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.
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.
Writing is a cruel game. Whatever I can say about the years of unreward, about a promising start terminated, others, more established, have had crueller fates.
In The Weekend Australian Magazine on 7 April 2012 was the story of David Ireland, three-time winner of the Miles Franklin in the 1970s and now ‘The Great Unknown’. I’ve seen him on the list of Miles Franklin winners, tried to read his last published novel, and wondered what became of him. What became of him is that he can’t get published any longer: in the last two decades he has written seven novels that publishers will not publish. He has them in the drawer of his desk.
The article tries to explain his fate. Partly, he is out of fashion, his brutal, strange, working-class novels just not what publishers are looking for. His last published novel, The Chosen, was reviewed badly in 1997. And then there is his shocking unpublished torture-novel, “Desire” that ‘probably ended, or at least stalled, his career as a published author”.
Ireland is quoted as saying ‘I don’t live or die by whether things are published, I live or die by whether I want to keep writing’. He is a true writer, then. I have little motivation to go on writing without being published, without my words having an audience. It is a crippling fear, when one’s confidence is gone, and a voice says that the new project, all the years sunk into it, might also come to nothing.
Barbara Vine, The Blood Doctor (2002)
The Blood Doctor is a biographer’s tale. Martin Nanther is researching the life of his great-great grandfather, Lord Henry Nanther, specialist in haemophilia and personal physician to Queen Victoria.
The story is set in 1999, as Martin sits out the last days of his life as a hereditary peer in the House of Lords. A bill is going through to abolish hereditary peers and he sees the logic of it, as much as he is deeply sad to leave behind a world he has come to love. Vine’s treatment of this aspect of the novel is repetitious at times, although it is an interesting subplot, relating as it does to the peership bestowed upon Henry Nanther.
Toward the end of the novel, Martin is short of money and contemplates taking on a real job while exiled from his former home at the House of Lords. Vine provides a resolution to this by having the government offer him as a position as chief whip; he returns to his beloved House. She makes some effort to foreshadow this by having several characters comment on how well-liked Martin is and how they would like to see him stay on in the house. It still comes as something of a bolt out of the blue, the sort of event quite standard in real life, but not making particular narrative sense.
The other subplot is the fertility problem of Martin and his wife Jude. Martin has a son from his first marriage and doesn’t want another child – except for Jude’s sake; she desperately wants one and at 37, time is running out. She has already miscarried once, and the novel is punctuated by a couple more miscarriages. Again, we have something of a deus ex machina in the form of IVF treatment, giving Jude a healthy baby who won’t spontaneously abort. The resonance with the blood theme is apparent; I’m undecided whether it’s a satisfactory narrative solution.
But the main plotline is Martin’s research into the life of Henry Nanther. Certain problems confront the writer attempting to write the biographer’s tale. Firstly, the problem of two timelines: there is the action in the present day in which the biographer lives and discovers things about the figure of the past. And there is also the timeline of the past in which the subject of the biography lived and died. The problem is that it would seem much too contrived for the discoveries of the biographer in the present day to neatly follow the sequence of events in the life of the subject. Discoveries are going to come from different periods and have to be sorted chronologically by the biographer. This works against creating a coherent narrative.
Vine attempts to solve this problem by giving us an outline of what Martin already knows about Henry’s life early in the novel. This makes sense; the biographer starts out knowing something about the subject, and these facts are revealed over several chapters, some through exposition and some through convenient conversations. The gaps in the biographer’s knowledge are also revealed. In the case of The Blood Doctor, Martin’s ‘gap’ is the revelation that Henry had a mistress in a letter written by Martin’s great-aunt. The second ‘gap’ Vine leaves hidden until it comes up in a dinner party conversation – Henry was engaged to a woman who was thrown from a train and murdered. Soon after, he married the murdered woman’s sister.
Working from Henry’s diary and some other sources, Martin concludes that Henry engineered a meeting with the murdered fiancée by saving her father from an arranged mugging. The central mystery of the whole book hangs on why he was so obsessed with marrying into this unprestigious family. Martin begins to conclude that Henry had his first fiancée murdered. In the end, the murder proves to be a complicating coincidence, a red herring to throw us off Henry’s real crime – a possibly unsatisfying narrative outcome.
The second problem facing the writer of a biographer’s tale is the limits of biography itself. A novel lets us – usually – into the hearts and minds of its characters. A historical biography is a reconstruction, limited by the available evidence, the sources that the biographer finds. In Possession, A.S. Byatt makes this task easier by supplying passionately written letters between the subjects and poetry. But Henry Nanther was no poet and it may have been out of place to make him a good writer, in touch with his feelings. So what we are left with is Martin Nanther’s speculations based on Henry’s emotionless and scant journal entries and notebook.
Vine further handicaps herself by creating a second notebook which Martin manages to trace to a distant relative. Only he’s too late; his cousin’s senile father accidentally threw out the notebook with the recycling – the notebook in which Henry finally tells the truth about what he has done, why he was obsessed with marrying one of the Robinson sisters. Thankfully, the senile father remembers the gist of it, which he feebly relates to Martin. It’s rather unsatisfactory and unnecessary; if it was a postmodern novel, it might be telling us of the transmissions of texts or reveling in the uncertainty. But it’s not; it’s a psychological thriller which doesn’t evoke its own psychology enough.
Blood Doctor is an interesting novel to read for me; it highlights the narrative challenges of its subject and gives me some clues about strategies good and bad. But if you’re reading for pleasure, I would suggest Barbara Vine’s earlier novel, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. I would say that at her best Barbara Vine is a wonderful guilty pleasure for litfiction readers.
