THE HEART OF AUSTRALIAN DARKNESS: An Interview with Mark Brandi

Posted on August 8, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Verity La is all about new and exciting voices in Australian literature, so allow us to introduce you to Mark Brandi. Mark has been published, broadcast and shortlisted in journals and competitions in Australia and internationally. He graduated from a criminal justice degree and his career includes roles as a policy advisor and project officer in the Victorian Government’s Department of Justice, before changing direction and deciding to write. Mark’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and is often broadcast on Radio National. He is the winner of the 2016 UK Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger for his first novel, Wimmera (Hachette, 2017), which he developed during two residential fellowships at Varuna, the writers’ house at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Growing up Italian in a rural Victorian town has influenced much of Mark’s work.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations for Wimmera. It is an enthralling, multi-layered, and intricate novel. What was your inspiration for writing it?

BRANDI

Thanks so much.

It grew quite organically (I’m not a planner, in writing or in life), so the precise inspiration is hard to nail down. When first drafting, I tried to let things flow – there was little self-censorship, and I was mostly guided by what felt right for each character. Still, looking back, I can see a few sparks which may have lead to Wimmera.

Growing up Italian in a country town definitely inspired the setting. I’ve spent almost all of my adult life in the city, but much of my writing is still drawn to those rural roots. There must be some unresolved concerns, some kind of truth I’m seeking – I don’t know what it is exactly, or if I’ll ever find it … more like an itch, I suppose. I keep scratching at it.

But my previous career also played a part. I studied criminal justice and worked pretty extensively in the system, including a stint as an adviser to the corrections minister. With three older brothers also working in policing, it was probably inevitable that a crime would feature in my writing (even if I never set out to write a literary crime novel). Although, thinking about it now, some of my favourite books also feature a crime at their centre, even if not identified within the genre.

Speaking of, Albert Camus’s The Outsider hit a particular nerve. I loved his restrained, pared-back style – he allows the reader to enter that sunstruck Algerian world, to walk those hot streets. But more than that, the subject intrigued me – a community judges a man not for his crime, but for his failure to take part in social norms. While I read it many years before I began writing Wimmera, I think it planted a seed.

INTERVIEWER

There is a sense in the novel about the innocence of boyhood, which is contrasted with the messiness of male adulthood. Is that how you see the work at a thematic level?

BRANDI

I’m pleased you picked up on that.

When you’re a child (or a teenager) your world can seem very small, revolving in a tight orbit of family, friends, and school. When those structures inevitably shift and fragment, it can be difficult to know your place.

I think that’s true irrespective of gender, but perhaps more unspoken among young men. It’s definitely a factor for the boys in Wimmera, and compounds the impact of what transpires.

The innocence of their boyhood is also heightened by the period (1980s), as well as the rural location. It’s probably a terrible generalisation, but a different parental mindset seemed to prevail back then, with kids often let loose from the house with little monitoring (especially in rural areas). As long as you were home by dusk, all was okay.

That sense of freedom, a blissful naivety, is something I wanted to capture – the warmth of friendship and the seemingly endless summer holidays, alive with possibilities.

But there are also unspoken dangers, which are sensed by the boys, though not fully understood. Those darker elements are part of an inscrutable adult world, obscured from their view and understanding, but increasingly (and worryingly) apparent to the reader.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about those darker elements. There’s a darkness to masculinity, and there’s a darkness to the particular form of masculinity that emanates from rural Australia (no matter what the era). In writing Wimmera, what was your approach to exploring and rendering the darker side of the narrative?

BRANDI

I think that’s true (about the darker aspects of masculinity). And perhaps it can be especially stark in rural Australia, where physicality tends to dominate. Also, in small rural communities, men can often significantly outnumber the female population – this can become quite toxic, and dangerous.

But there’s no ducking it (when writing that darker side) – you have to go inside the heads and hearts of those characters. Whether it’s the schoolyard bully, the dickhead in the local pub, or the dangerous predator – as a writer, you try to understand what makes them tick. It’s only then you present a rounded view, some light and shade that shows the complexity of human nature. Very few people in this world are ‘all bad’ (or, ‘all good’, for that matter).

In the case of Ronnie, writing his scenes was always draining. Initially, my process was more academic, tapping into my experience in the justice system. But the story forced me deeper, made me delve into the motivations, urges, and careful manipulations of an extremely dangerous man – someone who picks his targets carefully.

I had to walk in his shoes and try to understand his proclivities (whether I liked it or not). It was gut wrenching, but completely necessary if I was to do the story justice.

INTERVIEWER

For you, is writing fiction an act of compassion and/or empathy?

BRANDI

That’s a great way to think about it.

It’s sometimes said that compassion is empathy put into action – so perhaps the act of writing is compassion in itself.

Most of my writing is focused on character, so there has to be empathy (if I’m to do it well). That isn’t to say I need paint a sympathetic portrait – empathy and sympathy are too often confused.

That point is relevant also to your previous question, with respect to the darker aspects of the story. When exploring the more malevolent figures, I had to approach their world with a degree of care, being mindful of the sensitivity of the issues for some readers. That said, no one wants to read flat caricatures of villains – it never seems real.

It might be stating the obvious, but people are incredibly complex. In seeking to understand (and vividly depict) those who might do terrible things (or good things), we need a degree of empathy (even if we might not always admit to it). Characterising people as ‘evil’ only takes you so far – this isn’t to excuse or diminish their crimes, but to better understand them.

But, as writers, we need not lay this all out on the page – so much is often better left unsaid and for the reader to uncover. Cormac McCarthy is a master of this – there is so little interiority shown of his characters, but you still feel a deep understanding and respect shining through them.

INTERVIEWER

You have mentioned Camus and McCarthy. Who are the other novelists that have inspired you?

BRANDI

I’m most attracted to writers whose characters dwell outside the mainstream.

As a kid, I enjoyed Stephen King – I’d often steal his books from my brother, and I loved scaring myself to death. I read Salem’s Lot far too many times (which probably explains my irrational childhood fear of vampires). King has a real knack for creating characters you care about.

As an adult, my preference is for lean, sparse prose – MJ Hyland’s This Is How is a standout of the last few years. More recently, I enjoyed Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide and How to Set a Fire and Why, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation. I suppose I admire novels (and novelists) that trust the reader, allowing space for us to invest ourselves, to add our own interpretation.

I also loved Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows for its delicate depiction of young people grappling with troubled family life. Similarly, both Sofie Laguna (The Eye of the Sheep) and Sonya Hartnett (Golden Boys) show the lives of children with nuance and subtlety.

And while she’s known more for her non-fiction, I’ll cheat and include Helen Garner. I recently read This House of Grief and was struck by the writing – her dignified and respectful portrayal of tragedy is, at times, breathtaking.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for Wimmera?

BRANDI

Accolades are great, but what matters is the conversation with each reader.

One of the most gratifying things has been hearing from those who have read the book and felt a connection to the story and its characters. Reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience.

All the stories I’ve loved become part of who I am – they never quite leave me. So my greatest hope is that readers might engage deeply with Wimmera, and that Fab and Ben (and yes, even Ronnie) might linger long after they’ve read the final page.

*

Wimmera can be purchased from Hachette Australia

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Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction – his contemporary dramas plunge into family dynamics, new relationship types, masculinity, history, and the lure of secrets. He is the author of three novellas: The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011). His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collection Joy (2000). In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of the Canberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written for Australian Book Review, BMA Magazine, and Capital. He has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, courtesy of the Launceston City Council, Tasmania; in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La (2010-2014), for which he received a 2012 Canberra Critics Circle Award. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. Visit Nigel’s website for more.

UNTWISTING YOUR OWN TONGUE: an interview with Roanna Gonsalves

Posted on March 14, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Roanna Gonsalves is the author of The Permanent Resident (UWAP, 2016) a collection of short fiction exploring how the newly arrived find their place in a new land. Her series of radio documentaries, On the tip of a billion tongues (commissioned and broadcast by Earshot, ABC RN) is an acerbic socio-political portrayal of contemporary India through the mouths of its multilingual writers. Gonsalves has a PhD from the University of New South Wales and is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award. She is also co-founder and co-editor of Southern Crossings, a writers’ collective aiming to re-imagine Australia, South Asia, and the world, through the lens of South Asian bodies and minds. Acclaimed novelist Michelle De Krester has said that ‘The Permanent Resident is a brilliant fashioning of newness in the Australian literary landscape’. We speak to Gonsalves about this ‘fashioning of newness’ in her work, and discuss why readers from such a broad range of backgrounds have connected so strongly with it.

Interviewer: Stephen Samuel

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on The Permanent Resident.  I was struck by the individual power of each of the stories. Can you describe the reaction readers have had? You recently were at a writer’s festival in India — was their reaction different, considering many of these stories, indeed most, concern recent arrivals to Sydney?

GONSALVES

Thank you so much. This is such a lovely question to begin with. It cuts to what I was attempting to do, which is to try and make every story strong and different from the others in form, not just in theme. I think the shape of a story is crucial to the way it is received. So thank you for picking that up. I feel humbled by the reception of this book here in Australia and also at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival in December 2016, where I was invited to launch the book at the inauguration of the festival. I thought only a few readers would connect with these stories, as they are quite strongly marked by a specificity of ethnicity and place, and even of religious background. They’re quite niche, I thought. However, I’ve had such wonderful feedback from readers of all ethnicities and backgrounds. What readers have been telling me is that they connect with the ‘humanity’ in the stories, the pace, the playful use of language. This is from Australians, Indians, people I don’t know. Yes, it’s true many of the stories concern recent arrivals to Sydney. Yet these stories seem to have struck a chord because I think they attempt to touch upon the condition of being an outsider apprehending the strange, the unfamiliar, whether it be as an outsider to a place, or to a community, or to a culture, or even to a new way of being within oneself.

INTERVIEWER

I think the ‘humanity’ that has connected readers to the stories is the spotlight, often an intense spotlight, on the plight of individuals. Your characters often find themselves picking up the pieces of a life that they had not thought possible. Is there an overarching purpose in this portrayal? Does it enable your characters to connect to their new lives in ways that privilege can’t?

GONSALVES

Yes, that’s a good observation. I didn’t set out with an overarching purpose except to start with language, have a play with the English language, and through that to chronicle the lives of Indian Australians at the coalface. I think though that there seems to be some themes that emerge, of precarity and also of trying to fit in. Most of the stories began with interesting clusters of words in my head and on the page, rather than with characters or image. But because of who I am, the multiple concerns I have that are shaped by the various markers of identity that I hold within me — as we all do —these concerns permeated my word clusters as they developed into sentences and stories, as happens with anyone who creates something. So yes, the characters do seem to be picking up the pieces of a life all the time, and just when they think the floor is clear, something else breaks again.

I was hoping to avoid neat resolutions, although at one stage I felt most of the stories were so sad, I needed to have one with a happy ending, and so I wrote ‘Cutting Corners’. In the first draft of that story, the couple live happily ever after. But that was a bit too unrealistic and neat for me. So I decided to rewild it and write the current ending which I think is much more effervescent.

If I may, I would also like to say that I locate my work within many traditions, one of them being that of South Asian literature in Australia. I’m not the first and won’t be the last person of South Asian heritage to get published in Australia. I’m proud to belong to such a fine tradition of Australian literature, with shining stars, very accomplished writers, especially Michelle De Kretser, whose work has been a huge influence on my work. I think my small contribution is to write about the lives of people at the coalface in contemporary urban Australia, those with little privilege, the people who work in restaurants and petrol stations, the international students, who are are highly visible especially in contemporary urban Australian life, but not very visible in contemporary Australian literature. As we know, Australian literature, indeed the arts in Australia, the way Australia imagines itself, is so white that it’s blinding, in more ways than one. And since I believe in the power and importance of self-representation I felt I needed to write about people like me, not in an autobiographical way but in a way that says ‘we are here too, this is how we resist and we co-opt, these are some flashes of our existence’.

INTERVIEWER

There is a beautiful line in the story ‘CIA (Australia)’ that encapsulates the ‘flashes’ each of these stories gives the reader: ‘I did truly understand how the ground wobbles when you first arrive here and only begins to steady itself when you have wobbled with it for a while and then learned to secure it with the toil of your own hands and the untwisting of your own tongue.’ As I read these stories I felt my world (and my perception of my Australia) wobble as if this was not the place of my birth. And that is the great achievement of this collection, allowing the privileged to empathise with those ‘at the coalface’. Was it hard to achieve this freshness in each story?

GONSALVES

Thank you, I’m so happy that you connected with these stories in this way. Yes, the work of fiction is the work of building empathy sometimes. I’m glad that this collection demonstrates that it gestures towards that aim. To be honest, I tried not to second guess what readers would think of it, and I wrote each story for myself first. I had these gloriously perfect ideas in my head, but when I tried to render them on the page, the struggle for me was to keep coming up with fresh ways to express what I was trying to say. Language is important to me. Yes themes and characters and story and structure are important of course. But for me it all starts with a ludic approach to language. The language is the story, in many ways, for me.

INTERVIEWER

You have a character quote from the poet A. K. Ramanunjan ‘that a story is cathartic for the teller in the tale’. Does this apply also to the teller of the tale? Is this the same thing as ‘untwisting’?

GONSALVES

Yes very much so. Writing, creating something out of one’s imagination is always cathartic for the writer or creator, at least this has been my experience. In fact, my first novel (unpublished) began as therapy while I was an international student here in Australia, but then quickly leaped into fiction. Yes, I think what I meant by ‘untwisting’ was the process by which we learn to fit in, and attempt to make our tongues, our bodies, our ways of thinking fit into mainstream spaces so we can achieve some degree of comfort, however fleeting or even chimerical it may be.

