Archive for the Books Category

A Launch!

Posted in Books on September 20, 2012 by ladyredjess

Entitlement is now on the shelves and in the stratosphere – see Book.ish, ReadCloud, Amazon, Google Play and Kobo.  Alas, the ebook version is only available in Australia, so for those overseas, hard copies can be bought online from bookshops such as Avid Reader, Riverbend, Readings, the Coop bookstore, Booktopia and Penguin.  You can also read the first couple of chapters on Book.ish.

The novel had a wonderful send-off into the world with a launch at Avid Reader in West End.  Friends flew up from Canberra, Orange and Sydney and spilled into my flat in the late morning of the 31st August.  I had baked L and H a birthday cake, and subsequently set off the fire alarm with sparklers.

The swag of friends had, wisely, hired a bus to ferry us around.  We checked L&G into their hotel in South Bank and lunched outside GOMA, then shopped for knitwear for SP’s party, to which we were heading after the launch, at the Red Cross in the Valley.  B, who already had a knitted tennis dress, sourced a blue and white loosely knitted frock with pockets, which I appropriated. On the way to the launch I realised that I’d left it behind.

‘It’s not that important,’ H said.

‘I paid ten dollars for that dress!’

‘Ok, we can get it afterwards,’ he murmured.

At Avid there were already a few people I knew milling about.  H unloaded the red wine and bubbles from Blowfly.  Sister turned up wearing the same Sacha Drake dress as me, but in blue.

‘I thought you were wearing Alannah Hill?’ she said.

‘I’m wearing an Alannah Hill belt!  Besides, I told you I’d be wearing this dress.’

Within minutes, it seemed, the bookstore was crammed with people.  I couldn’t believe that some three years ago I had arrived in Brisbane knowing three people – my sister, a friend from uni, and a friend from school – and now I knew enough to pack a bookstore to the rafters.  It was testimony, I think, to the friendliness of Brisbane.

I was in conversation with Kris Olsson, author of The China Garden, a muted and carefully crafted work about lost children published by UQP in 2009, and which, a year later, won the Barbara Jefferis award.  I didn’t realise the similarities in our works, in terms of our obsessions with lost children, until later.   All the same, I was delighted to have such a contemplative author launching my novel.

I said a few thankyous, enlarging on those in the book’s acknowledgements, to people who had made the novel possible.  It is a Brisbane book in that it followed me from a room in my sister’s house to my own place (care of Parental Unit), and that all the days I spent in paid work at Autism Queensland and the University of Queensland helped me to write it, and all the friends I made in each new circle were interested and supportive, and helped me to get away from it now and then.  I thanked Fiona, too, for her bookclubs at Avid which, when I arrived in Brisbane after doing a fairly rigorous PhD in London, were a way of keeping my brain from starvation and of meeting people. I thanked Krissy, too, for being at the forefront of the initiative to reinstate the Queensland Literary Awards, and Kris for helping to launch the book.

Finally I pointed out that in our family, we were pretty terrible at saying that we loved each other.  ‘So,’ I said to H, ‘I wrote a book for you instead, and I hope you like it.’  Then I did a reading before I could burst into tears.

Kris’ questions were intelligent and leading, canvassing the inspiration for the work, how I’d researched it, my relationship with H and the themes of loss.  There were a couple of questions from the audience.  P1 stood up so I could see him and asked, very clearly, ‘How do you get the motivation to sit down day after day and write?’

I smiled at that, P1 and I having canvassed this topic before, and explained that I needed to write as a way of containing my emotions and, often, frustration about being deaf.  If I didn’t write, I started to feel a bit sick.  I asked Kris if she felt like this too, and she agreed.  Mum asked Kris if there were autobiographical elements in her works too, as Entitlement was predominantly drawn from my memories of growing up on our property, and Kris replied that by the third novel, certain themes or obsessions certainly began to appear.

We sold a whack of books, which was splendid, and after shooing the people out of the bookshop, I went down the road for Indian with my friends, Bris Vegan and Southern Imports alike.  The food was a long time coming, and L began to look a little grey, while I started to lose the plot after finally being allowed to drink some champagne.

After dinner we dropped off L&G and, coming out of the hotel, took a wrong turn in the party bus.

