Archive by Author

Ryan O’Neill interviewed by Les Zigomanis

30 Apr

Les Zigomanis: Tell me about your collection.

Ryan O’Neill: The Weight of a Human Heart is a collection of stories set in different parts of the world and told in a range of different styles, from realist to formally experimental and metafictional. The thing I love most about the short story form is its versatility, and I wanted to try to demonstrate that versatility in the collection. So there are funny stories, sad stories, stories told through exam papers, book reviews, graphs, charts; stories set in Rwanda, Uganda, China, Lithuania and Australia.

Les Zigomanis: How did the collection come together?

Ryan O’Neill: One of my stories, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’, was fortunate enough to be selected for Best Australian Stories 2010 (Black Inc.). After publication, Black Inc. contacted me to say they had enjoyed the story and would like to see more of my writing. I replied thanking them for their interest, and explained that I only wrote short stories, and so had a collection and not a novel to show them. I assumed that would be the end of the matter, as so few publishers are willing to consider single author short story collections (or if they are, the author is usually an already established novelist). I was delighted when they said they would like to see my collection, and it was eventually accepted.

Les Zigomanis: So why only write short stories? Surely there’s a novel somewhere lurking in your imagination?

Ryan O’Neill: JG Ballard argued that there has never been a perfect novel, but there have been perfect short stories, and I agree. Although I’ll never achieve that perfection, it does seem to be within reach, and it is always something to strive for. A great short story doesn’t have any flat spots, any sections where you feel like flicking ahead, any digressions, and it is never too long. A great novel may still have one or all of these features.

In short stories, I enjoy moving from setting to setting, style to style, and experimenting. If a story doesn’t work, then it has perhaps only taken a month of your life. A novel that doesn’t work can take years of your life (and years off it). In general, a novel doesn’t welcome experimentation and different styles (though there are, of course, magnificent exceptions such as Ulysses). I love the short story form, and I think it plays to my strengths as a writer, such as they are. If I ever feel the burning need to write a novel, I will. But as yet, the need isn’t there.

Les Zigomanis: Short story (collections) are a form which seem to be making a comeback. Do you think there’s a reason for that?

Ryan O’Neill: Perhaps one of the reasons is that people who love reading and writing short stories have become publishers of short stories, which is the case with Sleepers and Spineless Wonders. I also think the success of collections such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and, closer to home, Nam Le’s The Boat have encouraged publishers to have another look at the form. It certainly seems a more hospitable environment for short story collections now than when I first came to Australia seven years ago, when almost every publisher’s submission guidelines, it seemed, told you not to bother if all you had was a short story collection.

Les Zigomanis: Well, tell us about the stories.

Ryan O’Neill: As with any writer, there is an autobiographical element to many of the stories. For instance, I lived and taught in Rwanda, Lithuania and China for a number of years, and a few of the incidents (such as the experience of having malaria) in those settings are drawn from life, though most of the plots and characters are entirely invented. Another story features my childhood love of superhero comics, though that is the only thing about the story which I didn’t make up. Also, I’ve always loved books, reading and writing, so it seemed natural to write about those topics. Some ideas have been sparked by reading great writers such as Borges, Barthelme and Barth. Other times I would try to list some of the forms I had never seen attempted in short stories – such as book reviews, examinations, bibliographies, and so on – and then see if I could write a story in that form. The stories sometimes weren’t successful, but I always felt that I learned a great deal from the process.

Les Zigomanis: You talk about stories having an autobiographical element. Is that just on a physical and circumstantial level? Or does it go deeper to an emotional and spiritual level?

Ryan O’Neill: That’s a difficult question. I suppose any piece of writing, from a novel to a short story will reveal a lot about the writer, whether they want it to or not. After all, the characters in any story are all drawn from one person’s character – that of the writer. Even those characters slavishly modelled on a real person are not in fact based on that person, but the writer’s recollection and interpretation of that person. In that sense, it’s reasonable to say that the characters in my story do represent different parts of me, and my preoccupations, and maybe even my neuroses. It’s not something I think about when I am writing a story. I just want to get the words down on the page, and for them to make sense.

Les Zigomanis: Has anybody – a friend, or somebody in your family maybe – ever said to you, ‘Hey, that’s me in your story!’ Or, ‘Hey that’s what I did that time and you’ve put it in your story!’

Ryan O’Neill: Actually, that’s never happened. If I do use an incident taken from life, I make sure I disguise it as much as I can, so no one has ever really seen themselves in any of my stories.

Les Zigomanis: You quote JG Ballard saying that ‘there have been perfect short stories’, and say that it’s within reach, but then claim that you’ll never achieve that perfection. Why not?

Ryan O’Neill:I suppose, like many writers, I am most critical of my own work. Whenever I look at a finished story there is always something I want to change. In the extremely unlikely event I ever did write a story someone else considered to be ‘perfect,’ it would still not be perfect to me. There’s a line from Robert Browning that I’ve always loved: ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

Les Zigomanis: Then when is enough enough? When is a story initially finished for you?

Ryan O’Neill: For me a story is finished when I can’t bear to look at it any more. I rewrite and rewrite until the very sight of the story makes me nauseous. Then I know the initial draft is finished!

Les Zigomanis: Then what’s the process? Do you have a clique of readers who give you objective feedback? Or do you just start sending the stories out to fend for themselves?

Ryan O’Neill: I have five or six good friends and fellow writers whose judgement I trust on my work, and who trust me to look at and comment on their work. When I’ve reached the stage where I can’t stand to look at the story, I send it on to them, then review their comments, which are always extremely useful, and make changes. These can be small cuts or additions, but on occasion their feedback has led me to completely overhaul a story.

Les Zigomanis: When the story’s made you nauseous and sick of the sight of it, how do you feel when you send it out, it’s accepted, and it comes back marked-up?

