If we love a film we want to know more about it. We stay for the credits if we’re struck by the way it was shot, the locations or music, perhaps even how well it was edited. A novel we love in a similar way bears just one name. The publishing house is a stamp that gives us little more than the relevant years of publication. We don’t worry about the credits yet a book is a major production, involving experts with different specialties, all contributing talent and commitment. You’ve emerged as a prominent editor and I was wondering why you think so much of the work you do goes uncredited? Even when an editor is mentioned, there’s no real appreciation for how significant editors are as curators and creators of anthologies, collections, magazines, etc, as well as vital collaborators in the production of the works we love. How do you see the role of an editor and why do they rarely get a mention?
Thank you – I’ve never thought of myself as a prominent editor! To tell the truth, I think there are two kinds of editing, and one attracts far less recognition than the other. Book editors remain invisible and unacknowledged – apart from in the author’s acknowledgement pages, if they’re lucky. And their contribution is often enormous, in some cases transforming the work beyond all recognition; in others building on the authors’ strengths while helping them work on their weaknesses and eliminate them from the final work. In my publishing days, I’ve worked with editors who basically wrote the authors’ books for them – taking them from a very rough first draft to a polished final product. Not only did the reading public never know this, but in some cases, the author themselves managed not to realise. The more the author is hired for their profile or expertise rather than their writing, the more likely this is to happen. The more serious the writer, the more they tend to recognise, appreciate and – yes – acknowledge the work their editor puts in. Then again, it’s the job of a book editor to be invisible, as Text editor Mandy Brett wrote in her recent Meanjin essay. It’s the craft of the writing that’s on display – its seams should remain hidden. There are a handful of famous editors – Beatrice Davis, Maxwell Perkins, Gordon Lish, Hillary McPhee – but they’re rare.
I do think that the other, more visible, kind of editor – editors of anthologies, magazines, etc. – are quite well recognised. Think Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner, co-editors of the Sleepers Almanacs. Or Ronnie Scott, editor of The Lifted Brow. If you look beyond our cosy little publishing world, at commercial publications, their editors can have huge profiles. Look at Ita Buttrose, and the huge success of the recent ABC mini-series Paper Giants, on the birth of Cleo magazine, starring Ita as its girl-power heroine. (Or, on a smaller scale, Mia Freedman, who gained visibility as editor of Cosmopolitan and can now be seen everywhere.) Of course, that recognition comes from the glamorous (say, thirty per cent) part of the work they do: the commissioning. The hard slog that makes up the other seventy per cent – working with writers to improve on the structure, then the detail of their work; negotiating with them; proofreading; sourcing images; and often dealing with production elements – is less acknowledged. Then again, why should it be? There are plenty of integral but decidedly unglamorous jobs that go unacknowledged. (Like the role of deputy editor at most publications!)
Recently, someone asked me for advice on how to become an editor. This person admitted she didn’t have a wonderful command of English, so couldn’t see herself being much good at proofreading or working with structure. But she had decided that she really, really wanted to be an editor. After some minutes of (for me) quite confusing conversation, I asked why she wanted to be an editor. After all, if she wasn’t much good at manipulating words and language, and this held little interest for her, what was the appeal? ‘I read magazines and newspapers, and there’s often a “from the editor” column,’ my would-be editor explained. ‘I want to write that column!’
Visibility aside, I think people are attracted to the glamour and excitement of finding new talent, or convincing established talent to appear in their pages. That element of discovery. And I’d be lying if I said those things don’t appeal to me, as part of the job. (Though I quite relish the task of working with an author on a piece that needs structural work – it’s so satisfying to see the end result.) I also enjoy deciding on the shape a publication will take, and assembling the elements that will bring it together. For example, in editing The Big Issue’s fiction edition, we don’t just look at individual stories and writers when we put it together; we also select the pieces with the overall feel of the collection in mind – for example, we want a variety of styles and subjects, and at least a sprinkling of humour.
Raymond Carver stumbled around his home for a week after he got Gordan Lish’s version of his first collection of stories — clutching his head and muttering that he was going to go insane. A month later, Carver said he was pleased with the version his editor had sent him. Raymond Carver’s stories have recently been published as they were before Lish brought his judgment to them. Some readers prefer them over the classic Carver style that had such a colossal impact on the short form. Worth noting is that Carver didn’t stick to the minimalist game plan later in his career that Lish had set out for him at the beginning.
I’m interested in the relationships between editor and writer. You’ve mentioned the roles an editor can play but can you talk about the different kinds of responses you’ve seen from writers. Some writers must be almost impossible to work with and others might accede to all suggestions too easily. What’s the ideal balance in a good relationship between editor and writer? I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the experiences you’ve had with writers. Have you driven any of them insane?
Absolutely. I have worked with writers who are very attached to their prose and resist any editing or suggestions almost by instinct. Rarely, but it’s happened. And I’ve worked with others who accept all suggestions. (To be perfectly honest, I don’t experience this as a problem!) In between are those writers who accept some suggestions, argue the toss with others to keep the words as they originally wrote them, and compromise by offering alternatives for other suggested changes. It’s generally a pleasure to work with these writers – they’re attached to their words, offer sound reasons for the changes they want to keep (even if I don’t always agree with those reasons and don’t always accede) and in offering compromises for suggested changes, they’re agreeing with the need for editing, but putting those changes into their own words and style. That’s really your ideal author to work with. The first kind of author I mentioned – the ones who fight every change almost by instinct – are the worst to work with. (Unsurprisingly.) They’re also rarely the best writers – the best writers can usually spot changes that make their work better when they see them, and will either accept those changes or offer their own versions as alternatives. Or they will argue their case convincingly for why the work was better the way they wrote it in the first place. And sometimes they’re right. But usually this kind of conversation will then lead onto ‘yes, I see this now, how about if you change that bit earlier to make that clearer’, or similar. It’s a conversation; a collaboration. And that’s the ideal balance, I think.
On the other hand, while there are writers who’ll resist change as a defensive or possessive measure, there are also editors who’ll make changes not to make the work better, but to make it read as they would’ve written it. Which is quite a different thing. And that’s why writers who look critically at edits and can intelligently argue against any changes they see as changing their work in a way that changes what they’re trying to say, or changes their tone or style, are – in my view – the best and smartest writers. I see the main overall editing approaches as enabling editing (the best kind) and interventionist editing (the kind I mentioned earlier – where the editor makes the work read as they would’ve written it), with of course a huge grey area in the middle.
An enabling editor works with the writer to make their work the best it can be, aiming to help the writer achieve what they set out to do, and keeping to their writing style as much as possible. Gordon Lish was not, of course, an enabling editor. Those early Carver stories are almost co-authored by Lish! While I prefer to be an enabling editor, the kind of editing that’s appropriate depends on the work itself, the genre, the writer and the amount of time available. For me, I think fiction requires the most care in terms of keeping to the writer’s own style and aims. And if I’ve commissioned a piece – particularly if it’s a piece that’s part of a series – I’m a tougher (and more interventionist) editor. But then, I think if you’ve commissioned something specific, then you are, if not co-authoring, at least co-shaping and conceptualising it, from the start, and part of your job is to ensure that the writer meets your aims, or the aims and style of your publication.
I’ve done brutally intense edits on pieces with writers who’ve then thanked me for them – rare, but occasional. Then again, I’ve done quite minor edits with writers who have then argued with almost every tweak (also rare). I guess I drove them insane. There was one incident with a writer – also a friend – who wanted to use the phrase ‘pant-wettingly funny’ in his article, which I changed to ‘pants-wettingly’. He was really very attached to the use of ‘pant’ and we did go back and forth a few times on it. I refused to back down because you can’t spontaneously wet one ‘pant’ (it would require remarkable precision and planning, I’d think); he refused to back down because he really liked the sound of ‘pant’ rather than ‘pants’. I hand-balled it up to the editor above me to make the final decision. She backed me up and the author backed down. It was all done with grace and humour, but I think we both drove each other a little nuts during the process.
The New Yorker has been refining an American attitude from the 20s to the present day. We can applaud consistent contributors like Updike, Cheever and Beattie, but their careers were cultivated and their perspectives given focus through the editorship of The New Yorker. When The Paris Review emerged it introduced a European sensibility into American literature, but it was a development of what was still a clearly defined aesthetic. The consistent factor is people whose names are overlooked.
Our country lacks an Australian aesthetic and what constitutes a home grown attitude is becoming harder to define. You wrote about the different degree of involvement that comes when an editor commissions work and has an ‘aim and style’ for a publication. Have you seen any journals attempting to focus on the Australian voice and cultivate experiences unique to our people?
Definitely. I think that (almost by default), most Australian-based journals focus on developing new Australian literary talent, not so much in terms of trying to cultivate a particular style of writing that can be seen as ‘Australian’, but in terms of supporting and nurturing new Australian writers, both emerging and established. Publishing good local writing is the aim of most journals, I’d think, though some do have a particular focus on publishing international writers alongside local ones. (For instance, Ronnie Scott’s The Lifted Brow.)
I suspect that most journals are shaped more by the taste of its editors than by a mission to pursue and publish particular styles or aesthetics. They publish what they see as interesting, involving and exciting. What does happen is that influential journals – like The New Yorker and The Paris Review (and, I would argue McSweeneys) in the US, and Meanjin and Overland (and the Sleepers Almanacs, though they’re not technically journals) here in Australia – tend to influence the shape and aesthetic of the wider literary culture they’re part of. And this is, more than anything, because they provide a platform for new and emerging writers to be read and noticed, which enables them to hone their skills and build a career – and, sometimes, to be spotted and signed by publishers.
This means the aesthetics of the editors and journals who support local writers with publication early in their careers almost subconsciously start to influence what an ‘Australian’ aesthetic is – they become part of the Australian aesthetic. Sleepers, for instance, were instrumental in supporting writers like Karen Hitchcock, Kalinda Ashton, Patrick Cullen, Jon Bauer and Daniel Ducrou – all of whom have moved on to release novels or collections. That’s the thing – most writers don’t start off with a full-length book; they find their way and are noticed through shorter publications first.
I’m not, of course, saying that journal editors are the tastemakers of Australian publishing. But they do play a role.
Black Inc is one local publisher that seems to draw on its magazine and anthology arm – The Monthly and the Best Australian Stories/Essays – to great effect, and vice versa. There’s definitely an Australian aesthetic developing there: Black Inc. senior editor Chris Feik has commissioned a series of memoirs by talented writers who aren’t famous, but have terrific stories to tell and wonderfully distinctive voices. Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem, Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons, Craig Sherborne’s Hoi Polloi and Muck, Benjamin Law’s The Family Law. Arguably, Anna Krien’s book of reportage on the Tasmanian forest wars, Into the Woods, also fits into that series-of-sorts. That’s just one example – I see a similar curatorial thread running through Aviva Tuffield’s fiction list at Scribe (which includes some terrific domestic literary fiction with an edge as a consistent recurring theme within a varied list) or Sleepers’ fledgling fiction list, which consistently takes risks, from their first full-length book, Steven Amsterdam’s interlinked short-story collection set in an apocalyptic future, Things We Didn’t See Coming, to David Musgrave’s Glissando, an absurdist satire with a bush setting. I could go on.
To get back to your question, I think there are several attempts to cultivate distinctive Australian voices and capture unique Australian experiences in print, all happening separately and simultaneously, with plenty of crossover – by passionate local journals and publishers. The ‘Australian voice’ is incredibly varied, and that’s a good thing. Despite all the doom and gloom, and the very real and daunting challenges, I think the Australian book industry is a really exciting place to be right now.
I have a fondness for the stories that sneak up on you long after you and the story have parted, that seize you when you least expect it. I feel when reading about Sleepers – your beginnings, your accomplishments, the quality of the short stories, your plans for the future – that, you and Zoe are emulating the work you’ve produced, and are sneaking up on the Australian publishing industry. And even with your novels, as varied and unestablished as the authors are, you’re representing the current Australian writers and readers; by producing what is good over what we’re told is in vogue. I know it’s early to say, but in light of past movements in writing, those that have contributed to the evolution of the novel, short story, and publishing in general, do you believe you’re contributing a space for a new type of Australian novel? A renaissance for the short story? And all the while, in keeping a balance between paper and digital media, a new wave of Australian publishing?
I don’t want to be one of those people who answers “that’s a difficult question” but that is a difficult question to answer when you think self-importance is a big evil. I think we’re contributing something useful and I think we are some of the people helping to make broader the acceptance for different literature in general, be they novels or not, be they Australian or not. There are many good people working in this field right now, and especially here in Melbourne, in Australia; being around it all is part of the thrill.
Short stories have been around for a while, of course, and there are always a few people worried about them but whether this is a renaissance or whether it’s just what is happening right now, I’m not sure. We are called Sleepers, and that is not insignificant – we do want our work to be affecting, if gradually. We do really believe in the books we put out. I think I thought when we first started eight years ago that eventually it would become easier to publish books that we cared less for, and in fact the opposite has become the case for me – I feel, more than ever, that I could not publish, promote and stand by books I don’t love. I guess it’s because now I have a real sense of what goes into them. After eight years with Sleepers, life has stopped being about parties and drinking and it’s become more about getting home after that late meeting to spend the evening sitting at my laptop. There is little romance in this line of business but there is romance in the work itself. I adore the work I publish. I think it’s hard to find a space to express unironically how you feel when you feel the way I do about these books, but I am honoured, on a weekly basis, to be able to read and publish the books we publish. If you think that stories and books can change people’s lives, then books are important to you, and I do believe in our books – I believe they have longevity. There’s also this thing that I read way, way more books that I never end up publishing, for many different reasons. So many of the books I’ve read and haven’t gone on to publish, for whatever reason, have stayed with me – so I am in this fortunate position of having people’s stories in my head all the time.
We read books from anyone, not just through agents, and, because I am a writer too, these are my peers, so sometimes I am in a room and I have rejected books by half the people in the room. This is a curious position to be in, because often these people are my friends. I think what that does for my work as a publisher is that it makes me care more for each book that comes into my Inbox, makes me take real care with each book. I find it terribly hard to reject books – it doesn’t seem to be something that gets easier – even though I have to do it every day. Mainly because many of the books I read are of a very high standard, often better than other published books, and I feel as though if that manuscript could find an editor or publisher who loved it like I love the books I’ve published, it could go well. I have turned down books that are less flawed than books I have gone on to publish, because sometimes you just love something. How can you describe the best love?
What this reading does to my work as a writer is that it can silence me. There is often too much noise. But I am here for the long haul and there is no getting away from the fact that words and books take up so much of my brain, and I can’t imagine it being different in the future. I would like to think that I am helping to contribute to the greater good of books in all the work I do, including the reviewing.
At Sleepers, we are trying to keep a balance between paper and digital media, and I am a big fan of both. There is so much fear out there right now in our microcosm and sometimes it can all get a bit underwhelming how small people’s thinking can be. Aside from anything else, any student of even the most basic history knows that to ignore electronic publishing formats right now would be foolish, but I am really embracing what this will also mean for the paper book and the new ways publishers are forced to think about how they publish and promote their books. I think those who benefitted from the long-lunch, big-advance, only-reading-work-from-agents publisher models are fewer and further between, and that new models need to reflect new readers and new authors. I do believe in fairness and in remaining balanced and sensible, but I do think it is a pretty exciting time to be reading, writing, publishing and selling books right now.
