Thursday, 29 January 2015

What I Loved: Love Begins In Winter

I'm not surprised that according to Goodreads I've been "currently reading" Love Begins in Winter (Simon Van Booy) for a year. It is a collection that whispers, 'Take your time. Savour me.' It's subtle, considered, and I stop all the time when I'm reading it.
"Grief is a country where it rains and rains but nothing grows. The dead live somewhere else - wearing the clothes we remember them in." 
I have to stop and think and appreciate prose like that.
And this...
"Los Angeles is a place where dreams balance forever on the edge of coming true. A city on a cliff held fast by its own weight."
And that's just the first story.

In the title story each chapter could stand alone as a short short - they feel complete - so it's almost a bonus that they flow to build the story they do. That the POV shifts feel natural but not contrived. This is a writer I will go back to again and again and notice new things each time.

I feel like I need to absorb each sentence that van Booy gives me, and it makes me want to write myself. He makes me want to strip whole paragraphs, pages even, right back to the essence that is poignant, significant and provoking.

As I was reading I was reminded of Vienna, thinking that was where I first started this book. I was alone sitting on a bar stool on a busy Friday night, and at one stage I ordered a drink in Spanish. The Austrian waitress answered me in fluent Spanish as though it was natural. When I'm away and alone there is marvel in everything foreign - supermarkets, train stations, a menu. I started Van Booy in Austria, but his observations and simple, succinct language helps me to see the details where I live with the same wonder.

Nicole Hayes shared a writing prompt with Writers Victoria recently: to write your way out of not writing by writing what you're not writing about. I've used this and found it really helpful for getting me  back on track with something that's stuck. And now I have Van Booy to help me start when I have no idea what I'm not writing about. I read a few pages and look at photos on my wall or people on the tram or in the cafe and I'm in the creative zone where everything is art and deserves to be captured and I want to be the one who does it.

I've just realised that I spoke Spanish in Innsbruck, not Vienna. And though I have now read the Love Begins in Winter collection,  I don't think my status on Goodreads will ever change.

If you need more convincing to get your hands on a copy, the Praise on IndieBound should help.

Oh okay, you can also read a hearty extract of the title story thanks to The Guardian, but you really should get a copy.

Friday, 14 November 2014

What I Loved: The Dangerous Bride (Lee Kofman)

I've just finished 'The Dangerous Bride' sitting in a sunny spot eating my muesli and feeling terribly indulgent for using working time this way. But I can justify the choice because this book is a fabulous resource for a writer, and although I've read it in only 2 days it's already sparked a lot of thinking about form, structure and tone that I'm sure will help my own work.

The story explores love, relationships, migration, sexual freedom, family, security, and above all (for me anyway) it is a quest that is informed and accessible - a brave and intelligent work.

Born with a broken heart, Lee survived open-heart surgeries in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and wonders if her fairytale-rescue fantasies, her emotional heart-breaks and fascination with love may be a natural result of these month spent in hospitals "where people died frequently and openly." At 10 years' old Lee was hit by a bus and needed more surgeries, and while she talks about hiding her physical scars during her sexual explorations, in her work it feels as though nothing is hidden.
"I led Noah into my writing cell turned love den, where my lover and I, unnerved by the newness of each other, spent unslept nights. For the first time, I felt Noah to be an intruder.  This hurt. I hoped wildly that after all that time apart, he would now push me onto the bed with a passion strong enough to exorcise my pain, and possibly my lover. Instead, he scrutinised the room, his protective arm around my shoulder. In the remaining daylight, under my husband's critical gaze, the place turned into a pumpkin."
Structurally, this is a book that moves between non-chronological personal stories, meetings with people that are written as narratives, interviews that are captured with a lot of direct quotes, and extensive references to artists, literary characters and broader research into different forms of relationships. It's easy to imagine that creating, collecting and combining all of this material  could have resulted in an inaccessible mess, and I don't know how many drafts were completed or how extensive the changes made were, but the result is a really engaging, accessible exploration from an exciting voice.

In her acknowledgements, Lee says, 'Throughout the entire process of writing this book, Peter (Bishop) kept reading my confused drafts and helping me to deepen the work. Our lengthy conversations about what I was doing would leave me dazed and exalted.' Both he and Sally Heath (MUP Editor) should feel extremely proud of how their input has informed and shaped this work.

