Posts in Book Reviews

Communicating the incommunicable: celebrating the work of Richard Flanagan

Through Richard Flanagan’s writing flows the destructive power of love, the lyricism of horror, the revisioning of Tasmania, and the gaps between words and action.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan wins the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan wins the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North

High school dropout. Bush labourer. Rhodes scholar. River guide. Environmental activist. Film director. Man Booker prize winner. Indigenous Literacy Foundation ambassador. Whatever way you twist it, Richard Flanagan has had an unusual career. While Flanagan has often publicly stated that he believes writers should be separated from their defining adjectives, it’s hard to divorce him from Tasmanian. Given the tidal wave of support following his Booker Prize win in 2014, and the video of US President Barack Obama buying Flanagan’s book at a bookstore, former Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon may rue the day he said, “Richard Flanagan and his fiction is not welcomed in the new Tasmania” (ABC-TV News, 2004) but in the new new Tasmania, Flanagan continues to balance his fictional agenda with deeply felt personal essays on human and environmental rights, most recently challenging the Abbott government’s treatment of Gillian Triggs (The Guardian,
26 February 2015). At the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2014 he spoke of his novels as being “beyond morality”, but his work continues to argue for the many voices not being heard.

A River Runs Through it

Richard Flanagan's debut novel, Death of a River Guide
Richard Flanagan’s debut novel, Death of a River Guide

At a recent Wheeler Centre event in Melbourne, Flanagan was asked how winning the Booker Prize had changed his life. He responded, in a typical gentle deflection, that he nearly drowned once, and that was a life-changing experience. He actually nearly drowned at least twice, probably more: with his mate Jim as he tried to kayak Bass Strait (And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?, 2011); as a river guide, leading an expedition down the Franklin, when he was wedged inside a rapid (Australian Story, ABC TV, 2008); and then there’s the story his brother Martin Flanagan tells about a childhood dare, when Martin and Tim goaded their younger brother to swim the mouth of a river.

When Richard returned, they denied seeing him doing it. So he set off again “until in the end he was just a set of nostrils and two flailing hands above the water” (The Age, 13 September 2014). Clearly it’s no surprise that the forces of nature, the tides of loss and hope and death and love, flow so clearly through his work:

I came to realise that most contemporary culture, including its literature, is made by people for whom the measure of the world is what is man-made. But the Franklin taught me this: that the measure of this world are all the things not made by man. And it was this sense that has come to inform me and all I have written since. (SMH Traveller, August 2013)

In Death of a River Guide, Harry, the father of Aljaz, shares his knowledge of the spirit of the river with his son. After a period of absence on the mainland, the river calls Aljaz back, tempting and seducing him, and he surrenders to “smelling the river, hearing it run, watching the rain mists rise from its valleys, drinking in the tea-coloured waters from his cupped hands”.

Flanagan was one of the first kayakers to go down the Franklin and there’s a rapid, Flanagan’s Surprise, named after him. In River Guide, though, there’s ambivalence. Aljaz notes the marking points of the river with disdain — Side Slip, Inception Reach, Severity Sounds — believing that to name things is a futile attempt at controlling fear, and he yearns for his early trips in the 1970s when “they experienced each day as a surprise, when people remembered the river as a whole, not as a collection of named sites that could be reduced to a series of photographs.” While the men in Flanagan’s debut novel don’t speak much, it’s the language of the river, the literacy of the landscape, that Harry and his father, and the river guides, can understand.

The Force, and Failure, of Words

Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival
Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

In a conversation with Geordie Williamson at the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2014, Flanagan speaks of the role of the writer as being “to communicate the incommunicable”. Describing himself as “a child of the Death Railway”, he experienced first-hand the after-lives of returned prisoners of war, young men dealing with trauma and wounds that didn’t heal in their lives, passing them onto the next generations, inhabiting a place where the silence “left gaps” — gaps he attempts to fill in his Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. What resounds is his clear compassion for those “caught up in the machinery of war”. Doing research, he met Japanese guards who wanted to ask his father for forgiveness. He called his father to relay their wishes and, from this point on, his father had no memory of the war: a blessed release. Flanagan finished Narrow Road on the day his father died.

Many of Flanagan’s central characters struggle with an inability to articulate, with their experiences and emotions — horror, despair, abandonment, grief, even joy — often greater than words will allow. In River Guide, when Harry finds his father killed by a fallen tree, expression is beyond him: “Not that Harry said any of these things or anything at all. Not that Harry even had words for what he thought. But Harry felt it and he felt it as a flame that consumed his body.” His son, Aljaz, learns from the very start about the power of words when in his early years deafness (due to pneumonia) means he can’t communicate with those around him, and his rage and confusion are palpable: “He now listened to the way in which words were used, the way one word could carry so many different meanings, how every word could be a tree full of fruit. But when he asked questions he was answered only with a quizzical shake of the head.”

This experience is mirrored in Flaganan’s own early years, his brother Martin relaying on Australian Story: “He had a serious hearing impediment early in his life and for the first six years … he was virtually deaf.” I can read this experience through all of Flanagan’s work, his ability to translate, to make us listen, his forceful prose, and his empathy for others struggling with language too. In The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Bojan swears in Italian rather than “profane his native tongue”. He carries stories from the war in Slovenia (as all the men working on the dam do), stories that he finally cannot tell. He says to Sonja, “You find a language. But I lose mine. And I never had enough words to tell people what I think, what I feel.”

In River Guide, when Aljaz is drowning, slowly dying in the river, his visions take him to Harry in the rainforest, felling timber and about to lose his thumb. As Old Bo and Smeggsy go to amputate, Aljaz pleads:

Then he let the axe fall.
Do I have to watch the rest?
Thank god for small mercies.

But Flanagan is generally not so merciful to the reader. We do have to watch the rest as his novels unfold, hear and feel the horror of lyrical moments, impossible to forget: the maggots crawling like “coconut on lamingtons” in the POW latrine; the dead baby’s eyelids that fall off when the mother tries to close them; the amputation of Jack Rainbow’s mangled flesh. While I may try to close my eyes, Flanagan doesn’t give me the chance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, choosing to read Rainbow’s amputation in its visceral detail and there’s no escaping it in the auditorium; when he speaks it, the horror is impossible to cast off.

The inability to express things in words often takes more solid shape through the characters’ attachment to, or disengagement from, various objects: the Mae-West-like picture of a girlfriend that a soldier carries through various horrors, to get him home, only to be gutted by a phone call; the bugle that Jimmy Bigelow plays while bodies burn in the funeral pyre, sold in a garage sale for a few bucks; the tea set that Sonja, at just three, deliberately drops on the ground to smash, then spends her returning years trying to piece back together, a legacy from her father who has “survived by camping in the fragments”; the toy-sized coffins that the children make in the orphanage where Mathinna is finally abandoned.

The Power of Love

My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North
My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North

Talking to Geordie Williamson, Flanagan mentions that when he started writing The Narrow Road, he was terrified about embarking on a love story because “everyone recognises a bad note”. It’s a curious comment because while his latest novel deals with the mystery of love, in all its forms (as he points out) — marital, sexual, friendship and camaraderie — his earlier novels are also about love in all its ugliness, joy and confusion. In River Guide, Couta Ho (Aljaz’s girlfriend) embodies strength and desire, the couple’s love played out in a wildly original game of semaphore flags, Couta holding them aloft and signalling to Aljaz what she wants: a blue flag with a white stripe signals “I am on fire”. Later, when they meet again, it’s the death of the relationship that’s flagged, and when their baby dies at two months, they no longer have a language, coded or otherwise, to share this pain.

In Gould’s Book of Fish, our unreliable guide tells us that “ … to make a book … is to learn that the only appropriate feeling to those who live within its pages is love”. But Flanagan doesn’t make it easy. Enduring the beatings by Bojan, Nakamura and The Goanna takes a reader to the limits, the violence and cruelty appearing monstrous — but the men themselves are not so easily conveyed as monsters, rather creatures who are a product of certain times and places and systemic abuse, and histories that any of us would struggle to understand. Although Flanagan does not wrench responsibility away from them, they all come from worlds where they have never experienced true freedom.

But it’s not all horror; there are small patches of light.

In Narrow Road, Dorrigo quotes poetry at key moments, even when his lovers chide him and desire to hear his own thoughts. Talking to Amy before he leaves for war, he believes it “was if life could be shown but never explained, and words — all the words that did not say things directly — were for him the most truthful”. If you talk to Flanagan, or see him on stage, he has an extraordinary capacity for remembering and reciting others’ words (apparently his father did too) and you get the sense that he is as happy living in their company as his own.

Self-inflicted Fictions

Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish
Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish

In all of his books, Flanagan questions whether there’s more truth to be found in facts versus stories, and how we go about creating personal, historical and cultural myths. His novels attempt to uncover the fictions that Tasmanian colonials (and contemporaries) have told about themselves, about Aboriginal people, about the environment, about convict settlement. In Gould’s Book of Fish, the “known history” and “official documents” become a burden too great to bear for Gould, “hauling a sled of lies called history through wilderness”, as he attempts to escape his incarceration, saved by Twopenny Sal, who tears the pages up and throws them on a funeral pyre. Both Dorrigo and Sir John Franklin feel the weight of the fictions they have created, or that others have imposed on them. In an echo of Dorrigo, Franklin says, “There was about … his position, his own faded ambitions, the utterly unjustified reputation he carried with him as an ever-heavier burden, something intolerable and entirely absurd.” In Wanting, Charles Dickens teeters on the brink of collapse (between desire and reason), finding that “his novels were true in a way life was not” and, yet, this is countered by his wife Catherine, who sees that Dickens had “made her that boring woman of his novels; she had become his heroine in her weakness and compliance and dullness”.

Flanagan’s answer to this crazy mayhem of human endeavours is the power, resilience and beauty of nature, always encroaching, reclaiming: the smouldering ruins of the Commandant’s Great Mah-Jong Hall; the workers’ camps at the dams overpowered by rainforest; the line of the Burma railway, the cause of so many deaths, disappearing into the jungle: “Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.”

As I traverse Flanagan’s novels and non-fiction again, there are continual pulls into the world around me. As I sit with Choi Sang-min in the final hours before his execution, it’s the day that Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan face the firing squad singing ‘Amazing Grace’. As Colonel Koto speaks of his pleasure at using the sword against a prisoner’s neck, a captured ISIS soldier on Four Courners spits out his desire to slice through a captive’s neck with a blunt knife. As The Doll goes on the run from a fraudulent charge of terrorism, I see young Muslim men condemned as guilty before proven innocent. As Flanagan’s POW veterans return to Australian shores unable to cope post-WWII, I hear Mandy in The Saturday Paper begging the Department of Veteran Affairs to help her husband, a returned soldier from Iraq, who is traumatised, violent, homeless, and unable to acclimatise to daily life.