‘Don’t go over the bridge!’ I shouted.

We went over the bridge.

As I waited for H to get into the right lane, I replied to a text from P, who was stuck at an airport in Bangkok.

‘What’re you doing?’ H exclaimed.  ‘You’re the only person who’s familiar with Brisbane and you’re texting your boyfriend.’

‘Right!’ I shouted, fortuitously recognising where we were.  ‘You’ve gotta go right!’

We made it back over the river to home, where I changed into my loosely woven (read: somewhat airy) knit and we set off for Bowan Hills.  B, L and I had a bit of a dance on SP’s living room floor, then I stupidly sat down and was so exhausted I couldn’t get up again, so H took me home.

The next day SP was missing in action because he hadn’t gone to bed until 6am.  We brunched at Little Stanley Street, where my southern friends witnessed some truly awful table service, then L, getting into the spirit of things, acquired some Briz Vegan attire through the purchase of some thongs.  We found some grass, sat in the sun and read the paper, while I dozed and burnt an exposed strip of skin on my back.  Afterwards we ambled to GOMA to see the sculpture exhibition, which had some interesting pieces, including rotating fluffy car washers, in which I wistfully wished I could stand.

The next morning we brunched at SP’s, but this time R was out cold due to extracurricular activity which hadn’t allowed him any sleep.  B lay in the hammock and read my novel, while I picked up Jim Crace’s Arcadia from a pile in SP’s room and sat in a cane chair in the garden, shooing away SP’s puppy when he gnawed the chair.  It was, altogether, a truly lovely weekend.

Since then I have been waylaid by exhaustion and scuds of illness, unable muster the energy to do anything about my diminishing fitness levels, or move onto my next book, which is frustrating.  My agent has insisted I have a rest before starting the next project, but I told myself I would write an intro and first chapter on Praed during September and, being stubborn, I’m taking next week off work to do it.  And to generally reboot, pick up my social life again, and sleep and sleep and sleep.




Posted in Books, Disability, Social Justice on August 6, 2012 by ladyredjess

In January, I had the good fortune to catsit Pierre, the prettiest feline known to man, while his owners moved to Melbourne and found somewhere to live. For the good part of a year they had been my neighbours, and Pierre often wandered into my flat and sat on my drafts as I wrote, or stretched out on my bed in the sun and sleep.  If it was a summer afternoon and I was dozy with heat, I often curled up next to him and napped too.

Unfortunately, over the year, the kitten owned by the neighbours on the other side of my neighbours grew into a feral tabby, festooned with a studded collar.  One evening of catsitting, while Pierre was casually watching the world beyond my screen door, he suddenly hissed and arched.  The tabby was on the other side of the door, wanting a fight.  I scared it away and Pierre shot me a look of pure venom for not allowing him out the door and at the tabby.

Pierre naps in summer.

It was a shock to see this sweet-natured creature, who was allowed to sit on my red velvet couch (at that point not even my sister’s children were allowed on it), who slept on my feet or woke me up at 5am by touching his wet nose to my forehead, transformed into animal who was pissed off for me for trying to protect him.  I became aware of how much cat-ness I projected onto him, and how alien we were to each other.

This slippage between the animal and the human is explored with sophistication and deftness in Eva Hornug’s Dog Boy.  The novel opens with a four-year-old boy, Romochka, who discovers he has been abandoned by his mother and uncle in the depths of winter.  He ventures outside for food and follows a dog, Mamochka, back to her lair in a basement.  He suckles with her pups and grows into part of their pack, learning to utilise his senses as a dog might, by concentrating on smells; or how a dog’s teeth can be read the way a human mouth can; or by listening to the sounds of the pack as if they are words.  Not only does Romochka become more like a dog, but the dogs themselves are imbued with human qualities, for example, ‘Mamochka treated [Ramochka] with disarming solicitude’ (22), which enables the reader to emapthise with them, as Romochka does.  As the boy grows, he learns to think and survive as a dog, but is inevitably drawn back to the human world, dragging his pack with him, with painful consequences.

