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Jeanette Winterson on Kate Bush

Music fans have been beside themselves about Kate Bush’s recent return to the stage, in her full first live show in 35 years. One of those passionate Kate Bush fans is Jeanette Winterson, who’s published a tribute to the artist for the Guardian this week.

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Dos and don'ts of workplace swearing

Is it a no-no to swear at work? Traditional wisdom says it is, but there is evidence to suggest that moderate swearing at work, at the right place and time, can humanise you, or help you fit in. Though it can also backfire, of course. Find out the dos and don'ts of workplace swearing.

Emily Perkins on Robyn Davidson

Internationally acclaimed New Zealand novelist Emily Perkins has published an intriguing reflection on Robyn Davidson’s Tracks and the difference between confession and candour when it comes to memoir.

Confessional work asks to be forgiven, or to be liked, whether ingratiatingly or confrontationally; candid work has other motives. In candid writing the writer and reader are equal, with cost and reward to both in the investment. No one is showing her pain to elicit sympathy, and no one is falsely comforted by a sense of superiority or ‘there but for the grace of God’. Candid writing generates more clear-eyed recognition than misty sympathy.

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Robyn Davidson

Heart of Darkness: Illustrated

The Guardian has published the results of a competition that invited entrants to illustrate scenes from Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness. The winning illustrations will be used in a new edition of the book, to be published by the Folio Society.

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Sneak peek at Lena Dunham’s book in the New Yorker

Lena Dunham’s first book, Not That Kind of Girl, is due for release soon – and in typical TV-star-memoir fashion (think Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling), an early excerpt has been published in the New Yorker. It’s a personal essay about her many years in therapy, working through anxiety issues. And yes, sections of it do evoke her alter-ego Hannah Horvath. (No, there’s nothing about Q-tips.)

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Photo of Lena Dunham via Vogue.

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highlight Jessie Cole has just published her second novel, Deeper Water. She was awarded a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development in 2009, and her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, the Big Issue and here on the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies.

We spoke to her about immersing herself in another world when she writes, being encouraged by Kate Grenville just before her first ever speaking gig, and being told by a reader that an event in her first novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town, couldn’t have happened (with no evidence other than her personal experience to support the claim).

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The very first piece I had published was in my local writers’ centre magazine. Funnily enough, it was an odd little snippet about teenage sexual awakening. So, with Deeper Water, everything comes full circle.

What’s the best part of your job?

For me, it’s the immersion in another world. To have an alternative way of being outside your actual life. I think it’s really powerful to be able to create other narratives, to use aspects of your experience but to rewrite the story. I really love that quote from Jeanette Winterson −

Undress.

>Take off your clothes. Take off your body. Hang them up behind the door. 

Tonight we can go deeper than disguise …

>*What is it that I have to tell myself again and again?*

>*That there is always a new beginning, a different end.*

>*I can change the story. I am the story.*

Begin.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I think it’s all the insecurity. It seems to me that a writing-life is particularly rife with uncertainties. There are so many variables over which the writer has no control. I find that part of things a bit unsettling.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

deeper_water Before my writing got picked up I had lived in a very isolated way. I think I was probably a touch agoraphobic. The first speaking-gig I did for Darkness on the Edge of Town was in Maleny in QLD, several hours drive from my home, where they asked me to do a 10-minute reading before a Kate Grenville in-conversation. This seemed so far out of my comfort zone I was beyond terrified. It was held in a big high school auditorium, and there were hundreds of people there. I felt so completely out of place, so ill-equipped to proceed. Utterly vulnerable and afraid. And just before I got on stage Kate and I were standing off to the side and she whispered something along the lines of −‘This is your time. You are the star.’ Which − in the circumstances − was sort of ludicrous, but so generous of her to say. The force of her kindness seemed to propel me up the stairs, and when I sat down on the stage and looked around at the crowd all I saw was open faces. Patient people, waiting to see what I might say. And I read, probably quite haltingly, and there was such quiet. When I finished, I looked up and no one looked away from my face. There was a moment before they clapped where they just seemed to gaze at me − and for the first time in forever I felt truly seen and heard.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Before I was published I had quite a bit to do with Peter Bishop, the former creative director of Varuna, the Writers’ House. Peter has an unusual way of working with writers. He likes to have conversations around the work in progress − he tends not to tackle things head on − and I feel like this softly-softly approach has been really important for me. I don’t like to talk about my work while I’m writing it, and I don’t like to share it early. For me, much of the joy and magic of the writing process dissipates if the work is shared in those first draft stages, but − as Peter Bishop showed me − it’s helpful to be able to have conversations around the issues or areas you might be grappling with while writing.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I once met a woman who seemed acutely disgusted by the fact that Vincent, the protagonist in Darkness on the Edge of Town, gets an erection whilst helping the injured Rachel in the bath. She kept saying − ‘I just don’t know anyone who would do that,’ as though erections are always appropriate and entirely controllable. She had been so disturbed by the book that at that point she’d stopped reading and gone to ask her husband, who confirmed − ‘That would never happen.’ She presented his words to me as definitive proof. It was a surreal moment.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

This is something I think about a lot. A couple of years back I realised that there were so many things I was never going to be able to do, things you need decades of training for. I remember bemoaning (rather dramatically) to my brother − ‘I’m never going to play in an orchestra or be a heart surgeon.’ To which he dryly replied − ‘Well, I think you’d have more chance of becoming a heart surgeon than playing in an orchestra. That’s out.’ Sometimes I think I’d like to be a midwife. That helping to birth babies might satisfy some urge I have to be at the beginning of things.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Well, I think that writing is always taught. In that, if we weren’t taught to write we wouldn’t spontaneously do it. It’s not like the spoken word which most of us just imbibe as infants. For me, there’s no question that writing is a skill we all learn (or not learn) to varying degrees. But I think the bigger question is probably whether creativity can be taught, and I suppose I wonder if creativity needs to be nurtured during the teaching process, rather than explicitly ‘taught’. Most of us are probably born with the need to create and express. Young children draw and sing and play so rapturously. So it’s more a question of how to preserve that capacity − or urge − into adulthood. Probably lots of creative writing courses give people permission to use their time and energy to be creative/playful/expressive, at the very least.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

I know it’s hard to do, but I like to write that first draft with the promise to myself that no-one ever has to see it. Later on − much later on − I can decide whether or not to share my work. That way, while writing the first draft, the quality of the work is irrelevant. It only matters that it keeps me interested. So, in a sense, I’m writing purely for self-entertainment. I definitely write the book I’d like to read. And then, if no-one picks it up − if it remains a thing I shared only with myself − at least it was worth it, if only for the pleasure (and perhaps pain) it gave me. I guess what I’m saying is − at least initially − I think it’s best to try to really separate the creative process from the product it may (or may not) become. It’s a tricky line to walk, but I find it very helpful.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I do a bit of both. There is an amazing independent bookstore in one of the towns along from me. It’s such a peaceful and sustaining place. Just walking in the door makes my heart lift. So I buy a lot of books from there. But having access to online bookstores has completely opened my world. The array of titles that I would never have known existed, and certainly had no access to where I live, is mind boggling. I tend to buy a lot of non-fiction books online, but am more likely to buy fiction from an actual shop.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I’m thinking Elizabeth Bennet. I love her wry wit, but she’s also warm and thoughtful. Hopefully Elizabeth would tell me stories about her crazy family, and maybe she’d listen to mine.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

This is always such a tricky question, there are obviously so many. Probably Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The story of an African-American woman Sethe who escapes slavery in the South only to be rounded up by her ‘owners’. Sethe kills her beloved baby daughter so she cannot be taken back, and the baby’s ghost eventually reappears in human form to claim her retribution. Beloved was the first book I read that showed me the power of literature. Of course, I knew about the existence of slavery – theoretically − but I didn’t know anything about what that experience might really be like. I could almost feel my mind cracking open to accommodate this new empathy and understanding. Beloved is an amazing treatise on intergenerational trauma. After reading it, I saw through different eyes. I was changed.


Jessie Cole’s latest novel, Deeper Water, is in bookstores now.

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highlightOn the tenth anniversary of The Big Issue’s fiction edition, the magazine’s associate editor, Melissa Cranenburgh, reflects on the challenges and rewards of making (and selling) the edition. And she tells why it’s important that, unlike most short-story collections, it needs to sell copies in the thousands: because the magazine’s reason for existence is to enable homeless and unemployed people to make a living.

I bought my first Big Issue fiction edition on Boxing Day 2005. It wasn’t the first fiction-only edition of the magazine, but the second. And I bought it from a vendor outside Young and Jacksons – the iconic Melbourne pub doomed to lose the geographical face off with Flinders Street Station.

On the tram ride home I read half the stories. In bed that night, I flicked through again, pausing over my favourites – and just never threw it out. I’m in a new house, now. But it’s still there, stored in a tattered cardboard magazine file beside vintage copies of Meanjin and Granta.

This all happened way before I worked for the magazine. To paraphrase my job interview a couple of years later, it was one of the many reasons I resolved to work there.

For me, what made that edition memorable wasn’t so much that I liked all the stories. I didn’t. There was even one I actively disliked (a self-referential piece by Matthew Reilly in which a fictitious geopolitical thriller writer ends up in a ‘real’ military fire-fight). It’s just that some of the stories really resonated. And one in particular, lingered: Elliot Perlman’s ‘Good Morning, Again’. A story that, for me, perfectly captured the mixed emotions of a ‘morning after’ scene – a man still awake at 4am ponders a new, much younger lover, still imprinted with the memory of someone else.

I loved it then. I still love it. But a good friend whose taste I can’t fault said she thought it was creepy. A story about an older guy, a younger woman. Just creeped her out.

That’s how it works, though. The short stories, the ones that work, that get you involved, tend to evoke a strong reaction: for or against. Although in every collection there’s bound to be one or two that just leave you cold.

Which is why putting together any short-story collection, but particularly one in a magazine made for a general readership, can be such a vexed issue. So many tastes, perspectives, genre filters – so much subjective matter covered in such few pages. Each member of a selection panel has to think not just of the kinds of stories that she likes, but good examples of stories that – while not to her taste – may really resonate with others.

But The Big Issue has its own unique concerns, as I discovered when I finally got to drive my first fiction-only edition. Will the vendors – footslogging it through rain, rain and shine – be able to shift copies? Make enough money to get dinner that night?

That’s a hard one. At the last magazine launch, on news that the fiction edition was coming out again, one Melbourne-vendor groaned: ‘My clients say they don’t like fiction. “Is that the fiction edition?” they say to me. “Here, you can have it back.”’ Another vendor took me aside afterward, said he had the opposite experience. ‘It’s a great book, the fiction one. I always buy heaps and I always sell ’em.’

That latter experience seems by far the most common one. The fiction edition is one of the strongest selling editions each year. And the one that gets the most positive feedback from readers. But still. Perhaps more than any other publication, making sure the people who sell the magazine get the return they expect weighs heavily on all of us.

We can’t forget though, that there’s a reason vendors sell magazines and not… mugs. Which is why the fiction edition matters: it’s the kind of thing independent, culturally responsible publishing should do. Vendors need to make a profit. Equally writers, readers, and the broader culture, should also benefit.

In Australia, where a book that shifts 10,000 copies could be considered a bestseller, a short-fiction magazine that in a fortnight can sell upwards of 30,000 copies is no small thing. (A fact that has led to ongoing support from the CAL cultural fund – helping to bump the edition up 16 pages and make sure the writers and other contributors are properly paid.)

Then there’s this. In the flickering digital age, where content is consumed, and shared, and supplanted, in moments, The Big Issue is a papery anachronism. An unlikely encounter. Two people, a city street, a brief exchange. Smiles, greetings, fumble for coins. An act of charity. And on the train ride home, flicking through the impromptu purchase, perhaps an unexpectedly transportative moment. I can only hope it’s a story that lingers.


The Big Issue fiction edition will hit the streets this Friday 29 August. It will be launched at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday 29 August at 4pm.

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What’s it like to develop a big, one-off literary event, from scratch? What are the challenges and rewards of the process? And how exactly do you put on a literary pub crawl, with trams (and non-drinking elements), as part of a statewide literary festival? We talk to Vikki Woods, organiser of Lit Hop.

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Lit Hop seems to be the literary equivalent of a pub crawl, with participants going from one literary experience to another, all in an afternoon and evening in the Melbourne CBD. What made you come up with the concept – and were you inspired by the idea of an old-fashioned pub crawl?

I would love to take credit for the idea, but I was inspired by Lit Crawl, a fantastic literary street party of sorts, that originated in San Francisco, and has since moved to many other US cities as well as London. I couldn’t believe that no one in Australia had put on an event like this yet, and I wanted to be the person to do it.

I loved the idea of incorporating a pub crawl with literature, and when I was looking at areas to put it on, it seemed logical to involve the tram system − which to me feels so uniquely Melbourne. My initial idea was to use the free city loop tram – and I rode that tram at least ten times, scribbling down venues and ideas as I went. The pub crawl aspect came later in the planning. Originally I wanted everything to be really left of centre … imagine an event in a bakery, or a bike shop, or a laundromat. I love the idea of literature where you least expect it … but hey, booze and books, what could possibly go wrong? (Side note, not all the events are actually pubs, there are some wonderful venues involved such as Queen Victoria Women’s Centre where you may not get booze, but you will get amazing content.)

This is the first big literary event you’ve produced. How hard was it to get the concept up and running? And what were the challenges you faced along the way?

It has not been without its challenges, that’s for sure! The concept was the easy part … anyone you mention it to immediately falls in love with the idea, and I have been so lucky in that every venue I approached was keen to be a part of such a unique event. The logistics of how the event would work was probably my biggest challenge. I toyed with so many concepts – do I get curators to program more than one event? Do I stagger start times? My dining room table disappeared under masses of butcher’s paper, covered in scribbles. I have a really diverse event management background, so just pulled on all I have learned over the years to try and put this beast together!

The idea of bringing this event to Australia has been kicking around in my head for a few years now, and really, it could work anywhere, but it was really important to me that I try it in Melbourne first: it’s my home town, the public transport system suits the concept, we have wonderful venues (and so many of them), and of course, we have the best literary organisations, many of whom I had worked with in my previous role as event manager at the Wheeler Centre.

I pitched the idea to Lisa Dempster, the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival , while we were both in Singapore. Lisa loved the idea, and we kept the conversation flowing over several months. The festival felt like a good home for Lit Hop, especially the festival under Lisa’s leadership – the interactivity and connectivity of the event sits very nicely under the current MWF model. I like to think of it as the little project that could.

You’ve managed to bring many of Melbourne’s leading literary organisations on board for Lit Hop – as well as an impressive range of writers, from Willy Vlautin to Maxine Beneba Clarke. How did you go about wrangling all these partners and participants?

Believe it or not, that was the easy bit! I started with a wish list of organisations I really wanted to work with and just went from there. I would say 90% of people I approached said yes. Of course, there were a few who couldn’t participate, and they’re on my list for next time. I would love to take credit for the amazing range of authors taking part, but it was all down to the curators. I gave them free rein when it came to what their events would look like and who their participating authors would be. They’ve more than come up with the goods.

Lit Hop includes a lot of interactive events, which the audience can get involved with, from School of Life’s session where people share the books that have shaped them to the Stella Prize spelling bee and radio karaoke with Paper Radio. How important is that interactive element to the experience? And did you approach organisations to come up with their own ideas on how to engage audiences, or did you take it to them?

The interactive element was really important. We’re asking participants to commit six hours to Lit Hop, from the moment they pick up their ticket and exchange it for a wrist band at Fed Square to the end of the day when they pull up a stool at the bar at The Toff. That’s a big commitment, so it was really important to me that Lit Hop wasn’t just a series of authors being interviewed on stage, (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but that it was something different, a little more hands on. I threw some buzz words and random sentences at the curators, none of which I am sure made any sense. I said things like ‘Russian roulette’ and ‘a great big spinning wheel where maybe someone reads a passage in the voice of Sinatra’, ‘spin dice maybe’. Thankfully the curators are a lot more imaginative and creative than myself, and have come up with so many wonderfully different events, and that was the whole point – I take care of all the logistics and the event management and the things I know how to do, and let the artists do the art.

The Wheeler Centre is involved in Lit Hop with a New Book Swap in The Moat. How does that work – and do you think it’s a way to meet people, to get new books to read, or maybe a bit of both?

