Posts tagged 'writers'

Our third and final group of Hot Desk Fellows for 2014 begin their work at the Wheeler Centre today. As is customary, we’ve invited each of our six talented writers to share an introduction to the projects they’ll be spending their time on.

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

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Mark Twain (or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to his parents) is said to have completed much of his writing in bed. There are currently no plans to bring Hot Bed Fellowships to the Wheeler Centre.

Susie Anderson, After the Pelican, (Poetry)

After the Pelican refers to our family’s totem animal, I am a descendent of Wergaia/Wemba Wemba people from north-western Victoria. Generally in my writing I explore distance in both physical and emotional senses, with an emphasis on nature and how this impacts understanding of our selves and worlds. Using a copy of a 1969 survey of the Victorian Aboriginal languages in north-western Victoria, I intend to write prose poems about rural Victoria and these ideas of cultural and emotional displacement.

Louis Bravos, Kyoko’s House (Translation)

A translation of Kyoko’s House, one of only two novels by Yukio Mishima which have not been translated into English. It tells the interconnected story of four young men who represent different facets of the author’s personality. It is, I believe, Mishima’s most international novel, and among his most modern, despite being from early in his career.

André Dao, Revolution and Other Love Stories: A Novel (Fiction)

Following the death of his grandfather, André tries to piece together his grandparents’ love story. Married for 60 years, separated for 20 through war and prison, their story is also the history of modern Viet Nam. But as André shuttles between Paris and Hanoi – and finally, home, to Melbourne – he re-opens old wounds and wakes old ghosts.

Eli Glasman, Untitled, (Fiction)

This novel features a young man with Crohn’s disease, who is hiding the severity of his illness as he is afraid to get a colostomy bag, while at the same time attempting to build a relationship with his mother who suffers from Bipolar. The novel will explore the way in which the illness of both the mother and the son isolate each one from the other.

Emily Stewart, Today and Avatar Poet, (Poetry)

These are two distinct writing projects that I have been developing in tandem over the past year. ‘Today’ is a list-poem which explores the idea of an endless present, drawing on the work of modernist authors such as Gertude Stein as well as the performative texts of contemporary artists such as Tim Etchells. Avatar Poet is a collection of assemblage poems that I have been writing over the past year. Each poem is constructed using only the words from a given page, and the page numbers increase – for example, the first poem in the series comes from page 1 of Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate, and the second poem comes from page 2 of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip.

Claire Rosslyn Wilson, In Pursuit (poetry)

In Pursuit will be a collection of poems inspired by Australian-based visual artists who look at themes of movement and migration. Visual art has enabled me to see cross-cultural communication from different, and sometimes unexpected, points of view. This collection will reinterpret these viewpoints through my poems.


Join us at The Moat on Monday 1 December for a special edition of The Next Big Thing – where our third round of Hot Desk Fellows will read from some of the work they’ve completed during their fellowships.

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29 September 2014

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Melbourne author Kirsty Murray writes fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. She has published over a dozen books. Her latest is The Year It All Ended, a work of historical fiction based at the juncture of World War I and the birth of the Jazz Age.

We spoke to her about working with difficult material, the unique pleasures of writing for younger readers – and checking in with Balzac from time to time.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I was a nerdy, bookish kid who read the dictionary for pleasure and constantly thrust my writing beneath the nose of anyone who would give me the time of day. I gravitated toward every publishing avenue I could find from the school magazine in primary school to co-editing my high school year book just so that I could see my bad poetry in print.

But by the time I was in my twenties I’d lost confidence in my trajectory as a writer. I had three kids by the time I was twenty-six and though I scribbled story ideas in secret, I was overwhelmed by adult life had no idea of how to break into publishing. Occasionally I submitted badly formed short stories to magazines which were duly rejected.

Then, when I was starting to feel pretty desperate about ever being seriously published, I enrolled in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course and from there I stumbled into editing work fairly quickly. I began to freelance and had articles published in newspapers and magazines but none of that felt particularly satisfying and I couldn’t say I felt ‘published’.

KMurray_manEaters In 1997, I signed my first publishing contract for a junior non-fiction title with Allen & Unwin in their True Stories series. Although the book, Man-eaters & Bloodsuckers, wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned as being my big break into publishing, I learned a lot from the project and it provided a springboard into seriously writing for younger readers.

A year later, Rosalind Price, the commissioning publisher of Allen & Unwin’s children’s and young adult list, goaded me into submitting the synopsis for a novel (Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish). On the strength of the outline and the first chapter, she gave me a contract and an advance. I can still remember the euphoria I felt when I stepped out of Allen & Unwin’s office in Rathdowne Street, Carlton. I almost levitated into the blue winter sky.

What’s the best part of your job?

Simply writing. Being inside the story and on the page with my characters is like an out-of-body experience where nothing else exists but the words. I love that feeling.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Sitting for long stretches at a time. It wreaks a terrible toll on the body. I try to vary my work environment and have experimented with standing at a raised desk and working on a couch propped up with pillows but essentially being still for long stretches at a time is extremely unnatural and bad for your health.

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

I think I’d find a different answer to that question on any given day of the week. In 2007 I spent several months in India as an Asialink Literature Resident at the University of Madras. It was the beginning of an enduring connection with India which has influenced my understanding of Australian literature and our place in Asia.

Writing The Year it All Ended also felt deeply important. It was an incredibly grueling book to write because it involved filtering a lot of grief and trying to make sense of the lives of a generation of young women who lived through very traumatic times. I feel like I broke through to a new level of understanding of how to work with painful material and yet make it (hopefully) cathartic and uplifting for the reader.

