Thursday, 2 July 2015

Words Out: some same same, but different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Words Out: plotting Melbourne's future literary map


Thursday, 18 June 2015

Words Out - Mark Brandi at Abbotsford Convent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Words Out - plotting Melbourne's future literary map
 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

What I Loved: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 29 May 2015

Kindness makes us good writers, good readers and good people

On Tuesday night I joined the Melbourne Literary May Salon, a monthly event I've been wanting to get to for, well, months. It was lovely to meet new people, including the hostess Anna Burkey, in an atmosphere that happily welcomes newbies and celebrates its writers' achievements.

I tagged along to Deakin Edge for the EWF opening night expecting welcomes, words from someone amazing who has well and truly emerged, an announcement or two and an after party. Between Justina Ashman winning the Monash Arts Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing and Jane Harper being awarded the Victorian Premier's Unpublished Manuscript Award, we were treated to a beautiful few minutes from the elegant and eloquent Emily St. John Mandel.

Her talk covered place, home, work that has inspired her and how she has emerged from not knowing anyone in the industry, not having any creative writing (or other) formal qualifications, to find that the values that make a good writer are the same as those we admire in a good person. I'd love to listen to a recording of her time on stage - although it was perhaps softer than other parts of the event it was as inspiring, respectful and an absolute celebration of good writers, readers and people.

She shared a quote from A Correspondence with Eleanor Catton as a truism to think about, which mirrors my recent experience of support and generosity from Melbourne's literary community as I launch a new venture.
"Kindness is a core value for any artist, but most especially for a fiction writer: a self-centred person can’t see the world from another person’s point of view.”

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.

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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.