Date Archives February 2013

Addictive films: Silver Linings Playbook + Shame

Michael Fassbender, Shame
Michael Fassbender, Shame

I always thought ‘sex addict’ was a term made up by Hollywood’s testosterone-fuelled stars like Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen to explain away lascivious nights out on the town, to excuse raucous behaviour. But Steve McQueen’s intriguing and powerful film, Shame, has made me rethink it in terms of addiction. The film hinges on Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York executive, who lives to pick up.

There’s hardly a moment in his day when he’s not thinking about sex: he prowls around his co-workers; he watches porn on his computer when he gets home; he masturbates frantically in the office toilets.

But there’s nothing appealing about his world. Conversations with women. Friendship. These matter little. All he wants is to get the next hit. A shag up against the window before the woman leaves his apartment. The faster the better.

But when it comes to a woman he might actually like? He can’t do it. A memorable scene has Brandon going out on a date. While she questions him on relationships, he is unable to answer, but remains honest; it’s not what he’s looking for. Making the mistake we all make, the woman takes it as a challenge; she can change him. But later, when the clothes are peeled off, he is for the first time unable to respond sexually. Any hint at intimacy and he is terrified.

Steve McQueen’s films are not easy to watch. Hunger (which also stars Fassbender and won the Caméra d’Or award for first-time filmmakers at Cannes) is a visceral exploration of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike. As he starves, you almost feel your own body wasting away as you watch it. Shame too focuses on the body and how it can destroy you, your sense of self, your ability to reach out to others.

And then there’s the concept of shame itself. I’ve often wondered about shame. Some people feel it acutely; others never experience it at all. When does it begin? Where does it come from?

Chronic shame usually originates in childhood, and uncovering the experiences that led to shame can help relieve shame, as can engaging in new experiences that foster a sense of goodness and worth. Shame is sometimes rooted in experiences of a sexual nature, whether consensual or not, that were, in the child’s perception or understanding, not accepted or acceptable to adults; that is, children who engage in sexual activities, or who are abused sexually, may develop a sense of shame about their role in these acts, if adults do not take steps to reassure them of their essential goodness and innocence, and especially if adults shame them on purpose. Some level of shame usually reveals itself in anyone engaged in therapy. Becoming aware of our shame is the first step towards working through it. (GoodTherapy.org)

Bradley Cooper + Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Bradley Cooper + Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

While Shame is a complex and revealing look at addiction and mental illness, Silver Linings Playbook is more a Hollywood-does-crazy with a bit of Strictly Ballroom and Dirty Dancing thrown in — so the cineplex audiences can stand up and cheer at the end, and not worry about bipolar too much. I got caught up in the hype of seeing our Jackie Weaver playing it opposite Robert de Niro (and though she has about five lines to say, on repeat, she holds her own, and is nominated for an Oscar). I’ve always been somewhat doubtful that Bradley Cooper can act. I admit it, cock-jock US actors don’t do a thing for me, even though I enjoyed The Hangover. I like my men slightly strange, or awkward, or darkly brooding or, well, foreign. Cue Johnny Depp or Javier Bardem or that guy who’s the kind-of boyfriend opposite Lena Dunham in Girls.

Anyway, I retract my opinion of Cooper. He manages to be intense and vulnerable at the same time, in a character (Pat) who’s also addicted — not to shame this time — but to intimacy. After some time in a mental institution, he’s fixated on getting his wife back and addicted to the notion that her love will sustain him (even though he nearly beat her lover to death). 

I thought the scene in the film where Pat hears a song (‘Ma Cherie Amour’) — his wedding song; the song playing when he almost kills his rival — and goes nuts in a psychiatrist’s office was played for laughs (the crowd I was in responded that way, perhaps because of the elevator-music appeal of the song) and was interested to hear more about triggers.