This quote is so interesting for me, not just for what it means but also because of who wrote it. As has happened for many readers of the late A.K.Ramanujan — the brilliant genius of a writer-translator-archeologist of stories — I felt his extraordinary work leap off the page into my head. I wanted to share this, and pay homage to his work in my own work. I wanted to also pay homage to the work of Eunice De Souza, Chekhov, Michelle De Kretser, and other writers whose work had influenced me.

Yes of course, like most students of English Literature, I cannot deny the percolation of Chaucer, Wordsworth, the many big names (usually White male) that make up the English-American literary canon, into my brain. But I also wanted to lean on a different canon. I wanted to invoke, to harness the incantations of different literary voices that ring pure and true and mellifluously for me and for millions of others on this planet. I also think that readers, of all colours and proclivities and inclinations, welcome fresh voices and fresh reverences, rather than paying respects to the same saints all the time, however holy they may be.

INTERVIEWER

There is a lovely story located almost in the centre of this collection that is different to all the others. However, in the first story ‘Full Face’, the character finds an Aboriginal shell midden, calling it ‘the ancient compost of lives lived before the land was fleshed with whiteness…’ For your characters (and for you), it seems important to acknowledge ‘the weight of this country’. As your characters learn to live in Australia, there is a constant recognition that for the Indigenous communities, there is a need for them to ‘untwist’ the new landscape in which they find themselves.

GONSALVES

Ah! I’m so glad you mentioned this. This story is incoherent in terms of time, space, plot etc. I tried to make something that resonated with my own ignorance in relation to Indigenous communities when I first got here over 18 years ago. Instead of a neatly plotted story with characters and scenes, I chose to rely on rhythm, repetition, and yes, vestiges of past memories, to make this story. I still call it a story, and I’m glad you do to, because it does tell a tale, however discordant and incomprehensible it may be. At another level I think that my writing this story is also an attempt to wash one’s dirty linen in public, a different kind of untwisting, one that demands an active engagement with history, and recognition of one’s own part in ongoing oppression. Like many, I feel that as immigrants to this country, we are complicit in the continuing oppression of Indigenous communities. Our wilful ignorance about, and incomprehension of this continent’s history, further implicates us in the awful treatment of Indigenous people. As the great, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once said to a racist caller on radio, ‘Well, if you are sitting on the title of any block of land in New South Wales you can bet an Aboriginal person at some stage was dispossessed of it’. I was trying to render some of this complication and entanglement onto the page. It is a concern that I am trying to address in my own life and through my work. So it was important for me to leave these buoys, such as the Aboriginal shell midden, positioned throughout this collection, even if only for myself, to navigate a way towards an ethical, decolonised relationship with Indigenous communities. This may be seen as utopic and maybe not enough, or maybe just an empty gesture. But for me, it was important to do.

INTERVIEWER

I don’t think anyone could read it as an empty gesture. In fact, the power of these stories makes the relationship — anyone’s relationship — to this country something that needs reassessment. With that in mind, is there a significance for you between the traditional binary of ‘citizen’ and ‘permanent resident’?

GONSALVES

This is such a good question. I think both of those labels can have a lot of emotional significance or they may be seen in a more pragmatic way, as enablers of hassle-free travel, something that is the privilege of White nations, to be kept out of reach of the brown hordes of South Asia. When you move from tourist or temporary resident status to that of ‘permanent resident’, it is a movement that is enabled by immense privilege. If you can afford the fees to apply for permanent residency then you are already amongst the ‘haves’, who have left the ‘have-nots’ biting the dust, at least in relation to a country like India.  This new legal status generates a sense of relief within the body, as if the see-saw you are on, that has been making you nauseous, has finally been stabilised. Now they can’t kick you out on a whim, or not too easily at least.

Moving from ‘permanent resident’ status to that of ‘citizen’ can be a difficult decision because it can feel like you are shamelessly stripping away your history, the skin your country gave you. There is that gulp of guilt at willingly abandoning the country of your birth for another country. There is also that sense of sweet deliverance from the hardship of life in the homeland.  But there is also huge responsibility that comes with that label of citizen. There are legal obligations of course. There are also moral obligations to uphold the democratic values that attracted us to the new country in the first place.

This means understanding that we are the beneficiaries of the trauma of colonisation, and also the beneficiaries of the struggle of the thousands of other citizens, of activists, who have made the good aspects of Australia as good as they are. This means being aware of the blood on the ground, which has now turned into buildable square metres that can be bought off a plan. Sometimes it’s hard to think through this when, as first generation immigrants, we are worried about how to pay the rent and put food on the plate. But we must, otherwise we just become one more photocopying machine replicating inequality and oppression.

In writing this book, I wanted to dream-catch these modes of acceptance, resistance, and subversion, on the hard factory floor of immigrant life. These things are crucial, vital to our sense of self and the way we enact our old Indianness, as well as our new Australianness. But they don’t really get talked about much amidst all the trade agreements, cricket statistics, and Bollywood-yoga-tantra holy trinity of the India-Australia industrial complex. I hope readers find within these pages, an enchanting forest-full of such stories.

The Permanent Resident can be purchase from UWAP

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Stephen Samuel’s
first novel, Strange Eventful History, won the Varuna Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript. His short fiction has appeared in Tincture, SoftCopy and Dark Edifice.

THE METAPHORICAL RESONANCES OF LANDSCAPE: an interview with Lucy Treloar

Posted on February 7, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Lucy Treloar was born in Malaysia and educated in Melbourne, England and Sweden. A graduate of the University of Melbourne and RMIT, Lucy is a writer and editor who has plied her trades in both Australia and Cambodia, where she lived for several years. Her abiding love for Southeast Asia is evident in her editing work, which focuses on English language translations of the region’s folk tales and modern narrative forms. In 2012 she won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for her first novel, The Things We Tell Ourselves, and went on to be awarded a Varuna Publisher Fellowship for the same work in 2013. Her second novel, Salt Creek, was published to critical acclaim. It won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction, the Dobbie Literary Award, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. The ample success of Treloar’s writing originates from her fascination with the world; this interview attempts to explore that fascination.

Interviewer: Stephen Samuel

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to start off by discussing the title of your recently published novel. What importance does the physical landscape of Salt Creek have on you as a writer, on the story and on the characters?

TRELOAR

I often fret over titles, but it was different with Salt Creek. I came across the name while travelling the backblocks of the Coorong, a wild and still fairly remote wetland region on the coast of South Australia – a few years ago now. Again and again I came across road signs to the small town of Salt Creek, and much like the grand melancholy of the landscape that I was exploring, those words hit with a sort of psychological blow. It sounded like some place on the edge of the world, like hope gone bad, and for some reason I found that very compelling.

I’d always known of the Coorong through fragmentary family tales (an ancestor was the first European to colonise the area) and in a distant sort of way had seen its possibilities for a fiction. But it was being there, experiencing it as a place rather than as an idea, that jumpstarted everything. It was something like an electric shock.

We kayaked up the thin ribbon of water known as the lagoon that separates the mainland from the windswept peninsula and roamed the peninsula’s vast dunes to the site of the old family homestead, finally emerging onto the roar of the Southern Ocean. Immediately, I began making notes of my observations, desperate to explore more of that desolate world, to put my quickly developing ideas into words, and terrified that someone else would have had the idea first. I know now that place and my feelings about place are more important to me than any idea or plot and close to being as important as character; then, I only knew wild elation and a drive to get started.

Every part of Salt Creek is saturated with landscape. It creates the social and geographic isolation that leads to all the events that unfold in the book. It is key to plot in terms of travel, farming practices and their effects on Indigenous lands and people, as well as in terms of social constraints and possibilities. And beyond this literal level, the ruination of landscape is a metaphor for the loss of family fortunes, the fragmenting of family, and the erosion or mutation of personal principle in various characters. I wanted the grand melancholy of the Coorong to permeate everything. It changes characters as much as it does events, tempering some, while destroying or even killing others. Through the pressures it applies, I aimed for characters to reveal their truest selves, both weaknesses and strengths.

I can see these things now, the layered significance of landscape, but while writing each day it was my feelings about that world – a strange combination of sadness, wonderment, shame – and the memory of my first visit that helped to sustain the book’s tone. The metaphorical resonances only became fully apparent to me after the book came out. I am always fascinated by the work that the unconscious self does.

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe the process of creating the characters that would inhabit this literal and metaphorical landscape? Was there an ‘electric shock’ moment as there was with the landscape?

TRELOAR

Characters and how they come into being on the page are an ongoing mystery to me, each derived from strange combinations of ideas, niggling doubts, observation, research, brainwaves, serendipitous events, and idle wondering. There’s no pattern to it. In some ways it’s more like discovering than creating them. But there is very often a moment – something like the ‘shock’ I feel when connecting with landscape – when the character leaps to life in my mind. Instantly, their way forward in the narrative feels more certain, and the material coheres around them.

At first there are the bare bones of characters, the place that I start with them. For instance, with Tully, the Ngarrindjeri youth who eventually comes to live with the Finch family, I had in mind fragmentary family stories: of the ‘mixed race’ son of an Indigenous stockman who lived with my forebears, and of my great-great grandmother, Annie (the model for Addie Finch), who it was said ‘ran wild with the blacks’. There was also an historical Indigenous figure who interested me: Dick Cubadji, a charismatic Waramungal man and ‘cultural broker’ who took Adelaide by storm in the 1880s. In my mind, Tully was a little like him – a bridge between Indigenous and European cultures. But it was writing a scene in which Tully was walking a track of the Coorong observed by Addie, and understanding what Addie was noticing, and imagining the two parallel and contradictory worlds that they occupied, that made me see them both suddenly, and their trajectory in the world of Salt Creek.

The narrator of Salt Creek, Hester Finch, was a little different. She evolved slowly for quite a while. The letter of a distant forebear of the 1850s was a huge help with her voice, but Hester became more angry, determined, and intelligent, pulled between independence and duty, loving people and resenting them. Strangely, the moment that really unlocked her was finding her true name (she had been Emily Back). She leapt to life for me in that moment. In fact, finding her name was a turning point for the book as a whole. It clarified everything, and was incredibly exciting.

Of course, sometimes characters seem to have their own ideas about who they are. I had no idea that Fred, Hester’s younger brother, would turn out to be gay – quite a surprise when I connected the dots! And I wanted Papa (Hester’s father) to be a Captain Ahab-type figure in a domestic setting. But again and again he resisted my attempts to amp him up into some more dramatic person – someone who shouted and rampaged. It just wasn’t him. His menace is of a quiet sort: pleasantness and reason contrasted with hypocrisy, self-righteousness and implacable will. No shocking moment of recognition with him, just him having his way, as he does throughout the book.

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe the writing process of Salt Creek? It seems like there is a lot going on, steps forward and then back again as the characters developed into their roles.

TRELOAR

Now that I’m working on my second book I find myself wondering – often – how I ever finished Salt Creek. The pain’s receded a little, but it was something like this: I start with handwriting – first thing in the morning or last thing at night – in a dimly lit and very quiet place. This material is the jumping off point for working on the computer in my office (blinds pulled down to minimise distraction), where I stay until I have written at least one thousand words. More is good, but no less. With Salt Creek I was trialing something different, writing wherever I felt energy and connection with the world of the book. I didn’t care about plot or sequence of events, though I had some major plot points that I always knew would be part of the story. Most of the book was written out of sequence.

The first two chapters of the book are the origins of the structure. What is now the second chapter was initially the first, but the book just seemed to whimper its way into existence, so I thought of Hester recalling her time on the Coorong from some way into an opaque future in England. It made her adult perspective and nostalgic tone come from somewhere real, and that set a number of other structural elements, such as the dual time frame, in motion. I wrote a few more chapters set in England without any clear idea of how they’d fit. The second draft was made from all the components of the first draft – building blocks, quilting squares: choose your metaphor – which I shifted around to create something pleasing, that had narrative traction. I did it by feel more than anything, though I used a couple of different tables to keep events, dates and character development working together at this stage.

It occurred to me later that I structured the book to read in the way that I read. I pick up a book, read from the beginning, then the last page and a little before, a bit from the middle, then back to the beginning. I’m not much interested in plot, resent intrusive authorial manipulations (books like Gone Girl really annoy me) and approach everything by following character and thinking about how they’re growing and changing over time, and how they respond to and act on events. The major structural change during editing was the removal of Fred as occasional first person narrator, which meant I had to rewrite some action from Hester’s point of view. The third and final draft related to strengthening motivation and tension in a scene near the end. (I don’t like being upset, and I had tried to spare my characters to the book’s detriment.) The first draft was fairly gruelling to write, but I really enjoyed the engagement with the editing phase – such a pleasure working with the publishers on this.

INTERVIEWER

Were you nervous about writing an Indigenous character into a colonising story?

TRELOAR

Nervous is a massive understatement. I existed in a state of acute anxiety over the issue throughout writing, editing and well into the post-publication phase. I was desperately aware of the pitfalls, and the more research I did, the more the problems seemed to expand. Very early, I pulled back from my original conception of having a fictional non-fiction strand running through the book, intended to document a little of the richness of Ngarrindjeri culture (though its ghostly remains appear here and there, such as in a description of how to cook duck) and proceeded with the Ngarrindjeri at a greater distance. Having a first person narrator helped with this, creating a blinker that limited what could be observed.

