Friday, 8 May 2015

Words Out - Angela Meyer at Nant

Angela Meyer's bio shows that she's already far more than a successful writer and editor. When I first met her at a Readings event last year I ended up having a drink with her afterwards, and I remember leaving on a late tram with a strong impression of Angela as an intelligent, generous, passionate and intellectually curious woman.

So I was a bit nervous getting ready to meet her at Nant. I felt like the venue and the writer were both going to prove too cool for me to hang with. I left a bed piled high with clothing items that were never going to combine well. On the train I re-read my 30 pages of interviews, blog extracts, published material and articles and wondered if perhaps I should try doing these Words Out conversations with a bit more structure - a written set of questions even.

Nant Whisky Bars are tucked in CBD laneways in Brisbane, Melbourne and Salamanca. I did a recce to find the one in Driver Lane where Angela works before wandering off, not wanting to try my hand at ordering a drink and waiting in a leather wingback or perched on a stool at the whisky-drinkers' high table.

Angela arrived as I was re-entering the almost empty bar and my nerves were wiped when she served me one of those smiles of hers. If you've met her you know what I mean - she could stop a crocodile and make it want to sit down and have a wee chat.

We sat outside and before we'd ordered Angela told me that she'd be doing her last shift at Nant that night. She'd suggested meeting there because it's appeared in or influenced her writing during the 12 months she's worked there - it's a powerful sensory environment, and for someone who genuinely loves whisky it's not surprising that it might have found its way into her work. She'd thought of the alleyway alongside the bar when writing 'Close Like This', recently published in The Lifted Brow. (This piece was also inspired by a dream, which is particularly special as Kafka is one of her heroes.) But the whisky love goes further back than her time working here and appears several times in her collection, 'Captives'.

cask strength?
Because I know nothing about whisky Angela and her colleague decided what I should try and again I felt like a teenager, playing dress-ups at the table with the adults. When our drinks arrived I got a glimpse of Angela leading a workshop -
'Let me tell you about tasting whisky.'
I put my glass down.
She wasn't sure if I'd been given the "cask strength" or not. I didn't know what that meant but there is manic laughing on the recording of our conversation when she told me that cask strength is 63% alcohol.
Before it was time to taste Angela gave me tips on holding the glass, how to breathe, trying to identify smell, taking note of flavours on the palate and the finish (is it long, is it oily). This is the kind of specificity and interest that I love about Angela's writing -
"Dover couldn't live without purple Okinawan sweet potatoes…"
"He gave his staff the night off and pulled a round of French brie, some starfruit from Sri Lanka and a fine single malt from his stores."
[from 'Space or vegetables' in 'Captives']

In 'Whisky Nights' on Writers' Bloc, Angela says that she enjoys hearing different people's responses to the same drink - that you bring your own experiences to a glass of whisky and this evokes different smells and tastes. I didn't know what my whisky was like. Honey? No. Vanilla? I didn't really think so but nodded, wondering what my uncertainty said about me. Angela's whisky of choice was a smoky one and when I smelt it I shouted 'bacon', so excited that I recognised something. Apparently 'smoky' is the appropriate term, and here I must also proclaim that THERE IS NEVER ICE IN ANGELA'S WHISKY.

Angela started working at Nant when she was balancing other publishing commitments, but she wants and needs to devote more time to her new role as Commissioning Editor at Echo Publishing. And it's probably time to get her weekends back, although that does feel like one of those "I'm moving in to the next phase of my life" steps. At the mention of her job with Echo she's beaming again. She's full of positivity talking about so many things: writing full-length manuscripts and putting them away because (in her mind) they just weren't good enough; other people's work - waving 'Black Rock White City' by A.S. Patric; Inkerman & Blunt's faith in her during the development of 'Captives'; being invited to appear at festivals; reading submissions; editing anthologies…exercising almost every day must be essential to keep up her energy and schedule. Right now she's "really, really excited" about the July release of her first commission in her current role - Gary Kemble's 'Skin Deep' - which is Echo Publishing's first Australian fiction title.

