Tag Archives: Alec Patric

The Verity La Forum

8 Dec

Forum Question:

A New Archaeology?

Alec Patric: When the novel first emerged it was considered trivial entertainment. The literary productions most honoured were to be found in verse and sometimes on stage. As those media waned in their traditional states, the art of song writing matured and attracted many of the talents driven by poetry. Cinema rose into a global phenomenon—becoming the major cultural agent for all Western cultures.

We are presently watching the book dwindle into the doddering ineffectuality of old age as print media prepares for retirement. A new medium is already emerging. It is often considered trivial entertainment, just as the novel was in its youth. Will an e-form emerge in the coming generation as the new literary standard? Is the blog already the key artefact for a new archaeology?

Ali Alizadeh: I really don’t think this is the end of the printed book as we know it. Many publishers tell me this is a boom time for print publishing, actually. But I find the idea of blogs and so on being part of a ‘new archaeology’ quite interesting. Are you suggesting that the whole thing is about to collapse like a doomed ancient civilisation, fit for future archaeological digs? Or perhaps i’m reading too much into this …

Alec Patric: The idea of archeology is that we use remnants of a vanished culture to reconstruct their society. With the blogging world we’re dealing with remenants that are constantly vanishing so that even after a few years we feel like sections of our culture have been lost. If we look through the blogs of the literary community in Australia we find a class of people relegated to almost total insignificance by the dominant culture. The comments back and forth between bloggers, the posts, the links, etc, become a document for a section of the population that is being beaten into the dust.

Ali Alizadeh: I must say I very much like hearing the word ‘class’ in this context. It is often assumed all writers are in ‘it’ together, that they have common interests and so on (especially in the postmodernist, post-political, post-ideological discourses apropos of the internet) most of which I find insincere and silly. So I agree with you that there exists a ruling class in the literary world, and that anything that might offer a way of resisting their hegemony is a good thing. But I’m not sure if online phenomena like blogging are, as you’ve put it, ‘being beaten into dust’ because they’re in the way of the ruling class or because they’re too fragmented and ‘dusty’ (that is, an effect of hegemony) to begin with. I think the digital scene does have the potential to challenge the inequalities that characterise the print publishing milieu (the wikileaks ‘event’, seen as a purely journalistic phenomena, could be an example; although it too was swiftly co-opted by print newspapers) but I feel this potential is yet to be realised.

Alec Patric: If writers are being pushed further and further into cultural insignificance, then a street brawl among those that are devoted to literature is not what I’m hoping to see. The ‘ruling class’ of the literary world are themselves servants to the dominant culture, and there’s little point in trying to subvert their ‘authority’. There is a process of democratisation going on within our industry, in small press publishing and e-publishing, but the fight I’m more interested in, is for cultural relevancy. A blog is part of a forum, and voices that in the past were provided no opportunity to be heard, can now at least find places to speak. So much so, that there’s a fear of deluge, as though the masses will start speaking and destroy all literary values. It’s a panic that the barbarians are not at our gates but thrive within the city itself. There are no gatekeepers to a blog and it’s only commerce is with others who want to hear a blogger’s voice. The authority of the voice, the value of its message, is what distinguishes it. That’s all that a writer can ask for. So a blog can indeed become a new literary standard, judged purely on its merit. If it has none, it will simply be ignored. The goal of a blog can be to subvert dominant groups who seem to govern taste and distribute the small-change they have been granted by the dominant culture. I think it’s more important to look for an engagement with a readership. To reach beyond the Intelligentsia and reclaim the audience.

