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When pulp author Carl Ruhen died late last year, there was almost no mention of him in the press. Andrew Nette looks back on Ruhen’s prolific career, taking in some of literature’s seediest corners – and the forgotten history of Australia’s pulp publishing industry.

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Carl Ruhen’s first book for Horwitz: Curse of the Nekhen, 1966.

Most people think of pulp publishing as American. But for several decades in the second half of the last century, Australia had a significant pulp paperback industry that produced a large range of popular fiction.

By the mid-to-late sixties, Horwitz, Australia’s largest pulp publisher, was producing up to 16 titles a month with initial print runs of 20,000 copies. Black magic, hippies, juvenile delinquents, spies, bored suburban housewives looking for thrills, and evil Japanese and German prison guards – nothing was off limits. Local pulp publishers pounced on mainstream society’s fantasies, fears and obsessions and turned them into cheap, disposable paperback thrills.

Carl Ruhen was at the centre of this industry and continued to ply his trade as a writer until the late eighties. AustLit, the Australian Literature Resource database, credits him with 78 books. He also penned numerous short stories and magazine articles.

On November 28 last year, Carl Ruhen died after a long illness, aged 76.

I’ve long been aware of Ruhen’s work. Unfortunately, I never got to meet to him. I found out about his passing in late December when an acquaintance who’d been in sporadic contact with Ruhen emailed me with the news. The only mention I’ve been able to find of his death was a short notice in the Sydney Morning Herald, dated December 2, 2013.

Carl Ruhen was born in New Zealand in 1937 and arrived in Australia in 1947. His father, Olaf, was a prominent Australian writer in the years after World War II, the author of a series of well-received books on local and Pacific history.

One of these, Minerva Reef, published in 1964, about a group of Tongan men shipwrecked on a reef for 102 days, saw him become something of a cult figure in that country. According to an article in the Australian Women’s Weekly in April 1966, Carl accompanied his father on a visit to Tonga, stayed six months and returned to Sydney with a Tongan bride. The relationship did not last.

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Olaf Ruhen, Carl’s father, became a cult figure in Tonga following the publication of Minerva Reef.

Carl Ruhen got his start, like many aspiring local writers in the early sixties, submitting short fiction and articles for Man Magazine, a local version of what were known as ‘barber shop magazines’, popular in the United States at the time.

Import restrictions on foreign print material, in place in Australia since 1938, began to be lifted in the late fifties. Increased competition saw many local pulp publishers close. Others, such as Horwitz, readjusted their business model, stopped relying on reprinted overseas material and published more Australian books. Ruhen was part of a stable of authors put together by Horwitz. The group also included James Holledge, J.E. Macdonnell, W.R. Bennett, James Workman, Leonard Mears and Rena Cross.


Ruhen’s first Horwitz book, Curse of the Nekhen (1966), featured the playboy explorer Sigismund Flack. (‘A sophisticate who never allows the peril of the moment to upset his suavity’.) It was billed as the first of a series, but further Flack books never eventuated.

The Violent Ones, published later in 1966, was the first of several books by Ruhen dealing with out-of-control youth gangs, a theme popular with Horwitz and pulp publishers generally.

It was followed, in 1967, by The Rebels and Wild Beat. (‘They were only kids, but they were capable of murder – and worse. The story of today’s violent generation.’) The Crucifiers, the first of many biker novels Horwitz published, appeared in 1969.

Set amid the vice and crime hotspot of Kings Cross, The Rebels demonstrates Ruhen’s skill. The story is told in the first person by working class 17 year-old, Bernie. He spends his weekdays living a boring suburban existence with his parents and working as a storeman in a CBD department store, and his weekends in a blur of sex, alcohol, car theft and fighting.

During one of these weekend jaunts he meets Sandra. She challenges Bernie’s masculinity and understanding of women. She’s upper-class, from Sydney’s North Shore, is learning to speak French and wants to travel. But she also likes the wild life, including driving her mother’s car at dangerous speeds. She takes Bernie to a North Shore Mod party where a group of men beat him up. Swearing revenge, Bernie and his gang return the following Saturday, which is when things get out of control.

Like a lot of pulp, much of The Rebels now reads as clichéd. But the prose is clean and crisp and the story has a rough cultural authenticity. Also notable is the way Ruhen eschewed the heavy-handed moralising of similar juvenile delinquent stories that usually saw the characters realise the error of their ways and embrace mainstream society, in favour of a much more sombre, dark ending.


Ruhen was an editor at Horwitz from 1968 to 1969. Prominent expatriate Australian writer John Baxter, who worked as a manuscript editor at Horwitz around the same time, recalled, ‘In my day Carl made all the decisions.’ Presumably this included having a hand in establishing Scripts Publications, the subsidiary Horwitz used to release its more adult-oriented material, in 1969.

ruhen_manmag From 1969 to 1971, Ruhen edited Man Magazine. He also worked as a publisher for Ure Smith, from 1972 to 1973.

The size of the US pulp industry (by 1960 Americans were buying more than one million pulp paperbacks a day) meant many budding writers used it as a training ground before going on to make a name for themselves as mainstream authors. Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg and Marion Zimmer Bradley are just some that come to mind.

Like their American counterparts, many young Australian writers wrote pulp fiction to hone their craft with an eye to undertaking more significant literary pursuits. Many were ‘waylaid’ by the process, as a writer from the time once described it to me, and had to produce books quickly to pay bills and support families.

Four hundred dollars per manuscript was the going rate at Horwitz in the late sixties. Good money at the time, but a writer was only as good as their next book.

Australian pulp publishing in the fifties and sixties was a tough, fast-paced business, far more commercially minded than mainstream publishing at the time. Publishers like Horwitz turned books around quickly, sometimes in as little as a month, in order to take advantage of the latest media sensation or moral panic. For authors this meant long hours and high stress. Many lived in tough material conditions. Cigarettes and alcohol were often their only affordable escapes.

Very few local pulp writers I am aware of went on to mainstream literary careers. Some wrote for the burgeoning television industry. Most either gave up writing or resigned themselves to churning out pulp to make a living. Despite his talent, it appears Ruhen fell into the latter camp. Paper Empires: a History of the Book in Australia 1946 – 2005 cites Ruhen as one of Horwitz’s most prolific authors. In addition to writing under his own name, he worked under numerous pseudonyms, across all sub-genres.


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One of Ruhen’s horror titles, published pseudonymously.

The introduction of the ‘R’ classification in 1971 meant mainstream films, books and television increasingly dealt with subjects that were once exclusively the preserve of pulp. To compete, pulp became increasing salacious and sexually explicit.

Ruhen spent the seventies writing smut for Scripts Publications and another Horwitz offshoot, Stag Publications: titles such as Orgy Farm, Bar Stud, Sex Parlour, Saturday Sex Club, Wife Swap Orgy, Porno Girls and Society Stud. He also wrote horror under the pseudonym Caroline Farr, and romance as Alison Hart.

He wrote film paperback tie-ins, popular before the advent of VHS, for Alvin Purple, Mad Max 1 and 2 and Melvin Son of Alvin, and paperback versions of Australian television soap operas such as The Young Doctors, Neighbours and Sons and Daughters, for the UK market. He also wrote children’s books and local histories. He even wrote a book on baby names.

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(Source: eBay)

The last book credited to Ruhen on the AustLit site was the ninth book of the Neighbours series, published in 1989.

The passing of such a prolific local author without comment illustrates the extent to which Australia’s pulp publishing industry, once a huge part of our entertainment culture, has been forgotten.


Andrew Nette is a Melbourne crime writer, reviewer and pulp scholar. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and on-line publications. His first novel, Ghost Money, was published in 2012. His online home is pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.

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25 March 2014

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Are creative writing courses a rip-off, a factory churning our same-y writers … or a valuable experience that might enhance your chances of publication – or at worst, give you an avenue for creative expression? Annabel Smith defends creative writing courses against Hanif Kureishi’s recent dismissal of them, and speaks to Australian writers, publishers and creative writing lecturers.

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Image by matryosha

It’s rare for literary goings on to be considered news, but last week an article in the Guardian, which reported Hanif Kureishi denigrating creative writing courses as a ‘waste of time’, caused quite a splash.

Danielle Wood, who teaches creative writing at the University of Tasmania, and whose debut novel The Alphabet of Light and Dark (written as part of a PhD in creative writing) won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, expressed bewilderment at Kureishi’s rant. ‘In my experience (three years of being enrolled in one, ten years of teaching in one), creative writing courses are quite innocuous things, giving pleasure to many and doing no harm to anyone, really.‘ She says that criticism of creative writing courses often ignores context; for many undergraduate students, creative writing may simply be an elective – a career in writing is not necessarily the desired outcome. Ryan O’Neill, who teaches writing at the University of Newcastle, agrees. ‘I don’t know if the necessary end-point of a creative writing course is publication. That’s like saying the end point of taking piano lessons is to cut an album.’

Angela Meyer, who recently completed a PhD in Creative Arts through the University of Western Sydney, acknowledges that it’s a tough industry, and it’d be a very small percentage of any class who would go on to be working writers, but maintains that if students graduate ‘as better readers, better communicators, with enhanced empathy skills, and a broader mind, then that’s a success.’ She has no doubt that creative writing courses can be enriching, but Meyer would also encourage people to explore ‘other humanities courses (literature, languages, history, social science), or even self-study and work experience as ways to develop your ‘voice’ and to find out what your interests are as a writer.’

Ryan O’Neill believes that while studying creative writing isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a writer, the odds of getting published are higher for someone who takes creative writing classes than someone who doesn’t. Author Kirsten Krauth is convinced her debut novel just_a_girl would not have been published without the framework of her Masters in creative writing, which gave her the confidence and time to write, as well as access to publishers and agents.

Georgia Richter, fiction editor at Fremantle Press, says that manuscripts developed in creative writing programs tend to have a ‘degree of polish’ that is often lacking in those that come from the general public. And in an industry where publishers are less and less willing to invest in extensive editing, that degree of polish may be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Terri-ann White, director of UWA Publishing, complained that many of the submissions she receives are characterised by ‘an obvious lack of broad, deep and diverse reading by the writer’, something she finds especially perplexing in manuscripts that have come through formal writing courses. On Twitter, Matthew Lamb of the Review of Australian Fiction asked ‘Why do Creative Writing courses need defending? They aren’t in any danger. How about a defence of creative reading? That’s under threat.’

Indeed, the importance of reading was echoed by many of the writing graduates and teachers I interviewed. Short-story writer Laurie Steed is currently completing a novel-in-stories as part of a PhD in writing at the University of Western Australia, and has also attended the prestigious Graduate Fiction Workshop at the University of Iowa. He argues that a creative writing course acts similarly to the reading of quality literature, and should be considered alongside it.

Dr Donna Mazza, whose TAG Hungerford Award-winning novel The Albanian was written as part of a PhD in writing, now coordinates the creative writing program at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury. Mazza rewrote the program to become a major in ‘literature and writing’, adamant that it is studying literature that gives you an awareness of the things you do as a writer.

Amanda Curtin is the author of three novels, the first of which, The Sinkings, she wrote as part of a PhD in creative writing. She credits her writing studies as being directly responsible for her becoming a published author. ‘I was a lifelong reader and a publishing professional with more than 10 years' experience when I took up creative writing units at university, initially with the intention of becoming a better editor through greater understanding of, and exposure to, the creative process. I could have continued on forever, reading, analysing, editing – these things did not lead me towards becoming a writer; a creative writing course did that.’ Curtin points to inspiration and support from other writers (both teachers and fellow students) and having to work to deadlines as two of the key benefits to a formal writing course.

One writer I interviewed (who earned an MA from Sydney University) said that though he was ambivalent about some aspects of the course, the act of going to university made him focus on writing and got him into good habits of writing daily. Donna Mazza agrees that it is the discipline and deadlines that allow talented writers to reach their potential. She also cites the mentorship inherent in most creative writing courses as essential for aspiring writers to learn ‘the difference between self-indulgent crap and good writing.’

‘It takes an educated and critical eye to point out the flaws in a work with kindness and an awareness of keeping the student going – unlike an editor or publisher who will slice into work without feeling the need to be nurturing.’

Emily Paull, a recent graduate of a BA at the University of Western Australia which included creative writing units, echoed this sentiment: ‘a good teacher provides a safe space in which to write and share what has been written.’ Mazza says one of the aims of her course is to teach students about the business of being a writer, sending them after opportunities that sometimes lead talented students to their first publishing success, in story competitions and so forth.

Ryan O’Neill emphasises the benefits of understanding and experimenting with technical aspects of writing, such as point of view, structure, setting or style, which allow students to get to a better place in their writing more quickly, admitting that studying writing himself might have ‘saved me from writing hundreds of thousands of words of rubbish in my twenties’. Laurie Steed believes that what’s important in a creative writing course is not so much the program as the input from a knowledgeable, well-read facilitator. ‘Each teacher is only as good as the books, thoughts, and people that shaped them.’ Danielle Wood says her modus operandi involves ‘asking questions, being picky when necessary, and keeping up the encouragement’; Donna Mazza perceives her role in terms of ‘lighting the fire’ for her students.

Natasha Lester, whose debut novel What Is Left Over, After won the TAG Hungerford Award and who is currently writing a third novel as part of a PhD in Writing at Curtin University, teaches short writing courses for the University of Western Australia’s extension program. Though Kureshi’s article was particularly dismissive of ‘weekend’ courses, Lester is confident that, like good undergraduate programs, her courses provide students with inspiration and an appreciation of aspects of craft, as well as information about the publishing industry. Lester also points to the benefits (which last long after the course has ended) of meeting a network of other aspiring writers who can provide encouragement and feedback, as well as sharing information about opportunities.

Aspiring writer Melissa Davies was extremely positive about Lester’s course, describing it as ‘motivating and supportive’ and enthusing that ‘she’d do another one in a shot’ if she had time. Such responses indicate that for the majority of those who study writing, the introduction to craft, the discipline of making time to write and meeting deadlines, the support from a network of other writers, the mentorship of experienced teachers and the insights into industry make creative writing courses far from ‘a waste of time’.


Annabel Smith’s latest book is Whisky Charlie Foxtrot.

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17 March 2014

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Meg Mundell tells how a weekend job as a fairy for hire gave her some valuable lessons for her writing career … despite (or because of) working hungover, forgetting her wings and annoying parents by hyping up her small charges.

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Photo credit: Pat Knight. Not a true depiction of Meg Mundell as a fairy …

For more than a decade, when a small-talking stranger asks that rotten question ‘What do you do?’, I’ve called myself a writer. It always feels slightly cringe-worthy, like admitting you collect berets or consider yourself a beatnik, but it’s a truthful account of how I spend my time. But if they’d phrased the question more bluntly – ‘How do you pay the rent?’ – I’d have to admit to some strange goings-on. Sure, there have been times when words alone have kept me fed – a fantastic five-year run at The Big Issue, a stint for Lonely Planet, some low-level speechwriting, and several manic years of freelancing – but like most scribblers, I’ve done some peculiar things to pay the bills.

Along with the usual kitchen-hand and waitressing gigs, some of my odder job titles have included life model (remove clothes, don’t move), nightclub DJ (press buttons, deafen self), yacht crew-member (vomit over the side, repeat), anti-spam policy analyst (forge a completely useless international agreement to conquer electronic junkmail) and on-stage sidekick to an alcoholic ventriloquist Santa Claus. One short-lived early role, however, stands out as particularly memorable, because it taught me a valuable life lesson. In my first year of freelancing, sick of washing dishes while editors mislaid my invoices, I took a job as a fairy. My mission: to entertain the troops at children’s birthday parties. ‘Just keep the littlies happy,’ croaked my chain-smoking boss. She offered no further detail, which I took as a sign of confidence. Clearly she could tell I’d be a natural at this caper, enchanting tiny humans and generally spreading merriment and delight wherever I went. So sure was I of my elfin credentials, I did no preparation whatsoever. How hard could it be to entertain a bunch of kids?

My first assignment would be a trial, said the fairy boss. How right she was.

That morning I woke late with a skull-cracking hangover. With wine fumes oozing from my pores, I yanked on my costume, a frothy pink monstrosity of a dress, and headed for a sixth birthday party in an outer suburb. Doubt struck on the tarmac of the petrol station, while I trickled a frugal $8 worth of gas into my tank. What did a fairy actually do? How would I fill two hours? I’ll just wing it, I thought. Then, with horror, I realised my first mistake: I’d left my wings at home.

This error did not go unnoticed. Inside the birthday girl’s McMansion, a dozen sugared-up ankle-biters swarmed to interrogate me. Their first question: ‘Where are your wings?’ I ad-libbed some whimsical nonsense about a run-in with a dragon, but they did not look convinced. Desperate to divert attention from my missing appendages, I improvised a balloon game. When I say improvised, I mean invented on the spot, with the ill-conceived rules centred wholly on the rapid popping of said balloons. A loud volley of explosions filled the house, and the balloons were all gone. There followed an awkward silence. My headache pulsed. The children looked puzzled, and one started to cry. A small boy gaped up at me. ‘When are you going home?’ he asked plaintively.

With suspicious adults loitering on the periphery, I decided to take the show outside. In the backyard was a cubbyhouse, just large enough for me and all the kids to squeeze inside. By happy chance, it was full of toy instruments. Under my directions we embarked on an extended jam session, parping miniature trumpets and bashing tiny drum-kits at maximum volume. Those lacking instruments stomped their feet or bellowed rhythmic gibberish. We were totally rocking the joint; the noise was incredible. With the party finally cranking, and the kids and I enjoying ourselves, I peeped out the cubbyhouse window to see how this musical extravaganza was going down with the grown-ups, who sat in a cluster of deckchairs at the far end of the lawn. My gaze met a line of stony stares. I saw crossed arms, sidelong mutters, disapproving head-shakes. I began to sweat. Why were they watching so closely? Did these people have nothing better to do? Couldn’t they retreat to the kitchen and leave me to it?

After a boisterous game of hide and seek, during which the father reprimanded me loudly in front of everyone for accidentally snapping a sapling, I was packed off home. By this stage I’d bonded with the children, who shrieked endearing farewells after me, but the mother kept her arms folded across her chest and the dad kept commanding my small friends to ‘settle down’. Apparently I’d hyped them up too much, they were covered in grass-stains and teetering on the verge of mass hysteria. I was not the sprite they had expected.

My first gig as a fairy was my last. While I like to think I redeemed myself, eventually winning at least the kids over, the sense of humiliation haunts me to this day. The adults’ disapproving glares, that awful post-balloon silence exposing me as hopelessly out of my depth. And that final phone-call from the boss: ‘We’ve found another fairy,’ she said coldly. ‘She does face-painting.’ There have been nightmares, and I know their source: I’m onstage, wearing a stupid costume, mumbling something irrelevant. The audience’s faces run the spectrum from boredom, through pity, to contempt.

