Posts in NonFiction

New Oz writing: for the Santa sack

Each year, I go to the bookstore during the Christmas rush and get overwhelmed. Then I head for the first table I see and buy the same names I did last year as gifts. But Tim Winton, Alex Miller, Bill Bryson, Jamie Oliver don’t need me any more.

I asked some Oz writers about their favourite Oz reads from the past year. It was an impressive list. I’d like to share it with you, in the hope you’ll share it widely too. All these women writers have achieved remarkable things: to get published in the first place (it’s never been tougher); and to support each other and gain inspiration from reading other women’s work.

I’d love to hear if you’ve read these books. If you’ve written reviews of them, or interviewed the authors, I’d be happy to feature your words on the Wild Colonial Girl blog. I’m time-strapped (with the PhD reading and writing) but I’m hoping to get to some of them too…

 

Kirsten Krauth's list of top Oz writing 2015

Looking beyond the labels: Tara Moss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

Shyness is nice: the beauty of inarticulation

An autobiography of Christos Tsiolkas
A biography of Christos Tsiolkas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I felt like I’d been found.

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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)…

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

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

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

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

DESTINATION CAMBODIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia

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

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

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

Fried spiders, Cambodia
Fried spiders, Cambodia

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

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

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

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

Read Walter Mason’s review of just_a_girl.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS?

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

The lure of introversion: QUIET by Susan Cain

Quiet_Power_of_introverts_Susan_CainI’m having a pyjama day today. I’ve had a couple lately. Every now and then the world gets too busy, I get run-down and I jump into bed (I try not to take my laptop – too often). The kids are at child care so I can luxuriate in nothingness. Sleep. Read. Try not to think too much. Recuperate. When I was a teenager I used to need pyjama days a lot. Each year in high school, I’d take one day, and it would turn into a week. I would lie on the couch and watch morning TV, then the soap operas, then vegetate. I’ve always loved my mum for understanding that I needed to do this. As a kid I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t need parental expectations, I had enough of my own. I was a hard worker, a passionate student and wanted to excel. This downtime kept me going. There’s a reason people call them ‘mental health days’. But I wonder, does everyone need them?

I’ve recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the world, and given me real insight into the way I approach things. Susan Cain’s QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (she also does a great session on TED). It’s become my Bible that I want to carry around and refer to all the time. It’s certainly explained a lot of my behaviour for the past 41 years. Cain focuses on introversion not as a form of shyness, but how we respond to external stimulation. Most introverts prefer, and get off on, quiet environments. They prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities, usually D&Ms (deep & meaningfuls), not social chitchat. They enjoy time alone. They like working in spaces where they have their own office (and can shut the door), where they can focus right in, without distractions. All of this is so familiar to me.

But problems can arise because these days there is great pressure to be an extrovert (especially when you’re a writer, an often introverted profession), to be a great public speaker, to work the room at events. While I don’t think Australia is quite at the level of the US (where it’s almost seen as a stigma to be introverted), many grow up thinking that to be successful they need to be a ‘people person’. It makes me laugh thinking back to my first job interviews as a teenager, as I always said this about myself knowing it to be key, but even then I felt like it was a deceit.

Susan Cain talks about the power of introspection at TED
Susan Cain talks at TED

As I grew older, I put more pressure on myself to take on roles that involved a public life (information officer, marketing) but in the end it was exhausting. What I really wanted was to be an editor or writer, to work on projects, to be thorough and demanding and immersed. And as a freelancer working from home, I’ve created that space. The digital world has opened that up to me.

When I worked in the public service, offices were being removed, everyone was going open plan, all staff were being trained to be trainers, brainstorming was the ‘in’ thing, the constant noise was deafening, and no-one ever got any work done. Cain systematically goes through many of these ideas (open plan, brainstorming, group activities at school) and argues that often the end result is not the best outcome (either for introverts or extroverts).

There is also a great deal of pressure on parents to have social children who fit in easily and make lots of friends. Even at kinder level, my son is doing talks to the group. Many parents enrol their kids in whirlwinds of extra activities after school like dancing, soccer and music. But what about the child who would rather stay at home and lie on the couch, reading? In the school holidays I used to take a stack of books, wherever I was, and find a comfy corner. We’re going to the beach! Swimming! The sun’s shining outside! It was very hard to drag me out…But I was passionate about words. And I was completely, blissfully, happy exploring those worlds. And still am.