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

In the early 1990s I did a masterclass with a Booker Prize winning author, Bernice Rubens, at the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales. Rubens offered much sound advice but the single piece of wisdom that she imparted that has been most important to me was that every writer should consider reading as much a part of their job as writing. She recommended putting aside a couple of hours of every day to read. Serious writers take reading seriously.

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

I am often surprised and also very humbled by the impact my stories have on younger readers. Recently I received an email from a girl who had lost her father and she wrote about how she wept when she read The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie. She wanted me to know me how important the novel was to her.

Other kids have written to tell me they’re in love with a character I created, that they love my characters like their own brothers and sisters, or that they’d never finished reading a novel until they came across one of mine. It doesn’t get much better than being told you are a kid’s ‘author hero’. I don’t know any authors of fiction for adults that receive fan mail that’s quite as emotional as the kind of responses that authors of fiction for children and teenagers receive.

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

Starving. I’m neither qualified nor capable of doing much else.

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

Every art form can be taught. Writing is no different to any other human endeavour. In many respects, it’s among the easiest arts to teach. Humans are hard-wired to appreciate stories. There are no physical restrictions (unlike most of the performing arts) other than the ability to sit for extended periods.

But you can’t teach temperament and success in any artistic pursuit requires a degree of pig-headedness that not everyone possesses. You have to like your own company and have the stamina to persist when the work becomes arduous. Writing can be lonely and isolating, despite the fact it’s a form of communication. In every sphere of the arts, there are people who have a natural facility that speeds their progress. But having a natural gift doesn’t guarantee success if you aren’t committed to serving the very long apprenticeship that is required of all writers and artists.

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

Read. Read widely and deeply. Buy books, borrow books and share books. Try to understand what it is that makes a story appeal to you. Unpick the occasional story but make sure you don’t kill the pleasure that books yield. Be self-critical of your reading and keep a reading journal.

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

One of my deepest pleasures is browsing in physical bookshops. Reading is not just an intellectual activity but a tactile delight. Browsing online can never replace the excitement of feeling the weight of a book in your hands, inhaling its scent and cherry picking juicy passages of prose. I also value the advice that accomplished independent booksellers can provide.

That said, I buy books online occasionally, though I try and source them locally first. I have a policy of buying all my Australian books from local booksellers and I believe it’s important to support Australian booksellers, writers and publishers. It’s a great time to be a reader.

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

Is it self-absorbed to name a character I invented? Tiney Flynn from my latest book, The Year it All Ended, is seventeen years old in the novel but I’d like to meet her again when she’s a more mature woman. She was born in 1901 so by the time she reached her fifties she would have lived through two world wars that shaped the 20th Century.

KMurray_TheYearItAllEnded Tiney is loosely based on one of my great-aunts and my grandmothers. I wish I’d asked more questions of the women of that generation. It’s only now, after living half a century myself, that I have an understanding of what I’d like to ask them. I imagine Tiney’s political and life perspective would be epic by the time she reached middle-age.

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

There isn’t a single book, but there are many writers. I don’t discriminate against genres nor whether the writing is pitched to a child or an adult. When I like a book, I tend to read as much of the author’s work as I can lay my hands on.

I’ve always been fascinated by writers who produce a large body of work such as Balzac. I adored all his novels when I was a teenager, though I didn’t fully understood them at the time. These days I make a point of re-reading Cousin Bette and Old Father Goriot every ten years to check my latest benchmark of emotional development.

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25 September 2014

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

Aurelia Guo’s The Weather Report is a performance poetry series of found and self-authored fragments, taken from the internet, daily life and social interactions. Here are two of the poems she worked on during her time as a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

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23 September 2014

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

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

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

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

What’s the best part of your job?

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

Undress.

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

Tonight we can go deeper than disguise …

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

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

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

Begin.

What’s the worst part of your job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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28 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

They are mid-list authors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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21 August 2014

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

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

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

Ender Baskan, Untitled, (Memoir)

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

Meaghan Bell, Future Summer, (Poetry)

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

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

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

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

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

Christa Jonathan, The Long Way Home (Short stories)

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

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

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

Kieran Stevenson, The Johnston Tradition (Fiction)

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

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13 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mortal Instruments started as Harry Potter fan-fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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29 July 2014

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If you want to succeed, you have to be prepared to fail … and the bigger the hoped-for success, the bigger the canvas for potential failures to play out on.

We asked Australian writers to share their stories of so-called failures that paved the way for success, or inadvertently put them on the path to achievement. Some learned that success doesn’t always look the way you imagine, others find that pushing past disappointment pays off, and for others, abandoned career paths prove weirdly useful later in life.

With Graeme Simsion, Toni Jordan, Joel Deane, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Justin Heazlewood, Angela Savage, Sam Cooney and Brigid Delaney.

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Graeme Simsion

Well, there’s the 25-year career in information technology… But then, after deciding that I could learn to write, and selling my consulting business with that in mind, I enrolled in a PhD in creativity … in database design. What was I thinking? Closure? Bucket list? A flight to something safe? I suspect my motivation was akin to that which sets us to cleaning the garage instead of writing.

It took me four years, part-time. It did contribute, in a small way, to my writing career. I got a setting for The Rosie Project, practice in working alone on a large piece of writing, and knowledge of the creative process. And I earned the thing that everyone suspected I was after – the title of doctor. Which my GP wryly added to my patient profile.

Three years later, that GP sent me for a blood test. I was feeling pretty sick, and asked if I could have the results expedited. The nurse started to argue, then saw my title on the form. ‘Of course, Doctor.’ That indulgence got me to the emergency room 24 hours earlier and quite possibly saved my life.

Graeme Simsion is the author of The Rosie Project (Text). The sequel, The Rosie Effect, is due in September.

