Friday, 17 April 2015

Sitting In - shorts@fortyfive downstairs

Monday night. Flinders Lane, bluestone walls and large leadlight windows. Basements and juliette  balconies. It might be Autumn and getting cool at night but it's still spritely in the city. Not knowing our $20 ticket included a glass of wine, and enjoying being in town on a school night, we sat outside by the parked cars and had a carafe of Beaujoulais from Cumulus, and watched as people arrived for the second shorts@45downstairs.
Program theme: Conflict & Identity
Paddy O'Reilly, Gregory Day, Elliot Perlman and Maxine Beneba Clarke
I've read some Paddy O'Reilly stories (and don't mind admitting I was pretty keen for her to like my submission to the Overland Story Wine Prize last year) and though I hadn't seen her live before I couldn't miss her arriving. I'm not sure if it was her blonde hair or the gorgeous ankle boots, but I interrupted my partner to say there's Paddy O'Reilly because I am embarrassingly like a writer groupie.
Which reminds me, if anyone knows Tony Birch please let him know that I apologise for staring at him a couple of times in Readings last Thursday. He really should be able to shop without a stranger listening to him asking one of the staff to show him where to find a book.

Eliot Perlman has been a writer hero since 'Three Dollars' came out (1998), and though I didn't see him arrive I spotted him in his seat inside straight away.

Maxine Beneba Clarke I've had the pleasure of seeing a few times, and as guest editor for Overland Audio II she accepted a poem of mine. I'd also volunteered at her 'Coping Techniques' Writers Victoria  workshop on Sunday, so I clocked her (and her deep green feather earrings) when she turned up.

Our fourth reader, I'm ashamed to say, I hadn't read and wouldn't have recognised. In fact when we went inside he was sitting right behind me but it was only when he was introduced and approached the stage that I realised that. I may not have known much about him before Monday night but I'll not be forgetting him now.

Day read from 'The Madeness' (new material, yet to be published) which is a layered collection of stories set in contemporary South West Victoria. The notes I made during his reading make little sense - I was clearly impressed with how he grounded us in the setting as I've jotted a couple of lines that include bark, melaleucas, ti-tree, wind and moonah bushes. For some reason garfish appeared amongst this, perhaps because I loved the specificity of the male protagonist announcing that he's going garfish fishing.

The narrative wove through an afternoon where a father takes his daughter fishing and the wife/mother is home trying to write about Gunter Grass' second volume of his memoir. She'd found his writing 'too damn neat' and almost enjoyed the first volume of his memoir for finally showing the truth of him as a man, and not a very nice one. She stops frequently, focuses on key words and thinks about her association with them. I remember deciding in Year 10 that 'indelible' was my favourite word. I can't remember what I was reading when it appeared in my mind, but it's stayed with me ever since. Day's character arrives at 'insouciance' and ponders it. She remembers falling in love with it as a teenager and first associating it with Muriel Spark. It's such a simple trait yet reveals so much about character and Day's skill with subtlety like this kept impressing me.

A tension builds throughout the story as it gets late, and dark, and there's no sign of her husband and daughter, and we learn slowly of the daughter's intellectual disability and quickly feel the vulnerability. During a battle through the bushes to get to the fishing spot Day gives us the horrible sequence of thoughts that charge with fear - blame and anger, picturing worst-case scenarios and remembering different family members' responses to her daughter at birth. She's our eyes and insight and the downstairs room was filled with people barely breathing for the last few minutes of this story. You know it's powerful when everyone is still after the last word, needing an interval to breathe before their applause.

Continuing my groupie shamelessness, as Day returned to his seat I turned to say something, and not knowing quite what to say I said thank you, congratulations, that was so powerful. A gentleman, though he probably needing some breathing space himself didn't show it, he nodded and smiled at me and I turned back to the front.

As Mary Lou Jelbart (Director and Founder of fortyfive downstairs) told us we'd be taking a short break the word 'artless' appeared in my mind. My appreciation is 'artless'. I feel inept at handling my response to writing I admire, but hope that at the very least 'sincerity' is a word that is associated with me.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What I Loved: The China Factory (Mary Costello)

Last Monday morning I suddenly had an opportunity to get away for a few solo days to write, read and walk along the beach. Leaving home felt, not momentous, but worthy of a small tribute and I chose 'Spring and Fall' by Paul Kelly to listen to. It's an album that tells a story, compiled like chapters that stand alone but played right through chart a cycle of falling in and out of love. I heard him play it live in London in 2013, sitting in a hall full of Australians listening to one of my favourite musical storytellers sing a new album in the first half of the show, and then so many of my life anthems to sing along to in the second.