Ryan O’Neill: I welcome comments from editors. In fact, I am very suspicious when I don’t get any, as I know there is always room for improvement in the stories. My best experiences with editors are with those who have made lots of comments and suggested changes and deletions, as I know this means they have read the story carefully. On occasion, there are some quirks of style, etc., I might want to keep, but I think in general I would accept 95% of suggested changes, as a good editor will obviously only make a story better. I’ve never had a bad experience with an editor. About the only thing I can think of is one story where the journal wanted to change the title of the story. I agreed, though I didn’t like the new title. But then I didn’t like the old title either, so it wasn’t much of a wrench.

Les Zigomanis: You say a good editor will only want to make a story better, which I agree with. But how do you tell a good editor from one who may be overly intrusive, who may mark-up changes and make suggestions simply for the sake of making them?

Ryan O’Neill: I think it comes down to what you think when you see the changes and suggestions made by the editor. Almost all of the time, when I’ve seen them, I’ve thought instantly, ‘Of course! That works so much better!’ On those occasions when I didn’t feel that way, the editor respected my opinion, and kept the work as it was. So far I haven’t come across the kind of intrusive editor you mention. But I don’t think they would be too difficult to spot, as their changes just wouldn’t ‘feel’ right.

Les Zigomanis: So, given all this writing and revision, is a story ever actually finished?

Ryan O’Neill: I choose to believe it is finished when it is published, as you could work on a story forever.

Les Zigomanis: Movies are re-cut and re-released. Raymond Carver’s short stories were re-released as he intended them, as opposed to how they were published following his editor Gordon Lish’s revisions. Could you see yourself one day realising a published story should’ve unfolded another way and going for an Author’s Cut?

Ryan O’Neill: I don’t think so. The only time I have gone back to published stories was when I looked at those in the collection that had been published before, and spent some time revising them. If the collection hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have looked at those stories again. For me, the final cut is publication. After that, I stop tinkering.

Les Zigomanis: In terms of there always being something you want to change, do you think writing’s like parenting? In that regard, I mean a parent will always – to some degree – treat their child as a child, regardless of age. So is a story always something you’ll try to parent to what you hope is something better for it?

Ryan O’Neill: I hope writing isn’t like parenting. I don’t think I’m a particularly good parent to my stories. I usually can’t wait to see the back of them, so I never have to think about them again! When I finish a story, and if it has the good luck to get published, then I generally never look at it again. I think it’s important to always think about the next thing you are writing, not the piece you have just finished.

Les Zigomanis: So you wouldn’t pick up an unsuccessful story which is years old and have another shot at getting it right?

Ryan O’Neill: I do have a few stories that are years old, and have never been published, and occasionally I go back and tinker with them. I usually only do that if I have nothing new on the go. Sometimes the old stories can be saved, and sometimes they can’t. If they can’t, then I cannibalise them for characters, imagery, dialogue, anything I can rip out of there and use in a new story.

Les Zigomanis: You wouldn’t try rewriting from scratch and getting it right?

Ryan O’Neill: The idea of beginning an entirely new story is much more appealing to me than trying to recast an old one, so I will always tend to go for the new over the old.

Les Zigomanis: As far as the process of writing goes, is there somewhere you want the story to take you?

Ryan O’Neill: I just want to get from the first line to the last, and hopefully leave something worth reading in between.

Les Zigomanis: How do you measure worth? You mentioned earlier about experimentation with form, but that you weren’t always successful. You once told me that your story, ‘The Chinese Lesson’, had literally been rejected by just about every journal in Australia, yet it placed third in the 2010 Age Short Story Competition. So how do you measure the worth in your own story, given reading is such a subjective business?

Ryan O’Neill: I think after writing for a few years you hopefully develop a sense of whether a story works or not. Of course this sense is not 100% accurate. I’ve laboured over a story for weeks believing it to be very good, only to realise much later it was deeply flawed, and on the other hand on one occasion I dashed off a story in a couple of hours just to amuse myself, and it was published very quickly. If my sense of a story working lets me down, then I can rely on the circle of fellow writers who give me feedback to catch it.

In the case of ‘The Chinese Lesson’ I thought it was a solid story, better than some other stories of mine which had been published, so I was a little surprised when it was rejected time after time. I thought about revising it, but couldn’t see too much wrong, so I put it away for a while. I only entered it in The Age competition as an afterthought. It wasn’t even my main entry, which was a story that still remains unpublished today.

For me, a story is successful if it accomplishes what I set out to do. In that sense, I’ve written some experimental stories that I consider successful, but that I doubt will ever be published.

Les Zigomanis: In terms of writing, are you a planner, or do you just let the story take you wherever it wants to go?

Ryan O’Neill: I’m a planner. Before I begin I plan it all out. I get some paper and write ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ and then put in all the events of the story in their proper place. Prior to commencing the first draft I also like to spend time thinking about the story and jotting down notes for possible dialogue, imagery and so on. Sometimes these notes will run to several pages. I am happiest when I have a first line and a last line in place as I start to write, and I also like to have a title, though that doesn’t always happen. I used to envy writers who say their characters take on a life of their own. Mine always do exactly what I say.

Les Zigomanis: So at no point do you deviate? At no point does your imagination brooks the plan and takes you elsewhere?

Ryan O’Neill: If something isn’t working, then of course I will try different ideas. But in general I don’t like to deviate too far from my signposts of ‘Beginning’ ‘Middle’ and ‘End.’

Les Zigomanis: Then there remains something organic in your process, because whilst you have your plan, you also have a gauge while you’re writing which distinguishes the irreconcilability between how story’s emerging and how it was planned?

Ryan O”Neill: Yes, I suppose so, though I usually just plod on to the end even if I realise a story isn’t working, as I hope it can be saved in the re-writing process.

Les Zigomanis: But is it sometimes saved in the journey? By that I mean, in the process of writing, do solutions to issues reveal themselves which you hadn’t otherwise considered, or planned?