Toni Jordan

I’m very cautious about using words like ‘success’ or ‘failure’. I think they’re both a lot of rubbish, actually. I dislike the whole idea of categories like that and I object to forcing all the things that make up my wonderful, fortunate, messy life into two groups. There is no celestial checklist. I never think: if this book sells X copies, it’ll be a success and if it sells X-1, it’s a failure.

I’ve certainly had manuscripts and relationships and jobs that I’ve left behind but I work hard to focus on the process, on every minute of every day. That’s what it’s about: just me and the work and this thing we’ve got going together. When I think about my professional life, I feel like I’m up there on the high diving board, steeling myself to jump.

I object to the whole idea of a group of judges sitting on the sideline, waiting to hold up cards with numbers on them − even if one of the judges is me.

Toni Jordan’s latest book is Nine Days (Text).

Joel Deane

JoelDeane-MelbPrizeWhen I was living in San Francisco, a wise friend told me that the danger with depression was that, when you’re all alone in that dark room, it feels like it will never end. Is eternal. That advice came in handy during the decade when, for a great many reasons I’d rather not go into, I didn’t publish anything. Not a book, not a story, not a poem, not a word. At the time, that was a disaster. I felt as though I was underwater, unable to surface. Stopped thinking of myself as a writer. Couldn’t find a way out of that dark room. It took a while, but I found the door (it was in the ceiling, not the wall), and started to write again and publish again and become the sort of person I could live with.

That experience came in handy two years ago when, at the age of 43, I had a stroke. This time, the circumstances were tougher, but I was stronger. Unlike last time, I didn’t panic about the fact that I could barely read, let alone write. Instead, I focused on the day to day grind of getting myself (literally) up and running again, focused on the people I love (my wife and children) and told myself that there was no rush – that the words would come back when they were ready. And I was right. The words have come back. I’m a writer again. I’m not extinct. Not yet.

Joel Deane is a poet, novelist and former speechwriter. His novel is The Norseman’s Song (Hunter Publishing).

Ambelin Kwaymullina

Amberphotocrop What is success? I thought I knew, because all I have ever wanted to do was write a novel. Once I had achieved this dream I imagined I would have this amazing moment in which birds would sing, music would play, and light would shine down from above. So when my YA novel The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was released, I went and stood in front of it in a bookstore. And waited. But nothing happened. No birds, no lights, no Handel’s Hallelujah chorus playing somewhere in the background … something had gone terribly wrong.

Months later, I was running a writing workshop for disadvantaged teens. There was one girl who wanted desperately to be a writer, and who was the only one in the group brave enough to have her work read out. At the end of the session I gave her the copy of the book I had with me, and said, ‘Sometimes courage is rewarded.’ She just about burst into tears – and that was my moment. And I realised the reason the book hadn’t meant anything to me when it was sitting on a shelf was that I couldn’t hear it speaking to the people I’d written it for.

I had come terrifyingly close to committing the failure that leads to all others: the failure to understand what matters. It is a lesson I have never forgotten. I still volunteer some of my time to run workshops; often other adults will tell me that the teenagers I teach are privileged to have me there. They are wrong of course, as the grown-ups of this world so often are. It is my privilege to be with them.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is the author of the Tribe series (Walker Books).

Justin Heazlewood

170004-2392-Justin_Heazlewood_new In 2012 I self-produced my own stage show/musical called The Bedroom Philosopher’s High School Assembly. It had a budget of $10,000 (funded myself) and was at the Forum Theatre which cost $16,000 to hire for ten shows. Despite selling 1200 tickets during Melbourne Comedy Festival, I lost a tonne of money, and embarrassingly, wasn’t able to pay any of the 20 cast members. This was a clear-cut financial disaster (and still is, as I pay off one credit card with another). It left me so ashamed and down and out that I was spiritually compelled to write about it.

This flashpoint of anxiety acted as the nucleus which gave birth to my book Funemployed. Without a train-wreck, there’s no story. I felt enough pain to warrant spilling my guts about my entire artistic operation and what wasn’t working. I’m now getting grateful feedback from fellow artists around Australia. Go art! Spinning shit into gold since 1980.

Justin Heazlewood is the author of Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia (Affirm Press).

Angela Savage

savage-angela_Size4 What turned out to be the most significant step in my career came about as a result of failure. It was 1992 and I’d secured a grant to conduct research into women’s risk of HIV in Laos. I made arrangements to work in collaboration with a local institute and planned to stay away six months. But a week before I was due to leave Australia, all my best-laid plans fell to pieces. I postponed my departure and spent several weeks contacting anyone I could find who worked in Laos or had an interest in HIV in the region. I offered my research skills and findings free of charge in exchange for visa sponsorship. I met a lot of interesting people, none of whom could help me.

In the end, I decided to go to Laos. I’d been issued with a one-month visa and figured this was long enough to know whether there was any point being there. Within two weeks, I had a volunteer role at the United Nations Development Program, helping to organise the first national conference on HIV/AIDS in Laos. That led to a job with the Australian Red Cross in HIV program development, and my six-month stay turned into more than six years in Southeast Asia.

Had I left Australia expecting everything to go according to plan, I doubt I would’ve lasted a week in Laos. Having virtually no expectations was the best possible preparation I could have had.

But then I put my career in international development on hold and returned to Australia to write fiction full-time and nurture my dream of becoming a published author. It took seven years, and multiple rejections and rewrites, but my Victorian Premier’s Award winning unpublished manuscript was eventually published as Behind the Night Bazaar in 2006.

This has basically become my career pattern: to seize interesting opportunities for paid employment when they arise, only to later turn my back on ‘success’ in these areas in order to write more books. Most recently, in March this year, I left a very happy workplace to enrol in a PhD in Creative Writing and write full-time.