It’s definitely a bit of both! I love the idea of Lit Hop participants moving around The Moat, a ‘Josie Russell’ cocktail in hand (Hemingway inspired of course), a book clutched in the other, trying to convince strangers that they really want to swap books, or persuading strangers (we should really be calling them ‘new friends’ by this stage, it is the last stop of the day after all!) that they DON’T want to swap books. There is a speed dating, without the romance, aspect to this event … but hey, if there is romance, who am I to argue? I was so pleased when The Wheeler Centre came on board as a curator. Having a long and happy employment history with them, the symmetry of my old workplace being involved with the first event I am putting on as an independent producer is pretty special.

What would be your ideal literary event, if you could bring together anyone in the world to do anything, here in Melbourne?

I’m doing it! Lit Hop is the perfect event for me, as a producer it really allows me to flex my creative muscle. I have so many ideas of more interactive style literary events – watch this space! I want to keep producing literary events that are a little bit out of the box – non-traditional. As for who? Lena Dunham would be the top of my wishlist at the moment. The series of events she is doing in America to launch her upcoming book are exactly the type of events I want to put on.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately and why?

I find this the hardest of all book questions, as I am a voracious reader, so I will just tell you what I have read recently. We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler was really special − there is a twist that I just didn’t see coming, and I was really sad when I finished it. I am obsessed with New York, so found My Salinger Year really satisfying. And lastly, speaking of New York, I just finished The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. by Adelle Waldman, which was the perfect book to read in the lead up to Lit Hop: not too heavy, not too light.


Lit Hop is part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. It takes place this Sunday 31 August, from 1pm.

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After a week in which too many good people died, Bronwyn Meyrick reflects on death, drawing on some very different books that debate the existence (and dubious comfort) of an afterlife, and blend neuroscience and experience.

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Image by 55Laney69, Flickr.

Last week, a friend, not a close friend, but a friend all the same, died suddenly. He was not even 30 years old. Earlier the same week, the famous actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life. Williams was a bloody genius, but is also said to have had his demons. He was just 63 years old. This week, on Wednesday, BKS Iyengar, the founder of the eponymous Iyengar form of yoga, died. He was 95 years old.

I read a book recently about near-death experiences  − Proof of Heaven  −  by American neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander. A few years ago, Alexander caught a strain of bacterial meningitis so bad that he was left in a coma. In fact, he was in such a bad state that he was expected to die. While in the coma, Alexander says that he observed himself journeying beyond this world, passing through a white light into the ‘deepest realms of super-physical experience’: an ‘immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting’. Apparently this is reasonably typical for near-death and out-of-body experiences, but Alexander claims his was an encounter with heaven. During the coma, a part of his brain, the cerebral cortex, had stopped functioning. And so, reasons Alexander, because it’s the cerebral cortex part of your brain that creates such near-death experiences, his experience offers proof of heaven, and so grants the book its title.

Eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks is not very satisfied with Alexander’s reasoning. Being the party-pooper that he is, Sacks argues that a person needs a functioning cerebral cortex in order to create a near-death experience and therefore his experience was a humanly one (as opposed to a divine one). However, it’s quite probable that Alexander’s experience occurred while he was coming out of the coma – i.e. when his cerebral cortex was starting to work again – thus making it nothing extraordinary.

Another, very different, book on death is Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published essay collection On Mortality, which is really about dying. Hitchens depicts his experience of being diagnosed with, and eventually subsumed by, oesophageal cancer. But as he bears witness to the loss of his instrument − his voice  − Hitchens is not soothed at all by the possibility of an afterlife, fictitious or not.

I’m no scientist, and I’m definitely not a neuroscientist. But I have to say that I found the conclusions that Alexander drew from his experience somewhat tenuous. I’m not religious either. I remember trying, and failing, to explain this to my second-grade teacher.

Nevertheless, in a way I felt an affinity with Alexander in feeling that there must be something more to this, this universe. I think it’s beyond the realm of scientific proof, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant – it’s just that no amount of triangulation will get you the answer. It’s not necessarily something pre-determined or orderly, but there are definitely greater forces at play in this universe than I’ll be able to compute. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because sometimes things happen that are extraordinary and you just can’t work out how they happened.

But also, maybe it’s because sometimes people die − really good people − for seemingly no good reason at all, when there really should be one.


Bronywn Meyrick is a Melburnian currently based in South Korea. This piece was first published on Medium.

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Alice Pung goes back to school

In a wonderful essay for Right Now, Alice Pung revisits the scene of her early education, in Braybrook, where a Year 12 study centre provides a haven for students whose home life consists of hard work. She reflects on migration, hardship and the importance of education in moving out of poverty – and the obstacles that mean it’s not as easy as it might seem. ‘Understanding how easy it is to be on the wrong side of luck without warning, I wanted to return to the places where I grew up. I wanted to be reminded again of how stoically kids in the Western suburbs go about their education.’

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Science explains why songs from your adolescence are the best

Do you swear that teenagers these days have lost the plot, musically? Would you prefer to watch the Rage top 40 from the year you turned 18 to the one that’ll screen this weekend? There’s a reason for that. ‘Researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults – a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age. Musical nostalgia, in other words, isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command.’

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Charlotte Wood’s tips for getting arts grants

Author Charlotte Wood has been involved in assessing grants and mentorships for arts organisations for a long time. Recently, after an assessment round where she noticed applicants making many of the same simple errors, she put together a comprehensive blog post giving advice on how to apply for an arts grant, packed with solid dos and don'ts.

Shark versus internet

We humans have long been terrified of sharks … but now it seems there’s another reason to be afraid. (Or wary – afraid is a bit of an overstatement.) Apparently, sharks are attracted to the undersea fibre-optic cables that connect the worldwide web, and they periodically attack them. Shark bites have been identified as causes of system failure. And there’s video proof.

Why memoir is not a status update

In the New Yorker, Dani Shapiro reflects on the difficulties of writing memoir in the social media age, where ‘sharing’ details of your life is an instinctive and unremarkable action, one that can be confused with the more considered act of writing a memoir.

I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details – the ones that we post and read every day –for the work of memoir itself. I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for ‘sharing my story,’ as if the books I’ve written are not chiseled and honed out of the hard and unforgiving material of a life but, rather, have been dashed off, as if a status update, a response to the question at the top of every Facebook feed: ‘What’s on your mind?’

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highlightMel Campbell published her first book, Out of Shape, last year. Since then, she’s been struggling with ideas of what it is to be a successful author … along with most of the other authors published in Australia. Here, she reflects on what it means to be in the ‘midlist’ right now: financially, personally and professionally.

What are your ideas of literary success? A multi-book deal with a six-figure advance, after a fierce bidding war between publishers. Your book displayed prominently in bookshops. Giving readings to rapt audiences, signing copies, appearing on TV and radio, being interviewed in the weekend papers. Glowing reviews. Sell-out appearances at writers’ festivals. Your book rocketing up the bestseller lists while simultaneously winning major awards and prizes. International book tours and foreign language editions. Movie and TV adaptations. Fat royalty cheques.

Being a published author is exactly like this for almost nobody.

This year alone, we’ve heard about acclaimed authors working in attics, that first-time Australian authors of literary fiction sell, on average, 984 copies, that only 11.5% of British professional authors earn their income solely from writing, and that most authors make less than $1,000 a year.

The average author’s life is likely to entail modest sales, day jobs to support their writing, and being completely ignored for awards. If they’re lucky, their books do well enough, both commercially and critically, to convince a publisher to commission further books from them, and over they can develop a reputation for writing of quiet quality.

They are mid-list authors.

‘Mid-list’ is a publishing term encompassing books and authors that are neither debutants nor bestsellers. Mid-list authors are often talented and well reviewed. They might even be quite well known. Beneficiaries of the Australia Council’s new grants for publishers of mid-list authors include such respected writers as Wayne Macauley, Paddy O’Reilly, Tony Birch, Krissy Kneen, Gerald Murnane and Charlotte Wood.

The mid-list has historically been, in the words of publisher Colin Robinson, ‘publishing’s experimental laboratory’ – a space where authors can hone their craft, and perhaps create a future bestseller. Wolf Hall made a star of Hilary Mantel, but it was her tenth novel in a diverse body of work that also included short stories and memoir. Similarly, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle made him an international name, transcending his previous two novels. And Gillian Flynn had two standalone crime novels under her belt before Gone Girl became a runaway success in 2012.

They are the exceptions. The well-documented cost pressures on book retailing have scooped the soft centre out of publishing. Once, perhaps 80% of the book market consisted of diverse mid-list titles whose low sales were offset for their publishers by the top-selling 20%. Today, it’s increasingly unlikely that any given book will become a bestseller – John le Carré’s agent Jonny Geller estimates that the balance between bestselling and mid-list titles is now more like 4% versus 96% – but those few that succeed do so much more dramatically. In 2012, the total number of books sold in Australia dropped by 6.3% – but it would have dropped by 11.2% if not for the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which sold almost three million copies.

It’s hard to say what’s most responsible for this lopsided publishing environment. There’s an incredible proliferation of new titles. Authors are encouraged to cultivate ‘personal brands’ that teach readers to expect the same kind of book from them every time. The publishing industry has become increasingly dependent on milking rigidly codified genres. And a sclerotic critical apparatus makes it harder for readers to sample the true breadth of authors, topics and writing styles currently being published.

As bricks-and-mortar bookstores go under, library budgets are slashed and newspaper book sections are squeezed for page space and reviewer pay, readers are increasingly turning to online recommendation algorithms and social reading websites to uncover new books. These mechanisms tend to mirror an individual’s existing tastes and create echo chambers of opinion in small peer groups.

Consequently, the same few books seem to get read and discussed everywhere – in newspapers and magazines, at festivals, on award judging panels and in social media. And then this ‘buzz’ drives further sales.

Today’s bestsellers no longer mitigate the comparatively modest risk represented by the mid-list. Instead, all books are expected to become bestsellers, including those by mid-list authors, who must achieve better commercial and critical outcomes on smaller advances and marketing budgets. The money their publishers save is ploughed into keeping bestselling authors happy, or luring promising debut authors.

While bestselling authors’ careers can snowball as they accumulate attention and resources, mid-list authors’ careers can stagnate as successive books are released to increased indifference. There’s a lot of organisational and festival support for young, emerging and debut writers, but if your first book doesn’t set the world on fire, and nor does your second, you’re on your own.

Three novels in, American author Russell Rowland is currently languishing without an agent or publisher. ‘When did it turn from “You have a solid track record, so we’ll definitely give your next book a look” to “You’ve had your day in the sun, and you didn’t generate enough sales, so it’s time to give others a chance”,’ Rowland asks plaintively.

Initiatives such as the Australia Council’s publishing and promotion grants aim to disrupt this inertia, by encouraging publishers to invest in authors who’ve previously published at least two books. (It’s unclear, however, whether they’ll survive the recent restructure of the OzCo grant system.)

But nobody is stepping in to lighten mid-list authors’ emotional burden. Authors tend to put on a brave face in public to perform an authorial identity – not merely to protect their ‘personal brand’, but out of basic professional pride. We all want to be seen as competent by peers and readers. And from the outside, mid-list authors can seem much more established and accomplished than they feel. Who’d shatter that illusion?

But feeling unable to discuss the slings and arrows of mid-list life with your peers can be devastatingly lonely. In Rowland’s words, it’s like being ‘in exile from your own kind’.

That’s why I want to promote solidarity among mid-list authors. As a small first step, I started a Facebook group for mid-listers. And I’m hosting an informal social event for mid-listers this Saturday afternoon as part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. All are welcome, even bestselling authors – especially if they spill secrets and buy rounds.

I want to create safe spaces where we don’t feel obliged to perform ‘success’, and where we can be one another’s supporters rather than competitors. We can mitigate the humiliating demands of self-promotion, and share industry advice.

Most of all, we can reassure one another that, as author Phillip Lopate writes, the world doesn’t ignore our literary effort; but ‘it tends to distribute the rewards in a mystifyingly erratic manner’. It’s humbling, and comforting, to recognise that literary success is essentially out of our control. People aren’t relegated to ‘bestseller’ or ‘mid-list’ on the basis of their intrinsic merit – it’s a crapshoot.

And the other great thing about this randomness is that there is no secret to success. Publishers have no idea what the next massive blockbuster might be. Which leaves open the possibility that you might still write it.

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sfThe Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Sebastian Fowler’s Bat the Raven is an all-ages graphic novel about an unusual little raven named Bat Ravensson, who stands out from his siblings because of his sticky-uppy head feathers, which make him look a bit like a bat. He has a bit of a rough time at school, but finds solace in the stories told to him by the elders. Unable to sleep, Bat wanders out one night and happens across a real bat named Vlad, darting through the shadows. They become best friends, but the more they hang out, the more Bat’s grades suffer at school from his nocturnal lifestyle… Here, we share a selection of Sebastian’s work-in-progress.

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highlight The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Rajith Savanadasa is writing a novel or collection of linked stories that re-interprets the semicircular stone slab known as a moonstone (or Sandakada Pahana) in Sri Lanka. It’s about a family living in Colombo, Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war in 2009. Each chapter is from the perspective of a family member. This is the mother’s chapter.


I was the only one in the lane to be awake all night, waiting. But the past few nights had been unusual. Everyone had been up lighting crackers, talking in happy voices, celebrating. It was like 1996 all over again, like when we won the World Cup and all of Colombo was excited. I almost couldn’t believe it. Not the cricket, I didn’t care about that. This time it didn’t make sense; somehow I wasn’t convinced things had changed. The North and East were quiet; a sheet pulled across their faces. I didn’t get the emails with pictures of the dead. No stories of devastation. There were calls but none from the people who wanted favours. I thought maybe now, all those who’d tried to lay their troubles on my shoulders would shut up.

In the morning the party continued on the street, acchis fed soldiers kiribath, seeyas played rabang, their fingers drumming the cowhide silly. Politicians congratulated the nation, the army and themselves as sarong-Johnnies danced on the backs of trucks and waved flags. That flag – with the lion and its sword against the marrow coloured background – it was everywhere. Lining the streets, sticking out of vehicles, flapping on top of every roof and waving from the top corner of every TV channel. The Perera family next door had put one on the aerial of their car. The Bandaras two doors up had stuck one through the metal grill covering their front windows. There was even one tied to bamboo scaffolding at the building site now owned by a Chinese businessman at the top of the lane. Only the Loduweikes didn’t have one, probably because those Burghers were too old to even know what was happening.

And us. We didn’t have a flag. That’s why I was surprised when Latha found one stuck in between the roof tiles and gutter outside my window. She came with the morning tea, saying, ‘Nona thé.’

I didn’t open my eyes. My headache was bad.

‘Nona,’ she said a little louder. ‘Nona, negitinna. Wedata yanna thiyanawa.’ She put the teacup on the bedside table and kneeled. ‘Nona,’ she said quietly into my ear. ‘Adath wedata yanne nedda?’

I knew it was a workday but I said, ‘Let me be.’

‘Nona, thaama asaneepada?’ She touched my forehead for the temperature with her turmeric smelling hands. ‘Una neh.’

‘Are you a doctor?’

‘Neh, mama condostara.’ The smile showed all her cracked teeth. It was a silly old joke that my children used to make but it made me laugh: ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m a bus conductor.’ Latha was full of that childish talk. She went over and pulled the curtains open. My eyes burned. When they got used to the brightness Latha was leaning out the window. ‘Nona kodiyak demmada?’

‘What?’

I got out of bed gingerly, walked across and looked out. The flag was fluttering lightly. It was a small one, paper and not cloth, not much longer than the length of my palm.

‘Who put it there?’

The woman shrugged. ‘Mang nemayi. Mahattaya-da?’

It couldn’t be Mano. Mano was too lazy. He asked me when he wanted anything done. Couldn’t even make a cup of tea himself. And Anoushka? She didn’t care about such things.

I put on my housecoat and slippers and went around to the front. Reached up and touched the shiny print with the tips of my fingers. I could have pulled it down but then the neighbours might have thought I didn’t support the country. I support the country. I’m proud.

‘Latha, did you see anyone?’

He was the only one tall enough to reach the gutter. Niranjan. Everyone else would have needed a stool. Latha would have needed a ladder. She looked as confused as I was.