Now, somehow my introverted husband and I have managed to raise two extroverted kids (there’s another story in itself – it really helps at parties when your son know all the kids’ and parent’s names) but the important main point of QUIET is that introverts should be left alone (in many senses), not forced to change, and can even teach others in their own ways. Without introverts, we’d be missing out on many writers, artists, researchers and scientists who step back and look at the world from a different angle.

Social media is an interesting space because it is an easy way for introverts to become extroverts. It’s much easier to approach others, to comment, to be part of the conversation, to self-promote. But it can be too easy too. When I opened my Twitter yesterday I saw a tweet that I don’t remember sending. I thought I had been hacked! Kirsten Krauth read a book by Kirsten Krauth. It had gone out to everyone! It really brings solipsism to a whole new level, doesn’t it? But what had happened was that I had marked my own novel  in Goodreads (ie I had ‘read’ it) and Goodreads sent that tweet off via Twitter without me realising. The ludicrous nature of that tweet really brought it home. As Cain points out, there is a point when I need to stop talking. And I’ll be ironic and use my blog to say that.

It’s time to get back down under the doona and start on the pile of novels I’ve got beside the bed.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU AN EXTROVERT OR INTROVERT? DO YOU NEED DOWNTIME? HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL?

Talking Writing: an ebook featuring great Australian writers

Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers' Centre
Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers’ Centre

I love having the flexibility to swing between freelance writing and editing. I’ve been commissioning editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite, for a number of years now. I enjoy commissioning articles almost as much as writing them. There’s something about the ideas process, talking through possible articles with an editorial team, and then seeing writers respond to a theme and bring it to the page fully formed. More often than not, writers completely surprise me with what they bring back.

For an editor, working on a magazine composed by writers is a dream job. The writing that comes in is taut and well-shaped, with virtually no typos. I can just sit back end enjoy. For a writer, I’ve always got a lot to learn. Writing short stories. Or sci-fi. Or the love poem. I’m always keen to try new things. This ebook covers the gamut.

Newswrite has always been a members-only magazine, for those based in NSW. One of the frustrating things about editing each edition has been that I haven’t been able to use social media to share the articles that I find exciting and helpful for writers (and there are many).

So the Centre came up with an idea: we’ve produced our first ebook, Talking Writing, a collection of the best articles from the past couple of years. It was launched last week. Yes, it does cost money. But $9.95 is a pretty reasonable outlay for some of the finest writers in the country, both established and emerging.

My favourites from the book include:

  • John Safran on writing TV comedy. I went to uni with John. I was involved with making an early music video at RMIT of his song ‘Melbourne Tram’. His work has always fascinated me. Here, he berates writers for being so precious. To come up with ideas. Lots of them. 
  • Kate Holden on writing good sex. I’m intrigued by Kate’s evocation of the erotic in her nonfiction. She has lived it. Writing sex (that’s not cringe-worthy) is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Kate has some great tips.
  • Arnold Zable on writing as therapy. In the aftermath of the bushfire tragedy in Victoria, Arnold did workshops with some of the survivors. They wrote about what they had lost, shared, and remembered. It’s an article full of spirit and rejuvenation amidst the devastation.
  • Writer on WriterThe magazine has a regular column (that I get very excited about) where writers are asked to talk about the author who has had the greatest influence on them (writing practice and reading). It’s a wonderfully intimate space for reflection and featured writers include Emily Maguire (on Graham Greene), Benjamin Law (Zadie Smith), Jon Bauer (Ray Bradbury), Sam Cooney (David Foster Wallace) and Mandy Sayer (Ernest Hemingway).
  • And then there’s Rebecca Giggs on writing and the environment; Sam Twyford-Moore on writing and depression, James Bradley on blogging, Kirsten Tranter on the second novel and Geordie Williamson + Angela Meyer on criticism in the digital age.

If you’re an emerging writer looking for hands-on nuts and bolts help, this ebook will be useful to dip into. It covers a range of genres so teachers of writing can add it to their syllabus.

You can read it on your computer screen, iPad, Kindle or other e-reading devices.

