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.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Sitting in - Melbourne voices

Last week I had a few where-am-I flashes. My front door confused me, because it wasn't my London front door. I saw a woman I vaguely knew, but I couldn't work out which city I knew her from. I went out for a coffee to the same cafe I've gone to nearly every morning for nearly 6 months, and was surprised when I got there that it wasn't the same cafe I'd gone to nearly every morning for over 12 months in London.

But yesterday well and truly anchored me.

My Monday morning writing group, led by Nicole Hayes, is the ideal way to start the week. We're a mixed bunch in terms of ages and backgrounds, each working on very different projects. Yesterday we read an extract of a novel set in Melbourne in the 70s and 80s, captured brilliantly through the POV of a teenage girl desperate to be on the stage. In a plea to her father to take her to the ballet, "he can't bloody well miss the Richmond vs Collingwood match to watch a bunch of poofters prancing on a stage," can he.

Brilliant. We know where we are and when.

Driving home I stopped at the lights by Dairy Bell. And remembered. Getting off the train at East Malvern to go and get an ice-cream after school / delay going home to Glen Waverley. Walking from my old apartment, down Belgrave Road, holding hands with my nephew when he was young. I kept driving along Malvern Road and saw the buildings of my old school up on the hill, turned down High St, passed Harold Holt where I've swum more kms over the last 30 years than I could count.

So I was in a pretty contemplative mood when I arrived at the Malvern library for the Tales Out Loud session with Sofie Laguna.

The small group of us were taken to a room upstairs that looks out over the oval I walk the dog on most mornings. We were offered coffee, tea and biccies, and a choice of listening to Sofie reading from her new (not yet published) book, or Q&A, or a bit of both. She started reading.

Sofie's trained as an actor, so it's wonderful to hear her read with Jimmy's 6 year-old energy, and an intensity that doesn't seem quite right from the start. The Eye of the Sheep wastes no time and in our session we're firmly placed with the Flick family in Altona and Laverton with Holdens and Passiona. We've got Dad retreating to Merle Haggard with a bottle of Cutty Sark, and Mum doing her Doris Day - a brilliant balance of comedy, tension and a hand placed on the heart getting ready to grip.

The official launch is on Thursday night at Readings (Hawthorn). I'd get there if you can.

To cap off a Monday of sitting in with fantastic Melbourne writers/ing, I started reading Nicole Hayes' first novel, The Whole Of My World. Another thought I'd had driving home was how come I haven't read this before? Every week Nicole is fresh and keen to listen to our latest work. She has that rare talent of giving valuable feedback and suggestions after just one read, and I haven't read her first book yet! She's already finished writing her second!

It's my first YA novel as an adult, and even though I like footy I wasn't sure that I was going to really enjoy it. I mean, I'm a long way from the target demographic. Shelley, with an e, is a Glenthorn Football Club fan who tracks more footy stats than the professionals. Starting at a new Catholic girls' school, she's doing her best to stick to her dad's saying: Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to position.

After just a few pages I was thinking I need to buy it for one of my dearest friends (from old girls' school days), and I'll get Nicole to sign it, and I should turn the light out now, I need an early night, okay just one more chapter.

I read the pre-season (about a quarter of the book). I turned the light out and put an eye mask on. I thought about my day, the writers here, how there's so many opportunities to meet them, hear them and learn from them.

I knew I was in Melbourne.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

What I Loved: Patient: The story of a rare illness

I was at a pre-program launch for the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago.  It was a civilised gathering in Aesop on Collins St, with wine from Mount Langhi Gihran.

The ever-smiling hostess, Lisa Dempster, stood before us with a few pages of text that she barely referred to. Clearly, orchestrating a diverse and innovative program doesn't mean she's out of touch with any of the details.

I was grinning as she talked about the In Conversation session with Ben Watt. Maybe it was Lisa speeding up and (have I imagined this?) fanning herself talking about the lead singer of Everything But The Girl and his books? Maybe she, too, knew a boy that had given her an EBTG album a few decades ago?

Whether it's fair to 'blame' Lisa or not, the Ben Watt session was highlighted at my program planning session the next morning. Ticket booked I thought I'd better have a look at what he's been up to over the past 20+ years.

I borrowed Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness and started it late one night, just to knock over a few pages. It's a good thing I knew that this stuff happened a while ago and Ben is alive and touring and "well", because I was tense and teary in my 75 page quick opening read.