When asked again at the Wheeler Centre about winning the Booker Prize, Flanagan is careful to point out that while he is lucky enough to have a place in the sun, for the moment, most writers spend their lives in the shadows and do their best work there. He sees his novels not as individual books but as part of one larger work, each flowing into and on from the other. Whether writing in the light or shade, Flanagan’s vision continues to resonate because of his willingness to take risks in all aspects of his writing and life, to challenge the powerful, and to use his words as tools of defiance:

Writing my novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North I came to conclude that great crimes like the Death Railway did not begin with the first beating or murder on that grim line of horror in 1943. They begin decades before with politicians, public figures and journalists promoting the idea of some people being less than people … For the idea of some people being less than people is poison to any society, and needs to be named as such in order to halt its spread before it turns the soul of a society septic. (The Guardian, 26 February 2015)

 

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of Australian Author.

Looking beyond the labels: Tara Moss

Tara Moss' new memoir The Fictional Woman
Tara Moss’ new memoir The Fictional Woman

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, crime fiction writer Tara Moss appeared on a panel with Irvine Welsh and Damon Young, talking about writing the body. As she held her new memoir ‘The Fictional Woman’ up to the audience, I was drawn immediately to the cover, a close up of her face, with labels written on in black: Dumb Blonde mingling with Feminist, Model with Bleeding Heart.

It started me thinking about the names I’ve been called, especially when I was a teenager, and how they’ve defined or ignored the essential parts of me – and how often they were contradictory, exposing the labels as fabrications.

Here are some that people have aimed and fired at me (friends, bosses, family, boys yelling out of cars as they drove past): Stupid Girl; Aloof; Too Nice; Passive; Aggressive; Party Animal; Desperate; Brainy; Up Yourself; Leso; Ugly Dog.

It’s a good list, isn’t it? It feels quite liberating to throw them out there. And these are just the ones that have stuck with me. What are yours?

In her memoir, Tara Moss looks beyond the surface to examine the fictions that surround her (and other women), tracing her life as a teen model then writer, and the way she sees herself versus how others perceive her. I spoke to Tara about personal fictions, public perceptions of women’s bodies and feminism’s place in contemporary culture.

This article and interview originally appeared on the Australian Women Writers blog.

*Although you have written lots of fiction, your first nonfiction book is called ‘The Fictional Woman’. Why did you decide to call it that?

‘The Fictional Woman’ centres on the stereotypes, limiting labels or ‘fictions’ that hold people back. It is an issue that has impacted a number of groups along the lines of race, class and other categorisations, but the book specifically focusses on how this reductive labelling has impacted women and men along the lines of gender. I highlight the issues using some of my own personal experiences in the book, along with other people’s stories, wide-ranging data and a look at the historical context of these experiences. As mainstream films are arguably our most dominant form of storytelling today, I also explore the way in which women in particular are fictionalised in line with archaic archetypes, and how, incredibly, of the top grossing films 91% of directors are men, 85% of writers are men, 98% of cinematographers are men and so on, shaping what stories are told and from what perspective.

*How was the writing process different from your crime fiction?

I have always been very motivated by research, statistics and data, though obviously in my crime novels I approached issues of violence and social justice through fiction. The process of writing non-fiction is very different, but as I had been writing OpEds, blogs and advocacy work for a few years, and was also working on my doctorate in social sciences, a full length non-fiction book on the issues I am passionate about seemed like a natural progression. The addition of endnotes was a necessary part of ‘The Fictional Woman’ but I needed to spend a lot of time on collating that data.

*Did you feel like an investigator looking into your own past, searching for clues, for what was concealed?

I knew my own story very well – some experiences really stay with you – so there was little research needed for the memoir components. What I did do was to send any draft chapters dealing with family to all of the people who were mentioned in those chapters. My mother’s death, for instance, was not simply my story to tell. It was my father’s story too, and my sister’s story, so I consulted with them for that section and any section dealing with my childhood. The memoir component of the book was necessary to the story I wanted to tell and the way I needed to tell it, but it only makes up about 10% of the overall book.

*The striking cover features labels written on your face like ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Brainy’. How liberating was it to acknowledge and bring these labels to light?

I chose those labels or ‘fictions’ and the idea for the cover because it seemed like the most raw, honest and authentic way to represent the book between the pages. My face, my fictions. Everyone has labels that have been hung on them, and those ones on the cover are mine. Some of the terms are positive or dictionary-accurate (feminist, mother, wife) while some are blatantly false and pejorative, but all of the words are labels applied to me and all of the words bring their own baggage and assumptions. Everyone has their version of these labels – men, women and school children.

*Why have you encouraged other women (and men) to write labels on their faces too?

The idea of visually expressing labels (and then washing them off, which can feel quite liberating) came naturally. The first person to do it once ‘The Fictional Woman’ came out was book reviewer and author John Purcell. We talked for a while about what fictions had haunted him, and he had me write them on his face. (There is a video here.)

At the book launch for ‘The Fictional Woman’, makeup artists helped people to apply labels relevant to them. A Facebook page was even started and a wide range of people have taken part.

*The book moves between memoir and broader feminist issues, framed by a series of themes. Why did you decide to structure it in this way?

‘The Fictional Woman’ found its structure organically, albeit with a lot of hard work and research. I wanted to create a book that was accessible, enjoyable to read, but also had something to say. Because there are so many issues to discuss, and because I was using some memoir as a jumping off point, it made sense to structure the book in an essentially chronological way, touching on each issue in its own chapter.

*You mention a number of very personal stories in the book, including a scene where you were raped, and your experience of miscarriage. You wrote that you were initially uncertain about whether to include these stories. What made you change your mind?

It became clear to me that if I was to continue to move into the area of advocacy for women and children, as I have been doing in recent years, I could not avoid the discussion of violence against women, as it is such a prevalent and serious issue. And I could not in good faith address that issue without also sharing my own stories, because one of the arguments I make is that the stigma and silence around sexual assault and harassment is damaging to individuals and the general community. I wanted to show solidarity with others who had these experiences – sexual assault, miscarriage, and other difficult but common experiences. There are many of us. 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime and about a fifth to a quarter of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, so these are issues that must be discussed and issues that we need to get better at dealing with. I am not arguing that everyone needs to tell their story, and certainly not in such a public way. You need to do what you need to do to cope. But in my case, because of my advocacy work, it was a natural progression to share my own experience in the context of the much broader issues.

*The book forced me to question my own judgements, what I tend to sum-up about people after taking a cursory glance. How do you step away from such quick judgements?

We all do it, but we can lessen our biases and assumptions by simply trying. Awareness can be powerful. When we are aware of our biases and the historical contexts for them, we are more easily able to reject lazy assumptions.

*Much of the harrowing early part of the book is about your experiences as a teen model, often isolated and sometimes in real danger. Why do you think there was no system in place at the time to support and help you? Has it changed now?

The modelling industry is an industry – a business. It is essentially about making money and as such the industry in general is not particularly concerned with the health and wellbeing of those working in the industry. Thankfully there are many individual people and individual businesses with high ethical standards, but a model does not generally work for a single business, but rather for a different client on practically every job, and often in different countries, so standards vary enormously. Notably, there is no modelling union I am aware of. There wasn’t at the time I was modelling and I am not aware of one now. Without collective bargaining there is little hope that working conditions will improve significantly across territories. Working conditions, particularly for underage models, need to be addressed more effectively.

*Your statistics outlined in the book and arguments reveal a world where the fight for equal rights still has a long way to go. What are the crucial next steps along this path, as you see them?

Activism and awareness are needed on many fronts, including but not limited to prevention of violence against women and domestic violence, creating more equal pay, preventing discrimination in the work place, addressing problems in superannuation and savings for older women, childcare, valuing unpaid care (which is extremely important for the community and is disproportionately performed by women), allowing women greater access to positions of power without stigma and allowing men to engage in flexible work and unpaid care without stigma.

*Your chapter on mothering and childbirth had particular resonance for me (I also went the CalmBirth way!). Why do you think women are increasingly afraid of childbirth?

There needs to be a better balance between quality, accessible specialist medical care where needed, quality midwifery care, and informed choice. Many experts working in maternity have expressed concern about the balance as it stands. The studies I drew on in that chapter pointed to the culture within a given health care system as being a significant factor in both health outcomes and what is known as ‘extreme’ birth fear, along with popular media portrayals that naturally focus on the worst possible scenarios for dramatic reasons. That conclusion seems to bear out in the different attitudes encountered in different countries. People’s birth experiences vary enormously, the subject can be a very sensitive one, people can find themselves judged viciously, and unfortunately the remaining taboos around birth make it difficult to get a balanced view.

*Women’s bodies can be seen as public property. This is often particularly the case for young women and pregnant women, where strangers approach and sometimes feel they have the right to touch. What can women do in these situations to assert themselves?

One of the most important moments in my life was when I realised that I cared more for my own dignity and sense of self than I did trying to please everyone all the time. That meant that I didn’t care if it upset someone to be told that they could not touch me, or that I did not accept their point of view. There has unfortunately been a history of women’s bodies literally being the property of others, and bodily autonomy remains a battle in some ways. It may not always be easy, but it is always worth it.

*I’m interested in the grey area between what girls/women would like to say and what they end up saying and doing in the moment. How do you think we can bring up girls to be more assertive, to express their sexuality confidently, and to move beyond the surface impressions?

There are still some negative stereotypes, or ‘fictions’ about assertive girls and women. We need to reject the idea that girls who simply want to participate in life are ‘bossy’ or leaders are ‘dragon ladies’ or ‘ice queens’ simply for being women and doing their jobs. There is a cultural shift still happening and cultural attitudes often lag behind actual changes in the law. For instance, women in Australia had the right to vote and stand for office 22 years before any woman actually did enter federal parliament, the longest lag of any western country, and incredibly, this right to vote was not extended to Indigenous women until 1962 (see Australian Women in Politics). We need to realise that just because something is, doesn’t mean it is right. We can challenge our own assumptions about what is possible, and challenge the assumptions of others.

That is part of what ‘The Fictional Woman’ is about, creating change by starting from within, challenging our own assumptions and refusing to participate in the limiting and damaging stereotyping of women and girls, and others.

~

Australian Women Writers founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, would like to acknowledge Tara Moss as the inspiration for the creation of the AWW challenge. Without Tara’s original blog post in 2011 wrapping up the Sisters in Crime conference — and the outrage it generated — the AWW challenge and blog wouldn’t exist.

Shyness is nice: the beauty of inarticulation

An autobiography of Christos Tsiolkas
A biography of Christos Tsiolkas

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, David Marr did a wonderfully incisive interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of Dead Europe, The Slap and, most recently, Barracuda. Throughout the session, in response to Marr’s questions, Tsiolkas took many minutes to speak, occasionally with his head in his hands as if trying to squeeze out the answers. The loud silence filled the room. But when he finally was able to seize the words, his ideas were rich in detail, nuanced, worth waiting for. Marr quipped that ‘he writes loudly and speaks quietly’.

As I waited patiently for Tsiolkas to frame himself, I realised how rare this was: the chance to see a writer composing, having the courage to be uncertain, to not reach for the quick answer, to feel, as Tsiolkas said, a ‘real sense of responsibility … to what language means’. While Tsiolkas initially saw his writing as an effective way to channel rage (against himself, against others), he also wanted to fight off the ‘bad habit’ of being nice. Marr responded: ‘But you are nice, aren’t you!’ Being a writer, and performing in public, is so often about trying to reconcile these contradictory forces.