This release is a bit of an experiment. If we get lots of digi-readers, the plan is to keep publishing Newswrite articles in a variety of formats. I hope you enjoy reading the articles as much as I have over the years.

Beyond the Bonkbuster: Australian erotic writing

Fifty Bales of Hay by Rachael TreasureAs I look at my web stats for the first year of Wild Colonial Girl, I note the top ranking search items: ‘wild’ and ‘spanking’. Usually entered together. It seems that putting ‘wild’ into my blog’s name attracts lots of pundits looking for pleasure (good move) — who must be disappointed to discover that the ‘spanking’ only leads to Keira Knightley unceremoniously being berated for her performance in A Dangerous Method (bad luck).

With Australian publishers so keen to jump on the Fifty Shades bandwagon (Fifty Bales of Hay just landed on my desk), I am intrigued by the desire to pin the ‘erotic’ down. I spoke to a number of writers about how they define, read and write the erotic.

The following article was originally written for the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Newswrite magazine and gave me the chance to look deeper into Australian erotic fiction, the kind I might want to read.

Susan Johnson can make eating a piece of cheese sound like it deserves a plastic shrink wrap cover and restricted classification.

(Kirsten Tranter)

Today I had three separate conversations about Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven’t read the book. The people I was speaking to hadn’t read it either. But it’s created a frenzy of speculation. Why are people reading it in droves? Why are women so intrigued by a tale of submission? Why does everyone want to talk about it even though they haven’t read it? And, damn it, why didn’t I write it?

Susan Johnson, My Hundred LoversAndrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books traces the history of what he playfully terms the ‘bonkbuster’ from the 70s through to now. From Jackie Collins to EL James, he argues that: ‘Each era gets the erotic writing it craves, or deserves, if that doesn’t sound too much like I’m asking you to spank me into an ecstasy of submission.’ In Australia, we’ve experienced our own bonkbusters, relevant to the times. While we didn’t have the sweaty slick surfaces of Sidney Sheldon, we had the kinky grunge of Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia, the comic frenzy of Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me, the curiously conservative anonymity (at first) of The Bride Stripped Bare, the grim then romantic works of Kate Holden and, now, the luscious morsels of Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers.

Now, erotic writing. What is it exactly? It’s a term that can define almost anything, and not necessarily just sex. When I think erotic writing, I think of poetry, of tastes and textures, of books squirreled away where others can’t find them. Reading erotic writing is an intensely private experience or one to be shared with a lover. Many have argued that the appeal of Fifty Shades has been heightened by its presence as an e-book. You can download it secretly. You can read it on a Kindle, without a book cover letting everyone know on the train what you’ve got your hands on. There’s no doubt that part of its success has been due to the e-revolution but you can still read over someone’s shoulder pretty easily when they have an iPad. I think there’s more to it.

Erotic writing breaks down into many genres too. It’s by no means an all-encompassing term. As author Krissy Kneen points out, there’s ‘romantic erotic, paranormal erotic and literary fiction with erotic elements’. There’s creative non-fiction (Kate Holden seems to be paving the way here) and a new breed capturing the imagination — erotic fan fiction — where writers imagine sexual encounters between celebrities, politicans, musicians, you name it! But even the word ‘erotic’ can be problematic. Fiona McGregor, whose 2002 novel Chemical Palace delves deep into Sydney’s queer dance party culture, with lashings of sex, prefers other words:

I have a slight mistrust of the term ‘erotic’ as a middle-class euphemism for ‘porn’, although it is usually not nearly as much of a turn-on as porn, and instead (perhaps aptly) stodgy and middle-class. I definitely respond to sexy writing, to good sex in writing. I think it works best when it is woven in with everything else, intrinsic to the narrative. The awkwardness and exquisiteness of human intimacy, the elation of love, however fleeting.

Linda Jaivin, Eat MeAnna Hedigan, in her Moral High Ground blog, talks of the appeal of dirty books, the ones without pictures (as opposed to visual pornography): ‘Written smut … gives you ideas. You are in the middle of those ideas. If something takes your fancy but isn’t quite to taste, well, it’s in your head now. Play it another way.’ In an ABC Radio National panel on erotic fiction, Linda Jaivin agrees, arguing that ‘it’s better to read dirty books as a kind of antidote to visual porn’ — but she warns that these days we are in ‘neo-Prudish times’, and far less open in our attitudes to and discussions about sex than when she wrote Eat Me in the mid-90s. She believes writing erotica is a freer form than pornography because imagination — along with other things — is stimulated: ‘All fiction is an act of creation between the reader and the writer … You come together on the page.’ (Yes, it’s almost impossible to avoid continual double entendres when talking on the topic.)

