In an obituary for her friend, Sumner Locke, Katharine Susannah Prichard said, ‘She could write anyhow and anywhere. I remember her telling a young man that when he came to her wailing about his uncongenial surroundings, and that he could not find a suitable place to work in at his boarding house “Man,” Sumner said to him, “you could write on the edge of a bath, if you wanted to.”‘ I think of that sometimes as either a goad or an encouragement. I also think of Kate Grenville saying somewhere – I’m not sure where – how the only writing time she had was when her mother looked after her young children and so she would park her car by the beach and write in the backseat leaning on a kickboard balanced over her knees. I’m sure I’ve got the details slightly wrong but I’ve taken inspiration from her during Covid and parked by the river with my laptop on my knees until it runs out of batteries – I only get an hour and a half out of it these days. (Alas, once I left my lights on and another battery ran out too; on that occasion waiting for the RAC to arrive I had some extra thinking time, the laptop already dead.)Continue reading
Re-reading my 2018 diary, I found this from July.
Rejoinder to recent thoughts on the impermanence of writing. A helpful metaphor for writings is buildings. There are many buildings which last a century or two, are tended and lived in by people who want to see them remain standing. And that is one of the great aims for a writer, to have a book still read a century or two after it is written. There are only a few outstanding buildings preserved for many centuries, buildings which have acquired a sense of awe and prestige. But at the other end there are many other buildings. Perhaps most blogging is like building a cubby house for kids to enjoy for anything from a day to a few years; or perhaps it’s like putting up a tent for a week at a caravan park. It has its purpose, we need these temporary shelters and we live in them a time – but there’s no handwringing about their temporariness. And then the average suburban house is something like most books people write. Shiny and good looking for a time when it’s built, but it looks dated one or two decades later. It stays standing for thirty or forty years, and then it’s knocked over when someone wants the block for something else.
The fundamental elements of a story’s structure are proportion and order. Managing proportion is the art of making some things big and other things little: of creating foreground and background; of making readers feel the relative importance of characters, events, ideas. Often this means upsetting normal expectations by finding a superficially trivial detail or moment that, on closer examination, resonates with meaning.
– Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (2013), 40.
For reasons unknown to the mere author, Book Depository has my novel, The Fur, on super-special at the moment. Act now to secure a copy at the once-in-thirteen-years price of $7.30.
I have a two-page memoir called “Archaeologist” in the new special issue of Westerly. It’s a free download in pdf or epub from https://westerlymag.com.au/issues/westerly-crossings/.
Editors Amy Hilhorst (UWA) and Owen Bullock (University of Canberra) write in the introduction:
This special issue of Westerly is a collaboration between the creative writing students of the University of Western Australia (UWA), and those from the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI), based at the University of Canberra (UC). It aims to showcase and celebrate the creative and critical work conducted by current or recent postgraduates, and undergraduates, at these two institutions. Reaching across the Nullarbor from west to east, this issue offers a snapshot of some of the best writing from the respective corners of Australia. In curating this material together, we aim to foreground the connections and contrasts in the stories of our students. These short stories, novel excerpts, essays and poems have been commissioned by co-editors who are also completing postgraduate study. It is, then, an issue for students and by students, and aims to give readers an insight into the exceptional standard of work being written in the postgrad study rooms, shared offices and library carrels of UWA and UC.
I’m looking forward to reading the other contributions. Many of the UWA writers are part of the Words and Thoughts postgrad creative writing group with me.
I wrote my piece just after my son was born in 2015. I was suddenly taken with a desire to remember my childhood. I was originally imagining an entire book-length memoir of occupations I have dreamed of / abandoned / actually done, including not just archaeologist, but the Phantom, lawyer, pastor, novelist, counterhand, librarian, and biographer. But I only wrote the first one; its another book that I’m not going to write just yet.
Why does structure matter? How does it shape the meanings of a story, and the reader’s response to it?
For one thing, structure gives signals to readers. I break my long short-story “The Zealot” into twenty tiny chapters. It’s quite a filmic story and the “chapterettes” function as scenes. It seemed like a necessary thing to do for a piece like this which is written in the present tense. It’s an intense story through the eyes of an unstable teenage-activist and perhaps it offers some relief for the reader, a containment. On the other hand, it’s also a trace of that story’s origins as an entire novel, and a signal that perhaps it’s not exactly a short story. It’s rare to have a short story which is broken into numbered sections, but it’s quite common for them to be structured with many scene-breaks, marked off with asterisks. I’ve got a misbegotten tendency to think of short stories which are “one take” – no breaks of any kind – as being a purer example of the genre.
I have a confession to make: the beginning of my literary career was powered by coal company. The arts festival presented by Griffin Coal is a big event in the life of Collie, the coal-mining town in the south-west of WA where I grew up. Winning second-prize in the open category of the 1996 Griffin Festival Literary Awards at the age of fifteen – beaten by my drama teacher – made me think I could be a writer. Continue reading
Ten years ago today, The Fur was launched. It is a night special in my memory. A reunion of people who knew me, people who I could never imagine all being in the same room as each other. Friends from high-school days, great-uncles, old friends – people I haven’t seen since; my grandparents, still alive. And the literati – so many writers. All there to have me scribble in a copy of my book.
I was living intensely in those days. It was only a month later that I re-met my future wife, on another enchanted evening. We started talking that evening, and just as Paul Auster writes of Siri Hustvedt somewhere, we haven’t stopped since. She has lived with me through the aftermath of The Fur and into the long season of the Difficult Second Novel. ‘Slow down,’ I think she was trying to tell me in the early years of our marriage, or perhaps, ‘Write carefully,’ and it was advice that would take a long time to sink in. Sometimes, being in a rush is what takes the longest time.
I don’t think I’ve read The Fur properly in book form. It would be an eerie, existential act of time-travel, and probably make me sad. (There’d be moments of embarrassment, too, and hopefully a few moments of pride.) I’m always thinking of time passing, and the way things used to be, and the people and places I’ve lost, and the whole novel is the account of a season – youth – now lost to me. It’s probably nearly time to try.
My novelette, “The Zealot”, is now available from Review of Australian Fiction as an ebook. Set on the streets of Perth in the tumultuous year of 2001, it’s about a student activist torn between his ideals and his love for his housemate. It’s for anyone who’s ever lived in a share-house, wondered what the meaning of it all is, or that matter, been eighteen years old at some point in their life. You can download it to your smartphone, tablet or computer (epub or kindle) for $2.99; it comes with a story by acclaimed writer Ryan O’Neill. I’ve been working on this piece, on and off, since 2002, and I’d be so glad if you read it. You might want to subscribe to RAF – $12.99 for six issues.
Publishing this piece brings a long saga to an end. After I finished The Fur, I wanted to write a short, punchy novel about the activist scene in Perth, with the energy and anarchy of Fight Club (the film and the novel). I was in too much of a hurry, and too eager to saddle my characters with my (then) ideologies. I went through years of rewrites. In retrospect, I’m glad the novel I wrote wasn’t published, as heartbreaking as it was.
I came back to it in December, and with new eyes I saw what was redeemable in it. I cut out 80% of the novel, leaving just the parts written through the perspective of Leo, who hadn’t been the protagonist. I did one more rewrite, feeling a new clarity about what I now wanted to say and do. I felt I’d learned so much about narrative and structure in the intervening years. What has emerged is a 12,000 word novelette, with not a gram of fat on it.