To be honest, I’ve lost sight of what it means to succeed and to fail when it comes to my career. By some measures, I am a complete failure, neglecting to fulfil my potential, squandering opportunities, substituting dreams and risks for a stable income and job security. But to live an artistic life in this day and age, even intermittently, is such a privilege; to write feels like the greatest success of all.

Angela Savage is a crime writer whose latest novel is The Dying Beach (Text).

Sam Cooney

Cooney-Sam-Events-OR-Writers-SML The biggest mistake I made as far as pursuing a career (ultimately in the industry of words: writing them, editing them, publishing them, teaching them, etc), one that would be of worth to both me and others, was to listen to the one-dimensional/cardboard cut-out ‘careers counsellor’ at the uber-conservative private boys high school I attended as a very malleable teenager, which ended up with me enrolled in a Bachelor of Business (Marketing), straight outta Year 12, when I would’ve actually only needed the slightest prodding to be convinced that a career as a writer or word-worker was even possible. I ‘completed’ three whole semesters of this BBus (with long overseas breaks in between semesters as I ran away from life), often driving to the university and then sleeping in my car for however many hours I was supposed to be in lectures and tutes before driving back home to my parents' place to lie about how much I’d learned about Maslow’s bullshit hierarchy and Herzberg’s misguided theories as to what makes us do things and whatever other bilge I’d occasionally absorb by osmosis by being even near the Business Faculty of Monash University. It was one day, when I was in the middle of giving a 30-minute Powerpoint presentation about Woolworths' supply chain to a class of disinterested Marketing Planning and Implementation (MKF3121) students, that I decided fuck this, walked out the door as soon as I’d finished the presentation, got in my beat-up 1985 200,000kms+ champagne-coloured BMW, went to a pub, and then home to start looking at writing degrees at any and all of the universities that exist on planet earth. One accepted me; I still have my business textbooks to remind me of what once was.

After I’d done a few semesters of this writing degree and was in my early twenties and ready to implement my good self upon the world, I was turned down − super politely and professionally, in a terrifying face-to-face meeting with Sophie Cunningham − for an internship with Meanjin (at least partly only because they took on very few interns at that time and there was no room for me, but also partly because I wasn’t up to the standard required [the interns at that time were people like Jessica Au and Ian See, just outrageously talented and hardworking humans], which was a big blow to my confidence as someone who wanted to be involved in the industry of words. But instead I just ‘pulled up my britches’ and ended up interning with Sleepers Publishing, which taught me how a love of literature can overcome skyscraperishly tall and mountainously wide obstacles, and with Griffith Review, which taught me the value of cold hard professionalism, and then I joined the editorial committee at Voiceworks, and was suddenly in a groove that was heading in a direction that made my guts churn excitedly.

Sam Cooney is publisher and editor of The Lifted Brow.

Brigid Delaney

bd When I finished university, I travelled around Europe for a year, then took up a job that had been arranged before I left – an article clerk at a law firm, in a small country town on the border of SA and Victoria.

The job was hard won. It was the middle of a recession and there was an oversupply of law graduates. After six years of study, I was determined to be a lawyer – even if it meant living five hours from the nearest city.

I didn’t really fit into the small town. I had nowhere to live, so spent my first months living in the local caravan park. With no driver’s licence or car, I felt trapped there – unable to get away on weekends. I didn’t play netball or enjoy watching local football, so I found it difficult to make new friends. And as for the law? I was okay, but as I walked back and forth to the court room – helping clients get intervention orders, fight drug and assault charges or mediate a fence dispute – I wondered how long I would last.

Things did improve. I got my driver’s license … but promptly had a car accident, and racked up speeding fines. I made some friends and enjoyed terrifyingly boozy nights at the local pub appropriately named the Iron Bar – where I’d nod at but try and avoid clients of mine, who drank with intent at the end of the bar.

And, gradually, I got into the swing of being a junior lawyer. On a good day, you could have described my work as good – but I would never be great.

I was 25, and I wondered if this was it – nights at the Iron Bar, bakery lunches, waiting in the old, cold courtroom for my clients names to be called. Slowly paying off the debts from my car accident. (I was, unfortunately, not insured.)

All this time, I was writing a book about a debauched protagonist who works as a young lawyer. She is barely competent at her job – rocking up late most days, disabled by hungovers. Only when she is sacked is she liberated, and able to pursue the career she really wants.

I see now the book was just a way of trying to steer myself towards a different path – if only in my head. I stayed with the law, but changed firms, and eventually I did lose my job … and became a writer.

I could have saved myself six years of study and a couple of years working in the country, and just gone straight into books and journalism – but I look back at that time with real fondness now. Yes, I was sort of a mess, and yes, I barely rose above mediocre. But without the mediocre years, I would not have been propelled to write a book that fictionalised my escape.

Brigid Delaney is an author and journalist. Her latest book is Wild Things.


Hear about the goofs and setbacks that paved the way for success for several prominent Australians at Epic Fail – on 30 July at the Athenaeum Theatre. With Rob Oakeshott, Julian Burnside, Nahji Chu, Julia Morris, Sam Bramham, Sarah Blasko, Clare Wright and Erik Jensen.

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14 July 2014

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Melissa Cranenburgh is associate editor of The Big Issue Australia – and a Melbourne-based writer, editor and broadcaster with particular interest in books and bike riding. She regularly hosts The Reading Room book segment on Triple R’s The Grapevine. and her work has featured on ABC’s Radio National and in The Big Issue, the Sydney Morning Herald and countless bike riding magazines.