In her memoir Shy, Sian Prior uses this perceived dualism as a literary device. She intertwines the thoughts of Shy Sian (the interior monologue of a woman whose hands shake at parties, who’s always on the periphery, who runs for cover when things get too rough) with Professional Sian (the radio announcer and interviewer; the teacher; the activist; confident in front of crowds). When Prior takes to the stage or the street, she’s always anxious her shy version will seep through, but Ms Professional usually comes to the rescue. The whole book is searching for what Prior is really afraid of. Rejection? Grief? Being alone? Vulnerabilty?

If you’re feeling shy, you’re worried about something. If you’re a persistent worrier, you’re anxious. If you’re anxious, your mind enters into a pact with your body, sending it into the world with an armoury of self-protective physical responses. Danger! The adrenaline, the sweating, the rapid breathing, all preparing your body to run. Ensuring your hands will shake but your legs will move faster when you need to take off.

Except that you’re never sure why you needed to take off so fast in the first place.

Shy is the first book by Sian Prior
Shy is the first book by Sian Prior

What Tsiolkas does, in those long moments of public hesitation, is let us in, share some hidden part of him. These days, there is much pressure on writers to be perfectionists in all aspects of their lives. Not only on the page but under the spotlight too. To have the right answers. To be funny. To give the audience what they want. To be entertaining. But vulnerability can be a powerful thing.

In Brene Brown’s very popular TED talk (over 15 million hits) on vulnerabilty, she interprets shame as the ‘fear of disconnection’. While Prior in her memoir may be keen to do all the research and categorisation (shyness vs introversion vs social anxiety), the residue of her writing, the success of her book, is when she meditates on loneliness and what it means to feel ashamed, to wear a mask in public — and how she tries, often unsuccessfully, to get beyond the ‘I’m not good enough’ to build relationships with others.

It’s something I’m all too familiar with. A year ago, my first novel was released. It’s about a 14-year-old girl caught between the private and public worlds. It’s about characters who fail to connect. But most of all, it’s about the grey area: those gaps between what the characters want to do and say, and what they actually manage. As the time came for the book to be released, there was the slow dawn of dread: that I would have to stand up in public and articulate. In the past I had quit jobs, taken to my bed, manipulated and evaded, to avoid exposing myself. I had stayed in my comfort zone. Behind words. A computer screen. Like Prior I had run from a party in my teens, a panic attack in the car, paralysed. I had called on Professional Kirsten many a time, to various degrees of success. But I had never stood up for myself.

Tara Moss's memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian
Tara Moss’s memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian Prior’s Shy

It wasn’t looking good. The first call came out for radio interviews, appearances at bookshops, public readings. The fear in my guts started to bleed out. My brain quickly sought angles and innovative ways to say no. Like Prior, I was a master of the what ifs. But then it finally came to me. If I couldn’t stand up and talk about my own book, where could I go? I know! I could be cultivated as mysterious, hermit-like, Patrick White. Who was I kidding? A debut author can’t do that these days. Perhaps that was the problem. Like Prior, I was shy and mysterious — even to myself. I gave myself a pep talk. I had chosen this career as a writer. I had been lucky to be able to do it. The process, and the result, was a joy to me. It was something to share. And in the end it came down to six very small and extraordinarily powerful words: ‘Whatever I do is good enough.’ No what ifs. No buts. No calling in sick. Leave it at that.

Tara Moss’s memoir, The Fictional Woman, is a good companion piece to Shy, and shares some of Prior’s themes: how pain is written in and on the body; how others’ perceptions can be elevated above your own; how beauty can be worn as a shield; and how science, stats and semi-truths can be interweaved to make a compelling narrative. But in both these books, what it all comes down to is sharp writing. While Moss’s book is themed around common (mis)conceptions, Prior uses wonderful sleight-of-hand to draw me in and push me away: lists, short chapters, vivid description, strong characterisation, positing herself as the unreliable narrator, juxtaposing the two Sians in interviews, bold statements, wry humour, and the charm (and betrayal) of falling in and out of love:

On the computer screen we could be nutty, nuanced, nonchalant. Nothing seemed to be at stake, nothing required except to entertain each other with words. We told each other stories from our past, we compared our reactions to novels we’d read, we even offered tidbits of regret about past relationships. Writing to Tom, I felt weightless.

 And in one of those early emails, when I confessed to being shy, he simply replied: As Morrissey says, shyness is nice.

 I felt like I’d been found.

A year on from releasing just_a_girl, a piece of my identity has clicked into place too. The Land of Writers is where I feel I belong. Writers are weird, shy, crazy, eloquent, bumbling, provocative, curious, fringe dwellers — and often drink too much. Just like everyone else I like, really. As I challenge myself on the festival circuit, many writers have come up to me, confessed their own fears, keen for guidance. They’re shy. They’d rather be looking on. It doesn’t come naturally to them. They want to run. I feel their pain. But I can now point to Tsiolkas and Prior and Moss. Do I think any less of them (as writers, as people?) now I see their vulnerable side? Do I judge them critically, knowing what I do? In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. What remains is enormous respect — and a desire to know more about them (as writers, as people). Just read any blog about how to cope with mental illness, how to move through grief, how to come out as an introvert (via Susan Cain), and go to the comments section. People want to see the inarticulate, the not-so-slick, the grasping for meaning; it’s what generates passion and compassion in the reader.

Sian Prior’s memoir may not be a how-to or reveal-all, but it does connect. It dares me to challenge my own perceptions, see beneath the surface, and come out the other end, shyness intact. She has a talk on shyness coming up at the Wheeler Centre tonight. I hope it’s Shy Sian rather than Professional Sian who turns up on the night.

 

A version of this article originally appeared at the Wheeler Centre’s daily blog.

I have a Facebook page too. If you could LIKE I would surely LOVE.

 

 

 

Friday Night Fictions: author profile Laura Jean Mckay

Friday Night Fictions debut author: Laura Jean McKay
Friday Night Fictions debut author: Laura Jean McKay

I first came across Laura Jean McKay’s collection of short stories Holiday in Cambodia when I was researching new books set in the region, inspired by Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia. After a brief trip there in 2005, it’s a country I have remained fascinated with. I wrote voraciously about it at the time (must fossick for that notebook!) and remember, at the end of each day travelling, being exhilarated and exhausted by the conflicting imagery — the gut-wrenching violence of the Killing Fields tour; the joy on the face of a girl as she gave me a tarantula to eat — and the sudden awareness of the richness of my life, in all senses of the word (see Laura’s reflections on this later).

So I was thrilled when Laura sent in her book to be featured in November’s Friday Night Fictions club for debut authors. Her collection is harrowing, gutsy and makes you squirm at times. She takes on a variety of perspectives, all confidently characterised, including the dreams of local Cambodians — a young prostitute; a woman who works in a factory — interspersed with the more familiar terrain (for Australians) of the tourist abroad.

The writing is straight, finely tuned and never sentimental. And while I don’t think shorts exist merely as a lead-in to longer work (see my recent review in The Australian of The Great Unknown and Sleepers Almanac), it’s a sign for me of the writer’s potential if I’m left at the end of a short story desperate to know more.

When I interviewed Laura, I was particularly interested to hear that her dad was a writer — as my father is too. I’ve often wondered whether people can have a ‘writer gene’, where they are born to write, as it often feels like this when I do it. I still think it’s pretty much all about hard work and resilience but, comparing my books with my dad’s, there’s a similar voice that emerges, a style that we seem to share. I also love her comments about shyness and eccentricity (as I’ve unearthed ideas about this on the blog along the way).

And I’m very grateful that she chose to ignore those people who told her not to bother with a short story collection, because ‘people won’t read it’. We need more of them published! You can hear Laura reading one of her short stories ‘The Expatriate’ if you fancy a taste.

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

Laura Jean McKay's debut collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia
Laura Jean McKay’s debut collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia

I don’t think there was a moment where I thought ‘I will be a writer’ but there was definitely a point when I started writing. My dad, who was a poet, died before I was born. Mum and some of his friends published his poems in a book that was always around the house when I was little. When I was 11 or 12 I found a suitcase of all his drafts — those scraps of paper and notebooks that most writers have. I think seeing that process, a whole suitcase filled with process, and knowing about the final product of the book had a big influence on me. I started writing poetry using sort of the language he used. So there was this kid poetry — often written in texta — with this adult man imagery. It makes for pretty strange and interesting reading. I guess poetry taught me how to look at the world — and then I found prose.

Your book is a collection of short stories set in Cambodia. Did you set about from the start to publish a collection of short stories? Or did you write one story at a time and start to see the connections?

I actually started off writing an historical novel about the 60s surf rock music scene that was rocking Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge. I wrote about ten or twenty thousand words of it and realised I couldn’t fit all I wanted into that structure. I naturally default to writing short stories — I think I always will — and so as well as struggling through the novel I’d been bashing out these stories about modern Cambodia. After a while I realised that I was working on a collection and that this was the only structure that would allow me to say what I wanted to say. The novel is in there though! It’s a story called ‘Breakfast’ and I reckon I wrote a whole novella’s worth to get to the final 5000 words. I don’t know why it was so hard — maybe because it was carrying the weight of the novel or maybe because so much was lost when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April ’75. It’s not a sad story but I found it incredibly hard to write because I was writing about a lost time, a time not without problems, but when Cambodia was independent and thriving.

A lot of people told me not to write a short story collection, that it wouldn’t be published and that people didn’t read them. I thought, ‘Well, I can either write a novel that I know isn’t going to be what I want it to be, or a short story collection that will.’ My partner says I’m dogged that way …

Why Cambodia? Did it start off as a holiday?

I first went to Cambodia as a volunteer aid worker in 2007. Phnom Penh, and Cambodia, was really doing pretty well by then — a lot of people had adjusted to independence from the UN and there were facilities in place, roads and mobile phone services, cafes etc. Cambodian people were reviving traditions and doing incredible things with education. I got a job working up in the remote north and expats told me stories about how all the aid workers used to meet every Friday night as a rule so that they would know everyone was still alive and not lost or shot somewhere out in the jungle. Still, I was completely bowled over by the levels of poverty, the lack of infrastructure, the corruption and the violence. I saw a man using his chin to cross a busy road in Phnom Penh because that was what he had left to use. I knew that behind the polite and smiling exterior that most tourists experience on a holiday, the levels of domestic violence were (and possibly still are) astronomical. The tourist/expat scene of which I was a part, completely shocked me as well. I was repulsed by the things I said and the assumptions I made and the way I acted. My perception of what ‘rich’ is completely changed as I realised that money in the bank was one thing, living in a country that will care for you if you’re old, young, physically or mentally disabled, a single parent etc, is another. I realised I was billionaire-rich because I was from a location in the world and of a race and had a passport that meant I would probably be looked after. This all makes for a lot to write about …

Why did you choose the Dead Kennedys song as your title (other than that it’s catchy!)?