A trigger can be thought of as anything that brings back thoughts, feelings, and memories that have to do with addiction (like a computer reminding a sex addict of porn). In addiction research, these are often simply called cues … triggers not only bring about responses that make you think about the drug. In fact, over and over in learning and addiction research, it’s been shown that triggers actually bring back drug seeking, and drug wanting, behavior. As soon as a cue (or trigger) is presented, both animals and humans who have been exposed to drugs for an extended period of time, will go right back to the activity that used to bring them drugs even after months of being without it. In fact, their levels of drug seeking will bounce back as if no time has passed.  (Psychology Today)

So there you go. Perhaps the movie wasn’t being far fetched. Of course it’s hard to break down a mental illness into two hours of viewing pleasure. The peaks and lows, the repetitive behaviour, the joy and shame: they have to be condensed. Or turned into a hoe-down with funny dance positions.

I’m wondering now if I have any triggers. They are not so obvious. But there are songs where I always cry in the same spot no matter what I’m doing or thinking. Leonard Cohen’s Anthem is one. And now I’m thinking of that song, I’m thinking of its connections, what it triggers in me, of my aunt who loved that song, who died of breast cancer a few years ago in her early 50s, she was an aunt, a godmother and a best friend, who died the day after I went to see Leonard Cohen sing at the vineyards, who was so sick she couldn’t use her ticket, so I heard that song and lay down under the stars that night, and thought of her, and the next day as I moved through her death, his words floated with me, and they became her anthem in a way, and my way of coming to understand what losing someone so precious might mean, words that helped show me how I might begin to resurface:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? DO YOU HAVE ANY EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS?

OR HAVE YOU SEEN EITHER OF THE FILMS? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS…

Ampersand Project: new voices in YA

Melissa Keil, Life in Outer Space When you’re writing your first novel in any genre it can be challenging getting it into the hands of publishers. First, there’s the question of agents (to have or not to have?) and, then, how to stand out among the thousands of other unsolicited manuscripts sitting in piles around editors’ desks.

So it’s always exciting when a new venture is announced that’s actually calling out for debut novels. The Ampersand Project emerged in 2011, a Hardie Grant Egmont scheme looking for first-time YA novels with a distinctive voice. In March, they release their first title, a nerdy romcom, Life in Outer Space.

I spoke to debut novelist Melissa Keil and Ampersand editor Marisa Pintado about how the project is encouraging and attracting dynamic new writers.

(This is the extended version of an article originally published in Newswrite magazine.)

Why did you decide to set up the Ampersand Project? Did you see a gap in the market?

Marisa Pintado: We felt that there was room in the YA market for more debut writers, more fresh voices, and really, more variety. When we were still dreaming up Ampersand, a few years ago now, there was a glut of paranormal romance and gritty dystopian fiction. This went beyond mere trends, as far as we were concerned — there was simply very little new fiction available for readers who were into different things. We wanted to create some energy around different kinds of stories, so in the first year we focused on contemporary real-world fiction — and we were thrilled with the response from writers.

At what stage was your manuscript when you heard about Ampersand? Did it inspire you in any way?

Melissa Keil: The manuscript was complete, and I had been workshopping and editing it for about eight months before I seriously started thinking about submitting it to Ampersand. I was at the stage where I had done the bulk of the structural work that I could do on my own, and was just fiddling and making very minor changes — but I still think I would have sat on it for many months more if I wasn’t given a shove by my writing group. I guess Ampersand inspired me to be brave and put the book out there!

From the piles of manuscripts on your desk, how do you know when one is a goer for publication?

Marisa Pintado: A manuscript shines because it combines a multitude of appealing elements — a beguiling voice, intriguing concepts, skilful writing, well-developed characters, an authentic teen-feel, and an understanding of classic story design. It’s rare to find these elements all in the one manuscript, but when you do, it feels like the heavens are opening.

What we really love to see is evidence of hard work in the writing; we can tell when writers are sending in their first draft, and when they’ve laboured over a story for months or even years, painstakingly threading through subplots, re-writing chapters and refining character trajectories.

How did your manuscript originally come about? Did you come up with the voice? Or various plotlines?

