously discovered a lot on my own, but there is much ground left to cover. I’ve decided that this year I’ll dedicate approximately a quarter to a third of my reading (20 books) to classic, modern-classic or cult books.

I’ve already compiled a list – books I’m curious about, books I think will be fun to read, books I want to be able to talk about, books I can learn from. They are from all different eras and genres. I won’t publish the list in full but after reading each one I will write about it and let you know what the next one or two are that I’m going to tackle. That way you can read along with me, or come back and comment on previous posts. Many of you would have already read the books and can jump straight into the conversation (not just on here but through Twitter and the Facebook fan page).

The first classics I’m reading are The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. I’ve never read either author. I became interested in Isherwood after seeing the film of A Single Man. My lovely Twitter followers led me in the direction of The Berlin Stories.

Have you set any reading goals for 2011? Will you be joining me in mine?

Picture: Enjolras Delfin’s Young Woman Reading by a Window