Ryan O’Neill: On good days, yes. On good days, sometimes it almost feels like playing ‘Tetris’ where different parts of the story float down and join together perfectly. At other times you can get too close to the story, and not see a way out of a difficulty. That’s where feedback from others becomes important.

Les Zigomanis: How long does a story’s conception and planning take?

Ryan O’Neill: Sometimes the initial idea, then the first draft, rewriting and final draft can take a very short time, such as a week, but that is very unusual. Normally I have an idea, then write it down and leave it for a while, adding notes as they strike me, and it might be weeks, months or years before I get around to writing it.

Les Zigomanis: Do you know how long the story will be before you begin writing?

Ryan O’Neill: Not really. But I would expect it to be less then 5000 words, as I don’t usually write stories past that length. It’s not a conscious decision. I just tend to write between 3000 to 4000 words for a story.

Les Zigomanis: Any preconceptions on how long a short story should be?

Ryan O’Neill: I think the length has to be justified by the quality of the story. A long story had better be excellent.

Les Zigomanis: How long does it take you to finish a story?

Ryan O’Neill: For me, the story really comes together in rewriting, and this is something I spend a long time on, usually far longer than the time it took for the first draft. On average, probably three or four weeks.

Les Zigomanis: I’ve always found that characters develop life the further you write. As opposed to taking ‘on a life of their own’, they become almost real and dear, (well, to me at least). Have you ever felt reluctant to put a character through whatever you’ve planned for them?

Ryan O’Neill: I used to feel a bit envious of writers who talked about their characters doing unexpected things, surprising them, and becoming almost like real people to them, as they never did to me. But then I read an interview with Vladimir Nabokov in which he said that his characters were simply puppets who did exactly what he said, and any writer who believed their characters had a life or will of their own must have mental problems. Though this was, of course, Nabokov being typically provocative and mischievous, it did make me feel better!

Les Zigomanis: Any writing quirks? Favourite pens, music, feng shui of the room, need for the perfect opening line – anything?

Ryan O’Neill: I’m afraid not. I just sit down at the computer, whenever I have the time and energy, and start tapping away.

Les Zigomanis: Do you feel story is a reinterpretation of self, that it exists on a level of entertainment, or there is some (for the want of a better word) ennoblement about it?

Ryan O’Neill: The short answer would be, yes, yes and I hope so. But I’ll try to expand.

For a long time I’ve believed that we read to make sense of the world and our lives, as they so often make so little sense. The earliest story in human history, Gilgamesh, has a man seeking immortality and the secret of a happy life. (For the record, the answer he gets is to eat, drink and dress well, and cherish his wife and child, which still strikes me as good advice today.) We read to experience other lives, whether searching for the Maltese Falcon or for bananafish. I like to think that the best stories can change us for the better, though I have no scientific proof. Reading a story is putting yourself in someone else’s situation, and the world could only be a better place if we all did that more often.

A story should also entertain, if I can interpret ‘entertain’ as also meaning ‘provoke’ or ‘disturb’ or ‘cause reflection’ as well as amuse. Both P.G. Wodehouse and Franza Kafka I find wonderfully entertaining, in very different ways.

Les Zigomanis: Who are your other influences? What have you drawn from them?

Ryan O’Neill: The writer I most admire, and who I think has influenced me to an extent, is Graham Greene. Open any of his books at random, and you will almost certainly find a striking line of dialogue, an original image, a vivid description, or a memorable character. His novels are never a line longer than they need to be. There is no padding and by today’s standards, most of them are quite short. Even his weakest novels are worth reading, and do not waste the reader’s time. I have tried to follow Greene in keeping my stories as short as possible, and doing all I can to make the reader feel their time has not been wasted.

Apart from Graham Greene, I love writers who play with form and convention, such as John Barth, Murray Bail and Jorge Luis Borges. From them I have taken the idea of squeezing the short story into different – and sometimes strange – forms and seeing what happens.

Les Zigomanis: So what’s your favourite books? What’s the one which stands out for you?

Ryan O’Neill: Among my favourite books are Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, John Williams’ Stoner, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. But my all time favourite is a relatively little known (outside Scotland) novel called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. In synopsis it sounds very dull: a young woman grows up on an isolated farm in the Scottish highlands, as the First World War approaches. But it is a beautiful novel, lyrical (an adjective applied to many modern novels that are very far from being so), moving, sometimes hilarious and extremely readable, despite the number of Scots dialect words that a modern reader wouldn’t recognise without the help of a glossary.

Les Zigomanis: Is it perfect?

Ryan O’Neill: No – though it does come pretty close.

Les Zigomanis: What’s wrong with it?

Ryan O’Neill: It has its faults, but they only become apparent in the third or fourth reading. The author wrote it in something of a hurry, as if he had foreseen his tragic, and unexpected, early death, and sometimes the slapdash nature can be seen. But the novel’s faults are easy to forgive because of the genius of the whole work. Gibbon was one of the greatest Scottish novelists of the last century. If he had lived beyond the page of 33, he would probably be better known around the world.

Les Zigomanis: Are the faults with the book exclusive to you or faults general to a readership?

Ryan O’Neill: I’m not sure. On reflection, I think the speed at which he wrote it is a strength as well as a fault. The words crackle with energy and almost leap from the page.

Les Zigomanis: What about yourself? When was the first time you realised you wanted to write? What was the spark?

Ryan O’Neill: I distinctly remember being in Year One of primary school, and the teacher giving me a gold star for a little story I wrote. I suppose I’ve been looking for gold stars ever since.

Les Zigomanis: Was that it? There wasn’t a story which sparked you, made you think, I want to write my own adventure?