Author Melissa Keil
Author Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil: Definitely the voice, and the character of my protagonist, Sam, came first. It was one of those weird, writerly light-bulb moments, when I had decided to set aside the novel I had been working on and begin something new. I had no idea what the new ‘thing’ was going to be, but I was sitting with my laptop in a café when I saw a poster for the Melbourne Horror Film Society, and Sam’s voice, literally, just popped into my head. I wrote the first chapter that afternoon, and though it’s gone through quite a few rounds of edits, and I refined and redrafted it as I got to know him better, the outline I wrote that afternoon is pretty much the first chapter in the published book. The plotlines evolved as the various characters took shape.

What was it about Life in Outer Space that singled it out to be the first Ampersand novel?

Marisa Pintado: Life in Outer Space really took us by surprise. When we launched the Ampersand Project, we’d expected to go for gritty, boundary-pushing fiction — essentially sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, with some cutting on the side. And then Melissa’s manuscript landed on my desk, and it was like having a warm bath in the sunshine. She’d written this gorgeously geeky romantic comedy that shredded a stack of awful YA clichés and pop-culture tropes, and it was just an incredible achievement.

At first we wanted to wait until we’d finished reading all the Ampersand submissions before signing Melissa up. This decision lasted about two days, and then we caved and signed her up so that we could launch into the editorial process. We knew we didn’t want to let her go, and we were prepared to have more than one Ampersand author in a year, if it came to that. She’s an amazing talent, and we could tell that she’d been working really hard for a very long time. She was absolutely ready to enter the YA scene as a fully fledged author.

I’m so looking forward to introducing her to readers in March 2013. I’ve read Life in Outer Space about a million times during the production process, and it has made me cry with happiness. Every. Single. Time. I just love Melissa’s writing.

I notice you are part of a writing group. How did this help you shape the narrative?

Melissa Keil: I can’t overestimate how valuable working with my writing group has been; not only for their advice and feedback as the manuscript developed, but also because of the emotional support that only other writers can really provide. They were the first people to flag issues and to suggest solutions for problems, but also, the first people to offer genuine encouragement and praise when things were working. It’s quite an exposing thing to put your work-in-progress writing out into the world, and my writing group has really been the perfect combination of critique group and cheer squad.

There are many 80s references in the book but it’s a contemporary world. Why did you decide to step back in time for influence?

Melissa Keil: I knew that pop culture of all kinds was important for both of my main characters, but I also knew that saturating their story solely with contemporary references was going to confine it to a singular time and place; I guess I really wanted the story to have a ‘timeless’ feel, if such a thing is possible in YA contemporary! Also, Sam and Camilla are both quite ‘old souls’; the things that they love and that influence them come from all over the place, and lots of different time periods — having said that, yes, there are quite a few 80s references! There is something in the tone of the 80s teen movies I love that I wanted to invoke.

How do you see the current state of YA publishing in Australia?

Marisa Pintado: Australian YA publishing has gone through tremendous change since the glory years of the 90s, where writers like John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy, Robin Klein and Gillian Rubenstein turned out books of the most incredible calibre and enjoyed strong sales. I think as the market has become more enchanted with the blockbuster-sales model (usually books by international authors), and review space is increasingly limited, Australian novels can find it hard to elbow their own space on the shelves.

But I remain optimistic, because you look at the quality of writers who have established themselves over the last few years — Leanne Hall, Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Meredith Badger (also writing as Em Bailey), Chrissie Keighery, Myke Bartlett, Penni Russon — and you think, it’s OK! We still have amazing writers coming out of this country, and they’re writing brilliant books that do sell, and do well overseas. The Ampersand Project is all about finding more of these talented people, and giving them as much support as we can to establish their profiles and kick-start their writing careers.

How important are projects like Ampersand in helping emerging writers?

Melissa Keil: The current publishing climate being what it is, it’s becoming more and more difficult for publishers to take a risk on an unknown. Knowing that publishers are still actively looking for — and are excited by finding — new authors to support is amazing. And I think it’s so critical for new writers to have a great editorial team behind them. A project like Ampersand, with editors willing to work with a new author to help shape their manuscript into the best it can be, is crucial for any writer looking to build a career.

