Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

It's that time of year.  The summer holidays are almost here, along with Christmas and the New Year.  I've been delighted to see there's been a small run on both The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore and The Grease Monkey's Tale over at Amazon of late, in time for Christmas presents or holiday reading, so I'll raise my glass and say Cheers to that. Of course, Snowing and Greening is very much a winter's tale, while Grease Monkey turns much of that on its head, so hopefully there'll be something for all, whether about to celebrate Christmas and the New Year through a southern summer or through a northern winter.

I'm taking a break from Blogdom for a couple of weeks, but would like to thank you for dropping by and say thanks for buying my books.   Here's wishing one and all, a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. 
May your days be many and your troubles be few;
May those you love always love you too.

Inside the Express packet is a white envelope and inside the white envelope a Christmas card.
page 224 The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Mad Square

NGV Catalogue cover using Suicide (detail), George Grosz, 1916

As an 18 year-old studying for my Art and History of Art 'A' levels, I admired the work of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Wassily Kandinsky, Rudolph Schlicter... many of the artists who've since been lumped together as German Expressionists, but who also became directly or indirectly involved with Dada, Bauhaus, and the like - post-World War One, post-Blue Rider and all that.  For a while I tried drawing like some of them, and held onto one piece that was clearly influenced by the likes of Grosz, Max Beckmann and Georg Scholz .  (Took it out and dusted it down today, then promptly hid it back in my folio again.)  It suited the person I was at that time, and aspects of the world I saw about me.

Eats, Paul Burman, 1976

'Under my rule, it shall come to pass ... in this livery will I clothe ye.' from The Robbers portfolio, George Grosz, 1922

I was delighted, therefore, to be in Melbourne recently, shortly after an exhibition, which celebrates "modernity in German art" and places it in its historical perspective, was opened. The Mad Square features an impressively broad range of work, from Franz Marc, Rudolf Belling, August Sander, El Lissitzky, Erich Dieckmann, to name just a few.  The period from 1910-1937 is presented in paintings, prints, photogaphs, collages, films, sculpture, furniture, and well worth a visit if you're in Melbourne. It runs until 4th March 2012.

So many wonderful pieces.  By way of giving a taster, here are two of my current favourites:

 Self-portrait, Christian Schad, 1927

Triad, Rudolph Belling, 1918-19

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Down at the Factory of the Imagination in November

Last report had Number Three novel at 67,000 words.  This report has it at 74,000.  That's not too bad, although a tad behind where I was hoping to be by this point in the year.  I had hoped all the words would be down, roughly in place, and that I'd be engaged in some glorious editing by now, but I'm not quite there yet.  Another ten thousand words should do it though.  However, the closer I get to the end of a project like this, the more frequent and more pronounced the self-doubts become.  The best antidote to this is in telling myself that every draft is a rough draft, and that it's the polishing that really counts.

Writers delight, it seems, in developing metaphors that describe the process of writing, and I've been likening where I'm up to recently with the sinking of a mine shaft (without the environmental damage).  Having invested a couple of years of time and creative energy in developing this manuscript because I believed the initial workings/the exploratory drilling looked promising, I sometimes worry that when I actually get to where I need to be with it there'll be nothing of value - nothing that I value.  No gems to polish, just a slag heap of ideas.

This being Number Three though, I remind myself that I felt exactly this way with Snowing and Greening and Grease Monkey too.  Ho hum.  Onward and downward.  Be sure and steadfast, and all that.  Let's hope thar's gold in them thar hills.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Another Earth directed by Mike Cahill

It was slashing down with rain when I was in Melbourne recently and, having already got a tad damp heading to the NGV, it seemed like a brilliant idea to spend a couple of hours in the cinema - the Nova in Carlton, no less. Another Earth was on the billing, and what little I'd read about this recent release intrigued me.

This was my first time in Nova, and I thought it an enjoyably retro experience - spot on for a wet, Saturday afternoon.  In fact, the young American couple who'd found their seats in the auditorium before us must have felt something similar, because they were busying themselves photographing the fixtures and fittings until we arrived, and then they cheered for no longer being the only patrons.

I thought we'd entered the wrong auditorium and were about to get another film at first,  because it seemed as if we were being shown the Another Earth preview - about the appearance of another planet, very close to Earth - except it was more depressing than I'd expected.  Wasn't sure what we were going to get instead - not Cars 2, I hoped.  Until it transpired that the preview was for Lars von Trier's Melancholia.

Another Earth is the feature film directorial debut of Mike Cahill, who co-wrote it with Brit Marling. She also stars in it, alongside William Mapother.  Great performances by both.  It tells the story of Rhoda Williams who, as a high school student out celebrating with friends, is driving home when she hears a radio report about the appearance in the night sky of another planet, which is, to all extent and purposes, the very image of Earth.  She catches sight of the planet, is mesmerised by it, and crashes head-on into the stationary car of Yale music professor John Burroughs, killing his pregnant wife and young son instantly.

Because she is under the influence of alcohol, Rhoda serves a prison sentence (thereby ending her prospects of becoming an astro-physicist and exploring the nature of the universe!), and the main body of the film picks up with her release 4 years later, telling a story of grief, loss of innocence, and the painful search for redemption.  If that sounds too depressing in itself, be assured that there is an energy and ambience about the film, and the portrayal of all the characters, that makes it compelling and ultimately life-affirming.