It’s incredibly problematic working in this area. I had no confidence that I could get an authentic understanding of the Indigenous perspective, and was very uneasy about trying to portray it. Tully’s thinking and motivations are fairly concealed from the reader – a deliberate decision. Research threw up so many things I would love to have explored further, but in the end I left it at hinting at a few of them, and leaving the rest. I would love to read a book about that time and that world from an Indigenous perspective, but really felt, and still feel, that the story was not mine to tell. I’ve had only positive feedback about Indigenous representation in the book from Indigenous readers, which has reduced my worries a little.

INTERVIEWER

 I think you have received only positive feedback for Salt Creek, including being shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Does this affirmation of your writing propel you easily into your current project?

TRELOAR

It’s a funny thing being published. None of it was what I’d expected. I think I was anticipating a sense of having ‘arrived’ in some way. But almost the moment the book came out, the goal posts began to shift. There’s always another thing to hope for, or to feel a sense of failure at not having achieved. I began to see that the positive critical response only matters up to a point. It’s lovely when a critic understands what I was trying to do and say (as well as noting things that were not part of my thinking at all), and I’m really happy for my publisher, but I can’t help being aware of shortcomings in the book and thinking of Samuel Beckett’s advice: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.

On a practical level, the reception of Salt Creek has made signing a contract for a new book easier, and it’s led to me getting an Arts Council grant that will cover a few of next year’s expenses: not insignificant factors in smoothing the path to writing. Now I’m facing the slight panic of early work on the next book: uneven quality, uncertain direction, vaporous characters, wooden voices. (I came across a really horrible early draft section from Salt Creek a few days ago and found it reassuring. Turns out comparing first draft material with a published book isn’t a good idea.) In the end though, like any writer, I’m sitting in my quiet room, calming my fear of failure and my busy mind for long enough to create something that feels true.

In a way it’s harder now, because I have some idea of the sustained commitment that’s needed. But it’s exhilarating too. The big thing I learned while writing Salt Creek, which I couldn’t know at the time, is that true engagement in the work of creation is the best part of the whole process (at least, for me), as hard as it sometimes seems. All of my thinking seems to circle back to the book, and my reading shapes around it. I start leaving little notes around the house from when I’ve had an idea. It’s when I feel most at peace.

Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek is available from Pan Macmillan

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Stephen Samuel’s
first novel, Strange Eventful History, won the Varuna Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript. His short fiction has appeared in Tincture, SoftCopy and Dark Edifice.

MODERNITY & INEXPERIENCE: an interview with Anthony Macris

Posted on November 25, 2016 by in Lighthouse Yarns

am-author-photo-bw-copyThere are trends in publishing, that is undeniable, but some writers refuse to do anything other than go their own way. Enter Anthony Macris.

Macris is an Australian writer and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. His first novel in the Capital series, Capital, Volume One, won him a listing as Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist 1998, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Southeast Asian section) Best First Book 1998. His book reviews, articles and features have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review and The Bulletin for over a decade. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw, his family’s inspirational story and a powerful evocation of the world of autism, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction  category.

Published in 2016, Inexperience and Other Stories (University of Western Australia Press) is his latest work. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Macris charts laconically the impersonality of modern urban life, loneliness in a crowded world, and the absence of ideals, beliefs, commitments’.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on the publication of Inexperience and Other Stories. What was the motivation for the collection?

MACRIS

Thanks for that. With Inexperience the novella I wanted to write about the couple and about love. It’s a theme that’s always fascinated me: what holds people together, two people who have at one point ‘chosen’ each other, and what can drive them apart. So that’s at the core of it. My couple in this instance are a standard boy/girl couple in their mid twenties, so you get that sense of youth, but youth that’s also embarking on major life decisions. I also wanted to write about this notion of going on a grand adventure that doesn’t quite live up to expectations: hence the title Inexperience. So, my young couple save and save for this long European trip that they think will be some kind of transcendent experience in itself, and it doesn’t quite turn out like that. I was originally going to call it Transcendence, but I thought that was a bit much.

That’s at the core of it: the way we strive to raise ourselves up, make ourselves more than who we are. It’s a wonderful, noble and fraught thing. We all do it one way or another, in small ways, in big ways. We raise ourselves up, we fall, we do it alone, we do it together, we have a stumble, we come crashing down from a very great height, we have the best of intentions, we do it out of vanity: the combinations are endless. But it’s all a learning process, one that never ends. I finally decided on Inexperience as the title because I thought that was more concrete: it’s more humble, more of this world. It’s the moment of stumbling, of not getting it quite right, of falling that little bit short because either the situation is bigger than you are, or you’re just not quite up to it at whichever stage of your life you’re in. So that’s the kind of thematic big picture.

I also wanted to write about what it means to be Australian. Our young heroes set off to Europe quite innocent and wide-eyed. They seem to think that everyone will see them as the fresh young cousins of the Anglo-sphere, first worlders like the American or Brits, but with none of the politically inconvenient baggage. They soon find that’s not really the case all the time, that not everyone sees Australians – at that general, national level – as the benevolent citizens of some far-flung Arcadia.

INTERVIEWER

Inexperience is a wonderful title, especially in terms of hinting at the idea of never knowing enough to get by. What attracts you to the novella form?

MACRIS

Thanks for those kinds words about the title. I wanted something pretty straightforward to sum up the theme, and that one came pretty easily, which was good: I usually struggle with titles. As for the novella form: well, different kinds of stories require different degrees of development. You have to gauge how big the story is and fit it to the appropriate length. This one had a limited cast, the two romantic leads, and a fairly simple story without a subplot, so I think you can only go so far with that. But I also wanted more than short story length so I could develop another level of complexity: how I told the story.

One of things I try to do in my work is tell interesting stories, but to try and tell them in fresh and interesting ways. Whether I succeed or not is for others to judge I suppose, but I’m always looking to do things at a bit of angle. I still want the story to be clear, to have central conflicts with forward movement, etc, but that doesn’t always come out in the standard way. I think this can lead to thinking my work is a bit disjointed or lacking in coherence, but I think it’s just because I’m doing something a little unexpected.

For example, the novella Inexperience is divided into two spheres: the heavenly sphere and the earthly sphere. This compositional element finds its core expression in the painting my couple sees in Toledo, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, which is all angels and swirling clouds in the top half, all flesh-blood men below. So the story’s events and settings all reflect shuttling between these two spheres: the banalities of travel and the transcendence of art; the mundanity of the everyday that forms the life of any couple, and the sublime moments of love that make it all worthwhile. Throughout the novella these spheres intermingle in unexpected and sometimes ironic ways. The story’s design in this instance called for something shorter than a novel so all this could be controlled adequately: it was quite fiddly to do, or at least I found it so. But that’s one thing I’m always trying to do in my work. Find a form that embodies the theme. I think that’s one way you can get more innovative forms.

INTERVIEWER

Inexperience begins: ‘We were in Australia, in shabby modernity, and we were restless, unbearably restless. So we decided to go to Europe. Exhausted, decaying Europe’. What do you think drives your ongoing interest in the averageness of Western life?

MACRIS

I’ve always been interested in the way experience is shaped by pre-existing social forms that determine our lives, that become the templates for our experiences. So, in Inexperience, we get a classic rite of passage relevant to this particular group: in my couple’s case, the cultural pilgrimage that ‘new worlders’ like Australians make to mother Europe. It’s as if we plot our individuality on these pre-existing grids. So there’s this duality that fascinates me: experiences that are touted as unique, but are underwritten by a form that is just about guaranteed to make them banal: sometimes they’re ultimately commodities, even the most sublime experiences.

So when my couple finally front up to this beautiful ancient church in Toledo to see the astonishing painting that is the ‘Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, they have to get past a cash register first. I know this sounds all very disenchanting, that we’re stuck with a familiar position that says the act of commercializing everything degrades everything. Now, I’m always wary of any totalising argument. So let’s just say there are degrees (there’s some grudging optimism for you!). But I’d still argue that, for the most part, the process of commodification does create at the very least a kind of unease, a conflictedness that infects just about everything it touches.

inexp_revisedI might just say a few words about the opening line you’ve quoted: it’s been appearing a lot in the reviews, which I think I’m happy about. I wanted to have a grand, sweeping opening, something quite Olympian, but also tongue-in-cheek. I mean, Australia and Europe are disposed of in sentence. I must have re-written that line 50 times. I’ve always liked this idea of a first sentence that contains the whole narrative in moment of foreshadowing: it’s a formal nod – albeit a very oblique one – to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But there’s a key phrase in the opening sentence that speaks to the notion you’ve raised of western averageness: ‘shabby modernity’. Inexperience the novella is set – as is the whole collection – in the 1980s. This is an interesting decade, and I think somewhat neglected. It’s not quite old enough to be historical yet. (I read a great line somewhere that said nothing is as dated as the recent past.) But I find it a very interesting decade, a real ugly duckling period. Australia hadn’t yet reinvented itself as the glittering postmodern entity it thinks of itself today. The tug of war had started, but in those pre-internet, pre-social media days, I’d say that it was still an entity of modernity, and one not quite sure of where it was going.

There’s one feature of the Australian suburbs that sums up this notion of shabby modernity for me. You know those small suburban shopping strips, very generic, just a small row of shops, a newsagent, a hairdresser, a fish and chip shop, a small bottle shop? Just one long building made of brick, lots of glass and aluminium, built in the 1950s, that always seemed to have looked downtrodden from the moment they went up? That’s exactly what I mean by shabby modernity. That’s where, as Australians, a lot of us come from, and if we didn’t directly, it still forms a substratum to our shared experience. And these places are still everywhere in the suburbs. They’ve got a kind of stark, sobering truth to them I like.

That’s why I featured that setting in one of the collection’s stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’. I wanted to get across this sense of Australia emerging out of some staid, tail-end modernity, and into the uncertainties of a globalised postmodernism. I see the social context of the stories as a whole straddling those two worlds. My characters Carol and her boyfriend are, at this stage of their lives, caught in between these worlds. That’s where their hopes and dreams and ambitions are being played out. And they don’t even know it. Later, in my novel Great Western Highway, I push a similar couple along the timeline a little more: into the 1990s, and into a postmodernity in full swing.

INTERVIEWER

What do you enjoy most about the shorter form?

MACRIS

Short stories are an incredible challenge and I’m in awe of those writers who can do them well again and again: Maupassant, Chekhov, and Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few. For me, at any rate, as soon as you start writing a short story, it’s as if a pistol has gone off and you’re already racing for the finish line. You’ve got to do so much at once for it to work: establish voice, the characters, some kind of situation or conflict, the style or diction you want, and so on. You don’t have the novelist’s luxury of seeing how it will all go, of writing into things for a while in the hope that things will reveal themselves.

To write an effective short story I think you need to be quite specific about what you want to achieve from the start. And that’s a great discipline in itself, formulating something concrete in your mind, then executing it. Of course it’s not always as simple as that: there can be this mass of crisscrossing paths between the thought and the execution. But as an exercise in task setting, there’s nothing quite like subjecting yourself to the rigour needed to pull off a decent short story.

In Inexperience, a big influence on my approach for a couple of the stories was Joyce’s Dubliners, which I think contains one of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘Eveline’. I love its blend of pathos, drama, and stillness. I also love its contrast of crystalline poetic diction and authenticity of voice, and the way Joyce brings those factors to bear on the quiet desperation of his characters. It’s just an astonishing piece and a real touchstone for me when I think about the short story form. This kind of influence – definitely only in the aspirational mode! – is at work on the two last stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘The Quiet Achiever’. The influences on the longer story, ‘The Nest Egg’, are different, and somewhat more experimental, for want of a better term.

I see ‘The Nest Egg’ as a kind of cross between Samuel Beckett and Descartes. I remember being struck by reading Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ when I did philosophy as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I liked this idea of conducting a self-critique wherein you try to answer some fundamental question about existence. So instead of posing the question of how do I know I exist, which gives us the famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, I wanted to pose the foundational question: what do I need to do to exist in a material, economic sense? This was an early attempt to explore the theme of capital and market forces in my work. Now, I’m a fiction writer: I didn’t want to write a philosophical essay. So the kind of language I looked to was that of Samuel Beckett, a kind of interior monologue that glides between image and reflection without ever quite settling on either as a dominant mode.

capital_volume_one_cover_1024x1024Also, with ‘The Nest Egg’, I wanted to try to structure something that had forward movement, that would keep the reader wanting to turn the page, but that didn’t rely on the traditional machinery of plot or story. I’m always looking for ways to do this. I like the notion that the act of reading draws you on and on. A lot of experimental approaches dispense with this as nearly a badge of honour: we don’t need that stuff, language or thought or whatever, is enough in itself. So in some ways I’m rebelling against this standard type of experimentation by trying to find a way of maintaining compelling forward movement, though not necessarily with traditional story dynamics. I tried this again on a bigger scale in my first novel, Capital, Volume One.

That’s another great thing about short stories. You’re not making a huge time commitment on any individual piece (not years, at any rate, as you do for a novel), so you can treat them like mini-laboratories to try things out.

INTERVIEWER

You have been an active writer for a significant period of time now. Has your overall ambition – or writerly project – changed?

MACRIS

Ambition is an interesting word. I think a lot about it. In Inexperience and Other Stories, in some of the very early work it contains, I see a tremendous energy there, the energy of youthful ambition. I can feel an almost unbearable pressure behind those pages, as if all my hopes and desires as an artist are pressing from behind but can’t quite get through. But, then again, I suppose it always feels like that. I’ve always only ever wanted to make beautiful, inspiring, complex things. It’s a very curious drive. It’s central to who I am. In the periods of my life when I haven’t been able to do it – for example some long stretches when I’ve had to raise money for my son’s therapy – I’ve been so utterly miserable life hasn’t seemed worth living.

