Margaret Atwood: Plork and Awe

Guest post by Viv Langham (aka fan-girl)

It is a full house. The audience murmurs in anticipation, gazing at the seats placed front and centre on stage. The hush when kick-off is announced is instant and reverent. We are here to drink in the words of a living literary treasure.

Jennifer Byrne, of ABC TV’s First Tuesday Book Club, ushers our heroine on-stage. In her long, dark outfit, vivid red scarf notwithstanding, Margaret Atwood looks like a nice older lady on a bus whose thoughts run along conventional lines. She sits demurely: back straight, hands resting in lap, feet flat on floor. The illusion is broken as soon as she speaks. Wisecracks flow and throughout the night, after any one of her many excellent one-liners, Atwood squirms in her chair and giggles, face crinkled in an imp’s grin of glee. This is the woman we recognise from her writing: the author who brings an edge of genius hilarity to the most serious of issues.

We start at the very beginning, delving into her decidedly low-tech childhood of family wanderings in the forests of Canada. She pooh-poohs the idea of deprivation, asserting that no child feels deprived at the time. Besides which, many hours of sitting in cold, damp row-boats taught her never to whinge, which is probably a skill as valuable to an interviewee as to a writer.

Fast-forward to her early 20s when, in Canada at least, the idea of being a professional writer was ludicrous; of the female variety, doubly so. The mere suggestion that you might like to write for a living was not even viewed as serious enough to merit counter suggestions, eliciting only a bald “What?” of disbelief. Local publishing houses were victims of a cringe to rival Australia’s, swinging between insisting on the one hand that Canada had no culture to express and on the other that your books were, mysteriously, “too Canadian”, hence unmarketable.

What would she have been if she hadn’t become a writer? Probably a scientist, like her brother. And, Byrne wonders, what sort of scientist would she have been? “A MAD one!” Thus begins a discussion on the history of mad scientists in literature, with delicious diversions into lurid mid-20th century pulp fiction, replete with giant brains plotting to destroy the world. What fun!

But, as Atwood points out, we have no need of giant brains to destroy the world nowadays. The inaction of our governments, solely intent on vote garnering and placating big carbon emitters, is doing nicely by itself, thank you very much. She likens not believing in climate change to not believing in gravity: jump off a building and gravity is going to get you whether you believe in it or not.

Her passion for the environment, and birds in particular, is well-documented, and she accounts for the prominence of Aussie bird names in Oryx and Crake: her partner, Graeme Gibson, has a Brisbane-born mother. Atwood not only knows well our Red-necked Crake and Bush Thick-knee but is personally acquainted with our Cassowaries’ love of pie, thanks to a pie-on-the-windowsill incident during a holiday in Arnhem Land. “Does this mean we can claim you for our own?” Byrne asks, much to the audience’s amusement, although the allusion to our habit of adopting anyone famous with a tenuous connection to our shores appears to pass Atwood by.

Some may assume a technophobic bent to such an environmentally aware individual, but they would be greatly mistaken. She goes on to enumerate her many internet “experiments”, describing the advantages and disadvantages of various social networks. Twitter seems amongst her favourites, although it is best, in her opinion, not to blow one’s own trumpet there–that’s what blogs are for!–while Pinterest is mainly for photos of people’s sofas and of sofas they have seen and liked.

One of her latest internet ventures is the zombie/comedy short-fiction The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, co-authored with Naomi Alderman, which is freely available at www.wattpad.com. The plot revolves around a retirement home for your recently-zombified family member. The problem, she reveals, is how to avoid being eaten, by your loved one or other zombies, while en route to the Home.

It would not be an evening with Margaret Atwood were she not asked to state the bleeding obvious on the subject of feminism. She points out, most politely, that she would be surprised if everyone in this room, even the majority of people one might meet on the street, did not agree that women should have the right to health care, to education etc. Most of us are, ergo, feminists. How could being associated with such a worthy and broadly-accepted concept be embarrassing? Oh, and by the way, being feminist doesn’t mean believing that all women are sweetness, reason and light. “We even take different clothing sizes, you know!”

And so we meander finally to writers and writing. Is there, for her, a gold standard writer? “Am I allowed to say Shakespeare?” she asks, almost sheepishly. There are just two kinds of writer, in her opinion: Miltons and Shakespeares. No matter what the Miltons write about, they are always writing about themselves. The Shakespeares are driven by their characters, able to take on an existence seemingly separate from that of their creator.

Two kinds of writers and four kinds of books: those that are good and make money, bad and make money, good and don’t make money and bad and don’t make money. “You can live,” she says, “with three of those!”

As to whether she finds writing hard work at times, she has a problem with the dichotomy of “work” versus “play” when applied to writing. A third category is required. “Plork?” she proposes. Expanding on this theme, is the book she is currently working on always, at the time, the best thing she has ever written? She doesn’t know about that. You have to be in love with what you’re writing or it’s not worth doing but, as we all know, being in love with something or somebody does not mean they are the best. We will only know that in retrospect, and perhaps not even then.

“Thank you, Margaret Atwood,” Byrne concludes. “And all the best for your future life and plork.”

It’s over. Our books are signed and fuzzy photographs have been taken of us grinning like loons while she smiles reasonably benevolently. Outside, heading back to the car, I glance through the windows and see her at the signing table. I have to stop and look, just look and look, and get a bit shamefully teary, thinking that this is most likely the last time I will ever see her in the flesh. I have the urge to press my nose against the glass, puppy-fashion, whimpering, but I fear that would only convince Margaret that the zombie apocalypse is upon us.

Farewell, I hope only for now, Margaret Atwood. Keep writing the good stuff, being intelligent, provocative and above all cheeky, although I don’t think you need anyone’s exhortation to do that.

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Riffing with Margaret Atwood and China Miéville

By Carina Tan-Van Baren

Margaret Atwood is fiddling with China Miéville’s sleeve. It is already rolled above his elbow but Atwood is carefully adjusting it to sit a little better.

“How nice,” says the friend beside me. “She’ll spit on a hanky next, to dab his chin.”

The authors are seated together, waiting for the start of the ‘Wordsmithing’ session at the Perth Writers Festival. We think Atwood is sweet to be so attentive.

Sleeve duly sorted, she reaches into her bag and pulls out, not a handkerchief but a camera. And proceeds to take close-up shots of the tattoos on Miéville’s now clearly exposed forearm. Ahh, research. Miéville looks on with gentle amusement, as if Margaret Atwood documents one’s body art every day. They are clearly comfortable with each other and, as the session progresses, we learn two things:

  1. Margaret Atwood and China Miéville are formidably intelligent and articulate conversationalists as well as writers;
  2. They have incredible comedic chemistry and should take their show on the road.

In fact, we learn many things. The discussion ranges from ancient mythology and pulp fiction to HG Wells and Rudyard Kipling, from political writing to zombies, the future of Earth to films like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Frankenweenie and Avatar.

Wisdom and humour flow fast as Atwood and Miéville riff like long-time stage partners. I, with my rusty shorthand, struggle to keep up. Much of the detailed contemplation of realism versus genre styles, speculative fiction and the treatment of technological modernity falls by the wayside. (Chair Geordie Williamson asks such knowledgeable questions that my head hurts. The authors don’t skip a beat.) But I manage to capture a few interesting observations and some writing advice.

