Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sitting In - The Next Big Thing

Last night I was at the final 2015 'Next Big Thing' at The Wheeler Centre. After weeks, no months really, of not writing much and fighting it with prompts and recriminations, listening to these five writers seems to have been the restorative that I needed.

While outside a spring northerly picked up to almost 100 kmh, listeners, actors, family members and friends were crowded into the front room in The Moat. Each work, and writer, is very different, but the one that got me thinking and had me scribbling at 5.30 this morning was Sam van Zweeden, reading from her project, 'Eating With My Mouth Open'.

Exploring the relationship between food and memory, from both a personal and investigative approach, Sam shared some of her intelligent and honest stories. She's weaving research into her reflections and making a beautiful collection, one I hope that we'll all hear more from soon.

Today I've been thinking about my own food memories.

My grandma is jersey caramels and butterfly cakes - also Promite on Sao biscuits, but I think of the sweet stuff first - and strawberry Freddos are Sunday mornings sitting in the car wagging youth group. A chicken kiev means birthday dinner in high school when the idea of a curry or a casserole made me gag. So did eggs, silverside and cheese, although I was pretty fond of the old "Toast Hawaii" when mum was tired after a long day at work and a hot drive home in the Torana.

A very dear friend is the first time I had churros con chocolate, in Madrid, and it can never be that amazing again. Wrapping spring rolls in fresh herbs and lettuce sets me on a child's stool travelling on my own in Vietnam in the mid-90s and if I could have another hot poulet baguette on the coast in Wimereux with a glass of sparkling from the Loire I'd be a pretty happy woman.

Most of my food memories are good, until I say that and suddenly think of the cockroach halfway through the tajine in Marrakech, the violent nausea throughout India and the disappointment of my first pub meal in London. I remember an awful plate of squid mess sitting at a table on my own, reading, amongst massive extended families watching football and feasting on shared plates in Monopoli and a dreary selection of cold, pickled items in a dinner buffet in Copenhagen in winter.

What I crave and what I make can show me how I'm feeling - if it's hummus and Vitaweets because I can't be bothered cooking, that might be heading to bad. If it's nachos it's probably not good and if it's nothing, or savoury then sweet then savoury everything, that's definitely a bad sign.

My homemade food doesn't have to be gourmet or take a lot of effort to show me that I'm all right - a simple linguine with garlic, chilli, eggplant and rocket is good; instant miso with fresh ginger and enoki mushrooms? I'm good. Looking up recipes to find something new to make? I'm definitely in good form.

Last year I met my man in a cafe, his cafe, and we've fallen for each other making and sharing many meals. Chilli, hard core chilli in a good Larb Gai will always take me street-side in Thailand with him, with locals looking on and laughing as we sweated and fire-breathed and still spooned on more chilli oil, both of us crying joyful tears, sniffing and coughing, grabbing paper square after paper square to wipe our foreheads and noses, loving being on our first overseas holiday together, speaking our few Thai words and using lots of facial expressions and hand gestures to talk with the women and men who cooked for us, laughed at us and waved to us when we left.

We're going overseas again after Christmas, this time to Malaysia. We've watched Rick Stein in Georgetown and know there'll be plenty of roti and murtabak when we're there and here I am, excited about food, my holiday and, most importantly, about being back at my keyboard.

Last night Sam van Zweeden read stories that are far more insightful and poignant than these few paragraphs and they inspired me. Thanks to Sam I've got my hunger back, just in time: tonight I'm going out for a Vietnamese meal and tomorrow I'm going away for a few days. To write.


*  *  *
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship is generously supported by The Readings Foundation.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

What I Loved - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Sometime last week I looked at the state of my room and decided something really needed to be done. The various notebooks, recycled paper impromptu to do lists and post-its are immune. There’s no way of changing how I work so that just needs to be overlooked - that said it’s been a disturbing interval between real output that perhaps I should be looking at shaking the work approach up a bit. But the immediate “issue” was the towers of books. 

I’d been using some sort of logic to look like I was organising or categorising them but I couldn’t even stack them neatly anymore. I’d started a pile on a stool on my partner’s side of the bed, even though he’s probably read about 6 books in our 14 months together, and most of those when we've been on holidays. 

If a tidy room = a tidy mind, and vice versa, I was due for a thorough reconfiguration.

So I decided that the most effective and immediate strategy was simple: cut off the major supply. I’m sorry Stonnington library service – if there is any correlation between your funding and the volume of loans, I’m about to register a wee dip on your weekly report. Until I have finished all of the books I own/have on loan from my mum, I am not going to borrow any more books.

It’s so refreshing when you make a powerful decision, one you know will bring immediate benefits. Especially when you get home from returning all of the offenders you really want to read, only to realise that one has managed to endure.
I was packing to come away for a quiet long weekend and saw one spine with a sticker on it, FIC FOW, and what a one to escape the sweep up: ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’.

Everyone should read this. Readers, thinkers, animal lovers, humanists, sisters, parents, students…if the population was a Venn diagram of demographics this book could be one where they all overlap. It’s such a compelling story in utterly remarkable hands.
I don’t ‘review’ books here, I only share stories that have really meant something to me, either as a reader or as a writer. Often both, definitely both in this case. 