When I asked some writers to chat about their favourite Australian erotic writing, many attempted to run a mile, keen to distinguish their tastes as literary (rather than the erotica genre). Krissy Kneen summed up the general consensus: ‘I am not a big fan of most of the “erotic” novels as a genre. It is rarely done well without relying on cliché. I prefer literary books, that are not afraid of their sensuality.’ Favourite writers cited by a number of authors included Rod Jones, Sonya Hartnett, Frank Moorhouse, Linda Jaivin, Kate Holden, Emily Maguire, Sophie Cunningham, Christos Tsiolkas, John A Scott and Dorothy Porter.

Emily Maguire, Taming the BeastEmily Maguire, whose debut novel Taming the Beast explores the relentless and damaging sexual relationship between a 14-year-old girl and her abusive teacher, singles out the work of Krissy Kneen:

I’m a huge fan of Krissy Kneen. I rarely find her work ‘erotic’ in terms of arousal, but I think she writes about sex and the erotic in a deeply intelligent and empathetic way. I always come away from her work feeling warmer towards strangers and humanity in general. It’s like she uses the erotic to uncover the gorgeous, hugely varied, vulnerabilities of human beings. She really captures the desperate need to be approved of in all our most private weirdness, to be touched and loved.

But when writers talk of the erotic, there’s one name that crops up again and again. Susan Johnson. I take to her new novel, My Hundred Lovers, with a hot water bottle and a Kindle. The entire work just glistens off the screen. Every word shimmers with suggestive delight. It’s not just about attractions to other people (and ourselves) but to objects and experiences: a warm bath; lying under a tree; a loyal dog; a bridge in France. As author Kirsten Tranter comments, ‘the most erotic piece of writing I’ve come across recently is in My Hundred Lovers, where she’s discussing what it feels like to eat a croissant. My god.’

The deeper I go in — to the critics exploring erotic writing in Australia, the discussions, the book reviews, the research — the more I end up elsewhere. Outside our borders. The writers on Australian erotica seem to be, well, French. The publishers releasing books about Australian erotic writing (and its history) — like Xavier Pons’ fascinating Messenger of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing — are based abroad. Pons’ book looks into authors like Helen Garner and Justine Ettler, with a particular focus on writers from culturally (and/or sexually) diverse backgrounds like Lillian Ng, Simone Lazaroo and Christos Tsiolkas.

Krissy Kneen, Swallow the SoundBut what of the act itself? The creation of text that turns you on, that stimulates your senses, that gets you going. Is it just a matter of sitting at your desk and pumping the words out, as for other writing? Or does it require something special? Writers approach it differently. Like all sex, and relationships, characterisation comes first. And it’s always complicated. Krissy Kneen writes:

Recently I had the experience of finding it very difficult to get an orgy started in a book I was writing. It was pages and pages later and they still weren’t even close to getting their clothes off. It took me the better part of a week to finally realise that one of the peripheral characters had all the power in the situation and all my protagonist had to do was confess to him that she wanted an orgy and he very quickly and easily made it happen. Sometimes, like that example, starting the sex is the hardest bit. Sometimes characters aren’t ready to leap into bed but often if you make them just do it and it is awkward and embarrassing, that makes for a great sex scene…I can tell when a sex scene is really working. I can always feel it. It feels like you are riding a wave and you just have to stick with it till it comes to a natural end. It feels a bit like sculpting actually. It feels physical, like you are touching the shape of the scene. It is very sensual work.

Kirsten Tranter likes to hold back, revealing power plays at work between her characters, making them (and her audience) wait:

Erotic scenes are fairly challenging for me because in general, in a very broad sense, I’m hopelessly drawn to the anti-climactic, to the moment that almost arrives and yet doesn’t, is deflated in some interesting way; what this has meant for the sex scenes I’ve written is that there’s a distinct lack of sexual consummation. In my last book, ‘A Common Loss’, the main characters don’t get to have sex despite their spending a weekend in Vegas … I’m interested in erotic longing, and erotic encounters that are interrupted and maintain and intensify that energy. There’s as much or maybe more erotic energy in an interaction that is interrupted or frustrated as there is in one that is fulfilled.