On books changing the world

Atwood:

You are assuming that everybody reads which, alas, is not true. And even if they did read, they are not necessarily reading our books. Sometimes a writer might touch on something that later seems prophetic. It is really more like a coincidence or maybe someone saw the way things may be going. The Handmaid’s Tale became more popular during the latest US elections because of some ill-advised comments by Republicans about women. But you didn’t see anything like that in 1985 when it was published. I don’t think in any way that the book was influencing the election as such. I think it was more used as a touch-stone, a citation or reference to what people were thinking anyway.

Miéville:

The sad fact is it is perfectly possible to be an intelligent, malevolent force in the world and read beautiful books and love them and have them not change your mind at all…Italian fascists for many years loved The Lord of the Rings because they thought it was a tract. I have a lot of problems with Tolkien but that’s not fair.

On the origins of speculative fiction

Atwood:             

“What is Frankenstein? What is Dracula? There is a whole 19th century tradition of weird stuff that 21st century pulp drew upon. HG Wells, yes, did the other planet and time travel thing. But it didn’t originate from pulp magazines. Pulp magazines were already drawing on an older tradition. I see a lot of this. When I saw Avatar, I said, ‘I know exactly where I am, in a show called Victorian fairy painting’. It’s all there. It’s not a new thing. It was used and expanded by those magazines but that wasn’t the origin of it.”

On humanity being hard-wired to love stories

Miéville:              

Even if so, it in no way implies that stories are good things. What if our nightmare existential condition…what if it is our tragedy that we have this innate, bone-deep hankering for stories? Maybe it is like an addiction. Or maybe it is a banality. Like humans are hard-wired to shit. It is my hope that story is poo instead of evil.

On why there’s not much sex in Miéville’s books (a question from the audience)

Miéville:              

There is a thing in Britain called the Bad Sex Award. I think it is a pitiful, mean-spirited, typically English attempt to undermine a genuine effort…any piece of sex writing taken out of context, of course you can laugh at it, of course you can. It is easy to do. I think, in a way, the stakes are high. I would love to be able to write a good sex scene but it is not something I have put my mind to.

Atwood:             

It’s because you keep putting tentacles in it.

Miéville:              

I feel a little careful about it. It is a good point. I hadn’t been wildly aware of it. I once very foolishly said in the past that I want to write a novel in every genre. Now, everything I do, someone says ‘what about pornography?’.  I’d love to do it (write about sex) but if I do, I’d want to do it well. I’d rather do it less often and well than very often and badly – both in writing and the other.

On writer’s block

Atwood:

I switch to a different kind of writing. But if I am already into something and this is happening more often than I would like, I realise that we have got 100 pages in and it is just not working out, you can try changing the person – first, third, second. Try changing the tense – past, present. Otherwise, if you really are stuck, go for a walk, have a sleep, something repetitive that doesn’t require thought, like running or ironing or one of those things.

Miéville:

Running is good.

Atwood:

For those of us who can still run, dear.

Miéville:

I am a really big fan of 200 words. Two hundred words is two paragraphs. It is nothing. They will stink. It doesn’t matter. Go away and come back and write another 200 words and they will probably stink but it doesn’t matter. More things don’t get written because people are waiting for the perfect word. I’d much rather grind through. Describe a wall for 200 words. It doesn’t matter. At least you are writing.

Atwood:

At the moment you are writing, no-one will see it, who cares? Think of it as piano practice. I am keeping my hand in.

On revising and editing work

Miéville:              

It depends on the book and the moment but, as a rough and ready rule, the more in the voice I am, the less revision I have to do. So often the chapters that are best are the chapters written quickest because I am in the voice. I am always pleased when there is less to do, not only because of the time but because it means I am probably writing better. It is all about getting into the voice at the start of the book. The more successfully I am able to inhabit the voice, the more it becomes intuitive. On a bad day, you do 200 words and you don’t like it but it is down there.

On sources of inspiration

Miéville:

This is genuinely impossible to answer. You are not necessarily aware of it. You can be inspired by things you hate. By things you have read. You can easily be inspired by something you haven’t noticed you have been inspired by.

Atwood:

I get my inspiration from China.

Miéville:

The country or me?

Atwood:

Look at this (indicates Miéville). What could not be inspiring about someone with a bunch of insects on their arm?

Later, @MargaretAtwood shares her inspiration with 379,882 Twitter followers.

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Winner, ‘Intrigue’ Challenge

Congratulations to Gwen Angstrom, winner of the 500-word challenge with Through the Glass Darkly, an intriguing glimpse into the life of a shut-in.

Gwen wins a copy of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.

“What’s this?” I hear you say. “Didn’t this round close mere hours ago?”

Yes, dear Waxers, in an unanticipated, blow-me-down development, our guest judge, Canberra writer, abstract painter and former journalist, Neil Lade, has delivered his decision in less than a day! Talk about setting the bar high for future judges…

Neil was given only the title and text of each entry, without author name, and agreed not to read the posted versions so was not aware of comments.

Here are his thoughts on the round:

On the very tricky subject of intrigue, Through the Glass Darkly got my vote, but it was a difficult decision. The story treated one of the meanings of intrigue in a refreshing sort of way as an unusual clandestine love affair emerged. It flowed well after a slightly awkward opening paragraph, and also had a good twist at the end that left you wanting more.

Thanks Neil and everyone who took the time to enter the ‘intrigue’ round.

The Next Challenge

In deference to our guest judge’s startling efficiency, the theme of the next 500-word challenge is ‘speed’.

Write up to 500 words around this theme and send them to waxings.blog@gmail.com by midnight, 1 May 2012 (AWST, GMT +8) for a chance to win The War of Art: Break Through The Block And Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield.

Get your skates on!

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Norway: A Writer’s Dream?

By Carina Tan-Van Baren

Want to be a writer? Move to Norway.

Acclaimed crime novelist Jo Nesbø says Norway “is the best country in the world to be a writer” and from what he and fellow Norwegian, author and playwright Johan Harstad, have to say about conditions there, he may well be right. At least from the ‘making a living’ perspective.

In May, Waxings shared some depressing facts about writing in Australia, pulled together by writer/reviewer Ian Nichols. To recap, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), in 2000-01:

  • 56% of writers earned less than $10,000 a year from their writing;
  • 60% lived at or below the poverty line; and
  • 40% of those who supplemented their writing income with earnings from a ‘day job’ were still unable to pay their bills (incredulous emphasis added)

By comparison, at the recent Perth Writers Festival, Nesbø and Harstad painted a picture of Norway as a government-subsidised nirvana for writers.  Nesbø told the festival’s ‘Northern Lights’ session that he developed a better appreciation of the Norwegian system while visiting Paris.

“I went to France, which has 20 times the population of Norway, and I asked them ‘How many full-time writers, fiction writers, do you have in France?’,” he said. “This country where they have so much culture – one of the booksellers said ‘Fifty’ and one of the other guys said ‘Probably more, probably 60’.

“In Norway, we have 150 writers full-time writing. It is not like they are selling a lot, all of them, but they can make a living and that is of course because they are subsidised the way they are.”