There have been certain moments in my life where this drive to make art was revealed to me. I remember walking home from school one day, I must have been 11 or 12. I was walking along, lost in my own thoughts and senses. And I had this sudden awareness of the combined power of the mind and of sensing to produce things, to make things. It was a very odd moment. I realised that you not only passively received the world, but that your mind and senses were active in constructing it. And that if this was the case, then you could make, do, or think anything. The vehicle for this kind of reverse projection was art. These were the blank screens you could project your version of the world on. These were the empty vessels you could fill with your thoughts, your perceptions, your senses. Now I know this sounds a bit much for a boy that age, and I’m of course articulating it in ways that a boy that age wouldn’t, couldn’t, but I’ve thought about that moment for decades, and this is the first time I’ve tried to articulate it. That moment was a turning point in my life. The whole prospect of it was thrilling, intoxicating, utterly empowering.

Now, what is that drive? That fundamental drive to make art? Where does it come from? I wouldn’t have a clue. So, to finally answer your question, it would appear that in one sense nothing for me has ever changed. There’s only been this desire to make these projections, to fashion these artefacts of words that somehow capture the particular world I’m trying to create.

It’s all very well to start out with such pureness of heart, but soon you find that your drives have to be channelled into a chosen art form and the cultural and market forces that shape it. You need to pick themes, forms, make decisions about your audience, and about the kind of writer you want to be. The stories in Inexperience and Other Stories are, for the most part, the first full attempt I made to turn myself into a real writer, someone who was trying to say something they thought was of importance to an audience who might want to listen. And it’s interesting how the themes I go on to develop later – on a much larger scale in the Capital novels and in When Horse Became Saw – are pretty much all there. I think they basically come down to two: love and market forces. It doesn’t seem a lot, does it? At least I’m not just a one-trick pony: I’ve got two!

But there is a flipside to this: I also think my work has changed a lot over the years. If you look at the trajectory that goes through from Inexperience to the Capital novels, in one way it’s a thinking through of finding new narrative forms that can capture larger developments in a world driven by market forces. And I use a range of tools derived from various literary movements to fashion something of my own that can grasp that: in that trajectory there’s the self-conscious, modernist commitment to making it new, to shaping a new novelistic language to capture new realities.

9780143566663When Horse Became Saw is somewhat different. It’s a melding of realist and essayistic forms: the best name for it is probably creative non-fiction, to use a term that’s currently being bandied about. When Horse Became Saw was born of a kind of parental rage at how badly we let down our children with disabilities: in my case severe autism. It’s a much more emotional book. I call it my Aristotelian book: driven by pity and fear. It was a book in which I wanted to communicate with a large audience, so I put aside my usual baroque narrative machinery. It was a liberating experience, and it’s a book I’m very proud of, but I still like to think it does something interesting with form: I can’t seem to stop myself trying to do something different. Nevertheless, it was still a step outside the trajectory of my main work. I’m back to that now.

I’ve been working on the third part of Capital for some years, but it’s slow going. The Capital novels just take forever. It’s a return to my early childhood, part of the great looking back that overcomes you with time, that rises behind you in a great cresting wave of the past. You shouldn’t live in its shadow, but it can be hard not to. It’s an odd thing to do, to create works that draw from different periods of your life. Recently there have been days I’ve spent writing when I’ve become seven years old, and I’m amazed when a man in his mid-50s stares back at me from the mirror.

 

You can purchase Anthony’s latest book, Inexperience and Other Stories from University of Western Australia Publishing.

 

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Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis, 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis, 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce, Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His previous novella, I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year.

In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Featherstone has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains) and Bundanon (Shoalhaven River); in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. On a contract basis he currently facilitates the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, which is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au

LITTLE ROOM FOR SENTIMENT OR REMORSE: an interview with Jane Abbott

Posted on November 5, 2016 by in Lighthouse Yarns

janeabbot_head-shot-2-2Who are the exciting new voices of Australian literature? There’s no better place to start than Jane Abbott. A single mother of two sons, Abbott was born in the UK, raised in the leafy suburbs of Sydney’s North Shore, and now divides her time between Melbourne and central Victoria. Jillaroo, nurse, secretary, short-time teacher, office administrator (followed by a reluctant career in marketing), she has tried her hand at most things and lived in many places. Abbott’s second manuscript, Watershed, was written in 2013; it received a Commendation in the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and secured Jane a place in the ACT Writer Centre’s’ HARDCOPY professional development program for emerging Australian writers. The Australian called Watershed ‘an accomplished and highly readable debut’.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

What made you want to write Watershed?

ABBOTT

I never set out to write Watershed per se, at least not the way it turned out. I did want to write a book about climate change. I think it’s the single most important issue we face, and will become (indeed is already) a root cause of so many other problems, including food shortages, mass migration, and other humanitarian issues. It astounds me there is so little ‘cli-fi’ out there, although I do think it’s on the rise. And on a personal note, I hope the term ‘cli-fi’ sticks and becomes as well-known and as generic as ‘sci-fi’.

Originally I thought I might manage a short (more literary) novella about increased water shortages and a community in crisis, though I had no real plan – I’m not a plotter. When Jem, Garrick and Taggart appeared on the first pages I thought I’d see where they took me. As it turned out, Jem had quite a lot to say. The new world (the Citadel, the Tower and its Council, and the Watch) surfaced easily and I felt comfortable writing it. Any idea (even hope) that it might extend to a series didn’t arise until I realised the book was as much about the future we face as it is about Jem’s reluctant journey to redemption. In many ways, that became the core of the book, and he’s the perfect anti-hero, the character we hate to love, or at least sympathise with.

INTERVIEWER

The novel explores a dire though plausible scenario where climate and the societies it has supported for thousands of years are upended. Did it surprise you how rough it would be for your core suite of characters, especially Jem and those who raised him?

ABBOTT

Putting this into context, we know that the world, climatically and geologically, is in a constant state of flux. And whether or not one is a climate change believer or denier, we are currently observing too many extreme weather conditions to assume that our planet will remain the same beneficent ball that has ‘supported our societies for thousands of years’. These conditions are already affecting food production, they are threatening our coastlines and islands, rivers and reservoirs are shrinking to nothing, and over the last fifty years the world’s population has more than doubled. In another fifty, it will have tripled. Add to that the symbiotic relationship we enjoy with nature and I think it’s safe to say that our future is looking, if not completely dire, then somewhat bleak.

There’s a short scene in the book where Sarah wonders if other places might have survived better and remained intact, and Daniel replies that if there were they wouldn’t be the ones she imagines. This is an important distinction to make because I believe that if even some of the horrors of Watershed were to happen, our society wouldn’t cope very well at all. How could we, when most of us have known only privilege? So it made no sense for me to write the book while looking down from such a position; I had to let go of any shock and distaste, and wade into it. In the same way, it makes no sense to try to read it from that perspective either. Imagining the worst-case scenario meant everyone had to be tested and I wasn’t at all surprised that things got a little rough for the characters. Sarah and Daniel provide the transition from the old First World to the new Fourth, while Jem with all his pragmatism and his innate desire for survival, embodies that new world. In such a place there is little room for sentiment and even less for remorse.

INTERVIEWER

You say that the world of Watershed doesn’t allow sentiment or remorse. Perhaps it’s also the case that when societies collapse and people turn on each other there’s also a distinct lack of empathy – is that how you see the novel working?

ABBOTT

Not at all. Empathy is recognition. We empathise with an emotion, a deed, or a situation because it strikes a chord, reminding us of our own capabilities and our own weaknesses. And while the world of Watershed might not allow for sentiment or remorse, it’s not to say neither exists. Ballard’s call to overthrow the regime is driven by regret, Sarah and Daniel display sentiment, and both Jem and Alex show empathy (as well as sympathy): Jem for Connor, and Alex for the plight of women. But Ballard, Sarah and Daniel are undone because their longing for the past is stronger than their understanding of the present, while Jem and Alex find resolutions more suited to the world they know: Jem seeks retribution for Connor, and Alex offers herself as a sacrifice; both are extreme actions, both are violent, and both are entirely logical.

ws-coverWe know Jem isn’t immune to sentiment, guilt, regret, or love, but he’s had to bury any feelings in order to survive, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. His initial callousness is a little shocking, and the revelation of his past deeds appalling, yet his treatment of Daniel displays an acute humanness, one that is almost admirable. We know why he does it – we empathise with his decision – but how many of us would show the same strength or conviction? The flip side is that very same humanness – this time far less admirable – also spurs his later actions with Sarah. Because none of us are completely heroic, or completely evil. Even Garrick has a past, and we know he wasn’t always the monster we meet in the first chapter. It’s this dichotomy, and the question of nature versus nurture, that most interests me: the varying degrees of good and bad within a character. Who is worse: Garrick, because his violence is abhorrently blatant, Taggart, because he’s a master puppeteer pulling all the strings, or Jem, because he submits despite knowing better? Which defines us: what we do, or the reasons we do it? Those were the questions I wanted to explore.

INTERVIEWER

Can you share a little about the process of writing Watershed, especially in terms of voice and prose. It must have been tempting to work with a very pared back, minimalist style, but the writing is beautifully constructed, indeed poetic in parts.

ABBOTT

The first couple of drafts concentrated very much on Jem’s narrative, which is plot driven, with only the letter excerpts from Sarah giving any kind of backstory. In later drafts, and at the urging of my agent, Sarah’s narrative grew and I think I struggled more with that, always aware of the need to distinguish it from the many male voices.

I think the question of voice and prose is a little like the conundrum of chicken and egg; does a character determine use of language and voice, or does their use subsequently define the character? Maybe it’s both. I do know that Jem’s voice was never a conscious process. I didn’t feel I had to keep reminding myself that I was writing from a male POV. His observances, his commentary about his world, his youthful cynicism and his humour all flowed easily. I never found myself struggling to put words in his mouth; if anything, I had to rein him in. As far as Jem’s and other male characters’ use of foul language is concerned, that also wasn’t a conscious effort. Boys swear. Men swear. (To be fair, so do many women.) I’ve sat at restaurants and cafes next to tables of young, as well as elderly, men and have been subjected again and again to loudly uttered swearing and cursing. If they communicate like that now, how much more so when any niceties of society have been washed away? It made complete sense that Jem and Garrick would talk the way they do. What is interesting is that listening to such words – either in real life, or on the screen – never seems quite as confronting as reading them.

Some people have questioned why an older female author would choose to write a young male protagonist. My reason is simple. Given the society Jem inhabits (to which he’s contributed unashamedly), where women are very much second – even third – class citizens, it made no sense to limit the story’s potential by using a female voice. Particularly given the transitional narrative is provided by a female. Perhaps it’s because I have two sons and am probably more accustomed to male patterns of behaviour, that I see so many complexities in young men. I wanted to explore those in Jem. Of course, for the sake of the story, things are taken to the extreme, but I think the comparisons are there. I’m not sure I was ever really tempted to pare back the prose and keep it spare, because this is Jem’s story and it’s always been my experience that given half a chance, men quite often have a lot to say. I let Jem speak for himself.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for Watershed?

ABBOTT

My hopes for Watershed are simple: that the language and themes challenge readers, and that its audience continues to follow Jem and the rest of the characters into the next book. I’m fairly confident of the first; only time will tell if the second comes about.

Watershed by Jane Abbott is available from Vintage Books.

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Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce, Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His previous novella, I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year.

In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Featherstone has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains) and Bundanon (Shoalhaven River); in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. On a contract basis he currently facilitates the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, which is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au

 

 

 

 

AN ABSENCE OF STARS:
an interview with Bruce Pascoe (Jade Richardson)

Posted on October 19, 2016 by in Events, Lighthouse Yarns, Verity Views

brucepascoe

Photograph: The Wheeler Centre

Australian author Bruce Pascoe writes in the dark arts of true story. His latest work, Dark Emu, shatters myth, open wounds and shines a radiant light across the dark matter of the tales we dare not share.

Interview by Jade Richardson

In the beginning was the word, and the word, in this case, was sorry.

Sorry is a very loaded word in Australia. Sorry kept the nation on the edge of its wonky seat for generations as we wrestled with our ‘native issue’. A little word like that – quite a pretty word really – nearly tore the nation in half, and risked the spilling of even more blood, beer and Sauvignon Blanc than usual.

Sorry is a word that breaks spells. An open sesame for the dark spaces that lurk, unloved, unexplored, unwelcome in us all as individuals, and as members of the messy Earthling story. But sorry – as award-winning Australian writer Bruce Pascoe is here to point out – is only the first word in this healing journey, and certainly not the last.

‘Everybody’s hurting and nobody wants to talk about it,’ he says. ‘In Australia, we’ve got a dominant culture that has fabricated an impossible story to justify a history of theft, violence and misery and has damaged its own soul in the process.’ And the end result of that? ‘A nation of black people constantly reduced to despair, a nation of white people tumbling into depression, addiction, violence and sadness, and a planet in trouble all over the place,’ he says.

‘I’m telling an Australian story, but it’s a very global conversation – one we have done a deliberate but stupid job of ignoring for a long time. There’s a wound in the soul of the world and we’re all paying for it.’

He has hit such a live nerve with this dark medicine that his passport bursts with stamps from Mongolia, Britain, Ireland, America, India, New Zealand and soon Indonesia, where he is invited to speak this month at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali, about the power of breaking taboo.

Bruce Pascoe is an indigenous writer whose white-fella heritage links to Cornwall in England, and whose Aboriginal bloodlines span Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmania country, Australia. His is one of the excruciatingly few voices left of the most ancient surviving culture on this planet. The reasons for that are dark and terrible. They are part of a shadow that haunts the Australian culture, and all cultures really, in the same way your own wounds, grief and abuses haunt you – you know… the ones you’re too ashamed to admit.