Jon Bauer disagrees, arguing that you need to give readers something of what they desire. He creates erotic scenes to move the story or conflict along:

I was surprised to find myself writing saucy scenes in ‘Rocks in the Belly’. Genuinely surprised. But I felt that they progressed the reader’s insight into the character and said something about his use of sex as a salve, his misogyny, and his discomfort with becoming genuinely close to others. All scenes are fine, no matter their content, if they are contextually relevant … As a writer, I think it is important for a novel or a narrative to build tension, but also to release some of it regularly. A reader needs compensation along the way, and won’t thank you for not providing at least most of what you promise.

We’ve heard words from the experts but you don’t need to be a published author to write erotic fiction. With the internet’s burgeoning erotic scene, anyone can have a go. Whatever you’re into — sex dolls, wearing nappies, hairy men, amputees — there will be someone else to share your predilection and a forum to exchange ideas. There’s also the increasingly popular erotic fan fiction. The banal and repetitious nature of much graphic sex means it can work best in short bursts, and is even more entertaining in performance. Eddie Sharp organises regular readings of erotic fan fiction at festivals and The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Started in 2006 with a handful of people at UNSW, the event now regularly sells out quickly, helped by writers/readers like Andrew Denton. FBi radio’s Sunday Night at the Movies highlighted some recent works in their ‘Erotic Fan Fiction, Edition #2’ night, including the chance to hear Eddie performing his now legendary ‘At the Movies’, a deeply unnerving take on what really goes on between Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton when they’re filming their weekly TV show. With subjects like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, Toby and Josh from The West Wing (and even some of the performers’ fellow colleagues), anyone’s game.

This all sounds fun but what if you’re the subject of erotic fan fiction, sexually stripped and humiliated in front of thousands? A Kill Your Darlings podcast explored the predicament. Comedian Lawrence Leung was surfing the net (or googling himself, actually), and came across an erotic fan fiction all about him. He was appalled and intrigued, that ‘someone has to tell this story in an anonymous forum’. He decided to explore this idea in a comedy show of his own (Beginning, Middle, End), of a fan who decides to take ownership of Leung’s character, of using him, turning him into fiction: ‘For the first time I was confronted with someone taking my life, and my identity, and running with it. It’s kind of like identity fraud of the most disturbing kind.’

As you can see, there’s a lot happening in Australian erotic writing. Whether you want to focus on genre (in all its forms), add some spice to the literary possibilities, or get your favourite characters into a range of positions, the field is open to play and experimentation — and big bucks if you manage to pull off the next Australian (or international) bonkbuster.

HAVE YOU READ OR WRITTEN ANY EROTIC FICTION? WHAT EXCITES (OR HORRIFIES) YOU ABOUT THE GENRE?

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The World According to Gutkind: Creative Nonfiction (Australia)

The 'Australia' edition of 'Creative Nonfiction' magazine
The ‘Australia’ edition of ‘Creative Nonfiction’ magazine

Creative Nonfiction magazine, edited by Lee Gutkind, has been one of my favourite reads of the past couple of years. I like its focus on various forms of nonfiction: immersion, memoir, the lyric essay. Reading it has taught me a lot about style, and how to embark on my own nonfiction path (I have always found fiction easier). I tend to be drawn in by what Sam Twyford-Moore calls  ‘semi-fiction’ (in an article in Seizure magazine), that tender and fragile writing that’s kind of a personal history (but not quite).

When Creative Nonfiction called out that it was taking on an Australian edition, it was the incentive I needed. I had a subject looking for a place to live. It took me three months to write the 4,000-word essay. When I sent it off, I wasn’t completely happy with it. How do you fit into the ‘Australia’ idea. How do you corral a subject so it represents the small and the large? I struggled. Part of the problem was that I wanted to write about a journey as it happened, a search. But when I was doing the research, the people I was interviewing found this hard to understand. I was setting off without any plan. I had no end in mind. It’s difficult to get people involved, when they don’t know where you are heading or, more importantly, where you are going to end up. But this is the place in writing that I enjoy the most: the being lost.