I don’t know how many full-time fiction writers we have in Australia but, for some perspective, as of July 2011, Norway’s population was about 4.7 million (CIA World Factbook), while Australia’s was an estimated 22.6 million (ABS). On a proportional basis, Norway’s 150 full-time writers would be equivalent to 721 here.

Harstad said government support had allowed him to concentrate on his writing.

“We are very lucky to have fairly easy access to governmental funds or grants to be a writer so when I first started after my second book I applied for a grant and got it, which was enough, a two or three year grant, which made me able to sustain and keep on writing,” he said.

Predictably, the generosity of the public purse was sometimes abused. “I do think that I am too much of a nice guy in a sense in that I will not apply for a grant if I see that I can make it on my own,” Harstad said. “Recently I came to understand that no one else is doing that. They are trying to grab in both hands what they can get.”

Not only do Norwegian writers get plenty of encouragement from their government, they also appear to enjoy the support of a healthy local publishing industry and enthusiastic readership.

“It is very unusual in Norway to go to an agent,” Harstad said. “You can submit your manuscript to a publisher. We have a lot of great literature publishers in Norway. We have so many bookshops.” (He was interrupted in his description of just how many bookshops by gasps of disbelief and envy from the audience.)

Nesbø agreed. “People in Norway read a lot more than any country in the world,” he said. “Cold night? Good books.  To be a writer in Norway, there is no question about it, it must be the best country in the world to be a writer.”

So why is the Norwegian government so splashy with its support for writers? Well, there was a bit of discussion about the oil-generated wealth of Norway.

“It is one of the few, perhaps the only country in the world which has been able to actually distribute the money from the oil out to its people,” Nesbø  said. “If you look at countries like Venezuela, even Holland, they haven’t been able to do that.” He appeared too polite to point out the obvious implication for his resource-booming hosts.

The ‘Northern Lights’ session also touched on that seemingly ubiquitous question of late – why is there such a concentration of successful crime writers in Scandinavia?

According to the Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog, Sjöwall-Wahlöö, Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum made it to Times of London‘s top 50 list of the Greatest Crime Writers of All Time and Stieg Larsson took out the top three spots in USA Today’s list of best-selling books for 2010. The Millenium novels and their film adaptations continue to dominate book and movie sales charts around the world.

Nesbø, a former rock star/economist turned crime fiction author, is another to attract international acclaim. His best-selling crime novels featuring Detective Harry Hole have been translated into more than 40 languages and won multiple awards. Plenty of his compatriots are also racking up enviable readership figures around the world.

Nesbø puts Scandinavian success in crime fiction down to sheer numbers and the relative respect accorded the genre there compared to other parts of the world.

“The reason why, on average, probably the crime writing in Scandinavia is at a high level is to do with what happened in the ‘70s,” he said. “Sjöwall-Wahlöö, the writers of left wing police procedurals, moved crime novels from the kiosks to the bookstores, so it was probably more prestigious to write crime novels in Scandinavia than other countries. More writers would write crime novels instead of so-called serious literature.

“I think that there is a lot of bad crime writers in Scandinavia, (but) there are so many of them that some of them are bound to be not so bad.”

Responding to the half-serious suggestion that he must be tripping over other crime writers in his home-town Oslo, Nesbø  said: “At the coffee shop where I write, just a couple of weeks ago, there was a crime writer sitting there writing so I had to go up to him and say ‘that’s my table’.”

There’s no justice in crime writing.

 Jo Nesbø is a musician, songwriter, economist and phenomenally successful crime writer from Norway. His latest book is Phantom.

Johan Harstad is a Norwegian author and playwright. His first novel, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? made the Best Fiction 2011 list by Kirkus Review.

 More reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >

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Me-Worms and They-Worms: The Hunt for Voice

By Tamara Hunter

These pretzels are making me thirsty.

These PRETZELS are making me THIRSTY.

THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY!

Who knew pretzels could hold so many shades of meaning? As Elaine, George, Jerry and Kramer demonstrated in the Seinfeld episode which catapulted the phrase into the vernacular, the slightest change in context, emphasis and tone has the power to give one simple sentence a dozen different subtexts.

In George’s hands the phrase – Kramer’s sole line in the Woody Allen movie which forms the backdrop to the episode – became an expression of rage; in Elaine’s, resignation.

In much the same way, the subtlest changes can make all the difference to whether an author nails or blows their character’s ‘voice.’ Use swear words or don’t, omit punctuation, slavishly interpret an accent or just hint at it – all are decisions which can completely change the way a character comes across.

When writing his latest novel The Life, Walkley Award-winning journalist-turned-author Malcolm Knox wanted to find a way to translate the classic Australian male grunt to the page. The book, about an ageing surfer dreaming of a comeback, has been compared to Tim Winton’s much-lauded novel, Breath.

However Knox told the Perth Writers Festival session, ‘Hearing Voices’, that while Winton’s book – also about a surfer – was beautiful, he’d been shooting for something else.

“(Breath) is a beautifully written novel but it is a written novel. I wanted to do something a bit different – a spoken novel. The voices I heard around me, the Australian male grunt – that has a lot of silences and limitations but also its own music.  I wanted to somehow capture that music.”

In doing so, Knox had to make a decision about how many expletives to include. Even though it would have been truer to the surfing scene to have far more of them in central character DK’s dialogue, Knox knew it would be counter-productive.

“If you tried to reproduce that on to the page, not only is it extremely offensive to many readers, but it becomes extremely limiting to the writer,” he said. “And I just feel like you are wasting a lot of ink on that word.

“Yes I knew the voice but I took this one word away from that voice and as often happens in anything, the power of suppression can be a very creative power. Denying that voice the ability to say ‘fucken’ every second breath was challenging him to say something else other than ‘fucken’, which he does every now and then. But he’s not a swearer and that’s something I hope liberated him to express himself.”

Knox said his chief rule of thumb when trying to achieve his character’s voice was to get himself out and the character in.

“I’m not DK and the work is finding ‘me-worms’ and removing them and replacing them with ‘DK-worms’ – finding my accent and rhythms and ways of speaking and getting them out and his in.”

Fellow Australian author Wayne Macauley likened the business of finding a character’s voice to an actor’s routine when preparing for a stage performance. Much like the actor, the author had to remove his or her ego and become the character for the duration.

“The difference when writing a book is it happens not over two hours but two years,” Macauley told the same session. “What you are trying to do is find the method to enter that character – to find a way into that voice as if you were an actor about to step on stage and inhabit a character. (They find) one line that is the essence of their character and use that.”

For Macauley, that one defining line is always the first of the book. In his novel The Cook, he had to find the voice of an ambitious and unusual young man from the wrong side of the tracks. Macauley wanted to capture the adrenaline and speed of the character right away and so chose, like Peter Carey in The True History of the Kelly Gang, to have no punctuation other than a full stop at the end of his very first sentence.

“I think the critical thing was getting the first sentence of my first paragraph down that had some written hint of the character. That is your touchstone and will be your touchstone thereafter for who this person is. If I strayed off into my indulgent writer’s voice later it would be a matter of testing it against that first sentence and realigning the prose.”

Sometimes, Knox added, nailing voice really was as technical and bland as taking the commas out. Although he’d had a voice he wanted to capture, he hadn’t bothered too much with it in the first draft.

