Date Archives October 2013

Walter Mason: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

Walter Mason, Destination CambodiaI thought it might be fun to do a tandem blog post every now and then, where I review someone’s book, and they review mine, and we put them up at the same time. My idea was for it to be a kind of ‘two of us’ of books/authors, where we find the connections between our work — and our lives. First up, I chose Walter Mason and his travel memoir, Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the kingdom.

Walter has been a wonderful mentor to me in many ways. We first met when he rocked up to my book launch in Sydney and, since then, I’ve seen him launch his own book too (from afar) and we spent an afternoon together at the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Open Access seminar, talking about marketing as a creative act.

Walter is someone you don’t forget. He fills a room with his quiet (wicked) humour and grace. While he’s an expert promoter, he also spends a lot of time helping others with their writing.

DESTINATION CAMBODIA

In 2005, I desperately needed to leave the country. I was fed up with working in a bureaucracy, I was creatively stifled, and I needed out. I had never travelled internationally on my own before. I wanted to go somewhere in Asia. I chose an Intrepid tour in Cambodia — and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The tour did more than just fly in and out of Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. We tracked some of Walter’s journey. Phnom Penh to Battambang to Sihanoukville. Although I only went for a quick two weeks (and Walter went for months), I was forced to continually readjust my idea of how I was positioned in the world (as a traveller, and as a white and privileged person). I came back to Sydney with a deep sense of loss, an acute awareness of how structured and wealthy my position was, and wanting to return immediately and live near the ocean there (unfortunately, like many travel dreams, this wore off and got lost).

What I like best about Walter’s book is his sensitive rendering of the characters and friends he makes along the way. This is not an overarching look at the history of the place but a cultural assessment, based on the small things and day-to-day of people’s lives and, really, isn’t that what makes engaging history anyway? I visited Cambodia with a Lonely Planet list of all the books I needed to read but, when I landed, I was so electrified and confused, and too switched on to every detail, that I was reluctant to read a set of facts and figures.

But Walter paints a clear picture of the devastation and beauty of Cambodian lives. When describing the Pol Pot regime, and the complete lack of care for the general populace, he comments:

In Khmer Rouge hospitals, untrained nurses were, according to journalist Joel Brinkley, ‘injecting patients with Pepsi or coconut milk’.

Images like that, and there are many, are impossible to forget. They mix with my own: a three-year-old, living in cardboard, begging for pizza from my table and returning to share it with other children, no older than five; a local guide laughing at moments when revisiting his past (losing family) to reassure us; finding a quiet place in the grounds of the Tuol Sleng Torture Museum to rest my head on my knees and breathe and cry after seeing the photographs: documentation of a generation tortured and murdered; a group of men on motorbikes taking us on a tour of rice paddies, and then to a Battambang nightclub, where they treated us with great respect under the strobe-lights, and screamed ‘Oh my Buddha’ in joy as they raced us back to our hotel.

Like the best travel writing, Walter’s book reveals as much about him as the Cambodians he writes about. I’m always drawn to writers on the outside looking in (my characters tend to be like that too). Walter is a curious mix: he describes himself as having ‘few inhibitions’ (which is why he tries to avoid alcohol) and yet he can be shy. People seem drawn to him, to open up in his company, and yet ‘[he] had been brought up never to ask difficult or personal questions, even if [he] was burning with curiosity’. I’m like this too, hampered by my own politeness. A difficult trait for a writer keen to engage with the world.

But one of the best things about travelling is that you are often forced to communicate, especially if no-one speaks your language. I remember days of agony on my first trip to Europe, trying to get up the guts to approach hotels with my execrable French.

Walter also knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat. One chapter details a huge event that Walter is invited to (with hundreds of people waiting expectantly), where he gradually realises, with dawning dread and fear, that he is the key speaker on the topic of Buddhism (to a parade of venerated monks). It’s like the worst of my nightmares where I’m completely unprepared, and exposed to the world. I won’t reveal the final outcome – it’s too excruciating; I just can’t go there. But Walter does.