But I learned from the experience. That was the end of my lax attitude to professional assignments. Since then, I’ve seldom winged it. I research stories thoroughly, edit like a demon, never show early drafts, and when giving an author talk or guest lecture, over-prepare with an OCD level of zeal. For at the back of my mind lurks a powerful fear: that one day, when I’m speaking at a festival or school, a little voice will pipe up from the back of the room … When are you going home?


This piece was originally published on Writers Bloc, as part of a series called Writers' Day Jobs.

Meg Mundell wrote the novel Black Glass and the short story collection Things I Did for Money, plus stuff for Meanjin, Best Australian Stories, the Age, the Australian, Sleepers Almanac and others.

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05 March 2014

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highlight Michael Robotham was a journalist for 14 years, before leaving to become a ghostwriter, collaborating with politicians, pop stars, psychologists, adventurers and showbusiness personalities to write their autobiographies. He’s now an internationally bestselling crime novelist; his latest novel is Watching You.

He will be in conversation with Michael Williams at the Wheeler Centre next Tuesday 18 February at 6.15pm. We spoke to him about his first newspaper story, aged 17, the recurring fear of being exposed as someone who ‘got lucky with a few books’, and why workshops and writing schools are unlikely to make someone a great writer.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I started as a 17-year-old cadet journalist on the old Sydney Sun in the same Fairfax cadet intake as Geraldine Brooks in 1979. On one of my first days I was sent up to cover a Sydney City Council meeting and wrote a story that began: ‘Not very much happened at last night’s Sydney City Council meeting.’ This was the source of great humiliation when the chief of staff decided to read to the newsroom. It was never published and from then on I learned to find a story before I wrote one.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love writing. Not every day or every sentence, but at those times when the words seem to flow and I feel my heart begin to race as the story unfolds. Success has meant that I can write full-time and I get to travel when I promote the novels overseas. I’m incredibly grateful for that.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Some days writing feels like wading through treacle. My wife will tell you that halfway through any book the doubts begin to emerge. What was I thinking? The story won’t work. The characters aren’t believable. I’m finally going to be exposed as somebody who got lucky with a few books, but now the truth is coming out. My wife, at this point, has taken to rolling her eyes and patting me on head.

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

Twelve years ago, in the first week of February, at the London Book Fair, a partial manuscript of 117 pages was the subject of a bidding war and sold into 22 languages. It doesn’t get much more significant than that. It changed my life.

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

Best advice: Make readers care.

Worst advice: Write what you know.

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

I’ve been very fortunate with all three of my careers. I loved being a journalist and a ghostwriter and now a novelist. If I weren’t writing novels, I’d still be ghostwriting. And if I weren’t ghostwriting, I’d hopefully still be writing newspaper features. Peter Corris summed it up when he said that writing was an addiction. To me it’s like breathing. I don’t have a choice.

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

I think workshops and writing schools can make a mediocre writer a slightly better one, but I don’t think they can make someone a great writer. They might inspire people to finish a novel – or give them extra confidence – or help them to solve a tricky structural problem, but they can also be a reason to procrastinate and dither and sign up for another workshop. My advice to most people is to buy a big drum of ‘bum glue’, paint your chair, sit down and write that sucker. Or as Hemingway said, ‘There’s nothing to writing. I just sit at the typewriter and bleed.’

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

Write, write and when you’re sick of writing, write some more. It’s the only way to get better. Read everything you can − not just the very best writers because some of them are so brilliant you will consider giving up because your prose might never match theirs. Read the lesser writers, the mere mortals, and ask yourself how each book could be improved. Take it apart. Why does it work? Why it doesn’t it work? Learn.

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

Both.

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

Jay Gatsby. I know, I know he’s seen as a shallow character – a human chameleon who invented a persona for himself in order to make a fortune and win Daisy’s heart, but I think of him as a tragic hero. We would talk about money, status, class and how cruel it is when these things can get in the way of love.

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

I was 22 years old when I first read Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast about his early days as an unknown writer in Paris. Three years later, I carried a battered copy of the book with me when I visited Paris for the first time. I sat in the same cafes and walked the same streets, gazing at the blue door of No. 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine where Hem and Hadley first lived on the third floor; and around the corner to 39 rue Descartes, where he rented a garret room to do his writing.

I still have my original copy of the book, now patched, yellowed and dog-eared. Whenever I pick it up, I cannot shake the urge to write. I can picture myself in Paris, ordering a half-carafe of white wine and a dozen oysters before sharpening my pencils and opening my blue-backed notebook. I may never write a word to match that of Hemingway, but I can live the dream and strive to write one true sentence, the truest sentence that I can.


Michael Robotham will be in conversation with Michael Williams at the Wheeler Centre next Tuesday 18 February at 6.15pm.

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13 February 2014

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In Australia, urban renewal schemes that make it cheap and attractive for artists to inhabit communities have had some success in revitalising those communities. Marcus Westbury’s Renew Australia project partners with landlords to open up vacant spaces in community centres to artists, cultural organisations and community groups, on a cheap (temporary) basis. It all began with Renew Newcastle in 2008; in 2011, Lonely Planet named Newcastle one of the world’s top ten cities to visit.

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Detroit, once America’s fourth largest city, filed the largest bankruptcy claim in American history last year, with liabilities of 9.05 billion. Since the 1950s (when its population peaked at 1.8 million), Detroit has lost 1.2 million residents. In what the New Yorker calls ‘a contemporary, literary twist on old homesteading incentives’, an organisation called Write a House is refurbishing three two-bedroom houses in Detroit – all within walking distance of each other – and offering them for free to writers to live in. If the writers stay for two years, engage with the city’s literary community and contribute to the project blog, they’ll get the deed to their house. The houses are promoted as ‘80% inhabitable’, which essentially means that writers need to paint their houses and provide their own furniture.

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One of the houses under renovation.

Write a House was co-founded by journalist Sarah Cox and novelist Toby Barlow, who both moved from Brooklyn to Detroit within the past decade, attracted by its cheap housing and the lifestyle that offered.

‘I had just sold my first book, and was worried to be leaving what is considered the best ecosystem for writers,’ Barlow told the New Yorker of his move, more than seven years ago. ‘But when I came to Detroit, I found that for me it was just as good, if not better … Detroit is affordable and fascinating, and that seems like a good combination for writers.’

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Renovations in progress.

The conditions? Writers need to have been published before, though the organisation is particularly interested in supporting emerging writers. It’s open to low-income writers only. Writers don’t need to be US citizens to apply – but they do need ‘some legitimate proof that US government would grant you permanent residency’.

‘People who move here will have to be prepared for some boarded-up houses on their blocks,’ says Sarah Cox. ‘But you’ll get the opportunity to be part of a community, own a house, see some real change happening.’

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13 January 2014

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Buzzfeed has just published a fascinating article, interviewing 21 famous writers on how they wrote their first books, and the advice they’d give to beginning writers. Those interviewed include Sam Lipsyte, Wells Tower, Charlaine Harris, Junot Diaz, Sloane Crosley and Rachel Kushner.

Here’s a peek at what they had to say.

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Junot Diaz

When did you decide to write what became your first book? What were you doing for a living at the time?

Junot Diaz: I was in my MFA program and I had two part-time jobs. You’re in a program, so the telos of the program is you’re supposed to generate a body of work. I’d also been on a pretty strict reading schedule. For the last three or four years or so, I was trying to read a book every other day and I would write the book down and what I as a reader took away from it — I still have the notebook. What happened was, after a couple hundred books I began to have an organic inspiration about how I might create a book.

Was the proposition of writing a book intimidating or crazy-seeming, or were you confident you could do it?

Rachel Kushner: No, I didn’t know that I could write a novel, and I think going to an MFA program is not by any measure proof that one is up to the task. I knew when I really got going on the book that there were places in the writing that reflected my potential. That’s as much as you can ask for as a writer, at least initially. It was a long, long journey. But by the time I had completed a draft of the book, I knew I had something. And yet on the day my agent submitted it to editors I had a mild breakdown and thought, What if nobody wants this? And I spent all these years?

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Rachel Kushner

Had you attempted to write other books prior to the one you ultimately published first?

Sam Lipsyte: I had, like most writers, a bad model in the drawer. Something that I’d been working on since college that was really stupid. I finally let it go. As a teacher once said to me, ‘There’s no honor in finishing a bad novel.’

What obstacles did you encounter while writing?

Alexander Chee: My agent tried to sell the book for two years and was unable to. She asked me to consider setting it aside. And I remember I took it with me on a subway ride. (I was living in Brooklyn and teaching on the Upper West Side.) I said to myself, Read it on the train, and if it really is not ready or worthy of finding a publisher then let it go and work on another book. And that was when I decided I would have to leave her. I realized I was my own favorite new writer and this book should be published. She was a prestigious agent. It had helped my ego to be able to say, ‘Oh, my agent is X.’ But I also knew that she didn’t know how to go forward with my work. I could try to be the writer that she hoped I could be or I could try to be the writer that I was.

What helped you get through, despite the obstacles you encountered?

Heidi Julavits: At first, what kept me going was the fact that I was a waitress. Any day I did not write, I was only a waitress. For this reason I waited tables until I was 30. The performance pressure suited me. I worried that if I got a more ‘distinguished’ career (though I actually think waitressing is very distinguished), I’d think to myself, Well, I didn’t write anything today, but at least I helped get that woman I counseled on the domestic abuse hotline to a safe house. Any day I did not write I’d be left with, Well, at least I convinced that semi-famous actor not to order the squab too well done. After I got my book contract, what kept me going was the fear that my editor would realize what a huge mistake she’d made when I failed to ever produce a manuscript. I didn’t want her to lose face.

wells_tower

Wells Tower

What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What advice would you give your younger self?

Wells Tower: To the contrary: I wish I knew as little now as I did then. When you’re just starting out, you’re wonderfully unaware of the mistakes you’re making.

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02 December 2013

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highlight When Annabel Smith received her royalty statement from her well-reviewed second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, she was devastated. She takes a deeper look at the cold climate for professional writers and questions how writers can make a living, if not from their craft – and why good writing doesn’t necessarily equate to good – or even okay – money.

Nowadays, a multitude of blog posts, webinars and online courses tout the idea that any writer can be successful provided they’re willing to put in the hard yards to market their own work. Though this may once have been true, in a market in which the number of people writing and publishing is proliferating while the number of people reading books is diminishing, even the most vigorously marketed books can flounder.

My second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (published by Fremantle Press in November 2012), is evidence of this. In the two months after it hit the shelves it sold a respectable 1200 copies. Unfortunately, in the six months that followed it sold only a further 110 copies, despite consistent social media marketing and regular speaking events. Devastated, I wrote a blog post in which I pondered how a well-reviewed book with a decent marketing push could sell so poorly.

Ryan O’Neill, author of the short story collection The Weight of a Human Heart, said he identified strongly with my post, saying that while aspiring writers dream of the day when they will receive a royalties statement, in reality they can often be a ‘kick in the teeth’. Donna Maree Hanson, a writer of speculative fiction and paranormal romance went so far as to suggest they should come with a warning: ‘seek counselling after reading’.

Kylie Ladd, whose novel Into My Arms was chosen as one of the Get Reading Campaign’s 50 Books You Can’t Put Down, admitted it has taken her more than ten years and five books to get to a place where she still has to work at least two days a week in order to make ends meet. Dawn Barker, whose debut novel Fractured was published in March this year and has so far sold 6000 copies, agreed that ‘a lucky few earn a living but not most’.

Many writers seem resigned to this harsh reality. O’Neill said he ‘gave up on the idea of making a living from writing years ago’ and accepted that ‘writing must come second to better-paid work’. He acknowledged that his low sales expectations are related to being a writer of short fiction, which traditionally sells much less than novels. He estimates his income at $18,000 in the 13 years since his first short story was published.

Gabrielle Tozer, whose debut novel The Intern will be published by Harper Collins in February 2014, works full-time as a corporate writer and editor and writes her fiction before work and on the weekends. This gives her financial security but leaves her, she admitted, exhausted.

Penni Russon, a former freelance editor and the author of seven YA and children’s works, said that earning money from writing can be a ‘mixed blessing’ because it sets up expectations that there will be more to follow, which is never guaranteed. She recently took a job for the first time in ten years because she wanted to separate writing from paid work. The downside is that her job is writing-related – something she has avoided in the past because of fears that it ‘might drain the main pool’. She believes it is easier to find the motivation for writing if your day-job is unrelated.

Some writers still entertain hopes of a ‘breakout’ book. Natasha Lester, author of two novels, including the TAG Hungerford winning What Is Left Over, After, says that though she currently makes her money from teaching and speaking, not writing, she ‘foolishly and stubbornly believes that maybe the next book will be different’.

Annabel-Smith-Whisky-Charlie-Foxtrot-Cover There are obviously a range of expectations out there when it comes to making money from writing. Several writers told me I was lucky to have made $2,200 in royalties. One writer complained bitterly about earning less than $200 for his seventh book, on which he had worked for a decade. He suggested success in book sales mostly came down to luck. Tweep Mihaela Perkovi said an author with those statistics would be considered a best-seller in Croatia, where authors pay the publishing costs themselves and hardly ever see the royalties promised in their contracts.

Sales figures are undoubtedly influenced by the fact that high production costs and a much smaller market make Australian books substantially more expensive than books in the UK and US. T.D. Whittle, an American writer now living in Australia described the retail price of Australian books as ‘insane’. As a result, many people who are buying books are buying them at discounted prices from overseas websites such as Book Depository UK, which pay much lower royalties than the standard 10%. (For example, Jo Case tweeted earlier this year that when her memoir Boomer and Me is sold through Book Depository UK, she only receives 3 cents in royalties, as opposed to the $2.50 she would receive if the book was sold in Australia.) When I suggested educating readers about the impact on authors of buying books through discount websites, tweep Josh Mostafa retorted ‘When I buy books it ain’t charity’. He buys five books a month and says he can’t afford to pay full Australian retail prices.

Romance writer Jenny Schwartz expressed shock at the sales figures I quoted in my blog-post, ‘having read Annabel’s books’. This implies the oft-held but false assumption that books of a certain quality sell well. O’Neill cited the infamous example that in the last year of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life only three copies of The Great Gatsby were sold. Connor Tomas O’Brien, co-founder of Bkclb (an e-bookstore platform for independent writers and adventurous readers) and a columnist for Kill Your Darlings, pointed to the sad fact that ‘a crap book with a conversation around it is more compelling than a great book nobody is talking about’.

Why then is there not enough conversation around ‘great’ or even good books? Matthew Lamb, editor of Island magazine and Review of Australian Fiction, said ‘We need to turn our minds to the ground, and not just to the figures, of our literary ecology.’ He suggested a variety of strategies to increase the market for quality books including the idea that the Australia Council should invest in readers instead of writers, arguing ‘More readers = more writers paid to write’. Penni Russon supported this idea, saying that when she taught a Reading Australian Writing class, the students ‘got a buzz’ out of reading writers living and working locally. Sadly, the course was discontinued.

Connor Tomas O’Brien says that despite the web making it easier to create reading networks, publishers are still so busy trying to cope with Amazon and the self-publishing onslaught they haven’t yet taken advantage of the opportunities that might exist online. Nonetheless, O’Brien believes ‘book clubs are going to be much more important to publishers going forward ‘because a good reading group structure leads to a stronger conversation around titles’.

Lamb took this a step further, advocating for the creation of nationally coordinated book clubs, in partnership with publishers, indie bookshops, libraries, and writers' centres repurposed as readers' centres. However, Emmet Stinson, co-founder of the Small Press Network, was concerned that such an initiative could easily devolve into a scenario of ‘picking winners’ and Paddy O’Reilly supported this notion, agreeing that the choice is difficult and people often fall back on prize-winners – which are already getting plenty of attention.

Jennifer Mills proposed the adoption of a system used by the Norwegian government in which they subsidise publishers, libraries and therefore readers by buying 1000 copies of every book published in Norway and donating them to libraries. However, a quick calculation revealed that with 8000 books being published annually in Australia, that would set the government back $240 million. I can’t see the new government going for that.


Annabel Smith’s book Whisky Charlie Foxtrot has been shortlisted for the SPUNC Most Underrated Book Award. The award will be presented and winner announced this Friday at the Wheeler Centre in a free event, with performances and drinks. All welcome.

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11 November 2013

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highlightMalcolm Knox is the former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and the author of four novels: Summerland, A Private Man, Jamaica and The Life. He is also a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author of many non-fiction titles. His latest book is Boom: The Underground History of Australia, From Gold Rush to GFC.

Malcolm was one of five creative writers to take part in our Criticism Now series, crafting his own personal responses to a select series of Melbourne Festival works.

We spoke to him about not having a boss, burning bridges as a student so he could write a novel, and having books as his creative writing teachers.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a poem and a one-act play that I wrote under a pseudonym, out of embarrassment, in the Sydney University student magazine Hermes in 1988.

What’s the best part of your job?

No boss.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Having to ask my wife and children to repeat what they’re saying to me because I wasn’t listening.

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

Burning bridges as a student so I could write a novel. My parents gave me their blessing. If any of us had known it would be 14 years before I had a novel published, I would not have made the commitment and doubt my parents would have supported it.

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

Best advice: If you can live without writing, don’t write (Rilke).

Worst advice: There’s no money in it.

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

Via social media, someone judged from my picture-byline that I am old and cranky and have evidently made bad choices in my life. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but it did.

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

I nearly decided to study medicine, though I doubt I would have managed it. So: a doctor struck off by the medical board.

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

The only teachers I had were the books I read. I did want to study creative writing, but was never accepted into the courses I applied for. I still wonder if I could be a better writer with a more formal drilling in the fundamentals.

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

Don’t want, just write.

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

Both. I’ve also bought and read e-books while traveling, but when I came home I bought print copies of the e-books I’d read.

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

I’m not very quick in conversation, so all the best characters would leave me flailing. So can I say Roxeanne Smith, a treasure buried in Martin Amis’s otherwise pretty terrible second novel Dead Babies, and skip dinner?

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

The Red and the Black by Stendhal. First time I felt I’d read a real book.


Malcolm Knox’s latest book, Boom: The Underground History of Australia, From Gold Rush to GFC is available now.

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07 November 2013

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Lisa-Dempster Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, responds to an attack on the economics and values of contemporary literary festivals. She argues that it is ‘frankly, old fashioned’ to suggest that festivals should only showcase ‘high literary forms’ and that mounting a festival is an expensive undertaking, with little room for profit.