I wasn’t successful in getting into the magazine. But when you’re rejected, stats always make you feel better. There were 343 submissions. Seven essays were eventually published. My rejection letter was also unusually exciting in that it said that the magazine was hoping to publish a book and my essay was of interest. Yay! Unfortunately this didn’t happen in the end. Which got me to thinking. What happened to those other 335 essays? I bet there are some beauties out there. I could easily do a website, or an ebook that throws them all together: the fish that John West rejected – McSweeney’s-style! If you’re interested, contact me. It’s a project I’d like to get my teeth into. For, despite the fact that nonfiction is a growing genre, and what the publishers want, there aren’t enough publishing options.

The launch of the ‘Australia’ edition of the magazine hit the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Lee Gutkind was in the house. What I didn’t realise about Gutkind is that he has a message to push: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Because that’s the title of his latest book. He is an entrepreneur, regaling the audience with stories and passion. But the message is starting to wear thin (after you’ve heard it for the tenth time). There’s a culture clash happening here, and it was made clear on the night of the launch. Like most attending, I was keen to see who was in the magazine, what the essays were about and who had won the prizes (call me shallow). The ‘Emerging Writer Prize’ went to Susan Bradley-Smith for ‘Writing an Obituary in a Hot Climate: Seven Things’. (It’s interesting to me that Bradley-Smith is called an emerging writer, despite her bio saying she has been a journalist in Sydney and London, and has two publications under her belt — at what point do you emerge from emerging?) Her essay encompasses everything I love about creative nonfiction: it is in the form of a list; it is intensely personal; it is full of passion; and it frogleaps: from a runaway mother to the death of her child to racism to why we don’t read Australian novels to hating real estate agents to grey nurse sharks to the horror of fire to boys dying in car accidents. She read excerpts from the essay on the night and it was powerful and provocative.

Which brings me to the overall winning essay, Rachel Friedman’s ‘Discovery’. Now I have to admit it. When Rachel started reading her essay into the Wheeler Centre — via satellite  — the combination of an American accent and the words ‘James Cook’ in the opening paragraph threw me. I knew the essay competition was open to international contributors but I didn’t expect an American to actually, you know, like, win. I was doing battle: with my idea of cultural imperalism — of having an American tell me what Australia is all about. Suddenly I found myself feeling patriotic. The defender of all things local. I’d have to erect an Aussie flag in my backyard. Where was this coming from?

Now, having read Friedman’s article in a more open frame of mind, I realise, it just doesn’t compare with the other essays, in terms of style, spice, flavour of the place. Just look at Stephen Wright’s ‘Nation of Grief’, Madelaine Dicke’s ‘Battling Collective Amnesia’, Rosemary Jones’ ‘Arms of the Earth’, Kirsten Fogg’s ‘After the Flood on Harte Street’ and James Guida’s ‘Strong Loyalties’: these essays sing with a shared spirit. Friedman’s work may be clever and tricksy, but it doesn’t match up, for me.

As an editor, you’re always going to commission articles with a certain bent. But I think Gutkind’s framing of the ‘Australia’ edition is pushing his (somewhat conservative) idea of ‘true stories, well told’ too much, to the occasional detriment of the magazine. His quote by Geraldine Brooks on the magazine’s cover (‘It’s either true or it’s not true, and if you’ve made it up, then it should be on the fiction shelf’) seems a disappointing reduction of all the elegant questioning that’s going on within the pages. It seems a shame that much of the magazine focuses, in such a limited space, on the (old hat) musings of Brooks, Robert Dessaix and Robyn Williams, when it’s clear from the few essays reproduced that there’s a lot of insightful, exciting, questioning going on by other (less established) writers. I would have liked to see a few more.

Which brings me back. Where are those missing essays? If you have one (and it hasn’t been published), send it to me. And we can take it from there…

DO YOU LIKE READING CREATIVE NONFICTION? WHAT ARE YOU FAVOURITE JOURNALS, BLOGS OR WEBSITES?

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

 

Grieving for the book: stage one=denial

A beautiful bookshelfMy (somewhat lazy) goal of writing a blog post once a week has fallen into disarray this past month as the reality of doing paid work (along with a structural edit of my novel, and my toddler starting to talk and climb up on tables) has started to hit home. One of the reasons I started the Writing Mothers series was because I wanted to see how other writers coped.

