Posts in Creativitiy

Every holiday was father’s day: writing fathers + daughters at Clunes Booktown

At Clunes Booktown, I shared the stage with my dad for the first time (at my first festival) and we talked about writing fathers, writing daughters, creating unique voices (we both feature 14-year-old girls in our work), what our characters share, how we translate family stories into fiction, and whether our memories ever come at things from the same angle. It was a very moving session for both of us (perhaps more than the audience realised), a sharing of ideas, sad moments, and joys too.

Here are the edited highlights (thanks to Damon Girbon for the video and editing):

Dad (Nigel Krauth) is a writer who’s had many novels published, both for adults and YA audiences. He wrote a play Muse of Fire that was performed by the Adelaide Theatre Company and directed by Keith Gallasch (now the editor of RealTime, where I worked for many years). His first book, Matilda My Darling, won the Vogel Award, and since then his novels have gone on to win a number of awards, including the NSW Premier’s Award for JF Was Here.

Although my parents separated when I was young, I spent school hols with dad. Sleeping in his study, I saw the hard work involved in bringing fiction to life. I had no romantic ideals about being a writer. I thought it involved hard yakka, building words like bricks. My dad often seemed in a state of distraction or excitement about a breakthrough. I never really thought I would be a fiction writer, not until I was in my mid 30s and struggling with the world. A friend pointed out that I needed a creative project to survive it all. And she was right. I’m not sure dad was ever too keen on me being a writer. Perhaps one in the family is enough. Perhaps it came as a bit of a shock.

Sin Can Can: I’ve been to Bali too

SinCanCanCoverDad’s first YA book, Sin Can Can, was released when I was 14 and it was basically about me. My picture is on the front cover (have I changed that much?) riding on the back of a motorbike. Inside is a dedication to me. I was both thrilled and rolling my eyes when it was released. Dad came to boarding school (I got a scholarship, ok) and read it out to my class. I sat in the back with my head on the desk, proud and cringing at the same time. But  it was so funny and had that perfect Dolly pitch of the time. The voice is fresh, direct and dynamic, bringing to life many of my passions. I was obsessed with music, and boys of course. I loved junk food. I went to boarding school in Years 7 and 8. I found boarding school tough. A private person, I hated the open dorms where you had to sleep, the locks that didn’t work on the showers, the continual noise so I couldn’t read a book — and the rules, those bloody rules (having to wear a skirt to dinner, having to serve the older girls at dinner time). But the book reminds me of the good times and the lingo: tinned tomatoes known as ‘abortions’, the gardener who we all drooled over in his khaki shorts, the Alpines we pretended to smoke.

When research goes awry

The sequel to Sin Can Can was called I Thought You Kissed with Your Lips. It was banned in Queensland for its very erotic description of putting a condom on a cucumber. I think it was a cucumber. You don’t want teenagers learning how to put a condom on. No. Dad likes to do intense research. He’s almost like a method actor. He likes to go on location. Take on a role. Me? Not so much. I’m more into psychological studies. I begin by getting inside someone’s head. And the drama comes from there.

Nigel Krauth, serious writer shot
Nigel Krauth, serious writer shot

But one thing our books share is location; as writers (and characters) we are drawn to Surfers Paradise. It’s the contradictions that fascinate us both, and contradictions are what teenagers are all about. .

When I was researching just_a_girl, I found out more about teenage girls by listening and observing when they didn’t know it, rather than asking directly. When I was a teenager, even with liberal parents, even though I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble, I still didn’t share much. I was pretty sensible. I was the one cleaning up the vomit rather than the one paralytic. I was too hellbent on control to take drugs. I didn’t like inhaling so smoking and marijuana weren’t really my thing. I didn’t like the idea of snorting up my nose so coke was out. And injections? Not a chance in hell. Now I wonder how I can raise my kids to be like that? To be independent yet safe? But I have to admit defeat. I know I can’t really guarantee it. And it scares me. But I pretend to myself that I can find out what they’re doing on their iPads. Or whatever they’re using in ten years’ time.

There’s a fraction too much friction

Having a writer around, family members and friends need to be careful. When I was growing up, everything was ‘grist for the mill’. I knew that, but I still didn’t always welcome it. All writers collect material from everywhere, waiting for the right moment to add it to the mix – or the moment waits for us, which is how it seems to work for me. Dad is more cavalier about using other people’s stories in his own work, seeking to camouflage it in some way. When I use a story relayed by someone else, I tend to ask permission and show them the text; I feel more comfortable.

You can’t handle the truth!

just_a_girl by Kirsten KrauthOften people ask you which parts of the book are based on the truth. While this is a complex question that would take a PhD to answer, there are parts of just_a_girl where I have translated almost word for word something a family member or friend has told me. Often these are conversations I didn’t want to hear at the time, for example, my dad telling me about having a trip on hash, and wanting to strangle me when I was a baby (watch the clip).

When I was in my 20s, Dad contributed to a collection called Daughters and Fathers (edited by Carmel Bird), an essay, nonfiction. I had been happy to hide behind the disguise of fiction, but seeing myself represented in nonfiction was completely different. This felt like an expose. I was glad, this time, that dad sent me the final essay for approval before publication. Because there were things in the original that I didn’t want the world to know. As it is, it’s still pretty brutal. But through all his work I now see Dad’s drive for connection with me, his daughter. It was made clear to me at Clunes, but it’s something that I couldn’t see before.