Many literary festivals turn over millions, yet little of that money goes to performers. In fact, non-celebrity writers are rarely paid. This is the opening gambit in a recent New Statesman article on what is wrong with contemporary literary festivals, written by a literary agent who is writing a novel, publishing under the pseudonym of Dolores Montenegro. Her many complaints include a lack of care about literature, a misplaced focus on celebrity and poor organisation. Her focus, understandably, is the festival scene in the UK, where she is based.

I agree with Montenegro that authors should be valued for their time and paid for appearing in writer’s festivals. On the whole, I did not recognise the festival experience that she describes in her article.

In Australia, authors are usually paid for festival appearances. Most of the major literary festivals pay their authors a similar rate – around $200 for a panel appearance, up to $500 for a lecture, and $250-600 for professional development events (seminars and workshops). Additionally, it is festivals who foot the bill for travel and accommodation (rather than publishers, as is the UK model), and interstate artists are generally offered per diems on top of their honorariums.

highlightMontenegro’s complaints imply that literary festivals squirrel away vast profits for themselves, rather than pass the money raised on to writers. This reading of the economy of festivals is a little off the mark. Income does not equal profit, and mounting a festival is an expensive undertaking. In 2013, Melbourne Writers Festival spent 25% of its income on fees, travel, accommodation and per diems for artists. Additional festivals expenses include staff wages, office overheads, venues and technical production, and marketing and publicity, to name a few key areas. Australian festivals are generally non-profit organisations, and do not quite fit the picture that Montenegro paints of rolling in cash. One unusual element of some British festivals – including the global Hay Festival that Montenegro mentions – is that they are private companies.

As in the UK, some festivals in Australia do pay more for writers with a large audience or who have some star power – but not just ‘comedians and celebrity politicians’ as Montenegro suggests; fees are also sometimes requested by superstar literary authors. Festivals increasingly need these big-name drawcards to thrive. Having ‘a sprinkling of celebrity’, as Montenegro puts it, draws media attention to the festival, which throws a light on the festival programme overall.

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Jennifer Byrne interviews Junot Diaz at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013. Photo courtesy of MWF.

Additionally, having one or two blockbuster events lifts a festival box office overall, allowing the organisers the space and income to program events that appeal to smaller or more niche audiences – but which are no less important. (This is not dissimilar to the model that publishers have used for years – to put out blockbuster titles whose success subsidises the development of important but less commercial works, such as literary fiction and poetry.)

Hand in hand with Montenegro’s criticism of celebrity seems to go a disdain for the programming of non-literary writers as a concept. She accuses festivals of being no longer ‘in it for the love of literature’ – which is just not true. Her suggestion that literature’s only value lies in high literary forms is, frankly, old fashioned.

As with the UK, Australian festivals are programming more diversely these days – and we are richer for it. It is becoming more widely recognised that good writing and ideas come in all forms and genres. Rather than ruining literature, I believe that diversity helps to broaden its appeal.

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Estelle Tang interviews Tavi Gevinson at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013. Photo courtesy of MWF.

It misses the point to suggest that having Tavi Gevinson speak on digital publishing, Teju Cole on Twitter, The Moth on storytelling or Marjorie Liu on comics – as we did at Melbourne Writers Festival this year – is not worthwhile. Writer’s festivals should be dynamic, enquiring spaces that present writers that appeal to all different kinds of reading audiences.

This doesn’t mean that forms like literary fiction or poetry will be lost or become irrelevant. While most writer’s festivals in Australia are taking an increasingly open-minded view to the kinds of writing and writers they present, most are still looking for ways to find a satisfying balance between traditional literary forms and more contemporary genres and platforms. The point is to create a program that appeals to a wide variety of readers.

Supporting the machinations of the publishing industry – promoting and supporting writers, celebrating and selling books, creating networking opportunities – is only one aspect of the mission of a writer’s festival. The other major purpose is to entertain and inspire audiences, adding to the creative and intellectual life of a city, and promoting the values of literature and literacy overall.

The strong connection between those two aims is played out at the festival, and a successful festival should add to the outcomes of both – which makes it surprising to read Montenegro’s claims that British organisers don’t care for creating interesting events with quality moderators, or about promoting the non-blockbuster events. In Australia at least, most festivals believe that putting care into the author experience – ensuring they are well looked after, housed in an appropriate venue, with a good host, and talking on a topic they can shine at – generally ensures the audience has a good time as well.

Montenegro notes that disappointing live events can’t compete with the pleasures of solitary reading. But that rather misses the point of what a writer’s festival is all about: the conversation between author and audience. And when done well – the goal that I believe all festival directors strive for – that live connection creates magic moments for all involved.


Lisa Dempster is director of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

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06 November 2013

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highlight Kris Mrksa is a Melbourne-based writer and script editor. During his 12 year career as a screenwriter, he’s brought shows including Underbelly, The Slap, East West 101, The King and The Secret Life of Us to the small screen – and won several awards from the Australian Film Institute and the Australian Writers' Guild.

Speaking with the Wheeler Centre, he talks about conservatism in Australian TV, the media’s preoccupation with directors and the ‘wonderful circuit breaker’ (see also: ‘pain in the arse’) of collaboration.

What was the first piece of screenwriting you had produced?

My first commercially produced credits were all for children’s TV. Which is actually rather bizarre when I think about it, as writing for kids was probably the last thing I ever imagined I’d be doing, me being a grumpy, childless bachelor at the time. But I was offered an opportunity, and when you’re hoping to make a living as a writer, you take whatever you can get.

My very first produced script was for a show called Horace and Tina. It was kind of like I Dream of Jeannie, but instead of a sexy genie with a bare midriff causing the magical mayhem, we had two grumpy, invisible gnomes. Not quite the same, somehow.

horacetina

The cast of Horace and Tina.

What’s the best part of your job?

There’s a wonderful balance between being your own boss, working alone, at home, quiet and contemplative, and going into work for brainstorming and plotting days, which is highly collaborative and can be very intense and demanding. My wife is also a writer – she writes books and a newspaper column – and the biggest difference between our jobs is that I have that collaborative aspect to my work. Which can be a wonderful circuit breaker. Because when you’re feeling doubts about the work, there’s always someone you can talk to – someone who is equally invested in the project. So I guess that’s the best thing – working closely with other creative people.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst thing? Working closely with other creative people.

As I said, screenwriting is a collaborative process, which can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a pain in the arse. You inevitably get notes from half a dozen different sources – the network, the producer, the director, the production company. Most of the time I work with wonderful producers and script editors, and their notes are invaluable, pushing me to make the script better and better. But once in a while you find yourself in a position where the person calling the shots doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And that is heart breaking – to know that you’re actually making the script weaker in the re-drafting process, rather than stronger.

I think it’s changing, but there is sometimes a tendency to fall back on formula in Australian TV – to cringe away from anything that is genuinely original, or hasn’t already been pioneered on another TV show. It’s that conservatism that still occasionally holds our industry back, and inspires a lot of the stupider notes that you sometimes get on your work.

SparkyD_Image01

Sparky D Comes to Town – a 2001 TV short starring Samuel Johnson – won Mrksa the AFI Award for Best Screenplay in a Short Fiction Film.

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

People often talk about getting a Big Break, but I don’t see my career that way. I think I’ve had a series of breaks, and each one of them has been important in its way. Having said that, there are one or two moments that do stand out. For example, I won an AFI award early in my career, and that public, high profile recognition certainly gave me a huge boost. It got me out of writing kids TV, and moved me up into adult. Otherwise I might be working on Horace and Tina 2 right now.

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

The best advice I was given was to just write, no excuses. Writers are so creative about the excuses they make for not writing; if they put half as much energy into their work they’d be doing fine.

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

The thing that surprises me the most is if I get mentioned at all. Unlike the US, where celebrity screenwriters are quite common, and writer-creators are widely seen as the driving forces behind successful TV shows, screenwriters in Australia are largely ignored by the media.

It’s actually pretty disgraceful – the number of times I’ll read an article about a telemovie or a mini series, and the focus is largely on the director, when I know that the director was essentially a hired gun – that it was the writer who developed the project, and steered it, and lived with it through its difficult gestation, possibly for years. And you get this even from experienced media journalists who should know better.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I honestly don’t know. Thank God screenwriting happened for me, because I don’t know what else I’d be good for.

What’s more important for a budding screenwriter: experience or study?

Experience, no question. I have nothing against writing courses; indeed, I did a little bit of the RMIT screenwriting course myself, and it was useful. But [in the first place] the only way to learn about writing scripts is by writing scripts.

The bigger challenge comes in getting them produced. Writing is only the second best way to learn; the very best way is to see your scripts produced. To look at the finished product critically, and think about what worked, and what didn’t. Of course that’s very difficult, because you’ll probably only be able to do that when you’re actually working as a writer. Perhaps that’s why my stint in kid’s TV was so valuable. I got to make all my initial mistakes in a context where it didn’t matter so much (assuming that most 8 to 12 year olds don’t look at the writing credits).

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

This is the question I am asked most often, and I still don’t have a clear answer. The problem is, there is no well established path for aspiring screenwriters in Australia. There are very few internships available, and the screenwriting courses don’t have the kind of prestige that will automatically land a graduate a job. Writing spec scripts and sending them off to producers or production companies… I’m just not sure how much value there is in doing that. Most good producers are far too busy to read unsolicited scripts from writers they don’t know.

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Devil’s Dust: the two-part ABC drama, based on the James Hardie asbestos saga, was produced by FremantleMedia and written by Mrksa.

The only thing that seems to work is to find a job that will get you into the room with the writers and producers. I know a few people who have stepped up from being researchers, or taking notes in the story room, and have managed to make enough of an impression to eventually be offered a script. I guess it’s about getting noticed, while not making yourself into an annoyance – a difficult line to walk.

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

Always in a physical bookshop. Basically, I like shopping, and I like bookshops in particular. I love browsing, leafing through books, reading the blurbs. It’s a recreational activity. In fact, if I had the time I’d hang out in bookshops anyway, even if I wasn’t looking for a book. Then I’d probably end up buying something, just so I didn’t feel guilty. Buying online is cheaper, but for me you lose half the pleasure, so it’s not a bargain that interests me.

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

I’m a huge fan of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but I don’t know that I’d like to have dinner with any of the people who inhabit those worlds. I mean, sitting down for a big bowl of ziti with Tony would be tempting, but what if you caught him on a bad mood day? I tend to be attracted to stories about troubled, unpleasant characters, so few of them would make pleasant dinner partners.

underbellydogeatdog

Underbelly: No shortage of ‘troubled, unpleasant characters’.

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

When I was a kid my mum would take us to the local library every weekend, and my brother and I would choose some books. One school holidays I picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. Like a lot of kids, I was a science fiction fan, and I expected a fairly conventional tale of aliens and space ships. What I got instead completely blew my mind. OK, it was genre, but it was also philosophical, surreal, intelligent, deeply moving and incredibly funny. Over the course of that two week holiday break I read everything by Vonnegut that I could get my hands on, and I think that reading binge defined my literary interests for the rest of my adolescence.

But speaking as a screenwriter, my work has been more directly impacted by films and TV shows. There are two shows that stand out for me as big influences – Twin Peaks and The Larry Sanders Show. Long before the recent explosion of edgy, high quality, made for cable drama, these two series showed what could be done on TV. They were a glimpse of the future, and they inspired me to take TV seriously as an art form.


See a full list of Kris' screenwriting credits at IMDB, and an extended biography at AustLit. He is @KrisMrksa on Twitter.

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26 September 2013

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mel While author and critic Mel Campbell can admit that her preoccupations are literary ones, her reading habits sometimes beg to differ.

She interrogates the feelings of guilt and embarrassment that have accompanied her binges on ‘junk food fiction’ – and finds good reasons to savour her encounters with the clunky or unselfconscious expression of books untroubled by a sense of their own importance.

You’re really hungry. You stand in your kitchen staring at all the perfectly good food in your fridge and cupboards, but you don’t feel like eating any of it. What you crave is a nice takeaway. Something quick, comforting and tasty, that doesn’t require much effort.

I had that aimless malaise last week in front of my bookshelves, trying to decide what to read next. Questions of Travel is my current book club title. I knew I should read it, and I even leafed through the first few chapters hoping to be ‘hooked’, but it was just too … literary. I’m sorry, Michelle de Kretser: I couldn’t get into your multi-award-winning novel.

mobydick Nor did I feel like resuming any of the three other books I’m partway through. I’m still only on page 65 of Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick; I’m finding its language drearily ponderous and digressive. At this stage it seems I’ll be halfway through the book by the time Ishmael sets foot on the damn boat.

I’m also resisting Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class by Adam Nicolson, a history book I’m about halfway through and was quite enjoying before I put it down. Reading about the values that animated England’s well-born families at crucial times of political, geographic and economic transition has illuminated my understanding of English literature from another angle. But now it’s as if that light has been switched off in my brain.

Am I getting stupid? If so, it’s worrying that I can’t even return to the dumbest of my current reads: crypto-archaeological romp The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock. I was up for a rollicking, Indiana Jones-style quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant, but Hancock’s travelogue wrings tedium from exotic locales, and his Dan Brown-level amateur scholarship manages to be both stodgy and preposterous. I suffered through his theory that Moses was actually an Egyptian sorcerer, but laid the book aside when Hancock mentioned Atlantis.

What’s scaring me is my concomitant hunger for trashy, clunkily written young-adult paranormal romance novels. I’ve just devoured the first three Mortal Instruments books by Cassandra Clare, the first of which was recently adapted to film. I told myself it was research for a feature story I wrote about young-adult film adaptations.

highlight But I haven’t stopped reading now the article’s finished – I’ve just embarked on the fourth, City of Fallen Angels. Last night found myself unironically enjoying a cheesy scene in which star-crossed teenage protagonists Jace and Clary make out in an alleyway during a rainstorm. (Jace makes lots of growling noises ‘deep in his throat’.)

Have these books irreversibly ruined my appetite for a ‘better’ class of literature? Has my brain actually regressed to a high-school level? I don’t know what’s wrong with me; last week I was walking down the street and, in some kind of awful adolescent fugue, I found myself in Dangerfield. (As I write, I’m wearing a Dangerfield hoodie with little stars on it.) Much as Clary learns to see through supernatural glamours and understand the language of runes, the overwrought lyrics of ridiculous emo bands are beginning to make sense to me. Yesterday I had a house inspection and, as I showed off my freshly tidied bedroom, I felt like shouting at my real estate agent, ‘YOU’RE NOT MY REAL MUM!’

Because reading is such an interior pursuit – a silent dialogue with one’s own experiences and feelings – my first instinct has been to worry that this is the result of some intellectual weakness unique to me. Surely any ‘proper’ author and critic wouldn’t slump like a teenager, devouring prose such as, ‘Between his teeth he hissed, “So be it. The Forsaken will take you all.”’

I sent an anguished cry into the Twittersphere – did anyone else struggle with not feeling ‘into’ literary fiction? The results were encouraging.

‘Oh god yes,’ Richard replied. ‘Most capital-L literature bores me shitless.’

‘Life is too short to worry about that,’ added Peter. ‘I will put any book down 100 pages in if I’m not entertained.’

‘I want it all!’ said Jess. ‘But I never feel bad about the trashy stuff. Life is too short to deny yourself pleasure.’

‘I decided years ago to just own it,’ said Lisa. ‘I don’t always want to read prize winners and I don’t always want to be challenged.’

There’s a nasty misogynist tang to our suspicions surrounding the readership of novels for pure narrative pleasure. While women dominated the authorship of fiction between the 15th and 18th centuries, and have long been the most voracious readers of romances and novels, 19th-century literary critics mansplained that this was because women were frivolous, emotional creatures dominated by imagination rather than intellect.

twilight-book-cover Today’s snide jokes and moral panics over the low literary value of cult fiction franchises such as Twilight and Fifty Shades have their origins in the 19th-century press’s intense, paternalistic worries about the deleterious effect of novels on women and tender, impressionable children, both in England and the United States.

‘Paranormal romance’ is especially low-hanging fruit for critics – hell, I’ve mocked it roundly myself. Yet what draws me to it as a reader is its artless energy: its power to seek out and amplify our most atavistic feelings, without seeming to require an intellectual agenda. These books aren’t formally or stylistically ambitious, and don’t necessarily set out to ‘say’ anything beyond the demands of their own universes… although if they become wildly popular we often retrospectively dissect their zeitgeisty appeal.

I guess what I admire best about junk food fiction is that, while I’m ashamed of myself for reading, the author never betrays any similar self-consciousness or uncertainty. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought to myself, “I could write better than this… while drunk, and without any research or planning!”

But when I interrogate myself further, I realise my compulsion is not simply to write a satisfying fantasy, but also an elegantly written one that innovates within its genre and is packed with witty subtext. A book that snobs would be happy to be seen reading, basically. I must admit to myself that my preoccupations are literary ones.

Merry-Gentry-Book-Cover-laurell-k-hamilton-530453_316_472 Perhaps the best way to look at my current YA jag is in the cyclical context of my past reading habits. I’ve had similar obsessions, and have bounced back to enjoy complex, challenging writing. I’ve stuck with Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books to this year’s bitter end. Then there was my heady excursion into Faerie Pr0n, that is, Laurell K Hamilton’s Merry Gentry novels.

Such binges actually sharpen my critical faculties, helping me distinguish between mere shameless corniness and truly reprehensible literary badness. On Friday night, I picked up Austenland by Shannon Hale, thinking it would be a fun, effervescent riff on the cultural obsession with Pride and Prejudice. But it left me hollow and depressed, the way you might from eating only crisps for dinner. And rather than resorting to the knee-jerk ridicule that dominates scathing reviews of ‘bad fiction’, I was able to articulate my reasons for disliking Austenland, and show that it is bad in its own way, rather than self-evidently because of its topic, theme or genre.

As well as the emotional pleasure junk-food fiction offers, perhaps it also challenges us to read as adventurously and omnivorously as possible, disregarding ideologically fraught questions of literary merit. As Haruki Murakami wrote in Norwegian Wood (which I haven’t read, although I saw the film, which was awful), ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’


Mel Campbell (@incrediblemelk) is the founding editor of online pop-culture magazine The Enthusiast, and the national film editor of the Thousands network of city guides. Her first book, Out of Shape, was published by Affirm Press this year.

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25 September 2013

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fionamFiona McFarlane is that rare thing: a writer whose advances enable her to write full-time. Penguin Australia has just published her first novel, The Night Guest, winning the rights after a ‘strong auction’. Fiona has had her short stories published in The New Yorker, among other publications. She spoke to us about shifting gear from a career of short stories, the allure of tigers and her novel’s exploration of ageing and reflection.