‘Who did this?’ I asked her again.

‘Danneh nona.’

‘We have to find who.’ I went back inside to call work and tell them I was still not feeling well.


Ever since he got back from America he’s been doing things to upset me. He goes round-gahanna and comes back drunk in the middle of the night, gets up late the next day, goes to work and does it all over again. On weekends he goes completely missing or returns just before the sun comes up and sleeps all day. I barely see him. I tell him, ‘Niranjan, what’s the meaning of this?’ but he just laughs, his perfect teeth making him look mean.

‘Where did you go? Why don’t you tell me anything anymore? I was very worried. And you know people will start saying things if you come back so late every night. They’re already talking.’ I tried this often. I showed him the results of his thoughtlessness. ‘Yesterday that fellow who sells lottery tickets near the park had asked Latha if you’re doing “night duty.” Can you believe? What shame! We have to hear things from average people. Think a little before you go and do these things.’

I keep trying; keep talking, hoping something will go into his head; but like everyone these days, he doesn’t listen to me – halfway through my speech he’s already walked outside to look at his car or into his room. That was how he escaped. Sometimes he came back, hands full of dirt and grease and when I said, ‘Niranjan, go wash your hands before you eat,’ he would pick up some food and put it in his mouth. He did these things to hurt me. That flag was confirmation. He knew I was the person who would be affected. He knew.

I ate a banana, gathered my strength and went into his room to see what I could find. It was like a pigsty. Like a cyclone had blown right through. He had left dirty underwear, a sarong and a couple of socks right in the middle of the floor. A shirt hung off the bedpost. A whole lot of clothes, crumpled, sat on the chair like they were trying to become a person. One sock on top of the mosquito net – how it got there, god only knows. Papers and files and books and notepads were all thrown around, not one inch of the desk could be seen. Only the computer was uncovered. Even that was filthy – the keyboard had a layer of brown dirt and the screen was black on the sides. I opened the drawers but didn’t look too much – there was no point. It was full of gadgets and knickknacks – wires, computer things, bead necklaces, gold chains and bottles of deodorant and perfume – so many things I couldn’t even shut it properly. Had to move a few things around and slide it back and forth. Finally closing the drawer I stepped back – as soon as I did that I stepped onto something. It was a packet of chewing gum. And when I bent over to pick that up I noticed a bottle under the bed. I left the chewing gum where it was and got on my knees to reach for the bottle. The label said Bacardi. Rum. I opened it and took a sniff. Fire water. That had to go.

I opened the cupboard and more clothes tumbled out. Took up a pair of jeans from the bookshelf and its pockets were heavy. They were full of coins, business cards, one for a Duminda Samarawickrama and one for Ramona Perera from something called CTP Associates. Who was this Ramona woman? What does she want with my son? I dug a little deeper and found a half-finished packet of cigarettes. That was no surprise – I knew he smoked. He learnt that from his father. But at least Mano did it secretly, elsewhere. Not this boy. He came home, shut his door, opened a window and smoked away. Denied everything if anybody asked. Blamed the smell on a neighbour or a passer-by. ‘What are you telling me for?’ he always said.

‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ was how I answered that. ‘You must be thinking I’m some kind of fool.’ He made me so angry, burned all the blood in my veins. I didn’t know what to do, slap him like a misbehaving teenager or hit my head against the wall. I took the bottle and the cigarettes and walked out of his room.


Rajith Savanadasa wrote this extract in his time as a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

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highlight The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Dan Bledwich is a 29-year-old sex worker and writer who lives in Melbourne. During his Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship, he worked on his memoir, which covers being a ‘queer callboy’, and growing up in regional Australia in an environment of abuse, neglect, and intense schoolyard bullying.


Thursday morning Thames sauntered up to the door with me tagging along behind, ringing the secret buzzer.

‘That’s the one for the boys,’ he said, ducking down a bit lower, pointing up under the power meter.

‘Okay, cool,’ I said to the back of his head.

The front of the building was unassuming: a single-fronted terrace of three stories, balconies on each of the upper floors. The glass doors leading on to the balconies were shuttered and curtained, a potted Ficus beside each.

The sun was gaining force, I felt it through the back of my tee as we waited.

‘Lou is probably upstairs with the laundry, he’ll just be a minute.’

The air-conditioners ticked over, their drainpipes sending water across the footpath, and I watched a local wander past with high blonde ponytail. She was clad in pink sports gear, her face tight from surgeries and botox, her well-groomed little dog scrambling along in front of her.

She didn’t acknowledge us, like we weren’t even there.

This could work, the anonymity.

People either knew nothing, knew but feigned disinterest, or knew but didn’t care. It seemed the latter was more likely.

The wooden door came open. ‘Lou’ unlocked the screen between us, opening it.

‘Hey Nate. Oh, who have you got here?’ he inquired, a friendly expression on his face.

‘This is Tristan. He wants to give it a try here.’

‘Hi,’ I said, awkward and shy.

‘Hi, I’m Lou. Okay… well we’ll put you in intros for a second while I finish fixing my hair, and Nate, you can settle in… Better yet, make us some coffee? You’re the first ones here.’

I was steered left into an office with an aging brown chesterfield, plonking myself in the middle, while Thames turned left at the stairs and started bumping around in back somewhere.

Lou combed his hair at the foot of the stairs. I poked my head out to have a peek and caught him adjusting it, pulling faces into the mirror: a forty-year-old teen with his tongue out.

I knew we’d would get along.

My reflection caught his eye and he laughed.

‘As you get older, everything takes a little bit more work in the mornings. It’s less work, though, if you can manage a smile.’

I sat back down and picked up a photo album on the coffee table, opened it, and saw photos of the brothel’s current staff and alumni.

My heart sank. At least two pages had famous porn stars spread across them.

All the guys in the album were eighteen or plumped up like cushions, fat with muscle, spreading their legs, grabbing their groin or smiling at the camera. It was homogenous, homoerotic beauty.

Nothing like me. Nothing like Thames.

The kind of guys I might dance near in nightclubs, but never talk to. I had trouble even looking at men whose price my face and body could not afford.

I’m going to starve.

Lou walked in, threw his comb into a desk drawer, ‘That’s the look book. It’s photos we show clients so they can tell us what they like.’

‘Does everyone in here work here, or has worked here?’

‘Yeah, just about everyone.’

‘Christ,’ I said in fear, flipping to the first porn star, ‘What about him?’

‘Yeah he was here for about a year.’

I flip to the other porn star, ‘Him?’

‘Yeah he was here too.’

God.

‘What about this guy?’ I pointed to a shaggy-haired brunette with sparkling blue eyes and a monster cock, who sort of resembled me, only better.

‘Just some guy? He’s never worked here while I’ve been here. Not in my… seven years.’

Thank fuck, because if people saw that and got me, they’d be sorely disappointed.

‘So tell me about you, Tristan. You worked in the industry before?’

Peaky. Naïve. He can tell.

‘I’ve done some private work in Melbourne but this is the first time I’ve stepped into a brothel.’

‘Well we take good care of our boys here, Nate can vouch for that. He’s really popular, makes good money, I think you could too here…

‘Lemme show you around, and then if you like everything we’ll take your details and you can start right away if you want?’

‘Okay?’

He explained the whole system to me, right from the two buzzers, ‘If you hear the boys’ buzzer, you can answer the door if I’m busy, but for God’s sake don’t open the door to clients, and always lock the screen door after you let one of the boys in,’ to the intro room. ‘All the boys come in and introduce themselves to the clients in here, one by one. Clients will usually sit on the couch you’ve just been on during intros. This is also the office, so some intros go on while I’m in here quietly answering calls or restocking condoms and stuff. They’re over here. So,’ to the kitchen, lounge and courtyard, ‘This is the area where all the boys hang out. There’s pay TV, free tea and coffee, some guys cook in here on the stove, the fridge (you know how that works), the pokey little courtyard for smoking (no smoking inside).

‘Now I’ll show you upstairs. Oh, don’t use this phone here under any circumstances, we have only one phone line, and the boss, Ian, gets the shits if anyone’s on it and we can’t take calls. Oh and keep the lounge door closed at all times, it’s only open now because it’s just the three of us here. Okay now upstairs!’) to the first floor, ‘There’s two rooms on this level and they share a shower. You have to be careful because the buggers will walk in on you if you’re in the shower here, there’s no lock on the door. You’ve got to shower fast, because someone else always needs it. You have to come out of the room to get to the shower and to go back, so make sure your clients don’t go out naked. When they come back from the shower they’re usually sopping wet, so you’ve GOT to make sure they towel down or we’ve got wet carpet. The washing machine’s in here too. Put your towels here after you’ve used them… Okay, the rooms. This one is Room One, and it has a St Andrew’s Cross, but it doesn’t really get used. We do have BDSM stuff locked in the cupboards behind. Ever need any of that gear, come down and ask for it. Now the beds, the boys usually just throw down towels then smooth the bed out once the client has gone. We wash the sheets at the end of the week. Don’t let them get cum or anything else on the beds ‘cause then the room is unusable until the sheets are washed and dried. There’s a clock there, you’re expected to keep an eye on the time, and when you finish up clean up everything, the condoms and lube etcetera. Check. Under. The. Bed. You’d be surprised what we find. Don’t let it be yours. Everything’s the same in Room Two, except for the cross. How you doing?’

I shrugged.

Finally, the second floor. ‘Okay it’s all the same but there’s a bit more room and privacy up here ‘cause there’s only Room Three. Some of the boys don’t use the up-upstairs because it’s a hike, but it’s better don’t you think? You can walk to and from the shower on this level naked, you can make a little noise (if you get what I mean), and the bathroom gets some beautiful afternoon sun. You’ll see. Oh the view! Who’s closed this window? There, see? All of the city, if you stand in the shower. Aaaand you have a toilet up here without having to worry about getting walked in on. So that’s it. Voila! Shall we go downstairs and sign you up?’


Dan Bledwich was one of the 2014 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellows.

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Remembering Robin Williams

We were all shocked this week to hear of Robin Williams' death, aged just 63. This insightful Rolling Stone profile, written when Awakenings was released, is a lovely way to remember him. Or, you know, you can rewatch any one of his great performances. As a literary organisation, we of course have to recommend Dead Poet’s Society.

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Creativity and Mental Illness: A Neuroscientist on the Link

Are creative people more likely than the general population to suffer from mental illness, or is that a myth? A neuroscientist has been investigating with a large-scale study, where she’s scanned the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers. She says the link is real, and that it’s linked to the fact that ‘creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way – seeing things that others cannot see’.

James Franco’s short stories now a Coppola film

James Franco’s short-story collection, Palo Alto, has been adapted and filmed as the debut feature from Gia Coppola, niece of Sofia and granddaughter of Francis Ford, after Franco offered her the rights, saying he recognised a shared sensibility. One reviewer has said, ‘James Franco’s unintentionally-LOL-worthy collection of short stories has been condensed, refined, & infinitely bettered by writer-director Gia Coppola, who, as you can imagine from her stock, is more than capable of sorting the wheat from Franco’s chaff.’ The film is in Australian cinemas this week. You can watch the trailer below.

Behind the Book Cover: Forensic Songs

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover … but of course, so many of us do, at least at first glance. Slate has published an interview with the designer of one innovative new book cover, talking about his process, what a good book cover should do, and how he came up with the concept for this particular book, Mike McCormack’s Forensic Songs.

Most of what needs to happen when a viewer sees a book cover happens in a few seconds. You either hold the eye or you don’t. And then if you hold the eye, you either have something interesting to give either in relation to the title, or a feeling, or some glimpse into the world of the book.

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Photos from Off the Grid

Since 2012, French photographer Antoine Bruy has been travelling Europe and documenting the lives of people who’ve chosen to withdraw from mainstream society for his photo-essay, Scrublands. His subjects have created their own homes and communities, often using discarded found objects. Next, Bruy plans to continue his project in the US and Mexico.

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highlight Andrew Nette is a writer, reviewer, film lover, pulp scholar and lover of all things noir. His first novel, Ghost Money, a crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-nineties was published in 2012 by Snubnose Press, after the manuscript was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, a non-fiction book he is jointly writing, will be published by Verse Chorus Press in late 2015.

We spoke to him about being paid for your literary labour, why the best advice for writers is to just get your first draft done, and why being a writer comes from deep down within a person – and you either have the hunger to do it, or you don’t.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Hell, that’s going back a bit. I’m pretty sure it was an article in the Melbourne University student magazine Farrago. I can’t remember what it was about. It was Melbourne Uni in the eighties, so it was probably something politically worthy and dull.

What’s the best part of your job?

The feeling I am making a living, almost, out of the written word. I have a number of strings to my bow. I doing writing consultancies, I work as a freelance journalist, I write fiction and non-fiction and do a lot of panel and interviewing work for festivals. They all involve writing of one sort or another. I love the variety and the fact that people are actually prepared to pay me for my literary labour.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Living by one’s literary wits doesn’t pay very well. You are only as good as your last pitch or piece of writing and I always feel like I’m hustling, for work or to get paid.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

I’m not sure I can isolate one. Being shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript was pretty cool. Getting the subsequent novel out there was great. Working as a freelance journalist for a number of years in the nineties in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, was also fantastic.

It may sound trite, but every time I get an article or piece of writing accepted, whatever it is, and I see it in print, either in hard copy of on the screen, I get a buzz. Seriously. The novelty never wears off.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is just get the first draft done. That was given to me in relation to fiction, but I reckon it applies pretty well to anything you write.

Not so much a piece of advice, but there’s a great quote by an American crime writer called George V. Higgins, who wrote a number of highly regarded crime novels, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle in 1972. He said: ‘Writing is a hard game. No one asked you to start. No one will notice if you stop.’ That sounds a little bleak, indeed, it could almost have come from one of his characters. But it cuts through a lot of the bullshit that is around about writing and I recall it whenever I get pissed off with writing.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Anything anyone says about my work is usually a surprise. One review of my debut novel, Ghost Money, called it ‘The Third Man of Asian noir’. I loved that.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

One way or another, I have always made my living through my ability to write. I don’t think I can do anything else.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

ghostmoneyv4final My problem with that question is it assumes there is a point at which one has ‘learnt’ how to write. I have been working with words for nearly 25 years. I had to ‘learn’ to be a journalist. I had to ‘learn’ how to write policy documents when I worked for a trade union and community organisations. Then, I decided I wanted to write fiction and I had to learn to do that. I don’t think I am a master of any of these types of writing. I am still learning all of them, particularly fiction writing, and always will be.

I think you can teach people certain rules and conventions of writing. But I’m not sure you can teach someone to be a writer (and the two are often conflated). That comes from somewhere deep within a person and you either have that hunger or you don’t. It’s as simple as that.

Publishing is an industry and learning how to write and get published has developed into a parallel industry. I have an ambivalent view of the industry of teaching people how to write and get published. On the one hand, it creates communities for writers and teaches them important skills. It is also an income stream for a lot of writers (at times, myself included). But I have a problem with any course or workshop that is prefaced on the notion that there is one way to write or one path to publication. This is not only untrue; it is harmful to aspiring writers.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

Stop mucking around. Stop talking about writing. Write.

And read. A lot.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

To paraphrase Malcolm X, if I want/need a certain book I will get it, by whatever means necessary.

I buy from bookshops, although the cost means that does not take place as often as I would like. I love the convenience, ease and cost of e-books (and, yes, that includes Amazon). I buy from Book Depository and eBay.

And, because I collect old pulp novels and am currently co-writing a book on pulp and youth culture, I’m a frequent visitor to second-hand book sites like Abe Books. I can be found lurking in Melbourne’s diminishing number of second-hand bookstores (Oh, the joy of a untidy second-hand bookstore deep in a suburban arcade). And I love a good op shop, especially a non-chain one, preferably in a small country town.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

That’s a tough one. Mostly I read crime fiction and I wouldn’t want to hang out with most of the characters in these books. Maybe Billy Glasheen, the fifties Sydney lurk-merchant and small-time conman created by Australian writer Peter Doyle. I reckon Glasheen would be able to impart a few tips that could help me get ahead in the writing business. I would, of course, have to pick up the tab for dinner and drinks and he could probably cadge fifty dollars off me, which I would never see again.