But still, there are things I have always kept hidden from Dad, knowing he might use it one day. Perhaps Layla emerged out of that secretive side, exposing the darkness of teen life.

Fathers and daughters: shared meanings

My favourite part of the Clunes session was where Dad and I selected parts of each other’s work to read, that had transported us, represented us, made us laugh or cry.

Dad was brave for selecting the most emotional scene for him in just_a_girl, the case of the missing kittens. While I took a safer route in Sin Can Can, enjoying the comic yearnings of a teen desperate to escape her hippie parents.

And, finally, we agreed on many things throughout the conversation that surfaced at random: how writing comes from and through the body; how our work teases at power, politics and sexuality; and how choosing the right name for our characters is fundamental to getting our work going.

 

Doug Anthony Allstars give good head: balustrades, bubblers + barking mad

 

Tim Ferguson, Kirsten Krauth, Paul McDermott, Jane McAllister, Flacco, Doug Anthony Allstars,
Tim Ferguson, Kirsten Krauth, Paul McDermott, Jane McAllister, Flacco, Doug Anthony Allstars, Yarraville, 2014

I always vowed I’d never be like the baby-boomers: going to Rolling Stones and Beach Boys concerts, looking beyond the thinning hair and artificial hips and dementia. The lyrics written on cue cards for those fading memories.

And then I find myself at the Violent Femmes at Revesby RSL where bald men line the walls and I sit elegantly on garish carpet waiting for the band to start at 7.30. Or dancing to Stone Roses where the line-up well and truly looks resurrected. Twenty years on, the band desperately clings to the same look, the same haircut, as if fearful that their fans will just walk down the street and pass on by. And then there was Dexy’s Midnight Runners at Harvest Festival. OK, I can only remember one song, and so could they, really, the rhythm and brass section propping them up so they didn’t fall off the stage. I catch myself thinking, ‘Belinda Carlisle, that would be a great gig’, or ‘Duran Duran, that Girls on Film clip was really groundbreaking’.

Which brings me to Doug Anthony Allstars. I saw them on Friday night in Yarraville. I’d envisaged the comedy club as a run down terrace, intimate, with a red-curtained stage, dark, smoke-ringed. So 20 years ago. Instead I walk into a brightly-lit gambling den, pass the sign-in forms, to a huge room with plastic chairs and ugly carpet. I’ve blogged about how besotted I was with DAAS when I was a teen, and have had the luck to meet Paul and Tim in recent times — surreal moments where my old and new selves had to meet each other and clash, like worlds colliding.

Doug Anthony Allstars - now
Doug Anthony Allstars – now

So I’m in the audience, and I have my hair dyed blonde and cut short in a Jean-Seberg-Breathless style, just like I did when I was 18, and Paul wheels Tim out in a wheelchair, and they are both wearing suits, and an empty mic stands in for Richard for a bit, and the comedy via necessity comes cerebrally rather than physically except for small moments: Tim trying to play the triangle with a straw; Flacco (shorthand for Paul Livingston as there are two Pauls) trying to play the newspaper and shredding it (probably the highlight of the night – look you had to be there) and imagining his head as a balustrade; and Paul playing the wobble board and pissing into his own mouth.

Why it's best not to approach strangers on aeroplanes when you're 8 + travelling
Why it’s best not to approach strangers on aeroplanes when you’re 8 + travelling alone.

I met Rolf Harris when I was 8 (true story – I approached him on an aeroplane after being encouraged by the air hostess where I got an autograph and a bitter old man who was nasty and no touchy feelies). The final reference I didn’t get as I’m allergic to Rugby so I looked up this and found a new meaning for bubbler. Those footballers, they’re such a catch.

I’m guessing that this is no DAAS reunion. It feels like a gig for limited time only. Much of the energy of the previous incarnation came from the audience feeling terrified that they would be assaulted at any moment. The dynamic has segued into a commentary on the marking of time, highlighted by Paul’s intense and rapid-fire approach (which hasn’t really changed that much) versus Tim’s new persona, a man with MS who can ejaculate random and surreal lines (that’s what medication does to you) and accentuate the spasticity to get through airports quicker (he leans, paws and tries to bite his own shoulder). Tim’s Feminist Poems are a real highlight: on sideboobs, the importance of keeping your pubic hair (Sisters!) and ‘the sound of one clitoris clapping’. Every time he talks you think ‘WTF?’ which is probably a good thing for comedy in short doses.

Doug Anthony Allstars - then
Doug Anthony Allstars – then

A highlight of the show is the Meet and Greet afterwards. Now I don’t remember there ever being a Meet and Greet in my day. It would have turned into a fangirl riot. Seeing the queue snake around the room as women with DAAS tattoos on their shoulders and fishnet stockings and boots and the same haircuts they had when they were 18 gives the performance space over to the fans. As they adjust their dresses and rehearse what they’re going to say when they reach the desk, their faces are transformed as they leave, clutching their phones with selfies, their signed posters from the night.