I hadn't heard Lee speaking until after I finished this book, and when I did listen to an interview I felt an even greater appreciation for her. Imagine learning English as an adult and having the command of language that she shows here. On the page I heard open yearning. I felt sadness, frustration and respect for all sorts of different reasons. Listening to her I was so pleased to hear her lightness, that the child seeking rescue hasn't been quashed, but it doesn't sound like need. She sounds more like a woman who won't be beaten or bitter; a vibrant, considerate woman who analyses and enjoys life, and I'm looking forward to meeting her.

I'm not strictly following Lee's 'Reading Diet' recommendations (or NaNoWriMo guidelines) at the moment, but perhaps my current appetite for a diverse range of writing is as close as I'll get to a non-manogomous relationship. Or at least as far as I'll admit to in public.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Understanding my response to Graham Greene

I was surprised to find a collection of Graham Greene books in one of the boxes I took out of storage recently. Surprised because I don't remember being a Greene fan, and I do remember trying to be ruthless when I packed up my worldly goods to store in 2008.

I picked up my 30c copy of 'a gun for sale' and when I finished a couple of days later I felt a bit disappointed. I wanted to feel like I'd just had the privilege of spending time with one of the 20th century literary greats, but I didn't.

I've since read a few recent reviews which talk about it reading like a less serious draft of 'Brighton Rock', a book confused about whether it is literary or a thriller, one of his most entertaining "entertainments" and a thriller to devour in a single sitting.

None of these observations really satisfied me, and I was still trying to understand my response to the book when I heard this quote from John Peel on a podcast -
"anytime he ever hears a piece of music that he doesn't like, he just assumes that it's his problem"
And I realised that was what I felt after finishing 'a gun for sale' - I was disappointed in myself.

I had a strong visual association throughout the book, and think it compares to watching a movie that I didn't mind at all, that maybe I'd be glad I'd watched on DVD rather than made a night out of going to the cinema to see.

It's a book that's based on an intriguing premise, and if we're talking about effective character names then I don't think I'll forget Raven as the choice for the protagonist, and I did read until the end. I've decided to apportion 'blame' for my disappointment to: the era it was written in (a victim of its time); my expectations; following two fabulous works by Janet Frame and Dorothy Porter.

While this isn't his most successful novel, and I didn't love it, I'm pleased that I wasn't satisfied with just saying, meh, that was okay. I wanted to understand my reaction, and am glad that I've been reminded to  look for the good in someone's work, an approach I hope that I use with people. After all, we know how much time and effort goes into the creative process.

Of course I haven't paid that respect to some books since I decided a couple of years ago that there is no obligation to finishing a book just because it has been deemed good enough to publish.

Guess I need to work on my consistency.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Words Out - Else Fitzgerald at Carolina

Else writes in Carolina, named after the Ryan Adams song, 'Oh My Sweet Carolina' at 11 Nicholson St, Brunswick East. Despite her warning that it was hard to find, and my google maps research, I had to call from Nicholson St for instructions. With the original business name still painted on the window glass it's a modest treasure. A bit like Else. Try finding her online and you'll get listings for Ella Fitzgerald or F. Scott Fitzgerald - not bad company to be associated with, and hopefully indicative of the respect this emerging writer will realise.
Else is welcomed with hugs from the staff when she arrives, like she’s part of this family, and it’s close. She works as well as writes here so it is sort of a second home, which Else things helps with her writing. She's comfortable and relaxed, it's a bit like being in her living room but without the distractions at home. There’s no wifi.

Enjoying an Earl Grey or a soy flat white, on warmer days she might use a table in the courtyard (with a power point nearby), but she’ll usually sit at the table in the front by the coffee machine looking out on Nicholson Street. An urban vista that certainly doesn’t appear in Else’s writing. Born and raised in East Gippsland, her stories are rooted in rural settings, characters and issues. Water is a key feature in each of her three published stories, and the influence of seasonality, drought and fire threads her work. Her writing is dense and carefully carved, so it’s not surprising that she spends a lot of time mulling and editing. You’re more likely to find her refining working in Carolina than developing something in its initial stages.