If not him, then Jerry Cornelius, the time-travelling, sexually polymorphous swinging secret agent created by British SF writer, Michael Moorcock. We’d talk about history and all the hallucinogenic drugs he’s taken.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I am not sure I can answer that. There have been so many. In my teens I was obsessed with sci-fi and sword and sorcery fiction. But ever since my early twenties, my reading has been dominated by crime fiction. I credit my father with this. He had a large selection of paperbacks in his den, Australian pulp as well as Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane. The covers, the seamy cadence of the titles, fascinated me. I spent many hours in my teens thumbing through all these books.

If I had to nominate one, it’s probably The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley because it blew a giant hole in what I thought crime fiction could be. It felt real and urgent. It still does every time I re-read it. Crumley was also an incredible writer and the book has the best opening line ever: ‘When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma California, drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon.’


Andrew Nette is co-editor of Crime Factory magazine.

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Our second group of Hot Desk Fellows for 2014 are settled at their desks in the Wheeler Centre, getting stuck into their writing projects. We thought you might like to see what they’re up to – so here’s an introduction to the six talented scribes currently occupying the hot desks, and their projects.

The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships offer recipients a desk at the Wheeler Centre for two months, and a $1000 stipend, courtesy of the Readings Foundation.

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Ernest Hemingway, pictured, is not one of our Hot Desk Fellows.

Ender Baskan, Untitled, (Memoir)

The only child of Turkish migrants, in June 2013 I travelled to Turkey to try to explain myself to myself. I arrived to an Istanbul ablaze. The Gezi Park Protest movement had swelled from a small sit-in to a nationwide crisis. Within hours of getting off the plane I was shot at, tear-gassed and chased down the streets by Riot Police in central Istanbul. Welcome home. A memoir – part travel story, part meditation on migrant life – this is a story about growing up in today’s Australia.

Meaghan Bell, Future Summer, (Poetry)

Future Summer is a series of poems investigating the apocalyptic outcomes of global warming and climate change. The aim is to develop a series of thirteen poems which will then be made into a chap-book. While there are many depressing visions of a dystopian future, this series reflects possible utopian visions, which engenders hope and a desire to act.

Elin-Maria Evangelista, Esperanto for the Despairing, (Fiction)

Esperanto for the Despairing is the story of a handful of Australians travelling to Stockholm for the 1934 world congress in Esperanto. This is a journey that will change their lives. As the title indicates, language(s) play a great part in the novel, which looks at not only Esperanto as a phenomenon but also depict how learning an additional language impacts a diverse group of characters in the story.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Wake in Fright: The Story of Australian Film (Non-fiction)

A cultural history of Australian cinema, charted via discrete essays on key films from our industry’s inception until today. Combining techniques of arts criticism, narrative journalism and historicism, this book will look at the unifying motif of terror in Australian cinema and how this fits into our larger national mythology.

Christa Jonathan, The Long Way Home (Short stories)

The Long Way Home is a short-story cycle with illustrations that will be published as a series of themed zines. The work will be primarily based on travel writing and my experience growing up as Chinese-indonesian and living in Melbourne.

Chad Parkhill, About Time: Daft Punk’s Discovery, Technology, and Temporal Displacement (Essay)

‘About Time’ is a critical essay that seeks to analyse Daft Punk’s 2001 album Discovery in terms of technology and temporality. This project will engage with continental philosophy of technology and time (particularly figures such as Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault and Derrida) in order to examine how Daft Punk have utilised the technology of sampling to create an album that is ‘out of time’ or ‘timeless’.

Kieran Stevenson, The Johnston Tradition (Fiction)

The Johnston Tradition is a novel that follows Padraig Johnston, a young man who has fallen into a life of alcoholic isolation since the suicide of his father when he was 19. It’s a book in which the protagonist’s cat has a smoker’s cough, in which he’s plagued by an eight-foot monster that spouts sarcastic invective from behind the dry-wall. But it’s also about self-actualisation, about worth, about depression and mental instability in a world that doesn’t always cater to them. It’s about remembering that you carry a universe in the basin of your brain and how that will never be worthless.

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Film and television journalist Anthony Morris looks at how the internet (and before that, the street press) has changed the landscape for writers – and asks whether we’d really want to turn back the clock. There may be less writing jobs these days, he says, but there are more working writers … and there’s more choice about what they write about.

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Image by Choo Chin Nian, Flickr.

If you’re a writer and you can get your work published, you deserve to get paid for that work. No one’s going to argue with that – well, plenty of people are going to argue with that, but they’re usually people making money off the work of unpaid writers so their opinions are roughly on par with a burglar’s opinion as to whether you should lock your doors. But there’s a part of the equation that’s rarely considered these days: the getting published part.

Back in the early 90s (when I left university), the path to becoming a published writer was both straightforward and dull: you either studied journalism at university, then did a one-year cadetship at a newspaper, or you went straight to a newspaper and got a three-year cadetship there. And by ‘writer’, read ‘news journalist’ – you might have wanted to be a restaurant critic or a sports reporter, but that wasn’t your call to make.

Instead, your bosses at the newspaper decided where you’d be working, and if they felt your talents lay in covering finance (or the tide times), that was the kind of writing you’d be doing until you persuaded them otherwise. If you wanted to be an opinion writer, good luck: newspaper columnists were largely professional journalists and if newspapers wanted opinions they sent their writers out to talk to people who had them. Television recaps? Listicles? Much of the writing we see today on the internet simply didn’t exist.

If that sounds a bit grim, it was: my journalism teachers said the typical career path was to rise through the ranks until your late twenties, then quit and go get a much better job (more money, no shift work) working for a politician or in public relations. Fortunately when I graduated it was the middle of a recession and no one was hiring, so I couldn’t even get that far: I ended up working for Forte, a street paper that had just started up in Geelong.

Back then street papers like Melbourne’s Beat or Sydney’s The Drum were still relatively new. Their business model was basically the internet before the internet: they were given away for free, writers were paid nothing (or next to nothing) but worked for ‘the exposure’, and the owners raked in a fortune from advertising – okay, maybe that part isn’t like the internet.

But if you were a writer starting out who wanted to cover the arts, suddenly the barrier to getting published was extremely low. Street papers didn’t really care what filled the gaps between ads – well, aside from the stories they ran that were directly tied to the ads (for example, if you took out a full-page ad for your tour, the paper would run an interview with the band; yesterday’s advertorial is today’s sponsored post). They had loads of space to fill every week, so suddenly pretty much anyone who wanted to start out writing about music or the arts had a place to go where people would see their work. They were now published writers; unfortunately the well-paid jobs were now even further out of reach.

By being cheaper to run than the regular music press, the street press killed off traditional Australian music magazines. Through the 80s, Australia had two music newspapers, the Sydney-based fortnightly RAM and Melbourne’s weekly Juke; by the early 90s they were both gone. Australian Rolling Stone was largely reprints from the US version; rival Juice magazine was not a long-term success. There were loads more entry-level positions, but everything beyond that – anything that paid a living wage − was basically gone. The street press wasn’t a way to get a step up on the ladder and it didn’t make the ladder easier to climb, it just extended the ladder a few rungs further down.

Today the online journalism model is the street press model. There are loads more jobs out there; there just aren’t many well-paid ones. Street papers were full of band interviews and gig reviews because fans would write them for free; the internet is full of reviews and opinion pieces for much the same reason. Meanwhile, the kind of writing that was a paid job has largely vanished: it’s a lot easier to justify low (or no) pay when you publish listicles and television recaps than it is if you publish investigative journalism or crime reporting.

The internet hasn’t killed off the street press, though it’s hardly thriving; a lot of the smaller papers have folded, and Drum Media recently merged its Sydney and Melbourne publications into one syndicated magazine. Like a lot of ‘old’ media, they never quite managed the shift online; even without paying writers it’s hard to make money there.

More people than ever can legitimately call themselves writers, even as it’s increasingly difficult to make anything even close to a living wage from doing it. The question is, if it was possible to go back, would we want to? The old model might have had a higher percentage of well-paying jobs, but they were jobs with long hours, low pay (comparatively), and a fairly limited range of subjects available to writers.

Plus it was a lot more work. Journalists were paid largely to gather news, and before the internet that involved a lot more time on the phones and on the street. In some ways the better pay reflected the higher level of experience required; in a world without Google, writers were expected to know their field intimately (or at least, know how to find people who did).

If we could somehow turn back the clock and say ‘okay, there’s only going to be a quarter of the writing jobs, but those jobs will be paid four times as much,’ would writers want to take that risk?

Probably. Because we’d all think we’d be the ones who’d still have jobs.


Anthony Morris is DVD editor of the Big Issue. He writes about film and television for various publications, including Geelong street paper Forte and Empire magazine.

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When former independent MP Rob Oakeshott spoke at Epic Fail recently, he shared what his time in federal parliament taught him about power, money, the influence of corporate interests and the benefit of hindsight.

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‘This is epic!’ yells my three year old son Ben last weekend as he lets his legs go on a steep rocky trail, his arms spread wide and his head up. He’s looking at the canopy of one of the last east coast literal rainforests in a small pocket of green at the end of our street in Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie – otherwise known as Biripai country.

It was always going to end in tears – an epic fail, three year old style; nothing a dust-off and hug can’t fix. But in the highs and lows of that fifteen second emotional rollercoaster of a young boy’s life on a walking trail last weekend lies a reaffirmation of a great truth.

If you want to live – and I mean really live, with all the ‘epicness’ that truly living requires – then wise up to the ‘Greek tragedy’ bedfellow that Epic shares. A pillow partner called Failure.


It is why the seat belt was invented. Failure is expected when an epic tool like speed is given to us.

Like a hand in a glove, Failure wraps its ever present self around anything Epic. It is the strangler fig of our own human rainforest, forever present in the bird shit of human activity. The most colourful tree with the juiciest fruit attracts the birds – who turn this epic beauty into the seeds of a brown distorted stinking mash of death.

It is the zero sum game of where Epic and Fail collide. My son chooses to use the word Epic as a reflection of his new generation – let’s call them Generation ABC – and it is shaped around a popular kids movie by the same name. So what was once cool, or wizard, or funky, or deadly, or massive, or unreal, or awesome, or happening, or even it, is now epic.

The movie Epic is best summarised as a kids version of Avatar. And if you haven’t seen this, it is summarised in exactly 25 words as:

Forest creatures fighting forest-destroying monster. Humans get involved and stuff it up. Happy ending where all decide to get on and play nicely.

It’s The Lorax meets the great, great Graham Base’s Uno’s Garden – and any number of books and movies about the theme of environment versus the economy.


My epic fail is not what I see in the collective thought bubble above all your heads – that question you all seem to be asking yourselves about how on earth this guy is going to do a 10 minute speech about a 17 minute one.

And it was neither epic nor failure to do what I said I would do when I stood, successfully, at two federal elections and stayed true to my personal platform of getting an emissions trading scheme and the National Broadband Network rolling in Australia.

The Fairfax press defined me on day one, after the 2010 election, as a ‘rural progressive’ who wants both of these issues resolved. They even had a breakout box describing how my home was used for refugee Australians as part of Rural Australians for Refugees. That the News Limited media, and others, then chose to turn this all into some act of disloyalty and betrayal is their problem, not mine – and therefore not any reflective epic fail on my behalf at all.

No, my epic fails are many, but not there.

Rather, they are in the policy areas of biodiversity loss and carbon pricing. And they are in my inability to recognise, and then handle, the big shift happening in Australian politics: a shift towards what I call corporate conflict theory, and the flow-on consequences of this shift where I, and we, have failed in epic proportions to put a check on the privatisation of democracy in Australia today.


Firstly, the epic policy failure of climate change. In 2010, my thinking was fairly brutal, and simple. I knew Peter Costello had tried and failed in 2001 to get an emissions trading scheme through cabinet. I knew former prime ministers Howard and Rudd had both taken the advice of scientists and economists seriously and promoted an ETS at the 2007 election, and now famously, I knew the bipartisan deal was nearly done in 2009 between Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

My view at the time was that bipartisanship on evidence and common sense wasn’t really under threat, and that the 2010 election idea of Direct Action was really just a quickly cobbled together marketing tool by the LNP to neutralise the electoral pain and stop the internal bleeding amongst their own ranks.

So my view was to help ram an ETS through, clean up the edges as we go, and then let the scientists and economists – as well as logic, common sense and evidence – win the politics. How wrong I was. I lived the birth of the false tax debate, I watched it grow, I watched it win. I watched an emissions trading scheme get reframed as a carbon tax, and die as a consequence. An epic fail all round.

It is my view that it’s actually biodiversity loss that is Australia’s greatest environmental challenge by a country mile. Yet trying to initiate discussion or programs in this regard have politicians running that same country mile, as they all remained locked in carbon wrestlemania.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if I was dropped back into 2010 and had this opportunity again, I would make biodiversity loss the top of the pyramid of what we were trying to address, instead of making the science of a gas the top of the pyramid. By doing so, community engagement on some simple facts like the death of the species known as a koala in our lifetime – without behaviour change – would be an easier conversation than the more challenging discussion around a colourless, odourless gas.

More importantly, the broader suite of tools required would have also been an easier discussion. Things like a national bio-banking scheme, national biodiversity corridors of scale and significance, the use of biomass and the role that the public tree can play in energy security and emissions trading, a serious (as opposed to the current piecemeal) crack at invasive species – and importantly, how urban planning can better embrace biodiversity gains, as compared to the current planning realities of death by a thousand cuts.

By doing some of this broader work, we could have lowered the temperature on carbon politics, and we’d have had – still could have – a much greater chance of getting a long term ETS. It would have been a broader, more bipartisan conversation on a number of fronts – reducing the chance for all the concentrated hoopla of $100 lamb roasts and Whyalla wipeouts.


Now, the deeper question on all of this is the one about advice. When every single MP is getting exactly the same strong and urgent advice, the unanswered question is how on earth have we all allowed this epic fail on carbon policy to happen.

My answer is money – political donations – and the extreme influence of the Business Union in Australian democracy today.

And this is where my other two epic fails combine. I lost in politics to money. I poked power in the eye and got an almighty punch in the nose in return.

Sociology textbooks don’t talk about conflict theory being used by the powerful to create dissent and division and uncertainty in a community. Conflict theory is supposed to be the tool of the marginalised and disadvantaged. It’s the basis of the concept of unionism, and the concept of street protest.

But if this was all true, why was Australia’s richest woman getting off the bus to personally street protest, as if she was marginalised and disadvantaged?

Or why were other high profile West Australian mining magnates photographed weekly in their hi-vis safety wear, presenting themselves as a worker in an effort to position themselves as power-poor?

Or why was the late Paul Ramsey, the LNP’s biggest donor in 2010, handing out pamphlets to patients in regard private health insurance reform, or getting a $300k salaried CEO of a local hospital to manufacture a protest outside my electorate office with paid nursing staff – captured as a lead story on Prime Television, which happened to be owned by the same Paul Ramsey?

What was it with the radical but early and repeated calls for an ‘early election’ by the Murdoch media – based on a completely false premise that an elected Parliament that didn’t suit their business interests was enough of a trigger to accuse it relentlessly of being, of all things, undemocratic?

How poor and marginalised and disadvantaged this mob were, I say sarcastically. But oh how skilful they were in the use of conflict theory for their own return, I say with non-sarcastic respect.


Throughout that period of 2010-2013, I met and personally dealt with six of the top ten richest people in Australia. I did not ask to meet any of them. They chased me. At the time, they were all, individually, a pleasure to deal with. But as a collective noun of wealth in Australia today – a whale of money, or a pride of oligarchs – their behaviour throughout that period confirms for us all just how much they are intimately involved, and crawling all over your democracy.

In truth, real democracy was the strongest it has been for a long time in that 43rd Parliament, because no-one, or nothing, owned it.

The epic failure was the Business Union of Australia using a new corporate conflict theory to allow our Parliament to be perceived as undemocratic. They did it successfully, and now we have the select few back in their happy place of command and control. The pussycat called Power is purring again.

The epic fail of our time is that right when we had the chance to embed real democracy, we have in fact entrenched a privatised model of democracy.

So my most epic of epic fails is that I am part of a Generation X and Y that is a really a Generation Zzz. We will be looked back on by my three year old Ben, and many others, as a failed generation, asleep to the great challenges of real democracy for our times.