While the presence of the additional Earth adds some interesting elements to the story, this is not Sci-fi, and the storyline does not over-concern itself with too much pseudo-scientific justification of this - or the logical ramifications of it.  Another Earth affects towards Arthouse-on-a-small-budget, down to the scratchiness and muted colours of the film (although this might equally have reflected the age of Nova's projector) and the hand-held camera work, which I found irritating for a few minutes, although on the whole these combined characteristics add rather than detract from the experience.  On those occasions when I could suspend disbelief no longer and wanted to raise concerns about some of the logic flaws (particularly with the outcome), I found it useful to remind myself that the parallel Earth idea is, more than anything else, an effective device to explore a few interesting existential questions - a bloody big metaphor floating in the sky.  Namely, how we each choose to live our life, the ways in which we respond to regret, self-forgiveness, the notion of the life we would like to have... 

Well worth watching.  Even more so on a wet afternoon.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Forgive me, reader, it's almost two weeks since I last blogged.

It's not that I've been stuck on a desert island or anything, although I did have the plague for a few days and last weekend was spent (most excellently) in Melbourne. No, what it is, I think, is that the part of my brain which writes has been solidly engaged on Number Three - not to the exclusion of all else, but certainly to the exclusion of haunting Blogdom.  Usually, writing a post or two is a welcome distraction, but of late it's become a distraction I could do without.

That doesn't mean I haven't kept my ear to the ground, and I was interested to read an article by Linda Morris in The Age entitled Writers are authoring their own destinies online.  Through interviewing 'authorpreneur' Hazel Edwards and bestselling author Tony Park, Morris explores the "philosophical conflict" some authors feel about having to promote themselves and their work, and the benefits of this.  There was nothing I disagreed with in the article, but it did reinforce for me how difficult it is for the vast majority of authors, who don't make a living from their writing, to juggle bread-and-butter employment with maintaining an online presence to promote their published work while carrying on writing. Bugger the lack of financial remuneration, being time-poor doesn't help.

On another issue, it was good to hear that not all is doom-and-gloom in the publishing industry - although I don't doubt some publishers will be the last to admit as much (not least because it'd mean that the less scrupulous ones would no longer have an excuse not to pay their authors). Recently released Records of Earnings indicate that publishers are doing well out of digital sales - despite dire warnings from many that e-sales would sink them.  In The Business Rusch: How Traditional Publishers Are Making Money, Kristine Kathryn Rusch explores how publishers are indeed capitalising on this.  It's an interesting article and well worth a read.  (Thanks to Louise Cusack for the link.)

As for Melbourne, did some catching up, managed to fit in a visit to the flicks (Another Earth), a trip to the National Gallery of Victoria (The Mad Square exhibition), and had some delicious food experiences (Brunetti in Carlton, Grigons & Orr Corner Store in North Melbourne).  But more on that later.  I'll be back soon.  Promise.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Around the traps

By way of recommendation, here are some writerly pieces I've enjoyed of late:

Here's an illustration.  It is because it is.  Some things just are.

Friday, 11 November 2011

It must be Friday

I spent a while today trying to delete a full stop that had found its way between two.words of a Word document.
Every time I placed the cursor and pressed Backspace, though, I deleted one of the characters either side of it, instead of the full stop itself.
It took several attempts before I thought to scratch the fly shit or spider shit off the screen.
This sort of thing will happen when insects defecate in Times New Roman.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Down at the Factory of the Imagination in October

Word-wise it may have been a slow couple of months, but idea-wise it's been pretty rich, and October in particular has seen a few new layers added to Number Three.  This is the part I really like about writing novels.  Some ideas have grown directly out of the process of editing, which is coming along well, but some have simply grown from chewing the fat with friends (about nothing and everything), from a bit of reading, listening to music, looking at paintings, eating and drinking and dreaming - living, thinking, gazing at my navel.  Number Three is now at 67,000 words and I feel like I'm on the home stretch, even though all this thinking may have added another couple of months to getting the bloody thing finished.  Except it's no longer a 'bloody thing' and I'm enjoying it again.  Out of the doldrums.  Full sail ahead!

Mixed metaphors for this report as usual.  My bad.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Recent Reads: The Ascent of Isaac Steward by Mike French

Be warned: this review might contain spoilers. 

Before I say anything about Mike French's debut novel, The Ascent of Isaac Steward, other than to say it took Amazon and Fishpond three months and three attempts between them to deliver me a copy, let me say that Mike French is a friend and that I get an acknowledgement at the beginning of the book (very cool), so my opinion of it might be considered biased.  That said, if I didn't like the book and didn't feel I could recommend it, then I'd probably say nothing here, but I do and I am.

To validate the sincerity of my comments though, I'll begin with a negative (and then maybe you'll accept my ultimate recommendation to read it for yourself).  My biggest gripe about this novel is that Cauliay Publishing's copy editor might have spent more time... well, copy editing.   Every author wishes to see their work published with as few typos/errors as possible, even though a few always slip through, dammit - and I have a recent edition of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that still hasn't yet shrugged off a sixty-year-old typo or two - but there's the sense that Cauliay might have rushed this in a few places.  That aside, the font and print, the paper, the cover - all those other finishing elements - are lovely.  (It may be my imagination, but there's something about the cover paper that gives it a fantastic 'rubberised' feel, and I found myself regularly running my hand across it, just to confirm and reconfirm this.  Hmm, I'll have to get that checked out.)