You’ve said this book grew from the image of a woman waking in the night and imagining a tiger in her house. What appealed to you about that image – and how did it evolve into The Night Guest?

I became interested in the tiger after talking to a friend who was researching Victorian children’s literature – we were talking about all the exotic, terrifying creatures that turn up in nursery rhymes and bedtime tales, and I was intrigued by the idea of a tiger showing up from the edges of the British empire to haunt the Victorian nursery. I thought right away about writing something in which a woman with some kind of colonial past is visited by an uncanny tiger in her very ordinary house. I didn’t know, when I first started writing, whether it would be a novel or a short story, but eventually it became clear that it was a novel.

highlight The morning after the tiger incident, a mysterious woman, Frida, arrives to announce that she’s been paid by the government to be a daily carer of sorts for Ruth. From the beginning, there’s a sense of disquiet about her presence, but neither Ruth nor the reader quite know what to make of her (danger or blessing?) for some time, as she takes control in ways both benevolent and suspicious. How did you get that balance – and suspense – right?

The balance and suspense were the hardest part of the book to get right. I’m not very good at showing my early work to other people, but this really needed other eyes that were less familiar with what was going on than I was; even just thinking about other people reading the book helped me track momentum and suspense.

The Night Guest seems resonant with lives not lived and paths not taken, as well as the actual present. Was this something you wanted to explore?

Yes – when you’re writing about an ageing character it’s impossible not to. But I was just as interested in the ways in which Ruth’s life feels inevitable – she decides at one point that, whether she’d married Richard or Harry, she would still have met Frida.

Ruth is a really interesting character: she is ‘blessedly ordinary’ but has worked to achieve that ordinariness, and her childhood was ‘weird, fervent’. What appealed to you about that contrast?

It made sense to me that when a person’s life has had such a definitive break – childhood in Fiji, adulthood in Sydney – that person would deliberately create a sort of heightened mythology around her early years. I liked the idea of a woman who has spent her adult life trying to be ordinary returning, in her older age, to the sense of the extraordinary she remembers from her childhood. I think childhood and old age probably have a similar sense of imminence about them, and I wanted to explore that.

Motivations and actions are intriguingly murky in The Night Guest. Some characters have ostensibly good intentions that don’t play out as altruistically as they think they do – for instance, Ruth’s missionary parents. Others skirt the edges of betrayal in a battle between their desires and their obligations (past Richard). And others have murky motives but also do some good. How deliberate was this aspect of the book?

I definitely wanted to explore the murkiness of different kinds of terrible care and caring terror. The book is very interested in the ways in which intention and result become more and more complicated.

I found it fascinating to contrast Ruth’s memories of her first love, Richard, from her Fijian childhood, with her present observations when they meet again. The way she is still drawn to him as she was in the past, but is now very conscious of his faults in a way she wasn’t as a besotted teenager. Does this perhaps reflect a benefit of age (aka learned experience, or a richer perspective)?

Yes, I suppose it does – Ruth is very conscious of all that’s changed in the fifty years since she last saw Richard, and it’s not just in the way she thinks about him. He’s different, too: less pompous, perhaps less idealistic. She’s also conscious that her body has gone through half a century of living, which includes sex, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. This experience gives her a sort of calm when it comes to considering the question of Richard.

You were a successful short story writer, with publication credits including the New Yorker, before The Night Guest. How is writing a novel different from writing short stories?

Working on a novel means occupying a world for a much longer time and thinking more expansively about structure and character – these are both the luxuries and the insanities of writing a novel. The auditorium is much bigger, but you get out less.


Join us tonight for Debut Mondays at the Moat – where Fiona McFarlane will appear along with the prolific Adam Browne, Kirsten Krauth, author of the much-praised just_a_girl, and Voiceworks contributor Emily Prince.

Fiona’s short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Zoetrope, Southerly, the Missouri Review and Best Australian Short Stories. The Night Guest was launched recently by Nam Le, and is published by Penguin.

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23 September 2013

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highlight Following on from yesterday’s article – in which Phoebe Tay explored the world of Deaf writers – today we’re inviting you to experience Auslan writing first hand, so to speak.

These two previously unpublished pieces by poet Walter Kadiki tap into the frustrations of living in a mostly hearing culture, and the prejudices and challenges Deaf people often face.


playTile

Watch Walter Kadiki’s two poems in Auslan, followed by a brief background exploration of his writing. Includes voiceover interpretation and captioning in English.

Acknowledgements

Produced by the Wheeler Centre with the assistance of Fiona Tuomy – Mentor In Residence for Write-ability, a partnership between Arts Access Victoria and Writers Victoria. Thanks to Auslan interpreter Maxine Buxton, and to Jodee Mundy.

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14 August 2013

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Adrian Hyland, author of the Emily Tempest novels (Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road) shares his top tips for crime writing.

1. Character

Character is the heart and soul of the modern novel, and crime seems to be better at creating it than any other branch of the trade. Think Miss Smilla, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, the elusive Father Brown. These people are alive. We know them, love them.

If_I_Tell_You_I_ll_Have_to_Kill_You My favourite character in crime fiction is the great Andy Dalziel, he of the omnivorous appetites and sledgehammer humour (and cursed be the BBC for stripping away that gargantuan personality and squeezing it into a gimcrack television series). When Reginald Hill died a while ago, I felt as if I’d lost a friend. Not Reg: Andy.

I personally find that I can’t create characters out of thin air, and I’m wary of characters ‘borrowed’ from other works of art (or worse – the bloody telly). I need a real person to begin with. They might be heavily disguised, dressed up, stripped down, gender realigned, but somewhere in there lurks a living, breathing human being.

In my second book, Gunshot Road, I introduced into the narrative a slightly crazed young woman.

‘You had one of those in your first book,’ commented my editor, Mandy Brett. ‘You can’t have another one. You’ll start getting stereotyped – the feller who does the crazy ladies . . .’

The trouble was that I needed an unbalanced character to propel the plot forward at one or two vital moments.

‘Maybe you could just change her to a male?’ Mandy suggested.

So that was what I tried to do. But it didn’t work. The new character just wouldn’t come to life. I dicked around with him for weeks, scribbling page after lousy page. Then, one afternoon, I was out splitting wood, when a memory rose to the surface: a troubled youth I’d known, drink and drug-addled, destroying a radio with his nulla nulla.

Zap! That was it; I had my man. I pulled out a notebook, did a quick character sketch, saw at once how to fit him into the story. I achieved more in those five minutes than I had in weeks (I also wonder, in retrospect, whether the adrenaline or whatever you get from heavy physical activity didn’t have something to do with freeing up the imagination).

2. Get rhythm

My publisher, Text, has an annual award known as the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. This seems to me to be about the toughest nut to crack; the experts tell you write about what you know, and childhood is the one thing everybody thinks they know. Consequently, there are thousands of manuscripts cruising around the slush piles at any given moment.

Dropping into the office one time, I glanced at the daunting pile in the corner of the office and asked Mandy: ‘How the hell do you work your way through that lot?’ The answer – depressing for any writer – was that most of them get no more than a few minutes’ consideration. A page or two, maybe a chapter, is often enough to gauge the quality of the work.

‘So what’s your criterion for quality?’

‘The rhythm of the language,’ she replied. ‘If your author’s got a tin ear, you can tell straightaway. Whereas if they can write a decent sentence, chances are they can write a paragraph; if they can write a paragraph . . .’

So there you have it – or at least one esteemed editor’s view of it. It’s all about rhythm.

And how do you enhance the rhythm of your language?

There are lots of tricks, but for me the most important is to read your work out loud; say it ‘slowly and deliberately’, as I once heard the Clancy Brothers declaim. Listen to the way the consonants clash, the vowels harmonise.

Your writing should do more than tell a story or describe a character; it should reflect the story, manifest the character. It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that writers of a Celtic background – Ken Bruen, Chris Brookmyre, our own dear Shane Maloney – are the masters of this art. I suspect there’s a dash of Celtic poetry – filtered through Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Hugh MacDiarmid – circulating in their blood.

3. Read. Widely.

This may sound like a quote from Captain Obvious, but when I teach writing, I’m always astonished by the number of young wannabes who have written more than they’ve read. Is it television? I don’t know, but unless you look like Elle Macpherson (who famously commented that she didn’t read books unless she’d written them) you’re not going to get away with that.

Your writing is a reflection of your reading. If your reading isn’t up to scratch, there’s a pretty good chance your writing won’t be either.

4. Revise, and then revise some more

I’m a revision Nazi. I never stop; if I had my way, I’d be creeping around the bookshops, pencil in hand, making alterations to my books. I tend to pour it all out in the first drafts, and then get out the scalpel and cut the flab, scrap the bits a reader will skip. To me, the goal of revision is concision. This applies both on the micro and the macro levels – from each sentence to the whole book.

I remember once trying to describe the scene as Emily Tempest steps into an outback bar. I became a little obsessed with light and its illimitable manifestations. I even read Newton’s Opticks. I rambled on for pages, describing sunbeams refracting off bottles, bubbles running down amber glass, the glimmer of gristle snagged on an old man’s tooth. When I paused for a cup of tea, I picked up Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot and came across a sentence in which he described the drawing room in a country homestead: ‘It was difficult to tell where the light ended and the glass began.’ I remember putting the book aside with a soft sigh, mourning the fact that I would never have the imagination to crash two images together like that.

Peter Temple does this all the time. His novels are like haiku written by the Seven Samurai. The best writers are like that. They are alchemists; they take disparate elements and refine them into gold.

5. My last piece of advice

Ignore all advice, mine and everybody else’s. Forge your own path, which is what every other decent writer has done.


This is an extract from If I Tell You … I’ll Have to Kill You: Australia’s Leading Crime Writers Reveal Their Secrets, edited by Michael Robotham and published by Allen & Unwin (RRP $24.99).

Adrian Hyland is the author of Diamond Dove, Gunshot Road and Kingslake-350, published by Text.

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29 July 2013

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highlight Ben Eltham is national affairs correspondent of New Matilda and an industry columnist at ArtsHub. He has written about Australian culture and politics for a range of publications, including Crikey, the ABC, Meanjin and Overland, and he is a research fellow at Deakin University.

We spoke to Ben about running out of ways to write about asylum seeker policy, why political journalists love Game of Thrones, the Rudd/Gillard saga, and why what really counts is writing, not publishing.


What was the first piece of writing you had published?

For a working writer that’s actually a difficult question to answer. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid and I’ve ‘published’ in student newspapers and zines all the way through my school and university years. I actually tried to do a Factiva search for my first newspaper article, which was for the Courier-Mail sometime in 2001, but I couldn’t find it. But that was six years after I won my first (and only) writing prize in 1995, for a short story by a young writer in Queensland. I guess it all goes to show that what really counts is writing, not publishing. Some of the writing I’m most proud of has never seen the light of day.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Another tough question! I absolutely love my job in nearly all respects – I feel lucky to have it (especially in the current environment), so it’s hard to pinpoint a downside. But I will, of course.

I mean, there is the quotidian dilemma of waking up in the morning and knowing you have to write a column, and being so sick of politics, and feeling super jaded, and you get onto Google chat and you and your editor metaphorically scratch your heads and wonder what the hell there is to write about. That’s never fun. But that’s basically just writing, isn’t it, and not particularly interesting.

There are some deeper disappointments. Probably the worst part is moral and intellectual, rather than literary. I’m referring to the depressing nature of politics, which, when encountered close up, can seem particularly petty and brutal. The recent events in the Australian Labor Party are a good example. They’re not happening to me, obviously, but even observing them as a relatively disinterested bystander is quite disillusioning. These are real people who really are trying pretty hard to make the country a better place, in their opinions, and yet here you have this Machievellian game where there’s another team trying to destroy your every achievement, and then you have a whole faction of your own team trying to do the same, and feeding off it all are these characters in the media who get paid to convey rumours and distort the facts for reasons that have nothing to do with the good of the country. No wonder half the front bench walked away.

So anyway that’s the politicians. For a writer covering them, I think you’ve got to be on guard against that constant exposure to the brutality and mendacity of it all. It can make you jaded and that can hurt your writing. I’ve just about run out of ways to write about asylum seeker policy. It’s a ‘wicked problem’ where the politics of xenophobia and political expediency seem to continually trump ethical behaviour and human responsibility. A lot of political journalists love George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and I wonder if the reason is because they identify with the brutality and the naked atavism of Martin’s worldview. The constant insecurity of Martin’s universe seems very realistic to people observing politics, I think.

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

I think personally my most significant moment was my first ‘break’ in the business as a freelancer. This was back in 2001. I was given a shot by an editor, Rosemary Sorensen, who at the time was the arts and books editor at the Courier-Mail, and she was brave enough and perhaps foolish enough to back me, keep backing me, and give me a series of commissions. I think every writer – most artists working across many artforms, really – would understand the felicity of that wonderful feeling of having a gatekeeper let you inside the tent. I’ve never forgotten that and I always acknowledge Rosemary as the person who gave me that chance to begin a career.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work with a series of brilliant editors, like Marni Cordell, Jonathan Green, Sophie Black, Jason Whitakker and Sophie Cunningham, just to name a few, all of whom have backed me in turn to go out and write for them, be a part of their publication. That’s what it’s all about, I think. That editorial relationship really is critical for a working writer like me. Every time you can win the trust of an editor and begin a working relationship with her, that’s a significant moment. Honour it with your best work.

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

Best advice: a tie between:

‘Writing is mainly bum glue’ – Bryce Courtenay, via my sister

‘A certain attention to plot mechanisms is valuable’ – Marcel Dorney

Worst advice:

‘Show, not tell’ – every writing course ever

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

I was recently called a ‘Gillard follower’ by a leftist in an online forum and it really threw me. We’re all used to being called heartless right-wingers or latte-sipping lefties, but I hadn’t consciously adopted a position on the Rudd-Gillard split and was a bit surprised to be described as such. I think it reflects the increasingly personalised and partisan nature of contemporary politics, as well as the depth of the ALP’s divisions. As a commentator, I was originally very disappointed at the Rudd overthrow, but was then very encouraged by the tenacity of Gillard as a policy-maker – so does that mean I have a position on the ALP’s leadership? It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? And yet when push came to shove it wasn’t; it was all about who was more popular and who could win an election and therefore who had the numbers in the party room. That dismayed me as someone who believes in democracy, and in good public policy.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

The romantic in me says: running a music festival. The realist says: PR.

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

Of course it can be. We teach musicians, we teach dancers, we teach visual artists. We should let go of this silly superstition that simply because we can all read and write, therefore we won’t benefit from writing lessons. Which is not to say you can’t teach yourself, of course. You can. At least I hope you can, because I am essentially self-taught.

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

Tell, don’t show.

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

Both. I prefer printed books, but there’s something pretty seductive about lying in bed and being able to dial up a book right away.

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

The Duchesse de Guermantes.

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

Balzac, Illusions perdues

You know how writers have these books that they always return to? Those ones that they end up re-reading every year, page after page, over and over again? This is that book. I am obsessed with it. It is the very greatest ‘coming to the city’ book ever, it is the greatest ‘portrait of a young artist’ book ever, one of the finest expositions of high modernity, the subtlest explorations of money, and the most trenchant condemnations of the business of art. There are weeks in which Lost Illusions literally dominates my waking thoughts. It’s a bit of a problem, actually. I think I need some counselling.


Ben Eltham is the national affairs correspondent of independent news website New Matilda.

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04 July 2013

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By Kelly-Lee Hickey

highlight Kelly-Lee Hickey has often felt insecure about her status as a regional writer. For her, success has meant taking advantage of opportunities to network with like-minded writers from around Australia (both on social media and in real life) – and, most importantly, being herself.

In this extract from The Emerging Writer, she traces her journey as a regional writer making it on the national (and international) stage.


Catching my breath between tech runs for the 2010 Australian Poetry Slam Finals, I was approached by one of the other finalists, a middle-aged woman with mousy brown hair. As I introduced myself she looked me up, down and through.

‘You’re one of the NT finalists.’

I nodded.

‘I wouldn’t be disappointed,’ she said. I looked at her quizzically, but had a hunch where this was going.

‘If you don’t win,’ she explained. ‘I mean, most of us have had to go through a number of heats to get this far. Heats with LOTS of people in them.’ She strung out the word for effect. ‘How many did you have up there?’

I cleared my throat. ‘Just two. One in Darwin, one in Alice. I won the Alice heat.’

She went on, ‘And how many people competed in that one?’

‘I dunno,’ I said, ‘About ten.’

‘There you go then,’ she shot me a look of smug pity, ‘Just don’t get your hopes up love.’

The truth was I wasn’t there to win. Watching YouTube clips of finalists from the other states, I was intimidated by their hip-hop stylings and comic repertoires. I’d been ‘doing’ spoken word off and on for the best part of ten years. After a decade of experimentation with spoken word and performance I’d found my niche telling the only truth I knew. I decided to make the most of my two minutes alone with a few hundred Sydneysiders and a microphone to give a personal perspective on one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in contemporary Australia – the Emergency Intervention into Aboriginal communities.

After I won, she came up to me and apologised, ‘I never realised. I just assumed that you wouldn’t be any good without the competition and opportunities we have in Sydney.’

Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with most of our population huddling along a thin strip of the East Coast. Pop cultural iconography pedalled for tourists still paints the rest of the country as a barren expanse filled with derogatory stereotypes about beer guts and native savages. Urban-centric assumptions about the quality of work in the regions are a hangover from a colonial mindset that fears the ‘savage frontiers’ and equates the urban centres with civilisation. This cultural narrow-mindedness doesn’t just exist in the arts; it pervades every aspect of Australian culture, from our systems of political representation to patterns of employment. It’s frustrating, but easier to handle if you remember that it’s not personal.

TEW-Cover-shot The road from country to city is well worn; Australia has some of the world’s highest rates of rural youth migration. I think it’s important to link up with the urban centres, and technology now affords us regional folk a number of ways to do this. Facebook groups, blogs and Twitter fests are all important inroads, but nothing beats actually rocking up to a writers’ festival in the big smoke and meeting as many other young and emerging writers as you can. Sure it can take a few deep breaths to still your anxiety before you can actually talk to other writers, particularly if you’re like me and wear your insecurities on your sleeve. It’s totally worth it though – through the National Young Writers Festival and Emerging Writers Festival I’ve made friends and allies who’ve believed in me, and given me the heads-up on opportunities and feedback on my work. Most states have quick response and travel grant schemes which can help finance your way to these events. Grant applications are a style of writing essential to the regional author’s repertoire.