We seem comfortable being the first generation to consume and waste more than we can produce and collect.

We seem comfortable to allow our children a shorter life expectancy than our own.

And specifically in Australia, we all know future standards of living will be higher with comprehensive tax reform that involves some bad medicine being swallowed now – and we all know our children’s future is more secure with real action on climate change. Yet we choose do reject doing anything on both. If actions speak louder than words, we do not care about tomorrow.

So the sequel to today’s kid’s movie Epic will be the adult version called Fail. They’ll watch it in about thirty years’ time. It will be about us, sloth-like and asleep.

Thankfully, it will frustrate and bore them. Thankfully, the circle of life – the yin and the yang, the whatever you want to call it – will, I believe, inspire a great generation. One of epic innovation and entrepreneurship. A time of progress based on evidence and logic, not inertia-based on shrill adversarial politics.

They will be great and epic, because they have to be. They have to be, because of our failures today – epic failures that I carry as a burden more than most.

So run, Ben. Run. Run fast down that hill. Scream ‘epic!’ until your lungs burn. Because you are Epic, and your Generation ABC is the one that will have to be more Epic than ever before.

We, Generation X/Y/Zzz, have left you no option.

Run.


This is an edited version of a talk given at the Wheeler Centre’s Epic Fail event on 30 July. You can view the video online.

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Our Words & music series has lately had us thinking more about the nexus between writers, words and music. So, in today’s Friday High Five, we’re bringing you a literary song book of sorts.

Paperback writer

There’s no shortage of songs about the joys of reading and writing. For many, Broadcast’s ‘The Book Lovers’ might be the quintessential bibliophile’s anthem. (It famously appeared on the soundtrack to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, though it was never heard in the film itself.)


Then there’s Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ (ahem), Vampire Weekend’s ‘Oxford Comma’, ‘The Book of Love’ by The Magnetic Fields, and ‘Write About Love’ by Belle & Sebastian.

Other examples include the shimmering hypnotism of The Books' ‘Read, Eat, Sleep’ and Nat King Cole’s bittersweet take on writing for pleasure in ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter’. And we couldn’t go past Ed Hall’s ‘Reading’, which offers: ‘Reading! It makes you think! Reading! It makes you talk!’ Can’t argue with that.

Songs about literature

You won’t win any awards for figuring out that Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ was based on Emily Brontë’s book by the same name. But did you know that Nirvana’s ‘Scentless Apprentice’ was inspired by Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind? Or that the early 1980s hit ‘Whip It’ was Devo’s answer to Thomas Pynchon?

The message

Even Sesame Street is on board with ‘there’s an app for that’. But, hailing from a different street in New York City, Flocabulary is producing short hip hop lessons on subjects like math, science, classic literature and writing techniques. It’s a paid service, but a handful have made their way to YouTube.

So – paying tribute to librarians? An introduction to figurative language? There’s a rap for that.

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Buzzfeed’s Daniel Dalton asks (then answers): If Pop Songs Were Works Of Fiction, what would they look like?

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Great Rock and Roll Pauses

Jennifer Egan’s much discussed experimental chapter ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses’, from her Pulitzer-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, sits quietly (and ever poignantly) on the author’s website.

Back in 2011, she spoke to CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera about that infamous chapter – and how it drew together a Semisonic song, the timed structure of writing for PowerPoint, and ‘Clearmountain pauses’.

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Stephanie Van Schilt is deputy editor of The Lifted Brow, co-host of The Rereaders podcast and the TV columnist at Kill Your Darlings. Her writing has featured in various local and international publications including Crikey, Metro and Cineaste.

We spoke to her about being so committed to her work that she watched Baz Luhrmann’s Australia twice before she wrote about it, why you should fake it til you make it (and exercise) to make it in writing and editing, and what she’d be doing with her life in the darkest timeline.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

If you count self-publishing, when I was about eight or nine I used to make little one off cut-and-paste zines by reconstituting old copies of TV Week and creating ‘stories’ on a typewriter. I desperately wanted to be Lynda Day from early-90s pre-teen TV show Press Gang and obviously TV Week offered hard-hitting social commentary and journalistic goods that a dedicated readership (my mum) needed to experience.

While it’s unlikely that these collectors items remain in circulation (pretty sure mum threw them away shortly after receiving a copy), my deep fascination with pop culture has lingered. My first published piece was a review of Baz Lurhmann’s bloated, nationalistic atrocity Australia for international screen journal Cineaste. I was so nervous about forming an opinion (and writing generally) that I went to see the movie twice: that’s 2 x 165 minute viewings of Australia. Sometimes we do suffer for our art.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love having the opportunity to learn new things and be engaged with culture on the regular. There’s something to be said for solitary research and the inspiring smell of a good, silent library, but I’m also constantly schooled by the awesome people around me.

I know there’s been some talk about literary cliques and the like of late, but the people who I’ve met over the past five or so years — from interning at MWF to working with Kill Your Darlings and now The Lifted Brow — have straight up changed my life. Things are different and exciting and great now — I owe them stacks for that. But maybe don’t tell them — I don’t want those jerks and jerkettes to think that, you know, I have a heart or am mushy or care or anything.

What’s the worst part of your job?

At times, I get pretty bad blocks and plummet down some killer anxiety holes. I also beat myself up about never doing enough. That’s why it’s great to balance the solo work with collaborative projects. When you are answering to others, or someone is waiting for an answer from you, there’s no choice but to (eventually) shake it off, suck it up and get on with work.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

I’m still pretty new to all of this, but the opportunities I’ve been given since starting work with The Lifted Brow about a year-and-a-half ago have been incredible. Working with that magazine, alongside the Brow team, has been hugely significant.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

I’ve heard ‘Fake it til you make it – that’s what I did’ heaps. I don’t know whether it’s the best or worst advice, totally optimistic or cynical, completely reassuring or terrifying or just the lamest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t want to think too deeply about such a throwaway line (or what it says about me/the people offering up the words), but the general idea that crises of confidence are both a personal and shared experience makes me feel a bit better I guess.

Also: read. Always and forever.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Steph, you’re: ‘a wunderkind’, ‘outstanding and most popular’, ‘covered in sexy vampire cool’, ‘three times the woman Myf Warhurst is’, ‘a normcore icon’, ‘laidback and rustic fare’. That’s just a sample of the weird, surprising things my co-host Sam Twyford-Moore has said about me while recording The Rereaders podcast. Most of these descriptions are flat-out lies or don’t make sense (in or out of it), but I still think they’re great. He did once call Dion Kagan a ‘man-eating alien’ so I think I’ve got it okay thus far (we are only ten episodes in…).

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Steadily climbing my way to number one on the ‘most likely to go postal’ office ranking in an admin job made for anyone but me. I’d be getting my kicks sending amusing emails to colleagues during the day and drinking my pay cheque away in the evening. In the same way I cruise real estate sites long after I’ve found a house, I’d be addicted to looking for a new job and that sting of disappointment that comes from rejection. But really, stepping away from the darkest timeline, I would have pursued a programming role with a film festival or arts organisation.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I don’t think it’s as formulaic as maths rather it’s more of a learning process. I mean, I’m still learning from each book or article I read, from editorial advice and from my MA in creative writing (via research).

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

‘Fake it til you make it'…no really, um, I guess it’s a bit tangential but don’t underestimate the power of physical exercise. I mean, I’m no athlete but can vouch for the power of going for a run around the block or a sweaty gym session. When you’re stuck behind a computer all day, it’s so good for your brain – it can make you feel lighter, clearer and inspired.

(NB: In the spirit of honesty, haven’t been to the gym for like two months. They’ve even stopped guilt-texting me.)

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

All of the above. I love a good secondhand book hunt or spending hours in a store, but I’m also quite lazy (see above gym hypocrisy) and often I just order in. I really love trolling through Brotherhood Books for hours to see whether I can find stuff for uni or work or leisure and then the package arrives only a couple of days later. So good.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I kinda have dinner with a fictional character most nights because I often consume food and television at the same time (obviously I’m all class and not remotely addicted to TV or anything, I don’t know what you’re talking about). I feel like I have a bunch of fictional friends already so this may be the hardest question to answer. It definitely changes week by week. Right now, I really feel like having an awesome, trashy dinner with the babes from Broad City (not unlike what happens in their season one finale). Yeah, I’m totally up for that.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

David Rakoff’s writing grabs my heart and throws it out the window only to chase it down the street, pick it up, replace it, fill it with love and admiration and joy and humour, before ripping it out all over again (the Rakoff rinse and repeat). Rakoff was a rare acerbic wit who died too soon (a couple of years ago) but left behind a small, yet illuminating body of work that includes dazzling essay collections, radio plays and a posthumous rhyming couplet novella.

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From the outside, Clare Wright’s life is a model of professional achievement and personal contentment. And yet, when she was asked to take part in the Wheeler Centre’s Epic Fail event, she immediately knew what to write about. Here, she shares her story of the ‘the year my brain broke’ – and how she came back from the brink, stronger than ever.

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There is little in my CV that would suggest I should be standing here on this pedestal of failure tonight. I was a straight-A student at a select entry high school for academically gifted girls. I achieved a perfect 100% for my HSC English exam. I received First Class Honours for my Bachelor and Masters degrees and my PhD thesis won the prize for the best doctoral work in my discipline. I have been awarded merit-based scholarships for all my tertiary courses, and a federal grant for my postdoctoral research. My books have been on the bestseller lists. My television documentary was a critical triumph, and my new documentary series will hit the screens on 19 August. So no belly flops or banana peels there.

My domestic life is pretty cozy too. I met the love of my life in first-year university and my husband and I have now been together for 26 years. (All of them bliss, he would say with only the hint of an impudent smile.) Together we are raising three delightful, healthy children, whose company we prefer to most other human or technological interaction. Our warm and hospitable suburban home is filled with food, love and laughter. We have an open door policy with friends and wildlife alike. At the moment we are breaking bread with a dog, two cats, four rabbits, twelve guinea pigs and the ever-present chooks. We have a beach house.

So it’s perhaps odd that when I was asked by the Wheeler Centre to participate in tonight’s panel, I knew immediately and instinctively what I would talk about. For me, the two little words ‘epic fail’ cast me straight back to a moment so vivid and visceral it could be yesterday.

But it is seven years ago and I am in a car. I am in my little navy blue Golf and I am driving back home to my beloved husband and beautiful family from a doctor’s appointment. I have spent two hours talking to this doctor — a woman I have never met before but who has kindly spared me eight of her precious 15 minutes appointment slots and bulk-billed me to boot. It is raining. Or maybe it is not raining but I am crying so hard that my memory requires windshield wipers to hone its field of vision.

I am in a state but I am also in a car so I’m stopping at traffic lights and watching out for pedestrians. And I’m talking out loud to myself, repeating two short sentences in a spin cycle of fear and self-loathing.

I’m sorry. I have failed. I’m sorry. I have failed. I’m sorry.

I drive and I cry and I chant this mantra to the rhythm of the rain. Or perhaps into the blinding sunshine. Does it matter? I have no idea who I’m apologising to. But I know without a shadow of a doubt what I’m apologising for: I have failed.

Later, I would come to think of 2007 as The Year My Brain Broke. But there in the car that day all I knew was that I’d left the doctor’s office with a prescription for antidepressants, a referral to a psychiatrist, and the assurance that ‘no strength of character or force of will’ would get me through this.

But what was this? This feeling of utter incompetence. This knowledge of my complete inability to pull myself up by my bootstraps. This incapacity to count my blessings. This malfunction of every system I had ever put in place to stave of disaster, avert catastrophe and neutralise chaos.

According to the doctor − who I had to admit was a highly skilled professional who had not merely raised her eyes above her glasses at me and reached for her prescription pad but rather listened while I oozed gloom for two whole hours − according to this doctor I had severe clinical postnatal depression.

My third child, my only daughter, had been born two and a half years earlier. We were instantly bonded in a deep and abiding connection. Every photo shows me beaming with pride and joy. With her birth I experienced a deep sense of fulfillment and a circle that I wasn’t aware was broken had finally closed.

And yet …

Above: video of Clare Wright’s Epic Fail talk.

For at least two years, I had struggled with the daily challenge to scale the summit of my own wretchedness. Most days were like snorkeling through tar. Dark, heavy, suffocating days punctuated by panic and a generalised sense of impending doom. I experienced waking hallucinations of my baby toppling down the stairs. A bomb in her pusher. Snakes crawling next to the bunny rug where she kicked happily in the back yard. At night when I slept, if I slept, which was rarely, I dreamed I was falling into a black abyss. ‘So this is what it’s like’ I’d think wistfully as I plummeted into the void, right before I woke bolt upright, mouth dry, heart racing.

But this couldn’t be postnatal depression, could it? Depressed mums didn’t get out of bed, and cried all day, and shouted at people, and didn’t want to touch their babies, and were afraid they might hurt them. I wasn’t any of these things. I went to work, wrote and published, appeared on tv shows and made intelligent, amusing speeches. I had a hot meal on the table every night, and clean school uniforms in the cupboards. I had clean hair and happy kids.

Yes, I often felt red raw when watching the news or reading the paper, like my skin had been peeled away, gleaning on some deep gut level that it was my fault that a man had thrown his child off a bridge, or a group of teenagers had been mown down by a drunk driver, or a baby’s pusher had blown on the train tracks in a big wind.

And yes, I often started walking to the supermarket, or the swimming pool, or a cafe to meet friends, only to find myself frozen to the spot, certain that going to that place or doing that activity was wrong, and that I should have made a different decision, a better decision, and if I’d made THAT decision I wouldn’t be here, now, walking around in circles, unable to make up my mind whether to stay or go, pumped full of adrenalin, without a single good reason why I should either fight or take flight, but nonetheless primed for battle, certain I was going mad.

On the outside, I was a solid citizen. On the inside, I had fractured into a million little pieces.

But it was not until 45-year-old Audrey Fagan, Chief Police Officer of the ACT, was found hanging in her hotel room on a Queensland tropical island in April 2007 that I started to grasp that something was seriously wrong with me beyond my own failure to stop myself from feeling so rotten and acting so crazy.

Stories on Fagan’s death all took the same line: why would such a competent, meticulous, successful mentor and mother take her own life? ‘Awesome mum solved all problems but her own’ read one headline. Amanda Vanstone was quoted saying ‘She was always happy, there was never any nastiness about her, she got along well with everybody.’ AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty said: ‘She was a very professional, very strong woman, and I think that’s what has surprised all of us, that because she was such a strong woman, such a determined woman, it’s a great lesson to all of us that everybody is vulnerable.’

None of the articles said that Audrey Fagan had depression, though one story published in the Good Weekend magazine a few months after her death implied it.

Reading that piece at my kitchen table, I felt such a profound affinity with Fagan that my blood ran cold. It was not long after that I found myself a doctor.

Now that I am well again, I know, of course, that confronting the full force of my own vulnerability was not an epic fail. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Only I could make the decision to step back from the brink of the abyss. Only I could start to love myself the way my friends and family loved me. I had to find out for myself that life is not a performance sport; that achievement is a state of grace, not the sum total of relentless activity; that ego might not be a dirty word, but it can be a ruthless taskmaster; and that hard work often brings just rewards, but it’s not what sets you free.


‘This is an edited version of a talk given at the Wheeler Centre’s Epic Fail event on 30 July. You can view the video online.

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Angela Savage is currently conducting research on commercial surrogacy for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University. Here, she draws on her reading to reflect on the case of baby Gammy, which has dominated news headlines in recent days.

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Image by miguelb, Flickr.

Is commercial surrogacy a form of child trafficking? In her book Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, Swedish feminist academic Kajsa Ekis Ekman says that is. She has an unlikely ally in Thailand’s military junta, which moved last week to crack down on the country’s unregulated surrogacy industry, threatening to use human trafficking laws to prosecute those who make illegal use of fertility technology.

In Australia, the crackdown is bound to be associated with the now infamous case of baby Gammy, reported in the media here last week. Born to a Thai surrogate who refused to abort the foetus after tests showed he had Down Syndrome, Gammy, now seven months old, was allegedly abandoned by his Australian parents, who took home his healthy twin sister.

But the circumstances surrounding the case are far from clear cut. And it’s only the latest in a series of incidents that have raised concerns about this controversial industry.