His people were on the land in Australia while the pyramids rose and fell, and all through the Crusades. They were there as Alexander marched his elephants, as Egypt crumbled under famine, all through the plunder of the Incas and while Jesus melted on the cross. If you want to imagine what true sustainability looks like, you will need an Aboriginal eye to see it, but that’s not really likely, because the Aboriginal is regarded still, Bruce argues, as the lowest grade of life on their mighty land, Australia.

As author of twenty-nine books, winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Prize, and subject of growing acclaim, Bruce is using words, lots of them, and with tender ferocity, to turn Australia’s gaze, and perhaps the world’s, toward the stories we dare not share.

For starters, he wants to clear up a few true facts about Australia’s past. His most recent work, Dark Emu, is a non-fiction study of precolonial Aboriginal culture and conditions. It is a carefully told and well-evidenced proof that no, Australia was not empty and uncared for when the British colonists arrived – and yes – Aboriginal people were very much involved with cultivating, settling and working the landscape using engineering, crop raising, irrigation, horticulture, building and patience – which is nothing short of gob-smacking news to your average Aussie.

‘We’re a nation told from childhood that Aboriginal people were filthy and stupid and lived under bits of old bark held up by sticks, eating witchetty grubs,’ he says. ‘That was the story the colonists made up when they got here, to steal the land and break the soul of the first people. It’s a story they refined to a terrible precision across America, India, Africa and everywhere. The same one they keep telling today, and it’s keeping us all, on both sides, stupid. Believing this utter nonsense robs us of our dignity and worse, it damages the land and shuts us all off from the beauty of what life here is really about.’

That beauty, he offers, ‘is the wonderful thing Aboriginal people have been trying to share for 220 years! It’s what we learned from 100,000 years living on this country; that the Earth is alive, it’s the great mother of us all, we are made of her. When we care for her, when we connect back to country, we feel better, we make good decisions, we prosper. We stop living like rats in a cage, and give up this idea of dominion. You’ll be amazed at how beautiful it is – this way of living honestly, gently, in love with the land.’

dark_emu_coverDark Emu is an important political book because it shatters the idea that Aboriginal people were, in Bruce’s words, ‘backward, useless and unintelligent’, the loose validation for their dispossession, dismantlement and decimation by white settlers from 1788. But it is an important book morally, too, because it cuts a step for all of us – of every race and nation – to speak the truth, to retrace our pasts and let whatever shadows lurk within us have their rightful place in story.

Which brings us to the second big word in Bruce’s re-creation tale. The one that makes him a powerful and sometimes unpopular writer in his homeland. It’s another great Australian expression: tough!

‘Sorry if this is uncomfortable,’ he says. ‘But tough! Bad luck! Sorry does its job, but it doesn’t fix the problem – as anybody who suffers knows. Our stories, everywhere, are based on the lies of oppressors and the silence of the heart broken. Things are going backwards around here. We’ve got a nation, if not a planet, in serious trouble, and it’s time we sorted a few things out.’

Some might lament that it’s actually well past that sort of time. Pascoe knows it. He sees the evidence everywhere. ‘I’ve got work to do,’ he says. ‘Me and the other writers and song makers. We’ve got to clean up the story, get back to the land, let the dark stories in so we can pass on a better future to our grandchildren. If you want to say it’s too late, that the whole place is going to hell, well, tell that to your kids and see how it feels.’

‘We’re living with a shadow,’ he says. ‘It shows up in depression, anxiety, addiction, alcohol, sadness – this guilt, if you like, it’s the conversation we’re too scared to have, it’s very painful to go there. It’s coming from the land, that has absorbed all this suffering, and from all of us, because we’re a part of the problem. But the writers, the artists, the song makers, they have to get involved with this. We have to risk it, endure it, withstand the bruises – because this is how we cure ourselves. It is good for all of our souls, for the land, for the future, for everything.’

‘All us writers, we need to get back to the country, and see her as the mother of all. Let her speak, do some listening. Feel it, the story that’s all around us, and tell that. I want to see writers everywhere going back to the land. Telling true stories. Ones from the heart, and not from the pocket.’

If you think about it, it’s the same everywhere. It’s the same thing broiling and simmering and farting away in nations all over the world; the same issue festering and aching in most of our own lives too – this deep, almost bodily knowing that something is wrong, someone did wrong, that there is very much a fly somewhere in the earthling ointment.

While we busily invent our histories, manifest our destinies and insist that the past is dead and gone, its victims and stories with it, Bruce’s writing takes us to the very edge of that black hole and begs us to jump in. ‘We can’t dodge the truth of it,’ he says, ‘not as cultures or as people. The past is where we come from, it’s in our souls. We’ve tried this idea, of ‘just getting over it’, but it’s not the way and we’ve got a planet in crisis and a mentality of war and murder and shadow to prove it.’

But what to do? I wonder. ‘People ask me that all the time,’ Bruce says. ‘And I say, ‘see that Aboriginal lady over there? Go ask her to come to your place for a cup of tea. Have a cup of tea, take the time, share some story. It’s enough. Those old ladies, they come to me later and say, Bruce, that was the first time in my life I’ve been in the house of a white person!’

‘You cannot accept the gifts of those you have lied about or silenced,’ he says. ‘And our people, we have so many gifts to offer. There are the plants we know that don’t damage the soil, that grow abundantly and require no pesticides or ploughing or irrigation. There are plentiful grains, ways with water and building – there is over 40,000 years of working knowledge about how to thrive and share and be happy on this country, but you can’t take that from a broken people you see as failures, can you?’

He named his book Dark Emu to honour the starless-void in the Milky Way, shaped like an emu and riven with ancient Aboriginal story about the power and beauty of darkness, emptiness, the creative spirit.

‘There’s a story told about how our people, these earliest of all people, were afraid of the dark,’ he says. ‘Nonsense! We revere the dark! We listen to the dark. We embrace it as part of the whole story, and it’s vital now for us all to go there, to get on track, risk the hurt and the fear and the grief so we can heal all that and move forward.’

This is the dark art of true story and here is an Indigenous man who’s applauded for bringing it to the table, proud to say he’s summoning up the spirit of his people. Here is a father, a grandfather, a mentor and bushman who sounds strong when he says he’s ‘busting a gut, doing the work’, chiselling the space for us all to just open our hearts.

‘I’m here to say, for all of us, it’s ok to look at the secrets, to get that stuff out, and cleared up and included. There’s a wound here,’ he says. ‘It’s made of shame and grief and a horrific lack of generosity. This is not a black man’s wound, this is the state of the whole place, and all the newspapers in all the world are reporting the repercussions of it every day.’

Bruce Pascoe, soft-spoken and funny, is pointing his finger, and his mighty pen as well, not at the stars, to which modern man is pinning his hope, but to the excellent darkness that holds them, offering us all a way home, to Earth.

Bruce Pascoe is speaking among a host of powerful voices at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia, from October 26 – 30th. 

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14699454_10208722565319873_24625938_o-1Bruce Pascoe is an award-winning Australian writer, editor and anthologist. He has published and edited Australian Short Stories Magazine 1982-1999, and has won several national literary competitions such as the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult fiction (2013), The Fellowship of Australian Writers´Literature Award (1999), The Radio National Short Story Award (1980) and the FAW Short Story Competition (2011).

His latest novels are Bloke (Penguin, 2009), The Chainsaw File (Oxford, 2010), Fog a Dox (Magabala, 2012) and Mrs Whitlam (Magabala, 2016). Dark Emu, a history of Aboriginal agriculture, was published by Magabala in 2014 and won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year. His film, Black Chook, premiered in 2015 starring Brendan Cowell, Jack Davis and Lynette Curran.

Bruce is a board member of the Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and lives in East Gippsland.

14642665_10208722577880187_46499863_n-1Jade Richardson has done most of the usual things along the way to poetry, including studying Law, Literature, and Criminal Psychology, getting sick, traveling, being melancholic and occasionally being slayed by the wonder of it all.

She won the Judge’s Prize at the inaugural Ubud Poetry Slam in Bali, as well as awards for her work in short story and erotica. She is published widely as a features writer, with a particular interest in fringe dwellers and Indigenous story-keepers, and has spent long stretches of time in tents, staring at the earth. She blogs at Passionfruitcowgirl.

QUESTIONING MASCULINITY, VIOLENCE, AND ADVENTURE:
an interview with Adrian Caesar

Posted on April 8, 2016 by in Lighthouse Yarns

ADC Headshot - b and wAdrian Caesar is an Australian writer with a terrific literary capacity, an engaging warmth and wit, and a deep sense of humanity.

Born in the United Kingdom, Caesar emigrated to Australia in 1982. He studied at Reading University and has held appointments at various Australian universities, including the Australian National University and with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra.

Caesar is the author of several books, including the prize-winning non-fiction novel The White, which is based on the Antarctic exploration of Robert F. Scott and Douglas Mawson from 1911 to 1913; this work won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Nonfiction and the ACT Book of the Year in 2000. He is also the author of several books of literary criticism including Taking it Like a Man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets (Manchester University Press, 1993) and Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s (Manchester University Press, 1991). His poems have been widely published and his 2005 poetry collection High Wire (Pandanus Books, 2005) was shortlisted for the 2007 Judith Wright Prize. Adrian Caesar’s latest work is The Blessing, a novel published by Arcadia in 2015. According to eminent Australian author Alex Miller, ‘The Blessing is the most satisfying and enthralling novel I’ve read in a long time.’

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

What was your original motivation for embarking on this work?

CAESAR

I began with the idea of writing about my maternal grandfather. He was born in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, and lived and worked in Belfast until he was in his mid-twenties, first in Mackie’s foundry and then as a tram driver. He was an Orangeman. In 1912, he signed the Solemn Oath and Covenant pledging to defend the North from Home Rule by any means necessary. (I have his signed copy of the Covenant). A year later, he left Belfast for Manchester for reasons that are not entirely clear. Family rumours suggest he was running away from a woman. He drove trams in Manchester until 1914, when he volunteered for the armed forces. He served in France and Flanders with the 21st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment. They were at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele. Like many British soldiers of World War 1, his military records were destroyed in the Blitz. My knowledge of his service is incomplete. I know he served for at least two years overseas and that he was wounded, probably at Arras or Passchendaele. A shell splinter took away a slice of his shoulder and damaged a lung. Though he survived the war, he suffered from its effects for the rest of his life. He died before I was born.

Jack Young, of course, is not my grandfather. I suspect the gaps in my grandfather’s story allowed my imagination to flourish. There were also ‘gifts’ arising from my research. The discovery that arms were smuggled via Manchester to the Ulster Volunteers, was too good not to use.

Thematically, I was drawn to the Protestant/Catholic tension because I grew up with a knowledge of the bigotry of some Irish relatives and I felt in the 60s and 70s I was on the ‘wrong’ side, so to speak. I was interested in trying to understand the Protestant point of view in Northern Ireland as well as writing a story about the defeat of bigotry. As in much of my previous work, academic and otherwise, I was also interested in questions about masculinity, violence, and adventure.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned the ‘gifts’ of research. How did you approach the research process for The Blessing? Was it an organic process, or more planned from the outset, especially as you already had what sounds like a significant amount of source material?

CAESAR

The research I did mostly arose as I was writing and in this sense was organic. Very early in the process I was browsing in the library of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra and came across Arming the Ulster Volunteers. When I realised that the UVF were smuggling guns through Manchester, it was like a gift I couldn’t refuse. I subsequently read a history of the troubles in Belfast in the 1920s. It mentioned a pub and a spirit grocery being bombed in Cromac Street, which is situated at the top of the Ormeau Road, where I knew my grandfather’s family lived – it seemed like another nudge to my imagination. Similarly, when I was struggling with how to do Part II of the book, I suddenly thought about my several visits to the World War 1 graveyards and made this sudden connection to gardening. I then researched the development of the graveyards – another gift I couldn’t refuse.

Other research had already been done, i.e. well before embarking on the book, I’d researched the progress of the 21st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, because I knew my grandfather served with them. Jack’s memories of his last action at Passchendaele are based on the Battalion War Diary and various historical accounts of the 21st Manchesters.

INTERVIEWER

In many ways, The Blessing is a romance. However, it is set during a tumultuous and fraught time in Irish history. How did you go about negotiating the complex politics?

CAESAR

I didn’t write with genre in mind. I had a story I wanted to tell about working-class characters living extraordinary lives in and through very troubled times. My approach to the politics was inspired by the characters. I’d grown up feeling I was on the ‘wrong-side’ of the problems in Northern Ireland and wanted to understand and come to terms with this. I have very distinct memories of my great-aunt Irene, who lived in Belfast all her life – she used to come and visit and her diatribes against the Catholics were appalling. In every other way she was a warm and generous human being. I wanted to explore this; I wanted to know more about both Protestant and Catholic positions before and after World War 1; so I researched. But I tried all the time to write from the characters and to give a number of points of view from both sides.

INTERVIEWER

Despite being set over 100 years ago, it could be said that The Blessing is relevant to day’s big issues such as faith, home territory, and violence. Is that how you see the novel?

CAESAR

Blessing CoverYes, very much so. It seems obvious to say there is an urgent need to understand bigotry and educate against it; I am also interested in the relationship between bigotry and religion. Although I’m not an orthodox believer, it seems to me important to try to make the point that bigotry in any form is a perversion of any true religion or spirituality. My deep suspicion of nationalism relates to this in some ways. Although I understand the impulse towards nationalism in places with a history of colonial oppression, the problem is that it can easily develop into nasty manifestations of self-righteous xenophobia or outright aggression. The attachment of ‘nation’ to a specific religious position seems to produce particularly potent forms of ideology, which can inspire appalling acts of violence.