As a reader? 
The ultimate tribute is when you can’t put a book down, will surrender sleep in order to finish, and can’t do much else for a while once you have. I sat in the swivel chair by the window looking out on the steady rain that is probably ruining many people’s long weekend plans and enjoyed my tears’ trail. It’s a beautiful experience, to be moved to tears, or laughter, or in this rare case, both, by words on a page.

As a writer? 
Here is a case study of acknowledging and throwing out the rules of structure-
“Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.” (end of Prologue)
“And I’ve reached a point here…where I don’t see how to go further forward without going back…Which also happens to be the exact moment when the part I know how to tell ends and the part I’ve never told before begins.”
“I’ve told you the middle of my story now. I’ve told you the end of the beginning and I’ve told you the beginning of the end. As luck would have it, there is considerable overlap between the only two parts that remain.” (p. 284 of 308)

Voice. Do you need any more than the paragraphs above? If you do, or just so that I can share more-
“So now it’s 1979. Year of the Goat. The Earth Goat.
Here are some things you might remember. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected Prime Minister. Idi Amin had fled Uganda. Jimmy Carter would soon be facing the Iran hostage crisis. In the meantime, he was the first and last president ever to be attacked by a swamp rabbit. That man could not catch a break...
...The only part of this I was aware of at the time was the ‘Breaking Away' part. In 1979 I was five years old, and I had problems of my own. But that’s how exciting Bloomington was – even the suffering children could not miss the white-hot heat of Hollywood.”

Character:
One of my favourite bit parts is Ezra, the caretaker of the student apartment building.
“We sat around our own table, an island of sad refelction in an ocean of merry din. We drank Todd’s Sudwerk beers, and shook our heads over Ezra, who’d once wanted to join the CIA but hadn’t managed in his first (as far as we knew) commando operation, to free a single monkey.”
“The secret to a good life, “ he told me once, “is to bring your A game to everything you do. Even if all you’re doing is taking out the garbage, you do that with excellence.”

As a person? 
Like the other components I can’t express this without quoting directly from the text about which I’ve been trying to write.
What I’ve tried to describe before when calling myself (as a character) an unreliable witness, with “The fiction we use to make fact fit,” is better addressed by Fowler with, “Language does this to our memories – simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

“In everyone’s life there are people who stay and people who go and people who are taken away against their will.”

And for anyone who’s ever sat in that dreadful mute hospital hiatus-
“I remember an aquarium in the waiting room. I remember fish whose beating hearts were visible inside their bodies, whose scales were the colour of glass. I remember a snail that dragged itself along the sides, the mouth in its foot expanding and contracting endlessly as it moved. The doctor came out and my mother stood to meet him. “I’m afraid we’ve lost him this time,” he said, as if there would be a next time.”
Deep breath.

Anyone who’s read my ‘reviews’ knows how much I love reading the acknowledgements and it’s not surprising that Karen Joy Fowler opens hers with, “Many, many thanks are due here.”

Right back at you Fowler, for giving us this book, which I’ll be okay about returning to the library as I know they have a waiting list for it and it’ll be in someone else’s hands soon so there’ll be one more person who will “…see so much of America today.”



Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Time Out Track: The Love of a Bad Man

Usually my Time Out Track is a clip that goes for at least a few minutes, but today seems to be a general showcase of less is more.

Article by: Madeleine Dore
image from Arts Hub website

The Chart Collective project, 'I Was Here', is now live, so for this (sunny and hot) week we can read more than 50 anonymous true stories of 300 characters or less on posters around Melbourne's CBD. If you're not a "flasher", or don't yet know that you are, have a look at the examples on Arts Hub here

Short. Melbourne. Impact.




And while catching up on some news from Scribe Publications, I read that they have "just signed the exceptionally talented Laura Elizabeth Woollen in a two-book deal for her short-story collection, 'The Love of a Bad Man', and her novel-in-progress, 'Beautiful Revolutionary'."

The 1:33 trailer for her short story collection is a gorgeous production - much more teaser than trailer - and definitely makes me want to read more.

Creative and clever Melbourne, you're struttin' your short stuff today, and it looks goooood.




Thursday, 24 September 2015

Feeling old thanks frankie

Reading a recent issue of 'frankie' was my latest experience of "I'm definitely getting older". Like being excited that there's another series of 'Rake' in the making and often sharing Greg Sheridan's opinions.

I browsed this good-looking, good print quality journal that celebrates a very interesting and diverse range of individuals and small businesses, which I know that I should enjoy reading about. But I kept wandering off - looking at the mix of people in the library and the quiet school holiday street outside.
I can appreciate that there is good writing in the articles - there's hooks, narrative arcs and unique voices - but terms like "upcycling textiles" and "up-skilling communities", which sound like such positive activities, actually served as expressions that distanced me.

It's similar to how I felt when I joined a management consultancy firm and was told to "touch base" with a client. I didn't actually get what they were asking me to do, and when I did find out I vowed that it was a term I would never use.

I'm not a complete colloquial social purist. I started dropping 'like' into sentences as a pause or a placeholder after everyone esle did, and when I bought a pair of skinny jeans I realised I should never say I'll never do something. But for me, reading 'frankie' has gone from enjoying a new publication (which it was when I first read it 18 months ago) to something more like sociological research.

