Friday, 14 November 2014

What I Loved: The Dangerous Bride (Lee Kofman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Understanding my response to Graham Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess I need to work on my consistency.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Words Out - Else Fitzgerald at Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words Out: a series of interviews with writers in the cafes they like to work in.  I'm making Melbourne's future literary map for tourists in the years to come.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The verse novel

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

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

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

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

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

It was incredible, too marvellous to speak of.

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my published poetry:

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Time out track - This Living

Connections - friends and music - over the last few weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 August 2014

Time out track - courtesy of a couple of old aunties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Time Out Track - Elemental

Since moving back to Melbourne, 176 Little Lonsdale Street has become an office, a writing thinking and listening space, and tonight somewhere to hangout with friends.

Residents of the building are the people behind The Wheeler Centre, Writers Victoria, Emerging Writers' Festival, The Small Press Network, Express Media, Australian Poetry, and those slightly busy right now folk from Melbourne Writers' Festival.

What an incredible space.

And tonight, a few friends I used to work with, yikes must be nearly 10 years ago now, are catching up for a drink. I'd been saying how much I'm enjoying "discovering" Melbourne since moving back, so I was charged with sussing the coolest places to hang.

I was looking for somewhere we could sit down, drink and eat. Somewhere with a bar after work feeling that wouldn't make us feel too old, and offered real food (rather than go our old Friday night dinner of eating the olives in our Martinis).

Another friend said, "To access the 'coolest' places we either needed to book about 6 weeks ago or spend an hour in a winter's line. My main criterion was 'a place to sit' (perhaps a rug and a thermos)."

His suggestion, a brilliant one, was The Moat. So tonight I'm going back to 176 Little Lonsdale St.

The Wheeler Centre event upstairs, Press Freedom vs Political Power, will include discussion on important issues by intelligent writers and thinkers.

But another Wheeler Centre event, 'Elemental', is happening at The Bendigo Planterium, and inspired by this sold out session here's a Time Out Track from Rezonate.

On a Friday with dreadful international headlines, I hope you enjoy these few minutes of 'Elemental', and that you, too, are lucky enough to have a warm friendly space where you can spend time with people you care about.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

What I Loved: City of Bohane

I've just finished 'City of Bohane' and am full of expletives and remarkable wardrobing ideas. But I have no west coast future city of hoors and dream pipes near me, so the magic can't continue too long. And magic it is. Of the dark kind.

Last year I was lucky. I'd not read, or even heard of (why do I always feel like I'm confessing on here) Kevin Barry, but I went to a wordfactory 'Irish' event on a hot Saturday evening that happened to be during Pride in London, and Kevin Barry read. It was a brilliant short story and perhaps more importantly, his delivery is so animated and accented that once you've heard him, he's reading to you from the pages in your hands.

If you haven't read City of Bohane yet, let me pick a random page and sling you a sample…
"Mouth of teeth on him like a vandalised graveyard but we all have our crosses." (p. 4)
"See him back there:
A big unit with deep-set eyes and a squared-off chin. Dark-haired, and sallow, and wry. The kind of kid who whore his bruises nicely." (p. 53)
I want to go on, to get you a line that's setting, maybe about the Back Traces, de Valera Street or Big Nothin'. But instead I'll leave you with the thirst to read it yourself, and a little help from Kevin to get you started.

What I Loved - work I have read and must share

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Time out track with genres - She's The One

After enjoying a portugese tart with Alison Croggon's genre-bending feature in this month's 'The Victorian Writer' magazine, I sat back to do some work, after a quick Twitter check.

Thanks to Steve Palfreyman asking if anyone needed some entertaining, I listened to this song by Quintessential Doll, and discovered a new music genre that will now be one of my answers to the question, 'What music do you like?'


YouTube have again shown me that I am well behind the music, and genre times. But though the f-term was coined years ago, like finding Voodoo Jazz in August last year, it's an exciting discovery for me.

And then I find that I own quite a few artists who are classified here on various sites…well shame on you iTunes with your 'Electronic' tag.

Here's one from my vault.

Now, back to that work thing.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Sitting In…Indigenous Places with Tony Birch

Last Wednesday night I sat in the front row of the 176 Little Lonsdale St performance space. Evaluation sheets had been placed on each seat, and I realised that I didn't have any expectations.