The story is told in third person and is largely focalised through Romochka.  When he is captured by authorities, however, and handed to the doctors of a children’s centre, the lyricism of the story is lost, as the focalisation shifts to the doctors.  If this move was designed to represent an abrupt shift back into the clinical human world, it worked, however I found the representation of the doctors to be two-dimensional and unsatisfying.  In particular, the reports which the female doctor tabled on Romochka were bland, stilted, and contributed nothing to the text.  It was a pity, because the story was otherwise rich, sensitive and sensual (even as it canvassed the distasteful).  It is one of the cleverest pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time, making one question what it means to be human, and if the human condition — given the contrast between the cruelty of some of the people in the text and the kindness and protection of the dogs — is necessarily better than that of being an animal.

Similar themes were raised at a talk I attended in May at the University of Queensland Art Gallery.  It was chaired by the admirable Dr Donna McDonald as part of Diversity Week, and was held in conjunction with the Animal/Human exhibition.  Marvellously, the sliding doors of the entrance to this exhibition were imprinted with an image of a herd of cows, so that one had to wait for the herd to part as the doors opened.

Donna is a senior lecturer and convener of the Disability Studies Program at Griffith University.  She had arranged for an Auslan interpreter, even if there was no one in the audience who read Auslan, as she was keen to raise awareness of the necessity of making public spaces accessible to all people at all times.  The panel also included Sam Leach, one of the artists in the exhibition, and Mandy Paterson, Scientific Research Officer with the Qld RSPCA.  According to the scrawl in my notebook, the discussion touched on how animals teach us to become familiar with the unfamiliar, the diverse and the different; how we negotiate relationships and connect with some animals, but not others (for example, connecting with cats, but detesting cockroaches); how the borders between animal and human can be disrupted, for example by a woman who was rolled by a crocodile up north and lived, and realised she wasn’t a person anymore, she was meat.

There was also, importantly, the observation that we can never enter into another consciousness, not even another human’s, and this I think is essential for understanding the relationships that many have with the disabled: people lack the imagination to conceive of the difficulties of another person’s life and, in doing so, they dismiss them as less-than-human, as something that needn’t be bothered with because it’s simply too much hard work.

This lack of empathy continues the long association between the disabled and animals.  Deaf people, for example, were believed to be no better than animals because they couldn’t hear the word of God, and therefore they couldn’t have a soul or attain a state of grace.  In World War Two the deaf were one of the groups rounded up by the Nazis and gassed because they were thought to be inferior.  And neither are these attitudes confined to history, as witnessed by Campbell Newman’s recent refusal to put forth any funding for NDIS trials.  His actions speak loudly, even to a deaf person: he believes the disabled aren’t worthy of the same care and education as their abled (for want of a better word) peers.  Newman would do well, I think, to read Dog Boy, but then I don’t think he reads, because he canned the Premier’s Literary Awards.

During the drinks after the talk, Donna took me to see a piece by Patricia Piccinini which I had overlooked (I’d seen Piccinini’s other hyper real exhibit of a man holding a blob fish and, approaching it from behind I thought, ‘Geez that man must be pretty tired holding that thing all day,’ and then realised it wasn’t real).  The exhibit, encased in a glass box, was of a newborn baby curled up, asleep, surrounded by three or four green frogs.  The baby was so lifelike that my response was instinctive and visceral: I pressed a hand to my chest, suppressing an impulse to pick the child up and cradle it.  For all the cultural hardwiring of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we are really not so different from animals: we fight when threatened (as happened to me when attacked in London: I became, for a few seconds, an animal completely evicted of reason, being instead motivated by adrenalin and nothing else), and we nurture and look out for our own (although our esteemed Premier might not).

Pierre continually lost the fights against the tabby, and I was so upset that I retrieved my plant spray bottle from the cupboard, changed the nozzle from misty diffuser to thin and hard, and sprayed the feral cat whenever he came close, which sort of worked.  Pierre is now he is very happily keeping his owners warm in the bitter Melbourne winter, but it took a while to stop hoping that he would appear at the gauze door as I wrote, miaowing insistently for entry.

Pierre obstructing the process (and mirroring my feelings exactly) of writing an Oz Co grant application.