“In the first draft I was more concerned with the story and the development of characters. When I read that first draft…it didn’t ring true. It wasn’t authentic. But the reason for me was not anything mystical – it was something like I should have taken the commas out and I should have done search and replace with certain words or grammatical formulations and, as I said before, gotten me out and him in.

“It’s always just interplay between gut feeling and what you can do with your hands. That is probably what any artist, any woodworker or sculptor, will say to you is at the heart of the matter of getting the uniqueness of what you are trying to get down. You are trying to match-make between what is going on in your gut and what is going on with all those tools of punctuation and keystrokes.”

Canadian author Michael Crummey’s biggest challenge in his latest novel, the fantastical tale Galore, was nailing the notoriously elusive, almost mediaeval accent of his Newfoundland home.

“Part of what I am trying to do when writing a book set in Newfoundland is trying to reveal the characters but the place itself as well,” Crummey said. “The Newfoundland accent is a really hard one for people who aren’t from there to do well. In movies, American actors butcher the accent. When people write it down it sounds cartoonish – it looks cartoonish on the page but that’s not how they sound. It’s a challenge to get it down on the page without cocking it up.”

Crummey spent a year researching the novel and had a clear idea of how he wanted it to feel. “A big part of that was the voice. I didn’t start until I felt it was present. It sounds very airy fairy but from the moment I started the book I felt like I had the voice I wanted.”

He said it was impossible to get dialogue right without first knowing your characters properly.

“If I am having a problem (getting two characters to speak to one another) it’s usually because I don’t know them well enough or there is something about the characters that doesn’t fit the story and therefore when they open their mouths what comes out just doesn’t belong. Once I have nailed the characters I have a clear sense of who they are. It’s similar to putting two people in a room and having them talk. I don’t feel like I am making it up. There’s that feeling of just letting them go and talk amongst themselves.”

Crummey added that good dialogue in fiction was not necessarily realistic dialogue.

“If you just take two people having a normal conversation and transcribe it on a page…it would be boring, even if they’re saying something interesting. Normal conversation does not wear well on the page. So it’s trying to create the illusion of real conversation that gets across what you want it to get across. It’s kind of a conjurer’s trick.”

Knox said he had often been asked if he knew how ‘brave’ he was being when he chose to write his book in the way he had, with DK’s distinctive, poorly punctuated voice such a dominant feature.

“If you are a writer sitting down to please everybody I think you are lost at page one,” he said. “Equally if you try to please nobody you are lost. We are trying to walk some fine lines. When people say to me they are reading this book and enjoying it I have to say ‘What page are you up to?’ If they’re inside the first 20 pages I say ‘Let’s have another conversation later’. If they say they’re up to or past page 40 or 50 I know I have got them. There will be people who drop off because they can’t stomach poor punctuation and repetition and all the tics of this character’s voice. But it’s not their book.”

Macauley agreed, saying some readers had told him they had struggled with the first 10 pages of his book but then become swept up in it, unable to stop reading – “which of course is a huge compliment. It’s the compliment I want.”

He said he had been conscious of walking a fine line but believed literature did not exist simply to massage the reader.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t as writers occasionally set challenges for readers and give them rewards. That would be wrong if there was no rewards. But literature that has touched me in the past has often been the kind of literature that I have started reading and thought ‘Oh my God, this is really quite different and quite tough’, but once you are into it you go to some other place.

“We are mindful of our readers. It’s a conversation. It’s a dialogue. That doesn’t mean you can’t raise the bar.”

Malcolm Knox is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and  author of Summerland, A Private Man and Jamaica, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Award and won the Colin Roderick Award. His latest book is The Life.

Michael Crummey was born and grew up in Newfoundland before moving to mainland Canada for 12 years. He returned to Newfoundland in 1999 and has published three books of poetry, a collection of stories, and three novels. His latest book is Galore.

Wayne Macauley is a widely published Melbourne short story writer and novelist. He won The Age Short Story Competition in 1995, was runner-up in the 2001 HQ Magazine Short Story Contest and was anthologised in Best Australian Stories 2001. The Cook is his latest novel.

Tamara Hunter is a freelance journalist with 24 years’ experience, most of that time spent working for The West Australian newspaper across both news and features. She spends her time wrangling either children or deadlines (sometimes both at once!) and uses creative writing like Polyfilla – to fill the gaps and keep herself sane. It’s almost working.

More reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >

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Inua Ellams: ‘Musical and delicious to the ear’

By Kaitlyn Plyley

Performance poetry is gradually finding its way out of the grunge-covered back rooms of dark pubs and catching the attention of wider audiences. One of the poets carrying this contemporary artform into the mainstream is Inua Ellams, a Nigerian-born Londoner who recently travelled to Australia to feature at the Perth Writers Festival.

Ellams was invited to the PWF to perform his play The 14th Tale, a one-man show combining poetry, performance, and personal narrative.

I ask Ellams if he had done any theatre before The 14th Tale. “The 14th Tale was my first theatric outing. My first collection of poems was published in about 2009 and I tried to stage the poems with a little bit of banter in between, but it didn’t quite work. There wasn’t a strong narrative, so I scrapped that and wrote The 14th Tale.”

Ellams’ poem-play is autobiographical, following the foibles of his mischievious childhood in Africa, weaving in tales of the men in his family. Ellams describes himself as a born trouble-maker, although he tells me over the phone (and you can actually hear the twinkle in his eye) that now he is making a different kind of trouble.

“Poetry for me walks the line between lyrics and finely, tightly written prose. I think that’s how I try to cause trouble – well, regarding work specifically, that’s how I try to cause trouble. By being aware of the line and walking it and constantly trying to redefine it. That’s one of the ways I cause trouble.”

Walking that line often means not fitting neatly into any one genre. Ellams is an accomplished poet of both the page and the stage but he still feels that he is not quite accepted by either.

“In London, I am often described as a performance poet, sometimes as a spoken word poet, sometimes as a page poet …” Ellams muses. “And sometimes I find that I am marginalised by both groups. There is this line that I seem to walk. And I continually try to further blur the lines, and even at performance poetry sets I just read my page poems. And when I write page poems, I just make them sound as musical and delicious to the ear as songs do.”

Speaking of delicious to the ear – Ellams’s voice is like a song itself. Soft and lyrical. Even when he talks casually, he sounds as if he is riffing on ideas for a new poem. And I think that is exactly the effect this poet is going for. Ellams speaks about poetry with a self-conscious pride, confident in his abilities as a wordsmith. He lacks the self-deprecatory humour that I personally can’t seem to shake off whenever I tell people I write poetry. For Ellams, poetry is not an indulgent activity. It is his craft. And it has held his life together.

Ellams tells me about a close friend of his from Dublin, Stephen Devine. They went to school together as teenagers, and the two boys had a friendship built on a love of language. “He and I would sit down and argue about the colour of the sky. We would just sit there for hours.” Then one summer, Ellams received a phone call telling him that Devine had been found dead, hanging from a beam in his garage. “I guess my world became very destabilised and the part of me that excelled with language, with Stephen, was no longer there. And I started writing to keep that part of myself alive, really.”