Truth: I only heard of Tony Birch a few months ago. Nicole Hayes, my writing tutor, brought 'Ghost River' to our group to study, and that set off a series that seems to happen organically once you've noticed something. 'Blood' is in a collection I was reading to research Paddy O'Reilly, who is judging a competition I'd like to enter. A friend in London tweeted about the Frank O'Connor shortlist and I landed on the longlist, and there's Tony. He's the writer in residence on The Wheeler Centre's Weather Stations project, which is enjoying enormous publicity. And there he is on the Writers Victoria program - Author talk. Indigenous Places.

I had no expectations, I just wanted to see and hear him speak.

Because there was a sort of lectern, a Dr. on a stage and we were seated in straight rows, I felt like I was at the start of a lecture, and subsequently that I should take notes. But quickly that compulsion moved from obligation, because I was fascinated, and (importantly) prompted to think. Several times I wandered off from what was being presented because it sparked so much for me to look into later.

At one point I wrote in my notebook, "Awkward eye contact with TB. I think he thinks I'm a stalker starer. Should have sat further back."

But I was in the front row, and I was writing ideas about how to explore issues in my writing; how to explore my place through not just my own, but others' experience of it. I caught myself eye-locked, mouth pursed and nodding thoughtfully, and thought I must look like a complete wanker, but really I felt awake in the way only intelligent, provocative, considered and interesting conversation creates. I felt as though I'd been taken as a plus one to a dinner party and fortuitously sat beside a compelling and sociable guest, and I didn't want to be interrupted.

The overwhelming message I left with was the value of telling stories. That everyone and everywhere (even Glen Waverley) has a story, and we have a responsibility to pass these stories on. Many of the things that connect us to place, and each other, may be small but they are significant. So my notebooks and collages of observations - a man reading a Feng Shui detective novel on the tube to Arsenal; the French girls playing Trivial Pursuit at my local, certain that the English word 'seal' was the correct answer to the question, "What kind of animals are the main characters in Watership Down?" - I felt a validation for continually noting these sorts of things, and my efforts to construct stories around them.

My notes from the session appear as a random set of unrelated topics - from Hiroshima to ACMI and digital storytelling - but they all have hours of meaning for me to rummage in.

At 6.30pm Tony had spoken of Tanderrum, a Wurundjeri practice where the host has to give their guest something of great value. In a sense, participants at Wednesday night's session should leave feeling they had got more than their ticket price's worth. At 9.00pm I sat on my tram, writing, and drew a box around: Tony Birch is an extremely generous host. I knew I'd wake up feeling as though I had more than "got my money's worth". And I missed my stop.

* * *
Sitting In is a series I've started of my experiences at writing, and potentially other, related events. Like my Time Out tracks and Book Comments, these are not meant to be reviews, but reflections.

I'm always interested in feedback or suggestions.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Hiatus is over - new releases on their way

A couple of weeks ago I got excited at the news of Favel Parrett's new book, 'When The Night Comes', hitting the shelves soon. I'm remaining calm as it's not due to happen until 26th August.
But it's not easy.

If you haven't read 'Past The Shallows', well I've given it to some very different people and all have loved it. My dad loved it. My EastEnders-Coronation Street watching English friend loved it. My dearest Melbourne best friend loved it. Okay that one didn't surprise me so much, but it was good to know.
And then on Monday morning Augie March tweeted, and rrr breakfasters told me, 'Yes, hiatus is over. Music made.'

It's been five years since they released 'Watch Me Disappear' and the new album is due to arrive "later this year".

I remember giving 'Moo, You Bloody Choir' to one of my nieces, opening up a dialogue about music that is still going. She's currently into Violent Soho, so we've diverged a little, but at least we still talk, and share, music.

Will I ever grow out of waiting for new release dates like waiting for Christmas Day?
There Is No Such…There Is No Way.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Time Out Track: "What The Heck Was That"

A Finger, Two Dots Then Me

Lately I've been listening to podcasts more than music. I'm in the final editing stages of a few stories, and need silence for that. But the new pieces I'm writing, which I'm trying to build from one line or an old woman I saw in the street…wherever they're from they're very very early, and need careful coaxing. So I've been writing while writers read to me. Sometimes it's their work in their voice, and sometimes they're reading stories of other writers.