Can middle-aged people still be punks? On stage, Paul says, ‘When we were young we used to pretend we didn’t care. Now we REALLY don’t care’; and in the most nostalgic moment of the night, when a screen image of the three beautiful young men singing, turns into Tim standing up out of his wheelchair, and my eyes well up, any emotion I feel is abruptly cut off as Paul runs off stage: it’s the closest they come to a Fuck You moment, really. Except for the Meet and Greet. As Paul rails against the clock striking midnight to security – ‘Where are our people? I’m tired! Get these people away from me!’, Tim draws a detailed anatomically correct diagram onto the inside pages of his book for sale — a woman’s legs spread wide apart, her vagina resplendent with pubic hair — for a group of middle-aged women standing around who’ve seen it all before (all they have to do is look down).

If you missed them in Sydney and Melbourne, DAAS’ next stop is Perth.

For good, not profit: Kirsten Alexander, editor, Open Field magazine

Issue 3 of Open Field is out now
Issue 3 of Open Field is out now

I first came across Open Field magazine when I was browsing through literary apps on iTunes, looking for inspiration. A philanthropic exercise, the magazine is digital-only, sources articles and art from world-renowned authors and artists, and all funds from downloads go to charity. I spoke to editor Kirsten Alexander about starting a digital magazine.

What gave you the inspiration to put together Open Field magazine?

This is a shameful story, but the truth isn’t always flattering. In September 2010, The New Yorker released a tablet version of their magazine using Adobe software. That was a big deal. Wired magazine had released their tablet version in May 2010, but it was a tricked-up and complex object, one that required an interest not only in the content but the possibilities the software and tablet format allowed — which makes perfect sense given their readership. Navigating Wired on a tablet was, for most people, hard work. The New Yorker was not. They offered a simple, clean magazine; one that was unthreatening and familiar since it so closely resembled their print version. They did something we take for granted now, which was to let the technology serve the content. What they offered was breathtaking. It’s hard to remember that only four years later.

Now, my partner Dave and I love magazines. And Dave has been working with technology and design since before he was old enough to employ. In 2010 he was running an agency that consisted of him and two staff members. (That agency, The Royals, now consists of five equal partners and about 25 staff.) So when Adobe made their tablet software available to developers he suggested we create a magazine. Here’s the shameful bit: I scoffed. He wanted to explore the software and suggested that I (with a background in editing and writing) could fill the pages. I said words were more than filler, look at The New Yorker! The print magazine space was too crowded, and they’d all be making tablet versions now! We could not compete with that! And etc. He said that if I could come up with an idea, he could make the magazine. I’d barely stomped out of the room before I thought of an idea to which I was instantly wed. The idea was Open Field.

The lesson here, if I’m in any position to offer one, is that technology will, of course, serve the big players. But it does — and I hope always will — allow almost anyone a voice. (The ‘almost’ is that you need learnable skills, time and tools.) You just have to know what you want to say.

All writers and editorial/design staff volunteer their services, and funds raised go to CARE Australia. Was the idea of a subscription-based app where funds go to charity always on the cards?

Yes. We had skills but no money. And my idea was that whatever we made had to be for good, not profit. I wanted to use this technology to show the work of talented women from across the world, and then give all the money we raised to a charity that helped women. So I decided I would work as the person who gathered people who wanted to show and share their work for the benefit of other women. When I swallowed my pride (see above) and explained this idea to Dave he said it was doable but that it was good I wasn’t running a business.

Open FieldHow did you choose the charity?

I’d seen an advertisement for CARE in which they spoke about the work they did with women in developing communities. It’d prompted me – before we discussed making a tablet magazine — to ask why they would give money to women rather than men. I’d thought people in need were people in need, gender irrelevant. I looked at CARE Australia’s website and they explain their reasoning there — it’s convincing, based on fact, and I’d urge anyone who wonders ‘why give to women’ to take a look. So, CARE was front of mind when I thought of Open Field.

You’ve released three editions of the magazine with the third just launched last week. They are themed. Why did you decide to source contributors by theme?

Content by women to raise money for women was a good, clear agenda but we knew we wanted to make three issues — a trifecta as a gift to charity — so I thought a theme would differentiate each issue. So the first theme is Change (CARE works to change lives), the second is Place (people in one place giving to those in another), and the third is Body (since women have a complicated and significant relationship with their physicality from birth). A theme is useful to the contributors, too. Being told ‘write about anything’ is not helpful …

What attracted you to the digital-only format? Did you ever consider a print version?

I love print. I’ve worked with print books and magazines, and I read print daily. But selling an iPad magazine through the iTunes stores offers easy international distribution. Whereas distributing print is a nightmare, and regularly the downfall of a great object.

Open Field really stands out because of its outstanding and high-quality content. You’ve featured the likes of Claire Messud, Anne Summers and Emma Donoghue, along with debut writers, and a range in between. How do you go about sourcing content? Do you do a lot of editing as submissions come in?

In this instance, sourcing is begging. I write to women I admire and I beg, plead with them to write for me, allow me to include their photographs, their song, their poem … And I am shameless and relentless. Tediously persistent. One contributor, when she finally agreed to write an essay, said in her email that she was doing so ‘only because you are so politely insistent’.

I have a list — an insane, blue-sky list — of women whose work I adore, from people whose every book I’ve read to people I’ve only recently discovered. I scour the internet, go to galleries, read and read. My list includes every one of the women in issues one, two and three, and all the women who declined. And I have no words for how grateful I am any time someone says yes or (amazingly!) when a talented woman offers her work.

And editing, yes, I edit. Some people are edited more than others. I love to work with words. It’s all I know how to do. So this part of the job is a delight for me.