Since Ellams often performs his poetry, I enquire as to whether he takes the audience into consideration when writing. A debate that keeps coming up within the performance poetry community is whether a poet compromises their artistic integrity by writing to entertain the audience. Purists say one should perform for their own pleasure only; at the other extreme, entertainers seek only to win over the crowd. Ellams’s philosophy is an elegant compromise. “I always write for myself, of things that complicate me on a personal level. And then I edit it knowing that other people will have to come to this.”

So what does Ellams think of slam poetry, where poets are pitted against each other with only two minutes to please the judges? He hesitates. “I like it and dislike it in an equal sense.”

Ellams illustrates his opinion of slam poetry by telling me the story of a slam where he performed a poem that scored high – “it was the best poem of the night” – but ultimately did not win. “This guy, this huge guy stood up and read this poem about accidentally drinking urine which he found in a bottle of gin. And he got a full 30 points for that.” Ellams laughs incredulously. “I thought, this is never happening to me again.” He hasn’t slammed again since.

Whatever his personal feelings, Ellams is charitable as to the role of slam poetry in our culture. “I do think [slam poetry] has done a lot for the appreciation of poetry. Especially in the West, where we do have this competitive environment which champions oneupmanship and the idea of the individual. So, bringing poetry – which is old and classic and sometimes viewed as a dead past-time – bringing that into the twenty-first century I think has been really afforded and helped greatly by slams.”

Since first performing The 14th Tale in 2009, this already-established poet has written two successive solo shows, the most recent of which is currently touring Britain. Inua Ellams is a rising star of the spoken word scene. There is something about the frankness with which he describes himself and his work that borders on arrogance; there’s a lack of humility. But, as I talk to this charismatic young man, I can’t think of him as arrogant. He is simply focused. Poetry is a very serious craft in which he works hard to achieve a high standard. The Romantics would be nodding in approval. And the fact that Ellams is also crossing mediums to bring poetry to more people – that is just gravy.

Kaitlyn Plyley recently moved to Brisbane, Queensland. She is a slam-winning performance poet; a freelance writer and editor; and a Tweet Seater for Australian Poetry and the National Poetry Festival. If you are in Brisbane and looking to hire a freelance writer, editor, or professional Twit, please contact Kaitlyn (@kplyley). She is avidly refreshing her Twitter feed as you read this. 

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Thrillers Make A Killing

By Carina Tan-Van Baren

Crime fiction has invaded the zeitgeist. In books, movies, television, even music, crime is a dominant theme devoured by a public hungry for the dark and disturbing.

The genre certainly punches with the heavyweights when it comes to readership, with mystery and thriller titles representing about 30 per cent of fiction sales in the United States in 2010, according to industry analyst Bowker.

In the United Kingdom, a BBC News report said crime fiction sales generated about £150 million a year. While I wasn’t able to find a comparable statistic for Australia, it’s a fair bet crime’s popularity measures on a similar scale here.

Thriller author Michael Robotham told the Perth Writers Festival session, ‘Thrill Me, Kill Me’, that crime fiction was in a  ‘golden age’. But he wasn’t talking about sales or popularity. He was talking about quality.

Despite the derision of anti-genre critics, Robotham said some crime writers were now at the top of the writing game. “There are some really, really brilliant writers that are writing at the moment,” he said. “Down the track, they will look back on this era and say it was a golden age of crime writing.”

This made it all the more interesting when he and fellow panellist and crime star, Jo Nesbø, explained how they fell into the genre – seemingly by chance.

“I was completely an accidental crime writer,” Robotham said. “I wrote 117 pages for my first novel, which didn’t have a title, and it became the subject of a bidding war at a book fair. But I didn’t know it was a crime novel.

“It was only when I was asked by my publisher what I was going to write next and I had this great idea for a romance novel and they said ‘You can’t do that, you are a crime writer’. I said ‘Where does it say that?’ and they said ‘It’s in your contract’. It was then that I realised I was a crime writer.”

Robotham, a former journalist from Australia, has gone on to forge an international career as a crime writer, with his psychological thrillers translated into 22 languages and published in more than 50 countries.

Similarly, Nesbø did not set out to become a crime writer.

“I had five weeks to write something and I thought ‘Maybe crime will be easy’,” he said. “Now I am stuck in the crime genre.”

By ‘stuck’, he meant being acclaimed as a leading crime writer. His website quotes James Ellroy saying: “I am the world’s greatest living crime writer. [Jo Nesbø] is a man who is snapping at my heels like a rabid pitbull poised to take over my mantle when I dramatically pre-decease him.”

Nesbø’s series featuring Norwegian detective Harry Hole has been translated into more than 40 languages and some of the novels have been made into movies. He told the festival session that Hollywood heavyweight Mark Wahlberg wanted to produce and star in an American version of Headhunters, the Norwegian version of which was screened as part of the Perth Festival. Director Martin Scorsese had signed on for another Nesbø project.

In keeping with their unplanned trajectories, both Robotham and Nesbø went in unexpected directions with their main characters.

Robotham had not wanted to write a series so gave his lead, Joe O’Loughlin, early onset Parkinson’s disease. But O’Loughlin defied his poor diagnosis and kept bobbing back up.

“I brought him back for Shatter because he seemed perfect for the story,” Robotham said. “Then I had him again because my wife said I had to sort out his private life. I write first person, present, and I always like writing from Joe’s point of view. But it’s like spending a year with your best friend in a two-man tent. Doesn’t matter how good a friend they are, you just want them to go away.”

Nesbø conceived Detective Harry Hole on a plane from Oslo to Sydney in 1997, combining the name of a local football hero with that of the village police officer where the author’s grandmother lived.

“When we visited, my grandmother said: ‘If you’re not home by eight o’clock, then Hole will come and get you!’” Nesbø said. “I always imagined him as this really big blond guy. That was the idea for the character. I thought he would be a camera, an eye into the story.

“I didn’t know he would be important to the story. It wasn’t until the third novel that I started to know who he was and that was probably when he started developing as a character.”

Inadvertent paths to their calling and characters aside, both authors took seriously the implicit compact between crime writer and reader.

“For me, the most interesting thing with the crime genre, with genres in general, is they give the reader some sort of starting point,” Nesbø said.  “If you read on the cover ‘This is a crime novel’, you come to that novel with certain expectations and the expectation is that the writer is going to trick you into believe who did the murder and, probably, it will be somebody else.

“I don’t think you find that in other stories, that you have this game between the reader and the writer where you are supposed to manipulate the reader, and that makes it a very intimate dialogue between the reader and writer.”

Despite such manipulation, Robotham said the author still had to play fair. “You can’t beam down your villain on the second last page and not give your reader the chance to work out who they are,” he said.

“In a sense, it is a contrived and artificial sort of format. But the people who read crime know that. They know there is going to be a mystery and some twists and turns and they love it.”

Fellow ‘Thrill Me, Kill Me’ panellist, South African author Lauren Beukes, said she was irritated by categorisation and just wanted to “write what I want to write and hopefully readers will follow me”. Her latest book Zoo City mixes elements of crime with magical fantasy and science fiction.

Beukes said there should always be an element of surprise in the novel. But “everything absolutely has to make sense. Everything has to go together.”