Ryan O’Neill: Actually, for a long time before I wrote short stories, I wanted to be a comic book writer, and the story that sparked that off was Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I spent a lot of time trying to write comic scripts like Alan Moore, before finally realising that the only person who could write a comic like Alan Moore was Alan Moore. Around that time, I discovered Graham Greene, and it was his novel, Stamboul Train, that drew me back from comics to novels and stories. I still love comic books, though I don’t read them as much as I used to.

Les Zigomanis: Writing’s tough. I think a lot of outsiders looking in don’t understand the allure of it, unless you’re writing a best-seller and making it rich. So why do you do it? Is it for the reasons you’ve given – to make sense of the world, to entertain/provoke/disturb, et al?

Ryan O’Neill: George Orwell once dissected the characteristics of a writer in his essay, ‘Why I Write.’ For Orwell, all writers wrote from a differing proportion of four reasons; sheer egoism (‘Look at me!’), aesthetic enthusiasm (taking pleasure in writing well), historical impulse (a desire to record events for posterity), and political purpose (a wish to change the world). Out of 100% here is my breakdown:

Political Purpose: 1%

Historical impulse: 5%

Sheer egoism: ??

Aesthetic Enthusiasm: ??

Total: 100%

Les Zigomanis: Have you always gotten support from those around you, (parents, brothers, sisters, partners, kids) that you’ve needed?

Ryan O’Neill: My mother and father always encouraged my writing. I have a vivid memory of coming home from school one day when I was about twelve to find they had bought me an electric typewriter as a surprise. (This was before the days of desktop publishing.) I used to write science-fiction and comic book scripts on that noisy machine.

For the last seven years, I’ve been lucky enough to have a very understanding wife who realises that I may feel miserable when I don’t write, and conversely, I may feel miserable when I do write.

Les Zigomanis: So where’s the win there?

Ryan O’Neill: The win is in those moments when it all comes together; when you are writing well, and you know you are writing well, and the story flows and is good, and there is immense enjoyment and satisfaction in making something, and making something worthwhile. Those moments are few and far between, but they make up for a lot of the grind and the disappointments.

Les Zigomanis: Is there a balance that you think needs to be maintained between writing and life outside of writing?

Ryan O’Neill: Yes, definitely. Writing and life outside writing should inform and strengthen each other. I believe it’s a mistake for someone to attempt to put all their energies into becoming a ‘Writer’ (with a capital W). You also have to live. I’ve been fortunate to have had opportunities to live and work in different countries, and to have had many experiences which have fed into my writing. Similarly, writing has enriched my life, providing me with an activity which I find wholly absorbing and (sometimes) very enjoyable.

Writing is an important part of my life, but it is not the most important part. If it was, it think it would be very sad. For proof of that, just look at the life of Richard Yates.

Les Zigomanis: How do you find the state of the short story market in Australia, both with publishers and journals?

Ryan O’Neill: I think in general the state of the short story is relatively healthy in Australia. There are many excellent journals publishing quality short fiction, and there are a lot of short story competitions with significant prizes and exposure for a short story writer. Black Inc. with its Best Australian Stories, and Scribe with its New Australian Stories, have made an admirable and continuing commitment to publishing and promoting local anthologies on an annual and bi-annual basis. However, the more established publishers do seem more open to publishing single author collections from American or British writers than Australians, which does puzzle me sometimes. But this has left the field open to great new publishers like Spineless Wonders, Affirm and Transit Lounge who have been producing excellent collections in the last couple of years, and will hopefully continue to do so for a long time to come.

Les Zigomanis: So are you constantly submitting? A lot of writers I know write, but then their stuff just sits there.

Ryan O’Neill: For the past year or so I haven’t been submitting as much as I used to, as I was working on the collection, but in general I would usually have three to seven stories out there at any one time, entered into competitions or submitted to journals.

Les Zigomanis: How do you deal with rejection?

Ryan O’Neill: Being Scottish, and naturally pessimistic. Rejection is my default position. I am always very pleasantly surprised, and grateful when a story of mine is accepted by a journal or anthology. Almost all of my stories were rejected at least once before finding a home, and many of them several times. I would estimate I’ve had over a hundred rejections in the last few years. Being an editor now myself, at Etchings, I’ve also come to realise that stories can be rejected for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. For example, two excellent stories with very similar themes might be submitted, and obviously, you can only choose one of them for that particular edition. It’s been a strange but rewarding experience being on the other side of the fence; reading submissions rather than submitting. It has also made me realise that a rejection is simply one person’s opinion. Hopefully that opinion is well-schooled, but it’s an opinion none the less. And the next editor’s opinion may well be very different.

Les Zigomanis: I’ve been asking you questions as a writer. Let me ask you just one as a reader/editor. How do you feel about the state of writing and short fiction in Australia?

Ryan O’Neill: Though the golden age of Australian short fiction was undoubtedly the 1970s, I think the short fiction of this millennium has seen the most exciting developments since that time. There have been a large number of excellent short fiction writers active in the last few years, beginning with Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots through Paddy O’Reilly’s The End of the World, Nam Le’s The Boat Tim Richards’ Thought Crimes and Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories. Experimentation seems to be making something of a comeback, while realism has moved into, and been reinvigorated by, other forms such as the ‘novel in stories’ of Patrick Cullen and Gretchen Schirm, among others. I think now is the best time to be writing short stories in this country in the last twenty-five years.

Les Zigomanis: Any tips for other writers?

Ryan O’Neill: I can only give a few tips that have worked for me. Read. A lot. Try to find your own voice. Write about the things you love, not the things you think an editor will love. Expect rejection. Accept honest criticism. And the hardest part of all: sit down and write. As Ray Bradbury said, ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’

Les Zigomanis: Finally, I understand the rights to The Weight of the Human Heart have been sold to the UK and the US. How do you feel about that?

Ryan O’Neill: It’s an amazing feeling. Just getting the collection published in Australia is wonderful, and anything beyond that I start running out of superlatives.