I'm pretty sure I'll never use the headline 'Tattoorary' or study at The College of Event Management - that said, the DIY Terrarium course at the CAE did get my attention - and my reaction to these reminded me of the first time I was called lady, when a young mother on a tram told her 5 year-old to give up their seat for me. I was surprised and a little offended before I thought of the 25 minute journey ahead of me and thanked them as I sat down.

I was respectful as I placed the issue of 'frankie' I hadn't finished back on the library shelf. It had reminded me of not being cool when I was younger, but not in a bad way. Now, comfortable in this period that is technically middle-age but feels like too much fun to be called something I always imagined to be dour, I could see that 'frankie' is fun, and funny, and something that I would have loved to have found when I was awkwardly trying to find my look and my place in a community far more diverse than my suburban experience of growing up.

And just to reinforce feeling old, I went back to a frankie that I enjoyed during those awkward years.

 

Friday, 4 September 2015

Time Out Track: City Calm Down

I heard this song on Triple R last week and jumped out of bed to Shazam it, just in case I missed the attribution, because hearing Jack Bourke's voice for the first time was like stumbling across Interpol. And that's saying something.

This Melbourne group have been working away for 2 years on their new LP and 'Wandering' is the second single they've released. In this clip, directed by Timothy O'Keefe, the band were trying to capture "that awkward anxiety one feels when they believe they're being misunderstood and disrespected." They child actor they've chosen does an amazing job of conveying this in his expressions and movements as he mouths Jack's powerful baritone vocals.

City Calm Down are kicking off a national tour in Melbourne on Sat 3rd October (aka Grand Final Day) at Howler. If I don't make it to the gig I'll definitely be picking up the album, and I'm pretty sure this track is going to get a few runs in my headphones today.




Thursday, 20 August 2015

Melbourne Writers Festival - Artist Transport

I'm excited. Yes, it's sunny and mild enough not to need a heavy jacket, very good reasons to be happy, but more importantly it's on. #MWF15 officially kicked off this morning.

Last year I was a front-of-house volunteer, collecting tickets at the door, politely asking people to move up so that we could fill all the seats in a room, checking writers were comfortable in Green Rooms and steering them to the signing table.

Of course one of the (many) perks was then getting to sit in and listen to the conversations, readings and panel discussions.

This year I decided to put my hand up for Artist Transport instead, and I cannot believe the people I'm going to picking up and taking to the airport. It's a little bit amazing, exciting, intimidating and just bizarre to think that I will be the one who welcomes guests from pretty much every continent. Poets, performance artists and politicians...I will be their first contact with #MWF15.

Okay, now I'm making myself nervous. But mostly, I can't wait!

I do feel as though I shouldn't announce the details of my upcoming passengers. I'm not sure why but it doesn't seem right to broadcast, or brag, so for now I'll just say that my first trip is tonight, to an event, so, if you check the program, you might be able to work out who is going to be in Car #1 with me at the wheel.

Deep breath.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

What I Loved: Get in trouble by Kelly Link

This collection is outrageous. I never thought that I'd be hooked by stories with superheroes, Summer People, Sleepers or Ghost Boyfriends, but I've just finished it and I'm telling you, readers, to get your hands on it.

In hindsight there are a few hints that this is going to be a trip before you even start reading:

  1. The title: what reader isn't at least a little bit mischievous; who wouldn't want to know what kind of trouble we're talking about and who gets in it
  2. Michael Chabon calls Kelly Link "the most darkly playful voice in American fiction"
  3. Neil Gaiman says "she is unique and should be declared a national treasure"
  4. Her author photo: she looks like she's just holding in a great story under that smile, but only just; her eyes lock in with the confidence that she can hold your attention and that tattoo, well I'm just intrigued at how stating the obvious seems like something with more possibilities and stories behind it
  5. Acknowledgements: I love reading these - it's where a writer really has the free space to be themselves and speak as an individual. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays...are all spaces for writers to explore, expose, polish and propose, but here, this page or two, is where stripped down personality can really show. And in this case you get a peek into the community behind these stories. Link thanks people for borrowed ghost stories and discussions about evil pants and television shows, and I've never seen an Arts Centre thanked for providing "a desk, some elk, a bear, and conversation" before, but here it is.
If I'd done much research before reading 'Get in trouble' I probably wouldn't have touched it. On Goodreads, as well as the obvious Short Stories and Fiction groups, it's been added to Fantasy, Magical Realism, Science Fiction and Horror and I guess I'm one of those "people who don't read fantasy fiction but have #insertyourownexample"* that the panel at the Bendigo Writers Festival "Fantastic" session talked about.

Those tags could easily have been more than enough reason for me to leave this book in the library when I have so many other stories to read, but boy am I glad I didn't.


I do have one question about the book: On the cover, what does the key with 1584 mean? Maybe I can ask her at the Five Minute Story Slam (MWF)


Saturday, 1 August 2015

I love you Melbourne, but

I love you Melbourne, I really do. We've been back together for almost 18 months and we're still holding on to the magic. I love that here, in the depths of winter, we'll still get sunshine. We can still swim outside and run the Tan and I still love coming home with bags full of shopping from a market.

Last night K and I went to the MCG. We caught a busy football-passengers train and looked out as we crossed the Yarra and there you were, reflected and lit up with your pretty lights decorating Melbourne park and the bridges, little invitations and look-at-mes for miles and millions of people.