In 2011, Thai police rescued 13 Vietnamese women, seven of them pregnant and two who’d just given birth, from horrific “baby farms” in Bangkok run by Taiwanese nationals. The surrogates, some of whom may have been raped, were confined to compounds and had their passports confiscated in gross violations of their human rights.

The case prompted the then government of Yingluck Shinawatra to draft legislation outlawing surrogacy for commercial purposes in Thailand. However, the country’s broader political crisis, which culminated in a military coup in May this year, meant the bill to regulate assisted reproductive technologies (ART) took a low priority.

Last week, the military government announced a review of the legislation. According to the Thai press, this was a response to reports of Chinese nationals using in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures in Thailand for the sex selection of embryos, which is prohibited under Thai law.

More broadly, it appears that commercial surrogacy, which once took place discreetly in specific IVF clinics, has become big business in Thailand, involving a growing number of local and foreign brokerage agencies and, in the process, crossing a line in terms of what is acceptable to Thai sensibilities.

Surrogacy brokers advertise a range of services, including surrogate selection and ‘screening’, sourcing egg donation, liaison with ‘IVF partners’, ante natal care reporting, and assistance with legal and immigration paperwork. Agents may recruit and also house surrogates, and some are known to prevent surrogates and intended parents from having direct contact.

In an unregulated industry where both the financial and emotional costs are high, there is considerable scope for exploitation and abuse.

The circumstances surrounding the birth of baby Gammy provide a case in point. The Thai surrogate mother, Ms Pattaramon Chanbua, is a twenty-one-year-old mother of two other children, the eldest of whom is reported to be six years old. This means Ms Chanbua was pregnant at fifteen, possibly younger, and unlikely to have completed high school. She says she was motivated to become a paid surrogate to help her family pay off debts.

In all likelihood, there would have been a contract between Ms Chanbua and the intending parents from Australia, prepared by an agent, which included clauses outlining the course of action in the event that abnormalities were detected in a foetus. Whether the details of the agreement were accessible to Ms Chanbua is a moot point; when Down Syndrome was detected in the male twin she was carrying, she refused the Australian couple’s request to abort the foetus, saying she was ‘afraid of sin’.

Thai Buddhists consider abortion to impede rebirth and contravene prohibitions against the taking of human life. Abortion is illegal in Thailand in all but a few specific circumstances, which does not include detection of Down Syndrome.

After the twins were born, it was alleged the biological parents abandoned boy, taking only his healthy twin sister back with them to Australia.

One detail that leapt out at me as I pored over media reports on the case was that the surrogate and intended parents never met. Ms Chanbua said it was the agent who promised her an additional payment to have twins; who asked to abort the pregnancy; and who, after the babies were born, took the healthy girl twin to the intended parents, leaving the boy behind.

Was it possible the agent had taken advantage of both parties, leading the intending parents to believe the affected foetus had been aborted, at the same time blaming the intending parents for not paying the Thai surrogate extra to deliver twins?

Just as I was speculating that the intended parents may not have even known of baby Gammy’s existence, news came to light that the Australians were told only of the birth of a healthy girl. The father blamed the surrogacy agency – which has since closed down – for the appalling situation.

However, Ms Chanbua has since claimed that both twins were in hospital for a month before the Australian parents took the girl home, and that the father, while aware of the boy, had ‘never touched Gammy at all’.

Further complicating the case are reports today that the father served jail time in 1998 for the indecent assault of a child under 13. This raises questions about the responsibility of the Australian authorities in relation to the conduct of its citizens engaged in international commercial surrogacy arrangements.

If there is a place for ethical surrogacy between Asia and Australia, it is certainly not within existing arrangements; even advocates of surrogacy support reform and regulation. The enactment of legislation currently in draft form would ban commercial surrogacy and third party brokering in Thailand. But a legal framework can only offer so much protection when demand remains high.

It is worth remembering that prostitution is also technically illegal in Thailand.

Theorists like Ekman argue there will never be justice in a system ‘in which wealthy people use poor people as breeders’, and market forces are ‘pivotal to the child’s very existence’. Others argue that while demand from the West continues, women in countries like Thailand and India should be entitled to choose surrogacy as a pathway out of poverty for themselves and their families.

As I reflect on the anguish and injustice that reverberates from the baby Gammy case, I’m reminded of the words of surrogate Offred in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale:

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death… Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.


Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based writer and crime novelist. Her latest book is The Dying Beach.

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Tony Birch walks along the Yarra River, from Kew, after stopping in at Kew Cemetry, where his childhood friend Steven – who will be his companion on the walk – is buried. He reflects on the river’s importance to the Wurundjeri people, and to him personally, as he goes.

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Yarra Trail, Kew, Victoria, Australia

I set out with the intention to begin my walk at the Kew Billabong (more on that later). I studied the transport maps and worked out I needed to catch the number 48 tram to Balwyn and get off at stop number 33. I’ve been feeling lightheaded and pleasantly spacey. (I have felt the world too big of late, and kept myself small.) I caught the 109 tram by mistake. I didn’t realise my error until the tram was about to verge to the right instead of ploughing straight on. I jumped off the tram and decided to walk the remaining journey. Within a few minutes, I was standing at the gates of Kew Cemetery. Not my intended destination, but the place where one of my closest teenage friends, Steven Ward, has been buried for 35 years. I loved Steven. We lived on the same public housing estate and went everywhere together; most particularly to the Yarra River, the backyard of our childhood.

Deciding I couldn’t walk by the cemetery without visiting Steven’s grave, I went inside. I had visited him many times before, and was surprised that I couldn’t locate the grave. It angered me. I felt negligent. And guilty. It was as if I had forgotten him.

Determined not to give up, I walked the lanes in the section of the cemetery where I knew Steven was resting. I passed the graves of the old and young, married couples and entire families. Just when I was about to quit the search, I found myself standing in front of Steven’s tombstone. It was a bittersweet discovery, like frantically searching for the face of a loved one in a crowd, finding that face and experiencing its disappearance at the same time. I sat down and cried, not surprisingly, and unashamedly. Was it a fortuitous detour? I guess so. After all, I had been heading to our place. There was no question that Steven would come walking with me.

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Kew Cemetery, Victoria, Australia

I stopped on a bridge above the Eastern Freeway – a river for cars. Victoria has a freeway fetish, matched only by our fetish for cars. I can spit further than the distance some people drive to work of a morning. A freeway flows reasonably around lunchtime when it’s quiet. During peak times, Melbourne’s freeways block up like an old sewer, and the state is forever on the lookout for solutions – of a limited kind. While Melbourne’s public transport system struggles with ageing infrastructure, each time a major road artery clogs beyond repair, we choose a bypass; a new artery with a limited lifespan before it too requires major surgery. Our latest transport solution is the proposed East-West Link, a tunnel that will burrow deep beneath the ground, welding two freeway systems together. Most cars travelling through the link on workdays will carry solitary drivers. I expect that eventually they will spend a lot of time in the tunnel talking to themselves.

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Eastern Freeway; Melbourne, Australia

It took me no time to leave the traffic behind and find myself at the Kew Billabong. The billabong is the remnant of a vast wetland that once dominated the landscape. It was home to a vast array of birds and animal species, few of which remain. (Although programs to provide a suitable habitat for birds is ongoing). The billabong is an important cultural and spiritual place for the Wurundjeri people, the Aboriginal nation of greater Melbourne. They are a remarkable community. Faced with the onslaught of the British occupation of their land from 1835, the Wurundjeri’s courage, intellect and ingenuity has ensured that their knowledge of, and claim on land remains vital to sites such as this.

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‘Welcome to Wurundjeri Country’

When we were kids, we would ride out to the billabong on summer afternoons. The bikes we rode were put together affairs, assembled from bits and pieces we scrounged from around the streets. There were no bike paths in those days, very few people out walking their dogs, no freeways bulldozing our wayward days, and no signs welcoming visitors to Aboriginal country. But still we played the game of Aborigines every chance we got. Our blood was strong, but our skin, burnt brick-red by the sun, would never do. We would begin the game by jumping naked into the billabong, scooping up handfuls of mud at the water’s edge and smearing it across our bodies. We went black face, I guess. But all for a good cause. We were wild and did not want to be civilised or assimilated. We hid our faces from progress. In the billabong, we were safe. While we imagined spearing anyone who dare invade our country, we were sure we would never grow and never die. As long as we stayed in that water.

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Kew Billabong, Victoria, Australia

The billabong could not hold us, and we did grow. We roamed the river for miles and claimed all of it as our own, with little competition, as the river was unloved and neglected by others. We would sit on along her muddy bank, smoking cigarettes and singing to her. The river wanted to know that we loved her, and tested us at every opportunity. One summer we pledged to jump from each and every bridge from the city centre to the Pipe Bridge, the last bridge along the river before the billabong. Jumping into the water from 60 feet above its surface should have created fear. It never did. Even deep in the blackness and pockets of chill, I was sure the river would hold us true. If you have never jumped, let me share a secret with you. In the space between your feet leaving the safety of the railing and hitting the water, there is a moment of genuine flight – everything stops, except your imagination.

And then the saddest day arrives. Some of your river has been taken from you, and destroyed by those fools in suits who love freeways. And those other fools who would rather sit, stuck, immobilised, in capsules spewing shit into the air. Other parts of your river have been opened up with pathways, bikeways and walkways.

You have a choice. You can share the river with others, and their dogs, and their frisbees, and kites, and expensive baby strollers. Or you can leave and carry the river and the soul of your teenage friend with you. All you can do is leave behind an epitaph for those who will never know the river as you do. Maybe you don’t want to admit it. Maybe you can’t face up to a truth; these new people who come to your river may just love it too. Yes, that’s the hardest truth of all. You do not own this place. And you cannot – if what is left of the river is to be cared for and saved.

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Epitaph to the lost boys – beneath Chandler Bridge, Kew, Victoria, Australia

You return home, to the falls. The river you love – this is her heartbeat. As the water rushes over the falls, the vibration shakes the ground. It is good to know that she is alive. Just when you are feeling as selfish as a stupid man can be, thinking, ‘why don’t these people just fuck off and give my river back to me,’ a serendipitous sound shifts against the sandstone steps on the far bank. You think it is a trick. A deception tugging at your deep sense of loss – for your people, for your loved boyhood friend who shared the water with you with his gleaming skin and velvet hair.

But it is not a trick. It is an offering from another visitor, standing by the water offering a song. For the river. And for me. I wave across the water to him and say ‘thank you.’ I leave knowing that I am the only fool today. I am the one who needs to know. I need to know that the places we love are not ours to covet. They are not ours at all. We belong to them.


This piece was originally published at the Weather Stations blog, where Tony Birch is an official blogger.

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888,246 poppies at Tower of London

A striking art installation of 888,246 red ceramic flowers placed in the dry moat of the Tower of London will commemorate the centennial of Britain’s involvement in World War I. Each of the flowers represents a British or colonial fatality. The installation was conceived by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper; volunteers have already begun placing the poppies. The last will be placed on November 11.

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10 secrets of the author photo

Author and bookseller Christopher Currie shares ten tongue-in-cheek tips for the author photo – from the ‘bad boy’s conscience’ approach (Karl Ove Knaussgard) to the ‘ice cool’ of Donna Tartt, plus some plain weird looks … including one involving some serious face paint.

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‘The shapeshifter’

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‘The symbol maker’

Problems for Melbourne’s first chief resilience officer

Melbourne’s first ‘chief resilience officer’ will be announced this year, with the job of helping the city cope with the extreme shocks and stresses of extreme weather. By 2070, Melbourne will face double the number of days over 35 degrees; dealing with heat waves is a big part of the job. The Age goes through the four top challenges in the job: death and illness, a suffocating economy (and a potential need for workplace hot weather policies), threats to vital infrastructure (like all those tram tracks that buckle in the heat), and civil harmony.

Top 20 most life-changing books by women

The Baileys Prize for women’s fiction recently launched a quest to find the novels by women ‘that have most impacted, shaped or changed readers’ lives'. The book voted to the top of the list of 20 was, unsurprisingly, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Shami Chakrabarti, the next chair of the Baileys Prize judging panel, called it ‘the book that introduced many of us to our belief in human rights’. You see the full top 20 at the Guardian.

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Secrets of a ghostwriter

Ghostwriter Andrew Crofts – author of over 80 books – talks to the Guardian’s Robert McCrum about his undercover profession. He’s about to, finally, release a book under his own name: Confessions of a Ghostwriter.

I recall, some years ago, a female pop star attending a book trade prize-giving for which her ghosted bestselling memoir had been shortlisted. Before this honour, she boasted she hadn’t even opened, still less actually read, the book that bore her name. When she duly won, she left her ghost at the table and graciously collected her prize, all smiles, modesty and gratitude, the model author.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript with Foreign Soil, her debut short-story collection, which tells the stories of marginalised characters in locations as far-flung as Footscray and London, Jamaica and Sri Lanka. It was published this year to critical acclaim, inviting comparisons to Nam Le’s similarly wide-ranging collection, The Boat. She is a nationally renowned spoken-word performer and the author of two poetry collections, Gil Scott Heron is on Parole and Nothing Here Needs Fixing.

We spoke to Maxine about being a political writer, her increasing loss of anonymity, why moments of connection are more significant than seeing her book in store windows, and why she’s never bought a book on Amazon.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

My first published piece was in a high school magazine that the Year Ten accelerated English class put together. I can’t remember a thing about the actual poem, but I’m positive it was terribly written, brooding, angst-ridded, and teenage-try-hard intense, cause that’s what mostly happens when you get 16-year-old writers to put together their own publication.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is that it doesn’t feel like a job. Oh, there are those how-many-more-fricken-drafts-till-completion or audience-totally-didn’t-dig-that-poem moments, but by and large, I get to do what I love. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. The best part is also that moment when someone comes up to you and tells you that the performance, or story, or panel session I just gave them had an illuminating impact on their life, or their writing, or the way they look at the world or see a particular issue. It’s people letting me into their lives, their subconscious, their bookshelves, their living rooms – people bringing my stories into their lives – that point of exchange. I’m very much a political writer, so it’s saying ‘Hey, let’s talk about this thing’, and an absolute stranger saying ‘Yeah, why not, okay, I’ll give you my ear for an hour or so’, however the conversation ends.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Administration: those super important emails and phone calls to do with gigs being booked and drafts due and invoices being paid. It’s the rare instances when the words don’t come easy and you’re on a pressure-cooker deadline. The increasing loss of anonymity, but which sees your work life increasingly encroaching on your ordinary day-to-day. Sometimes having to say ‘no’ to things you want to do, or feel like you should be a part of, and worrying that people might take it personally. That all-consuming doubt that sometimes creeps in about your writing ability.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I recently wrote a newspaper portrait for an extraordinary writing colleague who tragically passed away. His partner, who I hadn’t met before, approached me at his memorial to thank me. She said I’d captured him so very perfectly, and that she’d keep the piece always, and read it to their young children when they’re older. It was a moment, more than any other – more than sales, or awards, or completing a manuscript, or being awarded a grant – that reminded me of the power and the importance of words. Sometimes those moments can get lost, or swamped, by the economics and the politics, the reality of trying to make a living from your work.

Another experience similar to this was arranging and performing a piece at the Writers for Refugees launch from work written by a Sri Lankan asylum seeker who’s been incarcerated in a detention centre in Australia for many years. That experience of standing in front of a room full of people and being the mouthpiece for someone who’s unable to speak out for themselves, then having the video of the performance played back to him, being able to show him that his words matter as much as anyone else’s, that they’ve transcended the locked doors and razor wire and been heard. Looking at the footage afterwards, I could see myself swaying from side to side, rocking with the intense and almost debilitating feeling of embodying his life. I could see myself almost buckling under the weight of his words.

It’s these moments of connection, more so than seeing my book in a store window, that remind me why I do what I do.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

foreign_soil The worst advice is to ‘write what you know.’ I think it’s the reason behind the explosion of the ‘inconsequential’ memoir, and the general blandness we’ve seen in Australian literature over the last few decades. Not everyone has an interesting story to tell about their life, and there’s no harm in looking further than our own backyards. I think the maxim should be ‘write what you know to be true.’ That is, that there are ways to come at any story with clarity and sensitivity and authenticity, you just have to find a way in.