I was interested in exploring these issues in The Blessing, not in any programmatic way but through the lives of individual characters. The issue of what or whom one should be loyal to is at the heart of the book. That Jack’s education entails moving between different countries is important, I think. Similarly, I wanted to suggest through Jack the difference between imagining violence and actually experiencing it – this is an issue that I’ve written about elsewhere in different contexts. I think it is horribly easy in our culture for young people (and maybe older people as well) to be attracted to and excited by the romance and glamour of military violence. Through Jack and Kevin and Cocky Shuttleworth, I was interested to explore various aspects of this.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s turn to your writing process. How much planning do you do, especially in terms of the writing of this novel? And, for you, is there an element of ‘writing into the story’?

CAESAR

In broad terms, with fiction I have learnt to plan less and less. It’s something I’ve found quite difficult. There is a big difference between writing an academic essay or book and writing a story. It’s possible to plan an argument paragraph by paragraph and a book-length argument chapter by chapter. I had to stop myself from trying to do this in fiction and let the narrative develop more organically. Of course, I have a sense of the general trajectory of the story I want to tell and I might work with a few chapter headings to give me a sense of direction but I try to let the characters and action lead me. It’s more exciting this way and gives the writing more life, I think.

The development of The Blessing was peculiar, to say the least. I wrote the first draft of Part I in about 2002 in a burst of energy and without a plan. I just had the shape of my grandfather’s life in my head. When I reached 1914, I stopped because I didn’t know how to handle the war. I put what I’d written in the drawer – I’d been awarded a literature grant from the Australia Council for a different project, so I embarked upon that. I took my draft out of the drawer in 2011. I then wrote several versions of Part II but they struggled to solve the problem of the war. It was only when I decided to deal with the war retrospectively that the whole thing came together.

Along the way, I had some very good editorial advice from Bryony Cosgrove whose comments made me think more deeply about Kathleen and led me to write chapters from her point of view. These were all written in 2012. Another wonderful moment of revelation came when I was thinking about Jack’s life after the war. Driving home from having a swim, I suddenly thought about my various trips to the World War I battlefields and cemeteries. I had already made Jack a gardener. I thought, who made those cemeteries? I immediately researched this and knew pretty quickly that Jack had to find his work in the War Graves Commission. That Gertrude Jeckyll was consulted about the plantings in the cemeteries seemed like an affirmation as I’d already made Jack read her books before the war.

To conclude, then: I think it’s possible to write formulaic fiction to a plan, but for me this doesn’t work. The downside with the organic method is, of course, that it’s easy to go wrong and it can take a long time to get it right.

INTERVIEWER

You have published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What is that you enjoy the most about being able to move between the various forms?

CAESAR

I am always worried about being ‘Jack-of-all-trades and master of none’. However, the beauty of working in all three areas is that if something isn’t working, I can always shift forms and have something on the go. In recent times, I’ve put most energy into my fiction, unless I’ve had a specific commission for non-fiction, but I keep a few poems on the go as well. I like working with poems because they are smaller and usually don’t take three years to write. And you can work on several at the same time, so if one isn’t happening you can leave it with no worries until some solution evolves. The challenge with a novel is that it is so BIG. It’s nice to have some smaller projects simmering at the same time for the inevitable periods when the novel is proving resistant.

In the end, I think good writing is good writing whatever the form and trying to work in different ways keeps me from boredom and allows me to try and understand the way different kinds of writing work.

 

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You can purchase The Blessing from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction – his contemporary dramas plunge into family dynamics, new relationship types, masculinity, history, and the lure of secrets. He is the author of three novellas: The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce,Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award; I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), which was short-listed for both the 2013 ACT Book of the Year and the 2013 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction; and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011), which won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction. His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collectionJoy (2000). In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of theCanberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written forAustralian Book Review, BMA Magazine, and Capital. He has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, courtesy of the Launceston City Council, Tasmania; in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La (2010-2014), for which he received a 2012 Canberra Critics Circle Award. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au

 

 

 

ACTS OF AFFIRMATION:
an interview with Biff Ward

Posted on October 23, 2015 by in Lighthouse Yarns

9781743319116Biff Ward is an Australian writer and political activist. Her most recent work is In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), a memoir that was long-listed for the 2015 Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction in the 2015 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Ward is also the author of Father-Daughter Rape (The Women’s Press, 1984), one of the first books in the world on family-based child sexual abuse. In 1992, Ward’s poetry book threes’ company, a collection of her work with that of Donna McSkimming and Deborah McCulloch, won the Wakefield Press/Friendly St Publishing Award. As an activist, Ward has been involved in various issues: Ban the Bomb, Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, Close Pine Gap, Close Nurrungar and support for Indigenous causes. She has also worked as an educator: high-school teaching, the School Without Walls in Canberra, literacy teacher at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs, Equal Opportunity Officer at the University of South Australia and then director of SPECTRA Consultants, training in harassment prevention, marginalization awareness, and maximising human relations in all its forms. By any measure, an amazing life.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations for In My Mother’s Hands and all it’s achieved. What was the original motivation for taking on what must have been a daunting task?

WARD

I can’t identify an ‘original’ moment. The story contained in the book was the core experience of my life and, in some sense, was so powerful that it had a life of its own.

Until my middle forties it was largely banished from my mind – not in a conscious way but in that unconscious way most of us have whereby our psyches work to protect us from serious painful memories. In my forties, two things happened: I finally found an effective therapeutic path which allowed me to voice what had happened and I started writing – just bits and pieces at first – of memories and even events that were happening at the time with my mother.

I knew that one day I would write something substantial but it had no shape or coherence for a long time. In the last few years of his life, my father (who died in 1995) used to ask me if I would write his biography and I always said, ‘Yes, I’ll write something, Dad’. All I knew was that it would be nothing like the biography he was expecting. Later, some historians asked me the same question – You’ll write your father’s biography, won’t you? – and I gave them the same slightly crooked reply.

So, rather than an ‘original motivation’, it was more like a wave, almost invisible at first, that gathered energy and power in its own good time, as I was ready and the past had congealed inside me in a form that I could handle. And when the wave swelled into its full form, it was like riding a tube on endless replay – I couldn’t not write. It poured out in the kind of ecstasy I imagine pro-surfers experience.

By the time I came to put it all together, to shape it into the book it became, the only ‘daunting’ aspect was the challenge of getting the voice and the writing ‘right’. I was determined to do it well enough to get published by the publisher of my choice and to do it tenderly enough that it really honoured my family and the demons that we wrestled with.

Long ago, I heard a Doris Lessing interview where she was asked something like, ‘How do you become a good writer?’ And she responded instantly, ‘You live. Live life to the full’. I was transfixed but the interviewer – a beginner, I dare say – just went on with the next pre-prepared question and left that delicious answer hanging out of the radio. The interviewer missed the fact that the fullness of life – the depths and the heights, the despair of the flying high – is what makes literature exciting, satisfying and fulfilling.

INTERVIEWER

It’s fascinating that parts of the ‘wave’ were suggestions you write your father’s biography. Both of your parents are compelling characters and have such interesting stories. How did you go about giving expression to both their lives? Was it about letting them live life to the full on the page?

WARD

It’s a good and interesting question.

My father was such a BIG character and his importance in my life so profound, that it seemed natural, when contemplating our family, to presume that I would write about him. But the way I always thought of it was that I wanted to write about what a great father he was – in other words, absolutely about the personal, not the public, man. I knew it would be some kind of memoir, a book of memories.

That intention always had a rider that went along the lines of ‘what a great father he was, particularly in the light of what he was dealing with’. And of course as soon as that angle was established, it actually put the light on my mother, the parent who had in many ways been invisible. It’s not her story, but it is my story about her.

The result is that my book encompasses a great deal more about my mother, in terms of the amount of her life that is touched on or revealed – whereas it deals with only a small amount of my father’s life, personality, actions and achievements. It deals with the parts that were relevant to talking about our family. I tried to give expression to both their lives in any ways that were relevant to my mother’s illness, to tell that story, that slice of the life we all lived.

My goal was to use the techniques of fiction to animate the scenes I was describing, to allow the reader to enter into them and have their own experience or draw their own conclusions. If in doing that they seem to ‘live in full’ on the page, then I am gratified.

As Ruth Ozeki writes in A Tale for the Time Being, ‘[Words] come from the dead. We inherit them. Borrow them. Use them for a time to bring the dead back to life’. While that wasn’t my plan, it’s what the process of the writing brought about. It seems that the writing of the book has brought my mother to life by explaining her experience and guessing at her experience; and it has certainly brought Alison, our dead baby, to life.

Biff Ward

Biff Ward

I have noticed and also heard from other people that the book often triggers memories for readers, that there has often been more talk (in book groups, for example) about their own lives, their own family secrets, than about In My Mother’s Hands per se. I can only assume from this that the book taps into a universal truth, that most families have hidden bits, and that there’s some energy to be gained in revealing these.

I recently heard about some raptors – the black-shouldered kite and one of the falcons – which manipulate fire. Where all raptors will hang about at the front of a fire to feast off the wildlife that rushes out, these birds will pick up a burning limb and fly to a dry area where they drop it and start another fire. It struck me that the journey to understand is like that: the fire that clears away the dangerous rubbish, flushes out juicy gobbets of revelation and comprehension and then leaves a landscape that is renewed, fertile, fecund. That’s where In My Mother’s Hands was written from – new shoots of green on black, a vivid canvas.

Perhaps the book itself will be the burning branch for someone else’s story.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve mentioned that bringing the dead back to life wasn’t your plan and you’re surprised to hear that the book appears to have tapped into a universal truth in terms of all families having ‘hidden bits’. What other elements of the writing of this book and/or its publication have surprised you?

WARD

What’s surprised me most is how much I enjoyed the writing – the first splurt onto the page, the editing and shaping (over and over again), the enormous amount of thinking that goes into writing and the playing with words, trying different combinations, rhythms, weightings, musicality.

I’ve also been delighted by the friendliness within the writing/book-selling/publishing community; talking about writing with other writers; meeting regularly with my writing group. I have found a widespread community of collegiality, respect and engagement.

Another surprise has been the people who have contacted me from the past. In other words, they’ve read the book and got in touch because they knew me, my family, or someone who did. There have been amazing stories of connection which would have been great to have inside the covers of the book! They include a woman who grew up on the street where I lived until I was three who told me, ‘Whenever we went for a walk, my mother would point at your house and say, That’s where the baby died’.

A complete surprise has been a couple of therapists and also a Jungian analyst who have told me that they are recommending the book to their clients. Two others have told me that they have clients who have come in, waving my book, saying, ‘You have to read this!’ So it seems that the healing journey that is implicit in the text – and, I think, not laboured – has connected with some people.

INTERVIEWER

If we could turn to the matter of the baby. The memoir begins with this sentence: There is in my family a grave that was never visited. Was this always the starting point for the narrative? Or was it a matter of finding your way to this point through the drafting and rewriting process?

WARD

It’s a good question – where and how the key focus was arrived at. Someone wrote to me about that first sentence when she’d read only a few pages: ‘It makes the absent present, so present,’ she said. I know I love that tension between absence and presence when I am the reader, so I was very gratified to get this email.

Alison and her death were emblematic of the story of the secrets in our family. The first version of the manuscript was entitled Alison and I also played around with The Grave – so the focus on Alison’s death was there from the beginning of the writing. The Prologue that begins the book with that sentence was a fixed entity for a long time. The honing down was mostly about removing stuff that was my story about my father, and also stuff about me, my ‘coming of age’ story. It was too cluttered, given that the stories that motivated me were the three strands about our dead baby Alison, my mother’s disturbed state and the business of living with silences.

Once I had the first draft, the writing process was concerned with pruning and streamlining and plaiting those three themes into one seamless narrative, one braid.

INTERVIEWER

Despite the familial darkness that is at the core of In My Mother’s Hands, the narrative does not come with an oppressive heaviness. Was this a conscious strategy in crafting the work?

WARD

No, it was not ‘conscious’ and I think that’s because I didn’t write until I was out beyond the ‘oppressive heaviness’ myself. I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced.

Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs. As well as writing, my journey included over twenty years of very effective therapy. Some people will still titter when I say that – which is an interesting response to a book about mental illness because it is an expression of the stigma that still surrounds any disclosure about seeking emotional help.

Literature is an act of affirmation. Love always trumps despair because we are creatures of hope; we look for the pathways that will take us on or through or around what the fates put in our way. Paul Harding called it ‘the deep and secret Yes’, which is a beautiful expression of resilience, of what it is that allows us to survive and flourish even through the hardest times.

 

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Find out more about Biff Ward at her website

Nigel Featherstone’s website can be found here

Nigel will be in conversation with Biff Ward and Robyn Cadwallader this Sunday 25 October at WINEPRESS

winepress photo

 

THE THINGLINESS OF THINGS: an interview with Jen Webb and Paul Hetherington

Posted on July 17, 2015 by in Lighthouse Yarns

FullSizeRender (93)The scholar who admits to taking images on her phone when tipsy. The poet who exhibits his work in art galleries. A little capital city that was boldly designed from the ground up. And the book the three of them have created. No, this is not the start of a joke; it’s a very serious business. (Well, mostly.)

Jen Webb is Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice at the University of Canberra and Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. She has published 18 books, some creative, most of them scholarly, with several translated and republished for Chinese, Korean and Indian readerships. Her scholarly work for the most part deals with art, visual culture, and representation. She also makes and exhibits artist books, incorporating her photographs and fragments of creative writing, and has published and performed her poetry across Australia and New Zealand, and in Canada, the UK and the USA.