But to the novel itself.  The Ascent of Isaac Steward is accompanied by some fine endorsements, and this one by author R.N.Morris (A Razor Wrapped in Silk) has been much referred to in various reviews:
"Reminiscent of the surrealist literary experiments of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake but blessedly readable.  The Ascent of Isaac Steward is insanely ambitious, startlingly odd, boldly conceived, and executed with tremendous confidence.  One of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read."
I have no trouble agreeing with anything R.N.Morris has written here - he hasn't put a word wrong as far as I'm concerned - although I have to admit that my knowledge of Finnegan's Wake is based on a brief glance rather than a sound reading.  However, it does allow me to reassure prospective readers that, unlike Finnegan's Wake, the prose in Ascent is comprehensible and indeed "blessedly readable".  That aside, because Mike has created a novel which is wonderfully unique and experimental, it's probably normal (and useful) to have such a reference point against which to compare and contrast it, in order to clarify one's thoughts.

If I were to liken it to any book I've read before, it would be to Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (yes, let's keep this with the Irish, even though Mike French is English, and not Irish... or French).  To my mind, The Ascent of Isaac Steward, like The Third Policeman, and William Golding's Pincher Martin even, explores the nether world between the ending of a life and the recognition of death.  It's fertile, surreal ground because we have no idea what dying and death is like, so almost anything goes.

There were times when I found it hard to keep track of the characters and their alter-egos, and to map out the hierarchy of worlds that Isaac and his cohort journey through, as I did with elements of The Third Policeman, but I found it a very satisfying book when I stopped worrying about this and allowed the crucial elements to reveal themselves.

Indeed, because it's such a startlingly original book, and subverts the reader's expectations at a number of points, I found myself approaching the narrative in a different way to usual.  Instead of attempting to carefully understand each twist and turn, I grabbed hold of the characters' coat tails and let them take me where they would.  In this manner, I went along for the helter-skelter ride, enjoying the spectacle of each scene, and adding one impression to another rather than needing to make absolute sense of every event as they happened.

Ultimately, it occurred to me that reading The Ascent of Isaac Steward is somewhat like engaging with a semi-abstract painting: it comprises a number of intriguing and bizarre images that are familiar, but slightly distorted, in the way that a dream might distort them, and, in the process, it creates a mythological world of its own.  There are images from the bible, from Punch and Judy, from shoot-'em-up computer games, from underwater prisons... all of which, when you stand back and look at the whole picture, present an intriguing and entertaining story about a man battling with his memories and journeying through an underworld that is, to a large extent, his own nightmarish creation.

What I particularly like about this novel (and appreciate about Cauliay's investment in it) is that it takes risks.  It is abstract, experimental and entertaining.  So don't get hung up on understanding every single detail, but kick back and enjoy the helter-skelter ride yourself.

Mike French's blog.
The Ascent of Isaac Steward at Amazon.com

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Children's Books I

After 57 years of living in the same house, my parents recently moved; a different town, a different county.  (Good on 'em.)  As part of that process, they had a massive sorting out, which resulted in my mother sending me a book that played a role in both her childhood and mine: Albert, 'Arold and Others, written by Marriott Edgar and published by Francis, Day & Hunter Ltd of Charing Cross Road, London.  There's no date in the book, but I gather it was released in 1938 or 1939.

As a kid, what I loved about this book was its black humour and the fact that much of it was written for a Lancashire working-class accent.  What I particularly liked was that, in The Lion and Albert, young Albert, when visiting the zoo, gets eaten by Wallace the lion, and his parents are peeved for the wrong reasons.  It was one of those books I never tired of, and I wonder whether the books we read as children shape what we read (or write) as adults, and whether they shape us in other ways too.  What do you think?
The manager had to be sent for.
He came and he said "What's to do?"
Pa said "Yon Lion's 'et Albert,
And 'im in his Sunday clothes, too."

Then Mother said, "Right's right, young feller;
I think it's a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert,
And after we've paid to come in."

The manager wanted no trouble,
He took out his purse right away,
Saying "How much to settle the matter?"
And Pa said "What do you usually pay?"

I had three other favourites from this time, which are still on my bookshelves: Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner (I read this seven times, so possibly wasn't a particularly adventurous reader), The Story About Ping by Flack and Wiese, and The Otterbury Incident by C.Day Lewis.  Comics and annuals were part of my literary world too, but these had a much shorter shelf life, and I borrowed Enid Blyton's Famous Five adventures from the library on occasion.

To this day, I love kids' books, and relished that part of parenthood when there was a ready excuse to start buying and reading them all over again.  The cupboards and bookshelves are crammed with these too, and it's good to take them out and read again every once in a while.  I have many, many more favourites amongst them, but that's another story.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Around the traps

There's been a fair whack of writerly stuff written around the traps these last few days.
  • Jay Kristoff advises on the benefits of sucking up every grain of despair when the manuscript you're working on is rapidly morfing into a pile of crap.  A little bit of hate, he reckons, may make you a better writer.
  • Patrick O'Duffy responds to the perennial question writers have to ask themselves: What's the damned book about? He looks at the distinctions between premise and theme, and makes the point that the "premise is the hook that distinguishes your work from all the other bait out there."
  • Michael Pryor desribes how writing is like magic, and how he got involved in learning conjuring tricks as a result of his writing.
  • Over at Alan Baxter's site, Foz Meadows has written a fine guest post about Piracy and Free Content, and the implications of this for writers.  Foz has since added to her thoughts about this on her own site.
  • The View From Here has posted some great articles recently.  I particularly enjoyed Catherine McNamara's piece about interlinked short stories and whether these constitute a novel.
  • Oh, and with magic in mind, and never having thought much about the work of voice artists before, I was gob-smacked to hear this demo of Kevin Powe's work.  (You can also find Kevin's KAPOWE! blog here.)