She said genre fiction was a powerful vehicle for addressing social issues like those she encountered in real-life Johannesburg, the bleak location she adapted for Zoo City.

“The power of genre across the board is that we seem to be dealing with issues in a very real way, whether you have the conceit of a crazy serial killer or a magical animal,” Beukes said. “It is not the news. We can get over that issue fatigue by putting these very hectic issues and very hectic crimes in a way that is very engaging.”

Expanding on the idea of crime writing as social commentary, Robotham said these issues came with the territory. “It is a given now that you are looking at issues like good and evil and truth and justice and also everything from prostitution to people trafficking, war on drugs,” he said. “Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos – both of these men believe that crime writers are now writing the major works that are looking at major issues and that literary writers are steering away from it.”

Nesbø accepted the territory but rejected any notion of a responsibility to address social issues. “I think my only responsibility is to entertain my readers,” he said. “I see myself as an entertainer.

“Social issues – I will use them if I need them. I am a vulture. I will just pick anything I need. If that makes me look like a concerned citizen then fine.”

Michael Robotham is a former investigative journalist and non-fiction writer turned multiple award-winning international crime writer, based in Sydney. His latest book is The Wreckage.

Jo Nesbø is a musician, songwriter, economist and phenomenally successful crime writer from Norway. His latest book is Phantom.

Lauren Beukes is a South African author, short story writer, TV scriptwriter and freelance journalist. In 2010, she was named Book SA’s Author of the Year. Her latest book is Zoo City.

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Short Can Be Sweet

By Tamara Hunter

Erica Jong once described the novel as being like a marriage, with the writer and reader in it for the long haul. Short stories, on the other hand, were like brief, passionate flings. And the poem? A one night stand.

Although they have a habit of falling in and out of favour with publishers, short stories continue to seduce writers, who describe them as exciting affairs full of possibility and without the strings of a novel.

Not all authors like or can master them – some prefer the roominess of a novel and find it difficult to compress what they have to say into a few thousand words or less. But others, like expat Australian author Janette Turner Hospital, Perth writer, editor and lecturer Amanda Curtin, and New Zealand author Craig Cliff, adore the short form.

At the recent Perth Writers Festival, the trio spoke of their own love affairs with the short story, describing the flexibility of the form as a key attraction.

“It’s such an elastic genre,” Curtin told the session, ‘Short, Not so Sweet’. “You can take a very wide sweep…and yet you can also narrow things down to such a small domestic scale as well. I really enjoy that. I would think of the short story as the sprint and the novel a marathon.”

She said it was the same for the reader, who practically climbed into a novel to be taken from point A to point B. “With a short story you don’t so much climb in as hang on…like a ride on a unicorn.”

Curtin also loved the tension between compression and expansion.

“(Short stories) require you to compress things so much but in doing that you open up the spaces where the reader can feel. The worth of the short story can expand way beyond the short reading experience you might have. It’s that requirement to distil emotion down to its essential oils. To me those essential oils are usually loss and grief – those very deep human emotions I like to explore in short fiction.”

Turner Hospital told the same session short stories were exciting because they allowed writers to try things out they either couldn’t or didn’t want to sustain for a novel. However, they required more intense craftsmanship than a novel.

“There is no room for any slack in a short story, whereas a novel can accommodate bits of slack.”

Turner Hospital said she always knew whether an idea was going to be limited to a short story or turn into a novel.

“For me personally there is never any doubt from the initial idea, which always hits me like a cricket bat on the side of the head, whether it’s going to be a short story or a novel. It sort of arrives fully formed, or as the seed of what is going to be fully formed, because for me with anything I write, I am searching for an answer to what feels at the time like a burning question.

“If I know it’s going to take a long exploration route then answering that question or probing that question is going to be a novel. And if it’s just going to be a moment of insight, then it’s a short story.”

Cliff told the session he’d come at short stories backwards, initially trying to write a novel at the age of 21 (and failing miserably) before doing a masters degree in creative writing and penning another unsuccessful novel. He saw others writing short stories at workshops and became attracted to the idea of completing something within a fortnight.

“There’s that element of being able to finish that first draft at least on that first burst of inspiration, whereas with a novel you are always trying to rediscover that first burst of inspiration months after it’s waning,” he said.

Another big draw was the fact that elements crucial to a good novel – dialogue, description of the setting and characterisation – were not so essential in a short story.

Cliff, whose stories usually run from three to 50 pages, has also tried micro-fiction (stories with an incredibly low word count). At one point he set himself the task of writing one 100-word story every day for a month. After coming up with 30 unrelated stories he repeated the exercise, this time writing thirty 100-word stories about a series of characters living in the same town. The pieces developed into a 3000-word story which was subsequently published.

Turner Hospital expressed amazement at Cliff’s ability to turn out a short story draft in anything from an afternoon to a couple of weeks.

“I’m astonished and madly envious of Craig,” she said. “I can’t do a story in under a month. That would be a fast short story for me. I am in the Flaubert camp – I can spend the first half of a day putting in a comma. Getting the melody of a sentence – the sound of it, the music of it – is highly important to me and it takes me ages to get each sentence right. I can spend an afternoon redoing that sentence.”

Similarly drawn-out for Turner Hospital is the percolation process. A story about two young women who deliberately cut themselves – one of the most powerful stories in her most recent release, Forecast Turbulence – was inspired by a disturbing real-life encounter which bubbled away in her mind for 30 years before she found a way to write about it.

“A novel about that would be unbearable to write or to read but you can stick with it for seven to eight pages in a short story,” she said.

“I couldn’t have written it at the time because I was so overwhelmed by the horror of that life. It’s written in a very deadpan tone which took me 30 years to find…otherwise I think the story would still not, even though short, be bearable to write or to read.”

It was the same for Curtin, who said some seeds took a long time to take root. She found triggers could come from anywhere, like overheard conversations or newspaper articles.

“I jot them down and I keep them usually for a long time before I work on them. I think about them a lot before I come to the writing.”

Cliff said one of the challenges in writing short stories was getting leery publishers to take collections on. In order to get published, authors were often required to find a theme to link their stories – tough when each piece had its own character.

“You have to talk about short story collections in a united way,” he said. “There’s a lot of cynical stuff that happens with short stories once you put them together in a collection. When (my collection) got accepted they told me to make it better so it looked more like a novel. I was appalled but it did give me a chance to write another 50 pages with a guarantee they would be published.”

Of themes, Cliff said: “You make them seem more important when talking to publishers and arts funding bodies but to me it always boils down to short stories as individual units.

“Publishers like them to be themed – more marketable. You can feel the resistance there that each story is fantastic and different from the previous one and it’s an important task to make it seem like a novel. So if my next one has this wonderful theme linking them together on the back cover, you’re welcome to be sceptical.”

On experimentation, the authors said it paid to have a good understanding of the conventional form of the short story before going on to play with it.

Turner Hospital said she always told her graduate students that a short story was anything they could make work.

“I think that’s the pleasure of it. You can start out with some way out idea and way out experimentation with the form. Just keep obsessing – there is always a way to do it. There is always a way to tell it. You just obsess until you tell it. It’s anything you can make work.”

And, added Amanda Curtin – anything you can sell.