He seemed like an ideal choice for the drive to the Mornington Peninsula where I planned to read Mary Costello's debut collection, 'The China Factory'. I think it was Paul McVeigh who recommended this to me, but there are plenty of enthusiastic reviews out there so I can't be sure where I heard about it. The cover lists comparisons to Thomas Hardy, John McGahern, William Trevor and Alice Munro - serious claims, that proved utterly warranted.

"This is a writer unafraid of the graveside, or the bedside, of filling the space of the story to the brim." (Anne Enright, Guardian)

I'm not someone who can recite passages from texts or remember character's names. Even favourite books I struggle to recall any details one or two books later, which is both a blessing and a problem. I'm certainly not someone for your trivia team. Fortunately when I look at the cover of a book I've read I can recall clearly how I felt about the book and have the luxury of re-reading books that I know upfront I'm going to enjoy.

I've resigned myself to this failing and so was surprised this morning when I looked at the table of contents in 'The China Factory' - I knew the stories. I knew details and emotions and remembered so many powerful endings. She reminded me of Anne Sexton, many of whose two or four line endings have been a benchmark for me for a long time. In Costello's title story the ending wasn't a twist or a shock or any sort of ploy that showed the writer's hand. But the phrasing, the idea and the expression of how the protagonist felt, was haunting. I was almost reluctant to read straight on but couldn't not.

And now, looking at the contents list I remember how I ached at the end of 'You Fill Up My Senses'. I remember sitting on a bar stool in the last shape of sunset, the loud conversation of almost-drunk tradesmen and their girlfriends barely registering as I read 'The Astral Plane', savouring the words and my one beer and looking out across the bay thinking about what I'd just read.
"She closed her eyes. She knew she could not be without him. She remembered his shoulder touching hers, his imploring eyes, and she felt herself again in his gaze - poised, silent, immaterial - and she knew she would die a thousand times at this memory, at this confluence of hearts. She leaned towards the screen and through it was not an endurance at all, this presence, this plane, and as the night came down and the rain fell on the city it came to her that what this was - this man, this moment - what this was, most of all, was the resurrection of hope."
I mean really, how fortunate I was to have a view of a day dying over water, a house with a reading chair by a window and a bottle of Coopers to go back to after that.

This is a collection that reinforces the power of short stories. At the end I felt as moved as if I'd read 12 novels - such a testament to how much can be conveyed in 20 pages at a time. In the right hands.

Just as the Paul Kelly album places me in Sloane Square, almost at the point where I'd make the big life-decision to return to Melbourne, the cover of 'The China Factory' will now set me in a couple of quiet days in Sorrento where I found a writer to add to my author-love list, and was even inspired to continue on my own writing quest.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

For my 1,000th tweet - do you have 40 cents?

Yesterday morning I noticed I'd tweeted 999 times and wondered if I should take care with what I released next. If 1,000 was a milestone or just another short string of characters, probably about Melbourne or writing or writers. I've been feeling poorly all weekend - so much so that I had to cancel my next Words Out interview, which was devastating because it was going to be the first one in a bar rather than a cafe, and more importantly it was with a Melbourne writer whose work, personality and company is always exciting. I think she's open to rescheduling and hope that you'll be reading that catch up with her on my blog very soon.
Anyway, I've been rather unwell so yesterday I was in my local Pharmacy Warehouse and went up to the counter with 60 aspro and Epsom salts. The young cashier said $7.40 and asked if I wanted a bag. I said no to the bag (as usual I had my MWF Dymocks bag with me) and checked my wallet for the 40 cents but only found 30 cents so just gave him the $10 note.
'Do you have 40 cents?' he asked, dropping my boxes in a plastic bag.
'No I don't,' I said, 'and I don't need a bag thanks.'
He took the aspro and the salts out of the bag and put them on the counter, closer to him than to me, and said, 'I don't know if I can give them to you.'
He asked the cashier standing idle next to him if (someone whose name I didn't hear) was around.
I assumed it was an issue of not having change and while we waited for the other girl to amble up the aisle of herbal supplements I said to the boy, 'That's a strange thing to say - I don't know if I can give it to you.'
'I don't want to get into trouble,' he said, which I thought was another pretty strange comment but I couldn't be bothered pursuing it so I turned and looked expectantly down the aisle as well.
Another woman in a black uniform appeared, and standing beside the protein powders called out, 'Do you need change?'
The boy said, 'No' and shook his head a few times, looking younger and more useless by the second.
By this point I was becoming quite indignant. I was aching, tired and trying to compose a meaningful 1,000th tweet. I put a hand on the counter, millimetres from the relief my 60 aspro and Epsom salts were going to bring. The boy walked to the end of the counter where his supervisor met him. I couldn't hear the conversation - the other girl had joined them by this stage - but while I was looking up at the ceiling, longingly out the door and scanning back to the huddle I happened to look at the cash register. In the luminous green square font next to 'Total' were the numbers 10.40.
It was $10.40? Not $7.40?
'Did you say ten forty?' I called out.
They looked at me, a face each of pity, frustration and fascination.
This is ridiculous, I thought. 'I thought you said seven forty,' I called out, getting louder because no-one seemed like they were going to get close to me to sort this out, and I wanted my boxes and my exit. 'Here, here's another dollar,' I yelled, holding high the gold coin of permission, the great solution to an absurd problem. Why hadn't they just suggested I might consider downsizing to the 42 pack of aspro? Or just take 24 for now even? How had I stood with $76.30 in my wallet while they debated how to handle a heavy-headed woman stocking up with an enormous amount of effervescent substances.
Taking my 60 cents change and my goods was a silent transaction. I walked past the overweight homeless guy who sits outside Coles drawing in chalk, my 140 character message looking inadequate for the rant that I needed.