Monday, 17 October 2011

Recent Reads: Being Dead by Jim Crace

Alleluia! After three disappointments, I finally found a book I could enjoy: Jim Crace's novel Being Dead.

Seriously, I was beginning to think there was something wrong with me.  Perhaps I'd got so caught up in my own writing that, when searching for something in the fiction of other authors - some sort of escape, some sort of enchanting surprise, some sort of entertainment - I'd unwittingly doomed myself to being forever disappointed.  As if I might, stupidly, be searching for the book I wanted to write.  But, no, I just had a bad trot, that's all, and Jim Crace proved it.  Cheers, Jim.

 I must confess that I hadn't read Mr Crace before, but the quality of Being Dead is such that I'll soon be ordering a couple of his other titles (Quarantine will probably be one, as this took the 1997 Whitbread Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize of that year).

It might sound depressing, but it's not.  It's lyrical, imaginative and engaging from start to finish.
On Baritone Bay, in mid-afternoon, Joseph and Celice, married for almost thirty years, lie murdered in the dunes.  The shocking particulars of their passing make up the arc of this courageous and haunting novel.  The story of life, mortality and love, Being Dead confirms Jim Crace's place as one of our most talented, compassionate, and intellectually provocative writers. (Picador edition)
In finding out a little more about the author and the novel, I came across a fine blog, The Age of Uncertainty.  You can read more about Being Dead, Jim Crace, and much more besides, here.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


Speculative fiction ain't fully my thing.  Nor fantasy.  Not yet.  They might be if there were more hours in the day, and at some point in the future I might want to make them more my thing, but for the time-being I'm happy doing what it is I do - whatever that is.  However, recently heard about Conflux and, seeing that I'd never heard its name before, thought I should find out and share.

Conflux is an annual Speculative Fiction conference held in Canberra and, from what I gather, has grown from a rich history of 50+ Science Fiction conferences.  It's got all you'd expect to find at a literary conference - guest speakers, discussion panels, workshops, author readings, book signings, wining, dining and networking - and more...

Under the 7 FAQs at the Conflux website, I thought this an interesting, if not telling inclusion:
What is the Weapons Policy?
No weapons are to be brought to, worn or carried at any time during the convention (including water pistols, real or replica guns, swords or knives), unless approved as part of an official event. Only the convention organisers may approve such weapons and their participation in any event.
What are they expecting? Or rather, who are they expecting?

Tracked down some answers at Talie Helene's spot, where it's revealed on a promo video that dress-up banquets have featured for the last five conventions - Medieval, Regency Gothic, 1920s New York, Southern Gothic, On board the Graf Zeppelin (hmm).  There's a Conflux Cookbook, written by Dr Gillian Polack, to celebrate these.  Talie tells more about her time at this year's banquet (and describes a bizarre conversation she had) close to this spot.

Weapons?  Why wouldn't you bring a sword to a Medieval feast?  Although might be a little awkward on a Graf Zeppelin hydrogen airship.

Alan Baxter was a guest at this year's Conflux (with or without weaponry), and you can get a flavour of workshops by looking at his schedule here and his report (with pics) here

Reckon I've sold myself on this now.  Will be signing up before long.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Down at the Factory of the Imagination in September

Although I'm only about 20,000 words away from the end of Number Three, I haven't added a single page to the manuscript during September.  This has been a deliberate and liberating decision.  Instead, apart from editing the first few sections of the novel - demolishing redundant words and sentences, building pace, strengthening impact - I've spent most of the month thinking about writing.

While this may sound wanky, it's an essential part of the writing process for me.  It's what I do before I start writing, but I also like to punctuate the process of writing - when everything's going reasonably well - with taking time out from committing words to the page and simply thinking about writing instead.  Not only does abstinence make me hungry to write again, to get back to the characters and their stories, but in distancing myself from them for a short while, I find I can think about them afresh.  If I do a little editing at the same time, visit a gallery or two, get hooked into some new music, read a good book, watch a few films, then new ideas start fermenting, and though I might not be adding dialogue, narrative or description to the novel, I end up scribbling lots of notes and with a stronger sense of what I'm writing - and how.  New layers reveal themselves, extra dimensions to the characters become apparent, I see opportunities I'd missed before.

That's where I'm up to.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Good stuff

I've been on the road these last few days; driving through thunder, lightning, flash floods, aquaplaning towards concrete crash barriers, sitting in traffic jams, waiting for delayed planes - that sort of thing.  Not doing a lot of writing, but taking the opportunity to catch up with reading and with simply thinking about writing (a worthwhile thing to do at times), but I'll say more about that in a future post.

What I want to do here is give a shout-out or two, by way of celebrating just some of the good stuff that's happening around the writing community.

To Louise Cusack, who signed a three e-book deal (or is that threee-book deal?) with Pan Macmillan's digital publishing subsidiary, Momentum Books, to re-release her fantasy trilogy, Shadow Through Time, to the international market.