At Richmond the exodus was calm - it was early enough to walk with purpose but not aggression - and the announcer politely advised everyone to check their myki balance now as there would be long queues for topping up after the game.  Thursday's violent winds had stilled. We'd followed a blue sky day with a brilliant full moon and as we walked up the hill towards the mighty MCG light towers, K relaxed into Friday-night finished-work mode. Maybe it was even a bit of a Hawthorn back-to-back-premierships mode - I barrack for Collingwood so my last memory of sitting outside and really enjoying a game was against Melbourne in Round 10, and I'm not confident about the rematch today - but the crowd and the hunt for a seat and getting to the loo all felt more like the build-up than a series of obstacles and frustrations.

Once I'd let go of the misplaced apostrophe on the Tigers' banner and the siren went, of course it was game on.

The Tiges, gutted over last week's 4-pointer to Freo, came out to win. The Hawks have been giving textbook demonstrations of how to win a blowout lately, so their goalless first quarter wasn't too much to worry about, and by half-time the 2 point margin pointed to a potential 3rd quarter steamrolling.

Of course it didn't pan out that way at all and the Richmond supporters were as on fire as their players. Hawthorn supporters went from keeping a lid on it, to disbelief, to yelling out, "This is rubbish; stop just blazing away; WHO'S ON HIM?"

For someone who doesn't barrack for either side it was a great night. More than 66,000 people having a shout, a Four'N Twenty and a pint in the Bull Ring and a man to snuggle in to.

But then we left the 'G and that's when, Melbourne, you really let me down.

We were part of the brown and yellow evacuation moments before the siren, weaving around slow walkers to get to Richmond station before the full onslaught and get on our train and get home. We could hear the announcer way down Brunton Avenue, calling out the platform numbers for the different train lines, and we got to the top of the ramp for our train and saw: "Next train: 21 mins".
Really? Really Melbourne and ptv? In 21 minutes there'll be another 5,000 people down here and it's already crowded.

We can take a couple of different lines and have  a longer walk at the end, so we ran up and down more ramps to find that the earliest was 18 minutes, and as the crowds started coming down the road and through the gates, swelling up the ramps and on to the platforms, I thought of London. I thought of the tube and peak hour services every 4 minutes; I remembered standing in the cold wind on Vauxhall bus station, waiting for the 77 or the 87 to come swinging around the corner from the bridge, cursing if I waited the worst-case-scenario of 10 minutes. On Platform 6 at Richmond I remembered the horror of the packed rail trains at Clapham Junction, but the trains kept coming and gave you hope that if you didn't make this one the next was only a few minutes away and you'd get on that.

Here it's fierce. You have to get into brace position and charge because if you miss this it's another 20 minutes and it's already 10.45pm and there wasn't any cloud so it is pretty bloody cold and don't start Tiges, don't start winding up other supporters when we have these narrow platforms that we all have to wait on and you could have stayed back a little while longer and sung your song and cheered your team and let us get on our trains and get out of here ahead of you.

When we did get home we turned on the television to see the English batsmen spearing cricket balls all around the sunny Edgebaston field. We saw Michael Clarke drop a catch and topless Poms waving the 4-runs signal with their non-beer-holding hand far too often and it was really Saturday already. It started raining but when I woke up and looked at the London grey clouds I was pretty happy, because here, in Melbourne, I have a shower that doesn't run out of hot water between shampooing and conditioning; I have ramen stalls and coffee competition; I have local libraries that don't charge to reserve a book and there's The Wheeler Centre, the State Library space to write in and MWF in just a couple of weeks. I have nephews and nieces and a gorgeous man and soon, soon I'll have a new pup and although today is grey it's already August, it's still light after 5pm or even later. Tonight I'll listen to The Prosecco Hour on PBS 106.7 while I cook a roast chicken and we'll look at the MIFF program for something to get to and in the morning we'll walk/run around the Tan. But we have to drive to get there. In London I didn't need a car for 5 years, so I love you Melbourne, but you could make it a little bit easier for everyone to love all of you.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Words Out: Paddy O'Reilly at The Moat

I met Paddy O'Reilly on the day her new short story collection, 'Peripheral Vision', was released. I was surprised that she'd suggested we could meet for a coffee that day, thinking she'd be busy walking bookshops checking that it was on the shelves and celebrating with champers and good friends. But that's probably a reflection of me and what I would have been doing. As it turns out she hadn't realised that it was Publication Day, so I got to introduce myself with good news and (I hoped) some indication that I do have a finger on Melbourne's short story pulse.
Just on the shelves

If you're interested in talking about or listening to others talk about Books, Writing and Ideas, then you've no doubt been under 176 Little Lonsdale Street to The Moat. It's lamp-lit and cove-like, an escape from winter chills and 40 degree north winds. The bluestone walls, bookshelves and striped wallpaper have hosted night readings and breakfast clubs, writing groups, Christmases in July (that was me with some old work colleagues and a slow-roasted, aged lamb shoulder) and of course happy hours leading in to late night drinking sessions.

At lunchtime, when I met Paddy, it was full and we may have been surrounded by people connected with the State Library of Victoria, The Wheeler Centre and its resident organisations, writers and readers and publishers and tourists on the Melbourne literary trail (or completely unaware of the significance of the venue).