Amanda Curtin is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and freelance book editor from Perth. Her latest release is the short story collection, Inherited.

 Craig Cliff won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book for his debut short story collection, A Man Melting.

Janette Turner Hospital is an acclaimed novelist, short story writer and Professor Emerita of literature and creative writing. She grew up in Brisbane but has spent most of her adult life in the US and Canada. Her latest work is Forecast Turbulence.

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How Much Sex Is Too Much?

By Carina Tan-Van Baren

Imagine wearing a big placard around your neck: “Dud root”*.

This is the image that comes to mind when I contemplate writing my first sex scene.  The idea of putting it all out there, describing the steamiest of encounters, only to have readers stifle a collective yawn gives me shivers – and not the good, weak-at-the-knees kind.

Fortunately, if you like a bit of raunch in your reading, there are plenty of writers around who feel otherwise. At the Perth Writers Festival for instance, authors Krissy Kneen, Glen Duncan and Frank Moorhouse were more of the view: “Why wouldn’t you write about sex?”.

Kneen’s writing doesn’t just include sex, it shines a red-hot spotlight on it. And she revels in leaning heavily against society’s sexual boundaries.  “I like to think of myself as a pornographer rather than a writer of erotica because I prefer the whole chicken than the feather,” she told the ‘Sex, Lies and Literature’ session.

Kneen’s memoir Affection traces a childhood in which “any whiff of sexuality, any whiff of kissing even, was banned in my household until I was 18” and her relentless pursuit of sexual adventure since.

Her latest work, Triptych, began as an academic investigation into the language of literary pornography but Kneen abandoned her PhD after university management got the wobbles about her sex-soaked writing.

“This was a kind of reality check that maybe we are a much more conservative society than I expected and that even university is not a place where you can explore these issues without them worrying about the negative impact,” she said.

Kneen went on to finish Triptych – a set of three novellas dealing with sexual perversity – independently and it was published by Penguin Books Australia.

“I was really interested in the language of sexuality,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be some kind of marginalised thing that has to be hidden but we can actually talk about sex explicitly and yet still look at it as a literary thing.

“I wanted to write a pornographic novel or a set of pornographic novellas that really kind of connected with the modern world and that looked at where we were in terms of our relationship with each other now.

“I wanted to speak about the unspeakable but in a way that could leave the audience…quite turned on by the experience and then suddenly go, ‘I’ve been turned on by something that I would normally find offensive’ and that would be a forum for thinking about where our own lines are and why we draw them.”

True to her word, Kneen read an extract from Triptych, about a woman seducing an octopus into a sexual act, which left much of the audience shifting in our seats.

Asked how he got into writing about sex, Glen Duncan said: “I have always been writing about sex because I was always reading about sex because I grew up Roman Catholic.”

“The first story I think I remember hearing was the story of the Garden of Eden,” Duncan said. “They ate the fruit, they saw they were naked and they were ashamed. So there was a very powerful set of associations there. It was very clearly a story about a fall into knowledge.

“The idea took root with me quite early on that there was a connection between sex and knowledge. It was a way of discovering something mysterious and potentially transcendent. And then, of course, you actually start having some sexual experiences and your feelings about its potential perhaps start to change.”

Duncan said writing about sex was “just another way of understanding the human, it’s another part of the human animal”.

“The reality is that most of us, lots of us, spend a lot of time thinking about or pursuing or failing to get sex. So, given that I write comprehensively about the whole human animal, it is inevitable that I am going to write about sex.”

His latest book, The Last Werewolf, presents sex in both human and werewolf form and, in keeping with the theme, combines it with a fair bit of violence and gore.

Duncan said the violent sexual content didn’t trouble his publisher, Knopf Doubleday, because it was already a known quantity in his writing. He had previously written about sexual sadism and, after all, his lead character was a werewolf.

“But when I first started publishing, I wrote about a guy who was addicted to pornography,” Duncan said. “This was the relationship between love and pornography. And I was really surprised that people found it, found the explicitness of parts of it, shocking.

“It sort of made me wonder what they’d been reading, you know, where they’d been? Because as a reader, admittedly a very precocious reader…I don’t find that material shocking and, moreover, it’s so much part and parcel of the human psyche package that it’s just ludicrous to hide it.

“If you’re a novelist, you’re in the business of understanding what makes human beings tick. Judging whether it’s right or wrong is a different matter altogether. But a novelist’s obligation is to somehow find imaginative room to accommodate every aspect of the human – the good, the bad and the ugly, you know, all of it.”

Frank Moorhouse took a more political approach to the topic, warning of a “genteelism” creeping over Australia in which art and literature were subject to increasing levels of classification, regulation and public warnings. He listed examples from film and book reviews, as well as television.

“Last month, a books editor of a newspaper used an expression to describe a book: ‘Not for the faint-hearted’,” Moorhouse said. “I thought, ‘Who are the faint-hearted out there? Why do they need to be protected?’

“Some reviewers, of course, say ‘This is not a book for your grandmother or grandfather’ as if somehow the grandmother and grandfather…are innocents abroad in the world of sexuality.

“It’s not only the warnings but increasingly interviewers and actors are starting to stutter and express inhibition. They fear that there might be some moral or contentious or politically correct reason why they should not go there.”

Moorhouse spent “quite a few hours” in jail for possessing an ‘obscene publication’ – a collection of writing including sexual themes – in the heavily censored environment of 1970s Australia. He said the current “creeping genteelism” was much more serious than we realised.

He pointed to the Federal Government’s reaction a few years back to an exhibition of images of nude children by photographer Bill Henson, with then prime minister Kevin Rudd instructing the Australia Council to draw up protocols discouraging work similar to Henson’s.

“So the creep of the TV anchors, the classifiers, has now reached the arts and the protocols have been drawn up by the Australia Council,” Moorhouse said. “Essentially they are getting towards classifying pictures and paintings and next they might have notices outside literary festivals, saying ‘This is ‘M’-rated’ or whatever.

“Basically, when we are talking about erotica or pornography, we are talking about work that intentionally arouses sexual feelings,” he said.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has done most of the thinking about censorship and pornography and generally it comes down to the fundamental question of whether we are talking about sin or about something the police should do. Should the police be in the bedroom? It may be sinful but it is not necessarily a matter of law.”

There were no tips for writing a convincing sex scene but it was clear from this session that it requires a certain boldness as well as vulnerability. All of which leaves this writer feeling a touch…faint-hearted.

*For readers outside Australia, see definition here.

Krissy Kneen’s memoir Affection was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and  the ABIA Awards in 2010. She lives in Brisbane. Her latest book is Triptych.

Glen Duncan was named by the Times Literary Supplement as one of Britain’s 20 best young novelists. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.He lives in London.

Frank Moorhouse was made a member of the Order of Australia for services to literature in 1985. He has written fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, essays and edited collections.

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Careful or I’ll Put You In My Book

By Tamara Hunter

There’s a great UK website specialising in gifts for writers and one of them is a t-shirt which says: ‘Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel’.

You laugh and think “Ahh, writers” quickly followed by “Uh oh” because you know that a) many a true word is said in jest and b) if you know a writer, there’s a good chance that, like acclaimed Australian author Frank Moorhouse, they’re packing a secret stash of notecards, a diary or a meticulous mental record of obscure features and events everywhere they go.  Anyone who strays into the path of a writer is, intentionally or otherwise, potential fodder – and the results are not always flattering.

