Thursday, 20 August 2015

Melbourne Writers Festival - Artist Transport

I'm excited. Yes, it's sunny and mild enough not to need a heavy jacket, very good reasons to be happy, but more importantly it's on. #MWF15 officially kicked off this morning.

Last year I was a front-of-house volunteer, collecting tickets at the door, politely asking people to move up so that we could fill all the seats in a room, checking writers were comfortable in Green Rooms and steering them to the signing table.

Of course one of the (many) perks was then getting to sit in and listen to the conversations, readings and panel discussions.

This year I decided to put my hand up for Artist Transport instead, and I cannot believe the people I'm going to picking up and taking to the airport. It's a little bit amazing, exciting, intimidating and just bizarre to think that I will be the one who welcomes guests from pretty much every continent. Poets, performance artists and politicians...I will be their first contact with #MWF15.

Okay, now I'm making myself nervous. But mostly, I can't wait!

I do feel as though I shouldn't announce the details of my upcoming passengers. I'm not sure why but it doesn't seem right to broadcast, or brag, so for now I'll just say that my first trip is tonight, to an event, so, if you check the program, you might be able to work out who is going to be in Car #1 with me at the wheel.

Deep breath.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

What I Loved: Get in trouble by Kelly Link

This collection is outrageous. I never thought that I'd be hooked by stories with superheroes, Summer People, Sleepers or Ghost Boyfriends, but I've just finished it and I'm telling you, readers, to get your hands on it.

In hindsight there are a few hints that this is going to be a trip before you even start reading:

  1. The title: what reader isn't at least a little bit mischievous; who wouldn't want to know what kind of trouble we're talking about and who gets in it
  2. Michael Chabon calls Kelly Link "the most darkly playful voice in American fiction"
  3. Neil Gaiman says "she is unique and should be declared a national treasure"
  4. Her author photo: she looks like she's just holding in a great story under that smile, but only just; her eyes lock in with the confidence that she can hold your attention and that tattoo, well I'm just intrigued at how stating the obvious seems like something with more possibilities and stories behind it
  5. Acknowledgements: I love reading these - it's where a writer really has the free space to be themselves and speak as an individual. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays...are all spaces for writers to explore, expose, polish and propose, but here, this page or two, is where stripped down personality can really show. And in this case you get a peek into the community behind these stories. Link thanks people for borrowed ghost stories and discussions about evil pants and television shows, and I've never seen an Arts Centre thanked for providing "a desk, some elk, a bear, and conversation" before, but here it is.
If I'd done much research before reading 'Get in trouble' I probably wouldn't have touched it. On Goodreads, as well as the obvious Short Stories and Fiction groups, it's been added to Fantasy, Magical Realism, Science Fiction and Horror and I guess I'm one of those "people who don't read fantasy fiction but have #insertyourownexample"* that the panel at the Bendigo Writers Festival "Fantastic" session talked about.

Those tags could easily have been more than enough reason for me to leave this book in the library when I have so many other stories to read, but boy am I glad I didn't.


I do have one question about the book: On the cover, what does the key with 1584 mean? Maybe I can ask her at the Five Minute Story Slam (MWF)


Saturday, 1 August 2015

I love you Melbourne, but

I love you Melbourne, I really do. We've been back together for almost 18 months and we're still holding on to the magic. I love that here, in the depths of winter, we'll still get sunshine. We can still swim outside and run the Tan and I still love coming home with bags full of shopping from a market.

Last night K and I went to the MCG. We caught a busy football-passengers train and looked out as we crossed the Yarra and there you were, reflected and lit up with your pretty lights decorating Melbourne park and the bridges, little invitations and look-at-mes for miles and millions of people.

At Richmond the exodus was calm - it was early enough to walk with purpose but not aggression - and the announcer politely advised everyone to check their myki balance now as there would be long queues for topping up after the game.  Thursday's violent winds had stilled. We'd followed a blue sky day with a brilliant full moon and as we walked up the hill towards the mighty MCG light towers, K relaxed into Friday-night finished-work mode. Maybe it was even a bit of a Hawthorn back-to-back-premierships mode - I barrack for Collingwood so my last memory of sitting outside and really enjoying a game was against Melbourne in Round 10, and I'm not confident about the rematch today - but the crowd and the hunt for a seat and getting to the loo all felt more like the build-up than a series of obstacles and frustrations.

Once I'd let go of the misplaced apostrophe on the Tigers' banner and the siren went, of course it was game on.