Open Field is unusual because all its contributors are women. With the Stella Prize, women are now more in the limelight in terms of their writing. Why did you decide to go women-only?

We had a specific agenda — but good creative work can come from anyone, anywhere. It’s just that we don’t always get to see it/hear about it. The world doesn’t offer equal space under the spotlight for men and women. So prizes like the Stella, the Bailey’s, PEN prizes that focus on writers of colour … anything that brings attention to the work of people who are not straight white men is a step forward, an evolution. I enjoy work by straight white men (and I know it’s appalling to describe them as such, but for the purposes of this question I will): Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ian McEwan, a million artists, filmmakers and musicians have changed and bettered my world. But it’s limiting if these are the dominant voices. We all deserve more than that, as creators and consumers. I hope that one day women-only prizes are not required, but right now they are.

Digital magazines have often suffered because of poor design and poor readability. How did you combat this when putting together the publication?

Simplicity was our goal from the beginning. We wanted to make an accessible, open, easy-to-navigate magazine where the focus was on reading, viewing, listening. No bells and whistles. The ‘how’ part is entirely the work of talented designers and developers. They make simplicity look easy, and it’s not.

Many magazines online have been slow to take up the idea that they can not only incorporate text, but digital media elements too. One of the exciting things about Open Field is that it includes visual artists, filmmakers and interviews. How difficult is it to integrate all these elements?

There are lots of difficulties with making a magazine for iPad and iPhone. We’ve wrestled with single-issue versus subscription, with software (we moved away from Adobe), licenses, donating directly to a charity from the iTunes store, with scrolling versus not scrolling, with resolution each time a new version of the iPad came out … And here kudos is owed to The Royals who, with the designers and developers, solved every single one of these problems at their own expense while running a really busy company. Without them, there is no Open Field.

But, to your question, the magic of incorporating film, sound and text is, again, the work of talented designers and developers. What they do is amazing. We take so much of their work for granted now, and we’ve grown used to improvements coming so often and so fast, but being able to read on a tablet or phone or computer, being able to listen to music that way, view art that way, is astounding. We shouldn’t lose sight of that fact or grow blasé about it.

One of the challenges of making publications these days is getting them noticed. How do you go about marketing? And has it been effective so far?

OpenField1Well, since we have no money (everyone involved generously works for free), I’m the marketer as well as the editor. I’m not very good at it. We talk about Open Field on social media through my channels, The Royals’ channels, all of the contributors’ channels, CARE Australia’s channels, send out press releases … I apply my polite insistence with digital and print outlets. We’ve been blessed to receive coverage through ABC radio, the Daily Beast website, the Wheeler Centre, Dumbo Feather, The Big Issue, Anthill and MacWorld magazines.

It helped to win an award (MADC, Best Digital Content). Word has spread through goodwill, which is fantastic. And we’ve raised a lot of money for CARE, which was the goal, so that’s a success!

But my initial concern that the magazine space is crowded (which is a good and bad thing) remains true. Whether you’re looking at a physical shelf or the iTunes store, there are so many publications screaming for your attention. It’s hard to stand out. I wish there was a sure-fire way to do so.

You’re an editor by trade. What have been the joys for you in launching Open Field? And were there any unforeseen challenges?

It’s a joy to share the work of these contributors, designers and developers. It is a privilege to work with talented people. I am repeatedly humbled, awed.

It’s a joy to work on something we know will bring benefit to others. We love knowing we’re raising money for CARE’s programs. And we love knowing we’re showing the work of incredible women to people who may not have seen/heard of these writers and artists before.

Any challenges we’ve faced have been those anyone faces when dealing with new technologies: lack of money, juggling other jobs, that we’re spread across the globe … But none of that is insurmountable. We made three magazines. We gave money to CARE. CARE uses the money to do good.

The only thing that would be better was if CARE was no longer needed, if the world found a way to redistribute money, food and water so that the charitable goal of giving no longer made any sense … Money raised from a magazine can’t do much more than touch the sides of the problem of global inequality. Obviously.

What next?

The three issues of Open Field are about bringing a problem to people’s attention, bringing creative work to people’s attention, and raising money for charity.

But three is where we stop with this expression. I can’t ask people to be any more generous than they already have been. People have said nothing but good things about Open Field as a digital magazine and we’re thrilled with that. But we’re curious, hyperactive, insistent people so we’re thinking about what might come next under the Open Field name. We’ll stay true to the early-technology notion of doing good, and to the worth of sharing creative work, but the form that takes … well, it’s exciting to think about.

 

For more information on Open Field magazine, and details on how to download the three issues, visit the website or search for the publication in iTunes. Each issue costs $4.99 to download.

I have an article, ‘Fire in the Belly’, in the latest issue, No. 3, of Open Field — where I talk to Australian women writers about anger and how it can incite or hamper creativity. Issue 3 has just been released on iTunes.

Thanks to writers Jo Case, Angela Savage, Emily Maguire, Martine Murray, Emma Chapman, Annabel Smith, Fiona Wright, Patti Miller, Krissy Kneen, Amanda Curtin, Zena Shapter and other anonymous contributors for your candid and moving responses.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2014 issue of Newswrite magazine for the NSW Writers’ Centre. Subscriptions to the magazine are available to Centre members.

 

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.