Paddy was already settled at a window table and when I joined her we quickly found synergies - our love of short stories, laughing, big cities, Melbourne's coffee snobbery and valuing time spent with people who love talking about books, reading and sentences as much as we each do. Most of her work happens at home, "in the dark" - she has tried writing in cafes, walking down the street and on trams but works better when no-one is looking and she can go out in her garden to think in the company of her free-range urban chickens, Toni and Guy (named after their plumage).

I like her sense of humour in person as much as on the page.

Writing under two names, Paddy O'Reilly and P A O'Reilly, gives her scope to experiment and have fun with her writing. Creating Norm and Loretta - a character who first appeared in a short story but wouldn't leave her author alone - for 'The Fine Colour of Rust' was entertaining and I can imagine a great relief compared to some of her other stories. Too often humour can be dismissed in 'literary' publishing, and I loved hearing Cate Kennedy and Michael Cathcart, in a Radio National interview with Paddy, talk about how much their partners and families laughed through Loretta's Gunapan dramas, and surely that makes it a valuable addition to books that expand readerships.

It's fitting that we met in The Moat where above us Kate Larsen is doing an amazing job at extending Writers Victoria's program, events and opportunities, and beside us Lisa Dempster is curating more and more diverse events for Melbourne Writers Festival. There's so much work going on to broaden the demographic of writers and readers and I think Paddy's writing range plays an important part in this.

Her novels and short stories happen in rural cities, urban density and, in 'The Wonders', an "accelerated world of human artifice". I love her descriptions and details and that she's equally compelling writing from the male and female perspective, in first and third, past and present tenses.
"The woman was wearing a large, floppy hat of aqua terry towelling that completely covered her hair and partly obscured her face. Her upper torso was quite slim and she swivelled like an office chair on her heavy hips…" (from Deja Vu)
As an exercise for myself I've written down all of the opening paragraphs and endings in the stories in 'Peripheral Vision', and done the same with my own works in progress. It's a categorical demonstration of Paddy's skill setting up a story - sometimes with an opener that drops you smack in a setting, sometimes feeling like humour or far lighter than how the story then progresses - telling and finishing the story in a way that achieves the writing tip I have as my screensaver: "Wherever possible try to tell the entire story of the novel in the opening line" (John Irving).
"I live in a suburb where no politician lives and therefore the trams run infrequently, often late and without proper brakes." (from 'The City Circle') 
"Two days after the windows imploded, the first cracks appeared in the walls. We had taped up the glassless windows with gaffer and cardboard and at night the wind moaned as it nudged the torn edges of cardboard, trying to get in." (from 'Breaking Up") 
When she's not writing, Paddy enjoys giving technical support to her writer friends. If she hadn't been a writer she may well have been a coder - as she tells me it too is all about creativity and attention to detail I think that, like short stories, it might be another art that is under appreciated. You might find her hammering things together, assembling Ikea furniture or running workshops where she loves watching enthusiasm build in a room and seeing how much can happen in just four hours. Whatever she's doing there's an underlying dedication to celebrating stories.

Paddy won't talk about what she's working on now - she attributes being terribly superstitious to her Irish lineage - but on this day of publication she feels extremely privileged to have a second collection of short stories published. I'm also grateful to UQP for publishing 'Peripheral Vision'. I hope that the sentiment 'not enough people love short stories' is really 'not enough people know they love short stories' as that's something we can overcome.

Thanks so much for your time, Paddy. You made me laugh and were happy to talk on tangents - like how unfair it seems that your name doesn't automatically entitle you to an Irish passport when I have one; and who are all these young people (the youff) who seem to be able to spend hours in cafes on weekdays; and why is it that people think it's okay to interrogate writers about how much of their writing is based on their own experiences, when it's released as fiction, because how can a writer's personal experiences be more important to talk about than the work itself? - while you tried to enjoy some lunch in between appointments. Talking with Paddy felt like being with "my people" - proud love for the short story form, Melbourne and most of all for celebrating writing. Oh, and I owe you a coffee.




Words Out: plotting Melbourne's future literary map

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.

*  *  *  * *

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.

* * * * *

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













Friday, 24 April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Friday, 17 April 2015

Sitting In - shorts@fortyfive downstairs

Monday night. Flinders Lane, bluestone walls and large leadlight windows. Basements and juliette  balconies. It might be Autumn and getting cool at night but it's still spritely in the city. Not knowing our $20 ticket included a glass of wine, and enjoying being in town on a school night, we sat outside by the parked cars and had a carafe of Beaujoulais from Cumulus, and watched as people arrived for the second shorts@45downstairs.
Program theme: Conflict & Identity
Paddy O'Reilly, Gregory Day, Elliot Perlman and Maxine Beneba Clarke
I've read some Paddy O'Reilly stories (and don't mind admitting I was pretty keen for her to like my submission to the Overland Story Wine Prize last year) and though I hadn't seen her live before I couldn't miss her arriving. I'm not sure if it was her blonde hair or the gorgeous ankle boots, but I interrupted my partner to say there's Paddy O'Reilly because I am embarrassingly like a writer groupie.
Which reminds me, if anyone knows Tony Birch please let him know that I apologise for staring at him a couple of times in Readings last Thursday. He really should be able to shop without a stranger listening to him asking one of the staff to show him where to find a book.

Eliot Perlman has been a writer hero since 'Three Dollars' came out (1998), and though I didn't see him arrive I spotted him in his seat inside straight away.