The Tiges, gutted over last week's 4-pointer to Freo, came out to win. The Hawks have been giving textbook demonstrations of how to win a blowout lately, so their goalless first quarter wasn't too much to worry about, and by half-time the 2 point margin pointed to a potential 3rd quarter steamrolling.

Of course it didn't pan out that way at all and the Richmond supporters were as on fire as their players. Hawthorn supporters went from keeping a lid on it, to disbelief, to yelling out, "This is rubbish; stop just blazing away; WHO'S ON HIM?"

For someone who doesn't barrack for either side it was a great night. More than 66,000 people having a shout, a Four'N Twenty and a pint in the Bull Ring and a man to snuggle in to.

But then we left the 'G and that's when, Melbourne, you really let me down.

We were part of the brown and yellow evacuation moments before the siren, weaving around slow walkers to get to Richmond station before the full onslaught and get on our train and get home. We could hear the announcer way down Brunton Avenue, calling out the platform numbers for the different train lines, and we got to the top of the ramp for our train and saw: "Next train: 21 mins".
Really? Really Melbourne and ptv? In 21 minutes there'll be another 5,000 people down here and it's already crowded.

We can take a couple of different lines and have  a longer walk at the end, so we ran up and down more ramps to find that the earliest was 18 minutes, and as the crowds started coming down the road and through the gates, swelling up the ramps and on to the platforms, I thought of London. I thought of the tube and peak hour services every 4 minutes; I remembered standing in the cold wind on Vauxhall bus station, waiting for the 77 or the 87 to come swinging around the corner from the bridge, cursing if I waited the worst-case-scenario of 10 minutes. On Platform 6 at Richmond I remembered the horror of the packed rail trains at Clapham Junction, but the trains kept coming and gave you hope that if you didn't make this one the next was only a few minutes away and you'd get on that.

Here it's fierce. You have to get into brace position and charge because if you miss this it's another 20 minutes and it's already 10.45pm and there wasn't any cloud so it is pretty bloody cold and don't start Tiges, don't start winding up other supporters when we have these narrow platforms that we all have to wait on and you could have stayed back a little while longer and sung your song and cheered your team and let us get on our trains and get out of here ahead of you.

When we did get home we turned on the television to see the English batsmen spearing cricket balls all around the sunny Edgebaston field. We saw Michael Clarke drop a catch and topless Poms waving the 4-runs signal with their non-beer-holding hand far too often and it was really Saturday already. It started raining but when I woke up and looked at the London grey clouds I was pretty happy, because here, in Melbourne, I have a shower that doesn't run out of hot water between shampooing and conditioning; I have ramen stalls and coffee competition; I have local libraries that don't charge to reserve a book and there's The Wheeler Centre, the State Library space to write in and MWF in just a couple of weeks. I have nephews and nieces and a gorgeous man and soon, soon I'll have a new pup and although today is grey it's already August, it's still light after 5pm or even later. Tonight I'll listen to The Prosecco Hour on PBS 106.7 while I cook a roast chicken and we'll look at the MIFF program for something to get to and in the morning we'll walk/run around the Tan. But we have to drive to get there. In London I didn't need a car for 5 years, so I love you Melbourne, but you could make it a little bit easier for everyone to love all of you.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Words Out: Paddy O'Reilly at The Moat

I met Paddy O'Reilly on the day her new short story collection, 'Peripheral Vision', was released. I was surprised that she'd suggested we could meet for a coffee that day, thinking she'd be busy walking bookshops checking that it was on the shelves and celebrating with champers and good friends. But that's probably a reflection of me and what I would have been doing. As it turns out she hadn't realised that it was Publication Day, so I got to introduce myself with good news and (I hoped) some indication that I do have a finger on Melbourne's short story pulse.
Just on the shelves

If you're interested in talking about or listening to others talk about Books, Writing and Ideas, then you've no doubt been under 176 Little Lonsdale Street to The Moat. It's lamp-lit and cove-like, an escape from winter chills and 40 degree north winds. The bluestone walls, bookshelves and striped wallpaper have hosted night readings and breakfast clubs, writing groups, Christmases in July (that was me with some old work colleagues and a slow-roasted, aged lamb shoulder) and of course happy hours leading in to late night drinking sessions.

At lunchtime, when I met Paddy, it was full and we may have been surrounded by people connected with the State Library of Victoria, The Wheeler Centre and its resident organisations, writers and readers and publishers and tourists on the Melbourne literary trail (or completely unaware of the significance of the venue).