The title for the book came very late in the piece, after I’d completely rewritten the first draft and I was about to send it out to publishers. I used to hang out in the 90s punk scene in Brisbane, where my contribution was having blue hair and attending a lot of gigs, and I remember hearing ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ on a CD for the first time and thinking that the Dead Kennedys really knew about everything. I think I was singing the song to myself in 2012 when I was taking a break from writing and realised that the lyrics of that song (written in 1980) still applied, that I had experienced a version of what Jello Biafra was describing, and that Holiday in Cambodia was the title for my book. If there is a central question to the collection, I guess it’s: how can you have a holiday in Cambodia? It’s like having a holiday in Rwanda, or Syria.

Recently Jello Biafra’s agent wrote asking for a few copies of the book …

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Rm-Fu8rBms&w=560&h=315]

What is it that you love most about writing?

Everything and nothing. I love the first image that I see so clearly it’s as though it has happened, and I know there might be a story there. I love when I’m writing absolute shit and it’s impossible and it’s only the fear and guilt that’s driving me on (fear that I won’t finish it, guilt that I’ve given up everything else to do it) and the shitness builds and builds like a bubble and then pop I’m through it — I know what I’m writing and that it will be okay. I love that every time I write I have to solve a series of problems and if I do that I can handle most things. I love getting something to the point where it’s as good as I’m physically and mentally and emotionally capable of producing and knowing that, with a good editor, I’ll be able to take it even further. I love being inside a story — where I’m not thinking about it but I’m so in it that it takes up my everything, even when I’m not working on it. You know?

How did you go about getting the book published?

It wasn’t as hard people said it would be but it wasn’t as easy as some publishing tales I’ve heard either. I sent it to one publisher before it was ready and that was a mistake. I imagined they would see what I envisioned for it and instead they, understandably, saw what I gave them. I got some truly lovely feedback and only one shitty rejection. Most people wanted to see ‘my novel’. It didn’t take too long before I had a great meeting with Black Inc. who said they liked the work and wanted it. I admired the hell out of their books already so it was exciting but also it felt just right.

I wrote two novel manuscripts in my 20s so I knew how to write longer works but I didn’t know how to take them to the next stage. I thought the process was: write the first draft, ‘edit’ it to make the sentences nicer, proof read, send to your favourite publisher. I didn’t understand how the process of rewriting 50 per cent of the book until it’s almost unrecognisable could bring it to a stage where a publisher could see it as a book. Now I’m writing a novel and I’m working on getting the story out and the characters and voice right without being too particular, knowing that in the next draft I’ll kick its arse.

You set yourself the challenging goal of writing from many character perspectives, both Cambodian and traveller. How did you research the Cambodian characters in particular? And how did you check that the writing seemed true?

I didn’t set out to write from a lot of different perspectives. I think every short story (or every piece of writing) needs to be treated as unique, something with its own needs that might be vastly different from the previous story I wrote. That’s probably where the different perspectives come from. Often I would write a story from one perspective and change it in the next draft. With the story ‘Like no one is watching’, I originally wrote the whole thing from the perspective of a Cambodian woman. It’s about acid throwing in Cambodia, which used to happen quite a bit as a ‘crime of passion’. Someone would get jealous about a real or perceived affair and would buy acid from the market for a few dollars and throw it on the face of their partner or the person they thought their partner was with. Often it doesn’t kill the person but maims them horribly — it’s incredibly painful and damaging. I realised that I needed to tell it from a Western perspective because not only is it an awful situation but it’s so culturally scary. I wanted to juxtapose that with the culturally awful things that Westerners do.

I did a Masters degree researching stories written about Cambodia by Cambodian and non-Cambodian writers. I also used my experiences, showed some stories to friends in Cambodia and generally sought advice. I worked with a great writing group in Phnom Penh who were so encouraging and inspiring. Although I don’t speak Khmer I was really influenced by the stories that I was told or that were published in English — both by contemporary and older Cambodian writers. One of the stories I wrote was published in Nou Hach literary journal in Phnom Penh — that felt really good.

I had a book launch of Holiday in Cambodia in Phnom Penh and Chakriya Phou — a writer whose work I love — launched it. Her take on the stories was so incredible — I learnt things about Cambodia from her speech that I wouldn’t have been able to access if we weren’t in touch through writing. Having said that, the stories are fiction. They’re not true. I would be very surprised if some people didn’t find them inaccurate and sometimes offensive. I don’t think you can escape that as a fiction writer, especially one writing about a different country and culture. I guess that’s another reason I called it Holiday in Cambodia, to make it clear that I am always a tourist in the places I write about.

Do you have a writing community where you live? Do you like the company of other writers when working on drafts, or are you someone who prefers to go it alone?

Janet Frame's short stories were a great influence on Laura Jean McKay's work
Janet Frame’s short stories were a great influence on Laura Jean McKay’s work

My partner, Tom Doig, is also a writer and last year we started our PhDs and moved to Portarlington, a bay-side town on the Bellarine Peninsula. We did that so we could write and to write we needed to be in a place where we knew no one. I have actively resisted making friends here. Before that we were living in a unit in Brunswick overlooking our concrete car space and we were pathologically social. We had spaces in an awesome writers’ studio and met with friends every other day and there were festivals and parties and I said yes to everything. Sometimes I think I was drawn to short stories because I could get one out in a couple of writing sessions and still go to the thing I had on that night. But I also want to write novels and a quiet town with the bay out the window is the company I need at the moment.

Now my writing community is more formal. I see people at writers’ festivals and meet up with a writing group every six weeks or so where we rip each other’s stories to shreds and drink tea. I miss my friends and family, though, and go into the city to hug them when I can.

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

Because I’d tested out a lot of my awful behaviour and mistakes on my first manuscripts, I felt that the creation of this one went pretty well, in that I had some terrific readers to go through the first draft and tell me all the things that needed to be done. I knew how much work I’d need to do to make it publishable. I wasn’t under any illusions about some magical muse who would take me away or that I would be discovered. In retrospect, with the first manuscripts, I had some incredible opportunities presented to me that I either didn’t recognise or was too shy to take up. I was so shy. People don’t think so because I like performing and being on stage. I’ve learnt that eccentricity is more productive than shyness so have settled for that.

Which authors have been instrumental to your own reading and writing?

I don’t love all of one author’s work and I think that’s a good thing. It shows that they’ve changed and developed and challenged themselves, trying new things that appeal to different readers. I adore almost every Janet Frame short story I’ve read, for example, but can’t read her novels. Same with Lorrie Moore. Gritty realist literary fiction with a dystopian edge is probably the book shelf I would gravitate towards in the ultimate bookshop!

Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things changed Laura's perception of the novel
Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things changed Laura’s perception of the novel

When I was younger, poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath and Leonard Cohen (I didn’t know that Cohen was a singer for a very long time) influenced me. I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things when I was 20 and it changed my idea of how a novel could be. Janet Frame’s The Lagoon and Other Stories and JD Salinger’s To Esme with Love and Squalor are short story collections that I have read over and over again — they are so perfect and flawed: the best combination. I really love Raymond Carver’s work. I resist reading novels by Russian writers (translated) because I love them too much and I can’t do anything else while I’m reading them – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are my favourites. Knowing writers like Romy Ash and Anna Krien and seeing their work develop and their books come out has been amazing. I saw how hard they worked and how great that work was and thought, shit, I’d better work about three times harder than I do now!

Living out in the country means more time to read and in the last year I have read such brilliant books by Australian authors: Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish are three that have recently blown my mind. I’m just starting Charlotte Wood’s Animal People and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. This list could change completely tomorrow. This is what has influenced me today.

The wonderful Angela Savage, who writes detective novels set in Bangkok, has written a terrific review of Holiday in Cambodia.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU READ ANY BOOKS ABOUT CAMBODIA, OR OTHER COUNTRIES IN ASIA? HAVE YOU TRIED TO WRITE ONE?

If you are working on your first novel or short story collection, you can find out more about Friday Night Fictions here or read profiles of other debut authors Tracy Farr, Michael Adams and Nina Smith.

Author Kirsten Krauth aka Wild Colonial Girl is on Facebook. If you could LIKE I would surely LOVE.

Throw your arms around him? No. Carry a Big Stick by Tim Ferguson

Tim_Ferguson_Carry_a_big_stickTim Ferguson may want to throw off the shackles of being a Doug Anthony All Star but I’m not going to let him. I’m 18. It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s late. It might even be midnight. I’m feeling like I’ve taken an E but the rave scene is yet to come. I’m screaming like those girls at the Beatles. I’m in the audience for the Doug Anthony All Stars and a girl in doc martens is chasing Paul McDermott around the stage like she’s going to eat him alive. She is fast but he is faster. They are both completely desperate. I want to be her.

DAAS had a huge impact on my life at the time. They were inventive, creative (I bought a great deal of their memorabilia), sexy, at times scary and often just plain filthy. I spent many hours weighing up which one I desired most. Poor Richard never got much of a look in, but I was drawn to Paul’s on-the-knife-edge humour and voice (of course) and Tim’s sweet looks and sense of vulnerability (and ability to harmonise). Once I saw them lounging (and I think Richard fell off his chair) at Mietta’s (where I was pretending to be posh by ordering a Brandy Alexander, the way you order completely wrong drinks when you’re 18) and spent hours trying to work out a strategy to approach (and which one to choose) by which time they’d left. They were like Violent Femmes meets Monty Python: a heady mix.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-JfIduytVs&w=420&h=315]

I always followed their careers as they meandered through Good News Week, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Radio National. I felt that Paul and Richard kind of found their natural fit in the media but with Tim, I was never so sure. His puppy dog cuteness meant he could get away with everything, but he still always seemed too subversive for mainstream Channel 9. He’s wandered his way around to teaching and writing about comedy, now wielding a big stick, and it works.

His memoir, Carry a Big Stick, traces the usual steps: childhood, parents, family, poor sportsmanship, difficulty with girls (who could have thought?), monumental success, looking for jobs in all the wrong places, and a body that starts to let him down. He reveals here why he walks with a stick:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAUUmAbbANo&w=560&h=315]

When you’re reading memoirs (good ones), they trigger memories as you search for connections. Tim’s career is clearly shaped from early experiences. When he talks about moving from school to school, never settling, it reminds me of the many times I was new kid at the door, teachers doing their best (or very little) to settle me in. I love Tim’s interrogation of the strategies he would use for making friends; I had my own.

I also start to recognise, with an increasing sense of dread, characteristics I fast-tracked to my later years — influenced and explained by the transient life: the fear of being unmoored; the inability to handle conflict; the desire to be noticed (if indirectly); and the strange way I used to let friendships sail off without me.

I was constantly nervous and didn’t know why … it was the dread of drifting … The ache for performance racked me. I was desperately, breathlessly jealous of my friends and lovers, envying their lackadaisical confidence in their futures. Adrenaline would kick my system at the slightest change in their circumstances.

* * *

I hadn’t learned how to lose my temper – after so many years in strange seas, why would I have learned to rock the boat.

* * *

As attracted as I was to new people, I had to maintain the friendships I’d already developed. The darker side of the many shifts of my childhood had given me an ability to let people drift away as soon as they were out of my line of sight.