To Mike French, whose debut novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward (Cauliay Publishing), was waiting on the doorstep for me at the end of my journey, after a bizarre journey of its own (Amazon failed to send my pre-ordered copy, Fishpond spent two months losing the copy I requested from them, and then told me last week it was no longer available and so wouldn't be sending a replacement copy... but managed to post it to me on the same day).  Likened by R.N.Morris to "the surrealist literary experiments of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake but blessedly readable", I'll enjoy starting it soon.  Big CONGRATULATIONS to Mike too for being long-listed by the Galaxy Book Awards under New Writer of the Year category.

To Cam Rogers, whose claim that Fight Club is one of the "best zombie films ever made" got me thinking about this favourite movie in a whole new light.  He presents a weirdly convincing case.

To Jay Kristoff, who tapped into my doubts about the value of tweeting and had me cheering at the same time, with his Ten reasons you can Follow THIS.

To Dmetri Kakmi, whose article on why Australia's constitution should be rewritten to recognise the country's indigenous inhabitants has had me wondering if a group of writers couldn't harness the net to make this happen.  Or whether this is something that Avaaz might be prepared to take on.

And I have to stop there, so you can check out the links.  There's so much good stuff happening at the moment.  This is just a flavour.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Searching for the Story

One September several years back, my job took me to Thessaloniki, northern Greece, for a couple of weeks. As I flew out of Australia, Sydney launched its Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, and the irony of seeing several events taking place in my home country through the medium of Greek TV wasn't lost on me. I'd lounge in my hotel room at the end of the day, watching the 100 metres or the discus throwing, and find it bizarre that Mount Olympus was only a spit and a lick away. As was Alexander the Great, Aristotle and Socrates, and there were more Byzantine churches, Roman baths, temples and tombs around than you could poke a javelin at. It's a stunning country to visit, not least because its rich history and culture is apparent at almost every turn. So many stories.

However, this isn't a travelogue, and while there were many experiences (from both contemporary and ancient Greece) to enjoy on that trip, and which I've often savoured since, it was a fragment of domestic grief only briefly witnessed that created the most profound effect on me. Comedy and tragedy happens all around us - unreachable and unalterable, despite being uncannily close at times - and sometimes all we can do is join the Chorus as unwitting and helpless observers, hoping that the worst of the stories are never our own.

On my last morning in Thessaloniki, before flying to Athens, I was up and packed by 5am and standing at the open window of my room. It was still dark outside - still and dark - and warm with the promise of another hot day. My room was located on the fourth floor, at the rear of the hotel, looking across to the back of a couple of high-rise apartment blocks. They didn't seem too big a stretch away and it would have probably added to the ambiance of the place if someone had slung a washing line between, but I've always enjoyed the backyard and rooftop views of cities, seeking out the back streets and lanes in preference to postcard hotspots, and so it suited me fine.

It was good to breathe in the end of night, the start of day, and to catch a few moments of stillness before heading down to the lobby and catching the airport bus. And I was thinking this and mentally checking to make sure I hadn't forgot something - that I'd kept my passport and tickets handy, and that sort of thing - when, from an apartment almost opposite, a woman began crying.

It began as a sobbing. Deep sobs, one after the other. Until one sob became an intense wail: a drawn-out cry that reminded me of someone drowning. She was sobbing and crying as if the best of her life was over, and I couldn't tell whether it was from grief or pain or loss or betrayal or... There suddenly seemed so many reasons a woman might cry at 5 o'clock in the morning.

I peered out to try and identify which apartment and which room she might be in. Was she hurt? Had she witnessed the death of her child. Or a husband? What sort of loss was it? Was she sitting next to a telephone or a bloody mess? Was there a scribbled note in her hand? Was she in danger? Did she need help? I couldn't tell, but the solitary sound of this woman crying was amplified across the courtyard of tall buildings, along with its poignancy, and it found its way into me. It was one of the most plaintive, lonely sounds I'd ever heard.

It seemed that at any moment someone would have to join her, to soothe and comfort her, or to continue bullying and berating her; that the click or slam of a door would be equally clear on a morning like this, along with the ripple of soothing words or the throwing of pans, the smashing of crockery. But none of that happened. Just as she began her lament, so she ended it. As I stood and listened and wondered what - if anything - could be done, a current swept her from one end of grief to another, and her wailing once again became a series of sobs punctuated by silence. Except the silence now seemed louder than before. And I had to catch a bus to the airport.

So evocative was this scene for me that I've tried writing it numerous times across the years, although most often when I'm somewhere far from home. Usually as a poem, but occasionally as a short story. Except the words I really want and the view I really want to present have always eluded me. All I've created are scraps of paper with scribbled jottings and crossings-out to join the heap of other scraps of paper covered in scribbled jottings and crossings-out. (I have trees worth of these and sometimes, when we're short of winter firewood, I'll burn a box or two of them and we'll warm ourselves on the flames of old words.)

I could leave it well alone, of course, and allow the scene to simply hang in the gallery of my memories. Except I'm reluctant to. And so, I do what many writers do and begin to analyse why what I've tried won't work, while searching for a way of telling it in a way that might work instead. I look at the possibilities from different perspectives and learn that I can't see my way forward, perhaps, because my focus has been misdirected.