The best advice, of course, is from my mother, who always says: ‘Start like you mean to finish.’ To me, this means many things: don’t change the way you write to get published because you’ll always be capitulating; when you set your mind to something, see that you follow it all the way to the end; run at things head on, and keep barging till you make a dent, then a crack, then a hole, then a doorway; don’t ever fucking give up.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

There was one article that talked about me dropping to the floor and clasping my hands to the heavens when I won the Premier’s Award. All of my mates were messaging me like: Really? You DID that? Wow. That seems kind of melodramatic but it’s on the internet so it must be true.

What actually happened was that my handbag was at my feet and the strap was tangled around my foot cause I’m just generally a clumsy mess. I had a crumpled extract from my manuscript squashed right at the bottom of my bag cause I was sure I wasn’t going to win, so people were clapping and cheering and staring and I’m crouched on the ground trying to untangle my fricken bag from my leg and then quickly open it and dig out the speech whilst also freaking out, because I was broke and just won a heap of money. It took quite a while, and when I finally managed it, I was like ‘Woot! Thank f*ck I found my fricken story!’

Which I guess can look like a wankified hand-clutching-at-the-heavens if you’re way back behind me in the audience.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

In my Clark Kent life I worked in the legal world, so I’d probably be looking after my two littlies as I do now, but working in that field part-time instead of writing.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I’m a creative writing graduate myself, and have taught the occasional writing class. I don’t think ‘writing’ per se, can be taught, but I do think that learning writing history, learning to be a good reader, learning about structure, and voice, and pace, and the technical side of writing, learning to take constructive writing criticism and apply it to your work going forward, learning discipline, are all really important. I think this is what writing courses offer aspiring authors. I don’t believe creativity can be taught though, and that’s such a large part of being successful as a writer.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read. Read and read and read and read. Realise it will probably be a long, hard road, and that you will need to have another way of making an income if you don’t ‘make it’ or even when you do. And listen. Listen when you’re given criticisms, listen when your work is rejected, listen to any kind of feedback any one has to offer you. It is all helpful. Some of the feedback will be ridiculous, or ill-thought-out, and you certainly don’t have to believe or agree with it all, but some of it just might help you, somehow someway.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I’ve never yet bought a book on Amazon. This is a pretty hard thing to stick to, especially when you’re not that cashed-up. I prefer to order it into a bookstore and pick it up. Never say never, but I think we all, particularly writers, should be supporting our bricks and mortar stores as much as we can. If I did ever order through an online-only store, it would have to be through an Australian retailer like Booktopia.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

It would be Jesus.

I am going to get so much hate mail for writing that. Peeps reading this: chill out, it was a joke.

It would probably actually be a character from my book Foreign Soil, cause it would be a total spin-out to see someone you created take on a life of their own. I’d like to hang out with Delores, from ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, in her stifling hot flat in the New Orleans, eat spaghetti from a can with her and Ella, the little girl across the hall. I’d ask them where the story is going to take them next, what I should do with them. They keep coming back to me, all the time. I thought I was done with them, but I have a distinct feeling they won’t stay where I’ve left them for very long.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There are so many piece of writing that have had an impact on my life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an extraordinary written pieces of writing:

‘…disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people… human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood… ’


Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut short-story collection, Foreign Soil, is in bookstores now.

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We share the latest news in book-to-film adaptations, from the inevitable acquiring of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to the more surprising news about Jack Black starring in a Goosebumps movie.

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Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning bestseller, the love-it-or-hate-it The Goldfinch, will be adapted for the big screen. Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, the producers of the Hunger Games films and World War Z respectively, have signed on to produce, along with Brett Ratner. The bad news is that the rights to her cult classic The Secret History, a book that surely begged to be made into a film, have been held for years, with no film yet in existence.

Believe it or not, there’s another Harry Potter film in the works, despite the series of books getting a film each already. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, a companion book to the Potter series, is about to go into production, with Emma ‘Hermoine’ Watson on board. Fantastic Beasts was written as one of Harry’s Hogwarts textbooks; it’s a guide to the magical creatures in the Potter universe. Newt Scamander, author of the textbook, will be the main character of the film, set in 1920s New York. There will also be a television production of Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy.

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Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books have been acquired by UK film company Working Title, who plan to launch a series of Famous Five on-screen adventures. ‘It will be interesting to see what they do,’ Tony Summerfield, head of the Enid Blyton Society, told the Guardian. ‘Hopefully on screen the Famous Five books aren’t too quaint for the modern child. I honestly can’t see a film company trying to do anything like this without trying to sex it up a bit.’ There was a 2009 film (with both sex and scandal) about the life of Enid Blyton, starring Helena Bonham Carter; it seems she wasn’t so jolly good after all.

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books – a long-popular starter-horror series for primary school age readers – are about to hit the big screen, with Jack Black playing a ‘creepy’ version of the author. The premise is that Stine’s creatures, previously confined to his books, are brought to life by a teenage neighbour and unleash havoc on the small town where he lives.

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30 July 2014

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Anthony Morris asks the eternal question: why can’t creators leave their much-loved characters alone once the story has clearly ended? Are they attempting to retain authorial control – and to stave off the alternate lives and imagined endings of fan-fiction writers? And when does fan service start to feel like exploitation?

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Fantasy epics never can say goodbye. Remember how the final Lord of the Rings film seemed to have about half a dozen perfectly reasonable end points and yet it just kept on going? Does anyone really think Game of Thrones is going to conclude in a truly satisfactory fashion, even if George R.R. Martin does live long enough to wrap it all up? And why can’t Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling just leave well enough alone?

In case you missed it – perhaps you were in a submarine for the last month – J.K. Rowling recently released on her Pottermore website (advertised as ‘a unique and free-to-use website which builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books’) the first official glimpse into the Potterverse since Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007.

Written as a entertainment puff piece by gossip correspondent Rita Skeeter on the occasion of the Quidditch World Cup, it’s basically a ‘where are they now’ update. Harry now has grey hair and an exciting new scar, Ron may or may not be going bald – Skeeter is notoriously bitchy and no friend to Harry and company, so there’s the strong possibility she’s exaggerating – and Hermoine is having it all… which hasn’t stopped speculation that there’s trouble in paradise between her and hubby Ron. Juicy!

The follow-up live-blog of the actual Quidditch World Cup was kind of fun too. Ginny Potter (Harry’s wife and Ron’s sister) covered the match itself, interspersed with bonus snarky asides from Skeeter for those of us who never got into Quidditch. Which was pretty much everyone, wasn’t it? Still, Rowling is clearly invested in her characters, so why shouldn’t she have some fun with them?

Well, for one thing, Harry Potter’s story is over. This isn’t a new beginning, or a deleted scene, or an untold tale that fits between what we already know to cast new light on his much-loved adventures. By just bringing them back just to say ‘here’s what they’re like now according to me,’ it feels like just yet another attempt by Rowling to throw a roadblock in the path of fan fiction writers.

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The Mortal Instruments started as Harry Potter fan-fiction.

Fan fiction existed well before Harry Potter (the tradition of calling romantic pairings ‘slash fiction’ comes from Kirk/Spock fan fiction in the 1970s), but there’s little doubt Harry Potter’s fan base – combined with the ease with which fan fiction could be spread on the internet – took it to new heights. There’s entire fake Harry Potter novels published in China; rival teen lit franchise The Mortal Instruments started out as Harry Potter fan fiction. Does J.K. Rowling know this? Going by the way she’s kept a death grip on Harry Potter long after his story wrapped, all signs point to yes.

One of the stranger endings in fantasy history came with the final chapter of The Deathly Hallows, where – having defeated Voldemort, thus ending the overarching story fans had been reading for the last seven books – Rowling went on to outline the futures of all the main surviving members of the cast. It didn’t read like a coda that cast what we’d just read in a new light or an extension of themes in the story that outran the plot (like the end of Lord of the Rings). It wasn’t really a ‘happily ever after’ ending either; they just grew up, had kids (who also went to wizard school) and generally got on with grown-up lives.

What it did read like was Rowling was saying to all those fan fiction writers out there ‘hands off these guys, the story might be over but I’m still the one laying out their futures’. You can’t take Harry off into new adventures, because his creator keeps popping up to point out that Harry – the ‘real’ Harry – isn’t having adventures any more.

Part of the joys of fiction used to be filling in the gaps. Wondering what happens after the last page can be one of the lasting pleasures of reading. But this kind of enforced control feels more like the work of a corporate IP manager making sure no bootlegs or unlicensed versions are out there diluting the brand. It’s a point of view that suggests giving readers any part in creating their own versions of the stories – even just by wondering what might have happened next – is a breach of copyright.

Rowling is already working on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a new film set in the Harry Potter universe. Revealing ‘official’ updates into the lives of her cast doesn’t just cut out the fan fiction writers whose work is never going to be ‘canon’; it helps keep the audience alive for new official material from Rowling. And their interest in Harry Potter is what she’s selling with these new stories: with pretty much all of Hollywood’s attempts to create new Potter-style movie franchises (The Mortal Instruments, Divergent) having flamed out, luring J.K. Rowling’s rusted-on fanbase back to cinemas is worth a lot of money.

So the question then becomes: at what stage does all this fan-service start to feel like exploitation? The original Harry Potter story – Potter versus Voldemort – was wrapped up at the end of book seven; nothing Rowling has said or written since then has suggested her version of Harry has another story worth telling in him. Do we really want to keep coming back for the equivalent of a series of Christmas cards keeping us in the loop about his grown-up life? A life his creator seems to be actively trying to make as dull as possible, mind you. The guy was a boy wizard – is a day job with the civil service really the best he can do?

Harry Potter may have cheated death at the hands of Voldemort; what his creator has in store might be worse. As Stephen King, who knows a little about being a bestselling author himself, once wrote: ‘Sometimes dead is better.’

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The current issue of The Lifted Brow has banned the first-person, as a stand against the trend towards the author regularly taking place at the centre of a story, whether their presence is relevant or not.

David Donaldson’s essay, from the Ego Issue, traces the rise of the author’s identity in publishing, looking at the place of anonymity in literature, from Homer and Austen to J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith and political novels like Primary Colors.

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It was a sheepish Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Publishing, who tweeted that she had unknowingly ‘turned down JK Rowling’ after reading and saying no to The Cuckoo’s Calling. Mills’s astounding admission came after The Sunday Times revealed that the crime novel described by Mills as ‘perfectly decent, but quiet’ had been written by the Harry Potter author. ‘Anyone else going to confess?’ Mills tweeted.

The book, which follows a man named Cormoran Strike, a military veteran turned private investigator, as he investigates the suspicious death of a supermodel, did get published by another publisher, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, who was ostensibly a former army man. It initially received good reviews but only moderate commercial success, yet once the ruse was revealed, sales on British Amazon pushed it from #4159 to #1 overnight. Rowling had hoped to maintain her mask a little longer, telling The Sunday Times that ‘being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience! It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.’

The discovery of the novel’s true author was itself the result of some private sleuthing. Richard Brooks, the arts editor for The Sunday Times, followed an anonymous tip-off on Twitter and uncovered that both Rowling, the literary colossus, and Galbraith, the crime fiction debutant, shared an agent, editor and publisher. Handing the text over to a pair of ‘computer linguistic experts’, key similarities between Rowling and Galbraith’s writing emerged: both liked using Latin phrases, and both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s first book after Harry Potter, published under her own name) contained scenes of drug taking and, supposedly, a disdain for the middle class. Eventually Brooks asked straightforwardly whether the authors were one and the same, and received a response from a Rowling spokesperson that Rowling had decided to come clean. Some were quick to accuse Rowling and her publisher of conspiring in a commercial stratagem, though it seems Rowling’s chief motivation really was to escape the grand expectations attached to her brand.

Unveiling anonymity in literature has a long history, exciting people in nineteenth-century Europe much as it does today – though it has often threatened to eclipse appreciation of the works themselves. After all, audiences wonder, why spend all that time and effort writing a book only to reject public recognition for your hard work?

Many of history’s famous authors published anonymously at some stage or another. The Communist Manifesto was originally anonymous. Same for all Jane Austen’s major works. Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens began their careers publishing anonymously.

In historical terms, Rowling’s desire for objective evaluation of her writing after a mid-career genre change is unusual, given that few authors ever attain such celebrity status Rowling. (Though the charge that anonymity was used as a marketing ploy is not new: George Eliot was accused of doing the same in 1859). Rowling – having sold more books and pocketed more coin than most writers would dare contemplate – perhaps can relax in the luxury of testing out new personas just because she feels like it, knowing that any time her cover is blown the story will shoot to the top of the bestseller list anyway.

Some have a philosophical objection to the so-called ‘cult of the author’. In 1980 Michel Foucault opted for anonymity in a Le Monde interview, part of a series with leading intellectuals, arguing that the synecdochic power of the famous name undercuts serious consideration of the ideas presented. Foucault yearned for a relationship between the author and reader in which ‘the surface of contact was unrippled,’ – that the words be taken on their own merit, decoupled from the persona of the author.

There is a line of Marxist thought, led by the Italian Amadeo Bordiga, which rejects named authorship as a bourgeois construct that erases and privatises past intellectual labour, leading to the veneration of a few men over the mass of workers. (Incidentally, Bordiga was the last Western communist to criticise Stalin to his face and live, having done so at a Comintern meeting in 1926). Marx himself connected anonymity to free speech, seeing it as allowing an amorphous public criticism of the state. By contrast, named authorship was a function of repression, giving the state tools to track down dissenters and imprison them. Explaining why they refuse to be photographed, one of the authors of Italian writing collective Wu Ming Foundation (Wu Ming being a Chinese term for anonymous, literally meaning ‘no name’) told an interviewer: ‘Once the writer becomes a face that’s separate and alienated (in a literal sense), it’s a cannibalistic jumble: that face appears everywhere, almost always out of context.’

It’s a problem that highlights the less noble side of publishing: as much as the writing and disseminating of literature is about a contest of ideas, the author’s personal brand plays a significant role in who actually is read and who isn’t. Doris Lessing wrote two novels under a pseudonym, ‘Jane Somers’, to demonstrate the extent to which the reading surface is rippled, for booksellers and critics in particular. The books were rejected by her long-time British publisher, received few reviews and sold only a few thousand copies – this for an author whose novel The Golden Notebook was purchased more than a million times. The experiment proved, claimed Lessing, how difficult it was for new writers to get a look-in.

Notwithstanding these examples, anonymity in publishing has become far less common. Thanks to loosened social taboos and the strengthened role personal branding plays in publishing, high-profile unmaskings are usually reserved for famous writers trying to reinvent their brands, scathing insider accounts of American Democrat presidencies (see: Primary Colors on Clinton and Story of O on Obama), or the occasional bookish fraudster (see: Helen Demidenko).

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John Travolta and Emma Thompson in the film of Primary Colors

Anonymity has primarily been used to present ideas considered beyond the pale for a person of respectable social standing, or for criticism that would have been dangerous to own. Like those who use the internet to harass celebrities and irritate the sensitive, anonymity has historically provided an invisibility cloak to those who have wanted to say something unpopular, allowing discourse to be placed in the public domain detached from the consequences of its unacceptability.

Historically, most writers have chosen to publish anonymously to prevent perceptions about the book seeping into their personal lives, recognising that the content of the book itself would undermine their social standing and damage relationships. Ironically, the fascination with uncovering the author often leads to a stronger focus on biography than would have otherwise been the case. Others have used this fascination to their advantage: several major novels of the late seventeenth century were printed anonymously, despite the author’s identity being an open secret. At least some of these authors deliberately used the ‘enigma’ of anonymity to make their work appear more controversial.

When the novel first came to prominence around the seventeenth century, it was considered a base art form, a vehicle for the relation of impious stories and gossip; many in polite society were loath to be associated with the novel, as anonymous or pseudonymous invented histories marauding as the truth – such as Robinson Crusoe, a counterfeit autobiography – and stories depicting ‘realistic’, morally dubious lives (rather than those of puritanical role models) reinforced the idea among many that fiction was the realm of lies and immoral fantasies. Bibliographic historian Professor James Raven estimates that ‘over eighty per cent of all novels published in Britain between 1750 and 1790 were published anonymously.’ Marking a book ‘Anonymous’ did not send the same signal it does today, where individualised authorship is expected.