Later on, after drugs and writing a CV (my day job) for a Data Analyst, Lee Kofman tweeted the link to my post about our cafe conversation, and Jane Rawson replied, asking Maxine Beneba Clarke if she wrote in any cafes in 'Scray, and I replied that I'd enjoyed a coffee in a comfy couch by the fire at Lady Moustache (Seddon) on Sunday morning, just trying to wake up before going to lunch for the introductions to my boyfriend's extended family, and so it was that without thinking about it I'd tweeted.

As I hope it might have been if I'd spent time composing it, my 1,000th tweet was about Melbourne and writing in a conversation with writers.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Words Out - Lee Kofman in Neighbours

Melbourne kicks up a windy, lightning-striking, summer storm as I drive to meet Lee Kofman. The Bureau of Meteorology radar is a colour riot that matches the graffiti sidewall of Neighbours, Lee's local cafe in St Kilda.
Set on one corner of an intersection with a service station, a milk bar and a single-storey brick house, this is where Chapel St sighs. It's the rolling recovery from Richmond, South Yarra and Windsor, barely touched by the knockdown rebuild developers. Yet.
Just up the road from the cafe are terraces that remind me of houses my friends moved to in Carlton when we were at university. Back then I was a girl from Glen Waverley still stuck in suburbia and envied anyone living in these old houses with bohemian histories and character.
While I was coveting Victorian buildings, a much younger Lee was deifying cafes. Growing up in a provincial and religious town, they symbolised civilisation and urbanity - things to aspire to.
Now Lee comes to Neighbours two or three times a week to write. She hates first drafts and though she needs the quiet of home to edit, she's good at all sorts of procrastination when something needs to be started. Lee has a love-hate relationship with writing, but being served good coffee and food in a cafe certainly helps to take the work out of it.
Cafes are important to Lee as a writer and also as a person. Her work is often an exploration of something she's been thinking about, or a question she wants to try and answer, which has led her to write about the relationship between writers and cafes herself. She's excited telling me about the role cafes have played in history, as places where rebels have plotted (in Turkey and Persia) and as targets to be closed down by governments forcing control. In person Lee is the curious and a little bit mischievious character I'd imagined.
While it's not quite scheming or inciting rebellion, I admire Lee's writing for challenging how we think and for sharing what she finds on her personal journeys to understand. Taking this approach means that her work doesn't follow a linear structure, something I described as potential for mess when I wrote about 'The Dangerous Bride' last year. Apparently there were plenty of people that didn't share Lee's vision as she was writing, but she believes in authors that write from their personality - I found her branching and digging intelligent, well-linked and an approach that I've enjoyed in her short stories as well.
Her favourite favourite book ever (no, she's not afraid to say that there is one) has helped Lee to not be afraid of writing from her own experience. She's read 'The Master of Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov many times, in three different languages, and calls it the "epitome of a non-linear novel." Thanks Lee, another addition to my Must Read pile.