My track history is dominated by:
- James Salter reading 'Break It Down' (Lorrie Moore) from The Guardian, and
- Colm Tóibín reading 'The Children's Grandmother' (Sylvia Townsend Warner) thanks to The New Yorker Fiction

And my latest addition, thanks to Going Down Swinging, is this clip from Derrick Brown, scored by Mogwai.

It might help you if you're flagging on a Friday afternoon, or give you words to reflect on, or prompt you to book a ticket to one of his upcoming (Australian) shows.

Or just fill the next 7 minutes and 40 seconds.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Time Out Track: What I'm Doing Here

This morning I read a 4.5* review of Lake Street Dive's recent release, Bad Self Portraits. It's their 3rd album but [confession] I hadn't heard of them before.

They've been compared to an impressive line up - ABBA, Mamas and Papas, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin - and then there's the breakthrough video of LSD funking up "I Want You Back" (Jackson 5) that has been watched more than 1.8m times. As well as crafting a cool rendition on a Boston sidewalk, they even make double denim work.

Looking at video clips available I saw "What Am I Doing Here?" and thought of Radiohead's "Creep" and it all seemed to fit with the piles of ideas I have strewn around my room at the moment.

It may not be the latest or best track from LSD, but this studio recording is a pretty sweet introduction to a band cracking big success after 10 years touring in vans. If you live in Europe or USA, you can catch them on their extensive 2014 tour. Us Antipodeans might have to canvas lead singer Rachel Price to drop in to the country where she was born, but in the meantime, the album's a pearler.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

We need to talk about Sticky

My brother and his wife and 4 children are enjoying a week in Bussleton, WA, so as (the wonderful) Auntie Jen, I’m in charge of the house. And that includes my niece’s pet: a stick insect.

I wasn’t that interested when she was showing Sticky off and talking about what great pets they are. In fact I can’t even remember any of Sticky’s virtues, but now I have a problem.

Last night I switched on the lights in the study. There was a shot crack, the bulb blew, and then the whole house was in darkness. Fortunately my niece likes to read in bed when she should be sleeping, and I know where she keeps her torch.

After some fuse flicking and a call to their neighbour – I couldn’t even sort out the safety switch light fuse issue – I was back in light. And thought I’d just drop in and say hi to the insect.

This is the email I just sent to my brother and his wife:

So, you know how I said he was all good on Sunday night? Last night, after the lighting incident, I went in to Scout's room to borrow her lamp as the lighting's a bit dim in the study now.

I said hi to Sticky and noticed that he looked, well, he was hanging in a rather precarious and surely uncomfortable position. I flicked his branch (gently of course) and got a couple of very limp reflexes from a couple of his bits. Thought (hoped) he was just sleeping. 

But he's still the same today and I'm very worried. (About a f*@!ing stick thing, I can't believe it.)

I've done some research, and these guys do have a lifespan of 6 - 12 months apparently. But HE CAN'T DIE on my watch. I'm terrified. Is there anything in terms of maintenance that you can recommend? Help! Can we bring him back to life? 

There's still a slight reflex, but he's wrapped around a leaf with his head tilted back like that fliptop kid that used to be on the Colgate ad and I'm wandering in there every hour hoping to see he's climbed up the side of the cage and is eating through a eucalyptus leaf.

What do you do when you’ve killed your niece’s pet?

I’ve only been back in the country for 2 months, and have so far basked in praise and daily, ‘I’m so glad your homes.’ I’ve even been thinking about writing something for a Families magazine, maybe even a Parents one, about ‘Don’t underestimate aunties…we’re almost as special as grandparents.’

But that, along with possible house-sitting opportunities, seems entirely unsuitable now.

I thought about saying that I hadn’t visited him the whole time they were away. He’d been given enough fresh leaves to get through the week, and I’d been told he’d be no trouble. Imagine my surprise!

But now I really think he’s really dead.

I suggested to a friend today that he’s suffering, missing his attentive and sweet animal-loving owner. My friend, and her 3 daughters, didn’t grace this with a reply.

I’ve tried blowing gentle resuscitation breaths at him – he seems to have become a ‘he’ in the last 24 hours – and talking to him, telling him that his beloved will be home soon and all will return to normal. But he still seems to be dead.

It’s another 6 days until the family returns. Waiting for a reply to my email is more tortuous than any will-he-won’t-he date call, and though I tell myself not to go in there and check for some miraculous recovery I keep going back.

