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winning the Monash Arts Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing and Jane Harper being awarded the Victorian Premier's Unpublished Manuscript Award, we were treated to a beautiful few minutes from the elegant and eloquent Emily St. John Mandel.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.