Maxine Beneba Clarke I've had the pleasure of seeing a few times, and as guest editor for Overland Audio II she accepted a poem of mine. I'd also volunteered at her 'Coping Techniques' Writers Victoria  workshop on Sunday, so I clocked her (and her deep green feather earrings) when she turned up.

Our fourth reader, I'm ashamed to say, I hadn't read and wouldn't have recognised. In fact when we went inside he was sitting right behind me but it was only when he was introduced and approached the stage that I realised that. I may not have known much about him before Monday night but I'll not be forgetting him now.

Day read from 'The Madeness' (new material, yet to be published) which is a layered collection of stories set in contemporary South West Victoria. The notes I made during his reading make little sense - I was clearly impressed with how he grounded us in the setting as I've jotted a couple of lines that include bark, melaleucas, ti-tree, wind and moonah bushes. For some reason garfish appeared amongst this, perhaps because I loved the specificity of the male protagonist announcing that he's going garfish fishing.

The narrative wove through an afternoon where a father takes his daughter fishing and the wife/mother is home trying to write about Gunter Grass' second volume of his memoir. She'd found his writing 'too damn neat' and almost enjoyed the first volume of his memoir for finally showing the truth of him as a man, and not a very nice one. She stops frequently, focuses on key words and thinks about her association with them. I remember deciding in Year 10 that 'indelible' was my favourite word. I can't remember what I was reading when it appeared in my mind, but it's stayed with me ever since. Day's character arrives at 'insouciance' and ponders it. She remembers falling in love with it as a teenager and first associating it with Muriel Spark. It's such a simple trait yet reveals so much about character and Day's skill with subtlety like this kept impressing me.

A tension builds throughout the story as it gets late, and dark, and there's no sign of her husband and daughter, and we learn slowly of the daughter's intellectual disability and quickly feel the vulnerability. During a battle through the bushes to get to the fishing spot Day gives us the horrible sequence of thoughts that charge with fear - blame and anger, picturing worst-case scenarios and remembering different family members' responses to her daughter at birth. She's our eyes and insight and the downstairs room was filled with people barely breathing for the last few minutes of this story. You know it's powerful when everyone is still after the last word, needing an interval to breathe before their applause.

Continuing my groupie shamelessness, as Day returned to his seat I turned to say something, and not knowing quite what to say I said thank you, congratulations, that was so powerful. A gentleman, though he probably needed some breathing space himself didn't show it, he nodded and smiled at me and I turned back to the front.

As Mary Lou Jelbart (Director and Founder of fortyfive downstairs) told us we'd be taking a short break the word 'artless' appeared in my mind. My appreciation is 'artless'. I feel inept at handling my response to writing I admire, but hope that at the very least 'sincerity' is a word that is associated with me.


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What I Loved: The China Factory (Mary Costello)

Last Monday morning I suddenly had an opportunity to get away for a few solo days to write, read and walk along the beach. Leaving home felt, not momentous, but worthy of a small tribute and I chose 'Spring and Fall' by Paul Kelly to listen to. It's an album that tells a story, compiled like chapters that stand alone but played right through chart a cycle of falling in and out of love. I heard him play it live in London in 2013, sitting in a hall full of Australians listening to one of my favourite musical storytellers sing a new album in the first half of the show, and then so many of my life anthems to sing along to in the second.

He seemed like an ideal choice for the drive to the Mornington Peninsula where I planned to read Mary Costello's debut collection, 'The China Factory'. I think it was Paul McVeigh who recommended this to me, but there are plenty of enthusiastic reviews out there so I can't be sure where I heard about it. The cover lists comparisons to Thomas Hardy, John McGahern, William Trevor and Alice Munro - serious claims, that proved utterly warranted.

"This is a writer unafraid of the graveside, or the bedside, of filling the space of the story to the brim." (Anne Enright, Guardian)

I'm not someone who can recite passages from texts or remember character's names. Even favourite books I struggle to recall any details one or two books later, which is both a blessing and a problem. I'm certainly not someone for your trivia team. Fortunately when I look at the cover of a book I've read I can recall clearly how I felt about the book and have the luxury of re-reading books that I know upfront I'm going to enjoy.

I've resigned myself to this failing and so was surprised this morning when I looked at the table of contents in 'The China Factory' - I knew the stories. I knew details and emotions and remembered so many powerful endings. She reminded me of Anne Sexton, many of whose two or four line endings have been a benchmark for me for a long time. In Costello's title story the ending wasn't a twist or a shock or any sort of ploy that showed the writer's hand. But the phrasing, the idea and the expression of how the protagonist felt, was haunting. I was almost reluctant to read straight on but couldn't not.

And now, looking at the contents list I remember how I ached at the end of 'You Fill Up My Senses'. I remember sitting on a bar stool in the last shape of sunset, the loud conversation of almost-drunk tradesmen and their girlfriends barely registering as I read 'The Astral Plane', savouring the words and my one beer and looking out across the bay thinking about what I'd just read.
"She closed her eyes. She knew she could not be without him. She remembered his shoulder touching hers, his imploring eyes, and she felt herself again in his gaze - poised, silent, immaterial - and she knew she would die a thousand times at this memory, at this confluence of hearts. She leaned towards the screen and through it was not an endurance at all, this presence, this plane, and as the night came down and the rain fell on the city it came to her that what this was - this man, this moment - what this was, most of all, was the resurrection of hope."
I mean really, how fortunate I was to have a view of a day dying over water, a house with a reading chair by a window and a bottle of Coopers to go back to after that.