Maybe, instead of attempting to present a view of the woman's predicament and an interpretation of her situation, or even just capturing an evocative moment in life, the power of the scene might lie in the many questions that are raised but left begging. Or, in a Carveresque manner, it might lie in describing two characters who, for very different reasons, find themselves on the brink of change. There are so many possibilities.  Maybe it needs to be one of those stories whereby, instead of making sense of the world - or a slice of the world - we end up with even more questions than answers along with a weightier awareness of our smallness in the universe. Maybe I should turn to Euripedes, Homer, Sophocles, and ask how the Greek poets would have shaped the telling of this story. Perhaps I should question what universal truth might be revealed here. Maybe, perhaps, possibly... There are so many ways of telling a story, if only we, as writers, can find one that works.

Searching for the Story first appeared in The View from Here in February, 2009.

Friday, 23 September 2011

'On the Waterfront' and 'Fitzcarraldo'

It's been one busy week, what with trying to complete an article for a magazine, the demands of turning up to a salaried job (ho hum), and my painterly partner bailing on her fair share of domestic duties as she does a bit of globe-trotting.  However, it's had its highlights.

One recent aspect of the Day Job I've appreciated is that it's given me a heap of opportunities to get to know Elia Kazan's 1954 film On the Waterfront.  This is a new discovery for me, but I must admit I've enjoyed exploring it.  Marlon Brandon and Eva Marie Saint are wonderful, and the improvised scene, where Edie drops her glove and Terry tries it on, is magic.  The politics behind the movie, with Kazan justifying his request that he be called again in front of H.U.A.C., so that he might name names during the McCarthy witch-hunt, is fascinating too.  While the ending seems unsatisfactory, with the longshoremen trudging blindly into the maw of capitalism, and the dynamic Edie reduced to a simpering doll, there's enough strength in the film for it to work. 

Also, came across two websites that are worth shouting about and checking out. Talie Helene is a musician, writer and editor from Melbourne, Australia, and you can find out what's she been up to here.  Alan Baxter - another Australian, but this time from New South Wales - is the author of dark fantasy novels RealmShift and MageSign, and of late he's been blogging about How to Write Fight Scenes.

The other highlight of the week was watching Fitzcarraldo, directed by Werner Herzog.  I've always liked the sound of this word - 'Fitzcarraldo' - whenever I've heard talk of Herzog's work, but am amazed I never got round to watching the film until now.  More fool me.  What a film!  It's made one hell of an impression, and I can already sense that some aspects of it are going to influence the way I write, the way I think about writing. And as for Klaus Kinski - brilliant.  Look, I don't want to be objective and critical here.  While some of the potent images are still percolating through my head - Fitzgerald's passionate feverishness when he gatecrashes the opera, the way he clings to the church bell-tower and screams at the town, his interactions with the rubber barons and the indians, the winching of the 320-ton steamboat up one side of the mountain and down the other - I'm more than happy just to gush about it instead.

The trailer doesn't go anywhere near doing justice to this movie, but don't take my word for it: watch the movie.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Ride of the Googlebots

It used to be that my blog stats would show I'd been visited by one or two Googlebots a day, and I've always found comfort in this.  It's reassuring, I think, to know that these little spiders had found their way to my blog, had a bit of a browse and then scurried back to Mountain View, California, or wherever their nest is, to record the memory of that visit, in preparation for sharing it with the world.  Their visit is an affirmation of sorts.  It reminds me that I exist - or that my blog exists, at least.

However, of late, the things seem to be swarming, and I wonder if it's to do with the mild weather... or whether, like fembots, they're part of a plan to take over the world. Fairly regularly, I find there's been 16 or 17 of the blighters across the day, trawling through the archives, leaving little bits of web hanging off the drawers.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining.  The more affirmation the better.  And I don't have an aversion to spiders of any sort.  It's just that I wonder why.

Anyway, given that it's happening, I thought I 'd leave a trail of flies for them to follow: 01000100111000110011... all the way to a couple of websites I like to visit.  I've been getting to know a few more Australian writers recently, amongst whom is Cam Rogers, author of The Music of Razors, and Michael Pryor, author of The Chronicles of Krangor, The Laws of Magic, and many other novels and short stories.  Cam is overhauling his site at the moment, but that makes visiting the current site all the more worthwhile - catch it before it changes.  Catch them both.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood has always been one of my favourite tales.  That it’s one of those frequently reinterpreted stories we carry with us from childhood into adulthood adds to its richness, as far as I’m concerned.  Even though each variation may draw on common elements, I’m always delighted to hear how different storytellers respond to it – what they bring to it, what they choose to leave out.  From the sexy and the sinister to the sermonising and the comical.  From the Brothers Grimm to Roald Dahl.

My favourite retelling of all is, without a doubt, Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves.  This is a stunningly evocative story from an anthology (The Bloody Chamber) that I've found almost addictive at times, and which includes variations of Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, The Erl-King, and Beauty and the Beast, amongst others.

I don’t mind admitting that it was my great admiration of her writing that inspired me to include my own ‘folk tales’ as interludes in The Grease Monkey’s Tale, and to retell Little Red Riding Hood one more time (although my version was also shaped by witnessing the horrendous abuse of a young child by her drunk grandmother once).