 

 

 

Black and Blue: Blue Mountains’ stories – Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Ron Pretty hosts Black and Blue panel, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival, photo: Bette Mifsud
Ron Pretty hosts Black and Blue panel, featuring Mark O’Flynn, Emma Brazil, Michael Streich, Jude Martinez, Craig Billingham, Faye Wilson, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, photo: Bette Mifsud

Coming from Castlemaine, a small town in regional Victoria, I can see how certain rural areas of Australia are starting to thrive, attracting artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians. But even so, creatives can often feel they work in isolation, stuck in a studio or cave somewhere, coming out occasionally to see the light.

The Black and Blue exhibition in Katoomba, launched by local resident Tara Moss as part of the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, draws on Blue Mountains’ stories, bringing together writers and illustrators who live in the mountains. The early stages of the project involved a call-out to locals to submit stories they’d heard: rumours; truths; dark mutterings. Once on the table, there was a selection process and writers and illustrators were paired up for particular tales, free to interpret and make connections. Contemporary stories were put gently aside, with contributors wary of representing people still living in the area (this would have been fascinating, too). The result is a show currently exhibiting at a new gallery, the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, until 29 June.

In a panel hosted by poet Ron Pretty, there was much discussion about the role of the illustrator, and the divide between illustration and art. I’d never really thought about the difference between illustrators and artists (if there is one). Illustrations for children’s books are always as important as the words themselves, sometimes more so. Black and Blue was originally conceived as a way to celebrate what illustrators do, and how they fit into the publishing landscape.

Faye Wilson, an illustrator living in the Blue Mountains, is drawn to (literally) the ‘mad scientist process’ of  transforming traditional art mediums in Photoshop, the alchemy of combining the analogue with the digital, layering, ‘glaze upon glaze’. She spoke passionately of how primarily culture is about place — that hearing local stories always enriches the spot where you live, and that the Mountains has a deep culture of its own.

There are 16 artists involved –  the illustrators are Greg Bakes, Amy Cutler, Wayne Harris, Jude Martinez, Nancy Sarno, Toby Riddle, Michel Striech, and Wilson, and the writers are Craig Billingham, Emma Brazil, Kathy Hale, John Low, Mark O’Flynn,Vanessa Kirkpatrick, Trevor Shearston and Deb Westbury.

More on the Sydney Writers’ Festival: Emma Donoghue on Frog Dancing; Kirsten Krauth and Felicity Castagna on debut fiction and the here and now; and tough love in the books of Sally Piper and Annah Faulkner.

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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.

Anthony Lawrence: poetry, passion and plagiarism

 

Anthony Lawrence, Blake Poetry Prize 2013 winner
Anthony Lawrence, Blake Poetry Prize 2013 winner

After leaving school at 16 to become a jackeroo, Anthony Lawrence decided with an almost grim determination to become a poet, teaching himself technique and mixing with other poets like Robert Adamson who greatly inspired his early work.

I first encountered Anthony pounding the streets at Clunes Booktown and my introduction to his writing was with The Welfare of My Enemy, an experimental and disturbing book-length poem looking from all-angles at missing persons: who they are, who stole them in the dark; why they return.

His most recent book is Signal Flare and you can read Judith Beveridge’s wonderful intro to this book (from the launch), which gives real insight into his practice and predilections.

He now lives in Queensland where he writes and teaches poetry.

I spoke to Anthony Lawrence after his poem ‘Appelations’ won the 2013 Blake Poetry Prize.* You can hear Anthony reading his winning poem on Radio National.

At what point did you decide you wanted to be a poet? Was it a gradual process or a struck-by-lightning moment?

There was no decision. My early childhood was fairly normal, although I do remember being called ‘different’. Poetry was never a part of it. I was a below average student in primary school, and at high school my efforts ebbed below the Plimsol line and stayed there. I hated school and many of the teachers. I can’t remember poetry being a part of any English lesson and, if it had been, then Mary MacKillop would no doubt have been dragged out, hence my inability to remember. It wasn’t until Year 10 at a rural boarding school, where I’d been sent for being uncontrollable (a potent variation on the word ‘different’) that poetry came sharply into focus.

Anthony Lawrence's The Welfare of My Enemy looks into the disturbing undercurrents of Missing Persons
Anthony Lawrence’s The Welfare of My Enemy looks into the disturbing undercurrents of Missing Persons

I’d discovered the novels of Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith, and I was in the library one night, checking the shelves. I strayed into the poetry section which from memory was quite extensive and (I know now) adventurous for a private boys’ school. I found a book called Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt by Richard Brautigan, which had a black and white photo of a man in a sad-looking hat playing in a child’s sand pit with a bucket and spade. I loved that the title and cover were completely at odds, and I sat down and started reading. Those poems were what I’d been hoping for all my life. They were strange, compelling, and moved me in a profound way. It was the first time I remember being involved with something that gave me a glimpse into the miraculous, even if I didn’t understand some of what Brautigan was saying. Poetry. Magic. Full immersion. I finished the book and went looking for others. The next book was Selected Poems by Leonard Cohen. Magic. Hurt. Delight. Confusion. Poems about sex and travel, longing and the writing life. I stole those books and kept them under my mattress. I devoured them. I was 15 and my life had changed forever.