All of these things struck a nerve because I could see the threads going back, unravelling, to my time in the playground. As a child I desperately craved standing out (for my passions) while being at the same time extremely self-conscious. These two competing forces often threatened to tear me apart. For Tim, he desperately wants fame for the same reasons. He sees a therapist, who comes up with:

 … after my childhood attending so many schools in so many cities and towns, I was after something beyond cash and a gang. I was anxious to achieve a feeling of recognition, to no longer be considered an anonymous ‘new kid’.

This becomes the driving force for Tim’s career — and the strength of his memoir is based on it. I lingered over that passage for a long time, as it revealed something profound to me. It explained my desire to write just_a_girl, and the sense of release that writing it achieved. It was like all those ‘new girls’ in the playground had merged to become Layla and my adult self could shuffle forward like a Darwinian monkey to stand tall and walk away.

Tim also frames the Doug Anthonys’ success (and his general desire to perform) within an analysis of a wider Australian culture:

Australia’s convict past instilled in the culture a deep suspicion of anything classy, clever or feminine … No other country would bother with such self-defeatist numb-nuttery. Only Australians strive to pretend they’re dumb and downtrodden.

Given his years of practice, you’d hope Tim’s memoir is funny. This is his forte and what he’s spent most of his life researching. At times cocky, at times blunt, Tim challenges the accepted view (especially among filmmakers; they get a good serve) that good dramatic writing needs to be, well, serious. He argues that the two masks — comedy and tragedy — are weighted equally, that all drama writers need to learn the craft of comedy too. It’s an interesting observation, especially as some of the best Oz television at the moment straddles that tragi-comedy divide beautifully: I’m thinking of Rake, Offspring, Chris Lilley’s exceptional series and The Moodys.

While Tim lets the audience in to MS and its effects, his intention is made clear: he wants no sympathy. The focus is on working around the illness and carrying on. Sometimes this skating around topics means there are obvious gaps. For example, he refuses to talk about his children, his former relationships, his breakdown. While I understand this reluctance, it means there are layers to him that we miss. To not see him as a father, for example, given the wonderful evocation of his own dad, is ultimately frustrating.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C22mL6MXFGw&w=560&h=315]

But for Tim, it all comes back to the comedy. And what’s the grand principle?

Surprise the audience with a truth they recognise.

I guess that’s why the Doug Anthony All Stars appealed to me so much. I saw myself in their diatribes against and for feminism, art, wankers, and musical genre. They tore down my defences and allegiances, and rebuilt them in ways that challenged, frightened and excited me.

As for comedy, I’m working on learning from his approach. I find just_a_girl and Layla’s adventures pretty funny in parts but most readers use the word ‘disturbing’. Before I write the next novel, I’ll be looking into the craft behind comedy — and using it to get up to no good.

What about you? Were you a Doug Anthony All Stars fan? Have you ever tried to write comedy?

Debut author profile: Tracy Farr

Author Tracey Farr, photo: Liane McGee
Author Tracy Farr, photo: Liane McGee

Tracy Farr’s debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt featured in the October soiree of Friday Night Fictions. Dame Lena Gaunt is in her 80s. She takes gentle doses of heroin, she swings between men and women as lovers and confidantes, she moves with the times via Perth, Sydney, various parts of Asia and New Zealand, all the while dreaming of her electrified passion: the theremin (see Clara Rockmore playing it).

As Lena raises her fingers and moves her body, Farr’s lyrical and elegant prose places us in the picture — an audience for memories and music — as Lena negotiates a documentary crew keen to capture a look-back at her life. The idea of documentary sets up a dynamic tension between what Lena wants to reveal, and what actually happened to her. She occasionally hides behind the persona of a vague elderly lady, all the while sorting out just who she can trust.

I’m always drawn to writers who pack an emotional punch by holding things back. Jon Bauer does it well. Jo Case and Annabel Smith too. It’s something I aim for in my writing: to not tell readers what to feel, but to hope they feel it deeply anyway.

It’s exciting to read a debut novelist as exciting as Farr, as she has a career set in writing novels. Her fiction is strong and unique. She is about to head (from Wellington in NZ) to Perth for the writers’ festival. I spoke to her about how to capture a long life in fiction.

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

I don’t remember one moment. The ‘want’ was there from a young age. I wrote mostly songs and narrative poems when I was a kid, and I always kept journals and notebooks for scribbling and sketching. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started trying to write stories, though. Even then, I was tentative and unsure about my abilities. I was slow to come out of the author-closet and declare myself even a wanna-be writer.

What inspired you to set out on the long road to writing a novel?

The Life and Loves of Lena GauntThere are several unfinished novels in the bottom drawer; Lena wasn’t my first attempt at writing a novel, just the first one that was worth finishing. When I first started trying to write fiction, it was writing a novel that I had in mind — or a novella, in the vein of Brenda Walker’s Crush and One More River. But I just didn’t have the staying power — I’d get ten or twenty thousand words in, even forty thousand, then hit a big wall. I pulled back; I wondered if I could somehow develop my writing muscles by writing short stories, and that seemed to work for me. The novel and short story are very different forms, but I needed to learn how to write by learning to write short stories. Once I had the idea for Lena Gaunt, I realised I could trick myself into writing that novel by thinking of it as a series of related short stories. I’ve learnt enough through the process of writing this novel that I haven’t felt the need to trick myself into the next novel in the same way.

What is it that you love most about writing?

Moving words around until they start to sing; inventing other lives; surprising myself; shutting myself away and (literally or metaphorically) curving my arm around the page to write and write and write and perfect before letting the words out to the world.

I love what comes after the writing, too; that once my novel is out in the world, what I intended as its meaning is irrelevant — it comes down to what the text says to a reader, and how the reader receives it. I love the idea that there are readings of the book that I haven’t foreseen (or consciously invited, or intended), and that it has a life beyond and without me.

What do you put off doing when you sit down at your desk?

Housework (happily). Gardening (wistfully). Socialising (guiltily). Television/DVDs (smugly). Reading (mournfully).

How did you go about getting the book published?

It was a long, long road. When I finished the first polished draft of the novel, I didn’t  — I still don’t — have an agent and I knew that, without one, I needed to rely on my contacts, and/or submit it to the few publishers that will still accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors. Several of the publishers I fancied fell within that set, so I thought I’d give it a go without an agent.

So I sent that finished, but early, draft of the novel to a New Zealand publisher who I’d been in touch with over the years, and who’d been keen to see a novel from me. They knocked it back. I was devastated, even though I’d been pretty sure that the novel I’d written wasn’t the novel they were looking for from me, and even though I knew the novel needed more work, and wasn’t yet the best it could be. In that devastated, desolate, rejected state, I fired the MS off in a mad hurry — as it was, still needing work — to the slush pile of an Australian publisher. That rejection, when it came, hurt less. I pulled my head in, paused, took a breath.

I worked for a solid six months on a major revision, overhauled the MS, took in comments from my wonderful early readers, then sent the much-improved MS, unsolicited, to Fremantle Press. Fremantle Press was always in my sights as a natural home for the novel, particularly because the story was so strongly grounded in place, and that place was Cottesloe Beach, near where I grew up in Perth. It was nearly six months after sending them the MS that I received the news that they were keen, but thought it still needed work; would I consider working with them to revise the MS? Yes, I would. We worked back and forth for nearly eighteen months — slowly, but as fast as their schedule and mine allowed — on the MS before, in June 2012, we signed the contract to publish.

Your writing moves between Perth, Sydney, New Zealand, and various parts of Asia. How did you go about researching and recreating these very different parts of the world?

I’m originally from Perth, I lived there until I was nearly 30. I left Perth in 1991, the year the contemporary part of the novel is set, so Perth in 1991 is very real, very specific to me, sort of set in amber — a time before mobile phones and the internet, before we were all connected. When I started writing the novel I was living for a month in Perth, up in the hills at Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre as Writer in Residence, and I’d catch the bus and the train and the bus to Cottesloe and walk around and breathe the air, watch the light, listen to the streets, when I needed to remind myself of the setting.

I’ve spent time in most of the places the novel is set in. The sections of the novel that are set in Sydney I originally set in New York, where the theremin was actually invented in the 1920s. But I only knew New York from movies and, more importantly, I wanted to move firmly away from the ‘real’ characters — Leon Theremin, Clara Rockmore — who had inspired my characters and their story, and move them closer to what was home for Lena. It was only when I started rewriting scenes from their New York setting that I realised the gift that a move to Sydney in the timeframe of that section would give me: Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. I layered research on Sydney in the 1920s and early 1930s with my own memories of a long summer spent in Sydney at the age of 16 (about Lena’s age when she arrives there).

I had fantastic resources to draw on for the sections of the novel set in (and travelling to) Singapore and Malacca. My paternal grandmother shares with the fictional Lena Gaunt a birth place and year (Singapore, 1910), childhood in Singapore and Malacca, and jaunts back to boarding school in Perth, and in writing Lena’s story I leaned heavily on stories my grandmother told me over the years, as well as written resources from her father, my great-grandfather. I was able to overlay their experience of South-East Asia early in the twentieth century with mine of the same places sixty or seventy years later.

In all of these very specific settings, though, I wasn’t aiming for strict historical realism. I was seeking to create a version of each time and place that was intensely believable within the context of the novel, yet was — filtered through Lena’s eyes and experiences — slightly off-true, off-kilter.

The novel shifts from historical to contemporary fiction as you trace Lena’s life. How difficult was it to structure this so it moves seamlessly?

That was one of the biggest challenges in the revision process. I wrote the contemporary sections quite separately from the historical sections, and I wrote each of those historical sections quite separately from the other historical sections. There was also a whole other part of the novel in earlier drafts — it didn’t make it in the final cut — in the voice of the filmmaker character, Mo Patterson, and stretching forward in time to the 2010s. I worked hard, through revisions, on the relative weights (in word length as well as emotional weight) of the sections, and on where and how to interleave the contemporary sections with the historical sections. I found it really interesting that in the final structural revision — a really fantastic process of tightening and fine-tuning, and the murder of a few darlings — some of the most effective changes were those that shifted a paragraph or even a whole chapter, say from the end of one section to the start of the next; it was unpicking the endpoints that were artefacts from my writing process. Working collegially with my editors was a really pleasant and unexpectedly energising part of the publishing process; I had great editors, and I always felt as if my book and I were in safe hands.

With your lyrical prose, you beautifully capture the magic of the theremin. When did you come up with the idea of Lena playing this mesmerising instrument and was the character based on an existing figure?

Lucie Rosen and the theremin, Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts
Lucie Rosen and the theremin, Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts

I’d first seen the theremin played live when I went to see the band Pere Ubu in Vancouver in the mid-90s. Mesmerising is just the word; I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was more than ten years later that I watched the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. The film — a history of this bizarre musical instrument and its inventor, Lev Termen (usually anglicised as Leon Theremin) — was where I encountered Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin. About that time, I’d started writing notes, circling around a character I wanted to write about, a musician. I knew, when I watched that film, that I’d found Lena’s instrument — an instrument you play without touching was perfect. But I knew I didn’t want to base my character, Lena, strictly on Clara, so I more or less stopped my research then and there. Film and still images of Clara — from a young girl to an old woman — in the documentary gave me some really strong visual cues for Lena. I started with a lot of notes based on my recollection of the film, then as I developed the character, I aimed to distance myself and Lena from the film and from real life events. Clara Rockmore was a starting point for Lena, rather than a model.

