WORKING AN INVISIBLE THREAD: an interview with
One of the great things about online journals is being able to keep in touch with the literary world’s movers and shakers, the people who work their arses off to make things happen for others. Another great thing is being able to respond to what’s happening in various parts of Australia – and indeed around the globe – right here, right now. Canberra-based Irma Gold is one of the literary world’s movers and shakers, a damn fine writer, and a completely delightful person to boot, which makes her a favourite in the Verity La community. We know, we shouldn’t have favourites, but we do, so there you go. We’ve caught up with Irma twice before: in July last year just before her first short story collection Two Steps Forward was published, and again in December to see how that book was travelling – the fact is, it’s been travelling very well indeed. We’ve dropped Irma another line to see what’s happening for her this year. Lots is the answer. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone. Disclosure: your humble Verity La servant is one of 70 or so writers who has work in the anthology Irma talks about; it’s an amazing honour.
As Verity La has noted before, you may well be the busiest person in Australian literature. How’s life been since the publication of your wonderful short-story collection, Two Steps Forward (Affirm Press 2011)?
Busy! I’ve been compiling an anthology of 100 years of Canberra writing, The Invisible Thread, which has pretty much taken over my life this year. We’re soon to embark on that exciting and frightening moment when it’s released into readers’ hands. In the meantime I’m filming a series of interviews with some of the authors and planning a number of different events for the anthology during Canberra’s centenary year. I’m particularly excited about Woven Words which is going to be a multi-arts event featuring three of The Invisible Thread authors – Alex Miller, Alan Gould and Sara Dowse – reading their work. The event will incorporate music from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra in response to the readings, as well as dance, film and visual art. We’re going to have an artist creating a painting live in response to Alex Miller’s reading. It’s an ambitious event and I can’t wait to see it all come together. All The Invisible Thread work has squeezed out time for my own writing, but after six years I think I might have finally completed my debut novel. Maybe.
Congratulations on completing that novel manuscript! Let’s stay with The Invisible Thread for a bit. Tell us more about how it’s been for you as an editor to work on a hundred years of one city’s literature, with that city just so happening to be Australia’s national capital.
I hate to say, ‘It’s been an amazing journey’, because it makes me feel like a Biggest Loser contestant, but it really has. It was a privilege and a pleasure working with the Advisory Committee; together we spent one year reading through the work of over 150 writers. I was able to explore writers who’d been on my ‘To Read’ list for years, discover those I’d not previously been aware of, and revisit those I already loved. The Advisory Committee had a series of meetings (fuelled by plenty of coffee and pastries) to discuss all the works. Sitting around a table with a group of such intelligent and passionate people was invigorating.
Once the committee had made their recommendations, I began making final selections. Since then I’ve exchanged thousands of emails and phone calls with some of Australia’s finest writers. It is quite something to be able to personally connect with writers whose work you have long admired. Like Les Murray, who is surely one of the loveliest and most generous writers in Australia (and the first person to send me a postcard with a grinning monkey on it). Or Marion Halligan who is astute and brilliant. Or Russell Erwin whose comedic yet poetic emails never failed to make me laugh. Or John Clanchy who always offered me some pearl of wisdom. Or Blanche d’Alpuget whose description of what Canberra is – as opposed to most people’s perception of what our capital is – just knocked my socks off with its clear insight. I could go on (and on).
Recently I have been interviewing some of the authors on film for a series to be released in the lead-up to The Invisible Thread’s launch, and I have found these conversations eminently fascinating. I have gained so much personally from editing this anthology, and I obviously hope that readers will also gain much. And I do hope the anthology helps dispel the myth that Canberra is a boring place where nothing happens. Our nation’s capital is a literary powerhouse; a meeting place for ideas and imagination. This anthology attests to that.
The anthology has a fair amount of financial support, including a grant from artsACT, the ACT Government’s arts funding agency, but you decided to start a Pozible campaign. Why go down that path? And how have you found crowd-funding in the context of literary publishing?
We’ve been very fortunate to receive funding from a number of organisations, including the Centenary of Canberra, Paperchain Bookstore in Manuka ACT and property developers the Molonglo Group, but we were still slightly short of the funds required to print the anthology. In launching a Pozible campaign we decided to set a target that would also allow us to pay the filmmaker of the interview series and the authors for appearances at our scheduled events.
Crowd-funding has proved to be very successful for a number of arts organisations and it seemed like the most appropriate way to address our shortfall. With Pozible, supporters pledge an amount (we’ve had donations as small as $10 and as large as $1000) and at the campaign’s end the donations are processed. But there’s a catch. If the target isn’t reached the organisation doesn’t receive a cent. We’ve got just eight days to go and are keeping everything crossed in the hope that we reach our $5000 target in time.
One of the unexpected side benefits of the Pozible campaign has been that in talking to people about the anthology we’ve witnessed how supportive the community is of our project. That’s been very heartening.
Fingers crossed the campaign gets there! Back in July last year, I asked you how you keep together the various strands of your writing life; you replied, ‘there are times when it feels like there are too many balls in the air and things get a bit stressful. But mostly it all seems to work and I’m grateful that I get to do what I love.’ Do you still feel this way? Or does the juggle simply get harder and harder?
Ha! This is where words come back to bite! I still feel that way in the sense that I haven’t let work eat into my time with the kids (though at this point my husband would grumble about the number of evenings he’s lost me to the laptop), but not in the sense that I’ve had very little time for my own writing this year. I’m not just the Editor of The Invisible Thread, I’m also the Project Manager, which means I’m doing everything from organising sponsorship and social media to planning events and a book-trailer – and a whole lot more besides. And then I have these ‘great’ ideas that I can’t resist – like filming the author interview series – which take up even more time. At one point I hadn’t even looked at my novel in six months, which was frustrating because it was so close to being finished; I only needed a few dedicated weeks. On the up-side when I did finally get that time, I came to it with a fresh and critical eye. In the meantime I’ve accepted that I’m not going to get much time to do my own writing until next year. And that’s okay. It’s not ideal, but it’s okay, because working on The Invisible Thread – anthologising the work of a city in a way that has never been done in Australia before – has been an incomparable experience.
When all is said and done, what drives you?
Growing up my dad always told us kids, ‘Do what you love no matter what.’ We understood this to mean even if it’s tough or there’s no money in it (I obviously took the ‘no money’ bit a little too seriously). Dad trained to become a lawyer because it was his dad’s unfulfilled dream, and he loathed it. When he was married with two small children, he took the courageous step of returning to university for five years to become an osteopath. At the time we had no money, my mum was trying to manage my dad’s freelance work as a solicitor to make ends meet, juggling phone calls with kids in the background and trying to pretend she was in an office. But they did it and Dad is now an internationally-respected osteopath, which is because he’s passionate about what he does. We grew up against the backdrop of this story and it gave me and my five brothers unconditional freedom to find and pursue what made us happy. We have all gone in different directions (they work in the areas of physics, medicine, arts management, biology and architecture) and I’m sure this is because of Dad’s fearless example. That’s a very longwinded way of saying that what drives me is love for what I do. I’ve never had a master plan; one thing has led to the next to the next. Without writing and editing I probably wouldn’t be much fun to be around.
If you’d like to support Irma and The Invisible Thread project, here’s that link again for the Pozible campaign. There are some amazing goodies on offer, including VIP invitations to some of the extraordinary events mentioned in this interview.