After I was expelled from boarding school, I worked on a sheep station outside Jerilderie, in the Riverina. It was here that I started writing poetry, without any idea of what I was doing. I had my stolen books, a pen and writing pads. I wrote constantly and, when I came home to Sydney a few years later, my parents bought me a small Olivetti typewriter and I typed up all the bad and sentimental poems I’d written by hand over the years. They were concerned. I was much quieter, and writing poetry and reading it to anyone who’d listen. One afternoon I came home and mum told me she knew what I had to do to become a real poet. She handed me a piece of paper with a list, in her hand-writing, down the page:

Read poetry every day, whatever you can buy or borrow.

Write whenever you can.

Meet with other poets.

Clearly mum had had an epiphany that defied the wildest expectations. Then she told me that, while I was out, she’d gone through the Sydney White Pages phone book, looking for anything under P for Poetry. She found Poetry Society of Australia, and dialled the number. A man answered. She told him that she thought her son may well have become a poet, and she was worried about him. The man said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s wonderful.’ Then he gave mum his address and asked her to pass it on to me, that I should visit that week and there was going to be a poetry reading and film night. The man was Robert Adamson. I’d never met a real poet, and this news was just what I needed. So a few nights later I drove over to Lane Cove and was met by Cheryl Adamson, Robert’s wife. I could see a man on the carpet with wild black hair in a purple jumper, leaning over a large sheet of paper. Robert Adamson was designing the cover for an edition of New Poetry magazine.

That night the house was filled with poets. I met Robert, Dorothy Hewett, Nigel Roberts, Geoffrey Lehmann, Judith Beveridge, and the visiting American poet Robert Duncan. At the end of the night, Nigel Roberts came to me and said quietly: ‘You’re not going to know whether to curse or bless your mother for what she’s done, casting you into the lion’s den of Australian poetry. But my guess is you’ll thank her, and often.’

 Your poem won the Blake Poetry Prize (and a number of others were highlighted by the judges). Why did you decide to enter your poems?

I’d entered the Blake Poetry Prize twice before, with the poem from my second entry, ‘Winging It’, being short-listed. I loved that the Blake Prize for Religious Art was now including poetry as a vehicle for celebrating the religious, spiritual or sacred. And William Blake has been a major source of inspiration for me over the years. It was an easy decision.

Was your winning poem ‘Appellations’ written specifically for the awards, or a poem that was in gestation for a long time? Tell me how you came to write it.

‘Appellations’ was not written for the Blake Prize. It was begun six months earlier while riding a pushbike along the coastal path from Casuarina to Cabarita Beach. The first two lines arrived, fully formed, and they started changing as I pedalled, and I didn’t have a pen and paper, and my memory can’t be trusted. So I found a small stick, dug into the grocery basket, found the tin foil, ripped off a sheet, and carefully inscribed the lines with a splinter of watttle. At home I typed them up. Later, when I had to let the poem go, I decided to enter it into the Blake.

Anthony Lawrence's In the Half Light: a novel about the impact of schizophrenia
Anthony Lawrence’s In the Half Light: a novel about the impact of schizophrenia

How much of your poetry is about exploring spiritual themes, the big questions?

Many of my poems explore the spiritual or sacred elements of life, though rarely directly, and never with a singular focus. If I write about landscape or the natural world in general, I do so with one eye on the subject matter and one on the spaces between the pandanus palm, the pair of Brahminy kites, the dolphin pod and the headland. This is where the wellspring of magic and the ineffable live. They can’t be summoned at will, and tamed. They can be teased out into the open, and glimpsed, and from these rare sightings, we can try to define that which gives us the ghost-print of something sublime. The commonplace is riddled with amazement and stunning metaphors. We can train ourselves to find them, but it takes years and a willingness to work hard, in isolation, for long periods without goals or thoughts of success. Sounds very zazen, I know, but the similarities between meditation and writing poetry are vital and real, as is self-hypnosis.

You were an instrumental part of the discovery that award-winning poet Andrew Slattery was plagiarising other poets’ material. How did you initially make that discovery?

I was a guest at the 2013 Josephine Ulrick Poetry Awards dinner, where Andrew Slattery read his ‘winning’ poem. I’d not met Slattery previously, and had liked many of the poems I’d read in magazines and journals over the years, so I was looking forward to hearing him read.

Halfway into the poem alarm bells started going off. First I heard a few lines from Billy Collins’ poem ‘Forgetfulness’, and then a couple of lines from Philip Larkin’s ‘Days’. While I was on edge, I assumed Slattery must have acknowledged these lines at the end of his poem. MTC Cronin, one of the judges, was at my table. I mentioned what I’d heard to her, and she said nothing had been acknowledged, and that she was going to look into the rest of the poem.

And so began weeks of forensic investigation, led by Margie Cronin and David Musgrave. They discovered that almost all of Slattery’s poem contained the work of other poets, stolen from the internet or books.

It was just good timing that I was there on the night. I read everything I can get my hands on, and all the time. Judging poetry competitions that often attract over 200 entries, with poems ranging from between 100 to 200 lines, is a lot of work. Cracks appear. It’s wonderful that Slattery and Graham Nunn, another long-term serial plagiarist, have been cornered and brought to account. It does make me wonder if other Australian poets are giving their poems a spark and drive they can only manage through the theft of others’ work. I’d say there are most likely several who are hoping this scandal will die away quickly so they can get back to working under cover of someone else’s darkness.

It seems amazing that a number of poets seem to have been plagiarising for years, and winning awards too. Do you think there has been a great amount of trust in the local poet community, unlike in academia (for example), where writing is regularly screened for copycats?