Unlike many café writers, Else doesn’t tend to steal too much from what's going on around her. Most of her characters have some foundation in someone she knows, usually from the dairy farming days, so you don’t need to worry about her eavesdropping. Anyone who knows my writing knows I am the exact opposite in this sense – the working title of my short story collection is ‘You are being watched’. Enough said.

We do however share a common inspiration: using music. The emotional response Else feels to songs will create the tone and mood of a story and she'll often have headphones on at her cafe table. It’s usually one song that she becomes obsessive about with each story - for ‘River’ it was ‘Youth’ by Daughter, which you can listen to below.

As well as the staff family, Else’s real family come to Carolina. Her mum lives locally and is also a writer - and the founder of Verandah. She often drops by, playing a key role in editing Else's work, and her sister comes in as well.  There’s no disparaging looks for taking up a whole table over a few hours, possibly because there are other artists working here, as in creating and as in on staff, including a painter and a graphic designer. It makes me look around wondering what other people might be up to while we're talking.

The following published stories have all spent some time in Carolina, and I can’t wait to read the current stories that are “pretty much finished but need editing.” If you happen to see Else working away at one of her tables, please don’t interrupt her for too long.

You can read Else's online portfolio of poetry and stories on Elsewhere
‘River’ won the Fiction first prize in the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers competition (2014) and is published in The Victorian Writer (Sept-Oct issue)
The Appearance Of Earth’ was published in Visible Ink vol.24 (2012)
A Body of Water’ was Commended in Elizabeth Jolley Prize (2011)

Words Out: 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.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The verse novel

Yesterday Rowena Wiseman wrote about coming to terms with the fact that her latest work is probably going to be a novella. Fortunately she goes from 'dealing with it' to embracing the form and promoting  publishers currently publishing novellas.

I responded to her that when novella is the right length for the story, it's the right length for the reader. Maybe I'm more open to forms and lengths than "the market" but surely the examples Rowena lists as successful novellas are enough to validate the form. 

And as I happen to be reading a verse novel at the moment, I thought we should celebrate these too.

Poetry was my writing beginning, and still a form I treasure, perhaps even covet, thanks to my first love, David Malouf.

From 'Poem'
"You move by contradictions:
out of a moment
of silence far off
in Poland or January
you smile and your body
returns to my touch"
What hit me when I first read this was the line that offers 'in Poland or January' as though they are related, as though they could be alternatives when there is nothing that they share. Unless they are both far off. As a teenager this was remarkable, an opening to putting together all sorts of random thoughts and things, like the way I thought could translate if I could listen to rhythm and look at layout. 

It was incredible, too marvellous to speak of.

For poetry I'd always been more familiar with collections and anthologies than the verse novel, and read them with long pauses in between poems, or felt guilty if I didn't. I'd feel the author's hours or agonies searching for every word and placing it carefully, and if I finished a poem and moved on to the next, like turning a page in a novel, it felt disrespectful.

Then I read 'Rapture' by Carol Ann Duffy. I was on a train from Clapham to Haslemere and remember the journey just wasn't long enough. I was visiting family friends so I couldn't get off the train and ask them to leave me alone for another hour though I wanted to. This book was another marvel for me. Another world opened.

Recently I caught up with Melbourne poet Kristin Henry, who had taught me in short story classes more than a decade ago, which prompted me to read some of her recent work. And so I found her verse novel, 'All the way home'.

I'm still reading it, but this book is another marvel for me. Perhaps this time a stunning reminder rather than an introduction, but no less powerful.

I feel like we're in a time where forms are all sitting down to the table together - short stories and flash fiction and poetry - like an extended family. As I've been reading Henry's work I feel like the verse novel is the relative that sits alongside the anthologies, novels, best-of essays and poetry collections, and is the one that can hold court with everyone. There's the story arc, character development, plot, dialogue, all the bricks, but there's also scaling and refining that results in tightened, necessary prose. And that doesn't mean it is dense. Henry's poems are conversations and thoughts that we can all, as readers, access and respond to.
"This story is irresistible. Kristin Henry untangles the yearnings and frailties of the human heart. Her characters are real." Andrea Goldsmith
Yesterday was National Poetry Day in the UK, an event held on different dates internationally. Perhaps in the future we'll take time to acknowledge verse novels, and novellas, and and and...