This began to change as new copyright laws were created. Previously authors were paid a flat fee for a manuscript, but received no proceeds from further editions; once the story had been sold to the publishing company the author no longer had a financial stake in the book. New laws promised royalties for future editions and tied the author more closely to the success of the work. At the same time, the loosening of the grip of church and government over the lives of citizens meant that fewer topics were taboo, and writers were less likely to end up in prison for criticising the powerful. Thus changing notions of private ownership, along with the gradual easing of social restrictions, helped nurture the embryo of today’s cult of the author, where reading in bookstores and appearing on television benefit the writer financially.

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In a world currently obsessed with naming and categorising, anonymity in literature continues to exist, however tenuously. It continues to adapt to new circumstances: in spite of (or perhaps because of) today’s strict intellectual property laws, Web 2.0 has led to a flourishing of unattributed content and anonymous criticism, redefining legal and cultural ideas about authorship. Phenomena like fan fiction, memes and political commentary websites can reach new audiences in seconds, the authors either not wanting or not needing to be identified. Instantaneous information sharing has opened up a space similar to that created by the first printing presses: plagiarism, piracy and misinformation exist and spread alongside collectively-authored Wikipedia pages, hackers pursuing social justice, and unnamed Twitter accounts relaying news from repressive dictatorships.

For all the anxiety around hunting down and flushing out anonymous authors, it seems that there still exist some media in which anonymity is possible, and thrives. Though the power of financial incentive is tied to named authorship—and the building of a personal brand—anonymity in literature still holds importance.


This is an edited extract of an essay originally published in The Lifted Brow’s Ego Issue as ‘The Artist Is Not Present: Anonymity in Literature’. You can read the essay in full there.

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Richard Flangan makes Man Booker longlist

The Man Booker longlist 2014 has been announced – the first since American writers were included in the prize. And unsurprisingly, there’s a strong US contingent, and less Commonwealth writers represented than usual. Richard Flanagan is the only Australian, long listed for Narrow Road to the Deep North. You can read the full longlist here.

Narrow Road to the Deep North was shortlisted for this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards; you can read Sam Cooney’s review on our website.

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Kibble and Dobbie go to Kris Olsson and Kate Richards

In local awards news, two prestigious, long-running prizes for Australian women writers have just been awarded. The Nita B. Kibble Award for Life Writing has gone to Kris Olsson for Boy Lost (shortlisted for this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Award). You can read a review by Emily Laidlaw on our site, or read an interview with Olsson about the book. The Dobbie award for a first-time book by a female writer went to Kate Richards, for Madness: A Memoir.

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World’s Coolest Bookstores

Feel like browsing some of the best bookstores in the world? Well, you can … vicariously, at least. CNN has compiled a list of the world’s coolest bookstores, with drool-worthy images – from the stunning El Ateneo Bookstore in Buenos Aires (pictured), housed in an old theatre, to the name-recognition cool of Paris’s famous Shakespeare and Co.

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‘Selling a book won’t change your life’: Tips from a debut author

Debut author Ted Thompson offers six things he’s learned from publishing his first book, from the fact that subject matter (what your book’s about) matters more than we’re told it does, to the advice ‘don’t respond to critics’ … and that the fact that publishing his book didn’t his life, at least not in the ways he dreamed it would.

Werewolves around the world, and their origins

What is the deal, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, with werewolves? Why do cultures around the world have their own stories of men and women turning into beasts, often after being engulfed by a murderous rage? In East Africa, men transform into lions. The Arawak people of South America turn into leopards. There is a theory about how these stories came about – and it’s all about interspecies cross-dressing.

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25 July 2014

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highlight Film writer and reviewer Anthony Morris has been writing about film and television since he was a student, writing for free (and paying for his own tickets) for the university paper. These days, he’s DVD editor for The Big Issue and freelances for several publications, including Empire.

We talked to him about being horribly opinionated for a living, why there’s no point worrying about whether your writing is good or bad once you’ve handed it in to be published, and why writers should ideally marry rich (or find someone willing to support them).

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a film review – I can’t remember which film exactly, though I know Miller’s Crossing was one of the first films I reviewed – for the Deakin University paper, The Planet. I was studying journalism there and our teachers told us we had to get practical experience. As the uni paper didn’t pay I figured reviewing movies would at least involve free tickets. It didn’t.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being horribly opinionated and expecting people to care what I have to say?

What’s the worst part of your job?

I’m not really that opinionated? It’s hard for me to say what the best and worst parts of my job are, as it’s all I’ve ever done as adult employment. Plus when your job involves going to see movies for free it’s a bit difficult to expect people to care about whatever other problems you might have. I’m very lucky to have been able to find paying work in this line of business.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

It’s all been baby steps to date, I’m afraid. Probably becoming the DVD editor at The Big Issue, because The Big Issue is a great publication. And also because it was steady work that meant I could actually focus a bit more on writing and not just on trying to make money from writing.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

The best advice I was ever given was that once you’ve finished a job there’s no point worrying about whether your writing is good or bad – the readers will make up their own minds. You do the best job you can, but once it sees print (or goes online), it’s in their hands not yours. I think that’s an important approach to take as a freelancer – you write something to the best of your abilities and then you move on. There’s no money in looking back.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Probably the most surprising thing would be the time I was offered a job based on a column I was writing for a street press magazine. Unfortunately I was writing the column under another name and the place offering me the job was The Big Issue, so I had to explain to the unsuspecting editor that I was already working for them.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I have no idea – the only other job I’ve ever had was working at a one-hour photo processing lab, and they don’t have them any more.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think it can be taught but if you’re going to be any good at it you really should have started seriously writing before puberty. It takes so long and is so hard to internalise the lessons – to not only know how to write, but to know it automatically so you can focus on what you want to say rather than how you’re going to say it – that unless you’re someone who was writing for fun as a child the chances are you’re never going to get caught up. And there goes any chance I might have had cashing in by teaching writing courses.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

They’re really two different jobs, aren’t they? I always seem to have editors who are barely into their twenties while even a really young writer seems to be late twenties at least. Perhaps that’s because being an editor is a proper job for serious people while being a writer is a crazy hobby only people unsuitable for any other line of work fall into. Anyway, my advice for writers is to marry someone either rich or willing to support you full time. That’s not a joke.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Oh God I buy books every way possible. I buy them from bookstores, from op shops, from Geelong’s excellent Barwon Books, from mail order stores based in Australia like Slowglass Books, from online sellers in Australia, from Amazon, from The Strand and Powells, from eBay, from various self-publishers, from comic companies like Fantagraphics and Rebellion (who publish the Judge Dredd and 2000AD collections), from publishers who sell direct like Subterranean Books, from those sites that sell industrial amounts of second-hand books… if I’ve missed anywhere, please write in and tell me.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Parker, from Richard Stark’s series of crime novels – only Parker doesn’t really go in for chit-chat, so unless we were planning some kind of heist he wouldn’t stick around for his side of the conversation.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Much as I wish I could name-drop some weighty tome or powerfully moving work of fiction (and I’m sure plenty of them have had an impact), it would probably have to be Joe Bob Briggs’ Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In, the first collection of Joe Bob Briggs’ drive-in movie reviews. It taught me that trashy movies could still be good movies, that a good film review could be entertaining in and of itself, and that ‘heads roll’ was the kind of information about a film that the general public needed to know.


Anthony Morris’s ‘Basically Silly, But Deadly Serious: Why Game of Thrones Doesn’t Work’ has been our most viewed article over the past 12 months.

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highlight How do we achieve true diversity in the Australian media – and why is it important? Fatima Measham looks at the gap between the cultural make-up of Australia and of our media, and asks what we can do to close that gap, and make sure we have a wider variety of voices and experiences representing us.

Earlier this year, I attended a select-entry workshop for ‘minority’ or ‘diverse’ writers run by a media organisation. The terms were used interchangeably. Fifteen participants from different states paid their own way to Sydney to pitch three stories each. For most of us, it was unprecedented access to editors and we were thrilled.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected so much. It was never actually clear what we were getting out of that session, apart from the chance to sell our wares in person. In the 22 weeks since, only seven of us got a byline, two of whom were published more than once. One of these two had already had four articles published prior to the workshop (and was published five more times afterward). As far as I can tell, he is a white man.

Perhaps he pitches more often; I do not mean to subtract from the merit of his writing. But the outcomes raise questions around the authenticity of reaching out to ‘minority’ writers, whether workshops like this really address the impediments to more varied representation in the media, and how best to cultivate a robust, permanent mix of political and cultural commentators.

The issue is of course heftier than a single organisation can address. Whether on radio, in television, newspapers, magazines or online, we are far more likely to come across content-producers and characters who are, for want of a better word, white.

It is difficult for me in this context to craft an argument for representation that is not self-serving. I am Filipino by birth, Australian by citizenship, an outer west suburbanite. I write op-eds in a cramped market and would benefit from conditions that better account for diversity.

The question is: aren’t I entitled to my own space in the public square, anyway? Surely it should no longer be remarkable for people who look like me to be there – and to be able to comment on matters at the centre, not just the periphery?

In reality, we’d be lucky to get past the perimeter. It is not an imaginary barrier. Last March, in a completely unscientific exercise, I checked the commentary by-lines in four major news organisations over four consecutive days. I drew up Column A for ‘arguably white’ (best guess from the last name and headshot) and Column B for ‘arguably non-white’. I took North European and British names and faces as ‘arguably white’.

It went something like this. Day 1: Column A (19), Column B (2). Day 2: Column A (27), Column B (0). Day 3: Column A (18), Column B (2). Day 4: Column A (22), Column B (2). The ratio of white to non-white commentators is 14 to 1. I’d be the first to concede that this comes from a statistically laughable sample, but I doubt that a wider tally would present a different conclusion.

‘There’s this rather strange public discourse led by old white men that exists in parallel to the reality of this country,’ says ABC broadcaster and editor Jonathan Green. ‘The power elite in opinion and discourse tend to be people like me. That becomes rather self-replicating, outside acts of tokenism.’

To put it bluntly, lack of diversity is not a symptom of exclusivity in Australian media; it is the disease. The status quo essentially reflects a form of denialism. Our collective heritage can be traced to more than 270 different ancestries. Over half a million Australians identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. One in four of us were born overseas, and a further fifth of our population have at least one overseas-born parent. That these realities aren’t reflected in the media – the vehicle for much of our political discourse – is problematic.

It is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society. This isn’t a matter of vanity, as if people who look like me merely want to see themselves in the mirror. Anyone with a genuine interest in the truth, a commitment to nuanced debate and a willingness to engage with complexity should be disturbed by the lack of diversity among our opinion-makers and policy-setters.

‘When we’re talking about social and political issues, they’re not always issues that can be detached from people’s lives and their ability to live with dignity and meaning,’ says Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Racial Discrimination Commissioner. ‘If people who are writing about them have no sense of the human cost or what is at stake, then all those dimensions of public debate can go missing. What you have is a sterilised debate.’

The ideal, according to Green, is ‘a range of ideas from a range of backgrounds being brought to bear on the big issues’. ‘That sort of conversation would shape the nature of those issues to more truly represent the actual state of affairs.’

In other words, greater diversity of perspectives and commentators leads to clarity, a sharper sense of the aspects of conflict and power that grip democratic life. It’s not just ‘talk’, as if the tensions between ideas have no bearing on real people. How values are interpreted, including the weight apportioned to them, penetrates norms and policies such as the way we treat migrants, women and people with disability. So who is interpreting for us?

The answer should compel us to critically examine the barriers to participation for non-white writers and commentators. For instance, to what degree does their invisibility in the mainstream inhibit their involvement? ‘If you have a public sphere that does not contain diversity, the real risk is that you deter people from entering the realm,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘You end up perpetuating the status quo and possibly exacerbating it’. The barrier creeps forward as one generation is dissuaded from participation, discouraging the next.

There are also, quite broadly speaking, economic factors at play. Dr Soutphommasane points out that writing commentary is not lucrative, so the field tends to favour those with backgrounds that can withstand work that is not highly paid. What does this mean for news organisations who genuinely want to diversify their roster of columnists?

‘The important thing is to be able to have a conversation in the first place about these issues,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘Quite often, even raising these questions is difficult and can provoke degrees of defensiveness.’ He adds that a bias toward one group of people over another may be unconscious rather than malicious, but unless we grapple with it, we won’t see progress.

It is no longer enough to suppose that it’s only a matter of time before we see greater diversity in our commentary pages and the media more generally. We’ve been anticipating this for at least a couple of decades. It is time to reconcile with who we are, if only because it is the best version of ourselves.

As Dr Soutphommasane points out: ‘Culturally diverse voices should be regarded as mainstream voices – because multicultural Australia is mainstream Australia.’


Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer with a focus on sociopolitical issues. She tweets as @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

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Justine Larbalestier is sick of reading reviews that assess books based on the ‘likeability’ of their characters. As someone who enjoys reading books about vile people she wouldn’t actually want to spend time with in real life, she explains why ‘likeability’ is not a requirement for good fiction. (And why it’s subjective.)

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(Justine Larbalestier: ‘I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters.’

Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, that discuss the likeability of characters in novels.

Here’s what I have noticed:

I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be ‘likeable’.

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres. (Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about.)

IV. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the ‘likeability’ shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.

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‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep. (Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere.) But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.

Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:

Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? … Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. When I say ‘last’, I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page. (Not literally. That would be terrifying.) Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?

I care about every character I write. Even the villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely, if I don’t care about a character, I can’t write them.

As a writer, I could not agree with Messud more strongly.

As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I started to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.

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‘There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.’

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.

No matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.

Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.

I hear many people talking about a character from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves them. I didn’t. I wanted that character to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.

On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate another character from a recent YA mega hit and I kinda love them. I don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon them.

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III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.

I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. We YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:

I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.

I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers.

I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters who make bad decisions are easier to write about because they generate conflict and conflict makes plot. In the novels I write, plot is good.

As a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. They make many mistakes. Mistakes generate plot.

The idea that the more perfect a character is, the more likeable they are, is ridiculous. If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find much perfection on that list.

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‘I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me.’

IV. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?

See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green-gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them dearly.

I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me. I want to live.

Many of the books I love are about vile people. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But is Humbert Humbert likeable? No, he is not.

Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.


Justine Larbalestier’s latest novel is Razorhurst (Allen & Unwin).

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The transformation of publishing, post-1996

Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her year working in an old-fashioned New York literary agency (where typewriters were still the norm) in 1996, around the time email became ubiquitous, has been a bestseller. My Salinger Year (Salinger, or ‘Jerry’, was the agency’s star client) is a story of publishing as it used to be. An essay in The Millions looks at Rakoff’s memoir in this context, and reflects on how dramatically publishing has changed since 1996.

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Warzones as tourist destinations

Forget checking government websites to make sure travel destinations are safe … some tourists seek out war zones as entertainment. Kobi Marom, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel who now works in the tourist industry, tells The Atlantic all about how he takes tourists to watch the fiercest fighting of the Syrian civil war.

‘I’ll have tourists sitting at a wonderful lunch one mile from the border, and I tell them that al-Qaeda is looking at them, and they go crazy with it. They say, “Are you sure?” To them, it’s like something from the moon, and they want to see.’

Tech anarchists create printable guns and untraceable money

Meet the two anarchists (and tech geniuses) who have created some of the most controversial software ever offered to the public. There’s the world’s first 3D fully printable gun, a prototype for a decentralised online marketplace, DarkMarket, designed to be impervious to shutdown by the feds, and Dark Wallet, a piece of software designed to allow untraceable, anonymous online payments using the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

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Amir Taaki, left, and Cody Wilson, in Wilson’s Austin apartment. Julia Robinson/Wired.

Ten most anticipated Australian books: second half of 2014

Last week, we shared The Millions‘ selection of their staff’s most anticipated books of the second half of 2014. This week, Readings has published a similar exercise, with a twist – staff members have selected their most anticipated Australian books, covering the same period. From Wayne McCauley’s Demons to Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, there’s lots to look forward to.

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Portugal’s drug decriminalisation: By Liam Pieper

Liam Pieper wrote about his experiences as a teenage drug dealer (and user) in his recent memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year. And in the current Meanjin, he writes about drugs from another perspective – looking at the results of (and reasons for) Portugal’s 2001 decriminalisation of drug use. In the five years following decriminalisation, heroin-related deaths fell by half, and new HIV injections by injecting users fell by half.

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Liam Pieper

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18 July 2014

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