Ali Alizadeh: Well, I don’t think writers are being pushed into cultural insignificance – some are, but some aren’t. I’ve been to a number of literary festivals recently, and from what I’ve seen (lavish sums of many being spent to accommodate more important guests in five star hotels; very long queues of fans waiting to get their books signed; five figure advances for new books by commercially successful authors; literary awards each worth tens of thousands of dollars; major grants, commissions and residencies; and so on) the ruling class of the literary world are, for better or for worse, nowhere near extinction. If they are, as you say, servants to the dominant culture, then they are getting rewarded particularly well for their servitude. (I could quote some frankly mind-bugling figures here.) I know mainstream/popular media doesn’t pay much attention to contemporary Australian writers, but many contemporary Australian writers are doing very well without any need to plug their books on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. So I do think subverting their authority is crucial – even if you disagree with me that it’s something worth subverting in and of itself – if only because the Intelligentsia dominates and controls the means by which one can reach an audience. My earlier experiences as a self-published writer (particularly seeing my book removed from the shelves of a so-called independent bookstore to make room for books by commercially published authors) have made me aware of not only the injustices in the publishing/bookselling world, but also how these injustices result in some authors being deprived of, precisely, an opportunity to engage with a readership. Does the internet help us get around that? I.e. can class struggle – the unavoidable antagonism between unpaid and overpaid writers – disappear in the cyberspace? I’m not sure. I really wish the barbarians were at the gate.


Vox: Sunil Badami

Vox: Jessica Au

Vox: Laurie Steed

Vox: SJ Finn

Vox: Nigel Featherstone

Vox: Les Zigomanis

Vox: Louise Swinn

Vox: Ben Carmichael

Vox: Pierz Newton-John

Vox: Ashley Capes

Vox: Ryan O’Neill

Vox: Alice Gage

Vox: Sam Twyford-Moore

Vox: S. Van Berkel

Vox: Emmett Stinson

Vox: Maria Takolander

Vox: Peter Farrar

Vox: Jeff Sparrow

Vox: Shane Jesse Christmass

Vox: Emma Dallas

Vox: Kirk Marshall

Vox: Sam van Zweden

Vox: Ivy Alvarez

Vox: Eric Dando

Vox: Gabrielle Bryden

Vox: Demet Divaroren

Vox: Mark William Jackson

Vox: Bel Woods


The Verity La Forum was conducted by Alec Patric

from July 2011 to December 2011


The Independent Spirit of Laurie Steed

7 Jun

Alec Patric: There used to be just one or two record stores you could go to find the good shit. This was before the Internet made everything instantly and eternally available. Guys like us got onto trains and walked the alleys of the city to find those good record stores and sometimes stood for hours, wearing dodgy headphones, listening to bands almost no-one had heard of outside of a mention in a music magazine that practically no-one had read. Music had already become an art form measured in millions and these obscure bands were looking for ways to make music that reminded a listener that it was, in fact, an art. Not an infinitely reproducible product marketed wholesale. From this independent scene rose bands like Nirvana, REM, The Smashing Pumpkins, etc, etc.

At which point we began looking again among obscure stacks and trawling through mags only a few hundred people in the world would ever read. Not because of a perversity that denied music when it became popular, but because there’s still the kind of music that reminds us that it can be something more than a catchy jingle between commercial breaks on the radio or an emotional cue in a film.

There’s an idea that you have to seek out the stuff that really makes you realise what music is. This is the spirit of independent art and it applies as much to independent publishing as it does to music. Perhaps you could share your thoughts on the subject and why you’ve been involved with organisations like SPUNC and continue to be a prime mover in small press promotion and publishing.

Laurie Steed: I couldn’t have put it better myself, Alec. We used to roam the streets, searching racks for something, anything to take us away from everyday domesticity and suburban streets near comatose at night. In Perth, there were two stores, Dada Records and 78 Records. Both would delight in stocking things that surprised you, excited you, and stretched your musical boundaries.

These days I still seek music, and when I find something truly special, I’m high for days. It’s as if I am connected to pure creative energy, something bigger than the crass commercialism that so often permeates contemporary society. Recent favourites are Josh Pyke’s Chimneys Afire and Eluvium’s 2007 album Copia; I lie down, close my eyes, and it feels like I’m listening to the world waking up.

