‘You’re stressed,’ my GP told me following a check-up. ‘Is there anything bothering you?’
Bothering me? Hmmm. Let me see. Relationship in the shitter, no social life, and work … ah, the inanity of work. People dropping in on me. Constantly. ‘Can you take a look at this?’ Courteous. Exquisitely. ‘Write this up for me. Cheers.’ Behind their fake smiles. Their plastic expressions. ‘How’s that report going?’ Their ongoing demands, always their demands, never-ending, never-stopping, never—
‘No,’ I said.
‘You need a way to unwind. A hobby! Everybody needs a hobby! Find something you enjoy doing, something that’ll help you relax. Preferably something physical. Get rid of that nervous energy. Spend it. Leave it all out there. It’ll do you a world of good.’
I tried the gym, but company annoyed me – people offering to spot me, asking me how much I could bench, wanting to talk. I exercised in my garage, but found it claustrophobic. I tried jogging, but my feet were pounded into surrender. On and on my search went, through a variety of endeavours, until I discovered cycling. It was just me and road before me. That’s when I believed I’d found the one, and I even bought all the gear – bike, helmet, reflective kit, pump, chain-lock, water bottle, and even a pedometer. The whole lot set me back almost a thousand bucks, but it was worth it.
The first week my muscles burned with every metre pedalled, protested at every hill, and screamed for relief the further I pushed myself. Conditions that seemed mild – like a cool breeze – were exacerbated at high speeds on my bike. But I was invigorated – reinvigorated. I controlled the pace, cruising when possible, and speeding whenever the urge took me. Most of all, I revelled in being uncaged, open and free. By the second week, I couldn’t wait to finish the daily tedium of work to get on my bike.
Then I learned the most disturbing thing. Or maybe I just started noticing it – noticing it in a way that it becomes impossible to un-notice it, and which makes every subsequent incident cumulatively aggravating.
Cyclists have their own little sub-societal etiquette.
Whenever I passed somebody on a bike, they’d nod their head in acknowledgement – acknowledgement that, hey, they were a cyclist just like me (in case I hadn’t noticed). If we were going leisurely enough, it wasn’t just a nod, but an entire ‘Hey’; or even a, ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’
And on and on it went.
I tried to ignore it initially, tried to conveniently look the other way whenever these exchanges loomed. But they became inescapable, gnawing at me, overwhelming me through their sheer weight of repetition – pressing, demanding, smothering.
Nod. Nod back.
‘Hey, how’re you doing?’ Good.
Somebody even had the audacity to stop to talk to me one evening when I’d paused at a park for a breather. He pulled up right alongside me, hopping off his bike even before it had come to a halt, and rested it against the bench by which I stood.
Hey. I checked my pedometer. Three Ks so far.
Thanks. I took a drink from my water bottle.
‘Looks pretty new.’
Yup. I took my chain-lock from my bike.
‘Haven’t been riding long, have you?’
Uh uh. Surreptitiously wrapped my chain-lock around my right hand.
‘You’re probably only just starting to feel the benefits – the muscle tone in your legs, the increased fitness, the mental well-being.’
Hmmm. Closed my right hand into a fist.
‘But what is it they say?’
What? Cocked my right hand back.
‘Healthy body, healthy—’
And punched his fucking head in.
The first blow hit him – literally hit him – right between the eyes. The flesh popped, like a burst water balloon, with a splatter of blood; there was an almighty crack, which must’ve been the bridge of his nose shattering; and yet what registered first on his face was surprise.
That would teach him.
Something must’ve clicked in his head then, some survival instinct, because he tried pulling away. He wasn’t quick enough. My next punch caught him exactly in the same spot as the first, and he stumbled back, hitting the bench, and falling onto his butt.
I kept punching him and punching him; punching him until he was lying back on the bench, and I had a knee planted into his chest; punching him until his face was pulped, the way an orange gets when you grind it; punching him until his skull seemed to shimmer within the flesh of his head, as if it had shattered and lost cohesiveness; punching him until I had nothing left to give, and no rage left to spend.