It's not surprising that Lee is someone who gets bored and has therefore escaped to write in plenty of cafes. She used to be a regular in a place in Port Melbourne (which I won't name) that had everything a cafe-writer needs - "comfortable couches and cushions, quiet, atmospheric music and an owner who is nice but not intrusive."
It's a balance that I too have found and lost, and I share her frustration with new owners and their need to change our special places. We discover that we also share a fierce love for Melbourne when Lee asks me about my own work. She remembers reading a piece I wrote about my relationship with Melbourne, and tells me about falling in love when she was living in Sydney and came here for the weekend. Taken straight from the bus station to Acland St, she had a first-sight-fall-hard hit.
Lee's love of Melbourne is matched with the enthusiasm she has for her work as a writing teacher and mentor. Some writers resent time they spend in other occupations, but though she doesn't give herself credit for the generosity and bravery in her own work, Lee finds other writers inspiring and courageous and loves working with them.
When I listen back to the time I spent talking with Lee there's laughter, rain and more of me talking than there should be. She's a natural mentor, and is kind but firm when she suggests that despite my passion for short stories (fiction), I should consider writing more creative non-fiction. It's an exciting area right now, and she believes there's strength when you write about what you know. "You should try it," she tells me. "I really think you should try it."
After Lee's left I notice that it's quiet. Most people have eaten and gone, the rain's stopped and it feels a bit like the schoolyard before the bell rings, because I'm thinking about all the things I might try to work on next. I think, "You should try it" might be a maxim that Lee applies to her own life as much as her writing and teaching, and I think it might be a little bit contagious.

*  *  *  *  *

Words Out is a series of interviews with writers in the cafes they like to work in.  I'm making Melbourne's future literary map for tourists in the years to come.

Lee Kofman is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author, writing teacher and mentor based in Melbourne. She published three fiction books in Hebrew, but since 2002 she has been writing exclusively in English and publishing short stories, creative non-fiction and poetry widely in Australia, Scotland, UK, USA and Canada.
Lee is the recipient of many literary awards. She judged several writing competitions, served as a member of the Varuna Fellowship Selection panel and organised several festival and conference panels, including the International Non-Fiction conference. Lee is the blogger-in-residence for Writers Victoria.
Lee's first book in English, the memoir 'The Dangerous Bride' about non-monogamy and migration, came out in October 2014 with MUP. Find more about it here.
Lee's written about 'The Master and Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov here.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

When P is not for Politics

I love doing writing prompts when I have a coffee in the morning, but at the moment most of them aren't working for me because I don't know what I'm working on. With so many stories in different stages it's hard to respond to a prompt like 'write about what's in your character's pockets.'
But a list is always a great way to get working, and here's my 10 minute list of things that start with the letter 'p' -


I hadn't thought of the 'pattern' word as I wrote, but when I'd finished I started looking for some in my 44 words.
There's only 10 adjectives in there, and 9 of the words can be more than one word class. Though I started out with a couple of complex words I simplified things quickly, and favoured nouns over verbs.
I can see some influence of my surrounds, sitting at a table in the street, but am surprised at others that dropped in - preface? pliable?
Product then placement is the sort of logic I'd expect to see when you're just spilling words, similarly priory after prior, but there's plenty of randomness, which pleases me. I would hate to be too predictable.
And for some reason though it's impossible to avoid it anywhere you look or listen at the moment, I'm pretty chuffed that I didn't even think of politics.

Do you use lists to help when you're writing?

Written in response to Sarah Selecky writing prompt (30th Jan 2015)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Words Out - Nicole Hayes at Santucci's

Nicole Hayes is a writer, editor, tutor, talker, mother, wife and passionate Hawthorn supporter. I joined one of her creative writing workshop groups when I came back to Melbourne last year, and from the first session knew I was in the hands of a generous and talented guide. Like Shaun Levin (one of my tutors in London), she has that rare ability to listen, analyse and offer insightful critique to work after a quick first read.

Though a lot of her time is spent developing others, an important part of Nicole's routine is getting away from distractions to focus on her own writing, and she's been coming to Santucci's in Carnegie to do this a couple of times a week for about 6 years.

Unlike meeting Else Fitzgerald at Carolina, I didn't have any trouble finding Santucci's, but they certainly keep a low online profile. The family-owned cafe has been here for decades and has a homely quirk to it. The coffee machine is an important feature and there's bookshelf displays of old percolators and grinders, old lamps on the tables and pictures with a loose Italian theme hung in collaged groups - it all adds up to make a loungey, informal-dining vibe. And they make good coffee.

Nicole arrives with a load that would fail commercial airlines' weight limit for carry-on luggage, although she assures me she took this much when she flew to London last year for the inaugural Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts. She carries a laptop for writing, piles of hardcopy for editing, and "just-in-case" files. Nicole's a busy person who values alone-time as a precious commodity that should be spent on her writing (guilt is a great motivator), so it's important that here there is no wifi and though the staff are friendly, they don't bother you when you're head down.