I must admit the idea of digital media had me apprehensive for a while. As a writer it doesn’t bother me, but as a reader… (I don’t enjoy reading more than a few pages of text from a screen, and I know I began buying Sleepers books for their look and feel as much as the content.) This said, I agree we’re definitely in a shift. I know I love being able to flick up a good short fiction piece while working online, but at the same time I love curling up on the couch with a journal. So for the most part I’m torn. I expect, at Sleepers, you’re feeling the pressure to abandon one for the other more than most. The fact you haven’t is commendable, but having lost one prominent journal recently to the digital world, I know the concern out there is that other journals will follow suit. Do you think, for publishers, the question really has become one of progressiveness or diplomacy? Or is this something exclusive to boutique publishers – where there is a smaller, more literary, audience?
In a sense it’s easier for those of us publishing books, like the Almanac, that don’t really make money, to stick with older methods of publication, i.e. paper books; though it’s a simplistic argument, the reality is that if you aren’t used to making any money from the product, then losing a bit of money or losing a bit more – well, there’s not as much in it as there is in a product that could make big money in one format and lose it in another.
You mention in your first answer that the reading you do for Sleepers can silence you as a writer, and I really loved how you’re at peace with the fact this relationship between your life and books is multifarious, especially when I look at the body of work Sleepers has produced. I agree it’s worth the inevitable noise. But your name is one I’ve stumbled across in Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings etc., so somewhere, somehow, you’ve still managed to produce some sophisticated stories. I’m curious; do you, at certain points throughout the year, take time away from the publishing to write for yourself? Or is it a matter of overcoming the noise and finding the eye within the storm?
It’s a bit of both but I’m a bit of a late bloomer, by nature – I’m slowly getting there. The reality is that if I did nothing but write right now it would… well, it would be of a higher quality than it would have been ten years ago, but it wouldn’t be my best, not yet – a lot of it would be terribly cringeworthy, not worthy of your fine attention. The rest of the things I do in life are good for my writing, for sure. It always sounds like a cop out when someone says they are ‘always writing’ but there’s some truth in that, isn’t there. I’m not always writing but I am always a writer, I guess, somewhere, in the way I think and see.
One of the more exciting things I’ve read about you (Sleepers and your own writing aside) is your involvement in the bid for an Australian ‘Orange Prize’. Considering the amount of years the gender imbalance on shortlists of other Australian awards has been apparent, there are many who’d say it’s been a long time coming. Why do you think it has taken so long for someone (or a group of someones) to step forward and demand this? Was this cautiousness to address our own worth a contributing factor in the imbalance in publishing across the board? Or do you think we were, in good faith, waiting for the writing to be acknowledged on an equal playing field?
I don’t know. I think there is the sense that it would be great if we could find some other way of fixing this issue than to set up another bloody award, so I think there’s probably been the hope that it would resolve itself. I also think that the people who feel and think the problem greatest are people who have so many things to do outside of their main job/s already that it was just a matter of it being that midnight thought that, by the time the morning came around again, they had more immediate concerns and work and committees they were already devoting themselves to. Plus, it’s a generalisation sure, but I don’t think we like to be whingers. I think we wish so badly it weren’t the case that we’ve been hoping it isn’t for that long, and almost believed it.
I’ve long admired the work/life balance you and many other women in the industry manage to maintain. I’m a mother myself and know the obstacles I have to overcome in order to be a part of the writing and publishing world. Do you think being at the forefront helps? Or do you find the further you immerse yourself, the harder it gets?
I think balancing life – domestic, creative, paid work, volunteer work – is a tricky one and while I appreciate you including me in that, I’m not sure I do achieve it. It is a daily task, to try to balance it all out. Anyone who has multiple passions is always going to be hard pressed meeting their needs, and it’s tough when you sign up for a lot in life, to meet all of life’s demands on you – but I can’t really see any other way. For me, the only alternative would be to have a proper paid job and just work the regular 40 hours a week but then, what would I do with the rest of the time and my brain? I’d probably just start a publishing company again. We’re our own worst enemies.
When you talk about your passion and ‘big love’ for writing and all that you do, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm and want to be involved. There are a lot of new and emerging writers and editors who I’m sure feel the same way. This does lead me to ask, who, in your life, have you found inspirational and/or influential? And if there was a particular person, how did they help you reach where you are now?
Even though teachers are often the people I knock heads with, I actually think it is a vastly under-appreciated profession – in my next life I’ll be involved in education policy. There are some truly amazing teachers, and some of the biggest influences on my life have been teachers – when I was a kid in the UK, Sue McDermott and Max Markiewicz, and here in Oz, Maureen McFadzean. I have the cliché of particular family members who have been huge influences on me, too, chiefly my nan who used to fume over typos in the Guardian, and my mum – restaurant quality food, a shipshape house, worked while studying, and brought up four kids. I have a bunch of friends who are juggling artistic careers with paid employment and domestic life, and I find them to be hugely inspiring now when it seems easy to lose sight of the things we deemed important at eighteen. You may think this mad but some of the greatest influences have been characters: Jo March, the Salingers, Antoine Roquentin, Denise Lambert, Edith Campbell Berry, Stephen Dedalus – as well as their writers. I’ve had tonnes of good influences, and I’m impressionable. Katherine Graham, Anne Frank, Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Saunders, Victoria Wood, Hugh Laurie, Amy Witting, Morrissey, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Michael Stipe, my sister, Miranda Hart, Annie Lennox. I do surround myself with a lot of people who inspire me and their influence rubs off – passion and energy I find very attractive. Everybody has self-doubt but I guess what I get from these people is that sense that if you rise above the self-doubt, or at least learn to ignore it, then you can produce good things. Also the need to be useful, to be of use, to create things that are worthwhile, to not waste my time here. These are some of the things they teach me.
I recently read your story A Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry (winner of the ABR Short Story Prize), which takes the form of a monologue. The story is ironic, funny, and absurd, but it’s also quite mysterious and beautiful. The action of the story is pure invention, fantasy. The story is very cerebral, concerned with language. Does the fact you wrote a monologue have something to do with that? Do you think there is a different potential for a story that is a monologue, to say, a story told through dialogue, or by a third-person narrator? For something like A Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry, how does the form you choose for your story influence what you are saying (or vice versa)?
I was thrilled to win that prize, especially for a story that was such great fun to write! I guess I chose first-person narration to reflect the self-absorption of the poet narrating the story. The poet/narrator is particularly obtuse when engaged in dialogue; he’s outrageously inept at understanding what others say and do. That, of course, provides the irony and comedy of the piece. So, to answer your question, conveying a sense of a monologue was important in contributing to character development and the ironic nature of the story. However, the story—as you generously suggest—isn’t meant to be just funny. The character isn’t meant to be just a comic figure. I have a tragic amount of faith in that poet’s quest!
I suppose a certain amount of ‘tragic’ faith is necessary for all writers. I’m curious about this because as well as being a writer of prose and poetry, you are a teacher of literature and creative writing, and the author of a book of criticism. I’m wondering how these different occupations interact, if at all. Elif Batuman, an American writer and teacher, wrote an article not long ago, entitled, ‘Get a real degree‘, criticising creative writing programs, in which she says, ‘When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education’. Is there a tension for you between being a writer of fiction and someone involved in the formal study of literature and creative writing? And, if so, how does it resolve itself?
I often get asked about the ways in which critical and creative writing work together, and my answer is always that they work together very nicely. Both involve thinking intensely about a subject until the brain begins to produce insights–what it thinks are at any rate! In both forms of writing, one meets the challenge of the blank page, searching for something meaningful to say, encountering frustrations and revelations. Thinking critically is necessary to the integrity of creative writing; thinking creatively is necessary to the originality of critical writing.
In terms of teaching creative writing, I’m not familiar with Batuman’s paper, but I’m familiar with her argument, which has been quite well-rehearsed. In response to Batuman, I guess I would say that, for me, creative writing programs aren’t necessarily about ‘elite’ goals such as producing ‘great’ literature. They are about enabling students to understand that, through language, they have the power to creatively rethink things, including how they see themselves and their world. I would use the example of an exercise I do in my poetry class of asking students to imitate Charles Simic’s dinggedichte or ‘thing poems’. I find that students experience a real thrill in revising their relationship to the familiar and conventional, a thrill that I would argue comes from a renewed sense of agency. The world isn’t a given; the subject isn’t powerless to negotiate meaning and value. Having said that—and taking me back to my earlier point about the compatibility between creative and critical writing—a truly creative rethinking can only occur if one is enabled to think critically about the status quo first.
Perhaps underlying Batuman’s argument is the idea that creative writers are born and not made, but it’s not one to which I subscribe. Given that we’re not born with language—although I won’t dispute the idea that we’re born with a brain geared to learn language—I’m not convinced that we can be born as creative geniuses. What I believe is that intense reading—and thinking—can provoke a new relationship with language and the world that enables creativity in its most interesting and valued forms. For this reason, I’m always telling my writing students to take on literature subjects, and I find that the best students—in writing and in literature—do both. After all, reading and writing, as many writers have suggested, are not altogether separable. When I’m writing I’m making visible my thoughts in a way that enables me to read them and think about them more, thus producing more writing—and, in turn, reading. In addition, becoming a good reader of other writing means that you’ll have a chance of becoming a good reader of your own writing—enabled to recognise, hopefully, what works and what doesn’t.
As you can see by my longwinded response, this is a question that comes up a lot, and it’s one that I’m very happy to answer!
Your answer reminds me of something Guy Davenport (a great writer who, by all accounts, was also a great teacher) once said about teaching English and writing fiction: ‘You get up in the morning and you’ve got Keats’ ‘Odes’ to take some sophomores through, and you’ve got a chapter of Ulysses for your graduate students, and the mind gets in the habit of finding cross-references among subjects.’ And, at this point, I can’t help quoting Borges who said, I think, that some people were proud of the books they had written, but that he was proud of the books he had read. There are many other great writers, such as Penelope Fitzgerald, who have spent at least as much time teaching as writing. So, in this context of drawing inspiration from the things you have read and taught, and if reading is inseparable from writing, I want to ask, what books you are especially proud of having read? Who are the authors you love to teach, and why?
Borges is, as usual, absolutely right. I’m passionately attached to certain books that others have written, whereas I want to put behind me the things I have done! A writer is always indebted to other writers. I love the poetry and prose of Borges for its thrilling embodiment of ideas in aesthetic landscapes; for its cool irony and lavish sensationalism. His writing reminds me that it’s exciting to be alive in a world that we don’t understand but that offers experiences of such intellectual and emotional intensity. Coetzee’s work is extraordinary; he exposes his readers, but at the same time he reveals his own vulnerability. His writing evokes the suffering that unavoidably comes with living and, indeed, the limitations of Borges’ kind of literary narcissism. The world and our literary interventions in it aren’t just a game. I wrote an honours thesis on Coetzee and part of a PhD thesis on Borges, motivated by a desire to become more intimate with their work.
While I have taught the literature of Coetzee and Borges, my favourite subject to teach is poetry, and I love introducing students, in particular, to the defamiliarising poetry of Simic and of the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. Cortázar has a sequence of ‘instruction’ poems (‘Instructions for climbing a staircase’ and ‘Instructions for winding a watch’) that are just wonderful in re-engaging students with the world, which is what poetry, in its extraordinary attentiveness to things, can achieve.
If, as teacher, you privilege poetry, where do you stand as writer? I’ve asked you a little about your short story writing, but perhaps you see yourself as more of a poet? And, getting back to your earlier comments about the symbiotic relationship between critical and creative writing and thinking, how much attention do you pay to categories like: novel and short story; fiction and non-fiction; and even prose and poetry?
That’s a surprisingly difficult question. I guess I must pay some attention to different categories in writing, because at times I write a poem; at other times a short story. Having said that, I’ve recently been writing a lot of prose poetry. Can I say that the decision about whether to write a poem or a short story is related to something as banal as space and time? This has three components for me. There’s the space and time necessary to exploring a particular subject; there’s the fact that dealing with distances in space and time is more suitable to fiction; and then there’s the ways in which my own personal space and time impact on whether I can write a poem or a short story! Having said that, if you’re committed to poetry, you can always write prolonged verse—even a verse novel. I guess I’m not particular committed to lineation. In any case, prose and poetry are, for me, both inspired by the same desire to think more deeply about a particular subject of interest or mystery; to see where thought and writing might lead me.
It’s convenient that you raise the matter of time, because I want to ask about both your past and your future as a writer, not as an occupation but as an identity chosen for yourself. How did you come to writing? What might you write in the future and where might readers look for it? George Steiner published a book not too long ago called, My Unwritten Books, describing the seven books he has not and will not write, because he is not capable or because the subject is too painful or too threatening, etc. Perhaps this is not the right question for a writer early in their career, but, do you have any unwritten books?
I’ve always been a reader and a writer, but I only started to publish when I was in my 30s. I already have lots of unwritten books, but that’s mostly to do with time. Borges once wished that an author might be judged simply on the strength of his ideas; I like that fantasy! I do have plans, however, to bring certain writing projects to fruition in the near future: another book of poems and a collection of short stories. I’m also working, intermittently, on a crypto-autobiographical cultural history of Finland, which is called Swampland. (To explain, I’m a first generation Finnish-Australian.) In terms of writing that is painful and threatening, it’s not something that I tend to avoid. In fact, an intense and troubling experience in writing provides me with the sense that the writing has some integrity; that I’ve unsettled something I hadn’t thought enough about before; that I’ve achieved a new way of thinking about a subject. And if the writing evokes a strong response in me, I figure that it might also affect a reader. I think I’m probably evading your question about painful and threatening subjects, but that’s only appropriate!
George Dunford wrote about Second Novel Syndrome in an essay called ‘Repeat Offenders’ (Meanjin) and considered a number of writers who’d fallen at that hurdle. He also wrote about your work and held you up as an example of someone who’d avoided such difficulties through momentum. In one quote, you did, however, admit that you still have trouble calling yourself a novelist. Has that changed now that your second novel Bereft has been so well received by both critics and readers across the country?
It really depends on the day, to be honest. Sometimes I feel quite confident in my abilities as a writer, but there are other occasions when I am crippled by a lack of confidence about the whole thing. I fear I will run dry of ideas or words or characters. Perhaps my abilities are finite? It does help, however – in whatever slightly pathetic way that I still crave endorsement from others – to have been the author of a few things now that have been so well received by critics and the public alike. So yeah, I guess I can call myself a novelist now.
Bereft was recently shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. In light of great successes, it’s always interesting to consider the fears (such as you mentioned) that worm their way into the writing process, and reassuring to know that even our most prominent writers are sometimes at odds with themselves. Did you face any particular obstacles in writing Bereft, and how did the experience compare to The Low Road? Have you found any reliable methods for coming through a creative rut?
You get your first novel for free, in that no one knows who you are and you have no expectations of what happens with a published work (at least no one knew who I was and I had very low expectations about those things like success and so forth). The Low Road was not such a success (in that public sense of sales and prizes etc) that it paralysed me when coming to write Bereft, but nor was it such a ‘failure’ that it discouraged me completely from trying again.
The main obstacles in writing Bereft were those of finding time amid life in general, to be honest: of having a new child in the house and washing nappies; working to make a living; of being married and so on. Much of Bereft was written between 4AM and 6AM which, for a while, was the most reliable period of peace in the house.