Do you have a writing community where you live? Do you like the company of other writers when working on drafts, or are you someone who prefers to go it alone?

Wellington has a really strong community of writers and people who care about writing and books. We have the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, and writing courses at Whitireia and Massey University; New Zealand Book Council is based in Wellington, and we have an active local branch of the NZ Society of Authors. There’s always something happening.

That said, my tendency is to be a loner; but there are times when the input and company of others has been hugely helpful. I’ve been part of writing groups at various times, mostly arising from workshops or classes I’ve taken. Being able to sit in that classroom or living room or cafe, to swap writing, to give and take criticism and comment, is a great thing. But I do find that the more my time is squeezed and limited and precious, the more likely I am to just shut the door on everyone else and write, by myself. It’s much later in the process that I seek the company of others.

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?

Be patient. The process takes a long time. Don’t rush. Find a great editor/editors, and trust her/them.

Which authors have been instrumental to your own reading and writing?

My first loves were my parents’ books from their childhoods: A.A. Milne in my dad’s precious editions from the 1940s; Enid Blyton from Mum. As a teenager, I read widely — I spent a lot of time in the school and public libraries — but developed obsessions with authors who I’d focus in on at different times: science fiction writers (Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury); the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie (after an earlier diet of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Secret Seven et al.); an assorted bunch of American writers (J.D. Salinger, Paul Zindel, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, Richard Brautigan); the short stories of Katherine Mansfield.

By the time — years later, in my late twenties — I was starting to try to work out how I might write, I was reading and inspired by Helen Garner, Beverley Farmer, Brenda Walker, Elizabeth Jolley, Peter Carey, Tim Winton; Patrick White, too. I was in love with Australian writing. I was in love with women writers: Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt. I somehow didn’t discover Alice Munro and Carol Shields until I lived in Canada — they joined my pantheon. Men got a look-in too: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace. Moving to New Zealand in the mid-90s, I was struck most by the poetry that runs through this country’s literature (poetry and prose) — Elizabeth Smither, Jenny Bornholdt, Bill Manhire, Sarah Quigley, Fiona Kidman, Damien Wilkins, Ian Wedde.

This is a very white, very anglo list, I know. But the writers who have influenced me most have been overwhelmingly white, writing in English from the mid- to late-twentieth century onwards.

My reading (I’ve resisted the silly urge to qualify and diminish this with ‘for pleasure’; all of my fiction reading is for pleasure) always circles back to one early obsession: murder mysteries and thrillers. I return again and again to Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Peter Temple (a recent discovery), Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, John Le Carré, Henning Mankell; I find strange comfort in reading and re-reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. One of my early, unfinished novel MS is a murder mystery; I still fancy writing one, one day.

Your central character, Lena, lives into her 80s. How do you see yourself when you reach this age?

I look to my grandmothers. I was thinking a lot about them when I wrote this novel, and I dedicated it to them. At eighty, both of them were feisty, active, interesting, stroppy, interested, full of life and opinions. I hope I’m the same. I see myself as a kick-arse crone.

For more about Tracy Farr, or her debut novel, visit her website.

Each month I choose a debut author to profile from Friday Night Fictions. Read interviews with Michael Adams and Nina Smith. Next up is Laura Jean McKay, writer of the short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia — from the November soiree.

WHAT ABOUT YOU, DEAR READER? HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE WHEN YOU TURN 80? OR ARE YOU ALREADY THERE AND CAN OFFER SOME ADVICE?

 

And the prize goes to…

Hope you are all idling away the hours reading and relaxing, and not back to the daily grind just yet.In the latest news to hand, a BIG congrats to Amy, who has won the book-hamper pack — 10 signed copies of great Australian books — for doing a review of just_a_girl on amazon.com.au.

Thanks to all who posted reviews, and here is Amy’s take on the book:

I read ‘just_a_girl’ within the first week after publication. I loved it. Layla’s voice is one of the most authentic teenage narrators I’ve ever met in fiction, and being a PhD candidate studying YA fiction, I have read A LOT of teenage narrators in the last two years. I understood Layla and believed her and I wanted to protect her (haha) but at the same time enjoyed following her through her experiences as she navigated teenage life. Her mother Margot’s narration was interesting and a nice contrast too … Tadashi’s narration, though seemingly disconnected from L and M’s lives, provided some nice, complementary commentary about the nature of femininity. For me, the novel (at times) seamlessly blurred the lines between reality and fantasy; the real and imagined lives of three different people.

As a long-time YA fan, I studied YA for my Honours thesis a few years ago, looking at subverting the conventions of YA and moving beyond censorship. The best thing about Kirsten’s novel was the honesty created by Layla’s voice. She told the truth about teenage life; no sugar-coating or self-censorship! We need more of these voices in fiction with young narrators and I truly believe Kirsten has tapped into some new territory here, crossing over between adult, YA and possibly even New Adult fiction. Amy x

Thanks, Amy, for the insightful review, and I like how it’s placed within the context of adult/YA novels in general. I look forward to reading the PhD…

Narrow Road to the Deep North
Richard Flanagan’s book: yep, it’s sensational.

With the sweltering days hazy around me with smoke, and red-blood moons, I’ve been hiding in my airconditioned rooms and trying not to look at the CFA app every two seconds. I’m busy editing Newswrite, writing for ABC Arts online, seeking funding/grants for my next book, and deciding which authors to read next in 2014. I’ve also been invited to the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Awards shindig, so if anyone is there who reads the blog, let me know, and we can match voices to faces.

Over the hols I’ve been reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and agree with many commentators that it is sublime. I’ve always liked his books — but this novel is faultless and mesmerising; the best book I’ve read in years. I’ve also just finished The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, an impressive debut (from Friday Night Fictions) and I’ll be interviewing author Tracy Farr in upcoming weeks.

What have you been reading over the holidays? Anything stand out?

Dawn Barker: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

Dawn Barker, author of Fractured
Dawn Barker, author of Fractured

In the past couple of months, I’ve started a new series — 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. The first wonderful exchange was with Walter Mason (I reviewed  Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the kingdom and he took a squiz at just_a_girl).

This time, I take on Dawn Barker’s popular debut novel, Fractured.

Just from the outset, this review is going to have *Spoilers*. There is so much exciting plot happening in Dawn’s book that I don’t want to pussyfoot around it…

I recently became familiar with Dawn Barker’s work, as part of a posse of writers in WA  (Annabel Smith, Amanda Curtin, Natasha Lester, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, to name a few) and her book featured in Friday Night Fictions (August issue). Fractured also often featured in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, where it was a hot favourite with reviewers, and Annabel Smith did an in-depth interview with Dawn.

Reading Fractured brought up all kinds of memories. Nothing prepared me for the emotional and physical onslaught of having children. Pregnancy was tough. I spent the first three months pretty much unable to stand up due to so-called ‘morning sickness’ (god, that term doesn’t do it justice) — twice! Before the second pregnancy, I engaged in some heavy-duty magical thinking and decided that if I just wished hard enough, I surely couldn’t get that sick the next time. It was worse!

I learnt the true meaning of the term ‘shit a brick’ (constipation, OMG!) and then, just as I was starting to enjoy putting on copious amounts of weight and eating carrot cake every day, I found out I had gestational diabetes, which put me on a strict and boring regime of no sweets, rice, pasta, and involved injecting myself in my wiggly stomach each night.

After I gave birth (lucky for me, quick and straightforward: knew those dancing hips were going to come in handy at some point), I had the pinks the first time. I was joyous (verging on manic I suspect). The second time, I got the blues. I thought it would be easy peasy the second time around. No troubles with breastfeeding. Relaxed. Settling and swaddling a cinch. But no. GG decided she would not sleep unless in my arms (or my husband’s). For the first three months, due to various people pleading with us not to lie in bed with her, my husband and I alternated nights of trying to sleep half-sitting up on the couch. For the first three months, I never got more than two straight hours sleep.

I fought the definition of postnatal depression at the time because I thought ANYONE would go nuts having to endure that kind of sleep deprivation for so long (this is not to dismiss the idea of postnatal depression as a serious issue, though, for many women). It got to the point that, even when I had the chance to sleep, I just couldn’t seem to work out how.

FracturedWhich brings me to Anna, the central character in Fractured. Anna doesn’t sleep either. The world leading up to getting pregnant and giving birth is shown to be one of illusion, of unrealistic expectations. Highly organised, nothing seems to go to her often rigid plan. Her birth plan is ignored. Her feelings for her baby are not the way she had hoped.

She feels isolated and cornered, unable to communicate with her husband, Tony. He leaves the house to go back to work pretty soon after she returns from hospital, not understanding that she is afraid, anxious, and on the verge. She doesn’t have the language to ask him to stay. Or to ask him (or anyone) to help. The amount of responsibility she takes on completely destroys her.

And on top of that, the reader gradually learns that Anna is contending with something equally serious. She is starting to hear voices, urging her on an increasingly paranoid and soul-destroying route. Her son is not yet six weeks old. But she cannot protect him from her thoughts.

I was familiar with postnatal depression but had never heard of postnatal psychosis. Dawn Barker is also a child psychiatrist so her insight into this condition (and Anna’s character development) is crucial. The book also takes us into some disturbing contemporary hospital practices, including giving Anna ECT without her permission — in a very short timeframe (when she’s in no position to contest the decision). The idea that this is possible, that a patient’s rights are systematically stripped when they enter hospital for care, is terrifying.

The book’s clever structure, that interweaves chronology, and various characters’ stories, means Fractured takes a while to reveal important moments, and there’s a real sense of doom and mystery surrounding Anna’s uncharacteristic behaviour. It’s a cliffhanger of a book, in every sense of the term.

It’s also a book about blame. Certain family members are quick to withdraw from Anna, unable to reconcile her actions with their definitions of acceptable boundaries to cross. Tony wrings himself dry, wondering at his own absence, his selfishness, his culpability in the desire to escape family for work.

Self-blame can be the most poisonous thing of all. Anna condemns herself for not living up to her own ideas of what a ‘perfect mother’ should be. In just_a_girl Margot, Layla’s mother, shares this black-and-white way of looking at the world. When looking at Layla, she sees her own failings reflected, rather than a child who deeply loves her and is desperately seeking her attention. By continuing with her blinkered thinking from when Layla is a baby, Margot misses out on all the good things, unable to see beyond her own limited view.

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker's novel
Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was a big influence on Dawn Barker’s novel

I was excited to read that one of the main influences for Dawn when writing her novel was Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. It taught her that a mainstream novel could take on highly emotive and harrowing topics. I read it when writing just_a_girl and found it changed my whole idea of character too. I realised that Margot didn’t have to be likeable but her way of thinking needed to be believable (if misguided). The way she perceives Layla is, from early stages of motherhood, influenced by the fact that she can’t breastfeed, she feels guilty, she is i
solated in the community, her husband is often away working, and her mother was no role model at all. She crucifies herself rather than acknowledging that it’s damn hard.