Mark William Jackson reviews Your Looking Eyes by Emilie Collyer

19 Apr

I’m not sure how I feel about the Australian Poetry Café Poet Program. On the one hand any publicity that poets and poetry receives is a good thing; on the other, the idea of sitting in a café like an exhibit while people come to marvel at the atrocity chills me to the bone.

However, if the Café Poet Program can produce works like Your Looking Eyes then I am definitely all for it.

Your Looking Eyes was written during Emilie Collyer’s residence at c3 contemporary art space. In keeping with the visual feel of the collection, the design, layout and artwork of the collection is provided by visual artist Eirian Chapman.

The first poem of the collection, ‘The Reader’, presents the issue of how a writer must create images in a reader’s mind. The poem is from the reader’s perspective. In this piece the writer is stuck for words:

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She wants you to remember the thing that makes you squint

Sucking a lemon wedge

Fingernails on a blackboard

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Draw a picture of your eyes

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I hate the cliché Show. Don’t tell. It is too easily offered as advice but all it does is present the problem, what can be done with words? Collyer opens an illustrated collection written while surrounded by visual art by asking a question, what can a writer do to present an image to the reader, to get inside the reader’s head and make the reader smell the image, to hear the image. The poem closes with the reader’s fear:

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Art that asks me to do something. Am I doing it right?

Is someone watching? Will they laugh at me?

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‘Frames of childhood’ laments the lack of film of a childhood and expresses the limit of still images and memories.

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There are no films of us as children

just photos and stories

how fast did my brother

sprint into that stone wall?

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But the memories are stimulated by the photos and the associated questions; how fast? what expression? Remember lemonade icy poles, smelling skin, running hot tracks in the sun. The poem races like a barefooted girl through childhood:

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children don’t grieve change

we crave it

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Notice the voice/tense change, the opening stanza presents an adult looking back on childhood photos, lamenting the lack of film. The second and third stanzas are present tense, first person child narration. The fourth stanza drags us unwillingly back to adult present:

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when does rear vision begin?

the trawl through albums and drawers and boxes

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The poem closes ‘this thing we call childhood / belongs to adults’, this is a wonderfully sad ending, the technique Collyer employs in the piece regarding voice and tense takes us on a free-for-all joy ride as children. At the end we don’t miss our childhood years because we never knew we had them. Only now, as adults, can we recognise the years and paint them in a fond light.

And now, pure opinion… the best poem in the collection, spanning pages 22 & 23 – printed sideways so that you have to turn the collection as if you’re leering at a Playboy centrefold.

‘What does it mean?’ is visual, experimental, almost L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, presenting a quizzical jumpiness into a central epiphany which makes the ride out of the centre like post meditation breathing exercises.

Now, here is what could possibly be the world’s first meta-referential review. I stepped out of the writing of this review to contact Alec Patric, asking him to seek permission from Emilie Collyer to reprint ‘What does it mean?’ in Verity La the day before this review appears.

Permission sought and granted. ‘What does it mean?’ is printed sideways and appears like a concrete poem. I don’t know what is says of my state of mind but it looks to me like a Rorschach test and given the title I wonder what it means. When you read the poem, turn your head sideways and you’ll see what I mean.

In technique, the poem drips letters upon letters, forming words, words forming indecipherable sentences, until the central epiphany:

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One of the artists I spoke with considers it a positive thing when people don’t recognise his work as art. He says it means he is creating something new that has not been seen before. He likes this phenomenon. Can the same be said for words?

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And then back out, the words fall away, fading like the Star Wars opening crawl.

Your Looking Eyes is a great introduction to Emilie Collyer’s work; 14 poems with strong visual aspects, the art space literally infused in the words.

The first print run of 100 copies sold out. The second run is selling fast. Available for $12 (including postage) from select bookstores in Melbourne or via Emilie’s website Between the Cracks.

What Does It Mean? (Emilie Collyer)

16 Apr

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One of the artists I spoke with considers it a positive thing when people don’t recognise his work as art. He says it means he is creating something new that has not been seen before. He likes this phenomenon. Can the same thing be said for words?

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Sail (Sam van Zweden)

27 Mar

I heard

they built streets

in Europe

on dead river beds

throwing down tiles

in denial

when it rains

streets flood

al fresco floating down stream

deluge-diluted lattes

gondolas drag-racing trucks at the lights

 

Melbourne just built roads

forward

three-inch grooves

mosey trams along

and when it rains the way it has

for weeks now

these grooves become tiny Yarras

eventually their banks burst

giving me no other choice

no other way forward

but to sail

 

Jessica Au interviewed by Bel Woods

20 Mar

The bright, youthful voices of Jessica Au’s characters flew across the pages in Cargo, (a novel released by Picador in August last year) and Jessica herself is a breath of fresh air, especially when discussing her own attitude towards process and creation. This is how she came to be soaring at age 25.

Bel Woods: I’ve read your novel Cargo grew from previously published work. A practice in novel writing, that, in my opinion, is not utilised enough. The ‘this is what I have, this is what I can make it into’ approach casts light on how writers are finding practical ways to speed up and launch their careers. Do you think new and emerging writers need to think more about moulding the work they have, rather than starting something new? (If only to save themselves time.)

Jessica Au: I think at the end of the day the impetus for a novel simply boils down to that idea – the unnamed variable, the X – that keeps to drawing you back. That makes you go, definitively, I’ve got more to say. (Didn’t The God of Small Things grow out of an image Arundhati Roy had of a sky blue Plymouth surrounded by a sea of protestors?)

Quite often though this X – a mood, a tone, a reoccurring storyline – will have manifested itself in your writing anyway. You can see it, for example in the short stories Beverley Farmer wrote prior to her novel, The House in the Light. She regularly explores the theme of life in Greece for an expat, and for women and wives and mothers in particular. I’m not saying that this is in any way recycling or being lazy, but rather that there are certain narrative impulses that, for whatever reason, you’ll keep returning to.