Writers know they tread a precarious line when it comes to immortalising friends, loved ones or even casual contacts via their stories and it was a subject which came up repeatedly at the Perth Writers Festival – just how do authors deal with the ethics of roping others, unwittingly or unwillingly, into their own subjective narratives?

“It’s an uneasy trade-off,” admitted Vogel short-listed author Michael Sala during the festival session, ‘Stories that Spill Out from Real Experiences’.

“You have this terrible, terrible power as an author. You can literally take revenge on everyone if you want to. They’re all subject to how you design the story. You have got to be a little scared of that, I think.”

Sala’s debut novel is The Last Thread, a fictionalised version of his own turbulent and secrecy-filled childhood. He said his main ethical dilemma when writing the book concerned his older brother, whom he cared for a great deal but who came off less than positively in the resulting story.

“I had the dilemma of ‘is it my business to talk about it?’ I love my brother deeply but he was often violent and cruel. He said later ‘I was often angry at you because you didn’t know what was going on’.”

When Sala’s brother read the book he told him that, while it was difficult, he was happy Sala had written it and thought their mother also needed to read it.  During the writing phase their mother – whose ‘cheerful apathy’ in the face of the boys’ bullying stepfather had devastating consequences – anticipated a very different kind of book and spoke of getting copies for her friends. Sala did not correct her, suggesting only that she might want to read it first.

 “I think my version of events was really different and that really frightened me,” he said.

In the end his mother got no further than the blurb, too upset to read more.

Sala said a friend handled a similar dilemma by waiting until his mother was dead before writing about their relationship. “For me I had to almost pretend they were not around anymore in order to write. There is all this guilt involved, so you are trying to balance it all out. There is that element where you don’t have a moral leg to stand on.”

Author and former journalist Craig Sherborne’s experience was just as fraught. Sherborne received no quarter from friends, family members and others when he wrote about the moral dilemma he had faced – and handled badly – as a young man when his partner, an older woman, became ill just as he was falling out of love with her.

He initially tackled the issue in an essay following his former lover’s death and then used it as the basis of his fictional book The Amateur Science of Love and was roundly criticised.

 “It gave me pause and made me reassess what I was doing with my life…like maybe become a farmer,” he wryly told those at the ‘Real Experiences’ session. “But (the writing urge) comes to you again and it’s time to give this compulsion its head again, like some beast – go forth!”

Like Sala, he decided pure fiction might be a safer route next time.

“The initial sobering reaction to the essay was quite seminal. I (thought) I don’t know if I can be bothered going through that again. I’m not a bad person, I’m not. There’s no way you can respond to that much criticism.

“Writing isn’t for everybody and goodness knows what it is in your DNA that suddenly makes you, coward that you may be, the one that says ‘I’ll write that’.”

Author Favel Parrett found the process of writing about long-ago personal events equally gut-wrenching. She spoke in two sessions (‘Real Experiences’ and ‘From Little Things…’) about her anguish over her decision to write about a childhood event which continued to affect her years later – the death, after being hit by a car, of her little brother’s best friend.

Parrett, whose first novel Past The Shallows received universal acclaim, worried that telling the story would revive sadness not only for her brother – it did, although he was okay with her publishing the piece – but for the parents of the deceased child. She considered changing the boy’s name but realised it would make no difference due to the small-town nature of the location.

She went on to publish a 600-word short story on the incident, No Man is an Island, in The Griffith Review and has since used it as the basis of her next novel.

“It was something I thought about a lot,” Parrett said. “In the end I decided to put it out there because it was something that affected me greatly and I wanted to write about it. I had that itch and wanted to explore the impact that event had on my life for quite a few years.”

Some authors, like writer and Curtin University lecturer Rachel Robertson, handle the dilemma by changing the names of those involved. In Reaching One Thousand, Robertson wrote about her relationship with her son, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. She changed everyone’s name but her own and ran the book past loved ones who, like her, were protective of her son, to confirm that it would not be damaging for him.

“I saw it as a mark of respect in a way to change the names,” she told the ‘Laying it on the Line’ session. “By using different names and being honest about them I am reminding the reader: ‘This is my take on this. This isn’t what really happened or the whole truth. This is my understanding’.”

Screenwriter, blogger and broadcaster Marieke Hardy, whose acerbic, voyeuristic and outrageously entertaining memoir You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead includes revealing stories about ex-lovers, passionate friendships and a swingers’ party, told the same session that in her case, the decision to use real names felt more honest and honourable.

“Children are different, but to me – and I know as a result of using real names I sort of drag my friends and family into the vortex – but it just felt fraudulent to use false names,” Hardy said. “If one person had asked me to use false names I would have taken them out.”

However, the knowledge that she was writing about real people led her – in an act of ‘grand generosity’ which some writers wouldn’t even contemplate – to give anyone featured in her book a right of reply.

“They’re real people and they have a real voice and you are the person with the pen,” she said. “Once you put these people down…they exist that way forever. It’s your responsibility. You froze them in that moment in time and that’s the difficulty for the people involved as well.”

After showing some people featured in her book what she had written about them “things were a little cool for a while,” with one former partner describing her recollections as “a bit bendy”.

Author Krissy Kneen, whose sexual memoir Affection garnered widespread praise for the beauty and honesty of the writing, said she thought long and hard about including some people. She tried to find a balance by changing the names of those she was no longer in touch with and asking those featured in more recent events if they wanted to be named.

“I did change some names because I couldn’t contact them and ask if they were happy to be in the book,” Kneen told the Laying it on the Line session. “There were a lot of people and some of them I didn’t get their names anyway. It was a wild time. I kind of had forgotten who they were in real life, (and remembered) only my perception of them.

“The ones in the current story, I asked them if they wanted to be named. They’re not all very sexual people and it’s a sexual autobiography.”

She said she hadn’t considered representing their recollections of the same situations because, as a memoir dealing with sex and love, it was necessarily about her version of events.

“The stuff I struggled with was stuff about my family,” she said. “If someone has been to bed with me that’s kind of a contract right there, but my family didn’t have that option.”

The comment elicited a classic Marieke Hardy response: “Don’t sleep with a writer.”

And that, perhaps, is the most foolproof advice of all.

Michael Sala has been shortlisted for the prestigious The Australian/Vogel Literary Award and been thrice selected for Best Australian Stories.

 Craig Sherborne’s memoir Hoi Polloi was shortlisted for the Queensland and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The follow-up, Muck, won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-fiction.  Amateur Science of Love is his first novel.

 Favel Parrett is a Victorian writer who received an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship in 2009. Past the Shallows is her first novel.

Rachel Robertson (WA) is a writer and lecturer in Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University. Her new book is Reaching One Thousand: A story of love, motherhood and autism.

 Marieke Hardy is a screenwriter, blogger, radio broadcaster and co-curator of the monthly Melbourne literary event, Women of Letters. Her latest novel is You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead.

 Krissy Kneen’s memoir Affection was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and ABIA Awards in 2010. Her new book, Triptych, is a collection of 3 erotic stories.

 

 

 

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