Independent publishing, at its best, harnesses that spirit, and Black Inc.’s recent Best Australian Stories ten-year collection shows just how far we have come in that regard. Among the more traditional stories (some established authors are pretty much guaranteed their place in a collection such as this) are some of the most exciting stories I have read in years…and all of them started off in independent presses run by passionate, brilliant people. That’s something I never would have predicted even five years ago.

Working in independent publishing means I’m closer to the coalface. Having now worked on two literary journals, it’s been really exciting to see the talent emerge. Some authors (like Ryan O’Neill, Leah Swann and indeed yourself) have already gone on to greater success. Others, such as Bel Woods and Samantha Van Zweden are well on the way. Every time I work on a journal, I find new authors, new stories, and the rush is indescribable. Not all submitted stories are at a publishable level, but that’s part of the job. You get to choose the best, and sometimes you can work with the writer to make their story even better.

Alec Patric: We can glorify that independent spirit but there seems to be difficulty in sustaining it for any length of time. Perhaps the problem is independent memory, which seems distressingly short term. There are writers like Molly Guy, Wayne Macauley and Gillian Mears that achieve a fair degree of success on the independent scene only to be almost entirely forgotten a few years later. That Best Australian Stories ten-year anthology for instance, is not selling anywhere near as well as the yearly anthology. Rather than reverence for this country’s Best of the Best collection, it’s more of a yesterday’s newspaper reaction. You’ve made it a personal mission on your blog to develop some long term memory but I’m wondering whether you can see a time when that independent spirit becomes widespread and we see the a literary equivalent to Grunge?

Laurie Steed: I think the possibility of such a culture is closer than we think. The biggest challenge, I feel, is to publish what’s great, as opposed to what’s important. Australian literature has produced some great writers but often the ones most heavily promoted are those that sell, rather than those that excel. Wayne Macauley is an excellent example. To my mind, Macauley is criminally underrated in Australia. He deserves to be featured on podcasts, his thoughts on writing dissected and passed down to the next generation. What happens instead is this strange indifference; it’s almost as if publishers are saying “but how do we sell this?” when sometimes the selling comes after a long period of promotion at the ground level.

The four largest publishing houses in Australia are based overseas, so have no interest in creating a literary culture. In Melbourne, we have a city of literature; other cities and regional centres are not so vibrant. Why is this so? It’s my personal opinion that at some point, the commercial side of publishing and the literary aspirations of Australia’s intellectual society dampened what really sells books, ideas, and indeed authors: compelling, engaging and entertaining stories, be they traditional narratives or those authors keen to experiment with the form.

The distinction here is vital; it’s all very well to celebrate that independent spirit in publishing, but it’s far more important to create a culture that promotes that independent spirit in its reading, buying and leisurely pursuits.

A varied literary culture is a vibrant one, and while devotion to literature is one thing, it’s an entirely different thing to be devoted to all aspects of a literary culture. This means performances, large-scale events like Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival, literary discussion, and most importantly, accessible, inclusive events (both virtual and real) that bridge the space between the writer and the reader.

A few states have already created some form of literary grunge movement, although they are by no means perfect. I’ve noted a divide between prose, poetry, and journalism, which, although natural, means good writing is harder to find once classified into its own particular subject, genre, or type of bookstore.

More dangerous than any funding cuts or government policies are public preconceptions that literature is somehow dull, indulgent, and irrelevant. In the US, there’s a far more reverent approach to writing; shows such as Def Jam Poetry challenge such stereotypical views, while the New Yorker and Selected Shorts podcasts mix prose and performance, creating a dynamite hybrid in the process.

Australian websites such as Literary Minded, Spineless Wonders, and Verity La do great things for this country’s literary culture. They create a virtual space that remembers and indeed reveres those writers taking risks with form and structure. They remind writers and readers that stories, first and foremost, should be an adventure. Somewhere between Peter Carey’s American Dreams and Ryan O’Neill, Australian literature lost its sense of humour. It started telling the same stories over and over again. In doing so, it lost a great deal of its relevance to an international readership.