Of course no novel is easy to write and nor should it be. In some ways, the hardest thing for me in writing a novel – or perhaps any fiction – is in getting the ‘voice’ just right. Zadie Smith talks about working on the opening few chapters of her novels for months, only to find the rest slots into place once she’s found the tone for the work, and I tend to find that true of my own process. Perseverance is always the key, I think. That willingness to stare at a blank page until something happens. A willingness to write junk in the knowledge that nothing is completely wasted. For me the best thing about writing my second novel is knowing that I had done it before so I can probably – maybe – do it again. The suspicion I had when writing The Low Road was that perhaps I was not really cut out to be a writer at all and didn’t really have it in me. That eases slightly next time around but I suspect it’s not a bad thing to possess always that grain of self-doubt, that fear of being found out to be fraudulent. It drives you on.
The epigraphs at the beginning of your novels (Heraclitus, T.S. Eliot, Rilke) not only provide a kind of frame for the reader, but also give us a sense of you as a reader. I’m wondering: how systematic are your reading choices – are you someone who reads an author’s entire oeuvre before moving on, are you guided by literary movements, or are you more scattergun in your selection? As an Australian writer, working as part of a rich but perhaps over-shadowed literary culture, what do you make of the looming Western Canon?
For the most part I tend to be pretty scattergun in my reading but do like to follow an author on whom I might develop a crush. I thought Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was great and very much like the sound of her earlier novel The Keep, for instance. I’ve also had crushes on Marguerite Duras, Jack Kerouac, Michael Ondaatje, Donna Tartt (easy because she’s only written two novels) and Paul Auster in the past, but tend not to gobble up an entire author’s work so much these days, but let the novels I have enjoyed stand on their own.
Having said that, I’m considering a sort of coming-of-age story for my next novel, so have become interested in novels that have a similar vague narrative arc, like Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby. As much as I’d love to keep up with everything that’s being published, I am dogged by that feeling of needing to read those books you’re supposed to have read from the canon, like Remembrance of Things Past and War and Peace and so on – all those long books. But let’s face it – 90% of everything is shit, and those classics possess qualities that have kept them in print for so long.
The canon, however, tends to have that contradictory effect of being both inspirational (‘Oh, look what can be done!’) and defeating (‘Why bother at all when someone else did it so well?’) but it’s just such a great source for a writer. Nothing comes out of thin air and I tend to think that good books are in conversation with all the other books the author and the reader have read; in this way a good book can be a library unto itself.
I had a similar infatuation with the work of Marguerite Duras not too long ago, and recently with the novella 03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat (one of the best, most angsty, and strangest ‘coming of age’ works I’ve read). And there are many works that seem to have entwined themselves in my life so completely that I have to revisit certain passages on a regular basis. Virginia Woolf is someone whose work interests me in this way. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an early entry on my list, as is Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, a work I still consider close to perfection. I usually know I’m onto something when it feels strange, when I can’t immediately say whether I like it or not because I’m a bit in awe of the shifting boundaries – that incredible sensation of gaining some particularly rare, alarming or subtle insight – or an entirely new perspective – and you stretch to it and find you suddenly own it, as though that dimension had been there all along. Beyond those literary crushes you talked about, who are some of your long-standing mentors – are there books you return to regularly over time?
Yes, I think the thing of shifting boundaries is probably true – those books that you spend the first 50 pages kind of thinking What the hell is this? before getting into it or not. I used to read Duras’ The Lover every year or so, until I recently discovered the copy I’d had for 20 years or so had vanished somewhere moving house or on loan or just lost. I guess I could just buy another, but that copy was talismanic for me somehow (bought in the UK, pages warped from spilt beer etc). Just such a great, slim and poetic novel. Twenty years after first reading it, I can still quote (more or less) the opening lines – a rare feat for someone like me with such a shitty memory. Gatsby is another I like to read regularly because, again, it’s so slim but dense with great stuff, and those closing lines are worth getting to all over again. I’ve never made it through The Gormenghast Trilogy from start to finish (has anyone?), but I pick it up now and then to to get a taste of its particular brand of byzantine madness.
I actually re-read poetry quite a bit – Eliot is always great, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson. I think part of the urge to revisit things is that query of how someone really brilliant did something – an attempt to lift an element of their style or rhythm or cadence.
What inspired you to embark on a coming-of-age story for your next novel? How far into the process are you?
God knows what inspired this latest idea. I’m never really sure where ideas come from (and if I knew I would certainly go there more often). I wanted to set something in (relatively) contemporary Melbourne and thought perhaps it was time for me to do my thinly veiled autobiographical novel – you know the one you’re meant to do first time around? Except mine will have goblins. There’s a lot of scope within that basic framework to do something pretty interesting. I also like the idea of writing a novel with a larger cast of characters than I’ve previously attempted (The Low Road only really had three main characters, same with Bereft).
I haven’t made it very far into the new one, yet. This year has been rather distracting because the reception of Bereft has meant a bit of travelling to festivals and so on – not that I begrudge the fact that Bereft seems to be popular! I’m still at the stage of making notes on characters and setting and although I’ve written a few thousand words, I’m yet to really get into it properly. I’m still at the fun part – when it all seems easy and possible.
Finally, how do you feel about the public aspect of being an established author? Do you enjoy participating in writers festivals and interviews?
To be honest, I used to be absolutely terrified of doing things in public; my first few festivals with The Low Road in 2007 were agony – for me and the audience, I expect. And although being on stage is not exactly my preferred habitat, I don’t mind it so much these days. I still struggle with feeling slightly fraudulent (see question two) and wondering What the hell are these people doing here listening to me and what can I possibly say that might be interesting and/or informative? By and large I enjoy festivals and interviews and accept it as being part and parcel of being an author these days. It’s fun to sit about shooting the breeze about books and so on, isn’t it?
There used to be just one or two record stores you could go to find the good shit. This was before the Internet made everything instantly and eternally available. Guys like us got onto trains and walked the alleys of the city to find those good record stores and sometimes stood for hours, wearing dodgy headphones, listening to bands almost no-one had heard of outside of a mention in a music magazine that practically no-one had read. Music had already become an art form measured in millions and these obscure bands were looking for ways to make music that reminded a listener that it was, in fact, an art. Not an infinitely reproducible product marketed wholesale. From this independent scene rose bands like Nirvana, REM, The Smashing Pumpkins etc.
At which point we began looking again among obscure stacks and trawling through mags only a few hundred people in the world would ever read. Not because of a perversity that denied music when it became popular, but because there’s still the kind of music that reminds us that it can be something more than a catchy jingle between commercial breaks on the radio or an emotional cue in a film.
There’s an idea that you have to seek out the stuff that really makes you realise what music is. This is the spirit of independent art and it applies as much to independent publishing as it does to music. Perhaps you could share your thoughts on the subject and why you’ve been involved with organisations like SPUNC and continue to be a prime mover in small press promotion and publishing.
I couldn’t have put it better myself, Alec. We used to roam the streets, searching racks for something, anything to take us away from everyday domesticity and suburban streets near comatose at night. In Perth, there were two stores, Dada Records and 78 Records. Both would delight in stocking things that surprised you, excited you, and stretched your musical boundaries.
These days I still seek music, and when I find something truly special, I’m high for days. It’s as if I am connected to pure creative energy, something bigger than the crass commercialism that so often permeates contemporary society. Recent favourites are Josh Pyke’s Chimneys Afire and Eluvium’s 2007 album Copia; I lie down, close my eyes, and it feels like I’m listening to the world waking up.
Independent publishing, at its best, harnesses that spirit, and Black Inc.’s recent Best Australian Stories ten-year collection shows just how far we have come in that regard. Among the more traditional stories (some established authors are pretty much guaranteed their place in a collection such as this) are some of the most exciting stories I have read in years…and all of them started off in independent presses run by passionate, brilliant people. That’s something I never would have predicted even five years ago.
Working in independent publishing means I’m closer to the coalface. Having now worked on two literary journals, it’s been really exciting to see the talent emerge. Some authors (like Ryan O’Neill, Leah Swann and indeed yourself) have already gone on to greater success. Others, such as Bel Woods and Samantha Van Zweden are well on the way. Every time I work on a journal, I find new authors, new stories, and the rush is indescribable. Not all submitted stories are at a publishable level, but that’s part of the job. You get to choose the best, and sometimes you can work with the writer to make their story even better.
We can glorify that independent spirit but there seems to be difficulty in sustaining it for any length of time. Perhaps the problem is independent memory, which seems distressingly short term. There are writers like Molly Guy, Wayne Macauley and Gillian Mears that achieve a fair degree of success on the independent scene only to be almost entirely forgotten a few years later. That Best Australian Stories ten-year anthology for instance, is not selling anywhere near as well as the yearly anthology. Rather than reverence for this country’s Best of the Best collection, it’s more of a yesterday’s newspaper reaction. You’ve made it a personal mission on your blog to develop some long term memory but I’m wondering whether you can see a time when that independent spirit becomes widespread and we see the a literary equivalent to Grunge?
I think the possibility of such a culture is closer than we think. The biggest challenge, I feel, is to publish what’s great, as opposed to what’s important. Australian literature has produced some great writers but often the ones most heavily promoted are those that sell, rather than those that excel. Wayne Macauley is an excellent example. To my mind, Macauley is criminally underrated in Australia. He deserves to be featured on podcasts, his thoughts on writing dissected and passed down to the next generation. What happens instead is this strange indifference; it’s almost as if publishers are saying “but how do we sell this?” when sometimes the selling comes after a long period of promotion at the ground level.
The four largest publishing houses in Australia are based overseas, so have no interest in creating a literary culture. In Melbourne, we have a city of literature; other cities and regional centres are not so vibrant. Why is this so? It’s my personal opinion that at some point, the commercial side of publishing and the literary aspirations of Australia’s intellectual society dampened what really sells books, ideas, and indeed authors: compelling, engaging and entertaining stories, be they traditional narratives or those authors keen to experiment with the form.
The distinction here is vital; it’s all very well to celebrate that independent spirit in publishing, but it’s far more important to create a culture that promotes that independent spirit in its reading, buying and leisurely pursuits.
A varied literary culture is a vibrant one, and while devotion to literature is one thing, it’s an entirely different thing to be devoted to all aspects of a literary culture. This means performances, large-scale events like Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival, literary discussion, and most importantly, accessible, inclusive events (both virtual and real) that bridge the space between the writer and the reader.
A few states have already created some form of literary grunge movement, although they are by no means perfect. I’ve noted a divide between prose, poetry, and journalism, which, although natural, means good writing is harder to find once classified into its own particular subject, genre, or type of bookstore.
More dangerous than any funding cuts or government policies are public preconceptions that literature is somehow dull, indulgent, and irrelevant. In the US, there’s a far more reverent approach to writing; shows such as Def Jam Poetry challenge such stereotypical views, while the New Yorker and Selected Shorts podcasts mix prose and performance, creating a dynamite hybrid in the process.
Australian websites such as Literary Minded, Spineless Wonders, and Verity La do great things for this country’s literary culture. They create a virtual space that remembers and indeed reveres those writers taking risks with form and structure. They remind writers and readers that stories, first and foremost, should be an adventure. Somewhere between Peter Carey’s American Dreams and Ryan O’Neill, Australian literature lost its sense of humour. It started telling the same stories over and over again. In doing so, it lost a great deal of its relevance to an international readership.
I’d love to create a literary country, in the physical sense as well as the spiritual. Places that once inspired stories or poems could have quotes etched into their brickwork. Governments could buy ad space and post seven beautiful quotes about Australia, taking in both the past and its multicultural, increasingly gender inclusive present, seeing both the good and the bad and addressing what, as Australians, we would like to become.
It starts with an idea, that literature is worth fighting for and the belief that it’s possible to change our society. From there it grows, and people who’d previously felt segregated can form their own community, regardless of background or geography.
I recently lectured at RMIT and I looked out across the twenty or so creative writing students who had one fundamental question: How? They are often told that they need to publish in literary journals, win competitions, stay true and keep writing quality work, and eventually the publishers will notice.
It brought to my mind however an interview I did with Wayne Macauley for Verity La, because I was struck by how outstanding he has been in fulfilling and excelling on all these recommended paths—for well over a decade now. His answer to the question of why he hasn’t achieved recognition and success was to suggest that publishers were well beyond seeing or caring about any of the literary journals or the competitions. And it seems that commitment of concentrated time and profound talent are also negligible factors.
The only answer to that question of How, is to suggest that first there needs to be an understanding that the machine is broken. Publishers behave, not as cultural agents looking to develop and promote the resource that is their reason for being, but small business managers, desperately searching for ways to eke out profits from a product they have lost faith in. So if the machine is broken, is there a need to find new methods for producing and distributing cultural work beyond that industrial age paradigm? I’m wondering whether you’d agree with this perspective and how you see Australian literature developing for those hopeful students, asking our generation, how?
That’s another excellent question but one that’s difficult to answer. I certainly do not think the Australian publishing industry, broken or otherwise, can make or break a literary career.
I do think there’s a great divide between journals that truly help a writer’s journey and those that are seen as important steps towards publication, at least according to the tastemakers. I think there’s a similar divide between competitions that boost your ego and those that are actually considered important in the Australian literary landscape.
The history of Australian literature is a strangely global one. Take someone like Nam Le: he’s our biggest literary export and yet it’s with some irony that we track his history. He won the Truman Capote Fellowship to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2004, and from then onwards, for much of the time was writing on US fellowships and being published in Zoetrope. His first published story in Australia wasn’t until 2007 in Overland, and he subsequently appeared in Best Australian Stories in that year. The Boat was published the year after that, and the Australian lit community suddenly said “here’s our man! What a fine example he is of our esteemed literary culture!”
Steve Toltz is another example. His novel A Fraction of the Whole was rejected by a bunch of Australian literary agents before finally getting an American editor, Random House’s Mike Mezzo to read it. And Penguin Australia picked that book up after it was published in the US.
That same book, the one rejected by countless Australian literary agents, won the people’s choice at the NSW Premier’s prize and was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize.
Closer to home, I know of at least three writers who have been published in the “right” journals but had no luck securing a book contract. I also know others who have known people that edit the “right” journals, and through their literary contacts have met with far more success.
In these cases, Australian publishing has seemingly let quality writers down, and in Nam Le’s case, illustrated the ability to circumvent narrow interpretations of Australian literature. That said, there are many other Australian publishers and agents who have an equally broad, multi-faceted view of good Australian writing. Sleepers Publishing supported Australian writers Paddy O’Reilly, Emmett Stinson, Patrick Cullen, and Jon Bauer long before it was fashionable to do so. Agent Donica Bettanin guided Kate Cole Adam’s excellent Walking to the Moon to publication, and Lyn Tranter of Australian Literary Management was vital in securing Karen Hitchcock’s book contract with Picador.
In my mind, there has never been a better time to be a writer. When it comes to the how, there are certain things that seem to stand out in any successful writer’s biography: 1) regular writing over a prolonged period of time and regular reading in a variety of styles of genres, and 2) an obsession with people; their dreams, their fears, their beliefs, and their realities.
For publication, I would advise writers to think both locally and globally. Sure, it’s great to be published in Meanjin, Southerly or Overland if your style fits their general editorial style. If it doesn’t, then sending your work to them is tantamount to self-sabotage, unless you enjoy getting rejection letters.