With this in mind, I looked forward to watching Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood recently, but was disappointed.  While I particularly liked the palette of colours Hardwicke employed – all that red and white, blood and snow – it felt as if the screenplay had attempted to cobble together as many stories connected with wolves as possible, and ended up doing justice to none of them.  (Conversely, Angela Carter references the story of Little Red in The Company of Wolves to a number of other lycanthropic stories too, but achieves a tremendous unity for doing this.)  I quite liked the medieval setting (reminiscent of the one episode of Game of Thrones I’ve managed to watch), but thought the CGI wolf was laughably bad – so bad I couldn’t stop laughing.  All very corny and disappointing.  To shake it off, I revisited The Bloody Chamber and Carter's wonderful description of the seduction of a wolf.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

From Thomas Mann to Tim Winton - a marriage of music and words

Having come across some great discussions about e-books recently (Louise Cusack's Enhanced Features for e-Books, help or hindrance? and Jason Nahrung's Putting the eeeeee! into e-books are essential reading), I have resuscitated an article I wrote for The View From Here just over a year ago.  Its relevance might not be immediately apparent, but it meanders there eventually.

FROM THOMAS MANN TO TIM WINTON - A Marriage of Music and Words

I’m not sure whether I’d have ever read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice if it hadn’t been for a trip to the cinema in 1973, but Visconti’s film adaptation had just been released and I needed an excuse to hang out with a girlfriend.  I doubt whether I gave the film my full attention (for obvious reasons), but I recall brooding, impressionistic images and a soundtrack that drew heavily on Mahler.  Not long after, and perhaps in honour of the girl and our evening together, I shelled out 35p for a paperback copy of the book.

I vastly preferred reading Death in Venice to watching it (the little I'd seen) and, although the girl soon disappeared from view, this slim novella has remained on my bookshelf ever since.  However, Visconti had a more profound influence than I realised at the time, because as soon as I opened the book I couldn’t help but hear those haunting phrases from Mahler’s Third and Fifth symphonies underscoring every sentence, and they too have stayed with me.

Adolescent relationships may be fleeting, but the love affair between film, music and literature is an enduring (and polyamorous) one, it seems.  This is especially evident in films that aren’t so much moving pictures as moving paintings, and where music is cast in a leading role rather than as an optional extra loafing about in the background.  Maybe Walt Disney kindled the flame to this romance with the magical (if not trippy) Fantasia in 1940.  Here we have Mickey Mouse’s animated orchestration of Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice dancing to Dukas’ symphonic poem of the same name.  It’s a marriage with added significance when we remember it was Goethe himself who said: “Music begins where words end.”

The intimacy of the relationship became obvious in Elvira Madigan (1967).  Drawing on Johan Lindström Saxon’s nineteenth century ballad, which chronicled the murder-suicide of a married cavalry officer and his young tightrope-dancing mistress, film director Bo Widerberg created an inseparable bond when he matched this story with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.  It’s proved such a long-standing affair – no murder-suicide to mirror the original – that the Elvira Madigan tag is still promoted on new recordings forty-three years later.

Nor have Australian films been shy in this respect.  After all, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) went all the way with Joan Lindsay’s novel.  No brief flirtation here.  Consequently, it’s become a challenge to pick up this book, let alone read it in the shadow of Hanging Rock, without drifting into soft focus and expecting the earth to move to the tedious ripple of panpipes.

The upshot of this was that, as an Arts student in the 70s, it was difficult not to believe that a half-decent understanding of literature must be accompanied by a sound grounding in music.  How else could these directors have recognised the essential Mahler behind Mann, the Mozart in Madigan?  If I couldn’t discover something similar in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Chekhov’s Three Sisters or Sartre’s Nausea, I sensed they’d remain incomplete texts, half-read and half-understood at best.

This belief led me to Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Satie, amongst others, until I recognised the risks of overdosing on classical music: sombre days and even more sombre nights.  Literature needed to lighten up and start dancing with a younger partner.

So it was a relief to encounter bands like The Cream releasing Tales of Brave Ulysses and Camel dedicating an entire album to Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, and even to hear Kate Bush warbling her way through Wuthering Heights.  Being a committed student, there wasn’t much I wouldn’t kick back and listen to.  The more diversions the better.  I thought of it as research and much preferred it as a study technique to browsing a library for notes on Chaucer, Conrad or Coleridge.  Except when it came to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch’s Legend of Xanadu.  How could anyone take a band with a name like that seriously?

What I would’ve liked, though, was to actually hear the music that underscored the words for myself.  Instinctively, as I believed Visconti had.  But it didn’t happen.  There may have been an occasion once, when I thought a few bars from a pianoforte leaked out of Mansfield Park, but that could equally have been because I was cramming my reading of Jane Austen at 3:00 am while twitched up on caffeine.

There was little for it but to make the most of literature that allowed for such tune deafness.  Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King became a favourite the moment Eugene Henderson sang a couple of lines from Handel’s Messiah: “I am despised and rejected, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief”.

In marriage, partners redefine one another and – for better or for worse – while Henderson’s story has resounded to the Messiah ever since for me, so too has it been impossible to hear the oratorio without having flashbacks of a middle-aged American multi-millionaire blundering through the African jungle in search of salvation.

Something similar happens with Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.  This novel embraces Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so passionately (even as it flirts with Mozart and Bach on the side) that I no longer hear it without picturing Alex and his droogs bashing and raping, thieving and destroying.  It’s a deliberately disturbing relationship that reverberates all the more for Alex’s belief that music is “gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh.”