I’d love to create a literary country, in the physical sense as well as the spiritual. Places that once inspired stories or poems could have quotes etched into their brickwork. Governments could buy ad space and post seven beautiful quotes about Australia, taking in both the past and its multicultural, increasingly gender inclusive present, seeing both the good and the bad and addressing what, as Australians, we would like to become.

It starts with an idea, that literature is worth fighting for and the belief that it’s possible to change our society. From there it grows, and people who’d previously felt segregated can form their own community, regardless of background or geography.

Alec Patric: I recently lectured at RMIT and I looked out across the twenty or so creative writing students who had one fundamental question: How? They are often told that they need to publish in literary journals, win competitions, stay true and keep writing quality work, and eventually the publishers will notice.

It brought to my mind however an interview I did with Wayne Macauley for Verity La, because I was struck by how outstanding he has been in fulfilling and excelling on all these recommended paths—for well over a decade now. His answer to the question of why he hasn’t achieved recognition and success was to suggest that publishers were well beyond seeing or caring about any of the literary journals or the competitions. And it seems that commitment of concentrated time and profound talent are also negligible factors.

The only answer to that question of How, is to suggest that first there needs to be an understanding that the machine is broken. Publishers behave, not as cultural agents looking to develop and promote the resource that is their reason for being, but small business managers, desperately searching for ways to eke out profits from a product they have lost faith in. So if the machine is broken, is there a need to find new methods for producing and distributing cultural work beyond that industrial age paradigm? I’m wondering whether you’d agree with this perspective and how you see Australian literature developing for those hopeful students, asking our generation, How?

Laurie Steed: That’s another excellent question but one that’s difficult to answer. I certainly do not think the Australian publishing industry, broken or otherwise, can make or break a literary career.

I do think there’s a great divide between journals that truly help a writer’s journey and those that are seen as important steps towards publication, at least according to the tastemakers. I think there’s a similar divide between competitions that boost your ego and those that are actually considered important in the Australian literary landscape.

The history of Australian literature is a strangely global one. Take someone like Nam Le: he’s our biggest literary export and yet it’s with some irony that we track his history. He won the Truman Capote Fellowship to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2004, and from then onwards, for much of the time was writing on US fellowships and being published in Zoetrope. His first published story in Australia wasn’t until 2007 in Overland, and he subsequently appeared in Best Australian Stories in that year. The Boat was published the year after that, and the Australian lit community suddenly said “here’s our man! What a fine example he is of our esteemed literary culture!”

Steve Toltz is another example. His novel A Fraction of the Whole was rejected by a bunch of Australian literary agents before finally getting an American editor, Random House’s Mike Mezzo to read it. And Penguin Australia picked that book up after it was published in the US.

That same book, the one rejected by countless Australian literary agents, won the people’s choice at the NSW Premier’s prize and was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize.

Closer to home, I know of at least three writers who have been published in the “right” journals but had no luck securing a book contract. I also know others who have known people that edit the “right” journals, and through their literary contacts have met with far more success.

In these cases, Australian publishing has seemingly let quality writers down, and in Nam Le’s case, illustrated the ability to circumvent narrow interpretations of Australian literature. That said, there are many other Australian publishers and agents who have an equally broad, multi-faceted view of good Australian writing. Sleepers Publishing supported Australian writers Paddy O’Reilly, Emmett Stinson, Patrick Cullen, and Jon Bauer long before it was fashionable to do so. Agent Donica Bettanin guided Kate Cole Adam’s excellent Walking to the Moon to publication, and Lyn Tranter of Australian Literary Management was vital in securing Karen Hitchcock’s book contract with Picador.

In my mind, there has never been a better time to be a writer. When it comes to the how, there are certain things that seem to stand out in any successful writer’s biography: 1) regular writing over a prolonged period of time and regular reading in a variety of styles of genres, and 2) an obsession with people; their dreams, their fears, their beliefs, and their realities.