To Niew Zilland

Posted in Books, Travelling, Writing on July 31, 2012 by ladyredjess

A few weeks back I made my first visit to Brisbane’s international airport.  Although I was only going across the ditch to New Zealand, I was pretty darn excited because, I realised, it was the first time I’d been out of the country in three years.  Such is the reality of being a povo writer: travel is limited.

This was my fourth visit to NZ, the latest being 10 years ago when H and I backpacked from Auckland to Christchurch, struggling en route up Mt Tongariro (or rather, I struggled, being very unfit at that stage) with a swag of people, including a couple dressed in exactly the same outfit of pale trousers, shirt and hat.  We had waited for the bus to the mountain in a café with yellow tabletops decorated with ski boots with a candles stuck in them, while a song by Mel C played on the radio.  Later, I met my first misogynist in a hostel in Westport (which was otherwise very nice), bought a fabulous handbag woven from packing tape, got attacked by a tui and whacked it with said handbag, and helped H push grandma’s car through a street in Akaroa because he couldn’t work out how to get it into reverse.

We are half Kiwi, as Mum hails from Christchurch, so each visit finishes in that city with a stay with Gran.  This time I flew into Wellington for the annual conference of the Association of the Study of Australian Literature, the first time it had been held overseas.  However, to my chagrin, the plane was delayed for four hours, so I finished reading my novel and had to buy another, and then I missed the opening talk by Martin Edmond.

Martin is a writer of non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, biographies and blogs.  I used to read his blog about being a taxi driver while I sat on the desk at UCL Library, in between checking out books to students.  My father had been a taxi driver of an old black Woolsley in Sydney before he met my mother and took her back to the farm (with the car which, unregistered, loaded with dust and with faulty seatbelts, was used to drive sedately through paddocks or to visit our aunts and uncles on the property), and I discerned in both him and Martin the same rapport with people of all walks of life.  My father tried to teach me this affinity, but sadly I picked up his latent snobbery instead.

The next day at the conference (at which I finally arrived after walking into another conference altogether, full of lawyers) I introduced myself to Martin, and found that he recognised me from my blog, and there came that peculiar but enchanting moment of meeting someone who knows a substantial part of your history before you’ve barely opened your mouth.  He was a lovely person, and later emailed me his talk, which detailed an intricate network of artistic, literary and mercantile relationships spanning the Tasman.

The conference itself was wonderful, especially for someone who isn’t affiliated with an institution but still craves academic stimulation.  I met fellow scholars on Rosa Praed, caught up with someone I hadn’t seen since my Honours year at Wollongong, gave a paper on Georgiana Molloy and her children’s graves, learnt about the representations of islands and homesteads in Australian literature, listened to a sophisticated ecocritical reading of That Deadman Dance and Carpentaria by Jane Gleeson-White (who has also blogged on the conference extensively herehere and here) and, at the dinner, sat next to Richard Hill, of the Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit, and found what I could hear very interesting, but sadly this wasn’t much as he had a beard and a low voice.

At the same time, the conference was a little unsettling, as I was a writer of fiction circulating among people whose job it was to pull fictional texts apart.  Surely, I thought more than once, writers don’t put all this stuff into their work?  And then I mused to my father later, on the phone, why on earth people dissected texts and artworks like this, and wondered if literary critics could see something in texts that writers themselves can’t see – a part of their subconscious, perhaps, and the way they interact with culture.  As always, I remain torn by the critical and the creative, and wish there was some way of balancing them.

Wellington, despite its drizzle, was a pretty city, and I wish I’d had longer to explore its bars and cafes (in one of which, French and red, I sat to read and collect myself before moving on to the conference dinner).  I had looked at Katherine Mansfield’s house on the previous trip with H, but I would have liked to have seen some gardens, especially after hearing Sarah Jane Barnett’s wonderful poem on the precariousness of gardening on Wellington’s steep slopes. On the other hand, the brief stay was probably just as well, as the boutiques were gorgeous and I am currently destitute.  I did walk into one shoe shop, and successfully walked out without extracting my credit card, which was no mean feat.

After the conference I caught the ferry to Picton.  The sun came out and the water was dazzling.