I got up from the body, and took a moment to compose myself.
Then I took him and ditched his body in some thickets, covering him with branches until he was hidden. I had no illusions: he’d be found, and much sooner than later. But I didn’t want him lying out in the open like that. What if kids stumbled upon him in the morning, when they were crossing the park to get to school?
His bike I set against a pole on the far side of the park, by the road. Unchained, it was sure to be stolen. It was just a matter of time. Damn neighbourhood. You really can’t feel safe anywhere nowadays.
I was about to get on my bike when I realised that I felt different. Something had changed. I stopped, gave myself a moment for reflection, and found that my mind was remarkably clear. I was filled with a peculiar but intoxicating euphoria.
For the first time in many, many months, I felt awesome.
Getting on my bike, I rode from the park.
My GP was right.
Everybody needs a hobby.
The day I met Les Zig he commented on my left-handedness. He then proceeded to list every left-handed person in the Professional Writing and Editing course we were taking at the time. I likened it to that moment in Wonder Boys, when James lists ‘all the movie suicides’ in alphabetical order. If I were ever to describe Les to someone who’d never met him before, I think I would relay this story. It says so much about the little I do know about him, and the little I don’t.
You write a lot of stories that follow the journey of the writer, whether it be the path to success, or disillusionment, or something else entirely. I remember you once told me that as a teenager you wanted to be professional pool player, and then an actor, that writing was always on the cards, but nothing ‘ordinary’ ever appealed to you. Traditionally, the writer’s path, as with that of the actor or sports star, includes this rising above obstacles. And in many ways you’ve had a lot of obstacles, especially where depression and OCD are concerned. Despite this though, you’re extraordinarily prolific. Is this a matter of pushing yourself even when you’re unwell? Or do you believe writing to have therapeutic benefits that perhaps draw those afflicted to it, and help them write their way back to a feeling of normality? And do you think you could’ve ever done anything else?
I don’t know how realistic some of those alternatives were. I wanted to play pool (and practiced twelve hours a day for about a year, on top of playing ten years) until I broke my arm and suffered bad nerve damage to half my hand, so that went out the window. I also wanted to be a computer programmer at one point, programming games. And I also played guitar, really poorly, and wanted to be in a band with some friends, who also played instruments really poorly, (and some, so poorly, that they didn’t play them at all).
Fundamentally, what a lot of these things had in common – as far as acting, music, and programming went – was that they all had story at their core. For acting, I imagined the stories to be involved in; for music, the stories behind songs; for programming games, the story behind the game. So everything was about telling stories, and that goes back to when I was a kid. In primary school, I loved writing stories. In early high school, I used to turn in epic short stories – I turned in a sixty page handwritten sci-fi short story in Year 9 English – and when I was seventeen I hand-wrote my first novel, which was book one of an intended five book series in the vein of The Lord of the Rings.
I don’t think there’s a correlation between my fantastic career aspirations and the obstacles I put in front of characters. It’s just infinitely more interesting when a character is flawed and has those obstacles to overcome, (and, often, my characters have psychological obstacles). It shows growth in the character and, I guess, the potential everybody faces within themselves, that they too can unlock, if they overcome their own obstacles.
For me, writing’s always been therapeutic. When I don’t write for a while, I feel ideas backwash in my mind, so I have to get them out, like a form of exorcism. And when I do write – when I actually get into it and I’m flying – I become oblivious to the world around me. It’s a meditative state. It shuts everything out. It’s like going somewhere else. I don’t think it’s entirely a case of writing back to a ‘feeling of normality’, as you put it – at least not for me. I think you can overdo it. In the past, the distant past, when I’d written for twelve-hour sessions, it’s a little hard letting go, when I leave the keyboard. And after finishing something big, if it’s been full-on, writing every day, I find it very draining, and come away flat, so it takes a while to replenish. You put so much of yourself on the page, you can lose too much of yourself, and it takes a while to recharge.
As for writing about the journey of the writer, that’s really just writing about experience, and I’ve had a lot of experience in that regard.