For publication, I would advise writers to think both locally and globally. Sure, it’s great to be published in Meanjin, Southerly or Overland if your style fits their general editorial style. If it doesn’t, then sending your work to them is tantamount to self-sabotage, unless you enjoy getting rejection letters.

There’s a world of literary journals, newspapers and magazines out there; if I can get articles on YouTube, bingo nights, and introducing yourself to a roomful of strangers published, then someone, somewhere wants your article. If my friend can get a story about Woody Allen and Tommy Lee Jones saving New York from pterodactyls not only published, but also praised by Arnold Zable, then someone, somewhere wants your story.

The key here is good writing and quality research prior to submission, and that is the responsibility of the writer. It is not up to Overland to tell you they don’t publish right-wing diatribes on the benefits of neo-liberalism, nor is it up to Island to tell you they rarely, if ever publish science fiction.

When it comes to producing and distributing your work outside of traditional channels, I say go for it, but with a couple of caveats: If you plan to self-publish digitally, know that it’s a crowded market, and it’s also filled with books that are badly written and poorly edited, and those that disregard cumbersome elements such as plot, theme and character development. Make sure your book isn’t one of them. Know also that there are reader preconceptions citing most of what I’ve written above as true of ALL self-published books.

It is possible to generate a groundswell of support for your title despite these preconceptions, and Matthew Reilly’s Contest, Euan Mitchell’s Feral Tracks and the Four Ingredients Cookbook are all examples of self-published titles able to generate such solid support. This method often requires a serious amount of self-promotion however, so it’s inadvisable if you’re at all averse to spruiking yourself.

Finally (and I realise this is a ridiculously long answer), I agree with you that we need to think outside of the industrial age paradigm. At the 2011 Emerging Writers Festival, Max Barry said that as writers, we’re competing not with other books, but with every other type of media. More to the point, he said that to dispute this fact was to potentially lose the next generation of readers, who are not reading anywhere near as much as generation X, who did not grow up with so many competing media vying for their attention.

I also read an excellent essay by Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, that literary journals took a long time to appreciate the ideological shift encouraged by online publishing. As publishers, they were thinking how to take a print product online, when they should have focused on the transformative potential when working with code, images, animation and such.

Writers need to be similarly open to reaching audiences in new and exciting ways or risk alienating potential readers. One of my favourite iPad apps of 2011 is Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain, which takes a traditional short story into the multimedia age. By using your fingers, you can “play” the story. As an avid reader and gamer, such a combination of both forms was both intellectually engaging and a whole lot of fun to play.

I’m not yet at Loyer’s stage of multimedia literacy. I still like being published in books, magazines, and print journals… but I’m aware this is my cultural baggage. I know that to remain relevant in the future, I will have to be willing to mix print publication with online opportunities.

Recent music/multimedia projects such as Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown and Danger Mouse’s Rome hint at the potential of new media storytelling. The New Yorker Fiction and Selected Shorts podcasts bring quality writing onto our iPods, but in time they will be eclipsed by even more audacious ways of reaching a digitally literate demographic no longer devoted to print, as we are.

As a writer, I am greatly excited by the thought of a culturally literate, multi-platform readership. For me, it’s all about honest, articulate voices surfacing in a sea of corporate propaganda. And yet, I also believe there’s the potential for these voices, our voices, to be both engaging and financially viable, if we only foster a society that maintains our own individual truths in the face of a dominant ideology, that works within capitalism as opposed to being solely about the selling of a product, person, or ideal.

Alec Patric: It rarely falls to me to break news but I just discovered from reliable sources that Wayne Macauley is about to be published by Text Publishing. Moreover, that Text is going make a major deal about this hero of the literary underworld. Is this the exception that proves the rule or, to return to our original analogy, that independent spirit finally breaking through into the mainstream?