The book is also centred on the sacred. Walter’s friend Panit ‘recognises the forest as sacred in many ways, fearing certain spots and glorying in the beauty of others’. My Japanese character Tadashi  (in just_a_girl) observes his mother’s Shinto religion, and sees everyday objects, and nature, as having kami, or spirits. Walter comments:

I had learned to not laugh at such statements, or to launch into a rationalist lecture about the absence of spirit realms. Friends spoke casually of spectral presences, of visitations by dragons and angels, of possession and trance … When faced with the possible alternative existence I felt only curiosity and a willingness to indulge in the possible wonder of multiple worlds.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Where Walter is in his element is turning his sharp focus back on Westerners and how they approach different cultural encounters. I particularly loved his writing on Angkor Wat, on how a spectacularly beautiful place is pretty much ruined by the sight at dawn of thousands of photographers perched for the perfect shot which, ironically, will be mainly of other photographers. I was lucky in 2005 to have a lot of this place to myself at certain moments. But I do remember sitting in the early morning behind some British backpackers, one loud girl in a see-through white mini-dress that revealed a bright pink thong, and wanting to push her off the edge of the temple to an untimely death. Walter contrasts the ‘Westerners strolling through [the sacred site] dressed as though for a day at the beach – a bad day at that’ with his friend, Panit:

Panit had taken a half-hour that morning to select the clothes he was going to wear to Angkor Wat, that proudest symbol of the Khmer people. All of the Cambodians we encountered were dressed neatly, respectfully.

And Walter is not afraid to expose himself to the light either. As a very camp and large man — the locals call him ‘fat’ (often favourably) — he often longs to be able to just fit in, be a part of the crowd. His description of the raucous encounter with a nasty masseuse who grabs his flesh and calls him names is a reminder of the pitfalls of travel, of trusting someone, of cultural differences where not everyone is ‘polite’ and it’s customary to comment on someone else’s body. At another point, two men get off their motorbikes and spontaneously grapple with and stroke his flesh. Through it all, Walter steps back, is passive, let’s things happen. This is disturbing and exhilarating for the reader, and something I understand well: being frozen by an extraordinary moment, unable to think, let alone act.

Fried spiders, Cambodia
Fried spiders, Cambodia

One night in a beach bar in Sihanoukville, I shared a joint with a friend. The next thing I knew, after falling asleep, I woke up, unable to find friends. Disoriented, I stumbled down the beach, stopping every now and then to have a little lie down, gradually becoming aware as I moved that I had no idea where my hotel was, had no idea how to get there, and couldn’t even remember its name. All I could hear was my mum’s voice saying ‘what were you thinking?‘. I strolled up to a road. It was about 3am. No-one around. I heard a putting motorbike coming my way. I hesitated as it approached me: do I flag it down? I’d never do it in Australia. I decided to take the risk.

The man stopped. I got on the bike. We didn’t say a word. He drove me through the streets and straight to the gates of my hotel. He refused my offer of money — a very generous offer.

It is my enduring memory of Cambodia. Along with eating a tarantula.

Walter’s Destination Cambodia is a collection of memories that offers an open and generous perspective of what it is like to confront another culture head-on.

Read Walter Mason’s review of just_a_girl.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS?

OR HAVE YOU BEEN TO CAMBODIA? PLEASE SHARE YOUR MEMORIES OF THE PLACE…

Debut author profile: Nina Smith

Nina Smith, author of Hailstone
Nina Smith, author of Hailstone

Each month I hope to profile a debut author or short story writer who has featured in Friday Night Fictions. This month, it’s Nina Smith, a WA writer who appeared in the August edition.

Her novel, Hailstone, is an action-packed romp with a gun-totin’, pill-poppin’, alcoholic, ex-evangelical lesbian on the loose. I spoke to her about religious cults, creating her novel in CreateSpace and gothic bellydancing (I dare you to try it).

Do you remember the moment when you decided you wanted to be a writer?

To be honest I don’t think it was ever something I decided; it simply was the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life. I was writing stories in early primary school, and my first novel at the age of 14. That, as I recall, was the most awful romance featuring guys on horses, and the heroine doing a lot of swooning, yelling and panicking. I’ve still got it scrawled in pencil in a notebook hidden away somewhere! At 15, my English teacher suggested I study creative writing at university, which was exactly what I ended up doing.

 What inspired you?

I draw inspiration from things that transcend words, like music. Sometimes I get novel ideas in dreams. Sometimes it’s from observing everyday life and the way people interact with each other. To me, stories are whole concepts as much as they are a series of events. Sometimes I will find a whole novel in a stark landscape, or a feeling in a song.

My book and yours share some common themes: religion and betrayal. Why were you drawn to investigating the dark side of church life and a preacher on the edge?