As a dear friend and mentor of mine once said, ‘Contrary to popular belief, writing is not a lonely game.’ Social networks are pivotal to sustaining you; they encourage you when you’re doubting yourself, and give you new perceptions on your work through feedback. Giving feedback sharpens your critical eye, and teaches you what you like, which in turn helps you when you go to self-edit your work.

In my hometown, music and visual arts reigned supreme; as a young writer, I was somewhat of an anomaly. The middle-aged women at the writers’ centre had kindly passed on some Voiceworks magazines, so I knew that somewhere out there were other young people who were like me. But it wasn’t until I went to the This is Not Art festival in 2001 that I realised I wasn’t a freak and that writing could be cool in the way that playing in bands was back home. That year I met some of the crew who have stayed with me on the writing journey, like the long-haired angel Daniel Watson, from Paroxysm Press, who aside from publishing my work, let me sleep on his couch for weeks. I went home drunk on zines and spoken word, convinced that I’d found my path and that it burned straight down the Stuart Highway.

Moving to Melbourne in 2003 I felt like every caricature of a country bumpkin; being from the tropics I didn’t know how to layer my clothes until I read about it in a zine, I didn’t know how to find the good bars, or strike up a conversation with the hipsters at a warehouse party. Coupled with that I’d gone from being a big fish in a small pond to being a minnow thrown to and fro in the ocean. My ego transformed from a bulbous helium balloon into a pair of lead shoes; I was drowning in my own preconceptions of how important and unique I was.

Sitting on the editorial committee for Voiceworks magazine for a year was one of the best things I ever did for my writing; I made some great friends who continue to inspire me to this day and got hands-on learning about the editorial process. I learnt what made a submission stand out from the pile, how close acceptance and rejection can be, and just how many knockbacks a writer can get before they are published. It was also one of my first pathways into advocating for other regional writers; I was able to fight for others whose voice I recognised as important, just as previous members of the editorial committee had fought for me when I was starting out.

Despite all the networks, support, and publication and performance opportunities I still harbour an insecurity about being different from what I perceive as a ‘real writer’. Sitting in a cafe in Ubud for the 2011 Readers’ and Writers’ Festival I shared my doubts with an author friend.

‘But I’m not really a writer,’ I whined, fiddling with my drink.

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I mean, I’m not educated. I don’t have a Masters in Literature from Melbourne Uni. I haven’t read half the books that most other writers rave about. Postmodern prose poetry makes no sense to me.’

He scoffed. ‘It’s not qualifications that make your work interesting. It’s you and your unique experiences. That’s what makes the work engaging and makes you compelling to watch when you perform. Own it.’

And that is some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Own it. Let the work speak through you. Don’t try to be something you’re not. One of the most powerful illustrations of this happened when I was working on the National Young Writers’ Festival. My co-director had recruited a number of big names to the festival, including Anna Funder and Shaun Tan. I took a punt and programmed a panel called ‘Smarter than Your Average Bogan’; writers from working-class backgrounds talking about how their cultural perspective informed their art. We all wore fake handlebar moustachios and drank cans of bourbon and Coke on the stage. To my surprise the Sunday afternoon session in the festival club was packed. Even more surprising was the glowing review of the panel published in The Monthly.

There is a market for regional writing; a trade publisher with decades of experience told me that books about the outback are one of her house’s biggest sellers. That’s not to say that you should back yourself into a corner and mimic the iconoclast, but it does demonstrate that there is an audience in Australia interested in something beyond the urban sprawl. One of the most powerful aspects of any creative practice is that it can illuminate the unseen by creating connections between disparate ideas. Regional writers therefore have a special role in the creation of Australian culture; to peel back the layers of cultural stereotypes and illuminate the complexities of life outside the city limits.


This is an extract from an article that appeared in The Emerging Writer.

Kelly-Lee Hickey’s acclaimed performances have toured across Australia and Asia. This year, she will be appearing at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, Darwin Festival and Queensland Poetry Festival. You can visit her at kellyleehickey.com and follow her on Twitter at @kellyleehickey.

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03 July 2013

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By George Dunford

george4 Writer and digital native George Dunford shares some tips for what to do when the internet keeps luring you away from your work … and jamming your thoughts with kooky videos and streams of tweets.

A few years ago I started calling the internet the distraction engine. The nickname made light of my procrastination habit: with a reliably kooky video, or a joke site to tickle my lazy brain. This was before social media and LOLcats pushed distraction to a new level. Devices – iPhone then iPad – meant that I was never far from the internet, so I could check my email on the train or in the bathroom.

All of this changed my online behaviour: emails on my phone became more like texts – briefer, as they were pecked out on a tiny keyboard. Browsing the internet became more scattered and my ability to complete tasks was limited, as I started checking email, updating Facebook, responding on Twitter… and forgetting what I had actually powered up the machine to do. The engine was running too fast.

Turns out I wasn’t alone. American uber-novelist Jonathan Franzen told the Guardian, ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction’. In a Time magazine profile he detailed how he sabotaged his trusty Dell’s ethernet cable to block his wi-fi access while bashing out drafts of Freedom.

Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) concurs that deeper thinking – like research and writing – is made harder with the internet constantly poking into your brain. Carr surveyed neuroscience to conclude that the internet is rewiring our brains with ‘the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information’. For writers, deep thought becomes harder as our brains start to follow the constant interruption patterns of the internet. Add social media into the mix, offering instant feedback to the insecure writer, and you get an addiction to distraction. No wonder contemporary works of literature require time in an isolated residency to be completed.

Unplugging writers

Several writers are becoming conscious of how the web is changing our brains and trying to find new ways to work. In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers romps through history looking at how disruptive technologies have gradually become part of human endeavour. He recounts how Socrates once eschewed writing itself, preferring oratory as the best way of thinking through a problem.

Turns out he was wrong.

HamletsBlackberry2 Along with an historical meander through old new technology, Hamlet’s Blackberry offers practical advice on unplugging. The bad news is that most of Powers’ suggestions involve self discipline. He talks about his family observing ‘an internet Sabbath’, where they unplug to spend more time together. Going cold turkey proves challenging. In The Winter of Our Disconnect, Susan Maushart tries to reconnect with her teched-up teens by unplugging the wi-fi.

If totally cutting the ethernet cable sounds extreme, there are smaller measures for coping with technology addiction. I recently deleted the Facebook app from my phone. A small step, admittedly – but it had been there three years, and I’d developed a habit. At first, I was twitching to upload cute kid pictures or post an update on the meal I was having – after a while, I barely missed it.

Powers talks about this as ‘putting distance’ between yourself and technology to allow for deeper reflection. Of course, several apps are designed to yank you back in: for instance, LinkedIn sends you an in-app notification and then emails you – just so you know that someone you knew in primary school wants to catch up. Limiting the ways your apps notify you can help, as a minimum – just as reviewing the email updates you subscribe to can save you time otherwise spent cleaning your inbox.

Email curfews and social media fasts

Many writers find email dominates their working time. Drafting an email or striving for the goal of ‘inbox zero’ robs time from writing or offline thinking. In The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman argues for ‘slow communication’, a reaction against the knee-jerk need to reply to that email or bounce back instantly on a tweet. He advocates changes in routine, like never checking emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Every writer is different, but some find the early morning period sacred, where they can continue the previous night’s dreaming. To preserve this post-dream state, ignore your inbox first thing. (Or dream better by imposing a device curfew.)

Another strategy employed by social-media-addicted writers is limited fasts. Rather than dropping Twitter entirely, writers tweet a commitment to achieve a word count or complete a project, then log off to meet that goal. The tweet is a statement of intent. Others use social media for research, asking a question to #lazywebs – though this can lead to a sinkhole of procrastination, as you are sucked into replying and then chatting with other writers looking for distraction. Try setting a question, then limiting response time to the next 15 minutes – then close the browser and get back to writing.

There’s also the chance to focus what you do online. Focused writers avoid wandering the web and clicking through to ‘related items’. Some writers approach social media with a shotgun strategy of spraying as many messages on as many channels as possible, but it’s more effective to review what channels work for your message and your style. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are the big three. There are other media channels with large audiences – but not all of them necessarily work for writers. Is the visually led Pinterest, for example, productive for writers – or are they better suited to something more text-based?

Lo-fi my way

Powers offers another suggestion for writers: go back to paper with a notebook. For digital natives it must sound positively medieval to scratch away with ink rather than bash it out on a keyboard or peck at your smart phone (and instantly speak to the world), but that distance gives writers room to think. ‘In a multi-tasking world where pure focus is harder and harder to come by, paper’s seclusion from the Web is an emerging strength.’

Sound far-fetched? Recently Moleskine has gone into partnership with the omni-device-linking software Evernote to make it possible to scan your notebooks into your laptop, iPad or phone. It’s a convenient link that means you can still separate yourself by using paper, without wasting time transcribing. Paper just crept closer to the screen.

For me, the notebook is still the laboratory: a free place, but also secluded enough to get up to all the right mischief. Other writers prefer the convenience of tablets or their phones – but a notebook is a fortress of solitude, while a device means writing while dodging web traffic.

And readers are stuck in the same traffic. Most e-readers now come with their own distraction engines: the Kindle Fire, for example, plays movies and music and browses the web … which makes it hard to escape into a good e-book.

On a web browser, attention is even harder to retain. In an article of this length, it’s doubtful many readers will make it to the conclusion without getting an instant message or needing to check their email. A recent study says that readers will share based on the first paragraph, rarely reading beyond that.

But perhaps this makes the escapist power of paper even more valuable to readers. In an essay that served as an early draft of his book, ‘Hamlet’s blackberry: why paper is eternal’, Powers argues that paper supports readers because it ‘becomes a still point, an anchor for the consciousness. It’s a trick the digital medium hasn’t mastered – not yet’.

We’re evolving as writers and readers. The internet has clearly brought information to millions and made us all content rich. But just as agricultural technology brought a stable supply of food to the twentieth century, requiring us to manage our diets, individual writers need to control our information diets, to manage the new abundance.

Rather than the sci-fi futurism of having our brains rewired by technology, we should take responsibility for how we use it – and look at how it can work for us.


George Dunford works on content strategy for RMIT University and created the Melbourne Essentials app. He’s working on a manuscript that equally loves paper and technology.

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26 June 2013

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highlight Micro-fiction writer Lydia Davis won the 2013 International Man Booker Prize yesterday. Celebrated in her native US, though less well known elsewhere, she has published several collections of (very) short stories, most of the stories no more than three pages long – and some of them as short as a sentence, or even a phrase.

Chair of the Man International Booker judges, Christopher Ricks, praised the way her inventive stories ‘fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind’.

In 2010, critic Estelle Tang reviewed Davis’s The Collected Stories – which spans twelve years, four collections and almost 200 stories – for the Australian Literary Review. She’s allowed us to republish her in-depth appreciation here. Maybe it will whet your appetite!


The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton)

Reviewed by Estelle Tang

Joyce Carol Oates wrote that the short story’s ‘effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts’. By this equation, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis stands to stack up as great indeed. The collection spans twelve years, four collections and almost 200 stories. And Davis’s oeuvre does succeed against Oates’ metric, defying mere additive logic to constitute a rare, oblique investigation into our interiors. Not only do her stories flout the conventions of short fiction – Davis forces us to reconsider the meaning of both ‘short’ and ‘story’ – but they also render the relationship between reader and character one of intimate indeterminacy. One only need think of a microscope with the magnification set too high; it’s a marvellously clear view, but what are we seeing?

‘Break It Down’ opens with a man

staring at a piece of paper in front of him. He’s trying to break it down. He says:

I’m breaking it all down. The ticket was $600 and then after that there was more for the hotel and food and so on, for just ten days. Say $80 a day, no, more like $100 a day. And we made love, say, once a day on the average. That’s $100 a shot.

Here we have the ex-lover trying to settle accounts: sifting through memories, assessing their value, palming the change. The necessaries and the lovemaking are easily accounted for, but not everything yields so easily to such categorisation. The narrator (stripped of details like name and sex, constituted only by his or her thoughts, like most of Davis’ characters) begins to include jokes, touches, peaceful dreams in the reckoning, and it becomes apparent that the equation doesn’t really add up: ‘So, I’m thinking about it, how you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with an old shirt.’

Davis’s earnest, assiduous accountants excogitate, not discuss. Direct speech is scarce, dialogue between two characters even more so. In the monologic ‘Story’, a woman has been trying to track her lover down after a fight; he has been to the movies with his ex-girlfriend instead of coming to visit her. They play phone tag and then she goes to his house, where she sees a car she doesn’t recognise. He comes out and explains why the other woman is there, but she doesn’t understand:

I try to figure it out.
So they went to the movies and then came back to his place and then I called and then she left and he called back and we argued and then I called back twice but he had gone out to get a beer (he says) and then I drove over and in the meantime he had returned from buying beer and she had also come back and she was in his room so we talked by the garage doors.

lydiadaviscollectedstories These internal to-and-fros are heartbreaking, because while the thinkers have put their trust in method and thought, time and time again they train their attention on the wrong object. In ‘Grammar Questions’, the narrator deliberates over how to conjugate a father’s imminent death: ‘In the phrase “he is dying,” the words he is with the present participle suggest that he is actively doing something. But he is not actively dying. The only thing he is still actively doing is breathing.’ Inquiry of this nature may seem cold and avoidant, but it’s clear that the ability of grammar to mirror life’s tracks – present and future and past tenses – is a reassuringly unassailable strand in the narrator’s fraying reality.

In these human experiments, Davis’s narrators impose a control of sorts: the plainest language you might ever encounter in literary fiction. It is as if, by paying each emotion the same courtesy of plain words and studied focus, the narrators might manage to get at the truth. Davis’s preference for plainness has also been observed in her translating work. In the New York Times, Peter Brooks noted that her 2004 translation of Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann (Davis does away with the ambiguous ‘Swann’s Way’ and titles it The Way by Swann’s) ‘strips away some of the fustian and fussiness’ of Scott Moncrieff’s original. One can, then, comfortably predict that Davis will be faithful to Flaubert, that famous seeker of le mot juste, in her forthcoming translation of Madame Bovary. Davis also admires the writing of Samuel Beckett for, among other things, ‘the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary’; she related in a 2008 interview with the Believer magazine that she used to copy out sentences from his work.

But there’s lineage, and then there’s the singular simplicity Davis has made her signature. Take ‘Problem’, which casts people as variables: ‘X is with Y, but living on money from Z. Y himself supports W, who lives with her child by V.’ Davis’s sentences are so plain, the syntax so unassuming, that when a Romantic, though apposite, adjective surfaces (‘espaliered’, in ‘My Husband and I’), it catches in the maw like old toast. The unadorned account of ‘Problem’, however, presents troubling and complex facts: Y is supporting W, who is living with her child by V. X and Y don’t have children together. W is stuck in New York on account of her relationship with U, whose child lives in New York. It may be a story boiled down to its most basic elements – who does what, with whom – but the problem has by no means been solved, and may in fact have no possible solution. What seems like a simplifying approach actually serves to foreground the entanglement; there’s more to this story, infinitely more.

The Collected Stories contains four of Davis’s seven short fiction collections: Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). (She has also written one novel, The End of the Story.) 733 pages of stories shorn of decoration might seem like a tall order (even though the book is blurbed by heavyweights Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Oates and Rick Moody), especially in Australia, where none of the individual collections have been released in local editions. But Davis is also a convincing redefiner of the short-story form, offering endless surprising configurations across a confident body of work. In a time when readers of American short fiction bemoan the samey competency that can result from creative writing courses, the multifarious and controversial shapes of Davis’s fictions are undeniably exciting.

Notably, some sentences consist of just one line. Here is the entirety of ‘Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:’

that Scotland has so few trees.

Outrageous, certainly, if you believe that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Or, if you hold, like Gerald Prince did in the 1970s, that a story should comprise at least three events strung together. ‘Samuel Johnson’, it might be argued, contains only one, or merely the second part of one. But there’s no denying the story’s one-two narrative slug. At the risk of explaining away the miniature’s charm, Davis does much here with little. The stentorian promise of a literary giant’s ire, the bracing colon, the understated denouement: it’s a pleasurable and coherent experience.

Some stories are haiku-like or epistolary; others bring to mind logic exercises or language classes. ‘This Condition’ is a list of aphrodisiacs, pock-marked with commas, and the Hitchens-tickler ‘Index Entry’ (‘Christian, I’m not a’) trades glances with ‘Foucault and Pencil’, which contains no definite or indefinite articles. As might be expected, this array of forms has its heroes and its lesser mates. Some of the shorter, more experimental pieces have the feel of being just ‘scales and arpeggios and five-finger exercises’, as practised by the narrator in ‘Glenn Gould’. For example, ‘First Grade: Handwriting Practice’ consists of the lyrics to ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’, with a little stage direction (‘turn over’) interpolated before the penultimate line. Diverting, sure, but it reads like an opportunistic epigram.

Nevertheless, as Glenn Gould would no doubt attest, and as Ernest Hemingway famously recommended, the five-finger exercise plays a material role in the performance of a masterpiece. The childhood classroom and pulpy paper called to mind by ‘First Grade’ speak to one of the most startling and funny pieces in the collection, ‘We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders’. The title doesn’t mislead: much like a sociological study conducted by a grammarian, ‘We Miss You’ is a dryly penned analysis of twenty-seven letters written to young Stephen, who has been in a car accident.

Stephen’s classmates have been enjoined by a doubtless well-meaning teacher to put their most comforting and enthusiastic thoughts to paper. These artefacts are subjected to absurdly objective textual analysis: ‘There is a tendency toward non sequiturs’. The unnamed ‘sociologist’ carries out this research with fastidious attention, and invests the most meaningless details with import. To his or her keen eye, each letter reveals its author’s personality through its tics, level of accomplishment and correctness:

Sally is even more specific, and her letter, though one of the briefest, carries the most powerful, and the darkest, emotional burden: “Hope you are feeling better. Your seat is empty. Your stocking is not finished.” This last sentence is followed by a period, but then, ambiguously, by a lower-case b, so that we cannot be sure whether Sally meant to continue the sentence or begin a new one when she goes on to say, again dwelling on darker possibilities: “But I don’t think it will be finished.”

Davis’s extraordinary commitment to formal experimentation is at its most salient in this, one of the collection’s longest and most strangely riveting stories. As the report goes on, its findings demarcated to four levels of subheadings (‘Overall Coherence’, ‘Formulaic Expressions of Sympathy’, ‘Compound-Complex Sentences’), the letters ever more closely scrutinised, the reader’s attention turns to the driving intelligence behind this odd endeavour. What is being studied, and who formulated the question?