Picton, too, sparkled despite the biting breeze, and I had time to find a coffee and watch the locals sitting outside the café in the morning light, before catching the train to Christchurch.  Again, the scenery was spectacular, the train very civilised (unlike the rattler H and I had caught from Greymouth to Christchurch a decade before) and I realised I’d forgotten how pretty and dramatic New Zealand is.

Christchurch, however, was a sad heap of rubble.  Buildings were still being torn down because they were unsafe.  My aunt took us to lunch in the suburbs, which were being utilised by businesses that had lost their buildings in the centre, and said how people were so stressed by the earthquakes and aftershocks that their immunity was low and they kept getting sick.  I felt one tremor while I was there, the night before I flew out.  I had just fallen asleep, and thought my Shake Awake, my vibrating alarm clock (necessary for those who can’t hear alarms) had gone off, but I found it was 11.30pm.  In a painful conversation with the taxi driver the next morning (he had an accent and I hadn’t had enough sleep and it was 5am and he was chirpy as) I discovered it was a quake of 4.5 that had made my bed shake like it was possessed by poltergeist.

My grandmother is 90 in October.  I always remember her birthday because it was the same as Sue Ellen, my Cabbage Patch Kid’s, given to me for Christmas when I was 7 (and which my sister ruined almost instantly by tearing the doll’s nappy).  Grandma likes to fuss, and I detest being fussed over and prefer very much to do my own thing, so after the first day, in which I was limp with exhaustion after so much listening at the conference, I began to get a little frustrated, and tried to subsume said frustration in reading.  I resisted eating in the dining hall with the other biddies (recoiling at the thought of all those deaf people, myself included, trying to have a conversation), but was made to go to morning tea.  I consequently finished four novels, and managed not to get into an argument with Grandma about the Maori’s water rights.

It was delightful to follow the sunrise home from Christchurch on the plane, and I was thoroughly pleased to get back to the warmer climes of Bris Vegas, albeit burdened with several bottles of Marlborough sav blanc, which is pretty much the only wine I drink.  I’m now gearing up for my book publicity.  My website (C/- H), is nearly ready to go and I have half an outfit worked out for my launch.  I am, however, lacking shoes to match.  A new (perfectly justified, naturally) purchase may be in order.

On Endings

Posted in Books, Writing on July 17, 2012 by ladyredjess

Entitlement is done.  My advance copy arrived in the post yesterday morning and it is, quite simply, gorgeous.  The colours are warm, inviting and well-blended, and the character in the foreground, contemplating the homestead, encapsulates Cate and her dilemma perfectly.  My editor, Rachel Scully, and the designer, John Canty, will always have my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for pulling this together so beautifully.

The novel will be released on 22nd August, both in hardcopy and as an e-book, and the launch will be at Avid Reader on 31st August.  I’m trying to decide which frock to wear, but at the moment my cobalt blue Sacha Drake wrap dress is winning out.  Possibly with my red stiletto Karen Millen boots from London.  Or with my pale pink Alannah Hill pumps.  Some consultation with my sister will be required, methinks.

So I am exhilarated, but it has also been quite saddening.  Once we had finished the copy edit and I couldn’t touch the work any longer, I plunged into depression.  The world lost its lustre and it was difficult to feel connected to anything.  One the one hand, there are straightforward reasons for this: for the last three years, nearly every day has been geared towards the production of this book.  I’ve worked part-time in a flexible, if sometimes unstimulating, job, so I have time to write and I’m not drained by stress.  I’ve run in the mornings to wear myself out and sit down and write for the rest of the day; or conversely, swam in the afternoon to unwind after a day of writing.  I haven’t made a habit of drinking, so I can get up and write the next day without being blurred by a hangover (which, incidentally, makes me a delightfully cheap drunk).  Most of my annual leave has been taken up with writing so I’ve barely had a break, and if I did get a break, most of it was stained by feeling guilty for not writing.  The novel and its characters travelled with me for all this time, becoming especially real in the last few months.  Is it any wonder, then, when I contemplated divorce from the world I had created and nurtured, that I dissolved into tears?

Yet no one seemed able to understand my abiding sense of loss, and nor could I completely comprehend it myself.  After all, there are songs, stories and novels aplenty about losing lovers, homelands and friends, but where are the narratives about the loss of a creative life?