There’s a world of literary journals, newspapers and magazines out there; if I can get articles on YouTube, bingo nights, and introducing yourself to a roomful of strangers published, then someone, somewhere wants your article. If my friend can get a story about Woody Allen and Tommy Lee Jones saving New York from pterodactyls not only published, but also praised by Arnold Zable, then someone, somewhere wants your story.
The key here is good writing and quality research prior to submission, and that is the responsibility of the writer. It is not up to Overland to tell you they don’t publish right-wing diatribes on the benefits of neo-liberalism, nor is it up to Island to tell you they rarely, if ever publish science fiction.
When it comes to producing and distributing your work outside of traditional channels, I say go for it, but with a couple of caveats: If you plan to self-publish digitally, know that it’s a crowded market, and it’s also filled with books that are badly written and poorly edited, and those that disregard cumbersome elements such as plot, theme and character development. Make sure your book isn’t one of them. Know also that there are reader preconceptions citing most of what I’ve written above as true of ALL self-published books.
It is possible to generate a groundswell of support for your title despite these preconceptions, and Matthew Reilly’s Contest, Euan Mitchell’s Feral Tracks and the Four Ingredients Cookbook are all examples of self-published titles able to generate such solid support. This method often requires a serious amount of self-promotion however, so it’s inadvisable if you’re at all averse to spruiking yourself.
Finally (and I realise this is a ridiculously long answer), I agree with you that we need to think outside of the industrial age paradigm. At the 2011 Emerging Writers Festival, Max Barry said that as writers, we’re competing not with other books, but with every other type of media. More to the point, he said that to dispute this fact was to potentially lose the next generation of readers, who are not reading anywhere near as much as generation X, who did not grow up with so many competing media vying for their attention.
I also read an excellent essay by Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, that literary journals took a long time to appreciate the ideological shift encouraged by online publishing. As publishers, they were thinking how to take a print product online, when they should have focused on the transformative potential when working with code, images, animation and such.
Writers need to be similarly open to reaching audiences in new and exciting ways or risk alienating potential readers. One of my favourite iPad apps of 2011 is Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain, which takes a traditional short story into the multimedia age. By using your fingers, you can “play” the story. As an avid reader and gamer, such a combination of both forms was both intellectually engaging and a whole lot of fun to play.
I’m not yet at Loyer’s stage of multimedia literacy. I still like being published in books, magazines, and print journals… but I’m aware this is my cultural baggage. I know that to remain relevant in the future, I will have to be willing to mix print publication with online opportunities.
Recent music/multimedia projects such as Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown and Danger Mouse’s Rome hint at the potential of new media storytelling. The New Yorker Fiction and Selected Shorts podcasts bring quality writing onto our iPods, but in time they will be eclipsed by even more audacious ways of reaching a digitally literate demographic no longer devoted to print, as we are.
As a writer, I am greatly excited by the thought of a culturally literate, multi-platform readership. For me, it’s all about honest, articulate voices surfacing in a sea of corporate propaganda. And yet, I also believe there’s the potential for these voices, our voices, to be both engaging and financially viable, if we only foster a society that maintains our own individual truths in the face of a dominant ideology, that works within capitalism as opposed to being solely about the selling of a product, person, or ideal.
It rarely falls to me to break news but I just discovered from reliable sources that Wayne Macauley is about to be published by Text Publishing. Moreover, that Text is going make a major deal about this hero of the literary underworld. Is this the exception that proves the rule or, to return to our original analogy, that independent spirit finally breaking through into the mainstream?
Well first and foremost, it’s great news for Wayne: while Black Pepper have long supported him, the deal with Text means he’ll be distributed and promoted nationally, and perhaps internationally thanks to Text’s relationship with Canongate in the UK.
If nothing else, it should give writers hope. Most writers of any consequence have had alarmingly long gestation periods, or if they had books published early, took a long time to master their craft. Tim Winton won the Vogel in 1981 when he was 21 years old, but to my mind, The Turning is his best work and was written much, much later. Other writers such as Patrick Cullen and Amy Espeseth took a long time to perfect their first books so as to be suitably proud of their work at the time of publication.
I think now’s a particularly good time for the independent spirit but also think it’s unwise for writers to leave their careers up to mainstream publishers. While they’re showing a lot more interest in independent writers, they are still larger publishing houses, with their own deadlines and sales targets.
The irony is that when pressed on how to get published, most local publishers say it’s best just to write a really good book. Here, notions of profile are unhelpful; many would be published in all manner of smaller literary journals and not be noticed; some would only be published in the best Australian journals and perhaps be noticed after a long gestation period; and some would bypass the system altogether and find luck overseas.
More important is that real love of writing, be it fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. It’s a love of making something the best you can make it, as Cate Kennedy did with her story Black Ice and Nathan Curnow did with his Ulrick Award winning poem Endtime. Wayne MacAuley has excelled at his craft for a long time now. Any recognition of such dedication and craftsmanship has got to be a good thing for literary Australia.
There are books we buy and then hide afterwards. They become our secrets. Sometimes they’re so difficult to keep, we get rid of the evidence. We won’t admit to having read them even though we might be glad we did. Books that might have been instrumental in helping us better understand ourselves, to negotiate certain experiences or to help us make difficult decisions—and yet we’d be ashamed to have someone notice them on our bookshelves. You’ve written books such as these. How does it feel to be the writer of material readers prefer to keep hidden?
Yes, that was true of my first book, The Abortion Myth. I hadn’t realised that was what was going on until a young woman came to interview me for a student film. She said my book had changed her life and I was her hero. We did the whole interview and afterwards I asked her if she would like me to sign her copy and she looked shocked. ‘I didn’t buy it,’ she said. ‘I got it from the library. I couldn’t have it on my shelves.’
I think my objective as a writer – and of course this incident made me think about this – is to change people’s lives: to enrich them in some way, make them think about things that are important to them or decide what these things are, feel empowered. Clearly, The Abortion Myth has achieved this as it continues, so many years later, to go in and out of libraries. I wish I didn’t need to earn money as I’m far less interested in this, but sadly I do. So perhaps it’s true to say that knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t write another book like The Abortion Myth, despite being glad I was ignorant enough to have written it then.
Perhaps that’s what we’re trying to gauge when we pick up a book and read the blurb. When we weigh the various endorsements most books come with from other authors. Or when we simply look to the cover for clues to the change it’s hoping to provoke in us. The Abortion Myth isn’t somewhere we want to dwell and I suppose that’s why whatever changes it brings into our lives, when we’re done with it, we want to walk away without carrying the book along with us. There’s the opposite end of the spectrum where we very much want to bring the book along. I recently had a customer come into my bookstore holding your novel to her chest, saying she wanted to buy another copy for her friend. So it seems you’ve written a novel now that will create a change that readers will want to share. I was hoping you could talk about the process of writing The Book of Rachael. I was also wondering whether you’d agree that the books most potent in changing a readers life are the one’s that have changed the writer’s life.
I’m not sure if that’s true, but there’s something appealing about it. Certainly the experience of writing The Book of Rachael was totally other than those of penning my previous non-fiction works. The former were expressions of who I was and what I already understood and was now communicating to an audience. With Rachael I was for a long time wandering in the proverbial desert, working towards the skills to bring her from my head on to the page, and all the time struggling to maintain faith in myself, faith in the project. Keeping that faith became the core emotional challenge that some novelists say is offered by every project. I couldn’t depend on praise or accolades or even the occasional pat on the back from others because most people weren’t even aware I was writing the thing. To complete Rachael I had to believe in her and myself. I even bought a little flat stone with the word faith engraved on it – very fairy granola I know. But whenever whispered doubts and internal recriminations would begin- at certain periods during the process several times a day – I’d pick up the stone and squeeze it. Sometimes I’d even mutter the word ‘faith’ under my breath. I’ve always been a big believer in ‘fake it until you make it’, but this was the first time I tried to put those principles – of act as you believe right and the right feelings will follow – into action. And it really did work, though like most dramatic shifts of the heart, it has proved unstable, and occasionally even transient. So, I’m hanging on to that rock.
The rock of faith sounds appropriately biblical. Rachael is the sister of Jesus and wife of Judas Iscariot. Calling your novel The Book of Rachael (reminiscent of The Book of Job, The Book of Ruth, etc.) suggests you were not only writing an historical tale of loyalty and betrayal, feminism and religion, but were intent on contributing to the Bible itself. Did you feel there was a certain amount of hubris in doing that?
I must say that this view of the book’s title never occurred to me! As can be the way with such things, the title was arrived at after much discussion with my editor and the publishing house more generally. My working title for the book was Jesus’s Two Sisters, and Two Sisters remains the title of file on my computer file where the manuscript is stored. Through the course of the sales and editing process Joshua’s Sister, Rachael and Judging Judah were thrown around. The decision to settle on The Book of Rachael was about ensuring the title alluded to the biblical nature of the story, and that readers understood the book’s focus to be on the story’s women. My editor felt, and I agreed, that proffering a title in which men’s names were central ran counter to the feminist impulse behind the book.
I’ve always thought of the Bible as a loose collection of myths and history penned by many different authors. You might even think of it as one of the first literary anthologies—the theme of the first issue being God. Jesus is clearly a very different protagonist for the authors Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So I think your contribution to this story is brave, fascinating, and in fact, fitting.
The Word is all the more precious for a population for the most part illiterate. For those that knew their letters, there was perhaps little opportunity to access much in the way of reading material so I was wondering if Rachael’s illiteracy within that social framework is different to a woman being kept illiterate within the modern world? For a society in a perpetual state of warfare, keeping those that bring new life into the world, raising the community’s children in as much safety as could be afforded, was perhaps the primary, most important social function. Slavery and subjugation was normal within the Roman empire so the question of female freedom might also have a different context. I’m wondering how you negotiated some of these factors in The Book of Rachael.
I was struck the other day by a story on the radio about a little girl in Afghanistan who was climbing on to the roof of the school building in which her brother was getting an education to listen to the lessons and later, help him with his homework. As you know, I have written a similar scene in The Book of Rachael.
My guess is that this little girl suffers other oppressions too, ones shared by brother. These would be related to the feudal ways of allocating social and economic power, and perhaps the many failed and brutal attempts by foreign powers to impose its will on Afghanistan. That this is the case didn’t, I suspect, stop her from noticing or finding unjust the deprivations imposed solely because of her sex. Indeed, misogyny can often be most brutal among the most socially marginal men in colonized lands, with some men using their control over ‘their’ women as proof of a masculinity they feel undermined by their social, political or economic ‘humiliation’.
One theory is that so many women, especially in the Greco-Roman empire, followed Joshua of Nazareth was because he offered them something they lacked and desired. Namely – and much like slaves – some control over their social, political or economic lives. If this is true, it suggests the view I took in the novel that the search for such control is central to human nature, is correct.
We begin in fantasy. Daydreams are luscious zones of time that we dwell within for weeks, months and years. Somewhere within these spaces the idea emerges, of a life we might live. It takes a grip of our souls like fate cast down from angels—or it takes a grip on our minds like a mental illness. Curse or blessing, we have chosen to turn those daydreams of being writers into reality. Years go by and we make our way towards that glittering city of prophecy, where word and thought and beauty are held up as worthy principles of life. Those approaching this Shangri La now might feel they’ve arrived just as the city of those earliest fantasies is rapidly disintegrating. Bookstores are closing down everywhere we look and publishers are steadily losing profit—for years on end. Print media has become a swampland as the waters of electronic media and that vast e-ocean rises. I suppose that Shangri La never existed but I’m wondering how you imagined the literary life in those early daydreams Angela, and whether you’re happy with the world you’ve entered with the drafts of your first novel.
When I sit down to work on my fiction I try not to think about those things – about the industry, about what physical form the book might eventually, hopefully be read in, about what genre it might be perceived as falling into. And usually I’ll have a few hours where I can just be within the world I’m creating. I’m in it and I’m kind of manic. Tense and excited.
But before and after I write, when I’m doing other work, when I’m reading, when I should be listening, when I’m showering, when I’m trying to get to sleep, I do think about those things. I can’t help it. I can’t help it because I’ve always been a dreamer. I can’t help it, too, because I’m a very curious person. And I can’t help it because I’m faced with the questions around publishing and the book industry every day. I’m doing lots of reviews for all different publications, I’m publishing thoughts digitally to a large audience (predominantly as a reader and book enthusiast), and I’ve attended many writers’ festivals. I used to work at Bookseller+Publisher, where, of course, I learnt countless things about the (changing) industry. I’ve met a ton of publishers, editors, publicists, agents, booksellers; and many of my friends are published writers.
The question has always been: how can I create a life where I am continually able to do what fulfils and sustains me (even while it often drives me to the edge of something)? I’m a ‘driven’ person, I’m told. I’ve always found ways to write. It’s almost as though I have no choice. I find ways, and I believe I always will. Sometimes, admittedly, it’s exhausting being driven. Most of the time I’m astounded at the wonderfully rich life I lead, one where I am doing practically everything I’ve ever imagined (and I’m only 26). Another part of me is riddled with self-doubt, to be perfectly honest. I’m sure I will never be entirely satisfied with my own work. And I question whether my pursuits are meaningful, in a world fraught with injustices, paradoxes and incomprehensible tragedies. I become terribly anxious over my inadequacies, and the wool I’ve pulled over everyone’s eyes. People have such faith in me. It’s terrifying.
I once heard Kafka described in an interesting way: There’s a canary that miners used to take down into their mine shafts with them. If the bird died they would know that the air had gone bad. Kafka was the canary of the industrial revolution, the bureaucracy of urbanisation, etc, etc. But reading your response makes me think that many writers, even the ones that are not visibly tortured, are in the same way sitting in lovely cages, slowly suffocating or taking sips of poisonous air. Do you think there’s a degree to which the artists of our society suffer the sins of the culture?
Well there are different kinds of artists, and I think some of them do create art out of some kind of sensitivity to their surroundings, and as a way to discuss or figure out why they feel inadequate in those surroundings, or why some fundamental part of their self resists the social, cultural, political and more intimate surroundings (ie. workplaces, the domestic sphere, personal relationships). This is not all artists, but many of them (Kafka definitely) write out of this inadequacy, discomfort or friction. The difficult part is that someone who feels inadequate often also feels inadequate to write about inadequacy…
Inadequacy is such an interesting thing to explore in the consumer age, because making people feel inadequate is an underlying theme in our society’s functionality. It’s almost normative. I think that some artists nowadays may be resistant through an awareness of their own inadequacy and how it may have been constructed. In this way, they won’t be seduced into buying (too much) in order to falsely or ephemerally dismiss it. But it’s inescapable – consumerism, I mean. I’m fascinated by my own role in it. I notice things like the way I ‘collect experiences’, or the way I present myself as a commodity. Or justify certain purchases. I don’t think I’m overstating anything to say that some people would not think twice about the waste they produce, or why it might be unethical to buy a second plasma TV – but here we come back to sensitivity. Why does it bother some of us and not others? I think it would be very reductive to say that artists are the only ones with social consciences or that all artists have a social conscience, but I do think many of them have a need to express the things that they are sensitive to and that affect them. All artists, I think, must be curious about the way things work, and the way they work within that – whether that’s on a small or large scale.