Paddy was already settled at a window table and when I joined her we quickly found synergies - our love of short stories, laughing, big cities, Melbourne's coffee snobbery and valuing time spent with people who love talking about books, reading and sentences as much as we each do. Most of her work happens at home, "in the dark" - she has tried writing in cafes, walking down the street and on trams but works better when no-one is looking and she can go out in her garden to think in the company of her free-range urban chickens, Toni and Guy (named after their plumage).

I like her sense of humour in person as much as on the page.

Writing under two names, Paddy O'Reilly and P A O'Reilly, gives her scope to experiment and have fun with her writing. Creating Norm and Loretta - a character who first appeared in a short story but wouldn't leave her author alone - for 'The Fine Colour of Rust' was entertaining and I can imagine a great relief compared to some of her other stories. Too often humour can be dismissed in 'literary' publishing, and I loved hearing Cate Kennedy and Michael Cathcart, in a Radio National interview with Paddy, talk about how much their partners and families laughed through Loretta's Gunapan dramas, and surely that makes it a valuable addition to books that expand readerships.

It's fitting that we met in The Moat where above us Kate Larsen is doing an amazing job at extending Writers Victoria's program, events and opportunities, and beside us Lisa Dempster is curating more and more diverse events for Melbourne Writers Festival. There's so much work going on to broaden the demographic of writers and readers and I think Paddy's writing range plays an important part in this.

Her novels and short stories happen in rural cities, urban density and, in 'The Wonders', an "accelerated world of human artifice". I love her descriptions and details and that she's equally compelling writing from the male and female perspective, in first and third, past and present tenses.
"The woman was wearing a large, floppy hat of aqua terry towelling that completely covered her hair and partly obscured her face. Her upper torso was quite slim and she swivelled like an office chair on her heavy hips…" (from Deja Vu)
As an exercise for myself I've written down all of the opening paragraphs and endings in the stories in 'Peripheral Vision', and done the same with my own works in progress. It's a categorical demonstration of Paddy's skill setting up a story - sometimes with an opener that drops you smack in a setting, sometimes feeling like humour or far lighter than how the story then progresses - telling and finishing the story in a way that achieves the writing tip I have as my screensaver: "Wherever possible try to tell the entire story of the novel in the opening line" (John Irving).
"I live in a suburb where no politician lives and therefore the trams run infrequently, often late and without proper brakes." (from 'The City Circle') 
"Two days after the windows imploded, the first cracks appeared in the walls. We had taped up the glassless windows with gaffer and cardboard and at night the wind moaned as it nudged the torn edges of cardboard, trying to get in." (from 'Breaking Up") 
When she's not writing, Paddy enjoys giving technical support to her writer friends. If she hadn't been a writer she may well have been a coder - as she tells me it too is all about creativity and attention to detail I think that, like short stories, it might be another art that is under appreciated. You might find her hammering things together, assembling Ikea furniture or running workshops where she loves watching enthusiasm build in a room and seeing how much can happen in just four hours. Whatever she's doing there's an underlying dedication to celebrating stories.

Paddy won't talk about what she's working on now - she attributes being terribly superstitious to her Irish lineage - but on this day of publication she feels extremely privileged to have a second collection of short stories published. I'm also grateful to UQP for publishing 'Peripheral Vision'. I hope that the sentiment 'not enough people love short stories' is really 'not enough people know they love short stories' as that's something we can overcome.

Thanks so much for your time, Paddy. You made me laugh and were happy to talk on tangents - like how unfair it seems that your name doesn't automatically entitle you to an Irish passport when I have one; and who are all these young people (the youff) who seem to be able to spend hours in cafes on weekdays; and why is it that people think it's okay to interrogate writers about how much of their writing is based on their own experiences, when it's released as fiction, because how can a writer's personal experiences be more important to talk about than the work itself? - while you tried to enjoy some lunch in between appointments. Talking with Paddy felt like being with "my people" - proud love for the short story form, Melbourne and most of all for celebrating writing. Oh, and I owe you a coffee.




Words Out: plotting Melbourne's future literary map

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Words Out: some same same, but different

I started Words Out: plotting Melbourne's future literary map, as a place to celebrate two of my passions - Melbourne and stories.

So far it's taken me to cafes, a convent and a whisky bar. Sounds about right for Melbourne writers. Each time I've come away from a conversation feeling inspired, grateful and excited about the opportunity to promote writers whose work that I believe deserves to leave a legacy in Australian literature.

From the five conversations that I've had there are some interesting similarities, and contrasts, and I've acquired such an interesting and diverse reading list that I wanted to share it.