Before meeting up with me Angela had squeezed in an hour of writing at Glenfern. She'd done 1,000 words in 1 hour and 20 minutes and was up to (checking her app tracker to be sure) 46,000 words in her fourth "attempt to write a novel". It's set in 19th Century Scotland. And the future. She calls it the biggest thing she's ever tried to write, both conceptually and length-wise, and is calm admitting that she may not be able to pull it off. This doesn't deter her because she believes that everything she writes helps her get better. I think if anyone should be trying something that ambitious she's got to be top of the list.

Angela's also working on and sending out flash fiction, taking part in 'Dear Everybody' on Instagram and planning a release on Gumroad (with the help of Daniel Young, Tincture Journal) that may include some audio.

And later this year Angela's heading off to Scotland to do research (including distillery visits), 4WD off-roading and hire a house where a famous writer, who might have been known to some as 'Eric Blair', wrote a very famous novel that might have a date for a title. There's more than a sparkle with this smile when she talks about a week writing in a damp, cold and remote house that's like camping with a roof on, surrounded by deer, eagles and "ridiculous wildlife".

But too soon it was coming up to 6pm on the Saturday that we met, time for Angela to get changed and start her final shift at Nant. And to celebrate afterwards? This Kafka, cheese and whisky loving, flash fiction novelist editor was expecting to have a few drinks and hit Schnitz for a late night treat. Schnitz? Yes, you might also find her in a Schintz.

* * * * *

Thanks so much for your time and warmth Angela, and to Melbourne writers who continue to be so generations and supportive of my series Words Out - plotting Melbourne's future literary map.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Time Out Track - get the mind right, the body will follow

It's Friday already? My week's centred around nursing a 14-year-old dog who's suddenly slowed right down physically and showing serious signs of dementia. My nights have been upset by her waking up, waking me up to go outside, resisting going back to bed, getting up and getting me up. She walks around the house aimlessly, often sitting and shaking facing a corner. We've still managed a morning shuffle but these days she looks more like a wombat than a Terrier, and I'm not sure that she's getting any joy from being out at all. Last night she started barking and crying at 2.30am and this morning she's exhausted. Me too a bit.

On Tuesday I had a distress call from my sister-in-law - her youngest (of four) had broken his arm (again) and my brother's away trekking Kokoda and could I pick the other children up after school and if need be stay the night? Of course. I took Pip the old girl who shook outside the primary school, shook when we got back to the house, with Bonnie the 12-week-old Hungarian Vizsla, and for the first time in all of this wouldn't eat her food.

It's not been a great week for the family, but because life can be kind there has been some hilarious relief.

Last week a new mind and body studio opened near my house and I took advantage of the 7-day all-classes-for-free pass. I've done lots of different types of yoga before and tend to prefer the slower forms so I loved the yin yoga at 5pm on an autumnal Sunday. I know it's not usually a time for giggling but I couldn't stop when we did the sleeping swan. I was in agony after the Class Pilates the day before and was definitely more dying swan than sleeping.
One of the lessons I learned when training for a marathon was to smile at pain - if you can still smile, and even better laugh, you know you're doing okay.

So the pilates class on Saturday was my first and for some reason I was expecting a big blue exercise ball and lots of stretching. But no. It was on a machine called a Reformer, with a foot bar and springs to adjust tension, and straps for your feet and hands. I trip over walking down the street and throw some pretty interesting shapes on the dance floor so didn't take too naturally to this, but it was a session where laughing wasn't out of place. At least I wasn't the only one laughing at myself.

It's strange the tangents your mind follows during exercise, and part way through the class I remembered that music video of choreographed treadmill moves, and got the giggles again. I couldn't walk after the class, but I'd had a good laugh and it carried on when I got home and watched 'Here It Goes Again' a few times.

I've only had one coffee this morning so can't try and explain the thread that led me to find 'Slow Dancer' a couple of days later, but his 'Took The Floor Out' is a more recent but equally classic video, including yoga on a pier and in a DVD shop, and as I'm enjoying both of these while procrastinating on a Friday morning, I thought they'd be good to share.

Pip's just hopped up and done a downward-facing-dog. She's looking at me like she wants her breakfast. Maybe we'll make it down the street for a coffee and the fresh air will straighten us both out and as we pass the studio where yoga flow is finishing and clear meditation is starting, maybe we'll both get our minds right, and our bodies will follow.

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 needed 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.

What I Loved - work I have read and must share

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)