Laurie Steed: Well first and foremost, it’s great news for Wayne: while Black Pepper have long supported him, the deal with Text means he’ll be distributed and promoted nationally, and perhaps internationally thanks to Text’s relationship with Canongate in the UK.

If nothing else, it should give writers hope. Most writers of any consequence have had alarmingly long gestation periods, or if they had books published early, took a long time to master their craft. Tim Winton won the Vogel in 1981 when he was 21 years old, but to my mind, The Turning is his best work and was written much, much later. Other writers such as Patrick Cullen and Amy Espeseth took a long time to perfect their first books so as to be suitably proud of their work at the time of publication.

I think now’s a particularly good time for the independent spirit but also think it’s unwise for writers to leave their careers up to mainstream publishers. While they’re showing a lot more interest in independent writers, they are still larger publishing houses, with their own deadlines and sales targets.

The irony is that when pressed on how to get published, most local publishers say it’s best just to write a really good book. Here, notions of profile are unhelpful; many would be published in all manner of smaller literary journals and not be noticed; some would only be published in the best Australian journals and perhaps be noticed after a long gestation period; and some would bypass the system altogether and find luck overseas.

More important is that real love of writing, be it fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. It’s a love of making something the best you can make it, as Cate Kennedy did with her story Black Ice and Nathan Curnow did with his Ulrick Award winning poem Endtime. Wayne MacAuley has excelled at his craft for a long time now. Any recognition of such dedication and craftsmanship has got to be a good thing for literary Australia.


Fistfuls of truth and heart

18 Dec

Now that Verity La is up and running, and 2010 is careering to its end, we thought it’s probably about time to introduce ourselves as co-editors of what has become – we hope – a place on the internet where you can find words that are alive.  Rather than both of us produce an editorial, we thought we’d take things a little further by sharing with you a conversation, because conversations – in the broadest definition – is what we’re on about: dialogue between writer and reader, engagement with ideas, maybe even a conclusion every now and again.  All in the context of what our mast-head calls being brave.  So let’s do it.

Nigel Featherstone: Alec, it seems hard to believe that Verity La has only been going for six months (the first post, a poem of yours, was on 20 June 2010).  What made you want to become co-editor of an on-line creative arts journal?

Alec Patric: You can’t fight evolution. Extinction starts nipping at your ankles if you try. Books might get to be like dinosaur bones, bought only in specialty stores. I work in a bookstore so I’m not as insouciant as I might sound. Just yesterday I vowed to never buy a Kindle, iPad, etc. but I made a similar promise to stay faithful to records when CDs first came out. I suppose I’m just another dodo looking for better wings. I started a blog about a year ago, but before that, the internet was Disneyland. I was more than happy living with Guttenberg’s toys. I could point out that a book already is a kind of technology and that it took hundreds of years to develop and perfect, but who’d listen? We’re all rushing towards online air, and so far, I’m reveling in the new skies for my dodo wings.

To answer your question more directly: it hadn’t occurred to me to be an editor of anything, online or otherwise, until you asked me to join you on this lil’ flight of fancy Nigel. I’d been intensely involved with Overland, blogging for Sparrow & Co. a few times a week for six months or so, and Verity La was a natural progression. More to the point, I should ask why you wanted to start an online journal and why ask me to join you?

NF: I too am reveling in these new skies for my own ‘dodo wings’.  Up until last year I didn’t even have the internet at home and was more than happy not being connected – sometimes having your head in the sand is quite comfortable.  But then, in 2009, I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people, and I saw first-hand how other artists had engaged with the on-line environment.  I committed myself to at least getting the internet put on, and then within six months I had a website and then a blog – it was an e-avalanche!