An extract from The Library of Babel
I was on the bus after work to visit Grandad when my mobile started vibrating in my pocket. Its urgency disturbed me: phones were always for bad news in my mind. This time I was right – it was Dad and he was calling to say Grandad had died a few minutes ago.
My voice turned to a whisper. I didn’t want these strangers on the bus knowing my business. I asked Dad if he was coping okay, a stupid question, but I didn’t know what else to say. He said he was okay. I told him I was nearly at the hospice.
The book I’d been reading sat forgotten on my lap. I felt cheated that I’d nearly got there, that I could have seen him one last time and I hadn’t. I looked all around me on the bus, and then I couldn’t get my eyes off the stupid advertisements on the inside walls. There was nowhere I could go without people trying to sell me stuff.
I wanted someone with me but I couldn’t bear to ring Anita. I didn’t want to say Grandad was dead. Spreading the news would make it seem more real. The best thing would be to tell no-one, and then, as far as the world was concerned, he would go on living.
I suddenly realised I had no grandparents left, then I reproached myself. I was being so selfish. The person I should be thinking about was Grandad. I wanted to think precisely of what had just happened to him, to get past the words to the event itself. His consciousness had been extinguished. As far as his body was concerned, he no longer existed.
Everyone always said how sad it was for the people left behind, but I was thinking how the real tragedy was for dead person. How could it be possible to die? For your mind to be thinking thoughts one moment, and then not thinking thoughts the next? How could it be possible to have a final thought?
He had a final thought, and no-one will ever even know what it was. Let alone what came next for him. I wondered if he had last words. No-one even cared about last words these days. People used to care about last words; they probably used to rehearse them, to make sure they had them right. Your last words were the culmination of your life.
I went a few stops past the hospice. It wasn’t like I was thinking very straight. Stepping off the bus into the dusk, I had to walk back along the highway. Bus shelter ads, fast food litter on the uneven slabs of the footpath and all the cars rushing past with such violence. The sun was gone and chill of the night was setting in. I needed to ring Anita, I still couldn’t bear to. This could be an ordinary Tuesday night, I could be going to a pub – not that I ever did, but wouldn’t it be such a comforting, ordinary thing to do tonight? – or going to see a cheap movie at the cinema. But these weren’t options tonight.
An innocuous blue sign pointed down a sidestreet to the hospice. It was a residential street, lined with trees. None of these people in their houses knew that a long had just ended in their street. It happened daily, people’s long life stories coming to an end in beds inside a building on their streets. Did they know how much was being lost around them?
Dad, Uncle Graham, Aunty Pat were gathered in the room where he had died. His body had already been taken away. The bed was empty and unmade. I gave everyone subdued hugs.
Dad asked in a low voice if I wanted to see his body. I said no. Even seeing the empty bed was too much. I hadn’t seen a dead body this far in my life and I didn’t want to start today.
On the beside table was an old paperback. I picked it up; a bookmark from his local library was stuck between pages 190 and 191. He only had a few chapters to go. While everyone was talking, I slipped the book into my bag.
That night, I sat in the lounge room until one a.m. reading the old paperback. It was A.J. Cronin’s autobiography, Adventure in Two Worlds. Uncle Graham had probably grabbed it from Grandad’s shelf. I wondered if Grandad had read it before, or if it had been one of those books he had bought at a garage sale and been meaning to get to for the last twenty years.
It was a cheap paperback edition from the 1960s, the cover declaring it an international bestseller. I disliked bestsellers, but I had sympathy for the forgotten bestsellers of the past. Their obsolescence was touching, as was their misplaced self-confidence. They encapsulated their time and its passing.
Grandad liked to read old paperbacks. Whether it was chosen for him or he chose it, it was a fitting book for his last read. It was a life story imbued with the same old-fashioned notion of common sense that Grandad lived by, and the same refusal to be subversive, crude or despairing. It starts out in typical autobiographical fashion, full of the young doctor’s struggles to succeed in the world. But as the doctor becomes a best-selling writer, the narrative becomes more and more choked with anecdotes until it seizes up altogether in sermons.
I got to Grandad’s bookmark and powered on past it, reading what he had never got to read and thinking how he would have loved the end of the book, as Cronin at the height of his powers looks back on a successful life in a self-congratulatory tone I found difficult.
I got to the last word and shut the book. The book was finished, Cronin was at the height of his powers and Grandad was dead. But Cronin wasn’t really at the height of his powers. I got onto the internet and looked him up. He’d died in 1981, twenty-nine years after he wrote the story of his life. The year I was born. His narrative had started in 1917 when he was 18, the year Grandad was born. The coincidences didn’t lead anywhere, were all vague, but they gave me a sense of appropriateness. The book was finished, the book was out of print, Grandad was dead but Cronin was dead too.
There should be a book for people to read on their deathbed which explains everything. So that you’ve got something to look forward to. The last book you read should be the one which makes sense of life. But what if you lived on too long, finished that book, and then had to start something else? What were the odds of dying at the right time, when you’ve just finished a book? It wasn’t good to leave a book unfinished when you died. Poor Grandad. At least I’d read it for him, that had to count for something.
I had thought that when I finished the book I would want to sleep, but I still felt dissatisfied. I wished I could write in my diary and capture the feelings and thoughts of the day, but I didn’t feel able to. I wanted to listen to the radio, but there was never anything good on that late and it would wake up Anita. She stirred as I came to bed and asked me if I was okay. I told her I was probably more okay than Dad and I was definitely more okay than Grandad.