You want to believe that when someone publishes a book of poems or a poem in a magazine or newspaper, that they’re the author. To think otherwise seems so odd, and yet now of course such thoughts are valid.

Plagiarism is a curious beast. A writer might steal and then shoehorn the words or lines of another poet into their own work because they know it makes the poem stand out, whereas left to its own devices, it would read and sound flat, ordinary. It’s a matter of achieving a quick fix to a long-term problem — the problem of paying serious attention to craft, and technique, and of not pursuing recognition for its own sake. Plagiarists don’t like too much attention — just enough to get them seen, to be heard, to win a prize or two, and then they slink back into the shadows, to seek out more likely lines to add to their collection.

Anthony Lawrence's Bark is a poetry collection shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book of the Year, 2008.
Anthony Lawrence’s Bark is a poetry collection shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book of the Year, 2008.

Do you think there’s a real sense of community in the Australian poetry scene? Do you ever work collaboratively or do you see it as very much an isolated pursuit?

There will always be a brittle sense of community within Australian poetry. Most poets who write for the page, however, have effigies of their contemporaries on their desks, and they are bright with pins and needles. The eyes are a popular focus for sharp objects. As is the mouth.

I like to call them Pagers and Stagers, and in the blog I wrote with Bob Adamson (The Waggafish Letters) there was a war on an island north of Sydney where many were taken out and down, and many left disabled. This was a light-hearted look at a dark truth. Poets are fiercely competitive and many have glass jaws and a skin so thin you could read their poems through it.

You have taught poetry for many years. Has the way poetry is taught, or the students who come to learn, changed significantly in recent years?

I’ve been teaching poetry, in schools and universities, for many years. I try to turn people onto poetry whenever possible. The way I teach hasn’t changed at all. It’s about encouraging wide-reading, and exposing people to poems and poets that I believe will help change their way of seeing the world. Now that I’m teaching full-time, I’m able to pass on to students many of the tricks of my dark trade that I’ve been practising and developing for over 30 years. When I tell my first year Creative Writing students that I won’t be able to teach them how to write successful poetry; that this can only happen if they already have the essential inner spark and drive that can work with crucial information to create something enduring; a collective moan goes up around the lecture theatre. They wonder why they’ve signed on. They look at me with disdain. Some throw things. Abuse is common. Then, when they’ve settled down, and I start laying some spells on them, and get them writing, they forget about the end result, and start with the basics, and most love the journey. Some may even publish poems. But teaching is sharing information. I worked for many years doing whatever I could to support writing poetry. At the age of 54, I began an academic career. Imagine. Getting paid well to talk about poetry and fiction, and offering guidelines for the writing of them …

Anthony Lawrence's Signal Flare is his latest collection, published in 2013
Anthony Lawrence’s Signal Flare is his latest collection, published in 2013

Where do you look for inspiration these days when you start a poem?

I’m an inspired writer. I only write when I’m compelled to. This means that during any given year I might have two or three extended periods when I give myself over to writing poetry. It’s a fertile, productive, driven time. Trying to balance full-time work with the demands of the imagination can be tricky, but I manage. There is never one thing that lights the touch paper. It can be anything from reading a line in a book of poems that then sets me on ‘stunned fire’, or seeing an osprey stalled over Cabarita headland, or hearing my son say something amazing. It’s always new, and raw, and the only rules are those I’ve learned to pay attention to completely: never disregard what seems obvious — drag it into the light and look into its shadow; always harness subject-matter into the service of imagination; drink single malt Islay Scotch.

INSPIRATION AND FURTHER READING

Anthony Lawrence has been influenced by many poets in his career.

The poets that most inspired him, back when it all began, were Brautigan and Cohen, and later, Robert Adamson, Geoffrey Lehmann, Nigel Roberts, Michael Dransfield, Dorothy Hewett, Judith Beveridge, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Keats and Shelley.

Other favourites include Philip Hodgins, Elizabeth Campbell, Philip Salom, Kevin Hart, John Forbes, Jan Harry, Alan Wearne, Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, Philip Larkin, Glyn Maxwell, Ciaran Carson, Peter Redgrove, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Roddy Lumsden and Jacob Polley.

The Blake Poetry Prize is now open for submissions. Visit the NSW Writers’ Centre to find out more about the competition and to download and entry form.

*This article originally appeared in Newswrite, the magazine I edit for the NSW Writers’ Centre. For more info on becoming a member and subscribing to Newswrite, visit their website.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

DO YOU READ POETRY?

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE POETS?

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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?

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)…

Writing Mothers: Annabel Smith

Author Annabel Smith
Author Annabel Smith

Novelist Annabel Smith is a writer who kind of slipped by me. I’m not sure how this happened (but she has blogged extensively on it).

I read her first novel A New Map of the Universe earlier this year as if I was in a fever. The language is at times extraordinary. The opening scene where the lovers trace maps of stars on each other’s bodies is *sigh* so erotic, in the best shape of the word, that I felt like I might dissolve. It’s a book about abandonment (something that, as a writer, I identify with strongly), and about mothers who disappear (slowly, slowly). It’s a daring and transcendent debut, packed with emotion and punch.

