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: www.nicolehayesauthor.com 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.

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.