Another thematic thread, and the drive behind most of your recent stories, is your relationship with your partner. One of my favourite stories inspired by your personal life was the simple yet engaging ‘Bookstore Fetish’ published by Wet Ink in December of last year. I know your partner read and liked that particular piece, but do you find yourself concerned about putting aspects of your life, especially your personal life, into your stories?
Yes. There are a few I haven’t given to her to read, because I think the details are too close. Not personal in a sense where I’d betray her confidence(s), but maybe because I don’t want her to see what I think of the relationship in some ways. Invariably, I think everybody has to work out things for themselves.
In 2009 you won a fellowship with Olvar Wood for one of you manuscripts, which assured you a week away to write, along with mentoring throughout the following year. You then when on to be shortlisted for the Atlas Award in 2010 for the same project. What were both experiences like? Has this changed how you feel about writing? How important do you think it is for writers to receive mentoring? Does this kind of thing give you assurance that you’re on the right path?
Olvar Wood was awesome. It was four writers (Paul Garrety, Felicity Castagna, and Kylie Mulcahy) living in the same house for a week, with ‘classes’ during the morning, where we talked about aspects of writing with the two writers/editors who ran the Fellowship, Nike Bourke (author of The Bone Flute, The True Green of Hope, and What the Sky Knows), and Inga Simpson (author of Fatal Development and Off the Grid). Sometime afterward, Paul got a contract with Allen & Unwin, and his book, The Seventh Wave, came out earlier this year. Also, recently, Transit Lounge published Felicity’s collection of short stories, Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia.
The thing I really enjoyed about this was that there was no affectation, which you don’t often get in writing environments. Sometimes, I think people can promote themselves as writers, talk about writing, but never actually do any writing. The rest of the time, we were left to our own devices, which was mostly writing. It’s something I’d recommend to anybody serious about their writing.
The Atlas Award shortlisting was just a hope-for-the-best thing, and waiting for the announcement of the winner, telling myself not to build hopes too high, but building them up anyway, and then not winning is the typical kick-in the-head-resign-from-writing-temporarily-disappointment.
I don’t know if these things tell you you’re on the right path, because you can seem to be on the right path forever, whereas others leapfrog you for success without any of these things at all. I guess it does tell you that your stuff’s at a publishable level, that it’s being considered in these lights.
The mentorship is invaluable, because as a writer – particularly when you’ve been involved with the same piece for so long – you can lose objectivity, so it’s useful to have somebody from the outside looking in, who can offer you feedback, and who you can bounce ideas off and who’ll offer a fresh perspective.
I think there’s a lot of writers – a lot – who are (or would be) publishable if they had some guidance and nurturing along the way, but unfortunately those sort of resources aren’t available.
Anyone who knows you will understand you have strong views where writing and publishing are concerned. There are industry no-nos they harp on about in a lot of the university classes, but you’re one of the few writers I’ve met who figure it’s hard enough out there without limiting yourself. Over the years you’ve edited for both ‘reputable’ and borderline vanity publishing companies, you’ve published erotic fiction under a non de plume, and while you’ve sat on the other side of that editorial desk, you still express unapologetic views on the conduct of some Australian literary journals and publishing houses. Do you think writers, particularly now, are too frightened to break away from what they’ve been taught and just ‘make it’ rather than interning, studying, and submitting at/to the ‘right’ places? And do you think they do this to the detriment of making money and changing the industry to financially support emerging talent?
I don’t know if they’re too frightened to break away. I mean, there could be – just for example – the Australian equivalent of Stephen King out there who we don’t know about because he/she isn’t getting published because, for the most part, mainstream fiction doesn’t seem to get the same sort of exposure in Australia as literary fiction. It’s almost like we have an impoverished financial arts economy (same applies to film) so if anything gets made, it has to have some artistic merit, some literary enrichment (or ennoblement), to justify its expense. There’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but it just seems to dominate our markets. You never read about a killer clown lurking in sewers (a la IT from Stephen King). I use King as an example, as I think he writes, primarily, because he likes to tell a good story.