After blogging for a year (I never set out to be an actual blogger; I just wanted to post pieces I wrote for other media, mostly newspapers), one night I was happily watching High Fidelity – great book by Nick Hornby, good movie – when I thought, wouldn’t it be good to be able to foster other writers, potentially through free blogging software.  Twenty-four hours later I had the name (it’s a laneway that up until recently I walked past on a daily basis), the basic concept of the thing, the on-line format, but wanted this to be much bigger than one person.  I’d interviewed you for a piece for the Canberra Times on blogging and appreciated your thoughtfulness and honesty, and decided that I might have found a potential co-editor.  I purposely didn’t over-think the whole caper, because I knew that if I thought about it too hard I wouldn’t go ahead with it at all.  I’m glad we did: just scrolling through the contents page gives me a warm inner-glow: here’s a stack of writing and thought and creativity that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s rewarding to be involved in this DIY movement: writers doing it (sisterly) for ourselves!

We’re six months into this Verity La journey (love how that word is a cousin of ‘journal’), what are you getting out of being co-editor?

ASP: Some writers spend a long time in exile. This can begin early and last most of a lifetime. That’d be the tone of my bio up until the last year or two. I grew up in an environment where a literary life was something glimpsed between commercials, in a distracted reference on some tele-movie about a sporting hero – the mad uncle that was a writer. Entering the workaday world you hear about writers being a dime-a-dozen, but that was far from my experience. Of course, there are those people you run into that dream they’ll one day write a biography or novel, and might have written a poem or two while on holiday in Bali, but for me, writing came with the daily devotion of religion, and I wanted to find people who had that kind of sensibility and commitment. If I’m now a part of literary culture, through Verity La, blogging or publishing, there’s that sense of exile that renews the experience for me constantly.

Six months of Verity La has been filled with poetry, prose, visual art, and interviews. What have been the highlights for you?

NF: That whole creativity-and-exile thing is interesting, isn’t it.  The more I create and write and persist with what at times – often – feels like a completely ludicrous activity the more it feels like a peripheral activity.  Each time we decide to spend some hours writing, it does feel like a disconnection from the world, a running away, a push to the edges, except really it’s the exact opposite, it’s a burrowing down into truth and reality.

So rarely is the act of writing – of creating anything – properly valued.  Going to the gym is valued.  Going to the movies is valued.  Spending an evening at the pub is valued.  But locking yourself in a room to write?  That’s what a crazy person does.  And society exiles crazy people.  So I think you’re right that it’s all about finding a community.  I’ve never been interested in book clubs, nor have I been interested in writers groups (I did establish one which ran for a year, but the rule was that we absolutely couldn’t bring our own work to discuss – our discussions had to be broader than the stories we were working on).

What Verity La offers is a space – a place – for work to appear; in some ways it feels like an intersection of practice and outcomes, of hopes and realities.  Every time I receive a submission – as you know they come almost daily – I realise how there’s a hunger for work to be read, particularly good work, and by good work I mean writing that’s been edited and put aside and edited some more and put aside again and then, finally, when the writer is absolutely convinced it’s ready for airing, it’s finally submitted, a process that can take years rather than months.  It’s a highlight every time I open a submission and I feel engaged and then, ultimately, moved.  It’s a highlight when a writer accepts the feedback provided, works on a story, and submits it again.  It’s been a highlight to interview established Australian writers – invariably they’ve been generous with their time, very open, not stuffy in the slightest.

What’s ahead for Verity La, do you reckon?

ASP: I’m a believer in necessity. We value that which is most necessary to us. So I think Verity La will grow into what our literary community needs it to be. If it’s actually superfluous, then it will evaporate like most of the other content on the internet. Well, since we’ve been archived by the National Library of Australia, we know that everything on Verity La will be protected in perpetuity now, but its continuing relevance is still that necessity. I know that sounds grandiose, but I was sincere when I said that the questions central to literature are religious to me. I don’t mean in relationship to some kind of divine meaning, but that there is indeed an element of life and death at the core of what we do. Something worth investing our entire lives in and worth the sacrifices we all make simply to be a part of Literature. An example of that necessity is in the interviews you and I have made a core feature of our journal. Verity La has become one of the few places where local writers are able to come and talk about the central elements of their writing lives and the most vital aspects of their craft. The Verity La reader is a Writer, and he or she will find our content, to greater or lesser degrees, necessary to wherever they are in their careers.