Paul Hetherington has previously published eight full-length collections of poetry, three poetry chapbooks and a collaborative book of poetry and digital imagery with Anita Fitton. He won the 2014 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards (poetry) and was a finalist in the 2014 international Aesthetica Creative Writing Competition. He was also shortlisted for the 2013 Newcastle Poetry Prize and the 2013 Montreal International Poetry prize. In 2014 he was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts Residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome. He is Professor of Writing in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra and head of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) there.

What is it that they have created? And why?

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on the publication of Watching the World: impressions of Canberra (Blemish Books, 2015). It’s a beautifully produced collection of images and poems focussing on one of the world’s most intriguing designed cities – in a way it is both a unique coffee-table anthology and an exploration of a place. What was the motivation for the book?

WEBB

The motivation was the Centenary of Canberra, 2013: the celebration of a hundred years since the establishment of Australia’s national capital. There’s a lovely line in a Dorothy Porter poem: ‘Imagine a city/where it’s mostly/imagine’ (from ‘On Reading EM Forster’s Guide to Alexandria’, in her collection The Bee Hut, Black Inc., 2009). A small group of us here at the University of Canberra wanted to put on an exhibition as part of the Centenary celebrations, and riffing off Dorothy’s line, we called the exhibition Imagine Canberra.

Paul and I decided we would do a collaborative poetry + photography piece, works that reflected our own personal and idiosyncratic Canberra(s), and we exhibited these in little balsa-wood cheese boxes, their circular shape mirroring Canberra’s endlessly circling roads, and the great circles on the Griffin-Mahoney designs of Canberra. Getting the work together forced us to spend quite a bit of time moving around in, looking at, and thinking about this place: at once our hometown, and the government centre of the country.

We showed the work twice: in the Belconnen Arts Centre, as part of Imagine Canberra, and again at a creative writing conference held at the end of 2013. By this point we had come (a) to really like the ideas in the work and (b) to want to improve it – change the saturation in the photos, for instance; sharpen up some of the lines of poetry; develop it all a bit more.

HETHERINGTON

Jen has nicely summed up how the exhibition and publication got underway, and what we then did. It was a chance to extend my collaborative work with a poet and artist I admire a great deal – and someone who is a very supportive and generous colleague, too. I thought Jen’s photographs for this project were wonderfully engaging from the first time she showed me a few of them – representing views of Canberra, a national capital, that were at once intimate, observant, unexpected, and full of the quotidian stuff of the city.

Yet, this was not so much the quotidian doings of Canberra’s citizens – although Jen’s images do represent those doings in judicious and creative ways. The images captured the quotidian life of the city itself as expressed in buildings, places, monuments, scenes and occasions. There are large views and vistas, and small, exquisite details. Some of the images have a relaxed and deceptive apparent casualness that welcomes the viewer while being sharply observant.

They were superb images to work with as a poet; and posed the challenge: how shall I find words that will have their own life and poetic structures while also complementing Jen’s visual imagery, and which will create some sort of implicit dialogue between image and poem? I did not wish my poems to be ekphrastic or descriptive works; I wanted them to be companion pieces; pieces that spoke to what Jen had seen and made; and which saw and were made differently, but in strongly connected ways. The original project title, ‘Circles and Intersections’, acknowledged this process – of the way we both circled and intersected with each other’s work, and its creative imaginings; how we didn’t try to find too many straight lines of connection; how we made a book that celebrates the circuitous and lateral connections that Canberra as a designed city embodies and expresses in various ways for all of its occupants – and for visitors, too.

In such ways, the book is certainly an exploration of place; and it is an exploration of how seeing double sometimes has a multiplying effect. Our joined imaginings about Canberra are an attempt to provide multiple perspectives that arise from the nearly simultaneous consideration of laterally related visual and verbal imagery.

INTERVIEWER

The Porter line about cities and imagination seems fantastically appropriate to Canberra, especially when paired with the stated ambition of Walter Burley Griffin, the American landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin who, in collaboration with Marion Mahony Griffin, won the international design competition for Australia’s national capital: ‘I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world.’ I wonder if you both could talk more about the intersection between the urban imagination – or the imagination of the urban – and the visual/poetic imagination. By this I mean, do you believe there is a direct link between Canberra being a place of such imaginative deliberation and how you produced the work in Watching the World?

watching-the-world-cover-01-(outlines)HETHERINGTON

That’s a good question, and one that’s not easy to answer. This book is a culmination for me of nearly 25 years as an inhabitant of Canberra, and it incorporates many years of responding to the city on a daily basis – responses that are no doubt embedded in the rhythms and cadences of my poetry as well as in its observations.

In terms of the city more particularly, I have always been attracted to poetry, and to art in general, partly because it is made – because it is designed – and I remember when I arrived in Canberra a key aspect of the attraction of this city for me was the attractive strangeness of finding a place that would be a home in the usual informal ways associated with homeliness, while also being conspicuously and rather grandly conceived and ‘made’ – even if not made entirely in Walter Burley Griffin’s and Marion Mahony Griffin’s original image.

Exploring the city poetically for this book constituted a re-engagement with what I knew in this way – as a citizen of a city who had carried my impressions of its original and attractive strangeness with me for two and a half decades but who also wished to reappraise it. In doing so, I realised that I’d never relinquished the sense that Canberra was not like other cities and that I enjoyed this idea of its difference (some people criticise Canberra for that – they suggest that it is sterile, or too organised, or what-have-you – but I have always liked the sense of reserve the city possesses). I used this sense of difference as my point of departure for the poems I wrote.

I was also reminded that Canberra is a city that is in the throes of growing up – simultaneously a fully-fledged national capital and a mixture of suburban and semi-rural spaces. Much of its current charm comes from the way the grid-lines of its original design, and the beauty of its landscapes, are sprawling in ways that are creating a more modern, more haphazard place, despite the efforts of planners to control and moderate such development.

Jen’s photographs capture this in-between, sprawling moment in our city’s life very well and with considerable subtlety, and I love that about them. My poems respond to that quality; as well as to the thoughtful, sometimes playful, sometimes almost quizzical spirit of her work and, as a result, they are about her images of the city as well as about the city as I know it.

I suppose, then, that the poems are written out of an attempt to say, isn’t this interesting – to be here; to see a city like this in its current stage of development; to live in a place that’s so extraordinary but which I mostly know in a daily, ordinary way and which Jen has helped me see freshly. I tried to find words to speak directly and simply of such things – a complex city’s complicated life.

INTERVIEWER

Jen, was this shifting between the ordinary and the extraordinary, as Paul describes it, something that you tried to work with when producing your images?

WEBB

I don’t think I ever aimed to shift between the ordinary and the extraordinary. My conscious aim was to find images of Canberra that were entirely quotidian, even banal. If there is a shift to the extraordinary here and there, that’s quite likely because the everyday world itself is extraordinary, or at least contains the extraordinary. I used my smaller camera and my phone camera, and deliberately just took snapshots – a shameful thing to do, no doubt, but I had a vague idea that this would allow me to be very ordinary, and to capture images en passant, as it were: not capital P Photos, but the everyday glimpses of the city we Canberrans see, often without noticing them, because they are so very familiar.

Walter Abish has a sort of a treatise on this in his wonderful novel How German Is It (W W Norton & Co Inc, 1980) where one of his characters presents a lesson on the familiar, and how very hard we – or the familiar things themselves – must work to achieve that status. I’ve always been taken by the idea that, when looked at aslant, everything becomes new and strange. And that because photographs – even snapshots – freeze the moment, they afford a sudden stasis in which we can look again at what has just flickered past our eyes, and in looking, come to see.

AirforceMemorialAfter Paul wrote the first group of poems that responded to my photos, I was quite captivated by the almost delicate tiptoeing into his lyrical versions of Canberra. Especially in a couple of the very short poems, there was a sort of catching and releasing of breath. His response to my shot of the RAAF memorial on ANZAC Parade, for example: ‘Hands that have left/no print/being wings’ seems to me to be a sort of sob, or stutter of breath; a hesitation in Paul’s articulation that reflects the stutter, or perhaps shudder, in history caused by all those unnecessary deaths, and all the sorrow and rage that accompanied them.

After reading his poems, I went out and took more photos, still aiming at the banal but perhaps a little more infused now by lyricism; and then in the process of preparing the photos for the exhibition – cropping and cleaning – I deliberately over-saturated them to make them un-real, more like 1960s picture postcards, more like an evocation than a record – attempting in that way to creep a little closer to the poems themselves. It seemed to me that the process we followed in this collaboration – back and forth, show and tell, revisit and reshape – led to the poems and photos leaning closer and closer to each other until they became less two discrete bodies of work, and more a single statement, if that makes sense.

INTERVIEWER

Another example of the image and the poem merging to become a single statement is ‘Conversations’. Could you both talk a little about how this particular work came together?

HETHERINGTON

These works – Jen’s photograph and my brief poem entitled ‘Conversations’ – began with her image of chairs on a table in what looked like a cafe. I liked this image immensely, not only because of the shapes of the chairs, but because of the way the image foregrounded them. A detail that is usually overlooked or taken for granted – the putting up of chairs at the end of the day, often for cleaning purposes – was placed centre stage. And it was placed in such a way that the usual narratives associated with such details were obscured – was this, indeed, a cafe; if so, where was it; and what was the connection to the shop where, as the sign says, there was a ‘suit sale’; etcetera?

Conversations (1)The image was like a quotidian fragment with almost no contextualising narrative. It said to me: ‘Look at this. This is what happens every day in many, many places. And, ordinary as it is, there’s something noteworthy about it; and even a kind of beauty inherent in the daily rhythms of the opening and closing of shops; and of people coming and going.’ And, as I looked, I thought the chairs were like faux gold crowns – not only in their upturned shapes and colour, but in the way the act of placing them on tables at the end of a day ‘crowned’ the day’s business. The image also reminded me that conversations in cafes are often of a particularly ephemeral nature; that cafes are frequently less than entirely satisfactory; and also that there’s a certain drabness about the decor of many such places.

In my poem I didn’t want to say everything suggested to me by the image; rather I wanted to make a work that might complement the image and provide the reader/viewer with the chance to look twice, as it were, at what Jen had made – once to ‘read’ the image in the first place; and then to read it again through the poem. In this way the poem was written to be at the image’s service.

However, I also wanted the dynamic to work the other way, so that readers of the poem could afterwards attend to the image, importing its visual information back into my words. The poem is deliberately restrained as a result – to allow such a dynamic to occur. It says what I hope is just-enough-and-no-more to be part of that larger conversation between image and word:

Conversations

The café was more drab
than he’d remembered,
neglected conversations
strewn in awkward pride
like yellow crowns.

WEBB

Ditto to all Paul said. I took that photo extremely late on New Year’s Eve, slightly tipsy, when we stopped off at the Belconnen shops to pick up milk for the morning’s coffee. The place was almost entirely deserted, with everything but the grocer shut down and asleep. I loved the colour of the chairs and the shape of their legs in the air. When I showed Paul, he responded as he said, which led me to revisit the chair images I’d shot, change the saturation, change the cropping etc. I decided, after reading ‘Conversations’, to pull in very tight around the chairs so that it was AllAboutThem. They are, of course, awkward in that upside-down context – gawky, inelegant, and yet entirely chairs. Thinking about the ephemerality of conversation in cafes, I came to feel that the chairs were utterly uninterested in what we have to say, and that perhaps what matters to them are the long quiet nights when they commune only with each other. (I know of course they are only made objects and not sentient beings, but you know . . .)

INTERVIEWER

Do you see the publication of Watching the World as the end of this project?

WEBB

I think the Watching the World project is over; we’ve exhibited the work (twice), reworked it, and now published it. But the notion of watching the world is by no means over. Paul and I worked on two other photography+poetry collaborations last year, and are presently working on another, and all have involved, to a very great extent, looking closely at the everyday things of the world, and responding to them. I find myself uninterested in whatever is ‘grand’, whether it’s abstract theories or material objects that are labelled as such. I tend to photograph the un-grand: water, street signs, graffiti, leaves, stones. I like to see what they might say to me in their small voices. Paul has a wonderful ability to find the smallest gesture, the most ordinary story, and translate it into a clear and captivating poem. So many of his poems treat the everyday: family relationships, something someone once said, the look of a jar or cup or dress. I think our two different-but-related aesthetics work well together.

I have been very interested, for a long time, in phenomenology as a way of pursuing research projects, and therefore interested in the thingliness of things, in ways of figuring out what it might mean to be. Related to that is a body of reading I’ve done in the writings of scholars like Humberto Maturana and Franscisco Varela, who described the reflexive mechanisms that operate in all living beings that allow them to interact with everything in their environment; this interaction means there is a constant flow of knowledge between living beings and environment, and that each is continually changing the other. They were writing as biologists, but the concepts they posited have been adopted by sociologists and philosophers et al, because they open up a very interesting space to think about cognition: knowing, being, seeing. They offer a great phrase: ‘Anything said is said by an observer’ – and in that seeing and saying, the thing is changed. I’m intrigued by how the act of observing – of watching the world – might change both me and that part of the world I am observing and ‘saying’, and might afford new ways of understanding. That’s probably enough said on that!

I very much doubt we’ll ever take the original Watching the World objects out for a spin again (in fact, I’m keen to burn them ceremonially!). I’m confident that we have more projects to come that demand we bring ourselves very close to those everyday objects, converse with them, watch what they do, and have a bash at rendering them in photos, poems or other modes of representation.