In 2013, what kinds of manuscripts/writing are you looking for?

Marisa Pintado: We’re opening up to all genres across YA, so I’m really keeping an open mind. My reading tastes are pretty broad, so I want to be surprised! At the moment I’m particularly keen on horror, thrillers, accessible sci-fi, high-concept drama and contemporary romance, but overall I’m hoping to find raw talent in writers who are hungry for development, and stories that I have to stay up late to finish because I’m so desperate to see how it all turns out.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? ARE YOU A YA WRITER LOOKING TO BE PUBLISHED? LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR COMMENTS…

If you enjoyed this, you could also check out:

WILD COLONIAL GIRL IS NOW ON FACEBOOK. IF YOU COULD LIKE, I WOULD REALLY LOVE!

 

Meet the locals: author Jon Bauer

Author Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly
Author Jon Bauer

I remember first encountering Jon Bauer in a session, with Fiona McGregor, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on writing about mothers. As you know, this is a topic that continues to engage me (on many levels) and I was intrigued because it was unusual to have a male panellist (a refreshing change, actually), and he spoke eloquently about writing female characters.

After his debut novel, Rocks in the Belly, was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2012) and won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction (2011) it became one of the first books I downloaded onto my Kindle. A mistake, I now realise, because I want to share the damn thing with everyone!

It’s a stark and brooding novel with a mesmerising and seductive mix of young boy and adult male voices. Reading through responses on Goodreads, it’s one of those love/hate books, the kind I think I want to write. I mean, really, does anyone just want an indifferent response? If you’re willing to trust the author to take you on a dark journey, this one is beautifully structured and carefully constructed. As Jon intended, it embraces and then repels you.

Jon has written a couple of great articles for Newswrite magazine — on the author Ray Bradbury (who recently passed away); and on the art of researching the second novel — and shortly after moving here, I heard he was also heading to town, to a little village called Chewton just out of Castlemaine. I spoke to him about the move (he started off in the UK) and how he goes about writing such memorable fiction.

You’re originally from the UK and have recently moved to Chewton. What attracted you to the area?