In ‘A Few Things Wrong with Me’, the narrator is trying to ascertain what an ex-lover didn’t like about her. It’s an unpleasant task that brings to mind all her faults, large or small. Labouring at these difficult, unsolvable problems, Davis’s characters fumble through processes designed to procure answers. But there are no epiphanies here, no sparks of inspiration. The aim is far more humble than that. The narrator trusts that this kind of parsing, all this working out, ‘all the answers together may add up to the right one if there is such a thing as a right answer to a question like that’.


Estelle Tang is a writer, and an editor at Oxford University Press, a bibliotherapist at The School of Life and editorial advisor at Paper Radio. She tweets as @waouwwaouw.

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24 May 2013

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highlight It’s that time of year again, where we welcome a new batch of writers to our Wheeler Centre hot-desks. And a wonderfully varied crowd it is.

There’s a singer–songwriter venturing into memoir, a poet seeking refuge from a Duplo-strewn house, a Zimbabwe migrant writing about her experience, a Werribee writer defending her much-maligned suburb, and a freelancer planning to split her time between several assignments.

All of them will work on their writing projects at their own Wheeler Centre desk for the next two months. Thanks to the Readings Foundation, they also receive a stipend of $1000 each.

Let’s meet the second round of Hot Desk Fellows for 2013.

Angie Hart

angie_hart Angie Hart, former lead vocalist and co-collaborator of nineties pop-band Frente, is working on a series of short memoir-essays on her life as a touring musician.

‘I had never been in a band, I had never travelled overseas, I hadn’t written a song before I joined Frente, I didn’t know how to be famous, and I had no concept of moderation,’ she reflects.

Angie has been writing and performing songs for over 20 years, but she describes her reading for the inaugural Women of Letters event as ‘the most humbling experience I have had for a long time’.

She has been writing ever since, including for Liner Notes, Going Down Swinging and the Wheeler Centre’s own Erotic Fan Fiction.

L.K. Holt

L.K. Holt is working on her third full-length poetry collection, This is Mars, which will be published by John Leonard Press. Her first collection, Man Wolf Man, won the 2009 Kenneth Slessor Prize, as part of the NSW Premier’s Awards.

‘After my son was born, he and I came to the unspoken agreement that he was the centre of the universe,’ she says. ‘Nineteen months later and our house is the templum of this new celestial cult: devotional objects, burnt offerings and Duplo are scattered on the floors of every room.’

She says that the hot-desk fellowships will impose regularity on her writing schedule, and provide fresh surroundings to inspire her. She looks forward to mixing with writers of different genres as she works.

Meleesha Bardolia

Meleesha Bardolia’s short story about her experience of returning to Zimbabwe, which she left thirteen years ago, has blossomed into a novella-in-progress.

Waiting Upon Arrival has two strands, and two voices: 25-year-old Leeza, on holiday in a place that was once her homeland, and ten-year-old Leeza, growing up in Zimbabwe and reacting to the devastating news of a move to Australia, for political reasons – and then adjusting to her alien status in her new ‘home’.

Meleesha plans to use her time at the Wheeler Centre to examine the gaps and intersections between those two voices.

‘I think a story like the one I’m itching to tell is not only personal but also political,’ she says. ‘After working at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre over the last year and observing the debates that occur in the media and academia about refugees, I think the line drawn between resident and alien needs to be blurred.’

Fatima Measham

FMeasham Fatima Measham is a social commentator and feature writer who lives in Werribee. She is working on an essay in defence of her suburb – ‘a literary attempt to subvert prevailing perceptions of Werribee as “the place where your poo goes”, as one so-called friend gleefully told his child’.

She will explore the district’s rich indigenous, pastoral and migrant history, and its ‘natural endowments’, and will reflect on the assumptions people make about such places and those who live there.

‘No one within my close circle of family and friends is a writer, or even vaguely in the arts,’ she says. ‘Nor have I ever been part of a writing community or been mentored by a literary sage. So when I’m not feeling like an alien, I feel like an impostor.’

Fatima has been published by The Drum, National Times, The Big Issue, Eureka Street and other publications.

Pepi Ronalds

Pepi Ronalds is a freelance writer of non-fiction articles and essays – thus she finds her imagination captured by different assignments at any time. She’ll be working on a number of projects while at the Wheeler Centre.

Firstly she plans to extend her story, ‘After Shock’ (about the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown). The extension comprises a long term, long form project documenting the stories of individuals living in Northern Japan as they deal with the ongoing aftermath of the disaster.

As an enthusiastic freelancer Pepi will also be researching and writing various articles for other publications including Kill Your Darlings (she’s a 2013 columnist on Books and Writing for Killings), Outback Magazine and Southpaw. Throughout her time at her hot desk, Pepi will continue to research and post articles about writing on her blog: Future of Long Form.

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29 April 2013

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highlight Chris Somerville’s stories have appeared in literary journals including Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Paper Radio, Islet and Stilts. In 2003, he won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award and in 2009, was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (Emerging Author category). His debut collection of short fiction, We are Not the Same Anymore, was released at the start of this month.

Chris discussed with us the mentorship he took with Kris Olsson, the unlucky animals in his stories and why, given his many siblings, he’d like to observe JD Salinger’s Glass family over dinner.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A short story called ‘I Guess I’m From Here’ which I wrote in my first year at university and it was published online in Retort Magazine. It was a pretty cold story about cold teenagers being detached and mean to each other.

What’s the best part of your job?

That there are a few people out there, people who you don’t even know, that take pleasure in something that you’ve made and then are genuinely interested in talking to you about it.

What’s the worst part of your job?

That it’s mostly up to me to pressure myself to work on something, and even then it can be hard, sometimes, to do this work without feeling guilty that I’m wasting time.

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

In 2009 I was given a mentorship to work on my book with the author Kris Olsson. For almost a year we’d meet every fortnight and we’d go over what I’d done with each short story and what I was trying to do with them and so on. Without this my book probably would have never become what it is now.

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

The best advice I’ve received was a while ago and it was that you should just get a first draft done and it doesn’t need to be the best thing ever.

We_are_Not_the_Same_Anymore_Cover_9780702249655 What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

That animals seem to have a real string of bad luck in my book, which I hadn’t really noticed until someone pointed it out and I read through the whole thing again.

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

I’m not sure if I make a living from writing or if I ever will.

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

Even though I’m currently a creative writing teacher at a couple of universities I’m still entirely not sure myself. I think you can guide people, tell them what books they might enjoy to read, and above all be at least one person in their life that will take their work seriously.

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

Read a lot of books and write a lot, like almost every day. Also, voice is important but isn’t everything – what you also need is some kind of tension in there. Something needs to happen.

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

Sometimes online if they’re out of print and if I really want them, but mostly in a physical bookshop. I still haven’t gotten around to buying an ebook at any point either.

I really enjoy going into a real bookstore, though. I’ve had a lot of support from bookstores over the last few years, especially at Avid Reader up in Brisbane, who have done a considerable amount for me, and was really the first place, outside of university, where I read my work out loud to an audience.

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

Though I did enjoy Catcher in the Rye, I’ve always preferred Salinger’s stories and novels and novellas that were about the Glass family. Coming from a big family myself, I’d much prefer to have dinner with all of them together, and I’d probably just let them do all the talking.

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

Probably the Dog of the South by Charles Portis, which is the funniest book I’ve ever read, all the way up to the end, until the last line which is sad and maybe heartbreaking a little bit, which I think is an incredibly wonderful thing to do, and a thing to keep up; the funny/sad balancing act.


Chris Somerville’s story collection, We are Not the Same Anymore, is published by The University of Queensland Press.

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28 March 2013

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highlight Simmone Howell spent her teen years writing love odes to eighties pop stars and English essays for her friends. Her novel Notes from the Teenage Underground was awarded the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her second novel Everything Beautiful was shortlisted for the Melbourne Prize for Best Writing. Her latest novel, Girl Defective, was released this month.

We spoke to Simmone about her alternative career of being a bookshop person or a hobo, why a person who wishes to write should ‘do some livin’ as well', and the fabulous lies she’d hear over dinner with Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first poem I had published was co-written with my friend. We were 13. It was a (rhyming) poem, an ode to the drummer of 1980s pop band The Hooters and it was published in their International newsletter!

What’s the worst part of your job?

The waiting and the general anxiety.

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

A long ago phone call from my agent. She asked me if I was sitting down and then told me that Notes from the Teenage Underground was being fought over. There were exciting follow-up emails and then champagne. It was a nice, nice time.

What’s the worst advice you’ve received about writing?

People in bookshops love it when you go in and offer to sign your own books. Best advice? Plod on.

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

When I was 34 and had been trying to write ‘professionally’ since I was in my teens, and I finally had a little success, an interviewer asked me if I was worried about ‘peaking too soon’.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I would probably be a librarian or a bookshop person. Or a hobo.

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

I think it can help. Sometimes people have raw talent and don’t know how to control it.

Sometimes people don’t know what they should be reading … and how what they read can guide what they write. What I write now is a thousand times better than what I wrote when I was 20.

But I am also of the opinion that if a person wishes to write they should do some livin’ as well… so that there’s something to write about.

My favourite writers were self-taught and would rather bomb a university than attend one.

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

Keep a notebook. Read everything. Don’t despair.

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

I love bookshops (especially second-hand) but sometimes I can’t wait and use Book Depository. I also love my local library.

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

Argh! These questions are hard. I am wary of meeting my heroes and these include fictional heroes … But maybe Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird because he would tell me all sorts of fabulous lies …

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

It might be Lace by Shirley Conran. I might never get over the idea of three teenage girls at a Swiss finishing school eating eclairs and painting each other’s toenails …


Simmone Howell’s latest book is Girl Defective (Pan Macmillan).

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21 March 2013

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We’ve been talking to tech-savvy writers and publishers this week, finding out how they navigate the brave new world of promoting books online.

Today, we share some dos and don’t for writers, from Benjamin Law, Text Publishing, Paddy O'Reilly, Hardie Grant Books and others.

How do you use social media well? How do you avoid turning people off? And should you build an author website? We have the answers. (Or, some answers.)

highlight

Do

Be yourself – people want to know about your life and the work that you do.

Roxy Ryan, marketing manager, Hardie Grant Books

If you’re going to do it, do it enthusiastically – and committedly, much like writing; otherwise it won’t see many results.

Rebecca Starford, associate publisher, Affirm Press

For authors new to Twitter and Facebook, I recommend they start slowly. Twitter especially can seem hysterical and daunting for a newcomer, so I recommend authors just sign up and spend some time on there without necessarily interacting with others. Follow your publisher, see who they follow, see who follows those followers, etc. You’ll start to get the hang of it, and then you can take a breath and wade in.

Alaina Gougoulis, editorial and digital publishing, Text Publishing

Know how each social media platform works before you use them. Generally, Facebook is for friends and Twitter is for the public. If you have fans/readers, consider setting up a separate fan page instead.

Benjamin Law

Focus on fewer platforms, and do them well. Generally I would suggest using Twitter if nothing else, but if you’re not at ease in 140 characters, consider a blog where you talk about your research, writing process, events that you attend, whatever you’re excited about.

Catherine McInnis, digital marketing assistant, Melbourne University Press

As with most things, the trick is to try and be yourself, but also be mindful and respectful of the medium. I am very glad that Twitter and Facebook weren’t around when I was a teenager. That would have been a personal disaster in many, many ways.

Monica Dux

Be consistent. I don’t have a blog because I don’t have the time – and I never want to be the sort of blogger I see way too often, who posts four times in a week, then nothing for two months. That might work for other people, but for me it’s off-putting.

Kylie Ladd

Honesty is important. Don’t suggest you’re more accomplished than you actually are. Skilful achievement, however humble, is far more impressive than a well-polished facade.

Damon Young

Have a website with accurate information, so that if someone wants to interview you she can do her research and get the basic info right. I got my website for two reasons – my publisher wanted me to and, more importantly, there was a website at the time that had published wrong information about me that people had started quoting back to me!

Paddy O'Reilly

Having an online portfolio of work is super handy for editors ho might be interested in commissioning you. They want to see your track record. It’s good for readers who might be keen to read and share your old work. If you’re a blogger, try to keep your personal blog separate from the stuff you’d want editors to see.

Benjamin Law

I think all authors should have their own websites because in my other role as deputy editor of Meanjin (published by MUP), I’m always trying to contact interesting writers and it’s incredibly frustrating if they don’t have a site with their contact details on it. But that’s purely self interest.

Catherine McInnis

Don’t

Don’t sell your book too hard. By all means promote your book and your publicity, but a good online presence is more than just links to a book.

Roxy Ryan

Don’t forget to make it easy for people to find and purchase your books!

Catherine McInnis

Be rude. Civility gets noticed. Butting into Twitter conversations is cool. Doing so aggressively or sycophantically will not help your development as an author (personally or professionally).

Damon Young

Don’t take criticism to heart (ha!). No author I know can manage this entirely, but particularly online, where people are relatively anonymous, they will say anything. Many of our authors are politicians who haven’t used Twitter before, and they can find it a bit of a shock (again, the #auspol hashtag). Then again, we have books like Speechless by James Button – who is not on Twitter – that are universally adored by everyone who talks about it online. So you could be one of the lucky ones.

Catherine McInnis

The point of social media is the interaction, the conversation, and the immediacy of it: there’s no point in retweeting or reposting something that’s two weeks old.

Alaina Gougoulis

Don’t be discouraged – it takes time to build up an online presence. You have to enjoy it.

Roxy Ryan

Your say

If you have your own tips to share – and things you love or hate about interacting with writers and readers online – please let us know in the comments below.

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15 March 2013

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highlightMichelle Dicinoski’s memoir, Ghost Wife, about love, secrets, and same-sex marriage, was published by Black Inc. this month. It’s her second book; her first was the poetry collection Electricity for Beginners. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals, newspapers, and anthologies including the Australian Literary Review, Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, the Australian, and Cultural Studies Review.

We spoke to her about self-belief, persistence and talking Dirty Dancing with the narrator of Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A prose poem, in a now-defunct online journal called Dotlit.

What’s the best part of your job?

When the writing goes well and you feel like you’re soaring.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Every single part of it takes about 27 times longer than I would like.

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

When Chris from Black Inc. contacted me last year to say they were interested in publishing Ghost Wife.

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

Be persistent. Boring, but true.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Hmm … Ideally, something that involved less sitting down.

ghost_wifeThere’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?

I think it can be taught. Mostly, writers teach themselves, slowly, over many years, but it’s possible to learn in a more formal context, too.

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

Write, show your work to people who are also writers (or who want to be), find yourself a supportive community, aim for publication, don’t be too shy, and keep going! Also, try to believe that you are good enough to make it. You need a lot of self-belief and persistence to keep going.

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

Both.

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

Today, I’d go out to dinner with the narrator of Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing, because you wouldn’t know in advance who you’d get or where you’d end up. We’d talk about Dirty Dancing and Dr Phil.

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

Like everyone, I’ve been influenced in one way or another by every single book I’ve read, and I suspect that some of my greatest influences are quite invisible to me. But I can tell you that Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover meant a great deal to me as a teenager. And for reasons outlined in Ghost Wife, I was also scarred/shaped by David Reuben’s 1969 sex manual Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).


Michelle Dicinoski’s Ghost Wife (Black Inc.) is in stores now.

Michelle will be one of four guests at next week’s Debut Mondays.

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14 March 2013

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With the rise of e-publishing, online bookstores and social media, mastering the web has become increasingly important for authors and publishers when it comes to selling books. But how do they navigate this brave new world? Should you dip your toe into every form of social media, or immerse yourself in one? How often should you use social media to sell and promote, and how often to chat and share news? And perhaps most controversial of all … to retweet or not to retweet (compliments)? We put these questions – and more – to a selection of authors and publishers.

Getting social media right

tweet ‘My favourite social media outlet is Twitter,’ says Alaina Gougoulis, who works in editorial and digital publishing at Text Publishing – and provides the voice behind its social media. ‘It’s immediate; you can have a conversation in ways you can’t on other forums.’ Her preference for Twitter is widespread among the publishers we spoke to; that conversational element makes it a natural fit for sharing ideas (which books do, too). Facebook, on the other hand, is perfect for events or sharing images; it’s popular for promoting illustrated books (as is Pinterest, to a lesser extent).

Text’s social media voice is bookish, cake-loving and fast-quipping, complementing the inevitable self-promotion with links to news and pop culture posts, wry one-liners and conversation with followers. Alaina describes Text’s approach as ‘the classic 70/20/10 formula: 70% interesting content relevant to our followers, 20% interaction with others (retweeting, reposting and commenting on other posts) and 10% self-promotion’.

But does it sell books?

ben_law Author Benjamin Law has an enviable social media following, including more than 25,000 Twitter followers. Does it help with book sales? ‘Absolutely,’ he says. People follow him for reasons as diverse as ‘crass poo jokes’ and links to great articles – but for whatever reason they’re there, they notice when he’s making an appearance at a book festival or event, and some of them turn up to say hello. The key? ‘Make every tweet interesting, educational or funny. If it’s none of these things, maybe – I don’t know – write it in your journal. Tell it to your cat! Or nobody at all!’

Novelist Kylie Ladd says that while she ‘knows’ her online presence has helped her sales, she’s not sure if that help has been significant, though it has directly led to jobs – as a guest commentator on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters and creative writing teacher at the Australian Writers Centre.

She believes that it’s important to be consistent; to commit to a form of social media (whether that be Twitter, Pinterest or a blog) and show up regularly enough for people to get to know you and connect with you. It’s those connections – with readers and other writers – that she enjoys most about her social media presence. ‘Don’t do it because you have to, or your publisher says you have to – that always shows through eventually. Find an online medium that works for you; keep your voice real and authentic. Anything else is just too hard to sustain.’

paddy Paddy O’Reilly started using Twitter – which she had previously disparaged – last year, at her publicist’s suggestion. She doesn’t think it helped her sell books, but she was surprised by how much she enjoyed it – for finding links to articles, book recommendations and making friends. ‘Twitter has become a conversation, often about books and writing, which is great.’

Damon Young, author of Philosophy in the Garden, believes that Twitter contributes to his commercial success. ‘It’s hard to match tweets with sales. But I certainly see Twitter followers reading my columns or extracts (or listening on radio) then buying the book. (And sometimes tweeting photos of the book in their hands.)’

Promoting your work ‘without being a total pain in the arse’

‘It’s great if authors can be engaged (and engaging) online,’ says Catherine McInnis, digital marketing assistant at Melbourne University Publishing – and Damon’s publisher. ‘Maybe it won’t make you sell thousands more books, but it helps. And it keeps publishers interested in your next work, and the one after that, because you have a following.’