Some of my published poetry:

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Time out track - This Living

Connections - friends and music - over the last few weeks

A friend emailed to say hi and organise to catch up, and mentioned in her note that she hasn't been doing much lately (juggling young children etc) but she is enjoying the new Ryan Adams album. She's been responsible for introducing me to so much great music, most importantly Ray LaMontagne (at The Corner Hotel circa 2006 - gold) but Adams has always been that step too close to country for me. Anyway, I gave the latest album a run. My sentiment hasn't really changed, but it's been a long time since I've listened to him, and it wasn't a painful session.

I'm starting a series of interviews with writers in the cafe they like to work in and I went to the first of these at 'Carolina' in Brunswick East, which it turns out is named after the song 'Oh My Sweet Carolina,' by Ryan Adams. The cafe is a gem, and I've discovered that I can like Ryan Adams.

Music has always been as important as books to me, but since coming home earlier this year I haven't been to a live gig. I was lamenting that recently with another friend, who amongst other things works as a freelance music reviewer. So she said she'd start sending me details of upcoming gigs I might like to get to.  After our brunch she'd emailed to say that our conversation about writing and what we're each trying to do with our lives had inspired her to get back to her desk, while I'd come away inspired to get live music back into my life. It was one of those emails that helps you press on when you're having doubts about your choices, and anytime is a good time for one of those.

I'm house-sitting at the moment, and on the way home from the football last Saturday night we stopped in at the only local bar. I hadn't been there before, and walked in to the sort of old-school, boys rocking out in the garage gig that I'd forgotten you can still see. We ended up staying late and came home with a CD and feeling about 20 years younger.

And then on Sunday I got an email offering a ticket to a couple of Melbourne gigs, including Lauren Glezer playing on Sunday at The Evelyn. I was out when I read the email, and I streamed this song lying in the sun in a park, on a Sunday that consisted of people-watching over brunch, motoring around listening to PBS tunes, eating a burrito at South Melbourne market and stocking up on supplies for dinner.

I'm feeling that 'This Living' thing is a pretty beautiful marvel for me right now, and when I see my Ryan Adams friend today I'll see if she's interested in coming along on Sunday. If not, at least I've introduced her to another artist, and who knows who else we'll hear or meet on Sunday and where that will take us.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Time out track - courtesy of a couple of old aunties

I take my role as Auntie Jen pretty seriously - see my stress in 'We Need To Talk About Sticky' if you need proof - and though I have three great "real" aunts I've learned from, there is another one,  a woman with thousands of nephews and nieces, who wields great influence.

Meet Aunty Meredith
We were introduced circa 2004 and caught up annually until 2007. Every year I drove to meet her with a car of friends, non-glass beverages, a tent we'd spend very little time in, thongs and wet weather boots, and an absolute certainty that we were in for a fabulous family reunion.

This week aunty emailed me the details of her guests for MMF 2014 and, as always, I read about old friends and new discoveries, and if I was going to the gathering I would already have the little kid on Christmas Day tummy. 

One of her guests is Phosphorescent, and though I probably should have already known them, I didn't. Here's what Aunty M said in her email:
"The most exciting new music now seems to be being made by people who have been making it for a long time. The cult of the new is warping towards the cult of the newly-recognised-for-being-terrific. Phosphorescent’s new album – his sixth! – is a critics’ fave; his biggest and most acclaimed. Many would think it’s his debut, he remains a mystery to too many people. But there’s no doubt here – this will win over a lot of people. It’s my nephew’s odds-on favourite to be one of the discovery hits of the festival. Saturday afternoon, your new favourite band could be six albums old."
Nephews are almost as wise as aunties, and I now have this song firmly planted in my Friday mind. Maybe you'd like to too.

Oh and if you're getting to Meredith in December, send my best to the Pink Flamingo. I hope to be on site for Golden Plains next year - same same but different.

Oh and guess what? STICKY LIVED! For a couple of weeks, and then Sticky died. But it wasn't on my watch.