This is a collection that reinforces the power of short stories. At the end I felt as moved as if I'd read 12 novels - such a testament to how much can be conveyed in 20 pages at a time. In the right hands.

Just as the Paul Kelly album places me in Sloane Square, almost at the point where I'd make the big life-decision to return to Melbourne, the cover of 'The China Factory' will now set me in a couple of quiet days in Sorrento where I found a writer to add to my author-love list, and was even inspired to continue on my own writing quest.


What I Loved - work I have read and must share

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

For my 1,000th tweet - do you have 40 cents?

Yesterday morning I noticed I'd tweeted 999 times and wondered if I should take care with what I released next. If 1,000 was a milestone or just another short string of characters, probably about Melbourne or writing or writers. I've been feeling poorly all weekend - so much so that I had to cancel my next Words Out interview, which was devastating because it was going to be the first one in a bar rather than a cafe, and more importantly it was with a Melbourne writer whose work, personality and company is always exciting. I think she's open to rescheduling and hope that you'll be reading that catch up with her on my blog very soon.
Anyway, I've been rather unwell so yesterday I was in my local Pharmacy Warehouse and went up to the counter with 60 aspro and Epsom salts. The young cashier said $7.40 and asked if I wanted a bag. I said no to the bag (as usual I had my MWF Dymocks bag with me) and checked my wallet for the 40 cents but only found 30 cents so just gave him the $10 note.
'Do you have 40 cents?' he asked, dropping my boxes in a plastic bag.
'No I don't,' I said, 'and I don't need a bag thanks.'
He took the aspro and the salts out of the bag and put them on the counter, closer to him than to me, and said, 'I don't know if I can give them to you.'
He asked the cashier standing idle next to him if (someone whose name I didn't hear) was around.
I assumed it was an issue of not having change and while we waited for the other girl to amble up the aisle of herbal supplements I said to the boy, 'That's a strange thing to say - I don't know if I can give it to you.'
'I don't want to get into trouble,' he said, which I thought was another pretty strange comment but I couldn't be bothered pursuing it so I turned and looked expectantly down the aisle as well.
Another woman in a black uniform appeared, and standing beside the protein powders called out, 'Do you need change?'
The boy said, 'No' and shook his head a few times, looking younger and more useless by the second.
By this point I was becoming quite indignant. I was aching, tired and trying to compose a meaningful 1,000th tweet. I put a hand on the counter, millimetres from the relief my 60 aspro and Epsom salts were going to bring. The boy walked to the end of the counter where his supervisor met him. I couldn't hear the conversation - the other girl had joined them by this stage - but while I was looking up at the ceiling, longingly out the door and scanning back to the huddle I happened to look at the cash register. In the luminous green square font next to 'Total' were the numbers 10.40.
It was $10.40? Not $7.40?
'Did you say ten forty?' I called out.
They looked at me, a face each of pity, frustration and fascination.
This is ridiculous, I thought. 'I thought you said seven forty,' I called out, getting louder because no-one seemed like they were going to get close to me to sort this out, and I wanted my boxes and my exit. 'Here, here's another dollar,' I yelled, holding high the gold coin of permission, the great solution to an absurd problem. Why hadn't they just suggested I might consider downsizing to the 42 pack of aspro? Or just take 24 for now even? How had I stood with $76.30 in my wallet while they debated how to handle a heavy-headed woman stocking up with an enormous amount of effervescent substances.
Taking my 60 cents change and my goods was a silent transaction. I walked past the overweight homeless guy who sits outside Coles drawing in chalk, my 140 character message looking inadequate for the rant that I needed.

Later on, after drugs and writing a CV (my day job) for a Data Analyst, Lee Kofman tweeted the link to my post about our cafe conversation, and Jane Rawson replied, asking Maxine Beneba Clarke if she wrote in any cafes in 'Scray, and I replied that I'd enjoyed a coffee in a comfy couch by the fire at Lady Moustache (Seddon) on Sunday morning, just trying to wake up before going to lunch for the introductions to my boyfriend's extended family, and so it was that without thinking about it I'd tweeted.

As I hope it might have been if I'd spent time composing it, my 1,000th tweet was about Melbourne and writing in a conversation with writers.


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Words Out - Lee Kofman in Neighbours