There have been ups and downs.

When the structural edit came back from the editor, I had a good bawl. A friend says that you are entitled to have one tantrum with your publishers and it’s best to save it. For when you see the book cover. So I bit my tongue. I had a good sleep and looked again at the suggestions. A week went by and some of the comments started to sound quite good. As I began a rewrite, the work started to reshape and it felt wonderful.

I’ve never been good with criticism. Even when it’s delivered with finesse (as this was). Writers often say they are missing that outer layer of skin. I feel exposed to everything and everyone. Any negative comments hit deep while positivity and praise washes off. I thought this might change as I hit my 30s. But now I’m 40 and nup. I want to know how to get over that before the book comes out. But perhaps it’s best not to think that way. To embrace the vulnerability, once and for all.

The thing is, though, I am good at bouncing back. Perhaps that’s the key. It might hit me hard but after a week I’ll be ready. To look at things clearly. To start again with passion. If there’s a chance the writing will be better, in the end I’ll give it a go.

Edwina Preston, The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer
My review of Edwina Preston’s book appeared recently in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age.

And then there’s the high points. My first critique was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age (a review of Edwina Preston’s The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer). I didn’t know exactly when the review was coming out so hadn’t bought the paper. I found out by receiving a strange and abstract text from my mum reading it over coffee. I looked at the review online but didn’t get too excited, until I’d flicked to the page on hard copy. What is it about this attachment to the printed form? Why do I get so puffed up when I see myself in print?

It might be to do with layout and design. I’ve always loved working with designers on projects. When I look at an article of mine in digital form (an online newspaper app, at any rate), it doesn’t look so different from when I emailed it off. But when it’s in a newspaper, laid out and conversing with other articles on a page, I enjoy looking at it, as if it’s been shaped by someone else.

I went to a panel at the recent NonFictioNow conference (and what a buzz it was) on longform nonfiction and digital distribution. One of the panellists, the wonderful writer Elmo Keep, mentioned she never reads on paper any more. Everything she needs can be read on an iPad. I wonder at my continued attachment to see things on a page. The writer, Arnold Zable, said to me that we are in the first stage of grieving for the book: denial. There’s something to that. But I have always been excited by the possibilities of the digital for text. Hypertext? Anyone remember that? My own novel started off as a hypertext project but I got too distracted by the technical possibilities so squirmed free to concentrate on content.

But I never have liked binary oppositions. I don’t see why I can’t enjoy reading on the Kindle and buying books at the same time. And I hate being told by the media that I have the attention span of a gnat. I enjoyed Elmo’s introduction to the panel because she quickly dismissed the idea that people don’t read longer works on the net. Websites like Longform and Longreads select a range of longer journalist pieces and essays for readers to browse or read later when they have time (but who does?).

So, I’m in the curious position of being super-excited about my first novel being published (as a book) next year — developing ideas for the book cover, the back cover blurb, the marketing and distribution — while recognising that my future publishing world will be geared in a different direction. Sam Twyford-Moore, in the same conference panel, said that publishing in book form, you may as well print it out and ‘put it in a box’ (compared with the audience you get online).

The books of Haruki Murakami
The books of Haruki Murakami

Elmo also said she had got rid of all her books, seeing bookcases as a waste of space, a way to show off how smart you perceive yourself to be. I guess there is that element of ego to books on display (and every collection: I have hundreds of DVDS, mostly of TV series), but they mean so much more to me (it’s not often other people peruse them). I can spend hours running my hands and eyes over a bookshelf, remembering the worlds within. I used to sort my books (by author, sometimes by publisher, by Australian or not) but now they are random and I like encountering the new, the ‘to read this year’, along with the favourites, the sleek black and white Haruki Murakamis, the violent Bret Easton Ellises, the evasive Lorrie Moores (there’s that ego again).

I love looking at other people’s bookshelves too and it’s more a chance to see if we have similar threads of interest, to get a feel for their personal space and tastes, and occasionally to ask to borrow something; one of the most intimate things you can do is take a book off a shelf and take it home.

If in the future there are no books (in printed form), I will grieve. But for the moment it’s too soon, and I don’t believe it. I think they will always be there, even if’s an expensive and very niche market. But, then again, perhaps I am just in denial.