We walked to Melissa about the pleasures of editing, hanging out with Big Issue vendors and why writers should grab opportunities to hone their craft wherever they can.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Okay. Pretty sure it was a … poem. Yep. That’s right. I’d written some Emily Dickinson-inspired thing under duress as a class exercise in Year 8 … or was it 9? Anyway. My English teacher, despite my reluctance, organised to have it published in the school magazine. Totally cringeworthy.

What’s the best part of your job?

Well … I get to work with words for a living. My inner 12-year-old book-nerd self is still amazed that this is what I get to do. All. The. Time. And, I have to say. I really love editing. Helping to tweak and smooth a piece of writing in a way that is (hopefully) true to the writer’s intention is a real pleasure. It also helps that I work with a truly lovely group of people, we have crazily flexible conditions and we can dress as daggily as we like. Not to mention getting to hang out with Big Issue vendors. A constant reminder of what really matters. People.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I guess sometimes it can feel a little samey working on a fortnightly cycle. We do liven it up with different content. But sometimes there’s a sense of…okay, deadline over. Now, guess we’ll just do it all over again. But I’m not complaining: it’s a pretty great job.

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

Honestly? A few years back I got nominated for an editing award. Which I didn’t win. But the thing that really made it significant was that nominated editors were picked by freelance writers who thought they did an okay job. Considering that editors are often seen as picky souls who slash and burn precious words, it was really lovely to get that vote of confidence from writers I’ve worked with. (Thanks, whoever you are.)

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

Best advice about editing: don’t be too interventionist. The best editing is a subtle craft. Writers should feel like the piece is just the best version of their writing.

461-HarrisonFord-lowres__featureWhat’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

People have bizarre notions of who Big Issue vendors are. To frame it simply, they are just people who – whether through disability or any other long-term disadvantage – have found selling our magazine a viable way of earning enough money to help pay the bills, buy a decent lunch or just ameliorate life with a few small luxuries. Some people may be socially isolated and want some means of reconnecting with society. Which can be tough if you’ve been living on the streets or don’t have a regular job. And the magazine they sell? It’s a truly independent magazine and a pretty good read.

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

I don’t think there’s much else I could do … Um. I guess I’d be unemployed.

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

Absolutely! Good writing is a craft and a discipline, as well as an art. I guess the issue is that when everyone is exposed to the same types of writing, and don’t define their own voices, there can be a kind of … homogenisation. It’s important to learn from others to a certain extent, and then carve out something that reflects your own unique perspective.

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

Read. A lot. And all types of writing. Write as much as you can. It can help to study writing or editing. It not only gives you a craft and discipline, it can give you access to people in the industry. Having said that, there are many excellent writers and editors who have learned their craft on the job by just … doing. Volunteer. Grab opportunities to hone your craft whenever you can. And surround yourself with people who can support you in your writing life. It can be a lonely one, so that will help.

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

Both. I now have zero impulse control when it comes to ebooks. If I know I can download a title straight away, and I haven’t totally blown my book budget, I find it almost impossible to resist. But I love bricks and mortar bookstores. And the chance to chat with bookshop staff who really know their stuff. Plus the papery beasts will always have a visceral claim on me. The weightiness of them. The new book feel and smell … it evokes a deep pleasure.

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

So many characters. But to narrow it down to one? I read Pride and Prejudice about a million times when I was in my early teens. And I particularly loved Elizabeth Bennet’s takedown of Darcy when he delivers his incredibly backhanded proposal. While Bennet is a creature of her times, the strong-minded woman beneath the Empire-line dress feels like an old friend. What would we talk about? Well, I’d just love to know what she’s reading at the moment.

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

The most significant? Wow. I really feel like In Cold Blood totally reframed the notion of journalism for me when I was in my late teens. For me, fiction has always been the best truth drug. Delivering epiphanies, reorganising your brain. Capote’s non-fiction ‘novel’ used the same descriptive techniques to achieve that end. I guess the morality of how he did that is certainly something I’ve pondered more as I got older. But, at the time, it floored me.

Another book that rates a mention is Jennie by Paul Gallico. My favourite book as a kid. In it, a young boy ‘becomes’ a cat. At the time I marvelled at how Gallico could know what a cat was thinking. More than anything else, showed me at a formative age how words could make imagined universes truly real.


The Big Issue Australia turns 18 this year – and sold its nine millionth magazine last month. The magazine sells for $6 per issue; the homeless or unemployed vendors who sell it keep $3 of every sale.

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03 July 2014

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Author Kirsten Krauth was worried about how her own shyness could work against her when it came time to promote her first novel, just_a_girl. But at the recent Sydney Writers Festival, she was comforted by watching big-name authors grapple to shape their words onstage – and by Sian Prior’s memoir, in which she ‘comes out’ as a privately shy person who flourishes in public.

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Image by Marian Ritter.

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, David Marr did a wonderfully incisive interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of Dead Europe, The Slap and, most recently, Barracuda. Throughout the session, in response to Marr’s questions, Tsiolkas took many minutes to speak, occasionally with his head in his hands as if trying to squeeze out the answers. The loud silence filled the room. But when he finally was able to seize the words, his ideas were rich in detail, nuanced, worth waiting for. Marr quipped that ‘he writes loudly and speaks quietly’. As I waited patiently for Tsiolkas to frame himself, I realised how rare this was: the chance to see a writer composing, having the courage to be uncertain, to not reach for the quick answer − to feel, as Tsiolkas said, a ‘real sense of responsibility … to what language means’. While Tsiolkas initially saw his writing as an effective way to channel rage (against himself, against others), he also wanted to fight off the ‘bad habit’ of being nice. Marr responded: ‘But you are nice, aren’t you!’ Being a writer, and performing in public, is so often about trying to reconcile these contradictory forces; articulating private emotion while keeping ourselves ‘nice’.

shy In her memoir Shy, Sian Prior uses this perceived dualism as a literary device. When exploring what it’s like to grow up as (and continue to be) someone who’s shy and socially awkward, she intertwines the thoughts of Shy Sian (the interior monologue of a woman whose hands shake at parties, who’s always on the periphery, who runs for cover when things get too rough) with Professional Sian (the radio announcer and interviewer; the teacher; the activist; confident in front of crowds). When Prior takes to the stage or street, she’s always anxious her shy version will seep through, but Ms Professional usually comes to the rescue. The whole book is searching, for what Prior is really afraid of. Rejection? Grief? Being alone? Vulnerabilty?