I think living in rural England. Australia is home now (Melbourne for the last 11 years) but I was always going to need some nature and space around me. Castlemaine isn’t far from Melbourne, but far enough that it has its own vibrant community. A garden and veggies and animal life, and a full view of sky makes me happy in a way that lattes and hipsters don’t.
Do you find living here has helped your writing?
Nope. Yes. Sort of. I’m busier here, where I thought I’d be ensconced in privacy. But knowing I can retreat whenever I want gives me a lot of comfort. I’m writing a lot right now though because I’m coming to the end of my second novel and can’t keep my hands off it.
Jon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyHow did you come up with the idea for ‘Rocks in the Belly’? Was it shaped by your own family at all?
Rocks is based on a picture I saw on a mantelpiece years ago. The image was of a young foster child with an intellectual disability. She had died, and the family who took her in really missed her.
I kept that image in my mind for years and it bubbled up again one morning while I was lying in bed looking up at clouds. In terms of the shape of my own family, I suppose Rocks has an emotional authenticity, in that I was completely befuddled by the family I found myself in, and very aware that I was bottom of their list of priorities. Do you hear violins? But otherwise, it is that fictional weave of authenticity and invention.
There are many confronting moments in the book where the reader wants to look away, step back. How did it feel going to those dark places, entering into moments of violence, brutality, cruelty, misogyny (and pain)?
At times my hands were shaking as I typed. But I felt purged afterwards. I think, early on, I wanted to punish the reader. The book softened a great deal though as I redrafted it. People are so multi-faceted, and all too often characters are polarised in films and in literature. It’s important to me to write the essence into my characters that we are all capable of almost everything. How else would murder, war, rape and brutality transcend time, geography, and culture?
As for misogyny, that was something I watched extremely closely in the book. It is important for me to go to the places in society that are unacceptable. I am writing about child abuse now, among other themes. What mattered to me with Rocks, is that it was not a misogynistic novel. Which I steadfastly believe it is not. Chauvinist characters, evil characters, racist characters, they’re all okay in my book, and can sometimes do more to highlight injustice and bigotry than writing an idealised character. But there are writers who write chauvinistic books, and racist books, and don’t even realise they’re doing it.
You mentioned that when you were writing the novel, you did an acting course where you were encouraged to improvise. How did finding your voice and experimenting with it here affect the way you were developing characters?
That is a big part of why the protagonist is less likeable than he might be. That acting course (Meisner) was a permissive space where I could explore my darker side. There was a moment in the writing where the protagonist did something small, like drop a piece of litter. But feeling anxious of keeping the reader sweet, I sent him back to pick it up. Then I thought, bugger it, drop the litter. It sounds small, and the moment isn’t even in the book anymore, but it was a turning point.
I wrote Rocks to walk a tricky line between compelling and repelling the reader. It’s a heady mix, kind of like doing the splits. I won’t have got the balance right for all readers.
‘Rocks in the Belly’ mixes the voices of a young boy and his adult self beautifully. How did you conjure up these two versions? Who emerged first?
Rocks is based on a short story I wrote, so the adult came first, but at times in the story, you can hear his voice lapse into younger language as he recounts the past. When I was coming to write the novel, I knew I had to try the younger voice. I wasn’t confident I could do it, but once I started it poured out. Kids are easy to write, I think. Just bring out your most narcissistic and associative side.
The book is essentially about vulnerability masked as something else — all the characters (and all of us) share these traits to some degree. Do you find as a writer you are stripping off the mask in some way?
Fiction is a safe place, so there’s no unmasking. But I am shining a light on the fact we’re multi-faceted, as I said. And that ultimately, most violence and anger comes from pain and woundedness. Also that childhood is brutal, no matter how happy you think yours was.
People don’t like you to talk negatively about the halcyon world of childhood, but it’s important to normalise the ambiguity and complexity of all spaces: religion, parenting, family, marriage, love, childhood, sex … We like to simplify things, and usually for the better. But they aren’t simple. Ambiguity is a larger place, and allows a lot more freedom in life, and in story.
You’re currently immersed in your new novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?
Both. This novel took a long time to find the story. I knew I wanted to write about a man. Then he became a man going blind. That led to a period of research, which was long and interesting, and confronting, but ultimately inspiring. Then just writing the words. Lots of them. It ended up being 160,000. I’m now stripping it back and shaping and grooming it. Down to 116,000, but I want it lower, if it’ll let me.
Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?
Routine shmootine.
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of play. Is this something you incorporate into your writing process?
Creativity IS play. Certainly initially. If you aren’t largely enjoying it, you’re doing something wrong.
You seem to be always drawn to the psychology of young boys? What is your interest in psychology and this particular age group?
The more I write the more I see themes. The key ones, I think, are that I write children (of both genders) as brutalised heroes. I tend to write the elderly as vulnerable, and the adults as flawed and negligent. That seems to be the over-simplified gist. And children make great narrators, and compelling protagonists. Who can’t cheer on a child character?!
In a ‘Newswrite’ article (‘Writer on Writer’) you wrote of how you were inspired by Ray Bradbury. What other writers do you go to for inspiration?
Susan Sontag described writing best when she said that, ‘It feels like leading and following at the same time.’ I try to live life like that too. Otherwise, I’m a buffet reader — dipping in and out of many writers. Mostly, I read non-fiction: psychology and ontology. I think I’ll be a therapist one day, and am hellbent on gathering more and more information on that unassailable thing — life. Fiction is a good place to do that, both writing it and reading, but I devour books on how to live betterer.
HAVE YOU READ ROCKS IN THE BELLY? OR ANY OTHER FICTION THAT IS BOTH REPELLING AND COMPELLING? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like to meet another local writer: Adam Ford. As Castlemaine has such a vibrant artistic community I’ll be doing more of these interviews in the coming year.