I’ve found myself turning, as I so often do, to Margaret Atwood’s wonderful book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Anchor Books, 2003).  In this, Atwood observes that ‘the mere act of writing splits the self into two’ (p. 32), and that there are two selves that make up a writer:

‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing’ (p. 34).

There were times, particularly in the last few days of the copy edit, when my body truly was nothing but this form that ate, slept and pushed a pen across a page so that the story could emerge and live.  It wasn’t me anymore; I was the story itself.

Later in her text Atwood expounds on the role of this ‘shadowy personage’, describing how all writing is motivated ‘by the desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead’ (p. 156).  What she means is that writers write to make something alive – they talk to ghosts, write down their stories, and bring them to life.  Of course, the Underworld can be interpreted as the unconscious, and the self that goes about its daily living does so in order that this unconscious might be able to take a tangible shape.

So Entitlement is not merely three years of work in a beautifully packaged form, it is three years of conversations with an inner self; of carrying forth a childhood, a love for the land on which I was raised and for my brother and family; of finding words to shape a loss so that others can feel it too; of several startling moments when a phrase appears in your head, so suited to the scene at hand, that you are astonished; of daydreams that are wished for and projected into the writing; and of the alchemising of research into something accessible and believable.  When that process is interrupted, and there is no longer a daily conversation with the elements of your psyche that contribute to the work, it seems obvious that you will feel depressed.  And as so few make such a journey or go through this process, it’s difficult to communicate it.  Most people get on with living, rather than using that living to make stories, and to engage with other worlds.  And this, quite frankly, is alienating.

However, I went to the annual ASAL conference in New Zealand last week and was jolted into a new environment (albeit another unsettling, but still stimulating one, where academics pull apart the works you have put together – more of this in another post), and stayed with my gran in Christchurch, and read 6 novels, and generally recovered.  I feel altogether more normal now, although there is still a vague and persistent sense of absence.  I have a mountain of non-fiction writing awaiting me (on which I am, of course, procrastinating) and there is the difficult decision to make not only about shoes, but also on whether to wear a silver belt or a pink flower with a ribbon, with my launch frock.  Clearly, we’re a long way from the underworld.



Posted in Books, Writing on June 30, 2012 by ladyredjess

My novel has gone to the printers!   I am bereft, but will be happy again soon.

Here is what it looks like:



And here is the info on Penguin’s website.  Exciting!

On Affection and Lovers

Posted in Books, Writing on June 25, 2012 by ladyredjess

June has slipped away in a rash of cold days, in which I have struggled to negotiate a post-novel world.  We’ve done the proofreading and acknowledgements, and shortly Entitlement will be printed.  So now I have time to read again, and over the weekend I was held hostage for 14 hours by George RR Martin’s A Feast for Crows, which was just as well as I had a significant champagne hangover and couldn’t be compelled to move from the couch.  Before that, returning to my staple of Australian fiction (and in line with the Australian Women Writers Challenge), I picked up Krissy Kneen’s Affection and Susan Johnson’s new novel, My Hundred Lovers.

Kneen’s memoir, situated in 2008 as she approaches her 40th birthday, dips into a past that, since her childhood, has been charged with sexuality.  From the gorgeous, tactile world she experiences as a child, to her surreptitious explorations of her body in a ‘sexless’ household of ‘five industrious women, and [her] grandfather hiding invisible in his room’ (12), to her tentative interactions with geeks when she moves to the city, to ‘the day-to-day excitement of the next man, and the next’, and the workmates who she lived with who, cognisant of their beauty, were the incarnation of manipulation, through to her breakdown precipitated in part by a fragile self beaten by prescriptions that women should look or act a certain way, this is a work that charts how vivid sex makes you feel, and – given that it can veer from intense intimacy to punishment – how vulnerable.  After an unwanted encounter with a bastard (my adjective) named Brian who ‘told me with each thrust that I was hideous, and with each thrust I believed him’ (242), came a chapter titled ‘Mantra’, beginning with Brian’s list of all the things that were supposedly wrong with the narrator:

‘I am ugly.  I am crass.  I am coarse.  I am unfeminine.  I am too harsh.  I am too honest.  I have no secrets.  I am too obvious.  I am too sexual.  I am too aggressively sexual.  I am like a man.  I am not like a girlfriend.  I am unlovable.  I am ugly.  I am crass’ (245).