But briefly, while we’re on Kafka, it’s always said he’s a product of his times, but I think Kafka’s struggle was much more personal. His struggle was with himself and ‘the tremendous world’ he had in his head. And then, ultimately it was a struggle with his family, relationships, work and the world in general because he was so sensitive to himself at all times and of his burning desire for literary freedom. He wanted to be alone and write, to ‘release what lies deeper’. In what little release he had, he created such meaningful and funny stories. I’m a big fan of Kafka. I remember when I interviewed Colm Toibin, he said that Kafka was someone people read and related to when they were young. Well, I guess I’m still young, but I think his work and his diaries and notes will continue to be relevant to my worldview.
A feeling of inadequacy is fairly universal among artists of any kind. A sportsman might feel he’s not quick enough to perform at the highest level but there are straightforward methods he can use to get quicker and there’s also clear results which confirm how well he can perform as an elite athlete. The ambiguity and subjectivity of art can be maddening in that respect. We never get to run a hundred meters in under ten seconds. I’m wondering if this is made worse when we get a lot attention before we’re really up and running. You moved into an intense blogging spotlight very early in your career and each stumble or fall would feel magnified to you. There’s an argument for needing a dark room, so to speak, to develop a writer’s thoughts in the chemical trays of Reflection, Patience and Time. Have you been able to find that kind of place within your creative world?
It’s funny how my blogging ‘career’ (or what Geordie Williamson scarily referred to as the career I’ve made of my career) appears almost tactical – building a loyal audience, gathering paid writing and presenting gigs through the online ‘showcase’ etc. But I had no idea LiteraryMinded would become what it’s become. It’s been four years now, since I started it back in Coffs Harbour, aching to make a connection… Now I can barely handle all the connections I have! But how wonderful, to write about my passion, and have people read about and respond to that. I’ve built many real relationships out of the blog. And I still love to do it. It’s changed a fair bit since the beginning, become a bit more ‘pro’, perhaps, but the essence of that original ache is there: ‘do you see what I see in this book? What else do you see? Let’s discover some amazing things together’, and so on. Of the things you’ve mentioned above, a lot of my Reflection happens publicly. Because how have I learnt how to write? By reading, and by analysing (enthusiastically) what I read, and often the culture that surrounds it.
As for Patience and Time – to explore the process of becoming a writer in the open is an interesting thing. I’m aware of the fact I may continue to fail publicly. I’ve gotten a bit better at sharing less (until this interview) and holding things close, because some things are better explored creatively.
I was thinking about time and patience today. What if this manuscript isn’t ‘the one’? You have to be so open to that, despite the fact you’ve poured, and will pour, years into it. I’ve only been writing seriously since I was about 18 (though writing stories since I was eight) so that’s only seven years. Before the current manuscript I’ve written two other novel manuscripts, plus 15,000 words of a YA novel (terrible) and a novella; probably 60-70 short stories; around four screenplays; a play; maybe 200 bad poems and three good ones. The latest thing I’m writing always feels different to the last and unless I’m in a bit of a slump it usually feels better, but then I’ll pick up one of the books I’m reading and realise I still have such a long way to go. Sometimes I feel despair over this, other times I just acknowledge it calmly and know I’m going to keep writing anyway, because it sustains me. But yes, like you said, all these years out in the open – awkward situations at writers festivals when I don’t know what to call myself. Not quite feeling ‘legit’. But you know what, I’ll never feel legit. I think that inadequacy we talked about will always be a kind of creative agitator for me. There are other things I can feel content about – like my love life, and lines in other people’s books, and songs by David Bowie.
Marilyn Monroe is another favourite cultural figure of yours. It’s amazing to think that at the height of her fame, after having generated as much universal adoration as an actress could dream of, she went on a desperate search for legitimacy, enrolling in prestigious New York acting schools and marrying the most respected writer in America. Similarly, many writers talk about never feeling like the real deal, and despite published novels still believe they’re not ‘legit’. To return to my first question, it seems to me that some writers are still searching for a Shangri La, where the work they’re creating is accepted within a larger context of cultural worth and contributes to social progression. Otherwise we’re producing cheap entertainment for time-poor commuters busy with what’s actually important in the world. How can a writer be legitimated within that context?
Marilyn wanted people to know and accept her as a complex being – curious, intelligent, funny, emotional. She had a couple of things against her – typecasting, and herself. I think many writers probably do think their best book or story is still ahead of them – it keeps them going. But I don’t think for all of them it is a search for legitimacy and many do, indeed, write for entertainment. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. Some find their style and are surprised to find it is action thrillers, but people like action thrillers. I was talking to an internationally published thriller writer once who told me when he started out he thought he’d be writing books like Tim Winton. But then that just didn’t come naturally for him. There’s room for all kinds of cultural items: ones that entertain, ones that move, and ones that perhaps inspire something bigger. My Shangri La (an impossible one, perhaps) is to write something that achieves all three, on some level, ie. a Season Five episode of The Simpsons. Seriously. But then, I think I’d like to write some that are more singular in their focus/achievements – something incredibly fun and entertaining, something wildly moving, and maybe some kind of generational thing. Who knows? Gonna go with the ideas… Something that’s purely for entertainment can still be enriching, don’t you think? It gives you a warm buzz, it puts you in a positive mood. That can only be a good thing. But I think it’s great if people consume books/films/TV/theatre/games/whatever curiously and openly – seeking different things at different times. Sometimes you want Beckett, sometimes Richard Yates, sometimes Harry Potter and sometimes Overland magazine. Not that I like everything. Transformers 2, yuck. Spiderman 2 though – great. I’m gonna stop now…
A novel is like a street bum. Every one of them has a long, swashbuckling tale about how things got to be that-a-way. Tell me how such a young, good looking thing like The Ottoman Motel ended up on the streets. Of course, the hobos of Shangri-La are happier than fat emperors anywhere else in the world, so the first thing I should have done is congratulate you.
Firstly, thank you. And an extra thank you for that excellently worded question. I am tempted to write the history of The Ottoman Motel as some Ripping Yarns-esque tale of early colonial adventure, such was the evocation of a naive young novel alighting a steam-ship, face scrubbed harshly with the last of its homeland soap, breathing in the spiced and curlicued air of some mysterious empire of the east. When in fact this novel, as with any other narrative with a past, is indeed a well-travelled and world-weary thing: a being that has shifted its shape (indeed, its elemental code) so many times as to not even remember what form it was born with.
The earliest version I can remember is a short scene I wrote a while ago (2000/2001?) about a young boy sitting with his parents in a food court, thinking about all the meals left in layers on the table. It was the kind of scene I’d started thinking would make a good story and then called the file something instantly forgettable and left it on my hard drive for a year untilI stumbled across it again. This was the birth of Simon, the main character. By then, I had been playing around with the idea of two children, one on holiday at the other’s house, becoming overly competitive with one another, driving each other on. The character of Audrey (the young girl who is the daughter of Ned, the man who takes Simon in after his parents disappear) developed from here. Ned, the father, and Gin, his son (Audrey’s brother) both emerged from two stories I had written, one called ‘Fingernail Moon’ and the other ‘Watch Over Me’ (the end of which was on my blog here), each about the strange relationship between a single father still coming to grips with what it meant to have and love a son.
All the other characters were new (which is not to say the others I had already imagined didn’t change), and the original story was, I think, far more ghostly—for want of a better word—than the version that I finished up with. Halfway through the first draft, I was watching Twin Peaks for the first time, which inevitably had an impact (although I had already written the character of Audrey before I knew there a character of that name in Twin Peaks). So I had a disappearance, a eerie guest house, a selection of mysterious characters and a really dodgy ending (which, if you track down those stories I’ve already mentioned, you may guess the end of). After I signed the contract with Text, my editor really got me to strip the story back to what was important. The early versions of the story had eight separate POVs, which was insanely ambitious on my part, and tended to diffuse the tension and interest I was trying to achieve.
There have been five major drafts of this novel, and I am very very happy with how its ended up. I have had to do far more work than I would ever had envisaged (It’s really not: ‘I’ve signed a contract, now where’s that royalty cheque?!’), but I really think it has paid off, and has given me a leaner, more elegant novel.
There’s a story I sometimes think about – Ginsberg went overseas when On The Road was published, so he wasn’t around to witness the furor Kerouac’s novel caused. The interesting part of the story for me was that while he’d seen his friend Jack use drugs before, and drink heavily, he’d never seen him totally wasted, and this was now happening every night. Kerouac never managed to find a way to deal with his success or the bad press. You’ve had some good reviews for The Ottoman Motel, but you’ve also had some negative ones. I’m interested in how you’re negotiating this part of a writer’s career but I’m also wondering if you have any insights into why the reception of a novel into the broader culture (which will always come with measures of acceptance and rejection), and should be the fruition of so many year’s of hope and work, can be so difficult to bear for writers like Kerouac.
That phrase ‘writers like Kerouac’ is really an interesting one. Kerouac, to me at least, is a writer whose behaviour and life almost eclipses what it was he wrote. While it’s not in dispute that he was immensely talented and a stylistic trailblazer, oft-times Kerouac the name becomes a signifier for something outside of what writing actually is, i.e. really hard, really boring work. There are those who aspire to the life of a Beat Writer, meaning buying a typewriter and smoking and starving yourself of anything approaching talent. Which is not to say I haven’t tried it myself, it’s just that in my experience the energy you expend trying to appear like a writer leaves very little left for actually stringing sentences together. If you’re at a stage where you’ve defined yourself so much by your art, then of course you’re going to self-destruct if someone punctures your sense of worth, which is stitched into your art like a second skin.
What that rant leads me to, I suppose, is the motto I have found my way to over the ten years or so I’ve considered myself a writer: BE REALISTIC. Now I’m nowhere near organised enough to have anything approaching a career plan, but I suppose my internal navigation system has developed enough to realise that if you’re trying to carve out a life and a career as an artist, then you’ve got to be very, very patient. And while innumerate Hollywood film scripts and thin-hipped folk singers tell you ‘it’s easy if you dream’, I can tell you it ain’t the case. I realise I have been so lucky thus far in my career. I honestly never expected to have a book out before I was 30. Yes, I’ve done the hard yards writing anything and everything for free, working my way up through street press and student magazines and start-up journals and blogs. Yes, I’d gained a profile writing a story every day for a year, but realistically I never thought The Ottoman Motel was good enough. It was my dry-run. The plan was going to be: write another novel, keep writing stories, get into Griffith Review, get into Best Australian Short Stories, get an agent, get a book deal.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m really lucky to be where I am, and I understand the world I’m in well-enough to know that books get good reviews and bad reviews, and I’m further than I ever hoped to be, and, to probably quote another movie ‘No one can take that away’.
It doesn’t seem enough for a writer to produce great work. I’m tempted to write ‘these days’, but even back in Joyce’s time I know he did a massive amount of networking with various key writers before Ulysses came out and prepared the reception for his ‘book to end all books’. If we go back to Ancient Greece there’s a kind of proximity value that Aristotle and Plato had in relationship to a man who apparently never wrote a word – Socrates. And now we have writers like Wayne Macauley who despite winning The Age short story competition and being published in every literary journal of importance in the country for over a decade, remains unknown outside of esoteric circles, because he simply lacks the ability to generate attention for his work. Another similar figure is Australia’s most likely next Noble Prize winning writer, Gerald Murnane. He should be at least as famous as Carey or Winton but readers don’t come in looking for The Plains or The Barley Patch and most of the people I recommend him to have never heard of Murnane. So I’m interested in the traditional course you were prepared to take, Best Australian Stories, Agent, etc, etc, but more than that, I’d like to talk about the genius you have for generating attention for your work. The one story a day has become a superb piece of blogging mythos. It was something I heard about a long time before I actually read your work. And then there’s the most recent marriage proposal in the forward for The Ottoman Motel, which has generated world wide attention. What makes it work is that it wasn’t a commercial ploy but you nevertheless clearly have a superb instinct for drawing notice. So I was hoping I could have your thoughts on the importance of self promotion.
Socrates was the original badass, and Joyce truly was a genius. And I really think their ideas and their work would have stood the test of time, whether they had been ‘marketed’ or not. As far as It doesn’t seem enough for a writer to produce a great work, I absolutely agree. I think it’s been a symptom of working in the bookselling universe for a bunch of years that I realise just how many books get published every month (not even counting the number of writers trying to make a name for themselves even before they get a book deal) and that, for better or worse, it often does take something extra for you to be noticed.
Conversely, a lot of over-hyped, under-written books are still published. The sad reality is that despite every zany publicity stunt and airport lightwall and magazine cover, every book that is published is still a gamble, and most ‘instant’ publicity campaigns fail. The most successful books of the past fifteen years: Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight, have all taken time to become an ‘overnight success’, and franchises in their own right. I really do think that the slow-burn is the only sure-fire way significant book sales actually happen. The news cycle is incredibly short, word-of-mouth is a slow but relentless rising tide. I read a great story recently about Quercus, the original publishers of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, how they resorted to leaving copies of it in taxis and on trains and park benches, so fervently did they believe in it, and so resolutely had booksellers refused to stock a long, translated book by an unknown author from a small publisher until then only known for nonfiction.
I suppose the difference is if you’re trying to get noticed, you have to be genuine about what you’re doing. Now, I am actually the last person you should talk to about ‘genius’ or ‘attention-grabbing’ ideas. Both my story-per-day blog, and my recent proposal, had nothing to do with getting attention. Both were done purely for me and, in the second case, my partner. Furious Horses was an exercise in re-starting my writing routine, and yes, I did try to get people to watch me only because I would have stopped otherwise. About a third of the way through I realised its promotional potential, but really it was me just trying to pinch out a new imagination turd each day. Maybe I should trademark the phrase Imagination Turd. The reaction to my proposal has been extraordinary. The interest has certainly helped the profile of the book, but at no stage was I calling up media outlets offering them my story. If I had really wanted it to be a cynical marketing ploy, I would have done it when the book was actually available for sale!
As to why people like Wayne Macauley and Gerald Murnane aren’t better known I’m not sure I can answer, except to say that many modern publishing houses seem to be motivated as much by their publicity and marketing department as their search for new literary talent and the importance of storytelling, but that is a particular Gordian knot of logic we should probably attempt to untangle another time.
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The Ottoman Motel is published by Text Publishing and is available from all good bookstores.
This is the nightmare. You write your first novel. You pour everything you have into it, from raw talent to wild hope. You finish this novel and a publisher expresses interest. You come home one night and someone has stolen your computer and the novel is gone. There’s barely a trace of it left. Of course, this is not a nightmare—this happened.
You’ve spent the last few years rewriting this stolen novel. I was wondering whether you could speak about the writing of that first book, the nightmare experience, and the process of rewriting.
Well, even getting to the point where I’d gotten close to finishing it – I’d done ten drafts of the completed manuscript before it was stolen (not to mention all the drafts and wrong turns along the way) – was a nightmare in itself as well! I mean, I’d started writing the novel when I was 19 and lost it when I was 33, so I’d been writing it in fits and starts for 14 years. And despite not writing it every day – at least up until the year it was stolen – it was with me all the time, so I spent a large part of my 20s – at least those years of them I wasn’t hung-over or heartbroken – feeling terribly guilty about not writing the novel.
I originally started writing the novel when I was in hospital for six months. I’d broken both knees on consecutive nights and then tripped over the day they got me to walk after the operation. So I set myself the project of reading every Booker Prize winner from Midnight’s Children to The English Patient. When I got to the passage that read “and the shadow fell upon his face like a pool of crushed grapes,” I knew two things: one, I wasn’t going to read any more; and two, I’d write something myself.