She doesn’t want her authors to straight-out spruik their books online, though. ‘It’s about opening up conversations that people can join, or witness, on things the author is passionate about. For the same reason, having a website about your book rather than yourself is not terribly useful. Whether you like it or not, people want to know about you, the author.’

‘I see some clever people on Twitter who manage to promote their work without being total pains in the arse, but it’s not easy to get it right,’ observes Paddy O’Reilly. Maybe part of the reason authors like Benjamin Law manage social media so seamlessly is that their personal ‘voice’ is so central to their books – so just being themselves is a kind of promotion. Others, like Damon Young and MUP stablemate Antony Loewenstein, trade in ideas, both online and in their work. ‘They’re also ideas-driven people in real life, it’s not just a persona they’ve created,’ says Catherine McInnis.

Doing it in style: The Rosie Project

It’s somewhat tougher, perhaps, for authors of fiction, whose own personalities and ideas are separate from those of their characters. Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project, has worked around this marketing roadblock in a nifty way, by giving his protagonist, the wife-seeking Professor Don Tillman, his own in-character Twitter account. The Rosie Project is also supported by online quizzes where you can find out if you’re a match for Don, or that pose the question ‘Which character are you?’. Simsion, who has a background in business, worked with the publisher to create these companions to his book. The Rosie Project also has its own book trailer, though this device seems to be waning in popularity as a sales tool.

Are book trailers worth the bother?

‘Some work, lots don’t,’ says Roxy Ryan, marketing manager at Hardie Grant. ‘People are used to seeing really high quality film trailers, advertisements and film clips. So when a book trailer comes along that looks a little less than 100% polished due to the inevitably smaller budget, it can have a negligible or sometimes negative effect. The other issue is channels to show book trailers. If all you are doing is putting them up on your YouTube channel, then I wonder if the time and investment is worthwhile. But when they work, they can be a great way to get the concept of a book across really quickly. And good creative work can always flourish without a big budget. I thought the trailer for The Rosie Project was really cute and well executed.’

The trailer for The Rosie Project.

Andrew Wilkins, of children’s publisher Wilkins Farago, is hugely enthusiastic about book trailers. ‘They can be really cheap to do and they really promote the book,’ he says. The production technology is free these days, so the only cost is the time to produce it. And it’s relatively easy to use – his thirteen-year-old son edited his last video for him. Andrew concedes that publishers need to think carefully about distribution, and that they need others to host the video in order for it to take off. ‘You need a strategy around it.’ Wilkins Farago builds book trailers into their data feed to online booksellers, and disseminates them to schools and libraries. ‘They love them, because they help engage kids as readers.’ Wilkins Farago’s most popular trailer has head nearly 130,000 views. ‘But there’s not necessarily a direct correlation between how popular your video is on YouTube and sales,’ he says.

The Trailer for Wilkins Farago’s Kampung Boy has attracted nearly 130,000 views.

‘There needs to be a rule book’

mo-dux_Size4_Size4 Monica Dux has been on Facebook since 2008 and on Twitter for the past couple of years; while she says the direct link to readers (and potential readers) is satisfying, she also finds it somewhat mysterious and terrifying. ‘It is such a weird medium,’ she says. ‘I suspect our generation are sometimes not very good at it because it’s really not what we expected when it came to promoting our work. There needs to be a rule book that can tell us exactly what is appropriate, and what will get us mocked.’

One of those things that can attract mockery is the practice of authors retweeting compliments about themselves – which can seem a logical thing to do. ‘I steer clear of it because it can be irritating for your followers,’ says Monica. ‘Having said that, I actually did retweet a compliment last week, and immediately felt dirty. Yet I understand why so many authors do it. We’re all told that we must promote ourselves, and then when we do we run the risk of getting attacked and mocked for it. So it’s a catch-22.’

‘Someone just said I was pretty!’: Retweeting compliments

‘It’s perfectly fine, as long as it’s done with some vestige of modesty,’ says Roxy Ryan. ‘But if an author is feeling a tad personally modest they could always alert their publisher and ask us to tweet it for them – it’s our job to be shameless!’ Catherine McInnis suggests authors respond to the compliment rather than retweet, ‘which will make the complimenter pretty chuffed too’.

But Benjamin Law counsels against the practice. ‘As my friend Sophie once said, retweeting a compliment is similar to someone running into a room and screaming out, “You guys, someone just said I was pretty!” I actually know people like that and actively try to avoid them in real life. Why would I want to follow them online?’

Alaina Gougoulis agrees that ‘it’s going to rub your followers the wrong way’, unless the circumstances are exceptional. ‘By all means, retweet the really out-of-this world ones – if you get praise from Joan Didion, I’d forgive you if you got it as a tattoo – but try to do it with charm and be humble about it.’

Damon Young disagrees. ‘I like to hear what’s said or written about authors I follow,’ he says ‘We reprint praise from reviews on book covers and websites. Why not retweet compliments on Twitter? And yes, I do it.’


This Friday on Dailies, we’ll publish some ‘dos and don'ts’ of internet promotion, as gathered from the authors and publishers we interviewed. Stay tuned …

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12 March 2013

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We bring you our favourite findings from around the internet this week.

International Women’s Day: Media voices & the ‘glass ceiling index’

It’s International Women’s Day today – and there’s a slew of interesting articles out there today on the subject of feminism. Daily Life has published an edited version of a lecture Clementine Ford gave at ANU this week on women’s voices in the media. The Drum has published Julia Baird on the way women’s anger is being harnessed to fight oppression through organising on social media. And The Economist has published an international ‘glass ceiling index’ today, rating nations on their working conditions for women. New Zealand topped the list, while Australia came in at number five.

glass_ceiling_index

Stella Prize longlist

What better way for bookish types to celebrate International Women’s Day than by deciding to read one or more of the 12 books on the Stella Prize longlist? The Stella Prize (worth $50,000) will be awarded for the first time on Tuesday 16 April, to the best book by an Australian woman writer published in the past year. In the week of the prize’s announcement, its founders and judges will discuss its evolution (and winner!) at the Wheeler Centre. Put Thursday 18 April on your calendar.

stella-prize

Why (and how) George Lucas sold Star Wars

George Lucas – the king of creative control – has sold the rights to his beloved Star Wars franchise to Disney. Why? All those Jar-Jar Binks jibes from outraged fans really hurt.

He found it difficult to be creative when people were calling him a jerk. ‘It was fine before the Internet,’ he says. ‘But now with the Internet, it’s gotten very vicious and very personal.’

disney_sw

Photo from Bloomerg Businessweek. From left, R2-D2, Disney Chairman and CEO Robert Iger, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, and Mickey Mouse.

In this Businessweek article about how the deal went down, Lucas reveals that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have signed on to the next suite of Star Wars films (or, they were ‘in final negotiations’ at the time of sale). And that after the sale was made, excited Disney chairman and CEO Robert Iger went trick-or-treating with his kids dressed as Darth Vader. Awww.

Freelance journalism, working for free and The Atlantic

The internet has been abuzz this week with the latest in the ongoing saga of writers being expected to write for free (which is linked to the parallel saga of readers expecting content for free, and publications being broke). Nate Thayer published an exchange with an online editor at The Atlantic this week, in which he was invited to write a 1200 word version of a 4300 word article for the magazine, but when he asked about payment, was told there was none. (He was also told that even writers who deliver original content are paid $100 a piece these days.)

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Digital journalism doesn’t seem to pay – at least not like journalism used to.

The editor-in-chief of The Atlantic issued a formal apology to Thayer for offending him. Bob Cohn, the head of Atlantic Digital, said that ‘it was a mistake’; Thayer should have been asked ‘if the Atlantic could cross-post, or syndicate, the original piece, with no more work involved on Thayer’s part’.

Felix Salmon uses the whole affair to look at the current media landscape and concludes:

Digital journalism isn’t really about writing, any more – not in the manner that freelance print journalists understand it, anyway. Instead, it’s more about reading, and aggregating, and working in teams.

In an ironic twist, the Nate Thayer piece that the Atlantic was so fond of has been hit with some pretty incriminating plagiarism charges. ‘At the very least, his citations are a bit sloppy,’ writes New York magazine, which calls him out in detail for a raft of unattributed quotes through his piece, which was ‘deeply indebted’ to a 2006 article on the same subject.

Pay the writers

Meanwhile, over at Overland, Jennifer Mills addresses the issue of writer payment from an Australian perspective – again, using an example of being offered exposure in lieu of payment. She argues in favour of writers organising as a collective to negotiate reasonable payment and conditions.

karen_p

Karen Pickering: Has argued against writers working for free.

We published arguments for and against writers working for free, by Helen Razer and Karen Pickering respectively, late last year.

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08 March 2013

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highlightLesley Jørgensen won the 2011 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for an unpublished manuscript for what is now her debut novel, Cat & Fiddle.

We spoke to Lesley about her first forays into writing, the buzz of having ‘a real, live publisher’ show interest in your work for the first time, and why you shouldn’t for a minute go into writing as a way to make money. ‘There are many, many, other ways of making money (and losing money) that are easier than this.’

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

In 2008/9 I was approached by Aviva Tuffield of Scribe, who had already seen some very early chapters of Cat & Fiddle in draft, and asked me to contribute a short story to the New Australian Stories 2009 collection. I said ‘I don’t write short stories’ and then remembered that I had written one a while ago for an editing exercise, so passed it on to her, and it was included in the anthology. I had previously published quite a few legal articles, in law journals and in conference, but I don’t think they count. No one reads them.

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

I am fortunate in getting a lot of pleasure from the actual process of writing. However I find it physically very demanding: carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica and eye problems from too much screen time, are my writing-related work injuries to date! And it makes me fat. I have not yet figured out how to write without Fruchocs.

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

A real live publisher showing some interest in the first place. Nothing beats that, the first time: not prizes, not even seeing my work in print.

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

Worst advice, or rather commentary: ‘What’s the point in going over the manuscript again?’ And: ‘No one likes long books.’

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

I’m not famous enough, or perhaps not complex enough, to be misunderstood. People seem to pretty much have tabs on me as I really am.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’m not a writer, primarily. Writing fiction is tremendously important to me, but my sense of purpose is very much tied to my profession as a lawyer. I love the law and my area, medical negligence, in particular. And to a certain extent, my writing is dependent upon my continuing to practice as a lawyer: I am always much more productive as a writer when I am working as a lawyer.

CAT_FIDDLE_300dpi There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I do believe that most things can be taught, by people that do those things well. I do believe that a writing course taught by writers, not academics, and focused upon the process rather than theory, can accelerate the progress of most budding writers enormously. I took this path. Without the guidance of experienced writers and the pressure to produce, I do not think I would have achieved very much at all.

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

Do a reputable course run by writers: one that puts the pressure on to produce work every week, and has a strong emphasis on workshopping. And do it only for yourself: don’t for a minute think along the lines of actually making money from it. There are many, many, other ways of making money (and losing money) that are easier than this.

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

Due to the sheer ridiculous volume of my reading and an inclination towards the classics, I only buy second-hand. My home looks like one of those houses that are filmed in documentaries about hoarding, but at least I can admit that I have a problem. I also like to scribble and underline as I read, and delight in finding and deciphering other people’s scribble and underlining, as well as the odd pressed flower, bus ticket and crushed earwig.

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

At the moment I’m still very caught up in the world of Cat & Fiddle, so I would love to go to Windsor cottage and eat one of Mrs Begum’s home-cooked meals. She would feed me too much and then give me excellent advice about my life, which I would follow to the letter. Shunduri and Thea would be there as well. Thea would advise me on how to dress, and Shunduri would tell me where to get designer clothes at half price and tell me that I should be wearing a push-up bra if I really want to get ahead in the world.

Outside the world of Cat & Fiddle, I find that I bond more with writers than characters. I would invite Virginia Woolf and George Steiner to dinner, and then be in far too much awe of them to do anything but listen. Mrs Begum would still need to cook for us though.

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

How impossible to narrow it down to just one! And it changes as my life changes. Jane Austen’s Persuasion approaches perfection with its continual tension of yearning versus restraint. Virginia Woolf’s diary and her partial memoir Moments of Being, contain the best description of the writing process that I have come across. And Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation which, like all of Helen’s work, is full of nothing but the leanest, cleanest writing: an object lesson whenever I put pen to paper.


Cat & Fiddle by Lesley Jørgensen is available now, published by Scribe.

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06 March 2013

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We bring you our favourite findings from around the internet this week.

Wells Tower takes his dad to Burning Man

Wells Tower reports on his father-son trip to Burning Man, the world’s largest chemically enhanced self-expression festival, for GQ. ‘When I mentioned to friends that I was going to Burning Man with my 69-year-old father, “Good idea” were the words out of no one’s mouth,’ he writes.

burning-man-02

Image from GQ.

Jane Austen stamps on sale in Britain

A set of Jane Austen stamps has just been released in the UK, to celebrate the 200th birthday of Pride and Prejudice. Newly-commissioned artwork depicts scenes from all six of her books.

highlight

Authors love libraries

Following Horrible Histories creator Terry Deary’s diatribe against libraries for lessening his book sales, Flavorwire has compiled 25 feel-good tributes to libraries from favourite writers. ‘I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college,’ said Ray Bradbury. ‘People should educate themselves — you can get a complete education for no money.’

bradbury

Ray Bradbury, library lover.

The science of junk food

You might want to put down your chocolate and rethink your lunch after you read this New York Times article on the science of junk food. Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell is quoted: ‘As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.’

burger

Fully sick: wearing a bikini in Antarctica

What do you do if your magazine is famous for its swimsuit issue, and images of unclad women are readily available at the click of a mouse? You go extreme. Kate Upton, the cover girl of Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue, posed in a bikini in Antarctica – and got pretty sick as a result. ‘When I came back, I was losing my hearing and eyesight … My body was shutting down because it was working so hard to keep me warm.’ What exactly are the ethics of that?

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22 February 2013

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highlight Favel Parrett’s debut novel, Past the Shallows, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012. She won Newcomer of the Year in the Australian Book Industry Awards and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2012. Favel has also had a number of short stories published in literary journals, including the Griffith REVIEW, Island and Wet Ink.

We spoke to Favel about why writing is hard work (but worth it), that it’s easy to hear the negatives and forget the compliments, and why you should ‘back yourself’ as a writer, even if it takes decades.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I wrote a 300-word story called ‘Waterproof, Lightweight, Good in Snow’ about something that happened to me while trekking in Bhutan. Wet Ink published it in 2009 and that gave me the most incredible feeling. I was inspired to keep sending work out, to keep writing. Wet Ink gave me that first big nod of approval and I will never forget it.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I often think people assume that being a writer is so free and fun and that you can just do it anywhere, anytime when the inspiration strikes. But it is not like that for me.

Writing is hard work, sometimes even uncomfortable. It is often lonely, or at least a very solo road, and I think most writers are brave.

George Orwell said, ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.’ I wouldn’t go that far, although some days it does feel horrible. But there are moment when it feels right, brilliant even – when a problem is solved, when something slots into place and has come from my own mind, from my own creativity. Those moments are worth all the work and doubt and all the time alone. When something in my writing is working, running, it feels great.

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

When my publisher, Vanessa Radnidge told me she loved Past the Shallows and believed in it, that she would try her hardest to get it through. At that point there was a 50/50 chance of it being published, but even with those odds it was a defining moment for me. Someone from the industry believed in my work and was my champion.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing?

A creative writing teacher gave me this quote from Annie Dillard, and it helps me often.

‘Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.’ – Annie Dillard, This Writing Life

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

When I was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, the whole thing was a bit of blur. I couldn’t take it all in at the time, but months later, I read the judges’ notes properly for the first time. They said something about one of the characters, Harry, being a remarkable achievement. And even though most of me didn’t believe it, I tried to sit with those words and let them sink in. It is easy to hear all the negatives, to focus on them, and hard to believe the compliments.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I would love to work at sea in some capacity, specifically on the southern ocean on a ship like the CSIRO vessel Southern Surveyor. If I could go back in time I would tell my 20-year old self to think about going to maritime college or becoming a trainee seaman. Working at sea is hard, but I know I would love it. It is very much in me.

I would also love to work with sea birds in some way. To work on Macquarie Island or somewhere similar is a kind of dream job for me. No surfing, but Macquarie Island is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so it’s a fair trade.

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

I have learned so much from a few fantastic teachers and writing mentors. I have also had some not-so-great teachers who wanted to lead me down a boring and dull road of planning and plotting. Your voice can’t be taught, but as writers we need tools and they can indeed be taught. I am also very grateful for the teachers and fellow students who have brought writers into my life that I might never have read. That has certainly made a great difference to my own writing.

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

Keep going, keep writing, keep reading. When you have a piece that is the best it can be, send it in for something. Don’t put it in your drawer and let doubt win. Back yourself. It is a long road. It can take years, decades even, but if you want to be a writer you have to keep going, keep writing, keep sending your work in for publication and rejection.

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

Always, ALWAYS in a bookshop. They are places of sanctuary for me, galleries of imagination. I love walking around bookshops with no destination in mind, no particular book in mind. I just like to look, to wander aimlessly, my brain resting. We are lucky to have such passionate booksellers in this country.

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

I am going to bend this question a little and choose an author instead of a character. I would love to sit and listen to Maya Angelou speak about what writing and words and poetry mean to her. I think she is one of the bright lights in this world – a gift. I listen to her read her own work often and it always calms me down and grounds me.

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

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson impacted my life in a way I can’t really explain. That story, read out loud to my class by a primary school teacher, changed something inside of me forever. I felt it deeply – an actual physical response to the words. I never knew that books could do that. The world was different after that book.


Favel Parrett will be a panelist in Tasmania’s Tipping Point, at 6.15pm tonight at The Wheeler Centre.

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21 February 2013

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Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project is one of the most awaited books of 2013. Since winning the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript last year, it’s been a whirlwind journey. Text Publishing debuted the book this month; rights have already been sold to over 30 countries for over a million dollars.

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Graeme Simsion

Professor Don Tillman, an associate professor of genetics, lives a highly regimented life. So, it’s only logical that when he decides to find a life partner, he embarks on it in an unusually planned fashion: The Wife Project. He devises a complex questionnaire designed to find the ideally compatible mate: organised, punctual, logical and healthy living. But along the way, he stumbles on Rosie – a feisty feminist smoker who is habitually late and works in a bar – and entangles himself in her quest to locate her birth father. Although he considers her ‘the world’s most incompatible woman’, Don enjoys Rosie’s company more than anyone he’s ever met, and finds himself uncharacteristically breaking rules and routines (and trying new things) in order to spend time with her. Chaos, comedy and romance ensue.