It’s also good to get a husband’s insight in Fractured. Dawn’s third-person narrative means she can fly in and out of all the characters’ lives, exposing their dreams and perceived failings. I can only imagine how hard it is, too, for the significant other like Tony who get no sleep, haul themselves off to work, feeling guilty at the sight of mum looking so exhausted and fragile (but hey, the experience is not like this for everyone, I hope!). I remember my husband leaving our house for his first day of work after my second child (at six weeks), and pleading with him to stay. Still operating on no sleep, I breastfed my daughter in tears for an hour, as my two-year-old son ran rings around us, asking for all the things he knew I couldn’t provide with a baby latched on; I had no idea how I would get through the day, and all the ones after that. In the end I called my best friend and she turned up, all action-stations, made lunch, sat me outside, told me everyone felt like that (in a sympathetic way), and those feelings drifted off for a while and I saw that I just had to get through it a bit at a time.

The death of a child remains a taboo topic. It’s not something people want to contemplate, let alone talk about. But this book opens up the subject for debate. The reader is constantly being forced to confront their own questions of morality, wavering backwards and forwards, and it’s a mark of Dawn’s skill as a writer that we can condemn and be sympathetic to Anna at the same time, asking: at just what point, is she ultimately responsible for her own behaviour?

You can read Dawn Barker’s review of just_a_girl here. I’m very curious to see what a child psychiatrist thinks of Layla!

If you’ve read Fractured, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Were you familiar with postnatal psychosis? Any other novels dealing with this issue, or postnatal depression? If you’d like to ask Dawn any questions, fire away! I’m sure she’d be keen to answer them.

Writing Mothers: Jo Case

Journalist and author Jo CaseFor a while last year, Jo Case and her book Boomer & Me seemed to be everywhere. An excerpt in the Good Weekend. An evening talk at the NSW Writers’ Centre. When I read her memoir, I was impressed, both with the story she told, and in her style of writing. It’s an unusual memoir with its pared-back, unsentimental analysis. I didn’t know much about Asperger’s when I began reading it, and I still had a lot of questions when I finished; I think one of the strengths of the book is that Jo doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.

I enjoyed, and cringed alongside, her honest and often funny appraisal of what motherhood is meant to be about, as she feels her way through it. I loved that she is not the domestic goddess type (at one point she tidies the house by throwing everything in garbage bags in a frenzy) and is happy spending whole days lying down, reading (guilty, your honour). But it intrigues me that, being messy in the home, doesn’t extend to the workplace. Both Jo and I are also editors (Jo is senior editor at the Wheeler Centre). I’ve been thinking about this. Perhaps, amidst the chaos, it’s comforting to be able to wrangle words and get them into order…

After reading Boomer & Me, I commissioned Jo to write the feature article for Newswrite (the magazine for the NSW Writers’ Centre that I edit) about revealing the self in memoir. Little did I know, that she agreed just days before being asked by The Australian to review my novel just_a_girl. So there we were, in contact regarding editorial stuff, but she had a little secret she was keeping from me. Thank god it was a decent review! The writing community in Australia does feel like a small town, sometimes.

I spoke to Jo about writing memoir, expectations to be a ‘good mother’ and what the future holds…

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born? Were you planning to write at all?

When I was pregnant, I think I was just concerned with getting through the experience and managing a baby. (I hadn’t planned my pregnancy and my relationship was precarious — I’d split from my partner a few days before I found out I was pregnant, and we got back together during my pregnancy.)

I starting writing book reviews for the trade magazine Bookseller and Publisher while I was pregnant — the first place I ever got my reviews published. And when I was pregnant, and later when my son was a few months old, I went back to uni part-time to do a Communications course, majoring in writing. So while I didn’t consciously think about it, I guess writing was both on my mind and being practiced.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

I wrote a couple of short stories and some uni essays, as well as some book reviews for Bookseller and Publisher. I got a part-time job one day a week writing annotations of books for DW Thorpe (now Thorpe Bowker), the company that publishes Bookseller and Publisher. My son’s father and I broke up when my son was nine months old, so I wasn’t really doing any of that more personal project-based writing. It was mostly work or study-based.

As a working mother, do you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or is it the opposite? Are you more creative, as you have less time, and have to be super-disciplined?

I do find it hard to find the time to sit down and write — though actually, it’s less about making time (which I can do) than about making the headspace to start something new. When I was writing my book, I was able to immerse myself in it and write. Starting it was hard; I think I was held back by an anxiety about creating something bad. But once I was into it, I could slip in and out of the writing, and was more at ease (if not entirely) with the idea that what I wrote would, at first, not be terribly good. I am lucky in that my son, who is now 14, is pretty good at entertaining himself. I was often concerned about ignoring my family to write, but I’ve come to the stage where, if I follow my son into his room to spend time with him, he gently (or not so gently) suggests I go find something to do. Which is strangely freeing.

At what point, did you start thinking about shaping the life around you into Boomer & Me?

Jo Case, Boomer and MeMy publisher, Rose Michael, approached me after reading an essay I had written in the Age about my son, football and Asperger’s — and a couple of opinion pieces I’d written about motherhood. She asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book on these themes. As it turned out, I had, but I had never quite had the confidence to believe that my desire to shape my life into a book was anything other than narcissistic .(Doesn’t everyone think they can write a book?) I had started to think about writing a book soon after my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s. I kept a personal blog on an almost daily basis, at times, and I had written a lot about my experiences. I had also looked for memoirs by other parents and people with Asperger’s, and not found much that really spoke to me, so I suspected that there was a readership there. But Rose gave me the confidence to actually do something about my suspicion.

Was it always going to be memoir? Did you ever think it might be easier to write a novel?

It was always going to be a memoir. That was how it would be most useful, I thought, to others who were looking for companionship or insight into the experience of having a child diagnosed with Asperger’s, or struggling to be a ‘good enough’ mother and never feeling quite like they’d hit the mark.

Did you have a diary or journal where you noted down things in your life, or were you able to recall events as you started writing?

I was lucky: I had diaries, a blog and many, many emails back and forth to people in my life. All of these things made it much easier to reconstruct and reflect on the past, and to find details to make it come to life and give it texture. I’m especially lucky that I am a magpie for dialogue — I like to write down what people say.

With your book, a memoir of motherhood, it’s quite different to tackling a novel (in some ways it’s the same). How did you draw the line — in terms of what to write about, and what to keep to yourself?

I did what I call ‘write hot, edit cold’. In other words, I didn’t really censor myself as I wrote, but I thought carefully about what to leave in and what to take out when I redrafted and edited the book. I wasn’t too worried about what to write about myself; my main concern was protecting the confidences of others in my life. I drew the line at reporting conversations in a doctor’s office that went inside my son’s head, or revealing other people’s secrets. That said, I also made sure, before I agreed to write the book, that I would reveal my own flaws and insecurities. I don’t believe it’s worth writing a memoir if you’re not prepared to reveal what goes on under the surface of your life, or to take some risks. The trick is to make sure that the risks are ones you can l
ive with.

The book really moved me, in the sense that it’s about you as a mother trying to meet (often unrealistic) expectations, and often you feel you have come up short. This balancing act, and tension it creates, is deftly managed in the writing. How difficult is it to be honest about motherhood, when you feel like you don’t live up to what’s expected?

It’s really hard to be honest about my own failings as a mother — well, it’s hard, but it was also a relief. By laying out all the things I felt held me back from being a ‘proper’ mother, I came to the realisation that the most important thing is that I’m there for my son in terms of emotional support, making sure he’s fed, clothed and housed, and that I nurture the person he really is. I show him he is loved, that I value my time with him, and I take an interest in what he’s interested in. I still feel guilty that I don’t cook every night, that the house is often messy, and that I don’t make the easy connections to other mothers that I see happen in the schoolyard, but I know at heart that it’s better to fail at these things than at the things I actually do well. Writing the book helped me to come to this conclusion.

Some of your dealings with other mothers bring about the most painful (and, at times, excruciatingly funny) moments in the book. Do you think that things have shifted these days and there’s too much pressure to be ‘appropriate’?

I suspect there’s always been pressure to be ‘appropriate’ — when I was growing up, there were probably higher expectations than there are now. And I think mothers have always judged each other. I think what’s changed, perhaps, is that there are so many different versions of what a ‘good mother’ looks like, and the different camps fiercely patrol and defend their own territory. Because if being a good mother can look nothing like you, what does that mean? Does it mean YOU’RE the bad mother? I think we all need to learn to be more tolerant of people who parent differently to us, and accept there are lots of ways to do it ‘right’.

One of the key aspects of the book is your son’s (and possibly your) diagnosis as being on the Asperger’s spectrum. Like you, as a reader, I felt torn between the desire to label behaviour, and the desire to seek joy in things just the way they are. Since writing the book, has knowing the diagnosis changed your lives in a substantial way? Or has it in the end just involved more questioning?

It’s hard to say. Sometimes I do worry whether the label is limiting — and you need to be vigilant against letting it impose limits, or make it easy to give up, because your Asperger’s means that’s something you don’t do well. But it can also be an explanation why certain things don’t come naturally, and a reminder to work on those things. It’s also been a passport to a community of like-minded souls. And understanding Asperger’s has helped with self-knowledge, which is always valuable. You can’t decide to change, evolve, or stay the same without knowing that there is a choice and what that choice means. There is always questioning, too. But I think anyone who is Asperger’s, or has Asperger’s traits, will question pretty much everything anyway.

I love the intimacy of the relationship that you recreate with your son: the way you watch Simpsons on the couch, read and discuss books, the toilet humour, the half-cooked cakes you bake for his birthday. As a mother who likes nothing better than lying on a couch all day and reading, I really enjoyed how you negotiate these spaces together happily (even though you forget to pick him up from school one day because you are engrossed in a book, but even that made me laugh with delight — oops). You mention early in the book that many of the problems your son encounters happen outside the home. Do you think your mothering style is just naturally aligned with him, and that teachers/schools could be more flexible to accommodate?

I think that my son and I are very much alike, and so we naturally suit each other. We can go to a café and read magazines or newspapers together in silence and be very happy, or watch a 30 Rock marathon for hours. But there are other factors. School is an institutional environment built to suit the average, whereas home is an intimate environment built to suit the individuals in it. Schools can be more flexible (and my son’s high school is) in helping to provide time out for when Aspie kids lose their tempers or have emotional meltdowns, and similar measures. I think schools are getting better as they learn more about Aspergers. But not all of them.

I feel like I need an update: of what happens to you and your son during the teen years. Are you interested in writing more about your lives in the future? Or fiction perhaps?

I won’t be writing about my son in the context of Aspergers again: I’m finished with that. It was a positive thing to do, but emotionally wrenching too. If I include him in personal writing again, it would be on the margins, and I won’t go beneath the surface of him as a character. He’s a teenager; he needs his privacy. Fiction is a possibility I’m toying with, though not quite about us.