With Cargo, it was mainly about trying to articulate a certain kind of unease that comes with growing up, particular for teenage girls, and the silent pressures and projections they encounter. I’d touched on this several times in short stories prior to writing the novel, but again still felt I had more to say. So it seemed natural, as well as practical, to draw from them.

Looking back however, I’m not sure if this is always the best route. It was definitely a good thing in many ways – some of the groundwork was already done, the characters were roughly shaded, I had voices, dialogue, backstories. A sketch. On the other hand though, a novel is a very different creature to a short story, and trying to lengthen and stretch one into the other can be a pretty hefty task. There are no shortcuts, as I found out. Cargo took me about two and a half years to finish, and it’s practically a novella. If you are going to go down that road, you really have to be prepared to dismantle everything and start afresh, and I think also be wary of pace and movement. A short story can get away with being a single scene, a few stills. With a novel, it’s more like constructing the whole movie.

So all in all that’s a very long-winded way of saying that first and foremost I think it rides the idea – whether that’s from stories you’ve written before, or something that strikes you out of the blue. And in any case, I think you know it when you see it.

Bel Woods: I think a lot of the time, with writers, there’s a psychological block – not writer’s block per se, as a lot of writers regularly produce work, but a block where the idea of devoting everything to a larger project is just too much. How and when did you decide you were going to commit to a novel? And did you find yourself, during the day to day production of Cargo, having to push in order to keep this commitment?

Jessica Au: Yes writing is definitely an exercise in psychological peaks and troughs. Beginning that ‘albatross’ novel comes with all the usual fears – fear that you won’t be able to pull it off, fear that you won’t finish it. With smaller projects, you can get your returns (completion, publication, payment) incrementally. With longer works, it could, and often does, take years.

But another reason for that hesitation I think also has a lot to do with circumstance. In the barest sense, novels take time, and they take headspace. I would be happy to write manuscript after manuscript (even if a lot of these turned out to be duds), if only I had the luxury of endless days in which to do so. The difficulty is that this is rarely the case. More often than not, we have to fight for the space to write, and of course it’s hard to embark on such a big gamble when other ‘real life’ things keep on nudging their way in. This to me is probably the biggest barrier.

In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith talks about how she used to watch other people performing and, despite being blown away by it, a sly thought would always creep into her head as if to say, I can do that. Wanting to write can sometimes be like this – you can be awe of books, and amazed by them, but at the same time you hunger to be the writer behind the words, not just the reader of them.

In that sense I always knew I wanted to write a longer work. But on the other hand, after having a range of short stories rejected across the board, I also realised I was nowhere near where I had to be to begin one! So the how and when was more a matter of waiting and honing until I felt more certain. I can’t really recall any moment when I thought I’ve got a novel here. But I do remember thinking that if I were to start one, it would be easier to conceptualise as a series of little vignettes. I also wanted to try and keep it simple, and within territory that I knew. That led me to go back to those short stories mentioned above – and once I’d decided that, it just a matter of addressing the practicalities: deferring uni for a year, getting some part-time work, working out a set routine etc.

During the actual writing process, I definitely had all those fears and worries all over again. Usually the process was cyclical – good days morphing into writer’s block, which would then break and bring you back to the good days again… But at the same time, despite these gripes, even a bad day writing is better than a good day doing anything else. So in that sense, it was a damn fine time.

Bel Woods: I’m very interested in creative process in all art, especially in new artists who’ve perhaps not figured out or refined their own processes yet, despite having an amount of success. It would be easy for me to suggest you’re quiet a natural writer, but I’m guessing it’s not as simple as that. I do believe, at the novel level, all writers remaining are naturals to a point, though word counts, genre selection, editing/redrafting, and general industry savvy, start involving other life skills. It’s obvious to me that story and creating are big drivers for you, but outside this, are there any other influences or personality traits that make up Jessica the writer?

Jessica Au: Well there’s definitely no sense of ease or seamlessness to me a writer. I’m a re-drafter, a hacker. I’m not the type who can just pump out a good few chapters everyday – in fact I’m lucky if I get a good few paragraphs, and even then it’s a constant job of chiseling and subtracting and rewiring. Don’t get me wrong – I love the robotics of it, but no, it’s definitely not a simple process.

On the question of influences, there are plenty – I always keep a pile of books by my desk that I can return to when I’m stuck. For me the process of writing involves a strange kind of hypnotism. You have to lull yourself in a state where you’re able to drift, yet can still think. The novels that I often revisited while writing Cargo were those by Julia Leigh, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro, Christos Tsiolkas; short stories by Cate Kennedy, Beverley Farmer, Tim Winton, Nam Le, Laura van den Berg … and many others.

The question of personality traits is a bit harder for me to answer – but maybe stubbornness, or something like it? Because I need to redraft a lot, I tend to be the type who needs to sit at the desk for whole days until it feels vaguely right. I think I’m also very much a creature of routine and habit when it comes to writing, which again maybe has a bit to do with that hypnotism mentioned above. Lastly, I’m not sure if this is a ‘trait’ as such, but I’ve found that working a bit in editing and publishing has helped me immensely in developing a more critical outlook, and becoming aware of real technicalities and mechanics that come with constructing a longer work.

Bel Woods: One of the biggest draw cards when it comes to your writing is your ability to inject powerful imagery into your gorgeous prose. When you’re producing work, are you conscious of this overall aesthetic? Or do you write the narrative first and keep redrafting until everything becomes more lyrical?