Else Fitzgerald and Mark Brandi are inner-urban residents who both grew up in rural Victorian towns, and while they write fiction the places and people from their background have a strong influence on their work. Of course when I shared the details of the Olga Masters short story award with them, a competition for stories about Australian rural life, Mark told me that his current short work is set in Collingwood!

Mark and Angela Meyer both exercise regularly and believe that keeping fit is a really important part of their writing routine. Lee Kofman confessed that she has a love-hate with her gym, and at times with writing, but she genuinely loves her work as a mentor and tutor for other writers. Nicole Hayes also juggles writing with teaching, editing (and barracking for Hawthorn), so her dedicated writing time at the cafe 'Santucci's' is precious. She goes there laden with her laptop, hardcopy editing work and "just-in-case" files, and doesn't mind where she sits or how busy it is because it's her time to focus on her work.

Both Nicole and Lee took me to the cafe they enjoy using as an opportunity to escape from domestic or family commitments. Else, as well as being part of the 'Carolina' family, will often be joined there by her mum (who plays a key role in her editing), and Mark, who goes to the Abbotsford Convent to escape from his writing study, often takes his parents there for lunch.

While the places these Melbourne writers have taken me to and the 'writing reasons' that they go there varies, there's one universal thing that these conversations always include: celebrating other writers and their work. Here's their list of recommendations, re-reads and influences for you to enjoy:

goawayimreading.tumblr.com
Else Fitzgerald: Sonya Hartnett and Margo Lanagan have been big influences, she loves Annie Dillard and 'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver is one of her all-time favourites.

Nicole Hayes: 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy made such an impression on her that she briefly stopped writing after she finished it. "I'd just read the perfect book. Why even bother when I knew I couldn't write anything as powerful."

Lee Kofman: 'The Master and Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov is her favourite book and she's read it many many times. It influenced her as a writer to "trust her readers' intelligence and believe they'd appreciate literary originality".

Angela Meyer: was reading 'Black Rock White City' by A. S. Patric when we met and was bursting with praise for it. Otherwise she's well known for her Kafka (and Bowie, and movies) love.

Mark Brandi: Fascinated by writers who are humanists, exploring life's philosophical questions, 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus is a book that he re-reads, and his "gift" to me, the story that he insisted I must read, is 'Bullet In The Brain' by Tobias Wolff. He was right, and you should read it too.

*  *  *  * *

Words Out: plotting Melbourne's future literary map


Thursday, 18 June 2015

Words Out - Mark Brandi at Abbotsford Convent

I was a volunteer at last year's Australian Society of Authors and Writers Victoria 'Literary Speed Dating' event. The Wheeler Centre was full of writers with copies of their manuscripts, prompt cards for their pitches and, understandably, plenty of nerves. I spoke with many people during the course of the day, including Mark Brandi. In a noisy room his poise and composure really stood out, and when I was preparing the February 'Brag list' for Writers Victoria and saw that Mark was shortlisted for Seizure's Viva La Novella 3 award it prompted me to research his work.

Mark's been published, broadcast, shortlisted and successful in journals and competitions both locally and overseas. Originally from Marche, growing up Italian in a rural Victorian town influences much of his work - from 'To Skin a Rabbit'
"Winter came in a squall from the south, rising over the jagged, ancient stone of the Grampians and across the flat Malleee farmland."
"'We keep the liver for your mother,' he said, picking it from the pile. 'Best part, good for bolognese.'"
One of four boys whose parents bought and ran a country pub for 30 years, the professional paths they've all taken is a bit of a family mystery. You'll find Brandi men in the Victorian Police criminal records and prosecution departments and one's a forensic scientist with the Federal Police. After starting a few courses Mark graduated from a Criminal Justice degree and his career includes roles as a policy advisor and project officer in the Department of Justice.

As readers we can thank a couple of unusual events that made Mark switch paths to take on writing as a full-time occupation: a professional development course and a cycling accident near the corner of Brunswick St and the Edinburgh Gardens.

Mark was one of a group selected to attend a retreat that included careers counselling, profiling and taking the Myers Briggs personality test. The end result? Not the outcome his boss was looking for. Mark realised that he didn't want to do what he was doing anymore, that his ambitions lay elsewhere, and started what would be his professional withdrawal by going part-time.

A hit-and-run driver just missed running him over and while recovering from broken ribs and two operations to his shoulder, Mark decided that if he was ever going to give this writing thing a go he "needed to put more on the line".

Since then, in just a few years, Mark has accumulated a series of significant writing achievements, which he describes as "lucky that he's had a couple of things go his way".