My niece and I look very alike and I’ve always thought we have a very special bond. Now I fear whenever I ask her to try something new with me, or get in the car with me, even when I cook dinner for the family, she’ll look at me with my own blue eyes, and if she gets to the point where she doesn’t say it, she’ll always be thinking, ‘You killed Sticky. Just 5 days in your care, and you killed him.’

It’s possible I’ll spend hours trawling through the neighbourhood hunting another Sticky to do a switch. But I reckon, even though it’s only a f*@!ing insect, I reckon she’d know.

I could always get on a plane back to London…

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Time Out Track - Dialogue

I've taken a long online time out, but having settled back in Melbourne I'm now settling back into a desk. Well, many desks at the moment, floating around houses and using libraries as an office.

Yesterday I joined a writing group, and during the discussion we were steered to studying Elmore Leonard for great dialogue. I've always struggled with dialogue, and therefore tend to avoid it, so will certainly take the heads up.

And then driving home this track came on the radio, and seemed a perfect way back into my Time Out Tracks - here's some NZ dialogue in song.

Friday, 21 February 2014

MELBOURNENOW - the crystal ball is broken

Earlier at NGV, as part of the Melbourne Now exhibition, Lisa Dempster chaired a panel consisting of Fiona Wood, Warren Bonnett and Connor O'Brien. We had festivals, writing, bookselling, publishing, designing, technology…basically experience and expertise on the chain of words. And our focus was the supply and demand of words from Melbourne.

There are many reasons why types (I don't want to start the genre, sub-genre classification debate) of writing are growing in popularity: science can thank the science journalists'  job losses for the improving quality of books tackling complicated and extraordinary events in the world; YA appeals to adults because it touches a time in our lives that typically was in flux as we developed our identities, and for some that is nostalgic, for others it contains regrets, but regardless it tends to be a time we love looking back at; digital developments are linking people in discussions and debates (with faces!) and showing how it really doesn't matter where you live, you can always participate in a literary event.

I've just returned to Melbourne and so enjoyed hearing two words over and over again during today's discussion: infrastructure and support.

The Wheeler Centre was at least part of the answer to most questions:
- What does it mean for Melbourne to be a City of Literature: engagement between readers and writers.
- And how dow we achieve that here? The Wheeler Centre, our range of festivals and our pool of passionate booksellers. Oh, and a talented writing community.

So what does the future look like?

As Warren reminded us, a year before the internet was 'launched', no-one predicted it's take-off. Initially IBM refrained from entering the PC market, forecasting a demand of approx. 10 per nation.

So what's the next thing in publishing? And how can you/I/we make sure we're a part of it?

The crystal ball might be broken, but right now Melbourne is a great place for readers, and writers, to be.

Our independent booksellers each have unique personalities and a place in their community, and just last week were consulted by the Melbourne City Council to talk about what council policies can do for them. So good infrastructure can get better.

The diverse calendar of literary events are all well-attended, and we're in a place that supports getting new ideas off the ground. Just look at the line-up in Connor's Digital Writers' Festival (and you'll notice The Wheeler Centre behind the scenes).

As is a trend globally, we have seen an explosion in book clubs and reading groups, but here we're also now seeing growth in volunteer programmes to help teach people to read. There's a lot of goodwill amongst readers and writers, and it's hard to imagine anything will slow that down.

Speaking for the YA market, but perhaps relevant across all Australian writing, Fiona has been asked 'what's in the water down there?' by people in the US. Our words are fresh and filled with an energy that makes them stand out.

We have some amazing publishers with international reputations that take chances locally but think globally. Innovation has deep roots here - Fiona worked on the 'Poems on Post-Its' project 25 years ago!

Who knows if we'll follow Krakow and have reserved seats on trams for readers, or if, like Paris, the literary supply chain will receive government subsidies. Who would have known there'd be a job as a bibliotherapist? A year ago the death knell for 'long form content' (ie. a book) started to ring, and then there's the success of 'The Luminaries' and 'Goldfinch'.

I don't know what's next or how it will look or who'll be leading it, but I am pretty confident that I'm in a good place to write, read, listen, learn, and have a lot of fun with the passionate people around me.

And finally, is there an iconic Melbourne text?

  • Fiona has The Getting of Wisdom (Henry Handel Richardson) for her childhood, Helen Garner in her 20s, and now the many contemporary YA writers using Melbourne as their setting.
  • Connor read Barracuda (Christos Tsiolkais) the day he moved to Melbourne, so it shed some light on society and places here.
  • Warren recommends Melbourne (Sophie Cunningham) as well as Christos and Helen.
Perhaps you've got one to share?