Jessica Au: Mood and tone and definitely huge drivers for me – and, as my editors very rightly pointed out, this isn’t always for the best, as I can sometimes overdo it. But a sense or a feeling is definitely where the scene starts for me. I then try and make sure I include enough dialogue and narrative backbone to prop it up.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that conceptualising a novel in terms of aesthetics is very similar to the ways in which a director needs to conceptualise an entire film. As a writer you’re not only ‘acting’ the character your voicing, but you also need to be aware of (and in control of) props and objects, clothing, setting, visuals and so on. Both in terms of how you describe them and how they work together to contribute to that ‘overall aesthetic’ that you mention.

Joan Didion was fantastic at this. She knew, for example, how important it was not just to describe ‘curtains’ but the ‘fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk’ that ‘would blow out the windows the get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms’, not just ‘a tattoo’ but ‘the plumeria blossom tattooed just below her shoulder’, not just the ‘house’ but ‘the house in Brentwood Park’. Julia Leigh’s cinematographic writing is another brilliant example. In Disquiet, for example:

“The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and she’d rested it in a silk-scarf sling, which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, suitcase.”

Just from that paragraph and it’s imagery we get so much – a sense of the woman and the formality of the situation, as well as the mystery: who is this mother that she is now copying, and why is her arm broken? The suitcase – where is she going, where is she from? Not to mention the perfect composition of a cast being held up by, of all things, a matching silk scarf. I love details like this and how they, and these aesthetics, can speak volumes.

Bel Woods: In your answer to question two, you talk about about keeping things simple and within territory you knew. I’ve always liked the idea of starting small. I think Cargo is the novel before your ‘Albatross’ novel, though it probably doesn’t seem this way to you. I see it as a sneak peak of what we can expect from Jessica in the future – a pilot episode to a greater work, which will mature with its readers. I think a lot of writers bite off more than they can chew, and get so far beyond the initial idea that with it comes fear they might produce a ‘bad’ novel. It’s for this reason, I believe, great amounts of work just get shelved. Sometimes the writer will push through and the risk pays off, but mostly you hear of writers returning to these more complicated projects after their process and skill level has developed. With Cargo it’s interesting, as you’ve both taken a risk and kept the project in reach. Mind you, the linking of the chapters must’ve proved challenging. At anytime while writing Cargo did you feel like pulling back, beginning again, or starting something new? Or do you think the structure, length, and novel’s marketability may have helped make the end product more achievable, despite the fact those particular things, are, in fact, obstacles in themselves?

Jessica Au: No I agree – Cargo was a big step for me, and I’m incredibly relieved to have finished it, but you’re always learning as a writer, and each novel is a stepping-stone, the first one especially. The further you go, the more you’re able to grapple with more complex themes and structures, but I feel like I’m still shedding training-wheels so-to-speak.

Despite the fears and worries mentioned above, I don’t think I ever felt like giving up on Cargo, or starting something else entirely. When I was younger, I did in fact stop-start several horrible novels on ‘big’ themes that naturally fell apart in my hands, so I realised from there I’d better pace myself. And while pulling apart those short stories was hard enough, it somehow seemed more achievable I think because I was conscious of what wasn’t, and of my own limits. Aiming for a more modest word length and having three voices to bounce off certainly helped, but so did realising how to critique my own work in a worthwhile way. That point was something of a watershed moment, because, conversely, it can give you the confidence to go ahead. As in instead of sitting there helplessly wondering why no one appreciates what you’ve done, you find you’ve got it in you to break the stasis.

Bel Woods: When, writing anything, and the final product comes about, finally, I suspect we all hope to leave it having learned something about our craft and ultimately about how we function as writers. Do you feel more equipped for the next project now Cargo is well and truly birthed? And can we know a little bit about your writing right now?

Jessica Au: Yes I think so. I hope by now I understand a bit more about the temperament of novels – the importance of trying to approach them holistically, with that director’s eye (although of course many things will change from redraft to redraft), and also the idea of really interrogating what you want to say with a work. Being conscious of the whys behind a story or a scene mean it’s less likely to be padding, or to appear directionless. I realised a lot of this only during the editing process of Cargo, so I’m curious about what it would be like to try and write something being conscious about that from the outset. Of course, I still have a way to go!

Terribly, the ‘albatross’ second novel is barely formed in my head, let alone the page, so unfortunately there’s not much to tell. But I am interested in the idea of subverting narrative expectation, especially when it comes to genre. I love books that lure me into certain states of familiarity only to jolt me out of it again, playing around not only with themes, but with conventions. Open endings, scenes in which nothing happens yet everything happens, stock characters turned on their heads and inverted. Something along those lines…

Robert Goodman reviews A Tiger in Eden

18 Mar

The start of A Tiger in Eden feels like a cross between Trainspotting and The Beach. Nevertheless, it is a promising beginning – Billy, a Northern Irish hardman on the run from his shady past, lives on an island in Southern Thailand just hanging out with the backpackers and trying to better himself through reading.

The first fifty pages is scene setting – a recount of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits. Even at that point, with the novel still in search of a plot, there was potential. Unfortunately, what follows is another 150 pages of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits, a moment of contemplation (Billy trying not to think about drinking, fighting and sex) and a drug-induced catharsis followed by more sex.

In the place of plot is a 1990s backpacker’s tour of Thailand. The tale moves from the island of Ko Phi Phi to Phuket, then north through the Thai countryside, to Bangkok, then to a monastery in the jungle and finally to a drug-fuelled full moon party on a beach somewhere. While there is plenty movement (and drinking and sex and talking about drinking and sex) there is little action, merely a series of events and characters that have minimal impact on Billy and no impact on the plot. What is left, after the drinking and the sex, is a catalogue of aspects of Thailand that amaze Billy the Irish bumpkin, observations such as some Thais are Muslim and some are Buddhist; or some people go to Thailand because of the sex trade; or street food can be amazing but sometimes it can make you sick; or the expensive busses are overly air conditioned.