HETHERINGTON

I think the answer has to be yes and no. The Watching the World book, and the related exhibition that the book grew out of, have now been produced – although, as this interview is taking place, the book is yet to be launched and it has yet to fully find its place in our literary and visual culture. But I suspect that those projects are unlikely to reappear in any other guise or manifestation.

On a broader level, the book is one of a number of joint projects that Jen and I have embarked on, all of them connected to poetry, imagery and collaboration, and in that sense – as one manifestation of that larger collaborative enterprise – it is perhaps a kind of staging post: a place where we may pause and reflect prior to producing further work.

More generally, still, I tend to think that making art is a more-or-less continuous process in which new work builds on and develops previous work; and in which there are cycles of development and recurrence. I suspect that the writing and photographs in Watching the World have already enabled other kinds of creative work for both of us, and that they will return in some form or another, perhaps years hence – and possibly when we believe that they belong only to the past. In such a recurrence they will no doubt be reinflected and perhaps even wearing disguises of some kind, but in that way they are likely to continue to be part of a future conversation that Jen and I have with one another; and they may help us make further work at that time.

I believe that artists are almost always looking back as well as forwards; that the forwards-backwards dynamic is, indeed, how the engine that drives creativity works. As we watch the world today, we understand where we have been a little better; and we also prepare for what we will do in the future.

 

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Watching the World: Impressions of Canberra by Jen Webb and Paul Hetherington will be launched on Tuesday 21 July at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The publication can be purchased directly from Blemish Books.

 

 

 

SONGS OF TRUTH AND PASSION: an interview with John Stokes

Posted on March 20, 2015 by in Lighthouse Yarns


Attachment-1In Canberra, among the crowds at a poetry event (indeed any kind of literary happening) there is likely to be a man, a particular man, who goes about his business with such goodness and grace. He is John Stokes, and he is worth listening to. According to his biographical statement, Stokes has lived long stints in the ACT region from about 1965, most recently for 30 years. He has won or been shortlisted for many prizes, including the Blake, Rosemary Dobson and Newcastle Prizes for Poetry. He represented Australia at the 2011 International Poetry Celebrations in Italy. Stokes has published works in Australia, Japan, Italy, UK, and USA. Publication credits include A River in the Dark, Dancing in the Yard at Eden, and now, Fire in the Afternoon. He has works in numerous Australian and international reports, journals and anthologies. Who is he? And what makes his poetry tick?

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been writing poetry for many years and Fire in the Afternoon (Halstead Press, 2014) is your third collection. What is your motivation?

STOKES

Good place to start. I write because I have to. I’m wired-up that way. It started when my juvenilia was encouraged by one person – so much depends on one person – in the face of derision by family, playground denizens and, in the case of the English teacher concerned, his own colleagues. I was ‘selected out’ to go to a streamed school.

I can only deal with your question by referring you to snippets of my style at the time. Here is the ending of an early poem:

He remembers nothing
but a word – the word for joy
Soft on the waterlight
he comes, unafraid of silence.

(‘The Rushcutters’)

The motivation here was a burning desire, possibly fuelled by loneliness and sublimation in a profession – at that time surveying – which insisted on absolutely no emotion, to write about some sort of romantic melancholy.

A game-changer came with the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. He seemed to change from a rich, historic and sensual ‘mouth music’, as in ‘Tollund Man’, to a position that you could attain a useful, interesting wisdom by reproducing ritual, none-human sounds you created but didn’t control, as in ‘The Rainstick’.

I did not agree. I got terribly steamed up about this and spent many years trying to appeal to the subconscious instead:

… The disbelief comes flooding in with the warplanes, under a weird, spotlight moon. It’s twilight in hell again and welcome, friends, to the brotherhood of fear, the burning gift, the spatter of fire on our roofs

(‘Storm: The Talisman’ in Fire in the Afternoon)

The imagination is now completely freed. But I feel that everything should still come home from the real; the actual; complexity expressed in plain language:

The Artisan’s redheaded daughter
Makes careful maps of the stars.
Noting the times of their dying;
The furrows deep in her orchard,
The shadows’ silent wandering;

A curious richness under the earth.

(‘Music for a New England daughter; 3rd Canticle: Soft in an ear at the gateway’)

I believe now in the project of letting plain-speaking express our deepest hopes and fears; holding the needs of love, sex and chaos. Watch this space.

INTERVIEWER

You say that your ‘imagination is now completely freed’. Do you feel that as you’ve developed your poetic craft your imagination has been able to find a level of primacy? Or, in your experience, is there still a productive tension between technique and imaginative freedom?

STOKES

What a curly one. If you mean is there still a gap between fact (the written) and imagination (the writing), I would say yes! definitely. But fact and imagination are a married couple. They are caught in a battle of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Their coupling, the uniting space between them, makes for art.

Let’s talk about imagination first. It’s a great faculty. It allows you to reach directly to The Other. It allows above all for you to be in empathy with the downtrodden; the lonely relatives of the slaughtered; the joys and sorrows of humankind and other creatures. Without it there can be no good politics. Only dangers. When I said earlier that the imagination was freed I meant it should still come home to report, in my case be written up; communicated.

About technique: I was impressed when an author said that in writing, start with an idea… and force yourself to write it up. Of course there are as many ways of doing this as there are people. Especially Mad Aunts like memory and desire.

After the idea comes the fleshing. The truth of the body:

Foxes came down
out of the pine-trees
to bite the dog’s tails

(‘The Case of the drowned goldfish’ in A River in the Dark)

These lines were described as lies; fantasy. But they are absolutely the truth. In this stage I write from the body, stuffing it all in, breaking it up into cadences depending on the mood or ‘world’ as the piece demands; looking at the emotional weight. Most of all I look at rhythms. In the lyrical style, and depending on the place and age-group of a piece’s audience, all is rhythm.

Then comes the hardest, best bit. The going away, the coming back, the stripping the poem down to its raw self. The allowing of it to become readable. The finding out what the thing is really about. So important. It takes any time between five minutes and a lifetime. For me the tension, the instincts, the balance of the elements, come from selecting for the people. This can be hard. In the war between a choice of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, there is no right answer. It is enough to see you have a choice. If you are were offered an alternative of losing your sight or losing your mind, what would you say?

… See, the sweet hollow
Takes the old, poured water, the shallow-tongued,
And one. By one. The corn-flowers grow…

Drink        go hunting     and leave no shadow

(‘The Offering’ in the anthology Dazzled, long-listed for the 2014 University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize)

For this moment, I am taking so-called ‘fact’ and so-called ‘fiction’ in equal measure. But I’d like to get back to you on that.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry seems to be influenced by place and memory. Can you talk a little about how these elements work for you?

STOKES

Whisperer. Measurer and turner of knives.

What is it, memory, you are trying to tell me?

(‘East of Gotham City’ in Fire in the Afternoon)

For me and in the moment, place and memory are lovers. They interweave and part, interweave and part. Memory can be silent. It is different for every person or creature that has it. But it’s tricky. It can fade, or overwhelm you, or tell lies in your ear. One of its tricks, of course, is to not confine itself to the past – as the White Queen said. I am only an artisan of words, but so far I cling to memory to lend power to my dreams, to reach out to those myriad listeners out there, hoping to find common ground. To make memory manifest.

Attachment-1On place: this too is tricky; a dark angel. For me place is not a real thing, technicolour though it is, but all the more strong for that. For better or for worse, it gives memory a reason to occur, a talisman for my work. My old landscape lecturer used to challenge us by saying: is the impact of place just where you want to be, what you have been brought up in, where you come home to? She suggests an urban or desert person is quite capable of falling in love with the corresponding place according to their oldest memories and longest residence without travel.

Ah, not so. Too sweet. In my writing, there comes the famous Rape in the Garden Problem. What if in some beautiful park, a woman is brutally raped?  Would not that experience colour forever her fears, her values, of that place? Maybe not forever, but I feel that it would – it would destroy beauty.

But for my latest published book and the one I’m working on now, I owe it to her, myself and others to look frankly at such a happening, to confront, to dare to take a hard look. As an act of truth.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps this link between memory and place in Fire in the Afternoon is at its most prominent in ‘The Woman on the Island’. Can you walk us through this particular poem?

STOKES

Right. There are 1001 ways to tell a story poem and too much self-appraisal is bad for other people’s souls. But here goes:

Seabreath. You imagine roaring
over the barking of the seadogs

First, the mindset: the ancestors of this poem are Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney and Dorothy Hewett with her ‘Peninsula’ poems. The relatives include ‘Guerilla Bay’ (in this book) and ‘The Timing of Eels’ (about 2000). Now the place: Montague Island off Narooma, NSW: bare, windswept, home to penguins, a lighthouse, and the smell of the seadogs (seals to you). The central, true-to-life idea: the story of a wife of one of the 19th Century lighthouse keepers; she lived on the island for decades and had some eleven children, two of which died early.

It meant every year another child
pushed against the spume

So far so good.

Now the necessary second, counter-idea – also true to life: the lovely workhorse. Its job on the island was to haul loads up from the sea to useful ground. Like its relatives on other lighthouses, it hated its job, and the place where it happened. It was not stupid – as soon as it spotted the supply boat coming across from the mainland it used to make itself scarce. You had to chase it all over the island. On reflection it must have been quite smart: once a year it would swim all the way to the mainland and would have to be brought back again like an escaped prisoner.

… and all for the stories: [important principal of life]
the workhorse that wouldn’t [work]
and swam, every year, to the mainland [note important paired commas]

Deep water:

the giving up of hard men

And this:

bending to their sober duty [no escape; having a drink over on-shore was a capital offence]

Then:

The child-cry of the seawind.

Note the echo of the first line. It keeps the unity of the poem; also prompts a feminist and work-praising-title for the poem, which needed one at this stage – and the lady deserved it. Note, also, the claustrophobic text reflecting even present lighthouse-houses and the cabins of ships-of-the-line. I could have ended this piece there. It wasn’t too bad. It had atmosphere. It spoke to the listener. It has nice word-texture fitting the hard place and the human bodies. But it isn’t a poem. It’s a description. What to do? Put it away in a dark place. For a year.

Suddenly it comes. The key, the shock phrase. The phenomenon known as ‘black light’. With the passing of the flash and the constant widening of the iris in the eyes – and things in the brain – darkness and the shadow of darkness have a ‘light’. You don’t see it, so much as feel it. I have felt it. Yet it is a technological trick; it is non-human. Into the poem it goes, uniting with the black, Victorian clothes of the woman.

Now we have an imbalance. Unsatisfying. What to do? For better or for worse, the individual poet must now speak. In his or her own ‘voice’. So add the extra, last stabbing-line from the body to make a crashing, foot-rhyming couplet:

The night-piercing of the Sun.

Here, then, is the full poem: the form in which all poems should be read:

The Woman on the Island

Seabreath. You imagine roaring
over the barking of the seadogs
the black-dressed woman hopping from rock to rock
nine children dropping from her womb
and two bled out in the moorland
in sight of the lighthouse brushing
the granite under blown stars

It meant every year another child
pushed against the spume
and drunken stuttering of the light
hurt over grass and strict weather
the splutter and stink of the sea-oil
lamps blackening the close room
licked by wind licked

by wind. And all for the stories: black light
the work horse that wouldn’t
that swam, every year, to the mainland
the giving up of hard men
bending to their sober duty
The child-cry of the seawind
The night-piercing of the Sun.

It will have to do. Nail it up. Look for another piece of paper…

INTERVIEWER

What’s your hope for poetry?

STOKES

Your question is too big. It bursts the heart.

I was your seafall
And you are my desire

(after Robert Lois Stevenson)

So many types of poetry, you see; as many as there are, or have been, or will be people to make or imagine it.        

From my small corner of this great play I see that these many poetries are made to entertain, to amuse, to move, to scare, to comfort, to harangue towards war or peace, to attempt to change politics for better or for worse. You don’t have to write down poetry to have it. You can dance it. You can accompany it in music or painting. You can see it in movement… She was poetry in motion. You can ad-lib it. You can, like the temptation of the Buddha, contemplate keeping it all to yourself (luckily for some he was said to have rejected the idea).

One hope I do have for poetry: that it stops making academics feel besieged by the barbarians (or other poets), and that it stops making the barbarians feel besieged by the poets who are seen to be deliberately arcane or obscure for invalid reasons, to the point of aggression. This seems to be a peculiar state in Australia at this time.

I hope that ‘Poetry’, its memorable rhythms, will keep on shedding light on the human conditions. I agree that it is, after all, the most metaphysical of the arts; a mainline to the deepest wishes and follies of our tribes. Without poetry, history would not change. But its loss would be a terrible impoverishment. A loss that we would feel forever, without knowing why.

Let’s bring this talk to a close…

For me, poems are songs of truth and passion. They conjure up an intensity of meaning or non-meaning out of the silences. My hope is they will continue to sing, in shade, as in sun. To clarify a difficult line from Auden regarding an imaginary trial of Yeats: ‘Poetry makes a nothing happen’.

Thanks for hearing me out.

*

John Stokes is an Australian poet, author, essayist and performer who has published widely in Australia, Europe, U.K., U.S.A and Japan. He has won or been shortlisted for many prizes including the Blake, Newcastle, Rosemary Dobson and WoorillaPrizes for Poetry. He has represented Australia at festivals and his publication credits include A River in theDark (Five Islands Press); Dancing in the Yard at Eden (Orta San Giulio); Fire in the Afternoon (Halstead Press) and numerous journals and anthologies. His website is: www.johnkarlstokes.com

John will be launching his new book, Fire in the Afternoon, this Saturday as part of The Newcastle Writers Festival Big Poetry Book Launch, along with Jean Kent, Jennifer Compton, Jan Dean and Beth Spencer, who will also be launching their most recent poetry collections.