When I was studying, everybody was writing their own things. I didn’t know anybody who was writing what they thought the market wanted. And some of these people were really good writers with really good stories. Now if you look at that as just the tiniest sample of the writing demographic, there’s a lot of stuff being written. But a lot of the stuff which is invariably published seems the same.
You’re a big part of Blaise Van Hecke’s [untitled] team and one of her best friends. This idea for a journal outside of the existing Melbourne writing circles, was first formulated when we were all enrolled in a Small Press Publishing class. Now that you’re four issues in, has it changed how you work together? Has it made you more sympathetic to the perils of journal publication? Has it changed how you look at submitting as a writer?
It hasn’t really changed how we work together. If anything, we probably know what’s expected of each other more now. Blaise is going to do less editing for hereon because she’s so overloaded doing everything else – layout, dealing with printers, organising the launch, etc. At launches, she’s the only one that doesn’t get thanked, but does so much of the work.
I don’t think working on [untitled] has changed how I look at submitting myself, because as I got older and more experienced, (less stupid), I tried to be fastidious in meeting a target market’s submission guidelines. That’s the most important thing for me. Present a story as it’s requested. It’s annoying to get something in Comic Sans or which blows away the word limit, as if the author thinks it’s going to be so awesome that we’ll overlook any other liberties, (although, to be honest, when I was much younger, I behaved a bit similarly).
I don’t know that it’s made me sympathetic to the perils of journal publication either, other than to maybe show me there’s a limited number of spots for stories in any one journal, and way too many submissions to accommodate them all.
But I know during the first issue, when I was handling our mailbox (which we now have interns doing) I felt absolutely horrible sending out rejections to people, knowing they were going to experience that dejection I’ve felt so often. It was actually draining. I wondered if the people who’d sent me rejections felt the same.
The journal itself is interesting. You have policies regarding submitting to allow space for new writers to get their work out there, you often offer feedback and editorial support to accepted writers, and you accept all fiction, placing genre and commercial fiction at the same importance as literary fiction. This, alongside the fact you’re not affiliated with any universities or writing organisations, has made you appear a more accessible publication to writers in general, not just new writers. Was this what you were aiming to do? – To create a comfortable, inviting, submission space for writers? Or do think this has for to do with family-like environment Blaise has adopted for everyone involved?
When we originally discussed [untitled], we wanted it to be accessible to mainstream and genre writers as well. Literary fiction is well-represented in Australia. That’s not to say we won’t publish it, because we’ve had some literary stories. But we wanted to be open to everything, as long as it’s a good story, whereas it seems some other markets are only open to a good story if it’s a literary story.
Originally, we also wanted to personalise rejections to everybody, and we did that to begin with. But as we got more and more submissions per issue, we found it was just too hard to keep up the practice so, sadly, we reverted to form rejections, for the most part – although we’ll still personalise the occasional rejection. Sometimes, it’ll be for something which we were close to accepting. Other times, it might be to somebody you can see is starting out, and offering a few suggestions to help them along. It’d be great to personalise them all but, again, with the amount of submissions coming in, it makes it impossible.
Most recently, you’ve been working on a YA fantasy novel – a large break away from your literary and realism work. Is this a genre you’d like to work in more? And given the extraordinarily short amount of time you spent writing the novel (just weeks, wasn’t it?), do you believe this could be the genre you’re most comfortable with?
I wrote my young adult novel, which was 75,000 words, in about six weeks, and most of it was in the last month, because Blaise challenged me to finish it in time to enter in the Text Prize.
I’ve always liked fantasy. That’s actually where all my writing began. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve, and while some people find them overwritten and/or boring, the thing which really astonished me was their depth. They weren’t just self-contained stories with hastily-written backdrops.
Tolkien had built this foundation of history (which was later explored in his other books, like The Silmarillion, and the various anthologies his son compiled from his short stories and unfinished work) that spanned millennia, and made LotR incredibly layered and textured, which I think some people miss. The world is so dense and storied.