A lot of Hailstone was inspired by churches I came into contact with in my teenage years. Those teenage years were a stormy time, when I put a lot into religion, only to find there were aspects of it that absolutely alienated me. Since then I have had an enduring fascination with cults and the way some religions try to control people — not to mention the ways people rebel. Religion in general is a huge influence on the state of affairs in the world today, and we see it making people do crazy things. I wanted to explore those issues of control, of rebellion and most of all of fanaticism.

Hailstone is written in rapid fire, short sentences. Are you attracted to the crime genre?

To be honest, I haven’t read a lot of crime. My first love is fantasy, but every now and again I need to leave fantasy alone and write something completely and totally grounded in the real world, that’s all action and fast-paced. I love to read thrillers, and when writing them, I like to keep everything as tight and grounded as possible. I think however my day job as a journalist influences me here, as that has trained me to write in a way that wastes no words.

The title is an evocative one. Why did you choose it?

Funnily enough, the title came before the book. It occurred to me while driving one day that Hailstone would be an awesome name for a city, and that was where the story started. I like the name because hailstones, while not a natural disaster, are a force of nature that are incredibly destructive but also quite common. They suggest parts of life that are destructive but so ordinary people simply don’t pay any attention to them.

I was really drawn to both the cover and synopsis of your book. How did they both develop?

HailstoneThe synopsis was a result of days of writing, re-writing, occasional temper tantrums and then more re-writing. I find it so much easier to write a whole novel than a few paragraphs about it! In the end,  once I had distilled the most basic elements of the story — the gun, the church, the father — I was happy with it.

The cover was really interesting to put together. The model is a rather gorgeous woman I know who agreed to dress up and wander around our closest city with me one Sunday afternoon being photographed. That image is one of the last we took, and it was so perfect; the expression on her face, the way she held her keys, everything about her fit the character of Mags McAllister perfectly. I wanted to add something to it, though, so I went to the local wreckers and took photos of smashed windscreens. One of these images I overlaid, then put through filters until I had what I wanted: the feeling that I was looking through a smashed windscreen, watching the person who had smashed it storm away. To me it conveys the desolation, the anger and the brokenness of a woman who is trapped in an abusive cycle.

Your protagonist is a pistol wielding, valium-popping, alcoholic, ex-Christian lesbian. How did you uncover her? Did you do any research:-)

Ha! I might have ‘researched’ some things, but not others, in my miss-spent youth. I chose aspects for the character that were diametrically opposed to the environment she was in. I have to say, though, I’ve previously observed the children of authoritarian figures sometimes take such paths.

What were your favourite books to read as a child?

Everything I could get my hands on. I particularly loved the Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody and the Vicky Bliss series by Elizabeth Peters.

You used CreateSpace to publish your first book? What was the process and would you recommend it to other authors? 

CreateSpace was a brilliant experience. The program takes you step by step through uploading your text and your graphics and making sure everything is formatted correctly before you order a proof copy. (I picked up a lot of things in that proof copy that I missed on the screen.) You can price your book yourself, order as many or as few copies as you need and it is listed on Amazon.

I highly recommend CreateSpace if you want to get your book out there, so long as you are:  a) able to pay for an editor and cover designer; or b) have the skills to do those things properly yourself.

The end product is beautiful and professional, and having control over every step of the process is a fantastic thing. The one thing you have to be aware of is that once you have your published product, it’s up to you to market it, which is a whole other journey to set out on.

You live in WA. What is it like to be a writer there? Is there a writer community where you are?

Western Australia is a very isolated part of the world. I think it is because of that, that communities of like-minded people tend to be very close and supportive. There are some amazing writers out here, and a great network of people, organisations and festivals.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the process of writing your first novel, that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Apparently its not a convention any more to put three spaces after every fullstop. That’s made editing some of my earlier efforts an exhausting process!

You describe yourself as a gothic bellydancer. Tell us a bit more…

Gothic bellydance is a branch of the amazing and diverse art of bellydance that explores the darker sides of life, human nature and music through bellydance. It is a beautiful practice where the costumes are mostly black, a little bit red (no hot pink!); the music is often industrial or dark — Rammstein, Tool and Nine Inch Nails are popular choices, along with bands like Maduro and Solace. It is a theatrical form where you can explore characters such as goddesses or demons, dance out your emotions or create a piece that is intense, confronting or dangerous. I love this form as it allows me to tell stories with my body and my dance in the same way I tell stories with my words.