WANT TO WIN A SIGNED COPY OF JO CASE’S BOOMER & ME? ENTER MY JUST_A_GIRL BOOK-HAMPER COMPETITION

HAVE YOU READ JO CASE’S BOOK? OR OTHER MEMOIRS ON MOTHERHOOD THAT YOU HAVE ENJOYED? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS…

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check out other interviews in my Writing Mothers series (including Anna Funder, Kirsten Tranter and Annabel Smith)…

Debut author profile: Michael Adams

Michael Adams, star of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, and author
Michael Adams, star of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, and author of The Last Girl

I must confess I didn’t know too much about YA until quite recently. I always had in my head that it was a closed genre, featuring vampires and werewolves and girls with ballgowns and insipid romance. But everyone makes mistakes. Reading more widely this year — and the YA community’s quick embrace of just_a_girl led me down this path — I realised that it’s an enormously diverse market with exactly the kind of narratives that excite me, a genre often caught in between the adult and teen worlds.

I’m always a sucker for coming-of-age-girl-as-outsider-awkward-moments-until-she-realises-everybody-is-like-that narratives. Blame the 80s and Molly Ringwald. When I was an adolescent, the idea of books for teens was just gaining ground. I devoured SE Hinton, Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, Robert Cormier. These writers tackled dark subjects, spoke of sex and drugs and religion (and all those things I’m still writing about), and empowered teens to fight for themselves.

Michael Adams’ The Last Girl is a strong addition to the genre, that also fights to be let out into literary fiction. Highlighted in the September edition of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, it demands close reading. While lead girl Danby confronts an apocalyptic vision of Sydney, where most of the inhabitants can read each other’s minds, it’s also about communities separated by high-density living, soaring property prices, environmental catastrophe, the legacy of stealing someone else’s land, and addiction to personal-technologies.

Michael knows how to cram in big ideas. His background as a film critic (editor for Empire — where he employed me to write on Bergman [bliss]  — and even appearing on The Movie Show on SBS) serves him well here. The fiction is full of pop-culture references, sly humour, out-of-the-blue violence, and challenges to narrative conventions.

Danby is a memorable figure through the death and destruction around her, intuitive, strong, countering expectations to be led astray by wayward boys, dealing with challenges effectively with humour and courage. I’d like to meet her one day. Let’s hope she makes it to the end of the trilogy (The Last Girl is the first in a series). Knowing Michael, this isn’t entirely certain.

Here I talk to him about Stephen King, Sydney and the Blue Mountains on fire, and heroines that break free of conventions…

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

Not the precise moment but it goes back as far as I can remember. As a six-year-old I’d write and illustrate little stapled books about soldiers and sharks and dinosaurs — sometimes all in the same story. By the time I was in my early teens I was trying to write novels. Then I got into journalism and creative writing took a backseat. It wasn’t until I’d tried my hand at screenwriting and non-fiction that I finally, finally, achieved the goal I’d set for myself when I was about 13. Oddly — or maybe not oddly — The Last Girl contains echoes of those adolescent efforts.

Michael Adams, The Last GirlWhat inspired you?

The Last Girl came as a bit of a flash — at least in concept. In 2008 I was in New York and at dinner at a restaurant with my partner. We were having a great time talking to another couple who’d survived Hurricane Katrina. But at another table there was a couple who didn’t say a word to each other all night. At some point I wondered: what if they could read each other’s thoughts, hear everything that wasn’t being said. Then I wondered what it’d be like if the phenomenon spiralled out to encompass the city, the country, the world.

My book and yours share some common themes: teenage girls on the edge; a narrative that swings between Sydney and the Blue Mountains (on the train tracks); the questioning of digital cultures and their effects on psychology and relationships. Why did you decide to pursue these ideas in a YA novel?

Initially I thought I was writing an adult book about a young adult character. It wasn’t until I’d sent the book to Allen & Unwin that it was explained it was a YA. The definition was that YA focuses on young characters who have to make their own decisions in the absence of adult authority. That pretty much summed up Danby’s situation in The Last Girl. But I’m not sure about the YA label because it wasn’t used to describe similar books when I was growing up. The Catcher In The Rye and Lord Of The Flies spring to mind. Back then they were literature — now they’re YA. And then there’s the US statistic that says 84 per cent of YA is purchased by people over 18. I guess what’s important is that it’s a good story well told and in a voice authentic to the age of the character.

You’ve written extensively on film (as a reviewer and non-fiction writer). To what extent did cinema, and in particular B-grade films, influence your narrative?

I wanted the story to grab readers by the throat, take them to a cliffhanger and then tease them with backstory that’d become important throughout the trilogy before plunging back into an ever-escalating series of disasters for poor Danby. But I wanted to throw her and readers constant curveballs so it’d be difficult to predict where the story was heading. So the movies I kinda had in mind were those that’ve had that effect on me: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, Psycho, The Usual Suspects, Night Of The Living Dead are a few that spring to mind. I also put as much black humour into the book as possible and in that the touchstones are films like Dr Strangelove, Bride Of Frankenstein and Repo Man.

Breaking Bad
The biggest influence on The Last Girl? Breaking Bad…

But the biggest influence wasn’t film — it was Breaking Bad. I watched the entire series twice and really tried to understand how Vince Gilligan created an emotionally charged character-driven suspense thriller that was so dense, complex and funny — while also layering in all of his narrative callbacks, in-jokes and Easter Eggs. There’s a lot of that kind of thinking in The Last Girl. Seemingly throwaway details become pivotal to survival. References to pop culture echo the themes. There’s a reason Danby’s dad orders a plate of shrimp and a Miller. Google it and you’ll see why.

The Last Girl is the first in a series. Did the publisher commission a number of books at once? How hard is it as a writer to plan out a series?

Yes, A&U bought the trilogy. By that stage I had a solid first draft of The Last Girl and about 20,000 words of the sequel. Now book two, The Last Shot, is at the final proofreading stages and I’ve got three months to finish the first draft of The Last Place, which will wrap things up. When I started The Last Girl, I was pretty much making it up as I went along. The ending I eventually decided on and worked towards would’ve left a lot unresolved. I wanted to know what came next. The fun — and tough — thing is to ensure continuity while you juggle drafts. But I’ve really enjoyed playing with the world — or end of the world — and seeing how the puzzle pieces actually do fit together. Mostly it’s been an organic process. But I’ve also worked to ensure the books don’t repeat scenes or scenarios. I hate sequels that’re just a reheat.  So I see the series as one story, which also means that I need the end of book three to be bigger and more powerful than what’s come before. I want it to be my Toy Story 3 and not The Godfather Part III.

Your novel is playful and toys with genre conventions: the romantic lead; the heroine as victim/survivor; futuristic horror; the quest. Was this always something you had in mind when you started writing, or did it evolve as you went? How did this go when you were trying to get the book published? Was there pressure to make it one thing or another?

There was a lot I didn’t want my book to be. Passive heroine? Fuck that. Instant love between characters? No thanks. Scared suburban types who suddenly become fearless warriors? Uh-uh. I hate reading or watching stories in which you spend your time shaking your head at bad character decisions and/or illogical scenarios. So as much as possible I wanted Danby’s nightmare to feel real, to be blow-by-blow. Yay, she’s made it to the car! But can she drive? Can you feasibly escape a burning city on clogged roads? And if not, then what? I wanted characters who haven’t got all the answers. I tried to imagine myself in her shoes and in doing that painted Danby into some seemingly inescapable corners. A few of these took months to figure out. And that meant walking the actual locations until the “A-ha!” moment struck. Writing like that intrinsically bends genre expectations because we’re so often fed the same-old people and situations. Tough guys walk in slow-motion from the explosion without looking around? Stupid. How about sensibly shit-scared guys run but one can’t help looking back and gets flash-blinded while another’s cut in half by shrapnel and they all end up concussed by the shock wave that shatters every window for five blocks? By doing the latter you’re being logical and realistic but it’s also bleakly funny and subversive because it’s not what we’re used to seeing. As for how A&U reacted, they were brilliant. I was never asked to make it anything other than what I’d envisaged. The cuts and changes suggested were more to do with me overwriting, paying too much attention to secondary scenes or wandering away from the character voice.

You live in the Blue Mountains (I used to as well). Your book deals with catastrophic events, including, it seems, a whole city and mountain on fire. How did it feel when the recent Springwood fires were happening (after the book had been published)? Did it feel like life imitating art in some hellish way?

It was freaky because a few scenes, particularly smoke blanketing Parramatta and Silverwater, were exactly as I’d imagined them. I got a few messages from people saying, “Whoa, dude, that’s spooky.” But we were too busy packing up our and getting out of Katoomba to think about it too much. I did get asked by a big newspaper if I’d comment on the book’s similarities to the events but I declined because I thought it disrespectful to trivialise an ongoing situation threatening people’s lives and homes. Writer turns down publicity: film at 11!

Is there a writer community in the Blue Mountains? Can you survive being a writer up there, or do you still commute to Sydney for a day job?

There are a lot of writers in the Blue Mountains but I work a day job in Sydney so I haven’t had much time to explore the community. Couldn’t even go to the SFF events they had last year. Sad face. But the dream is to do exactly that: hang out up there and write. But for the foreseeable future I’ll be commuting to the office gig — and freelancing my butt off to supplement those wages. It’s all freaking glamour, me tells ya.

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?

I guess it’s something you learn and re-learn every time you pick up a pen or sit at the keyboard: you’ll think your first jottings are amazing and you’ll be so very wrong. But they’re a start. And the next draft will be better …  and then the next …  and the next …  and so on. But what’s equally important is to be ruthless, murder darlings in the nest before you get too attached. The first submitted draft ran to 111,000. The final book’s about 87,000. The 25,000 words or so that were cut were words I’d spent a long time writing and polishing. There was a lot in there that didn’t need to be but I was too close to it. By contrast, the first draft of The Last Shot was 80,000 — and it’s ended up at 93,000. So maybe I swung too far the other way. Perhaps the third book will be just right — but I doubt it!

Dead Zone
Michael’s favourite book as a teen

What were your favourite books to read when you were a teenager?

I am indebted to Stephen King. I loved that supernatural events were happening in our very ordinary world and to ordinary people. The Stand and The Dead Zone were hugely influential. Later, at school, we did Lord Of The Flies, The Loved One, Nineteen Eighty Four, Shakespeare: and I loved all of them too. So a mixture of the high and lowbrow — but, like YA, I’m never sure exactly where the border lies.

Of course, the book screams film rights. If you could choose anyone (director, actors) to adapt and star in your film, who would they be?

David Fincher [Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Social Network]. I love his obsessive attention to detail, the mood he creates. As for actors, I’m going home-grown. Eva Lazzaro as Danby. She’s the right age, she looks the part and she’s really talented. I thought she was the best thing about Tangle. Alex Russell as Jack. He was funny and charismatic in Chronicle and he had an edge to him. Nathan’s young and from Sri Lankan parents. I wonder if cricketer Ashton Agar can act?

Michael Adams’ The Last Girl was featured as part of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS for September. You might also like to read an interview with August’s debut author, Nina Smith and YA author of Girl Defective, Simmone Howell.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? IS IT TRICKY TO DEFINE YA? OR HAVE YOU READ MICHAEL’S BOOK YET? LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!