It may seem counterintuitive for a writer who’s shy to write a memoir and release it to the world: garnering media attention and exposing their inner thoughts and desires in the process. I asked Prior how she prepared for the moment of the book’s release. ‘I was very anxious about it, because the book is insanely self-revealing,’ she said. ‘It’s a form of extreme exposure therapy in a way. But when the actual book arrived in the mail, and I looked through it again, I found myself thinking, “this isn’t too bad, I can be proud of this”, and my anxiety lessened. And so far in public events for the book, Professional Sian has been taking over and she is rather enjoying it all.’

Fictional-Woman-Coverweb2 Tara Moss’s memoir, The Fictional Woman, is a good companion piece to Shy, and shares some of Prior’s themes: how pain is written in and on the body; how others’ perceptions can be elevated above your own; how beauty can be worn as a shield; and how science, stats and semi-truths can be interwoven to make a compelling narrative.

But in both these books, what it all comes down to is sharp writing. While Moss’s book is themed around common (mis)conceptions, Prior uses wonderful sleight-of-hand to draw the reader in and push them away: lists, short chapters, vivid description, strong characterisation, positing herself as the unreliable narrator, juxtaposing the two Sians in interviews, bold statements, wry humour, and the charm (and betrayal) of falling in and out of love:

On the computer screen we could be nutty, nuanced, nonchalant. Nothing seemed to be at stake, nothing required except to entertain each other with words. We told each other stories from our past, we compared our reactions to novels we’d read, we even offered tidbits of regret about past relationships. Writing to Tom, I felt weightless.

And in one of those early emails, when I confessed to being shy, he simply replied: As Morrissey says, shyness is nice.

I felt like I’d been found.

In her memoir, Prior mentions the following words displayed above her desk: ‘All writers must first charm, then betray.’ Prior says she didn’t set out to be charming, but try as she might, her quirky charm oozes out all over the place; perhaps this is something she can’t see, that she has the charm down pat. But I also wondered if she saw the writing as an act of betrayal − of herself, of others?

‘I never thought of this book as “charming”,’ she said. ‘A bit sad, a bit nutty, and full of Too Much Information, perhaps, but I certainly didn’t set out to be charming. Like the word “shy”, the word “betrayal” has several meanings. To betray can also mean to give something away or to reveal something. One sentence that was cut from the final draft said something to the reader like “if I write a book about my shyness will I betray myself to you?” And I have “betrayed” my shyness to the world in a big way, but writing it has been cathartic for me, and I hope reading it will be cathartic for some shy readers.’

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, what Tsiolkas did, in those long moments of public hesitation, was to let us in, share some hidden part of him. These days, there is much pressure on writers to be perfectionists in all aspects of our lives. Not only on the page, but under the spotlight too. To have the right answers. To be funny. To give the audience what they want. To be entertaining. But vulnerability can be a powerful thing. In Brene Brown’s very popular TED talk on vulnerability (attracting over 15 million hits), she interprets shame as the ‘fear of disconnection’. While Prior may be keen to do all the research and categorisation (shyness vs introversion vs social anxiety), the residue of her writing, the success of her book, is when she meditates on loneliness and what it means to feel ashamed, to wear a mask in public − and how she tries, often unsuccessfully, to get beyond the ‘I’m not good enough’ to build relationships with others.

As I do the festival circuit, contending with my own form of inarticulation, and trying to let Shy Kirsten rather than Professional Kirsten grab the microphone to connect with audiences (as she does it very well), writers have come up to me, confessed their own fears, keen for guidance. They’re afraid of speaking. They’d rather be looking on. It doesn’t come naturally to them. They want to run. I feel their pain. But I can now point to Tsiolkas and Prior and Moss. Do I think any less of them (as writers, as people?) now that I’ve seen their vulnerable side? Do I judge them critically, knowing what I do? It’s exactly the opposite. What their vulnerability invites is enormous respect − and a desire to know more about them (as writers, as people). Just read any blog about how to cope with mental illness, how to move through grief, how to come out as an introvert (via Susan Cain), and go to the comments section. People want to see the inarticulate, the not-so-slick, the grasping for meaning. It’s what generates passion and compassion in readers.

Sian Prior’s memoir may not be a how-to or reveal-all, but it does connect. It offers the chance to challenge perceptions, to see beyond the surface, and to come out the other side, shyness intact.


Kirsten Krauth’s first book just_a_girl was published in 2013. She blogs at Wild Colonial Girl. @KirstenKrauth

Sian Prior will talk to Francesca Rendle-Short On Shyness tomorrow night at the Wheeler Centre.

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10 June 2014

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The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case reflects on A.M. Homes’s conversation with Toni Jordan about her body of work. Watch our website for the video soon.

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‘I’ve written just about everything except greeting cards,’ quipped bestselling New York novelist A.M. Homes, talking to Toni Jordan at the Wheeler Centre last week. ‘I’m looking forward to writing those.’

With her dark humour, eye for the absurd and knack for the surprisingly moving, an A.M. Homes greeting card line would probably attract a cult following. But given her success as a literary writer, at a time when publishing is increasingly under threat, she won’t be turning to greeting cards anytime soon. She’s one of the few who can be confident, it seems, in her ability to make a living doing what she loves.