This is what our culture does to women who don’t shape themselves to some outdated, persistent version of 1950s sexuality: if we aren’t conventionally pretty, if we love sex too overtly, if we are too smart, too bold, too lacking in submission – we are denigrated until our self consists of nothing at all.  But this chapter, however harrowing its beginning, shoved two fingers up to all those who would have women conform with its repeated assertion: ‘I am I am I am I am I am’.  It was brilliant.

Susan Johnson’s novel is similar to Kneen’s in that it is saturated by the senses and the pleasure derived from them.  In it, one hundred short chapters, each detailing a lover – whether words, men, breasts, adored relatives – add up to a woman’s sensual life.  The writing is a lover in itself, caressing the reader as it details the protagonist’s movements between Paris and Australia, trying to find a place to settle, and the right man to settle with.  Who could not respond to Chapter 84, titled ‘Toes’:

‘There is nothing like it: mudflats at low tide, the slivers of silver water, the ooze between the toes, the adult feet returned to childhood, shoes off, crab holes everywhere and, if you are lucky, a cloud of crabs with their bony, articulated limbs swarming across the ruffled mud’ (225).

You could pick out any page in this novel, and swoon a little.

I enjoyed the structure, which didn’t have a pulsing rush to a climax, but rather eddied around pleasures in a languorous way (and here one could delve into a discussion of Écriture feminine, on the difference between men and women’s writing, but binaries like these worry me a little).  If the novel did have a downfall, it was that it was so beautiful it was unmemorable.  Even the unpleasantness of the ending (which I found a little contrived) didn’t sink a blow because it was rendered with such a controlled, elegant tone.

Meanwhile, I still think about Krissy’s memoir.  Perhaps it was because it was of the humour of a pet ferret named Gruesome, of the marvelous strangeness of a family that made models such as dinosaurs to be displayed in museums, of the acuity of the writer’s observations, and the undertone of melancholy that comes from being different and trying to get to that place that signifies normality and acceptance, but not quite making it.  And yet, I don’t think that’s a bad thing – quite the contrary in fact – because that travelling, and that perception of where one is and where one wants, or doesn’t want to be – is one of the things that makes a good writer.

On Good Stories

Posted in Books, Writing on May 8, 2012 by ladyredjess

‘What’s the point of living if I can’t write anymore?’ I said to H recently in a small moment of melodrama. I’d been thinking about video piracy and the increasing instances where artists aren’t paid for their work, which means that they can’t afford to create good art or good stories, which means that people’s expectations of quality work diminishes, thereby shrinking the demand and market for such art/stories, and so the cycle continues.

Yes, sometimes I don’t like being in my head either.

However, it’s impossible to be an author these days and not engage in at least some sort of contemplation of e-publishing and its effect on the literary marketplace.  I read and collect things from time to time.  An edition of Australian Author on self-publishing has been floating in the piles of paper surrounding my desk since December last year.  In it, an article by Brian Lawrenson charts his steady success on Amazon after persistent research and marketing of his books.  Both businessman and writer, he worked out how the game worked and played it successfully.  Many writers, however, can’t be bothered with the business side of things (yours truly included) or with the demands on their time taken up when they become wildly successful (I haven’t reached this point yet; hence my handbag collection remains limited), which is why I have an agent with Curtis Brown.

On that note, the managing director of this agency, Fiona Inglis, gave an address in late 2011 on the advent of e-publishing over the last five years.  She opened with stats on the proliferation of books (a conservative estimate of 26,500 per month) and noted the difficulty of those books finding readers.  It was through marketing by the traditional publishers, she maintained, that this was likely to happen; something that was reiterated through a Digital Rights seminar panel I attended a few weeks ago at the State Library.  It was organised by the Australian Society of Authors, who go into battle for authors to make sure they are paid something more than peanuts for their work. For example, the ASA requested a meeting with Campbell Newman after he axed the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards, but he was too busy (no doubt potholing with the $240k he saved) to dust off his hands and have a conversation for ten minutes.