I didn’t think I was better than a Booker prize-winning author! But I guess like most writers, I started writing because I wanted to read a story I hadn’t read. So I started writing a story about a doctor telling his children stories of all the weird and wonderful case histories he’s encountered: the Siamese twins in love with the same lass, the face-blind family, the woman who spoke in foreign accents without ever having left the District, and the man who became allergic to the love of his life.
What started out as a long short story to while away the time in hospital between operations somehow became 60 000 words in eight weeks. I was astounded – it looked like the beginnings of a novel, even if I’d never imagined I, of all people, could ever write one.
But at that moment, all I wanted to do was finish it. I made the big mistake of showing friends and family. Something I’d never do now. Perhaps I was trying to impress them that I’d managed to write so much, but I think part of it was also just confirming that I’d actually done it, you know, written as much as I had. But I learnt after the umpteenth raised-eyebrowed “And how’s the (ahem) novel going?” to shut my mouth.
I can’t say how I got the idea, exactly. Probably being in hospital, surrounded by the ill and afflicted. I’d always been fascinated by circus freaks – being one of only four or five non-white, non-footy playing kids in a school of 1500… well, you can work out why I had such an affinity. The original idea was about a man with heart cancer, although it doesn’t really exist, and even then I knew it was too obvious and too heavy handed (I was cleaning up my attic the other day and found the original beginnings of that story, sketched out when I was about 18, a few months before I went into hospital, in that cramped, light blue, diffident hand I always felt embarrassed by. But the story was there, timorous and fragile, like the ultrasound of what it would become).
What really interested me about the man who was allergic to the love of his life was something I once said around that time, that ‘you often don’t get what you really want until you don’t really want it anymore.’ At the time, I just thought it was a nicely turned phrase, but as I’ve gotten older…
It occurred to me, even then, that what we often want is what we don’t have, what we can’t have, and I wondered if perhaps we didn’t really want it once we got it? Or if we only got it when we stopped desiring it so much? Often, achieving that goal or attaining that prize is anticlimactic: we’re more often relieved or drained by the end.
So what would happen if a man who could get anything he wanted, and as a result, didn’t really want anything at all (or want for anything), suddenly discovered that he couldn’t have the one thing he really wanted more than anything else?
There’s an allergy called marital allergy where women are allergic to the protein in their husbands’ semen, which leaves them in great pain after sex. When I have asked people what they’d do if the love of their life had marital allergy, they reply that they’d use a condom. But what if you were latex intolerant? Oh, they say, we’d just break up. Really? You’d just break up with the one person you wanted to be with, the one person who wanted to be with you, the person who made you laugh, who made you happy, who completed you, who finished your sentences, who understood you, who made you feel safe and loved? I mean, people stay with people who do none of that, so why would it be so easy to just walk away?
Love is a free energy – like happiness, it’s one of the few commodities in the world that increases by sharing. And yet humanity has invented all these impediments to the free movement and sharing of love: class, caste, race, gender, religion, whatever. There are so many challenges to love, and yet it’s the one thing that makes us alive, that makes us appreciate the meaning of living.
It’s also something that I, like many self-obsessed young men in my twenties was more in love with the idea of, than really understanding it myself; and in addition to the same bad relationship ten times over before I met my wife, the book I guess was my way of working out what love meant. As I grew and got older, the book grew and changed as well, though how it did before it was lost, I can’t say now.
Anyway, I’d write in fits and starts over the years, mainly case histories, squirreling away bits and pieces of information and data, strange facts, quotes, whatever, adding bits and pieces with an idea of what would happen in the end, but never sure how it would come together. It is interesting how thinking about a novel is almost the same as writing it; plot holes were patched up and new lines of narrative opened up, and the book changed a lot over the years.
I had a lot of problems working out the narrative voice at first. It was meant to be one indeterminate narrative voice like the unnamed, unreliable narrator in Oscar and Lucinda, but I found it too hard to sustain over two or three different storylines. Like most young writers, I wanted to say everything about everything, so the story would often run away from me, and I had lots and lots of loose ends, all bursting out of the gate but fizzling into nothing.
(While cleaning the attic, I actually found an old, old, first draft. I was asked to submit it to a publisher for a reader’s report about ten years ago, and flicking through it, I was surprised at how good parts of it were. I couldn’t believe a 19 year old had that command of language, or that fearlessness, but I suppose most writers would say that when they first start writing, they just go with it: everything’s a first draft, everything seems to come out fully formed, all they do is go back and change some words here or there.)
Of course, as you keep writing, it gets harder, and I think the difference between people who write, and Writers, is working through those difficult years when you just can’t seem to get anything right. For a number of years I found it very hard to write anything, least of all the novel, distracted by the rush and thrum of my messy twenty-something life. Of course it’s easy when it’s fun and you find you’ve written 60 000 words without quite knowing how you did it; it’s trying to write anything at all and not know how you’ll do it that determines whether you’re a writer or not, whether you love what you do, even when it’s hard, or it’s just something to keep you amused as you wait for the specialist to drop by your hospital bed.
Anyway, whatever I did, even if I wasn’t writing, I knew I just wanted to be a writer. And after a few lost years, in which I traveled, got heartbroken, read voraciously but wrote little, I returned to university and completed my honours degree. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, but when I was lucky enough to get a first with a story that was very well received, I was inspired to start the novel again.
An editor friend asked me what I was planning to do with the first. I hadn’t really thought about it, but he told me about the MA in Creative Writing at East Anglia, then considered the best in the world. Why didn’t I apply?
I applied for scholarships to universities in the UK and USA. Although I did get interviewed for East Anglia and was shortlisted for a number of scholarships, including the Fulbright, I missed out on them – perhaps because in the interview for the latter, so overwhelmed with excitement, when asked whom I admired most, I replied “Che Guevara. Um, not because I advocate armed revolution or anything…”
I ended up going to Goldsmiths at the University of London. At the time, I asked a very well-known writer who I knew and whose work I admired if they could write me a reference. They obliged, but admonished me too. ‘Why do you need a creative writing degree? All you need to be a writer is to observe acutely, listen carefully, live enthusiastically, read voraciously and write, write, write every day!’ And you know what, after two creative writing courses, here and in the UK, I’d have to say she’s absolutely right.
The truth of that wise writer’s admonishment is that despite what many creative writing courses suggest, you can’t be taught how to write – least of being taught talent. Writing is a process of learning – from story to story, from book to book – and just as teaching implies an easy answer, learning demands hard work.
The funny thing is that although there’s so much pressure on writers and writing students to write the perfect book, especially given that we don’t often have more than one shot in the locker (rather than the three or four book apprenticeship the legendary Andre Deutsch editor Diana Athill once spoke of), the moment you wrote the “perfect book,” the one that said everything you wanted to say, exactly as you imagined it, you probably wouldn’t write another thing, would you, Harper Lee? I remember a much wiser writer telling me after the bar had closed that the reason most writers are alcoholics is because they’re either terrified they can’t write, or worse, that they can’t write as they once did. I’d much rather be a good writer with a shelf full of good books and one great one, than a genius with only one great book to my name. But I suppose, being an unpublished writer, I can afford the luxury of such fantasies!
Actually, I applied for an overseas course for a number of reasons, mainly because they could provide me with the greatest possible opportunity to potentially meet US or UK publishers and agents. Also, it offered a wonderful opportunity for my wife and I to spend a year or two away alone together, to do the traveling she hadn’t had an opportunity to do before, and to live in and explore a foreign city together.
Going to the UK was great because it only involved a one year absence, my wife could work there, Europe was close, and there was the possibility of staying on.
In those regards, going overseas was perfect, both personally and creatively. Being away from home made me imagine and envision home with all the clarity of remove – as Joyce or Gogol wrote about their homelands from far away.
Goldsmiths was especially wonderful. I’d really admired the work of the British writer Blake Morrison, who’d helped create creative non-fiction with his beautiful memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? Blake’s parents were both doctors, like mine, and I’d used the memoir as a model for part of my novel, so the opportunity to work with him closely was amazing. Blake is one of the UK’s top writers and critics – he was chair of the Booker Prize judging panel that awarded the prize to Oscar and Lucinda, another major influence on my novel – and he knew nearly every great British writer.
It was just mind-blowing to go to our afternoon seminar and sit a couple of feet away from the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Bennett, Julian Barnes, Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, Helen Simpson, Tobias Hill, Aminatta Forna, Nick Hornby, Bernardine Esposito and others just talking about their work and the writing life. Hearing them talking candidly and encouragingly about writing was inspiring.
Unlike creative writing courses I’ve experienced in Australia, Goldsmiths was rigorous, with a four hour morning workshop which involved workshopping two people’s work for two hours, a seminar on a book from the prescribed reading list presented by students, and an hour of writing exercises and discussion. After lunch, you might have a one-on-one session with either of your two tutors (my other tutor was the prize-winning poet Lavinia Greenlaw, who now teaches at UEA), to which you were expected to bring a 5000 word extract for feedback; or you might have a student-led workshop, where you’d workshop someone else’s work. Then the afternoon seminar with the great writers; then the best part of the day, sitting in the pub afterwards, just talking about writing.
I’m very wary of discussing writing too much though. I think it can lend itself to the kind of wanky pretentiousness you encounter at lots of writers’ festivals and literary events, where non-writers (or, as I used to be, an occasional writer who talked more about writing than actually writing) invest writing with a kind of mystical formula that only those on the “inside” can ever know: that if you have the right passion or the right set of rules or the right pen or the right course, you’ll write a best seller. As if anything tangible was an ingredient for art, or talent, or even genius.
But that chatter, just talking and talking and talking about what we read or wrote or wanted to do, finding out about each other, sounding off and against each other, feeling each other and our work out, was invaluable. A lot of drunken nonsense was spouted, but a lot of interesting ideas emerged too. And it reminded me that you don’t have to endure the long distance runner’s isolation: that if you can find a good group of writer friends who share your aesthetics and ideals, you can get through the difficult solitude of actually writing.
Anyway, a big part of the assessment schedule involved regular submission – you had to provide four extracts of 5000 a semester – two for your workshops and two for your tutorials. You had to deliver two seminars and a 5000 word paper on texts from the prescribed reading list, plus a final portfolio of 20 000 words of creative writing and a 10 000 word exegesis. There was a lot of work to do in the six days between workshop days, and my 20 other classmates were among the most creative, driven and passionate people I’d ever encountered.
Despite an Australian creative writing academic once telling me they were happy “catering to the bottom end of the market” the most important component of any creative writing course, in addition to the teaching staff and the writers they attract, is your other classmates. If they are of a high standard and work ethic, you’ll soon find if you want to keep up you have to be too.
So that was a very big incentive to write every day. But more importantly, to support us, my wife had taken a very junior position at a publisher’s, and while she liked the people she worked with, she didn’t much enjoy the job. Because I’d missed out on a scholarship, we’d used the house deposit to go. And part of the whole “you quit your job and come to London while I pursue my dreams” pitch was that we’d try for our first baby before we returned, hoping that the child could be born in the UK and get a British passport.
So it was imperative that I finished the novel and got an agent and/or publisher before we left. Although in the past, I’d always written at night, when everything was still and I was half-dreaming, I couldn’t not spend time with my wife in the evenings, especially as we didn’t know many people in London.
So the first thing I had to do, apart from settling into my new writing space (a crawl space under the loft bed) was “change my stroke,” so to speak – learning how to write in the day rather than the night.
Every morning, I’d get up with my wife and see her off to work, then start writing from 9am until about 3 or 4pm. I have to say pure guilt drove me on – how could I laze about doing nothing while she slaved away? I’d do errands in the afternoon and then spend the evening with her.
Unfortunately, changing my work habits as I got used to a new educational system and settled in took over six months – no matter how hard I tried, everything I wrote was terrible. I became very despondent, thinking about “The Golden Year” about five years before, in which I’d written a poem every day, had really worked on the novel and had written a number of short stories which had gotten published. But the harder I tried, the harder it got.
One of the stories I delivered that first fruitless semester was a short story which had come to me in a nightmare. I dreamt that I was still living at my mother’s house in the outer western suburbs of Sydney and struggling with one of the first versions of the book. A strange man came to the house and asked to see my mother. It turned out that he was me from 20 years in the future, offering me the completed book because it had taken so long to write and taken so much out of him that he’d run out of energy and inspiration to write any more. But the completed book came with strict instructions not to change it in any way – which of course I did. The story ended with me trying to remember the original book and realizing it might take 20 years to rewrite.
Anyway, by the second half of the academic year, my writing had hit its stride. I was writing every day, hitting 1500 words a day on the novel, writing 500 to 1000 words on a blog and writing a short story every two weeks. It felt as if I was on this amazing magical pony which I could barely control: I was too afraid to stop in case I lost the ride, so I kept holding on for dear life, wherever it took me. And it took me to pretty much to the end of the novel, with over 130 000 words (of which I hoped to cut about 20 000). And the novel I was writing was a complete rewrite of the original novel from scratch. Perhaps I should have read my story more closely.
But that output and creative energy was a wonderful confluence of everything that makes a creative writing course worthwhile, and that’s reflected too in the number of successfully published graduates of the course, which, when I was there, had only been going a few years (among them, Evie Wyld, the author of the acclaimed After the Fire, A Still Small Voice).
I gave myself ample time to prepare my final submission – over two months, as I already had more than enough work I could submit. I spent the final two months writing the exegesis, and two days before it was due to go to the printer (and a week before I was due to submit and then take my father in law on his first ever trip around the UK and France) my computer died as I pressed print. The entire draft was lost, and I only had another rough copy I’d printed out to check for subs to go by. I had to retype the entire 10 000 word exegesis, bibliography and footnotes, as well as reformat the entire document in the remaining two days and nights. I barely made it to the printers but luckily managed to submit on time.
Then we went away, my wife, my father in law and I, for a wonderful holiday – to celebrate his 60th birthday and first ever visit to Europe; me completing the degree and almost finishing the novel; and, best of all, the impending birth of our first child.
I always backed up my files, especially the novel, to a portable external hard drive, though I left the drive attached to the computer. And I did just that, along with the photos from my father in law’s trip, while we went to the British Library down the road to look at some of the beautiful and rare manuscripts, among them Shakespeare’s Folios and what was left of Mozart’s Requiem (his impoverished widow forced to sell pages to collectors).
I suppose you’d consider it ironic, my father in law and I wandering those ancient tomes which had survived so many wars and dark ages, as my computer was being stolen not ten minutes’ walk away.
When we got home, I noticed something awry. The door was shut, but a heart shaped box we used to keep change in was on the floor, and the change missing. It didn’t immediately strike me that anything was amiss, and I didn’t even notice the computer was gone. But when I did –
Now, a lot of people at this point say: That must have been devastating. Yes, you could say that, although I don’t know if even devastation is the right word. I’d experienced great physical pain before, having been twice hit by a car, but this went beyond that. I’d experience great emotional distress before too, having once had my heart broken beyond even my romantic notions of it, but this too went beyond that.
When I’d experienced both the physical and emotional pain I’d had, at the moment of impact, everything seemed at once very slow and unbelievably fast: I could see each moment of it unfolding (the car collecting me under the fender, seeing the driver’s face; the moment she told me she didn’t love me) and yet before I knew it, it had already become a horrible unforgettable memory.