Thursday, 20 February 2014

On being back

I flew back to Melbourne on a one-way ticket a week ago.

Last February I visited for a month after my job 'finished'. I loved it - spending time with my family, reading, swimming - but I remember looking out the window as I drove interstate or caught the train to the other side of town to visit a friend, thinking I just couldn't see myself in Melbourne. I couldn't see where I'd live or what I'd do.

I was ready to return home to London.

Thanks to some vigorous encouragement by my good (writer) friend Amanda Saint, while she established and built-up Retreat West, I moved writing out of hobby status and got involved in the writing world. It started with this blog and Twitter (using Books for Dummies and a healthy vocabulary of swear words), as well as reading more widely, studying as I read (it was a good excuse for the time I spent doing it), and producing more and more of my own work.

By the end of 2013 I'd been to Word Factory UK and Spread The Word events, retreats by different fabulous people in Sheepwash, Exmoor and Portugal, and almost met my 25k word short story collection target.

And I'd decided it was time to move back to Melbourne.

Lots of things went into that decision, and yesterday while my dad was driving me to another appointment, I said to a friend how strange it is to look out the window and feel the thrill of being here. A sense of belonging again.

Tomorrow I'm going to listen to Lisa Dempster, Director of the Melbourne Writers' Festival, query a panel of experts on 'Writing Now.' Next week I'll be at The Wheeler Centre to hear David Vann and then I'm meeting at Writers Victoria to talk about volunteering with them.

And on Saturday I'm going down to a beach house where there's no internet. I'm going to read, write, hopefully throw away the crutches (finally) and fall into the salt water, and feel like I'm home again.

Last year was a significant one for me, and it feels now like it doesn't necessarily matter where I am, so long as I'm writing and around people who love words as much as I do. I can't wait to get involved with, and share my experience of, the writing world down here.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

I'm in London still...

In the usual nostalgia that brews when I'm approaching a big change, in this case moving back to Melbourne after 5.5 years away, I've been listening to this song that a very dear friend played to me after I got back from 12 months university-graduate-backpacking 20 years ago.

My two friends and I flew to London from Rome in July 1994, ready to activate our 2 year work visa. We'd been travelling for 5 months in Western and Mediterranean Europe. We'd wandered from a month on a Greek Island through Turkey and Israel, taken a taxi into Egypt where we'd ridden camels and a feluka. I'd been worth 500 camels one day, and depreciated to 50 a month later.

In some ways the idea of settling in one first-world place, unpacking our clothes, and going to work seemed appealing.

We rented a 2 bedroom ground floor apartment in Wood Green. The rubber hose on our bath taps burst after a few minutes, scalding a foot. Coffee was drunk from our tin travel mugs, and we had a stash of glasses we'd stolen from happy hours in bars. We had a backyard but we couldn't see through the metre-high weeds. I registered with a few temp agencies and quickly set out in my Topshop suits.

On Friday nights my friends would go to bars in Shepherd's Bush and catch up with friends we'd made on Ios and at the Oktoberfest, and I started to stay in for some quiet space. I'd buy a cheap Bulgarian red and a piece of cheese from Sainsbury's, sit in the yellow sitting room listening to music and writing letters. When it was late enough to call Melbourne, I'd go to the phone box down the street and ring my friends.

I lasted six weeks.

I suggested to my friends we hit the road again. They laughed and started packing their bags.

Twenty years later I'm surrounded by piles of books, sorting out what to donate and what to take. I've got some possessions on eBay, my relocation is booked and the seat on my long flight is reserved.

My parents were here for Christmas, and after visiting me every year they realised they might not be back here for a while, so we plotted a busy schedule for their fortnight: Christmas Eve at the Royal Albert Hall, dinner at Nopi, Barry Humphries' farewell tour, salt beef bagels in Brick Lane. I went on the tour of the Houses of Parliament. I'm going to go to the V&A museum, the Everyman cinema, and ride the cable car.

It's sad leaving friends, the writing scene I've become so much more involved in, access to Europe and foxes in the backyard. I have parents, brothers and sisters-in-law, 8 nephews and nieces, good friends, a beach house and the MCG waiting for me…so…Hello Possums!