May We Be Forgiven is a rollercoaster ride of a novel, with adultery, murder, divorce and family collapse all coming within the first 30 pages. After middle-aged history professor Harry’s egomaniacal brother George kills two parents and orphans a child in a careless car crash, Harry moves temporarily into George’s house to comfort his wife … and when George lets himself out of hospital in the middle of the night, and finds his brother and wife in bed together, he bludgeons her to death with a lamp, leaving Harry as guardian of his house, pets and children. As Harry’s own health, job and marriage falls away, he is forced to piece a semblance of a life back together – questioning, all the way, what a good life (and a good person) might look like.

‘It was fun to write,’ Homes said. ‘Publishing was at such a bad time when I started this book that I thought, all bets are off – just write what you want to write.’ The risk paid off; readers have happily devoured her black literary soap opera, with all its quirky elements (for example, Harry is a Nixon obsessive) and in-jokes (Don DeLillo, who lives in the area where the book is set, makes a cameo as a local), juxtaposed with a ripping satire of ordinary America.

‘I think I’m almost afraid of people who go through their lives asleep, not attending to what’s happening in their families,’ said Homes. At the heart of May We Be Forgiven is Harry’s rude, unwanted awakening to the world around him – the accident and its aftermath jolts him out of autopilot. Destruction begets renewal; it’s not easy and it’s not pleasant, but it is the route to a more genuine and engaged life.

this-book-will-save-your-life This theme was also central to Homes’s LA-based previous novel, This Book Will Save Your Life. It, too, starts with a collapse, as wealthy Richard, a man so closed-off from the outside world that he has literally not been outside his house in weeks, suffers what seems like a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. On the way home, he stops at a donut stand and befriends its proletarian immigrant owner – the start of a re-engagement with the world, as he begins to venture outside and connects with his neighbours, his estranged son, and a woman he finds crying in the frozen food section of the grocery store (because her husband and kids don’t appreciate her).

‘It’s harder to be hopeful,’ said Homes. ‘It’s so easy to just be depressive. How do you think or write optimistically when you’re living in a world that’s not inherently optimistic?’ The answer, as found within her recent novels, seems to lie in the connections between people – both strangers and family.

Talking about the centrality of humour in her work, Homes observed that it’s there partly to make it fun for her as a writer (‘it’s there to get me through the process – I’m glad everyone else likes it’) and partly for a more, well, serious reason. ‘Humour allows us to talk about things that are very painful, and to go a bit deeper.’

May-We-Be-ForgivenPB-649x999 May We Be Forgiven has been talked about as an example of the mythical Great American Novel – that synthesis of ideas about politics, history and the way we live now, woven into the lives of the characters who tell the story. It is, as Homes observed, an accolade bestowed far more often on men than women. ‘Only Jonathans are allowed to write the Great American novel,’ she joked. (Earlier she had commented on the dearth of women authors who win major literary prizes by saying that the prizes are habitually won by ‘white men named Jonathan’.)

The Great American novel interrogates the American dream – the fantasy of freedom and equality of ambition for all, with social mobility based on ability and hard work rather than inherited resources. ‘I’m interested in the dream as both the hope and the fantasy,’ said Homes. She acknowledged that some of the characters in her novels who are most engaged with that dream are immigrants who have been lured to America by it, like doughnut-maker Anhil, who is a symbol of the comfort of the ordinary for new friend Richard – but is, himself, drawn to the aspirational American lifestyle symbolised by Richard’s luxury car.

The main struggle with May we Be Forgiven, said Homes, was to find a way for the hapless Harry to emerge from his downward spiral. That emergence answered deeper questions, not just about how Harry might recover from his particular set of trials, but about how a person might go about transforming themselves.

‘Life to some degree becomes habit. If I wanted to try to do better, how would I do that? Where would I begin?’ she mused.

‘How, in storytelling terms, would I turn that around without being false about it?’

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29 May 2014

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Janette Turner Hospital is returning to the Wheeler Centre to talk about her latest novel, The Claimant, with Ramona Koval, at a literary morning tea on Wednesday 21 May.

The Claimant revolves around the real-life case of the search for the heir to the Vanderbilt fortune – and explores the elusive nature of identity, in an absorbing novel that ranges from rural Queensland to New York high society. In 1996 a court case was launched in New York that drew enormous media attention. Its aim was to establish if the long-presumed dead son of the Vanderbilt family was in fact living incognito as a cattle farmer in Queensland.

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case shares her passion for the writing of Janette Turner Hospital, reflecting on her previous body of work and her observations about how her early life has shaped her as a writer.

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Janette Turner Hospital has lived in parallel worlds for most of her life. Born in Melbourne, she moved to Queensland, where she was raised, at an early age. Hers was a cloistered fundamentalist Christian family. At home, ‘where just about everything was forbidden’, there was no television or radio, but instead, nightly Bible readings.

At school, she found it hard to adjust to the outside world. ‘There was a full range of vocabulary I knew nothing about, so I felt like an alien. From my earliest days at school I had to become a very acute observer to figure out how to behave and fit in. So I guess that set the pattern for my life.’

That early outsider’s status, coupled with the ability to move between very different worlds and learn the language and social codes of each, seems like the perfect writer’s toolkit.

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‘The rule for living in two worlds is to keep things separate, because everything you need to know to function in one world is counterproductive to survival in the other, and vice versa,’ muses one of her characters, Mishka, from her latest novel, Orpheus Lost (2007).

Outsiders who move between worlds recur often in Turner Hospital’s eight novels and three short-story collections. Her characters are always watching, taking mental notes.