Even now, thinking of all these events – the first car accident, that break up, losing the novel – I’m at once overwhelmed by that first terrible moment, and also the memory of everything that followed after its first impact had receded. It’s a fizzy, bitter swirl of fear and horror and sheer, unutterable helplessness: it’s happened without you even suspecting it was coming, and now it’s gone.
I ran out into the street, yammering My novel! My fucken novel! I’ve lost my fucken novel! Over and over and over again. I ran to the end of it, hoping perhaps the thieves had only just done it and I might catch them, or that someone had seen them (though being taciturn old London, how I expected anyone to bother telling me, or what I’d do if I did run into the thieves is beyond me now).
Then calling the police, finding out what was taken (£100 in coins, the iPod, clothes) and spending the night filling out forms. That stopped me thinking too much about it, I suppose – the same triplicate mechanics you must do when someone dies – but when my father in law asked if I’d backed up –
Now, as someone who has lost pretty much everything they wrote for 13 years in one fell swoop as a result of not having backed up, may I offer the following suggestion to those who may find themselves in the same situation as my father in law that evening.
Do not ask someone who has just lost everything they’ve ever written if they backed up, and when hearing their blubbering response, reply “Well, you should have.”
That long night, I pulled a bottle of 15 year whisky we’d bought in the Highlands and drank the whole thing. I remember Baudelaire saying “brandy makes the thoughts stop” and though I don’t buy into the whole “writer’s life” fantasy that many aspiring writers hold on to – that being a writer gives you permission to act badly or drink too much – I am ashamed to admit that when I’m writing, in that half-life between the real and imagined, I often do drink a bit more than I should, just to stop the thrum and barrage of thoughts, half-sentences, chapters, story arcs ahead and just past, tangling themselves into a confusing stew, swirling and twirling around into my dreams.
But I’m sure most people would agree the best solution – at least immediately, in the face of such loss – is paralyticism and oblivion, even for one night.
The next morning, aching and hungover, regret like ashes in my mouth, I looked at the empty place on my desk where the computer had been. And to my surprise and relief, I discovered the backup drive. The thieves had left the drive and power cord to the computer, so there was still some hope. I was elated, and made sure my father in law knew about it.
I went to a computer store to check the files, and there I discovered that as the drive had been pulled out in the middle of a backup, all the files had been corrupted: all the writing, and just as devastatingly, the photos. All the pictures we’d taken in the last few months had been lost. Luckily, I’d kept copies of the photos on DVD, but not the novel.
With our imminent return to Australia – all the packing and winding up – I didn’t have any further opportunity to think much about the novel, let alone start writing again. The whole tumult had been too exhausting and dispiriting. With a new baby due in three months, I really didn’t think I’d ever write again, much less start the novel again. I’d always promised myself that I could never deny my children a decent life for the sake of my great unfinished novel. I had to put aside my dreams and ambitions and realize I’d had my chance, and it had been lost.
People have said “Losing your novel must have been like losing a child.” Well, as the father of two beautiful children, more beautiful than I could have ever imagined or possibly hoped for, I have to say that despite the obvious devastation of losing any novel – let alone one you’ve been writing nearly your entire adult life – it’s not. You can always rewrite a novel, you can always reimagine it. In fact, every novel is a kind of revision of the ones before it – whether the ones a writer’s written, or the ones they’ve read. And you cannot rewrite or reimagine a child. If you gave me the choice between writing a bestselling novel and my children, it wouldn’t even be a contest. But I say this now, not then, when my firstborn wasn’t even an idea, much less one I could appreciate or grasp: when my wife told me the foetus was the size of a paperclip, I could only imagine a paperclip in her uterus.
(because of the horrendous amount of paperwork involved in staying in the UK, and with no guarantee of citizenship for the baby, we decided to go home – and as anyone who’s had to grapple with a newborn baby would know, having family and friends around in those fraught, fragile, sleepless first few months is a necessity beyond words)
So, back in my mother’s house in the empty Western Suburbs, looking for a house, a job, a doctor for the baby and more, although the heartbreak over the novel’s loss remained – perhaps because I hadn’t really thought about it properly. Even after that disastrous heartbreak, it occurred to me that we grieve not so much what we had, but what we hoped to have, what we imagined we might if we’d just held on that little bit longer. True for an infatuation or too-brief affair, and especially so for a lost unpublished novel. The characters kept talking to me, but I was too tired by our relocation and the excitement about the baby to try to write anything down. I felt very very sorry for myself and my dashed hopes.
Then, a week before the baby was due, something as unexpected as the novel. A London agent, seeing the last three surviving chapters, approached me. And that same week, so did an Australian agent. I didn’t know what to do – my baby was due, and I couldn’t think about it until after the birth.
And when our daughter Leela was finally born after a terrible, arduous, 27 hour labour, I felt something I’d only felt once before on my wedding day: a brilliant, beautiful, energizing, invigorating rush of egolessness, a relief and reprieve from my worries, my anxieties, my obsessive repetitious thoughts, myself. I couldn’t think of myself or my lost novel, only this tender, raw, fragile, trembling little thing, still smelling of her mother’s womb, squalling and shivering, totally helpless – for whom I was now totally responsible. It struck me then that while I could be a failed novelist, an ex-boyfriend, a former orthopaedic patient, I would always be this child’s father. And nothing else mattered a whit then – and, to be honest, nothing else does.
I got in touch with the agents, and told them my situation. They asked when I could resubmit the manuscript. “Easy,” I said, echoing the blithe “me” of my story – “it’s all in my head, so how about six months?”
Ah, reader! Who was it that said a pram in the hallway is the loss of a book? In addition to teaching English as a Foreign Language in a two-bit visa factory in the city, struggling with the four hour commute and helping with the baby, I could barely think, let alone write. But I started, something tentative, writing as much as I could between naps in the evening.
It was hard work. But with the baby not sleeping, my wife at her wits’ end, having to find freelance ghostwriting jobs and teaching positions, what I did write wasn’t much, and wasn’t much good. Not having written anything since I’d lost the novel, my writing muscles were weak and flaccid. I hated everything I wrote, and I was convinced I’d never recapture that new “Golden Year” the year before. But I wrote every day, every chance I got, so I could at least present the agents with a decent, saleable 15 000 word extract.
I think I ended up with 15 000 words in three or four months, but of that, I could only really use about 5 000. And I kept going over it, re-writing, filling in plot holes, re-writing characters, editing heavily, so every step forward demanded two or three back.
It was as if the original, lost book was standing over my shoulder, snickering and whispering as I wrote about how it would have done that better, or differently, or funnier. I was paralysed by the ghost of the original book, and the new book only seemed a pale, empty golem of it. But I kept writing, though with diminishing pleasure and confidence.
Then, a week after we moved into our new home after six months of searching, something wonderful happened and we came into some money – enough not only to end our worries, but to give me the chance to write again.
The money was enough to put the agents off – after all, I didn’t need an advance any longer, so as I made it clear, while before I was willing to write something, anything to get what was left out there so I could start on the next book in my head, I now had the opportunity to write the book I always wanted to write, the book that had been plaguing my dreams for the last fourteen years. So unless any advance they could negotiate could match the sum of money we’d come into, I’d take my own sweet time – after all, it had taken me 14 years so far, so what was another year or two?
When people, eyebrows arched, asked me how the book was going and when I was going to finish it and offering me lots of advice to do it (usually along the lines of “you just have to get on and finish it”) I always replied that if I had the money and the time to do it, I would. And I’d always assumed that having all the time and money to write, I’d dash off great masterpieces in the morning, before enjoying long, literary lunches. Don’t we all?
Now I did have all the time and money I needed, you know what? It made the writing even harder. With the money to pay for research, with no other demands on my time, I hardly wrote a thing. I’d write something, then discover a new fact or error, and have to rewrite again. I’d write the same scene over and over, trying to make it perfect, or I’d get distracted by the new responsibilities that money brought – insurance, dealing with lots of people who I’d never had to before, such as accountants and financial planners, or just enjoying it: eating out, traveling, lazing, living.
And it occurred to me then that Peter Gabriel (of all people) was right: artists are mischievous creatures, and we need constraint. You give an artist everything they think they need to make the art, and you’ll end up with nothing. Which is pretty much what I had now I didn’t have any excuse not to write. Whether it’s time or money or form, the art emerges from those constraints: from the emergency, so to speak, of finding a way of escape.
Then one morning in January 2008, my wife asked me when I was planning on finishing the novel. End of the year, I assured her. “Well,” she said, “perhaps you should bring the deadline forward to September.” I didn’t understand at first, and then it dawned on me. We were pregnant again. Knowing how hard it was to write with one baby in the house, I started writing furiously in a panic: I had to finish the book before the second baby, which I knew would ramp up the exhaustion and stress even further. And I didn’t want to not be as involved in my second child’s life as I had been in my first child’s.
It was a terrible, terrible year for my writing. I started writing at night, after my wife and baby had gone to bed, trying to snatch a few hours’ writing before Leela woke up for her midnight feed, then writing a bit more until I drank and drank to stop the thoughts whirring in my head. I’d write from 9.30pm until 1.30am, feed and settle the baby, then write again until 3.30am, finally stumbling into bed at 4.30am, before waking at 6.30am to help out.
More than this, I kept thinking about finishing the book – the whole book, all of it, even though I had no idea how to do it. The looming weight of the whole entire book was unbearable. I was exhausted, and I had to stop – not just because I was drinking more than I wanted to to keep the doubts and thoughts at bay, but because the exhaustion was turning me into the arsehole writer I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be. I was too tired to imagine, too tired to write properly, too tired to live properly either. Although I got a lot of writing done, it wasn’t great, and I fell into a deep, paralyzing depression for three months, unable to write, to read, to do anything more than sleep and feel ashamed and defeated.
As it turned out, in addition to the exhaustion, I was suffering a severe Vitamin D deficiency, and so after diagnosis and treatment, I felt a lot better, and ready to climb the mountain of my novel again. What I needed to do was to find something that offered my days some structure, something that took time away from my writing time, so that I was more focused in that time.
Freud spoke of the eroticism of transgression, and for me, despite whatever privileged, tenured literary theory academics might suggest, writing and reading have always been slightly transgressive acts. In some countries, they’re acts of rebellion; for me, the best books were those I wasn’t meant to be reading that late at night, under the cover of the torch – let alone reading at all; and writing, that utterly necessary frivolity, had lost its dangerous excitement and become a chore, an obligation.
So, despite my misgivings, I enrolled in a creative writing PhD at the invitation of an old mentor who said he needed good candidates for the course he’d just been appointed to head. The tawdry, disappointing story of those wasted years is too long and boring to recount here, but all I’ll say is this: it’s a measure of the disconnect of the academy from reality when none of the academics who run the course have ever written, much less published, any creative writing; when academic publication in obscure online journals is ranked higher than any creative writing published in prominent literary journals, newspapers or magazines; and when no novel, poetry collection or any writing of any kind or any worth is produced by such courses. Can you recall a major, popular or critically acclaimed novel produced by an Australian creative writing course in the last ten years? When a creative writing academic says that the course does not and cannot assess creative writing, but that you must understand critical theory to write a novel, because without theory, you cannot avoid cliché – and can say this with a straight face, never having actually written a novel, much less a theory-inspired one, you know there’s a serious problem.
However, after a number of run-ins with the academics, I found my passion again. At first, I thought great art had to be inspired by anger: j’accuse, motherfuckers! But as Jung once observed, art exists because the world is not perfect. And I realized I wrote not because I was angry – after all, relentlessly angry writing is as monotonously boring as interminably happy writing – but because I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the world, with all the terrible books I’d read, with the rules, with the powers that be, with being told how to think or what to say – or worse, how to feel and live.
Out of the pointless, needless distractions of academia – all installed, I suspect, only to give the academics something to do – I found my dissatisfaction, my passion, my reason to keep writing. Because my novel couldn’t be assessed for the degree, I could write what I wanted. And I did. Where before I’d worried what the old novel thought, or what readers might think, or how the agents might or might not like it, I just wrote, with no thought about anything or anyone else but my characters and their stories.
I wrote and wrote and wrote, and most importantly, I wrote and wrote and wrote every day. Where before I’d written when the inspiration struck me, now I wrote when I was unsure, when I was bored, when I was tired, hungover, depressed, busy, elated, distracted. Every day, no matter what, no matter how long it took me to get going, I’d write, and slowly, ever so slowly, the novel started to emerge again. Not the novel I’d written once, so long ago, but the novel I was writing, the novel I’m writing now.
I’ve heard some young writers talking about how much they love writing – I heard one say how he loved “connecting with himself” as he wrote. I love editing – I can do it all day – but I hate first drafting. I creep to the desk with trepidation, resignation, a horrible nausea in my gut, knowing that the brilliant image or idea I had last night, just as I fell asleep and repeated like a mantra to ensure I remembered it in the morning, is only provisional: whatever I manage to type is only an approximation, and even then, it may not last – I’ll write it and seeing it on the page, realize it doesn’t work at all.
But it’s that nervousness, that fear, that makes the writing real sometimes. When I’ve nearly killed myself to get the words right, the story right, the character right, when I’ve ended up in places I hadn’t expected, when the writing takes a turn I couldn’t predict, or a character says or does something I couldn’t imagine, then all that drudge – and it is a lot of drudge, just typing and typing until something emerges, then cutting and cutting to give it room to breath and hopefully shine – is worth it. So despite all the wasted years, I found I was now in love with the book in a way that I hadn’t been for years, even in the Golden Years.
I remember another writing student, one who hadn’t published anything and had only been writing since they were awarded the PhD place, telling me that if you love something it has to make you happy. Having been married longer than my wife would care to remember, I had to laugh. I mean, my wife loves me and I don’t make her happy all the time. Love isn’t about the better, when it’s easy and fun and not hard work; love is when it’s worse, when you don’t know if you can go on, when you’re not having fun, when it is hard work. And writing – and the love of it – is the same. I don’t write well every day; I don’t feel like writing every day; I don’t hit my word or chapter targets every day. Some days are much harder than others, and there are far fewer good days than bad.
But as you keep going, as you keep perservering, as you keep connecting to your work and your characters, you get a few more good days, and they keep you going. There are lots of points in the lives of my novel where I wanted to give up; and I regret nothing more than not sticking at it when I was younger and had so much more energy and time than I have now. But I could not have written the book I am writing now then. Yes, the language (from what I found from that ancient manuscript) is more daring; and I had an innate imagination I couldn’t even dream of now; but it lacks the wisdom, the experience, the heartbreak, the maturity I hope what I write now has.
After four years of patience, my UK agent asked for an extract. I’d never shown anyone anything yet, and I was terrified. What if she didn’t like it? Would she drop me? Then where would I be? But publishing is a form of courageous, foolish self-mortification: you publish and run the risk of being damned. But without risk, what’s the writing worth?
Fuck it, I thought: I believe in this novel. I have to. I may have doubts about my ability to serve it and its characters the way I hope they should be, I may have concerns about passages that should be edited further, I may have doubts and fears, but not about the story I want to tell. In fact, I’ve always felt as if my talents as a writer haven’t quite been up to the task of giving the idea I was so lucky to have what it deserved. But if I don’t believe in it, how will I ever get you to?
