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…