Melbourne kicks up a windy, lightning-striking, summer storm as I drive to meet Lee Kofman. The Bureau of Meteorology radar is a colour riot that matches the graffiti sidewall of Neighbours, Lee's local cafe in St Kilda.
Set on one corner of an intersection with a service station, a milk bar and a single-storey brick house, this is where Chapel St sighs. It's the rolling recovery from Richmond, South Yarra and Windsor, barely touched by the knockdown rebuild developers. Yet.
Just up the road from the cafe are terraces that remind me of houses my friends moved to in Carlton when we were at university. Back then I was a girl from Glen Waverley still stuck in suburbia and envied anyone living in these old houses with bohemian histories and character.
While I was coveting Victorian buildings, a much younger Lee was deifying cafes. Growing up in a provincial and religious town, they symbolised civilisation and urbanity - things to aspire to.
Now Lee comes to Neighbours two or three times a week to write. She hates first drafts and though she needs the quiet of home to edit, she's good at all sorts of procrastination when something needs to be started. Lee has a love-hate relationship with writing, but being served good coffee and food in a cafe certainly helps to take the work out of it.
Cafes are important to Lee as a writer and also as a person. Her work is often an exploration of something she's been thinking about, or a question she wants to try and answer, which has led her to write about the relationship between writers and cafes herself. She's excited telling me about the role cafes have played in history, as places where rebels have plotted (in Turkey and Persia) and as targets to be closed down by governments forcing control. In person Lee is the curious and a little bit mischievious character I'd imagined.
While it's not quite scheming or inciting rebellion, I admire Lee's writing for challenging how we think and for sharing what she finds on her personal journeys to understand. Taking this approach means that her work doesn't follow a linear structure, something I described as potential for mess when I wrote about 'The Dangerous Bride' last year. Apparently there were plenty of people that didn't share Lee's vision as she was writing, but she believes in authors that write from their personality - I found her branching and digging intelligent, well-linked and an approach that I've enjoyed in her short stories as well.
Her favourite favourite book ever (no, she's not afraid to say that there is one) has helped Lee to not be afraid of writing from her own experience. She's read 'The Master of Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov many times, in three different languages, and calls it the "epitome of a non-linear novel." Thanks Lee, another addition to my Must Read pile.

It's not surprising that Lee is someone who gets bored and has therefore escaped to write in plenty of cafes. She used to be a regular in a place in Port Melbourne (which I won't name) that had everything a cafe-writer needs - "comfortable couches and cushions, quiet, atmospheric music and an owner who is nice but not intrusive."
It's a balance that I too have found and lost, and I share her frustration with new owners and their need to change our special places. We discover that we also share a fierce love for Melbourne when Lee asks me about my own work. She remembers reading a piece I wrote about my relationship with Melbourne, and tells me about falling in love when she was living in Sydney and came here for the weekend. Taken straight from the bus station to Acland St, she had a first-sight-fall-hard hit.
Lee's love of Melbourne is matched with the enthusiasm she has for her work as a writing teacher and mentor. Some writers resent time they spend in other occupations, but though she doesn't give herself credit for the generosity and bravery in her own work, Lee finds other writers inspiring and courageous and loves working with them.
When I listen back to the time I spent talking with Lee there's laughter, rain and more of me talking than there should be. She's a natural mentor, and is kind but firm when she suggests that despite my passion for short stories (fiction), I should consider writing more creative non-fiction. It's an exciting area right now, and she believes there's strength when you write about what you know. "You should try it," she tells me. "I really think you should try it."
After Lee's left I notice that it's quiet. Most people have eaten and gone, the rain's stopped and it feels a bit like the schoolyard before the bell rings, because I'm thinking about all the things I might try to work on next. I think, "You should try it" might be a maxim that Lee applies to her own life as much as her writing and teaching, and I think it might be a little bit contagious.

*  *  *  *  *

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

Lee Kofman is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author, writing teacher and mentor based in Melbourne. She published three fiction books in Hebrew, but since 2002 she has been writing exclusively in English and publishing short stories, creative non-fiction and poetry widely in Australia, Scotland, UK, USA and Canada.
Lee is the recipient of many literary awards. She judged several writing competitions, served as a member of the Varuna Fellowship Selection panel and organised several festival and conference panels, including the International Non-Fiction conference. Lee is the blogger-in-residence for Writers Victoria.
Lee's first book in English, the memoir 'The Dangerous Bride' about non-monogamy and migration, came out in October 2014 with MUP. Find more about it here.
Lee's written about 'The Master and Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov here.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

When P is not for Politics

I love doing writing prompts when I have a coffee in the morning, but at the moment most of them aren't working for me because I don't know what I'm working on. With so many stories in different stages it's hard to respond to a prompt like 'write about what's in your character's pockets.'
But a list is always a great way to get working, and here's my 10 minute list of things that start with the letter 'p' -

Procrastinate
Proof
Peat
Plain
Perambulate
Pooch
Pyre
Prescribe
Purpose
Pouch
Plume
Perform
Profile
Plead
Perfume
Preach
Prolific
Ply
Product
Pleat
Probable
Perfect
Placement
Pliable
Post
Peach
Place
Pitch
Perky
Prefect
Pylon
Pretend
Probe
Preface
Pile
Purr
Problem
Prior
Pale
Prove
Person
Priory
Plod
Pick

I hadn't thought of the 'pattern' word as I wrote, but when I'd finished I started looking for some in my 44 words.
There's only 10 adjectives in there, and 9 of the words can be more than one word class. Though I started out with a couple of complex words I simplified things quickly, and favoured nouns over verbs.
I can see some influence of my surrounds, sitting at a table in the street, but am surprised at others that dropped in - preface? pliable?
Product then placement is the sort of logic I'd expect to see when you're just spilling words, similarly priory after prior, but there's plenty of randomness, which pleases me. I would hate to be too predictable.
And for some reason though it's impossible to avoid it anywhere you look or listen at the moment, I'm pretty chuffed that I didn't even think of politics.


Do you use lists to help when you're writing?


Written in response to Sarah Selecky writing prompt (30th Jan 2015)