The book is written in Billy’s Irish brogue and develops an easy rhythm. He’s not smart, our Billy, but he reads a lot (mainly in an attempt to attract more intelligent women) so he’s not afraid to use big words. As a result the narrative is a mix of expletives and erudite reflection, but once you get the hang of the accent, it works. The problem is that Billy doesn’t really have anything interesting to say. Aside from the descriptions of Thailand, a large part of the narrative is Billy thinking and talking about and describing his sexual exploits.

There is an element of wish fulfilment in all of this. Billy seems to have a never ending supply of money which is never explained. And at every stop on his journey he manages to find women who fall for his dubious charms, including Claire the English woman who doesn’t mind that he beats some of her compatriots to a pulp, the Thai woman who inexplicably takes him to dinner in the markets even though she knows that it will result in the rest of the town branding her as a prostitute, to the pair of blonde Dutch air hostesses glad to find a “real man” to take them skinny dipping. Each of these become stepping stones to the perfect woman for Billy who will stay with him despite learning his deep dark secrets.

If you backpacked through Thailand in the mid-1990s (even if you weren’t an Irish hardman) and feel like reminiscing, or maybe you didn’t get the opportunity and feel that you missed something (mainly the sex and the drugs), then this may be the book for you. Otherwise, stick to Trainspotting, The Beach and The Lonely Planet.

Do You Remember? (Laurie Steed)

17 Feb

It’s fifteen years since the accident and the guy who fell off the ute is back on track. He’s got a job at DPC and has coffee-drinking competitions with a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy called Adam Eisenberg from Ontario, Canada.

I agree to meet the guy and Adam at an Irish pub in Northbridge because it’s Friday night and I’ve got nothing better to do. The guy says he needs to go to the toilet and leaves me with Adam Eisenberg, who asks where all the girls are:

“They’re all around you,” I say.

“Not these girls. The girls.”

“You mean women?”

“The girls out west,” he says, like I know what he’s talking about.

Further discussion reveals that Girls out West is a porn site where bored girls take their pants off in storerooms, parks, and outside abandoned houses. I say it sounds creepy and Adam says it should be but it’s not.

“Who’s your favourite?”

“I like Chloe,” he says.

“Who’s she?”

“Chloe,” he says, “is dynamite.”

He tells me about a particular photo shoot; she’s wearing a green coat but then she takes off the coat and she’s wearing nothing underneath. She lays down in the grass and starts playing with herself. “You can see the houses over the fence,” says Adam. “They’re just in some park somewhere and she’s playing with herself, with like dildos and shit. It’s wild.”

“So what makes her so special?” I say.

“You ever seen a girl, wanted to be with her, in her?”

“Mm.”

“Well that’s it,” says Adam. “Come on, let’s blow this joint.”

I know I came with the guy who fell off the ute but he’s nowhere to be seen. I remember a bouncer hauling someone out and we both said “Taxi,” and then I laughed so hard that beer came out of my nose.

It’s fifteen years to the day since the accident. I know this is not where I’m supposed to be but my brain doesn’t work so well anymore. The guy, his brain doesn’t work so well either. He padlocks his water bottle, he can’t drive a car and he takes his PlayStation 3 plug with him when he leaves the house because he’s sick of his sister using his things.

“The guy,” says Adam, “is my best friend. Well, when he shows up. Word is that he used to be a hell of a guy.”

“He is a hell of a guy,” I say. “You talk like that again, we’re going to have a problem.”

“Whoa, psycho. You got issues? You want to talk?”

“No,” I say, and take a swig of my beer.

“Better just to forget,” says Adam.

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes we forget such important things,” says Adam. He takes a swig of his Corona. “Where’s the guy?”

“I don’t know. Shit, I honestly can’t remember what happened.”

“He said you forget things all the time.”

“It’s him; he forgets,” I say. “But he made me promise, I remember that. He made me promise to–“

“I need Chloe.”

“Shut up, you’ll make me forget.”

“She’s my girl.”

“Man, just put a…shit! I forgot.”

“It was Chloe. We were talking about Chloe.”

We weren’t talking about Chloe, I think to myself. We were talking about a day, and I was driving, and the guy was so happy. So happy to be free for the day, and I put my foot down on the accelerator and said hold tight, man. For God’s sake, hold on tight.

“Where are you going to live, anyway? You can’t stay at the hostel.”

“The guy who fell off the ute has me covered.”

I stare at him. “You call him that too? Why?”

“He doesn’t remember a thing before the accident,” says Adam. “Far as I can see, it was his Ahab.”

“His Ahab?”

“You know what I mean,” says Adam. “Big Fish. Drama. Crash bang chaos.”

We start walking home because that’s what you do with a guy who’s hopped up on Red Bull and Vodka and looking for a specific pair of tits.

“So why Chloe?” I ask again.

“She wants me,” he says. “It’s the way she looks at me.”

“She’s not real,” I say.

“Who’s real?” he says. “You got a forgetful friend with a fucking etch-a-sketch for a brain. Where is he, anyway?”

“He got kicked out of the club,” I say. “Quit yelling.”

“God, I love Chloe,” he says. “She reminds me of Angela.”

“Who’s Angela?”

“She used to be my girl.”

“She dumped you, right?” I say.

“And who are you, Mister know-it-all?” says Adam. “I asked the guy who fell off the ute. He says he doesn’t even know you.”

“I knew him before the accident,” I say. “His name’s Andrew. I picked him up to go off-road on his eighteenth birthday. And on the way to the hospital, I held the cloth to his head saying, “Please, please don’t die.’”

“You’re out of your mind. Fucking Australians,” says Adam and then sits down on the kerb, his head in his hands.

I leave him there thinking, man, there’s something I should be doing and it’s not this. My phone rings. It’s the guy who fell off the ute and he asks where we are. I say, “We’re here, where are you?” I hear a dull hum in the background; another man shouts; the guy cuts in and then out of reception. I ask again where he is. He says “It’s amazing, Simon; it feels like I’m flying,” and then the phone goes dead.