Of course, not all literature is evocative of music; some texts are destined to go quietly through life – unaccompanied.  But reading is particularly enjoyable when it engages at this level.  It’s the reason I got excited when, with the advent of CDs, Laura Esquivel released The Law of Love with its own soundtrack slipped beneath the front cover – a track for each chapter – because it heralded a fresh dynamism in the relationship.  However, although Tim Winton’s aptly-named Dirt Music was released with an optional double album of bluegrass and classical tracks (an invitation to re-read the novel every time it’s played), relatively few authors have travelled any distance on this bandwagon.

But the writing’s on the wall... or, if not the wall, it’s certainly appearing on digital readers.  Putting aside my preference for the feel and smell of paper rather than screens and warm batteries, I’ve been considering buying a Kindle or Sony Reader lately.  The software isn’t quite there yet, but I don’t think it’ll be long before e-readers are gauging what music should accompany which e-book, matching the compatibility of rhythm and mood in each, while allowing, perhaps, for the user’s reading pace.

Maybe then it’ll only be a matter of time before every piece of literature is accompanied by its own soundtrack, and Mahler’s symphonies will literally resound through Death in Venice.  Unless it’s done badly and resembles those awful Christmas cards that play the same tinny tune over and over again the moment they’re opened... or if the moment Picnic at Hanging Rock is opened we’re forced to listen to those bloody panpipes yet again.  In which case, I imagine the relationship between literature and music might end in a murder-suicide after all – the messiest of divorces – and we’ll be clammering for old-fashioned, silent books once more.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Down at the Factory of the Imagination - August report

Okay, I'm a bit late reporting August's figures, but maybe I'm still working on the Julian Calendar... or cooking the books.  Anyway, August wasn't too bad word-wise and there's 61,000 of the little critters perched more or less in place.  The 60,000 mark feels like a critical psychological barrier, so overtaking it is accompanied by a sigh of relief, because now I feel as if I'm accelerating towards the end - that is, if 20,000 words will get me there.

I'm not sure what this next month will be like, in terms of capturing words, and suspect I'm getting to the point where I have to print the entire thing out if I'm to successfully find my way towards that ending.  Like The Snowing and Greening, this is a non-lineal beast, so when the characters deviate from where I thought they were taking me, which they're doing a lot at the moment, I have to go back and change a number of details relevant to how they got there in the first place.

Okay, forget that hotch-potch of metaphors I've just stumbled through - the factory, the hunting, the road journey - maybe I should settle for time-travelling instead, because that's what non-lineal writing feels like at times. If only I could meet a friendly Tralfamadorian.  Then I could let myself know yesterday how the rest of this month is about to go.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Two books I didn't enjoy

Many years ago, in a bid to overcome my obsessive need to finish reading every book I started, however abysmal they were, I created a 40 page and 80 page rule.  If I found myself disliking a book by page 40, and could find no redeeming features, or if I found a book wasn't compulsive reading by page 80, then I allowed myself to dump it.

But I've be breaking this rule recently.

Of the last two books I read, one shouldn't have made it past page 40, while the page 80 rule should've applied to the other.  The first one I stuck with, skimming across fifty pages or so before dipping into the story again, all the way through to the end, while the second didn't get the final flick until page 136.

I won't bother naming names here - there's nothing to be gained from that, except to prove yet again that what engages one reader won't necessarily engage another - but I do find this business of reading such books useful to a certain extent, inasmuch as it reminds me what makes a story work and what kills it.

Briefly, with the first novel, I thought it had an interesting storyline and the author had created a compelling narrative voice.  However, the main characters, who I was expected to be sympathetic towards, if not empathetic with, were tedious bores.  I didn't give a toss whether they lived or died, whether their lives were wracked with guilt or whether they ever found true love.  If I was on a bus having to listen to them, I'd have got off at the first stop and waited for the next one.  I'd rather stand in a blizzard than put up with their prattling.

The second novel was touted as a 'classy ghost story', although it seemed to be working a tad too hard at conveying literary classiness at the expense of pace and... well, substance.  One slow meandering after another that seemed to be getting nowhere.  Left me cold.

Why stick with them?  Well, what's usually a tower of books at the side of my bed, waiting to be read, is at an all-time low.  Having been let down by Amazon with a couple of titles, I've also been waiting several weeks for Fishpond to deliver the  debut novel of my friend, Mike French, but The Ascent of Isaac Steward is proving elusive.  I'll have to write to them on Monday if it hasn't appeared in the post by then.  Because of this, I've been making do with reading a few books that have been lying around, but now it's time to start building that tower again. 

Thursday, 1 September 2011

What's Hot & What's Not

What's Hot:
  • Being a slow learner in most things grammatical (put it down to sloppy trends in institutionalised education when I were a nipper), I've surprised myself of late to find I actually enjoy refining my skills in this area.  That's partly why Strunk and White's excellent The Elements of Style made such an impact on me not so long ago (see post).  However, I've just come across this fine post ....... from .... Patrick O'Duffy (hater of the sloppy ellipsis) ........ called .... Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?  
  • Also, came across the website of Australian novelist and short story writer Kirstyn McDermott, whose thriller Madigan Mine was released by Picador last year.  Check it out here.

What's Not:
  • Tony Abbott, Bleater of the Opposition, claiming he's Australia's official critic-in-chief.  Too easy!  But then, when politicians say nothing loud enough and often enough they really seem to believe they must be saying something.  Our current cast of parliamentarians are, I suspect, puppets who've escaped from the 1980's British satirical comedy Spitting Image, preparing to act out a Ronald Reagan sketch or two - particularly The President's Brain is Missing.  Can't find that episode, but this'll do instead.