The hardest thing about writing, as in life, is knowing when to take advice and when to disregard it. In the creative writing workshop, it can mean that what you show – often for students, a hastily written first draft – can end up as a camel: that is, a horse by committee. I have no illusions that publishing is a collaborative process, working closely with your agent, your publisher, your editor, your publicist. But writing – that first draft, and the moment you hit “send” on the email – is an intensely singular, lonely experience. There should be no-one else in the room then: not the previous draft, not your imaginary readers, not even yourself.
And perhaps it’s then, in that egoless moment when you’ve forgotten how to write, and just write; when you don’t think about anything else except what’s happening to that character on the page in front of you, when all you see is one sentence becoming a paragraph, that para becoming a page, those pages becoming a chapter: always focused, in the moment you’re in – that you may achieve something of the transcendent joy we all hope for in life, let alone writing.
My lovely, supportive agent got back to me the next day. She loved it. We had to discuss completion. I agreed to a rigorous submission schedule, sending in each narrative strand (of which there are four) every three months. Could I do it? After spending nearly 18 years trying to write it, how would I know?
Yet that pressure – to send in chunks in easily measurable timeframes – has proven wonderful. I write every day because I have to. And though some days aren’t great, there’s a great satisfaction in knowing that however I felt, however little I wanted to write, whatever else I had to do that day, I still managed something. Out of those sentences, those paras, those pages, those chapters, I finally discovered something resembling a novel, and like that paperclip foetus, it’s now starting to take on features I could never have imagined, and a life of its own.
What’s been wonderful these past few productive months is how connected everything seems, from research to writing. An example: a character is afraid of the sea, despite being born with a caul, the lucky talisman that’s reputed to save sailors from drowning. I started seeing all the connections: he’s raised by the Sisters of Mercy (mer-sea) and unbeknownst to me when I started writing, his caul is shared by Nicholas Nickleby – which though I haven’t read it, is the same kind of bildungsroman I’m writing. I remembered a great line from Eliot about the mermaids singing each to each, and in trying to find the name for a dubious clairvoyant, I happened to remember an old Robert Klippel sculpture, Madame Sophie Sosostris. The sculpture itself was inspired by Eliot’s other great poem, The Wasteland, and the Madame Sosostris in the poem predicts “death by water.” Although I don’t strive to insert the symbols and metaphors as obviously and painfully as so many “Big L” literary writers seem to nowadays, I love how the idea, the inspiration, runs through the text, without being obstrusive or obstructive (as it might in a theory-inspired novel, I suspect).
It reminds me that love is, at its heart, always a kind of idea: we fall in love with the idea of love, much as we do with the idea of writing, or the idea of the novel itself, and it’s in making that idea real (even through the rubric of make believe) that brings us those ineffable moments of happiness. We see our love refracted in the newspaper, in every song on the radio, in seemingly random chance encounters, in everything. And though I sometimes fear the chasm between the real and imagined lives is a shadowy world of half-existence, one in which I’m always distracted, eating badly, never really engaged, I am: I am engaged with my novel, in a way I haven’t been for years, and it’s this engagement, this daily meeting, that writes it. I just hold on for the ride.
But as I’ve found, no matter how good the idea, in the end, it’s the work that matters: not just the finished article, but everything that goes into it.
Roland Barthes once said that the finished book is the death mask of the work, and though I’m loathe to quote French theorists (other than derogatorily, for everything they and their opportunistic, unimaginative disciples have done to the apprehension, and more importantly, the enjoyment of literature) he’s right. When the book is written and edited and published, it’s done: I’ll feel that same trepidation sending it out, but once it’s out, it’s on its own, in the care of the people who read it. I can hardly remember much of what I’ve written, and I don’t think about it once it’s gone. And, like the mother goose, I’ll thinking of my next brood.
What happens to the novel once it’s done and ready to be shopped? Who knows? It might sell, it might not. It might be popular when it’s published, it might not. That’s too far away, beyond the end of the novel itself, and I haven’t even gotten to the end of the novel yet, so (as I’ve learnt) it’s pointless wondering about what happens after that. No advance would ever pay back what I’ve already spent of our windfall in writing it – or trying to write it – these past few years, so it’s gone beyond the money alone.
But isn’t that what art does? Going beyond not just the form, but the price attached to it, whether commercial or personal? Isn’t that disregard what makes art priceless?
Of course I hope the book does well, should it ever be published, but only so I can write another, and another, and another. And all of these will only be revisions, rewritings, reimaginings of all the books before it. Just as life itself and our living and remembering of it, is always a constant revision. I want whatever I write to be like life itself – not necessarily accurate, but believable. For it’s belief that changes worlds and lives, and I can’t imagine the kind of person who’d die for Derrida. I want my novel to be messy, contradictory, variable; to shout and whisper; to laugh and cry; to offer moments of clarity and occasions of doubt; to be, as close as I can get it in a form as restricted (and simultaneously limitless) as the novel to the mess and press and diversity of life itself.
And just as life isn’t perfect, no book is either – how can it be when it itself is only an imperfect approximation of life? The moment I write the perfect one, I’ll stop – but I hope that day is a long way away.
For me, at least today as I write this, it’s the imagining, the feeling, the writing that’s most important. And it’s that: the imagining, the feeling, the writing, that gives a part of my life the meaning it needs to keep going, to keep trying, to keep striving, even when I can’t or don’t want to (my family gives me all the meaning I need for the rest of my life, and if there is anyone I really write for, it’s them – whether financially, or personally; whether to provide for them, or offer them something they’ll enjoy).
The rest – in publishing and in life – just allows the imagining and feeling and writing to happen, whether disastrous or superlative; and what makes it happen is you, working, working, working every single day.
And of all of these – idea, book, reader or me – I’m the least important.
P.S. And now I have two online back up services, four external hard drives, a Time Machine backup, backup over the network to my wife’s computer, two zip drives and I email every day’s work back to myself.
Do women like sex? That’s the headline on a fashion magazine I saw this morning. I didn’t pick it up so I don’t know how they answered. I’m more interested in how you’d answer that question Krissy. These magazines project sexuality as a brand and yet maintain a flat faced model coyness that can ask the question of that headline. Your memoir, Affection, shows us sex as sustenance. Why would that headline still tantalise?
It surprises me that people still have to ask that question. Do women like sex? It always surprises me to hear that some university aged women still haven’t experienced an orgasm. And my response to that is always “give the girl a vibrator! Quickly!” Of course if a woman hasn’t experienced orgasm she is not going to enjoy sex. It distresses me to think of a grown woman not knowing the sheer physical joy of orgasm. When you orgasm it is like a complete re-boot of your whole system. Nothing else matters in the moment of orgasm and that kind of pure release is so important. We also sometimes mistake sex for attractiveness. This is what advertising gifts us. We speak of people as being sexy if they are pretty and this is missing the point. Sexy is about the body experiencing or giving pleasure. We are at our least pretty when we have an orgasm. Our eyes roll back in our head, we stick our stomach out, we make a strange face. Seriously, it has nothing to do with how attractive we are.
I read a book called The Sex Diaries, by Bettina Arndt, where women wrote diaries about their sex life and mostly the result was that these middle aged married women just don’t want sex anymore — but I think she got it wrong. All that book showed was that those women don’t want to have sex with their husbands. It is true we get bored. After many years of having sex with the same person it feels a bit like masturbating only without the scope of fantasy that keeps it fresh. My take on it would be that of course women want sex but we also want variety in sex and therefore if we want to be monogamous, which is not really our natural state, we are going to have to introduce an element of play and experimentation. The only other solution is to have lots of (safe) sex with lots of people and don’t take it too seriously.
Anais Nin was one of the pioneers in this regard but she broke new artistic ground in a number of ways beyond the stories she’s famous for now. Her journals were her most immediate and lasting contribution. They are still vital and vivid, both for an understanding of what it means to be a writer, and how we remain alive to the body. It’s not only husbands that get boring. The ways our experiences can be revivified is perhaps her great literary gift. There are parallels that could be made between the creation of those diaries and your Furious Vaginas. Could you talk about how this project came about, how it developed and how it eventually culminated into Affection.
My friend Christopher Currie is my writing companion. We often sit together at a cafe table working on our separate projects, keeping each other honest and minding each other’s laptops while we go to the toilet. When Christopher told me he was going to start a daily blog called Furious Horses. I felt a bit left behind. He was going to write a new short story every day and post it on the blog. I hadn’t really committed to the idea of writing memoir yet. I had played around with writing a memoir for young adults, expressing how kids and teenagers are sexual beings. The project had stalled and I had all but given up on it. When Furious Horses had been operating for a week, I decided to start Furious Vaginas. It was motivated by jealousy. I thought of the idea while I was in the movies and told my husband about it as the credits rolled. He told me that I absolutely should not do it and of course the idea that it was a banned activity only made it worse. The thing with Furvag is that I wrote many of the posts late at night, and often after a large amount of alcohol. Because of this I was at my most honest and most vulnerable. I suffer from bouts of depression and I’m pretty sure you can judge my mood at the time by looking back at those posts. The posts written when I was most vulnerable are actually the most revealing and often made it into the memoir. When I had some interest from Text to publish the memoir I went back and printed off all the blog posts. I approached the writing of the memoir as I would making a documentary. I took my life and cut it up and assembled it into a good structure. It is odd that people are so cagey about their sex life. I kind of understand. My husband refused to let me mention anything about my sex with him and therefore I had to respect his wishes. I think Nin was treading on some dangerous territory talking about her husband as she did in her diaries.
Jane Smiley modeled her novel, Ten Days in the Hills on the Decameron. When I think of a novel that successfully uses great swathes of explicit sex, hers is the first book that comes to mind. More often, literary fucking feels gratuitous even when titillating. Worse still when it feels like the author’s masturbatory fantasies ejaculated onto paper. If it’s not about the author as we have in a memoir, a novel’s sex scenes easily become generic, no matter how descriptive or ‘shocking’. Jane Smiley, in talking about Ten Days in the Hills, said she made sure that every sex scene arose from individual character and was an intimate expression of each perspective. What makes a sex scene work for you? Conversely, are there writers that make you cringe?
I haven’t read the Jane Smiley but now I will. I always think surprise is the key to success. We all get bored with sex if it is dished up the same way every time, the trick is to use props ie: the real world, what is happening outside the sex, how does that impact on it. I love to make ordinary things extraordinary in the telling. I also like the use of humour because sex is ultimately quite funny. You can feel when you are writing good sex, you kind of get dragged along with the scene and find yourself becoming aroused. If you aren’t feeling it then the audience won’t be feeling it. I have abandoned many a bad sex scene and I am sure I will write many more.
You mentioned writing Y/A. What does a Krissy Kneen sex book for kids look like? Is there a way you’d approach it differently? How might children be educated about their sexuality better?
Yes I did have a dream of writing a sexy YA. It wasn’t really about educating kids because kids find out about that stuff in their own ways. I am not sure how-to sex books work for that market. What I do know is that some kids and most teenagers experience very powerful sexual feelings and will seek out books with titillating content to devour covertly. How else can you explain the run-away success of VC Andrews Flowers In The Attic? I wanted (maybe still want) to write a book with teenagers as the protagonists that celebrates sexuality not in it’s most boring mums-and-dadsy kind of way, but that is unashamedly broad in its scope, without any judgement or cautionary tale. I just naturally write about safe sex because I believe very much in practicing that, so this wouldn’t be something that promotes risky sexual behaviour. This would be a celebration of all our multi-sexualities, something to assure young readers that it is OK to be hetro, bi or gay and you don’t have to box yourself in to one sexuality. Everything is OK to try as long as you are safe and respectful and try really hard not to hurt anyone else. It would also show kids that despite our best efforts, becoming intimate with each other does often cause emotional damage even when you are trying really hard, someone often gets hurt. It would have fallible human characters who were not the prettiest kids in the class but that who were just trying to enjoy their sexuality. At the end of writing this book no publisher would touch it of course, because the school’s market is the major force in YA publishing and no school is going to put this book in their library.
A girl in her early teens walked into my bookstore recently to buy a novel I felt uncomfortable selling her. I sold it to her without comment, of course. She walked away with a Popular Penguin at the pocket money price of $9.95. It’s a long way from the notorious, contraband days for Lolita. I don’t know if Nabakov spent much time thinking about girls around the age of 12 year old Dolores Haze reading his tale of middle-aged lust and obsession. As a bookseller yourself, and as a writer and reader, I’m wondering how you negotiate the literary genius with the paedophilia of Lolita.
Lolita is one of my favourite books. I love the humour in it, but Nabokov does not shy away from the content either. He manages somehow to make you uncomfortable about the lust for a minor whilst also making you laugh along with Humbert – becoming Humbert in a way. I think it is important to always challenge yourself as a writer, never shying away from the things you find most difficult. I also think that is what you should do as a reader. I am all for reading ‘junk food’ occasionally as a fine alternative for mindless TV, but I also think you should read stuff that takes you out of your safe comfort zone. I don’t think reading Lolita will hurt that teenaged girl at all. I remember a time when my sister in her early teens read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and for a while she turned into a monster because of it. I was younger and began to read the same book to find out what had affected her so badly and the book just unsettled me. I had been reading Orwell myself and Rand seemed just the polar opposite. What only encouraged my sister into bad behaviour made me run with open arms back to my beloved Orwell. I think books don’t hurt us, but they help us articulate what we already believe and if they are really good they sometimes show us things we didn’t understand. I think that 12 year old girl will find things in Lolita to love or to rage against and then if she reads it later in life for a second time she will probably see the humour which I missed when I read it at too young an age.
Writer’s reveal themselves. That’s a basic principle of what we do. We’re all encouraged to become as naked as possible for our readers. Our audience demands the kind of magnified detail that would make a seasoned porn star blush or wilt. When we’re writing fiction though, there’s the thinnest of curtains hanging behind us, as the stage is revealed. There’s a performance and a narrative, and our exposure is understood to be ‘fiction’ however true it is otherwise. It seems there’s no curtain with a memoir like Affection. It’s not a character exposing themselves–> it’s Krissy Kneen. That kind of courage takes my breath away actually, when I really consider how vulnerable you made yourself. Was it difficult? All I can sense from your actual work is a powerful sense of release and liberation. How true is that? What were your challenges in finding that kind of courage?
Krissy Kneen is not a character? I thought about her as a character. Sure the situations and scenes are true and actually happened to me, but as a person I am a lot more complicated than the Krissy in the book. By narrowing it down to just the stuff about sex and my relationship to sex I could leave out many, many facets of myself. I can actually be terribly boring at times and really anxious. I know there is a bit of anxiousness in the book but in real life sometimes I can angst about getting an assignment in on time or how awfully I have constructed a book, or how I made a spelling error in a press release, for hours or even days. I am so glad that the medium of writing allows you to leave out bits. I have always found talk about sex really easy. If I were to write a brave book that makes me vulnerable it would probably be about my relationship to my family because that is the hardest part and I feel like I glossed over that in the book. In my fiction I can be much more revealing. Sometimes I think that fiction is closer to the stuff we all keep hidden. In fiction a character can be mean in exactly the way I have been mean at one time or another and although I could never reveal that in memoir I can put it into a story. Having said that, I think I am pretty recognisable from Affection. I did try not to spare myself because sometimes I was just naively dumb back then and that makes for funny scenes. I like a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously so I mined my life for some of the moments that made me seem absurd and ridiculous because we all are, particularly when we are young. Still, the sex stuff has always been easy for me. Sex is a language I understand. Relationships? Not so much.