In Orpheus Lost, Turner Hospital marries the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with the horrors of rendition and Abu Ghraib; Mishka is drawn into the world of Islamic fundamentalists. In a neat reversal of the myth, it is up to his lover, Leela, to somehow rescue him from his underground prison. In Due Preparations from the Plague (2003), another literary thriller with political and terrorist themes, the main character, Lowell, is set on a posthumous quest into his CIA agent father’s dark past, accessing his father’s shadow life.

Turner Hospital has lived all over the world with her husband, academic Clifford Hospital, including India, Canada, France and the United States. All these settings have found their way into her novels – though it is Queensland (where ‘psychically, I feel at home’) that most often works its way through.

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The Last Magician (1992) is, to my mind, her masterpiece. Along with Oyster (1996), about a religious cult in outback Queensland, it is her most Australian novel. A mystery wrapped in a riddle, folded into an enigma: that’s The Last Magician.

At its core is a dark secret shared by four childhood friends: two misfits (Charlie, the son of Chinese emigrants, and wild girl Cat) and two golden-haired children of the elite (closet rebel Catherine and conformist Robbie). They are bound by secret trauma – and joy. We see events mostly through the eyes of brilliant Lucy, a former university student now working a double life as a barmaid (downstairs) and a prostitute (upstairs) at Charlie’s Sydney pub.

There are secrets, unexpected connections and missing people everywhere; Lucy is our guide between the parallel worlds of the upper and under classes and Charlie’s bar is where they mix. Charlie, an artist and photographer, offers clues through his work. Turner Hospital’s fascinating descriptions of his films and photographs evoke those of fellow literary-mystery writer Siri Hustvedt, in her wonderful novel of artists in New York, What I Loved.

‘Charlie believed the world was thick with messages, you could hardly move for secret codes in Charlie’s world,’ reflects Lucy, who is drawn into Charlie’s obsessions. Turner Hospital’s fiction is rife with codes for the reader to unfurl; they leave room, too, for multiple interpretations, just as life does.

Those codes include literary and artistic references: Dante’s Inferno is central to The Last Magician, as the Orpheus myth is to Orpheus Lost; Due Preparations for the Plague is Turner Hospital’s Decameron; one of the stories in her latest book, Forecast: Turbulence (2011) takes its title (and central idea), ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman’, from King Lear. She says this is partly due to her Christian upbringing (‘where everything had allegorical meaning’) and partly to her MA in Medieval Studies (medievalists ‘saw allegory everywhere’ too). ‘It just seems to happen willy-nilly with me, because I got used to seeing the world that way.’

One of the joys of reading Turner Hospital is the intellectual adventure: the way she draws on art and literature and politics, bringing them together in conversation with each other – and dramatising them with intricately imagined characters.

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‘In the Sunshine State, we resist shadow. We don’t believe in darkness,’ writes Turner Hospital in ‘Moon River’, the memoir-essay that closes Forecast Turbulence. Her tongue, of course, is planted firmly in her cheek. She gives a more pointed, poetic version of her Queensland in The Last Magician: ‘The rainforest smells of seduction and fermentation and death. It smells of Queensland.’

In recent years, Turner Hospital has taken to America’s South as a setting for her fiction, including several stories in Forecast: Turbulence. It appears in Due Preparations for the Plague and is the childhood home of Orpheus Lost’s Leela – whose father is devastated when she ‘crosses over’ to the enemy territory of the north.

‘I joke in South Carolina that I grew up in the state, except it was in Australia,’ Turner Hospital says. South Carolina reminds her of Queensland in many ways, including the climate, the politics (reminiscent of the Bjelke-Peterson era) and the racial divide. The prevalence of fundamentalist Christianity (‘a phenomenon’) in America’s South also reminded her of Queensland, and the fundamentalist community of her youth.

In Forecast: Turbulence, the two worlds come together in one story. In ‘Republic of Outer Barcoo’, a teenage girl guards the office of her father’s declared outback republic (based on the potent combination of guns and religion) and encounters a handsome Hugh Jackman type who offers the possibility of escape. It’s an intriguing literal juxtaposition of the American South with rural Queensland: the girl and her father have fled Georgia, then Texas in Waco-style shoot-outs – and ended up here, where they’ve attracted local members. ‘I’m all for secession,’ says the Hugh Jackman type. ‘I’ve signed up for the militia.’

The collection is rich with Turner Hospital’s hallmarks: obsession, absences, dreams so vivid they blur the boundaries with real life, people who are not what they seem. Perhaps it’s that last one that is most potent. Sometimes, the unknown is benign, even healing, as when sons find secret reserves of affection in their fathers (which happens more than once in Hospital’s fiction). But there is also the potential for horror. The charming, attentive drama teacher is a paedophile. The bland next-door neighbour at the Hamptons summer house is a serial killer. A persistent ex-employer invades a man’s fantasy life in the most torturous way possible.

‘There are many things people don’t know that they know,’ says Lucy in The Last Magician. This idea pops up in Forecast: Turbulence, too. ‘I didn’t realise I knew,’ says Katie, the daughter of the paedophile, ‘Not until afterwards. Then I realised I did know.’

In her storytelling, Turner Hospital confronts us with some of that knowledge we would prefer – as individuals and as a society – to block out.

Yet she is hopeful, too, as she has reiterated to interviewers over the years.

‘Every short story, every novel ends with the belief that there is a path out of there, you just have to find it,’ she told the Australian’s Stephen Romei recently. ‘It’s just what I insist on believing in, otherwise life is too dark.’


This piece was first published in 2012. (The introduction has been updated.)

Janette Turner Hospital will be in conversation with Ramona Koval at a literary morning tea at the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 21 May at 11am. Tickets are $20, including morning tea.

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19 May 2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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