I went to the seminar my own, as is my wont, which meant I met new people, including the prolific Marianne de Pierres and, briefly, Simon Groth, Manager of if:book, both of whom were on the panel.  From my notes scratched onto the back of a bill floating around in my handbag, it appears that, while publishers are not being nimble enough to respond to what is going on, they do have established networks of booksellers and reviewers that make them a more desirable avenue for publication than self-publishing via the likes of Amazon.  De Pierres also noted that publishers produce quality control through the provision of editors and copyeditors, and that each of her books was made better through this professional input (something I can testify to myself, especially at the end of this process when you’re so close to your work that you can’t see how to fix it).

This concern of quality over quantity is one that often manifests.  According to this article in The Atlantic, people are reading more than ever.  However, it isn’t clear if what they are reading is of quality.

Despite these harbringers of gloom, it isn’t all bad, for the advent of e-publishing has given rise to some innovative ventures.

Cue the Review of Australian Fiction.  Captained by the brilliant, twice-doctored, Derren Brown devotee Matthew Lamb and managed by able seaman Phil Crowley (who, with his background in economics, understands fiscal logistics, a weak spot for many a writer, at least certainly for this one), the RAF publishes two short stories every two weeks.  Using a mentoring arrangement, one is written by an established author, and one by an emerging author.  The issues are published via the ebook platform Book.ish, and can be read via anything with a web browser.  Never again might one be stuck in a hotel room with only a Gideons Bible for company (certainly, it’s the RAF to the rescue).

This is also a dirt cheap way of sampling a wide range of contemporary Australian fiction.  Each issue costs $2.99, or, alternatively for subscribers, each volume of 6 issues is $12.99. That means if you give up 1 coffee per month, you can afford to read roughly 250 pages of fresh and engaging writing.  For a writer, it’s also an extremely efficient means of finding out who’s doing what in the industry.  I’ve learnt more about Australian fiction in the last four months than I have probably over the last decade.  That might say more about my laziness with reading (or rather, tendency to default to 19th Century fiction or A Song of Fire and Ice when at a loss for a book) than the dissemination of info about OzLit, but you get the picture.

The most recent issue contains one of the best stories yet, James Bradley’s ‘Visitors’, although I am biased, as I found Bradley’s The Resurrectionist a startling and tightly-drawn marvel, and it’s up there with my favourites (du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ishiguoro’s Never Let Me Go).  In this story, Bradley uses botany and aliens to elegantly render a familiar concept: how someone you know, or thought you knew, can become alien to you.  Using the language of symbiosis (though the invasion of alien botanical life sprouting in the forests), he articulates how any relationship is a risk, and how it always alters you:

‘The ecosystem is changing, they say, new organisms invading the biomes, changing them.  In Guatemala and Burma, trees bear strange fruit, spread alien seeds.  In the ocean, phosphor drifts, its DNA hybridizing with the phytoplankton, creating new life that darts and swims beneath the surface of the waves.  Whether it is good or bad seems impossible to tell, simply that it is happening, that we will not be the same any longer’ (17).

It’s a lovely metaphor, also documenting how, in a relationship, what you create together is always something new.

Other stories I’ve enjoyed have been those by Kalinda Ashton, Susan Johnson, Geoffrey Dean, Marie Munkara, and the most peculiar story written by Meg Vann in which the protagonist had a disorder that was, as far as I could work out, some cross between anorexia and autism; whatever it was, I found it drawn with a creepy delicacy that contrasted with the blunt ending.  Irrespective of what was going on (and I like that I’m confused) I’m never going to be able to think of the State Library of Queensland in the same way again.

Clearly, regardless of the medium, good stories are continuing to be published, which is pretty much the conclusion I came to in my conversation with H.  People want to read good writing, and they will seek it out.  I urge readers to subscribe to the RAF.  At the very least, it’s a reminder that Australian fiction is diverse, entertaining, and worth supporting.

Meanwhile Ewan Morrison, writing in The Guardian at the end of January, employs the ideology of economist Hyman Minsky to postulate that e-publishing is a bubble that will burst.  Not really having much concept of economics aside from how to afford my next frock (ie. starve for a week), I can’t comment on this in any way.  I’m just going to keep on writing, and see what happens.  After all, I’m incapable of doing anything else.