I'm wary of true stories in the actual people's hands. If they're not written well I'm saddened by the waste of a good story, and then I experience a little self-disgust for responding like that. But there's nothing to worry about here.

Watts' journey of dreadful physical illness includes more medical specialists than one hospital hires, surgeries and drips and hoses in and out of his body, and we learn all of this with blends of facts and his reflections. I never thought I'd be rooting for levels of his cell counts and blood culture tests, and I held my breath while they slow-bombed him with cyclophosphamide.

But where he really gets me is writing about other people. Several aspects are analogous to the prison experience, and "like a lone diver among sharks, I would watch the cool-eyed doctors and anaesthetists glide round my bed." During his first days in hospital he doesn't want to face other patients and their illnesses, but over time they become part of his community. We see the arrivals of long-term patients who know the drill, and newcomers who look as confused and dis-interested in others as Watts did at the start.

One morning a patient had been prepped and drugged for theatre, but was left waiting in the ward. He was stoned and couldn't stop giggling, "like a little boy in bed on the morning of his birthday." It infected the whole ward so patients gigged at anything, at the nurse apologising for the delay, the porter arriving with a trolley. For a few minutes these terribly sick men are like little boys in a mini-pageant. It's one of the many places Watts uses humour that is natural and a delightful release.

I'm not sure my nerves are ready for his recent memoir - "a remarkably intimate portrayal of his parents." This was enough on how his relationship with his father evolved during his illness to send me back to the tissues -
"We sat together with our little legs side by side, and just started talking in quiet voices - nothing demonstrative or loaded with meaning: just odd things about the car, about jazz and the cricket. I felt like we were boys. And I realised that was how he wanted it. He didn't really want to be my grown-up dad. He wanted to be on equal terms, conspiratorial and even-handed. Good fellas. Little musketeers. I told him I liked his shoes, and he said he would get me a pair. It was something concrete that he could do."

Interestingly I didn't have EBTG in my head while reading this, but couldn't shake James Taylor -
"I feel fine anytime she's around me now, she's around me now almost all the time. And if I'm well you can tell she's been with me now. She's been with me now quite a long, long time, and I feel fine."
I'd like to think that Ben and Tracey would be okay with that.

What I Loved - work I have read and must share

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Ugly words

Write a list of 10 words that you dislike for their ugliness 

I haven't been doing daily prompts for a while now, but liked the look of this one. Well actually I thought, I can't do that. I'm a word lover. Language is everything - when I write I have no plot and I struggle with dialogue. I need to be able to use EVERY word available. That's what I thought and sat down with a bit of I'll-show-you there's no such thing as ugly words.

1. Flux. Just arrived, straight away. Don't know why.
2. Khaki. But I like olive. Maybe the issue is more sound than sight.
3. Winningest. It's just wrong. I might be old-fashioned and a bit slow to take up new lingo but if it's good, I'm all for it. I was so excited about folktronica I had to share it. But this one? Unattractive. Unsightly. Disrespectful. For many reasons it is indeed Hideous.
4. Presenteeism. Yes, another new-ish addition that is a visual insult.
But enough of the new vernacular.
5. Stakeholder. My eyes well up when they see this. Of course, writing CVs for a living I do actually use it, a lot, but it hurts. And don't even get me started on "touch base" as an expression.
6. Experiential. I misspelt that when I typed it. Enough said. Actually misspelt isn't pretty either.
7. Fugitive. Don't think I like that "fug" is pronounced "fuge". Too trickster.
8. Umbrage. Can't remember ever using it.
9. Cutthroat. Doesn't look right as one word, and loses the impact of its meaning when it's rammed together.
10. Glut. Because they can't all be long words.

Well that was pretty easy. There's clearly a range of attributes that make a word ugly, to me, and I'm a little disheartened that I could keep going here. But I won't.

I'll restore my love of language with my favourite word. I remember reading it for the first time in a David Malouf novel. It must have been about 30 years ago, and I didn't know what it meant but I loved the sound of it, and when I looked it up in the dictionary, I knew it was the one. Indelible.

Dare I ask - do you have any ugly words? I'm starting to think that a good list will be valuable. Not as words to avoid, but a vault of expressions for the unlikeable characters in our stories.

Response to Sarah Selecky daily prompt - 24th July.