Throughout our conversation he consistently expresses gratitude to people who have guided and inspired him: tutor Ania Walwicz who taught him to provoke the subconscious, to write without thinking too much about it; conversations with accomplished writers Gabrielle Carey and Des Barry at Varuna; the Pan MacMillan assessment of his manuscript and his agent at Curtis Brown for working with him to develop his novel, which has gone from 70k words to 43k words and is growing back again.

Mark isn't comfortable talking about himself and doesn't have great affection for his own writing, but is eloquent and passionate talking about other writers and their work. His favourite writers are humanists, people who love people and want to explore life's big philosophical questions. 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus is a book that he rereads and Helen Garner's 'Joe Cinque's Consolation' was a "I'd never read anything like it" book, a witness reporting on a story but bringing in their own personal biases, sympathies and changing opinions.

A lot of what Mark writes and reads examines the complexity of people and the "social context of crime". His first novel, set in a fictional town, explores the darker side of living in rural Australia. "Things happen in small towns and are normalised very quickly." Mark's reflections on these, perhaps coupled with his habit of reading detailed judgements of court cases, are strong motivations.

Photo: abbotsfordconvent.com.au
When I invited Mark to meet me as part of 'Words Out' he nominated the Abbotsford Convent as one of his significant Melbourne places. Most of us go there for the vast green space so close to inner-urban density. I've enjoyed concerts, markets, meals and a wedding there, only associating it with positive experiences. Mark appreciates all of this but is also interested in its conflicting history. Some of the women who were sent or brought there early last century enjoyed the stability and manual labour tasks like gardening, but for others laundering wealthy neighbours' dirty sheets made it more like a prison. In both Mark's writing and here, escaping from his study, he is an explorer, trying to understand people, context and social experiences.

I think that the calm I'd first noticed in Mark is that of someone who considers without judging, who has taken risks to go after what it is that he really wants to do, and though his writing days can be torturous at times this is clearly the occupation that best fits him.

It sounds like his second novel may follow the writing path of his first, from full-length through a cull of anyone/thing extraneous and then a thorough rebuild to tell the story that really matters.

When I drove away on that cold, clear Autumn day, I thought about our conversation and the ground we had covered. There are many positive terms that describe Mark Brandi, but if I was allotted only two they would be: humanity and humility.

I hope that his dedication and conviction help Mark continue to enjoy "lucky breaks" and look forward to reading his published novels. Soon.


Words Out - plotting Melbourne's future literary map
 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

What I Loved: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

In interviews, artists are often asked who they'd like to meet or have at a dinner party, be they real people of fictional characters. I would like to go to the beach with Lena Gaunt.

Throughout Tracy Farr's novel I felt like I was inhaling and absorbing story, smoke and music. I was in the dark, dull shades of Northern Hemisphere blues and grey and felt myself sinking with her into dazzling water, lovers and nightclubs.

I really like the structure of this work, the shifts from now (1991 Cottesloe) to the progression from 1910 on. And the travelling. I grew up in Singapore (more recently than Lena Gaunt's years in Asia) and have also travelled quite widely, sometimes escaping or searching for something I couldn't quite define.

The copy I read is borrowed from the library so I tried very hard not to mark it, but p.109 I had to fold over, to go back to the concept of Tape Recorder Memory:
"…it's not pure memory, it's retelling the story the way it's always been told. There's remembering what happened, then there's remembering how to tell the story, and that's like remembering the way the music is written down, and remembering how you've always played it."
I restrained myself for a while after that, simply enjoying the pleasure of reading.

The book really built for me. I was in it quickly but somewhere past the middle it was hard to put it down and get out of Lena's friendships, loves, dancing and music and loss.
"She was my grace note, my appoggiatura: she added to me, accented me, augmented me. Linked to me with the most delicate of curves, she was not quite there, then she was gone, leaving me bare, unadorned, raw, all alone again. The Italian appoggiare means to lean upon. We leaned upon one another, and when she was gone, for a long time I didn't want to hold myself up without her."
As the reader I was like "the filmmaker"- interested in the untold stories, the stories that hold secrets, absorbing what Lena tells us and the things that she leaves out.

This is a beautiful book and I was fortunate to read it in a beachside setting. I think it's quite fitting that I actually finished it while enjoying a cold beer in a hot bath and when I closed it I felt a strong urge to say thanks, to Tracy Farr and Fremantle Press, for sharing a work of fiction that is as powerful as if it were true, for giving us the life and loves of Lena Gaunt.