That was actually my first lesson as a writer: before I begin writing anything, build the world from the ground up. I don’t plan the story itself, just the world in which the story unfolds. So a lot of times I’ll come up with characters and locations, etc., which I might never use. But it helps, because you never get to the point where you have to contemplate who the characters are meeting or where they’re going. Those things are there, and they propel the story.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to write fantasy. I handwrote book one of an intended five book series, then rewrote it several times (once by typewriter, another by computer). I wrote another fantasy epic (260,000 words), which is sitting on my computer, waiting to be redrafted. I never really did much with them, though. I know the first book got past a round of reading, but was rejected. The other didn’t really go anywhere. Back then, I was great at sitting down and writing and finishing stuff, but horrible at submitting stuff after it was done.
I don’t think I’m really comfortable with this genre. I’m probably most at ease with stories based around writing where the protagonists are deeply flawed, but I like fantasy, (which is why I’ll keep writing in the genre and hope to publish a best-seller). I like that all things are possible, and that ultimately it comes down to classical archetypes of good versus evil.
I just like to write to write, to tell a story, whatever that story might contain. If I wanted to attribute any meaning to it all, I think with writing, it’s constantly a reinterpretation of self. Even if you’re writing something fantastic or other-worldly. I always see bits of myself in my protagonists, and bits of friends, family, etc., in the other characters. It’s almost like a way of making (or trying to make) sense of yourself.
* * *
You can find [untitled] here: http://www.untitledonline.com.au/
The question is the threshold. With print novels (until the age of cheap self-publishing), there was quality control. Publishers weren’t publishing everything that came through their offices. They were selective. Obviously, they got it wrong a time or two, but they tried to maintain a standard. The e-form opens the dam, which would almost be like every publisher publishing their slush piles.
I’m not trying to be snobbish. I think everybody has something valuable to say and by valuable, I don’t mean it has to be ennobling with some lofty artistic merit. For me, something entertaining is ennobling, because for the time it entertains, it makes you feel good/happier/more fulfilled/or whatever the case might be, so there’s value in that. And with that being the case, I think everything has a market, whether it’s niche or mass.
But the question for me, always, I guess is voice. What’s to differentiate something worth reading from what’s not? Because if you have this saturation, at what point does it become a flood from which you recoil because you know venturing out there is going to drown you?
Although there’s a ton of novels out there, there’s always been a marquis about them, because it’s traditionally been so hard to get published. The e-form takes that out of the equation. Blogging almost validates that since so many people blog. All you need is a computer.
So with the e-form opening the door for everybody to publish everything, everybody else effectively becomes a slush pile reader, kicking up (in a sense of recommending) some gem they’ve found to others, which creates that cascade effect that you’d hope you discover the life-buoys in the flood.
However, the book will never die. You cannot kill a good story you can lose yourself in. It’s just the form it takes. Reading on a computer isn’t conducive to reading length. But eventually the technology’s going to develop that makes e-readers comparable to hardcopy print, which might even suggest that length will go the other way, since printing costs won’t be a consideration. In time, e-readers will become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, which, you’d hope, might actually encourage reading.
Somehow, though, kids will probably just play games on them.
As an aside, I don’t think you can beat the tactile sensation of an actual book. Maybe nerdy, but the texture of a page under your fingertips, the feel of a cover (particularly when it’s embossed, or the grain of a hardcopy), the actual sensation that turning a page is like taking a step deeper into the story’s world.
I like the pages’ smell when they’re new, and the way they yellow – almost with self-importance – and grow musty as the book gets older, as well as the way a book’s wear shows the journey it’s taken with you over the years. It has its own story. I even have books which might have a dog-ear, or a coffee stain on a particular page, which always triggers a memory of when that page was read.
Not to mention a book’s durability. You can read it in the tub; throw it in your bag, flick it on your bedside drawers, or hurl it at a spider, without fear of it being damaged; and, in all likelihood, somebody won’t mug you for it when you’re riding a train home late at night.