We spoke to Graeme about the book’s journey to publication, the evolution of Don Tillman’s voice, the laws of comedy (and screenwriting), and writing a character who seems to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

It’s strongly implied in your book that Don has Asperger’s Syndrome, from the opening pages, but it’s not explicitly said. You’ve talked about wanting him to be more a person who has characteristics than a diagnosis. Is that that led you to that approach?

Yes. I made a very conscious decision not to say he had Asperger’s. When I first ‘took Don out’ in a short story, in my class at RMIT, all the questions were about Asperger’s, not about my character. I thought, let’s just put this whole thing aside. Let’s just present Don. And if you want to sit there and say ‘Don has Asperger’s’, then you be the diagnostician.

The Victorian Premier’s Award judges, when they wrote up their decision, said ‘Don Tillman has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome’. And I thought to myself, ‘undiagnosed, except by the judges of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards’.

I read you saying somewhere that a lot of men have a bit of Don in them.

Yes. From what I’ve read, it seems that men already have a head start on the spectrum. And whatever happens genetically (and perhaps environmentally) pushes them further along it. Whereas women start further back. You do have women with Asperger’s, but it seems to be a lot less obvious and common than it is with men.

Yes. And it presents in different ways.

Again, when I’m talking about Don being given an outing, one of the women in my class said, ‘For goodness sakes, he’s just a bloke. Every bloke I’ve been out with has been like this’. And lots of men have said, ‘I can see things in there that are me’. Particularly analysing situations, being problem-oriented, not picking up on how other people are responding, not picking up on social cues. These are very traditional male characteristics.

What was behind the creation of Don, and in particular the idea of him being a character who had poor social skills but was highly intelligent?

I have a very close friend – a really intelligent man – who struggled for a long time to find a partner or get past a second or third date, or even a three-month relationship. He did find a wife and their story is very interesting. I made a short film about it that was shown at the Bondi Film Festival recently – a documentary film.

I was going into the screenwriting course at RMIT back in 2007. I wanted an idea to take into that, and his real-life story was the starting point. I moved away from it very quickly, but his manner of speaking – which comes from having an IT computer background – I channelled for Don. That’s probably the one thing from him that’s left in the final story. He’s not the real Don, I hasten to add. In fact, there’s probably more of me in Don than there is in him.

You had been working on this project for six years – so I suppose it’s undergone quite an evolution in that time?

When it started, it was a drama. Because I like to lighten things up, it had a few moments of comic relief, and I realised those moments were quite strong. When I realised that the shape of what I was doing was very close to the genre of romantic comedy, I decided to take it down that path.

I had a really big ethical question to ask, which was: Are we laughing at a disability? Are we holding up someone who has a disability they can do nothing about and laughing at it?

I ran the manuscript past a lot of people who were from Asperger’s families, including a couple of people who are self-diagnosed with Asperger’s – and without exception I got a very positive feedback from those people about the portrayal.

Also, I think that stories, whether they be dramas or comedies, are typically about someone setting out to do something for which they are not as well equipped as they may not like to be. If they are manifestly under-equipped, then it’s comedy. And Don is manifestly unequipped to handle social situations, just as some people are manifestly unequipped to handle a physical confrontation. (Like in The Karate Kid.) So, they set out to do something about that.

I try to push the line throughout the book that Don is different rather than in any way inferior, but his differences mean that he’s going to have to make some changes if he wants to achieve certain things.

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‘If the character is good enough, the comedy will happen almost automatically. And that’s what I found with Don, that he’s an intrinsically comedic character.’

I think you really did a terrific job in terms of that rounding that out. You’re on his side. One of the things I thought was interesting was that there are moments when Don seems to commit a huge social faux pas, but actually he’s using his ineptness as an excuse to get out of something, or to put off something he’s not ready for. I thought that was one element that really helped to round him off as a character.

Yes. People have said to me, ‘Don’s just absolutely honest’. In my mind, he isn’t. Don is a great rationaliser. He uses science to rationalise his behaviour. A rational decision is to do this.

He’s a caricature, or an extreme version of the man – typically – who’s out of touch with his emotions and yet they are driving him. So he’s being quite heavily driven by his emotions, but he’s madly rationalising it.

The idea of him approaching what is seen these days as an entirely emotional situation – finding a partner – with the opposite (entirely logical) was a great comedic device as well.

Of course, it’s now very topical, because internet dating has really popularised an approach that was once the province of very specialised dating organisations. Lots and lots of people are essentially doing this. They’re making a list. So this is essentially taking that idea and pushing it.

It was hilarious that women started to like his questionnaire because they felt it was nice to have someone listening to them. Have you had any response from women readers about that?

No. I have been wondering if anyone will take offence to the fact that he quite clearly objectifies women. You can’t ask for someone to objectify a woman much more than Don does. He takes all the emotion out of it and says, ‘here’s the list of characteristics this person must have’. But he’s not objectifying them in the traditional sense. It’s not a sexual objectification. So I wondered how women would respond to it. But so far it’s been quite a positive response, including from quite a lot of women who would describe themselves as being strong feminists.

I think that the fact that you write in Rosie’s response – which is exactly that – really helps, because you’re acknowledging within the book that women might respond in that way.

I hope that she is the voice from the other side, if you like. And then Claudia is the moral centre. Claudia is the gentle voice of reason, whereas Rosie’s fairly strident. She’s got some issues, too. The hardest part of writing the book was Rosie.

I read that she’d completely changed from the character you wrote?

Yeah. It was ‘The Klara Project’. Klara was much more the sort of woman you’d expect Don to end up with. She was a nerdy Hungarian doctoral researcher in physics. And it made it too easy. Of course they were going to end up together, once they got their heads together! In the earliest incarnations of The Klara Project, they actually moved in together partway through the book. It was boy gets girl, boy moves in with girl. It was an examination of their domestic life. There was lots of fun to be had, but I wanted to write a character who was gutsier.

It’s interesting that you started with someone very like Don, because one of the threads of the book seems to be that the thing you think you want often isn’t what you want at all. Rosie’s the opposite of what he thinks he wants.

I would never have been allowed to write it in a screenwriting course without having the basic rule that the hero sets off wanting one thing and has to learn that he needs something else. Don’s want is one thing, his need is another. And his want is the perfect woman who will accept him exactly as he is. But he needs to make some changes in order to find someone who accepts him.

So that idea was something that suits both Don and telling a story?

Exactly.

It struck me that Don’s impaired understanding of social skills is a really handy narrative device for comedy. It throws up so many funny situations, like where he reads things literally. I wondered if you were looking at creating someone who had those social deficits partly because it was a great way of creating a comedy?

No. Because I started this as a drama. Don started out as a fully-formed character. I was very wary of making him comedic. But then I found that as soon as I was able to open myself to comedic possibilities, Don was just a great character for that.

I threw away a lot of scenes, and I learned that I could throw them away with confidence and replace them with something else, always knowing that whatever happened in a dramatic sense, Don being in it would add the comedy. So I never had to write a scene for comedy. Every scene advances the dramatic story and the comedy is incidental. It just flows.

The official trailer for The Rosie Project.

So it was the character leading you towards comedy, rather than comedy leading you towards that kind of character?

Absolutely. Tim Ferguson from the Doug Anthony All Stars was my situation comedy teacher at RMIT. And he’s a very smart analyst of how comedy works. He pointed out if the character is good enough, the comedy will happen almost automatically. And that’s what I found with Don, that he’s an intrinsically comedic character – whatever you wheel him into.

For example, the ball scene was originally quite short. Because it came out of a screenplay, where time is quite tight. You’ve got your 90 minutes, you get on with it. And my editor said, I want you to wallow around in this a bit more, I want more to happen. So I just added more stuff that might happen at the ball, and because Don’s there, it’s just going to be funny.

Was it fun writing some of those bits? They’re so fun to read.

Absolutely. I loved writing the book. I really enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed this whole journey.

It sounds to me – you keep referring back to it – like the RMIT course you did was incredibly beneficial as well.

It was fundamental. Absolutely fundamental. The book would not have happened without the course. Not just for discipline, which is important. Not just for knowledge, techniques that you learn, but the feedback that you get, the camaraderie.

So you would definitely be on the side of creative writing courses being a good thing?

Absolutely. If you want to progress at something, you need three things at least. You need to know the principles and so forth, whatever your field might be. Think about it. You’re a plumber, an engineer, a doctor. You’re going to need to have knowledge, you’re going to need to have practice, and you’re going to need to have feedback. On top of all that, you need the discipline of 10,000 hours. A writing course is one of the easiest ways of getting all that bundled up in one package.

And of course you need talent. But I don’t think it’s talent that holds people in writing courses back. It’s putting in the hours. 10,000 hours is one of those figures that’s bandied around a lot – for a professional to achieve excellence, for expertise to be gained.

That’s a lot of time. That’s 2000 hours for five years. And I didn’t see anyone putting in anything like that amount of time. People say, ‘I’ve read a lot of books’. That’s like saying ‘I’ve listened to a lot of music, therefore I can learn how to play the piano very quickly’. You won’t learn to play the piano without putting in a lot of time.

Most people have other things in their lives. They’re trying to earn a living. So they have pretty good excuses, or reasons, but if you don’t put in the hours, you’re not going to get there.

One of the key things about this book is Don’s voice, isn’t it? So obviously you were developing that voice right from when you created the character in 2007.

Yes. And like I said, that voice came from a good friend of mine I’ve known for 30 years, and we see each other pretty regularly, and I can picture his voice.

In fact, I got him to read the first chapter and record it for me. And he sounded exactly as I’d imagined the voice in my head; it was quite wonderful. I’m inclined to talk about it being an official audio recording. But that may not be the voice the person reading the book hears, and it might be quite off-putting for them to hear that voice.

That’s the thing about a book, isn’t it, as opposed to a screenplay – that everyone can imagine their own version of that character, based on their experiences or desires.

Particularly a book like this, which is extremely lean in terms of description. You don’t know what colour the trees are, or anything. You know the weather, but that’s about all. I’ve stripped it of everything else, because that’s Don’s point of view. You’ll just have to fill it in yourself as you read it.

Has that got anything to do with it starting as a screenplay, or is more to do with Don’s voice?

It’s got a fair bit to do with mine. A lot of people, particularly male readers of the book, have said to me, ‘Oh it’s great, it doesn’t waste any time on description, I hate description, I just skip those paragraphs’. And sometimes I think authors putting in a lot of description are being quite self-indulgent, or catering to quite a narrow audience. There is an audience for a book that concentrates on action, dialogue, emotions, but not on literary description.

One thing I liked about the book was the many moments when the reader knows more than Don. It’s nice for the reader to be able to see things that the character doesn’t.

Yeah, it’s all from Don’s point of view. So the only way we can know things more than Don is for us to be smarter than Don. Which means more socially aware.

One of the huge decisions in writing the book – which I took very quickly – was to write it in first-person. And most stories you see about somebody with a syndrome – or if you want to go further, a disability – are written from the point of view of another character, be it a film, whatever.

Just as Rainman is from Tom Cruise’s perspective. We’re asked to identify with Tom Cruise, not with Dustin Hoffman. And I wanted us to identify with Dustin Hoffman, as it were. I thought it was really important to be inside Don’s head.

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Image from Rainman. ‘I wanted us to identify with Dustin Hoffman, as it were. I thought it was really important to be inside Don’s head.

I guess from the point of view of reading a comedic novel, too, it works better anyway.

You’ve got the unreliable narrator. You are buying depth and humour off the character’s mistakes. But we also understand how Don works and how he’s reached his various conclusions.

As I was reading this for the first time, intensely curious as someone with experience of Asperger’s, I was curious as to how I would react to the portrayal. And I found it fascinating because there were a few times when I thought I wasn’t going to like it. There were those key words that raise my hackles, like ‘affliction’. But every time that happened, a few pages on that would be knocked down. I thought that was very clever and wondered if that was something you were deliberately setting up – raising those kinds of stereotypes and knocking them down.

It’s quite deliberate. I always think something’s more powerful if you put both sides on the table and you argue. I come from a background of teaching skills to consultants. And I would always say that rather than knock your client down with your argument, your first job is to express the client’s different argument as clearly (and aggressively, if you like), as you can. To show that you’ve understood them. I wanted to see those different views.

There is one change I will make in the reprinting. Don uses the term ‘idiot savant’ at one point and I don’t want him using that term. It’s not a correct term. But later on, the head of a medical institute uses the term ‘idiot savant’, and that will stay, thank you very much. It’s a discussion point. Would the head of a medical institute use an out-of-date term insensitively? I say yes.

That’s interesting. Because the one thing where I have to admit I questioned was whether teacher in the school who was teaching a class of Aspie kids would really be so uninformed and insensitive. But then I had to think about some experiences that I’ve had in schools, and I thought ‘okay, maybe’.

That term ‘Aspie’, there’s been controversy around that. Do we want to make Asperger’s something that people are proud of, and identify with?

This is always an issue with any form of difference. Deaf people, for example. Do you want the form of community that says Auslan is at least as good as English or better, or should we teach them to lipread? You can go back to homosexuality, too. Is this part of your identity and a positive thing, or is it something you’ve come to fix?

Julie, the teacher, and the parents have said, We don’t want you celebrating and jumping on top of the desks and saying ‘Aspies rule!’ I wondered how parents of kids with Asperger’s would feel about that scene, because it’s quite challenging.

As the parent of a child with Asperger’s, I thought it was a great scene. Especially because I was going through this process of being annoyed and having my hackles raised and then enjoying Don’s journey – him thinking it was an affliction at first, reading more about it, and then changing his mind. I actually read that tiny passage to my son and he thought it was hilarious.

Actually, I gave a copy of this book to my dad, who is Asperger’s, and he’s telephoned me three times already to tell me how much he loves the book, and to go over scenes.

That’s really important for me, because I feel a great affinity with that group of people and I would just hate to be writing something that was insulting or disempowering. I like to feel that it’s the other way around.

In fact, I have a guy who was involved in the film side of things and wanted to know from the screenplay whether my portrayal was realistic. So he went to a guy in his apartment building, who is well along the autism spectrum, and asked him, ‘Is that what you would do?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not a geneticist’. It took half an hour to explain what feedback he wanted. ‘Would someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who had qualified as a geneticist – would they do this?’ Eventually, he said ‘yes’. The answer didn’t take very long, but formulating the correct question for someone who had a very literal interpretation was.

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Graeme Simsion with Casey Bennetto, Ted Baillieu and his fellow category winners at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards dinner 2012.

I wanted to ask about your path to publication, and what it was like to be in the path of editors and publishers after so long driving the project yourself.

The path to publication was really straightforward. Once I was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, I had already popped the book into a couple of slush piles, so I contacted those publishers and said ‘Hey, guess what, I got shortlisted for the Premier’s Award, does that help?’

I had a couple of publishers come on board at that point and say they were very interested. Another one came out of the slush pile after I won the award. So, I had lots of publishers interested. I come from a business background, so I said, ‘Give me your best offer by the end of the week and I’ll make a decision’. So, we had a number of conversations, and Text made me a fantastic offer – and I’ve had no reason to regret running with Text.

Alison Arnold, who became my editor, was in fact the person I’d met from Text when she came along to talk to our school. So it was great to have had that connection. And she’s been terrific.

I think the concern is – Is the person who’s editing me helping me to make it as good as it can be in my eyes, or do they have a different vision for it? If it’s the latter, then you’re going to be in trouble.

You seem to have a real affinity for that screwball romance genre. I wondered if you’re a fan of that kind of writing, or if you did any particular research.

Remembering that this thing developed as a film script, my research was films. I looked at the romantic comedy genre and watched a lot of romantic comedies. And then, as a further part of research, I went back and looked at some of the older screwball comedies, going back to the 1930s. Bringing up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, those sorts of films. They were different from the modern romantic comedies. They were much more comedic. And the women were stronger.

In those old screwball comedies, there were two powerful personalities that met, and I really liked that. I liked the plot twists and so forth – and the way that they were genuinely funny. As distinct from now, when romantic comedies tend to be light romances.

Did that research you did feed into the research Don does, watching romantic films?

I was really conscious that I had created a really archetypal romantic comedy and I wanted to reference it. At the end he says, ‘I’ve been living in a romantic comedy’, because he’s researched it. I wanted to acknowledge, wryly, that I knew what I was doing.


Interview by Jo Case, senior writer/editor for The Wheeler Centre and author of the forthcoming book, Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s. She recently reviewed The Rosie Project for Australian Book Review.

Graeme Simsion will be appearing at Debut Mondays tonight at The Moat.

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18 February 2013

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We bring you our favourite findings from around the internet this week.

It’s … Groundhog Day! 20 years on

Groundhog Dog is one of those quietly classic films – it’s not showily clever, it didn’t win any Oscars, but it remains much loved, and admired by contemporary filmmakers who do win Oscars. ‘I would give my left arm to have written that f—-ing script … It makes me mad because I would so like to make a film like that. Oh man, I could go on forever about that movie,’ says David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) in this anniversary tribute to Groundhog Day.

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‘I would give my left arm to have written that f—-ing script,’ says David O. Russell.

Judging books by their covers: US vs UK

In a fun exercise that’s become an annual affair, The Millions compares the US and UK covers of their Tournament of Books contenders.

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Alice Munro’s Dear Life – the painterly US cover.

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Alice Munro’s Dear Life – a more expected photographic cover, from the UK.

The Man Who Shot Osama Bin Laden

Esquire publish some truly terrible celebrity profiles, but they also publish some fine journalism that pretty much makes you forgive them. This week, there’s a long profile of the man who killed Osama bin Laden – simply referred to as ‘the Shooter’. He tells the inside story of the raid, his opinion of Zero Dark Thirty’s version of events, and (most importantly), the personal aftermath for himself and his family … and the startling lack of support from the US government.

The Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:

Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.

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Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

DC Comics and the Occupy movement

The Occupy movement is about to get its own superhero comic series, courtesy of DC Comics. The Movement, to be launched in May, will be a chance to ‘Meet the 99%… They were the super-powered disenfranchised — now they’re the voice of the people!’ In the same month, a new series about teen trillionaires who use their riches to make people’s lives better is also being launched. The Green Team is being touted as ‘the adventures of the 1%’.

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Lunch with New York Review of Books editor Robert B. Silvers

As the New York Review of Books turns 50, the Financial Times takes editor Robert B. Silvers out to lunch – and discusses the art of editing, the importance of long-form reviews in the digital age, and his renowned work ethic.

‘He is in the office seven days a week, often until midnight, where he keeps a bed in a cupboard. He edits every piece in the NYRB himself. Contributors speak of his long polite memos revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure subjects, as well as a disregard for normal working hours.’

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15 February 2013

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