It's usually crowded so fortunately Nicole doesn't have a favourite table or chair, she just grabs a space and gets to work. When we're there the lunch crowd is as mixed up as the furniture, and it's loud. It's the sort of incoherent noise that cafe writers like Nicole love - she'd find it far more distracting to be in a quiet cafe where a private conversation would really carry. If she does get stuck, Nicole uses a freeform exercise to get her work moving, shared with Writers Victoria here.

And did I mention that the coffee's good?

There used to be couches and toy boxes at the front of Santucci's, and on Saturdays a woman sat at a window table and read tealeaves for free. One day the woman asked Nicole if she could do her reading. Maybe the scribbling in the notebook (pre-laptop days) gave it away, but she asked Nicole if she was 'the creative type? a writer?' and Nicole felt convinced this stranger could see a powerful creative spirit in her. After the ceremony, the woman told Nicole that she would definitely be published. That was some years ago and the woman has since moved away, but wouldn't it be lovely to tell her that she was right. Nicole's first novel, The Whole of My World, was published in 2013 and is the first book about AFL to feature a female fan (not groupie, football-loving-female). Since its publication she's been interviewed and joined panel discussions covering a broad range of topics - Dark issues in Young Adult fiction, role models for girls and young people, women writing (and loving) footy, and writing what you love.  Her second novel, One True Thing,  will be published in May and she's already set to take part in the Melbourne Writers Festival Schools' Program in August.

Nicole has said that she has to write about a subject or a theme that really matters to her. "And I have to be angry about it, too - an injustice or a crime - in order to maintain my focus." She's choosing important themes in her work and pushes her students to call on the same passion and purpose in their own writing.  Santucci's is one of her places for holding and harnessing that focus, and on the way out I realise that their quote of the day when we met is a fitting tribute - a message that could come from one of Nicole's students for how much she helps them - to a writer fast becoming the voice for "girls finding their way in traditionally masculine worlds."
I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I'm with you. I love you not for what you have made of yourself but for what you are making of me. George Eliot
 *  *  *  *  *

Nicole Hayes is an author and writing teacher based in Melbourne. Her debut novel, The Whole of My World (Random House 2013), about family, friendship and football, was longlisted for the 2014 Gold Inky Award, and shortlisted for the 2014 Young Australians’ Best Book Award (YABBA). Her second novel, One True Thing, will be published by Random House in May. She has a Master of Arts in Creative Writing, and is nearing completion of a PhD at the University of Melbourne where she taught fiction and screenwriting for more than five years. She runs writing workshops for Australian Writers Centre and is the Creative Writing Facilitator at Phoenix Park Neighbourhood House. Previously, Nicole has lived in England, France, Japan, and Hawaii during her extensive travels before finding her way home to Melbourne. To find out more, visit her website: or follow her on Twitter: @nichmelbourne.

Words Out is a series of interviews with writers in the cafes they like to work in.  I'm making Melbourne's future literary map for tourists in the years to come.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Time Out Track - Undiscovered

Laneway Learning is an adultcation group that offers "cheap, fun classes in anything and everything." In their update email this week they announced even more expansion in Melbourne, spreading north and south, but are still busy offering fun learning in the CBD. I wandered around (online) looking at courses and venues and found one of their CBD bases that I'd never heard of - Henley Club.

Sounded like somewhere to check out, and landing on their home page I thought I'd found yet another space to remind me how much I love the eating and drinking options we have in Melbourne. But actually it's not a space I can go to. It's a clubhouse for members "selected from diverse backgrounds who represent the future of Australian leadership."


Scanning the list of members revealed a collection of people I couldn't imagine coming together without an agenda, or purpose, and certainly not without introductions. It's fascinating. There's founders of small businesses (I now follow YourGrocer and cookingbooking but it's not all about food, for the club that is), techxperts, lawyers, medical professionals…and musicians.

They have a comprehensive set of working groups designed to discuss opportunities, issues and risks in their focus area, and heading the Arts and Culture group is Gemma Turvey - pianist/composer and Founder and Artistic Director for The New Palm Court Orchestra.

I listened to her album 'Landscapes for a Mind's Eye' and it's gorgeous, so it was so disappointing to see I'd missed her playing last week at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, which will probably be her last performance before the venue sadly closes.

In an hour of, well you could call it procrastination but I prefer research, I found a club that looks cool but I can't go to and a club that I've been to and love but is sadly closing.

I think the least I can do is share Gemma Turvey, and how better than to show her playing 'Undiscovered' live at Bennetts Lane (2011).

And hopefully I'll find a chance to see her play soon.