I read her second novel pretty much immediately, intrigued by her ability to manipulate me as a reader (in a good way) and pluck at my tender bits and vulnerabilities.  Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot is also assured but completely different in tone, a signal to me that Smith is quite an exceptional writer in the Australian cultural landscape. With this book, I think she deserves to be considered on the international stage (many Australian writers other than Peter Carey should be there). Beautifully structured, pared back in style, it’s a contemporary novel about technique as much as plot, about how words are shaped. As a family negotiates feelings around a brother (or son) in a coma (you can throw away all the cliches too), Smith negotiates how memories are formed and relationships battered by seemingly small misunderstandings — miscommunications and withdrawals — that grow into obstacles almost too big to crawl over.

Annabel Smith, A New Map of the UniverseI’ve got to know Annabel (virtually) in the past year. Her debut novel was published by UWA Publishing, like my own. And since just_a_girl was published she has been quick to review it and give feedback, helping me over initial hurdles. She invited me to contribute to her Which Writer For a Day collective blog (with other WA writers) and to think about my favourite book for her ‘Friday Faves’ series. She taught me the importance of writerly communities, and helping each other out online in innovative ways. I was also fascinated by her latest project, The Ark, a digital narrative that pushes the boundaries of fiction — I look forward to seeing it in final form.

Here I speak to Annabel about motherhood, writing, and writing mother characters in her fiction.

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

I prepared for pregnancy as I prepare for most things — by reading about it. What I read led me to believe that my baby would usually have 3 naps a day, adding up to 3 or 4 hours in total. Based on this information, I expected I might be able to spend perhaps an hour a day writing.

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

My son was colicky and difficult to settle. He had an abnormally short sleep cycle (only 25 minutes as opposed to the average 45 minutes), and never napped for more than 1 cycle. The time it took to settle him was often longer than the duration of his nap and was horribly stressful. I felt that getting him to sleep was one of my primary functions as a mother and I was failing horribly at it. Often by the time he fell asleep I was completely strung out, and there were a million things to do around the home, so writing didn’t get a look in. I didn’t write a word for the first six months after he was born and I felt incredibly frustrated and resentful about this. Eventually, we worked out a routine where my husband would look after him for half a day each weekend and I would spend a few hours at the library working on my book.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

I was amazingly productive. My writing time was so precious, I didn’t waste a minute. I would sit down at the desk and barely look up for three hours.

Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

Annabel Smith, Whisky, Charlie, FoxtrotI was writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot then. After my son was born I wrote a scene in which my protagonist Charlie goes to see his mother, and talks to her about his feeling that his brother was her favourite child. She reveals that it was in fact the opposite, and shares her guilt about this feeling. Parental guilt is something you can’t imagine if you haven’t had children. I’d heard people speak about the feeling that they were constantly doing something wrong, or letting their children down in some way and I’d think, just let it go, stop beating yourself up about it. Then I became a parent and I experienced it for myself and I understood how it gets hold of you. So I wouldn’t have thought of writing that scene unless I had experienced that.

Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation (of mothers or other characters) in any ways?

Not that I remember, although having a baby also affected my memory really badly so it’s hard to be sure!

In your novels, mothers are often seen as difficult to reach or disappearing slowly out of grasp. Is this a common thread in your work?

It isn’t always easy to see the threads in your own work because often they seem to be driven by unconscious impulses. My first two novels both focus on the idea of communication in families — things that need to be said and aren’t, things that shouldn’t be said but are. All sorts of the relationships are fractured, not just those between mothers and children. But when I think about it more carefully, in my third novel The Ark (to be published in 2014) I have a character called Ava, who has a nervous breakdown, and worries about the impact of this on her 8-year-old daughter. And my current work-in-progress centres on a cult built around a woman known as ‘la madre’ which means ‘mother’ in Spanish. So perhaps it is an idea I feel a need to keep exploring in different forms, but it is not deliberate.

Mothering can involve managing many conflicting emotions. To what extent do these emotions transform or play a part in your writing?

What a great question. But also a difficult one to answer. I have certainly had many conflicting emotions as a mother and perhaps more extremes of emotion too. I had post-natal depression so some of the lowest times of my life have been since the birth of my son. The silver lining of this, for me, is having more compassion for others, especially people suffering with mental illnesses. I think if a writer has compassion for their characters, the reader is more likely to as well, even the difficult characters. So I hope that my experience with depression has helped me to write characters with more depth, and characters who readers might be able to feel sympathy for, even if they are behaving in ways that are hard to understand.

Both your books challenge the idea that motherhood and nurturing come naturally. Your characters struggle with grief and detachment. Do you think these are feelings many women negotiate but feel uncomfortable talking about?

Undoubtedly. I think there’s a terribly repressive culture which perpetuates the myth that all women are natural mothers and that motherhood is the most wonderful thing that can ever happen to us, and this culture makes it difficult for women to express their true feelings about motherhood which are often ambivalent and complex. I think this culture is changing, which is great to see, but it still has a long way to go.

Annabel Smith’s novel Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot has been nominated for the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award, to be announced at the Wheeler Centre tomorrow night. Good luck, Annabel, and I’ll keep you posted.

THIS POST IS PART OF THE WRITING MOTHERS SERIES: You can also read interviews with Anna Funder, Debra Adelaide, Susan Johnson, Kirsten Tranter, and many other wonderful writers

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A WRITING MOTHER – OR IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING MOTHER CHARACTERS? HOW DO YOU HANDLE IT?