How do you see the future of Verity La, Nigel?

NF: I like that ecological idea that important and necessary things survive, while the superfluous and irrelevant wither away.  So the key will be to not be superfluous or irrelevant.  I’m not sure I ‘see’ anything for the future of Verity La, because I barely know what’s going to happen in my life tomorrow let alone see anything in particular for a little on-line journal that thinks it can.  I do, however, have some hopes.  I hope Verity La continues to develop as a place for brave writing, and by ‘brave’ I mean writing that challenges.

Only this week I was reminded of Oz and what it set out to achieve back in the 1960s, which was to be a ‘magazine of dissent’.  Whilst I don’t see Verity La going anywhere near of what Oz achieved, perhaps it would be good if we could shake things up a little more, because we’ll be relevant and important and necessary if we’re dangerous – if what we collectively produce is a matter of a life and death.  I’d like to make it very clear that by dangerous I don’t mean ‘adventurous’ or ‘experimental’.  Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho isn’t adventurous or experimental, but it is dangerous.  Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man isn’t adventurous or experiment, but it is dangerous.  They are dangerous because they tell the truth.  And if writers must do anything, it is to tell the truth.  Bring on the writers of truth!

ASP: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the poets, writers and artists of Verity La. I’ve been stunned time and again that so many people have been willing to give fistfuls of their hearts with such grace and generosity. If Verity La has come to occupy a space within the shifting spectrum of the internet and to find a place within Australian literature and art, just six months ago it really was nothing more than a statement of intent; just one more blogish shape in a computer-generated wasteland. It’s because of these initial contributions, all of them acts of faith, all openhearted gifts of time and talent, insight and passion, that a vibrant identity has emerged, not to mention a lasting cultural artefact.

Thanks to all our contributors. It really has been an honour and privilege that I’m most grateful for.

The Transitions of Josephine Rowe

5 Nov

Alec Patric: Every writer has a muse, whether we put much thought into it or not. When we start out and are struggling to find our creative sources, we run a thumb across the worn out coin of that ancient Muse. I don’t think the idea has much value anymore, but occasionally I do find myself pulling out that notion and looking at it. Most people think of the muse in the singular. If you look at the myth there’s a tradition that held to three Muses, though writers like Homer thought there were nine. He himself would have believed what he was doing was mostly recording history, but he was clearly also a poet and a novelist. I’m sure back in his day he wrote little missives that could be sent around from friend to friend, and they each might have made a comment–> so he was also Homer the Blogger. There wasn’t the same kind of separation in his day between the various forms of writing. Now we have poets, we have screenwriters, we have novelists, short story writers, journalists, and other specialists. So it’s kind of ironic that we only ever think of a Muse in the singular, when there are various sources for different ideas, and there are disparate methods of developing them and particular talents for communication.

Few writers lay claim to more than one muse but you have always been a poet and short story writer and will soon be published in both Best Australian Poems and Best Australian Stories in the same year. I know you’re working on your first novel at the moment so I’m also wondering how easy that particular muse has been to seduce. What are your thoughts on the differences of these forms of expression and is there any currency in an idea like the muse for you?

Josephine Rowe: The notion of the muse is not one that has ever really struck a chord with me.

Of course there are days when I’m more inspired. Days when I’m more articulate and productive and have greater faith in whatever I’m working on. And there are other, more listless days when the words don’t come and I’m left chasing punctuation around the page.

But I wouldn’t chalk up my more prolific stretches to any sort of higher power concerned with a particular art or science. Generally I look to other factors – how much sleep I’ve had, whether I have the house to myself, whatever else is going on in my life at the time. Not whether or not Kalliope has seen fit to come knocking.

In regards to different forms of writing, as you’ve said before, the boundries between these can be quite porous, and many writers I know move between them effortlessly (Anna Krien, for instance, who is also in both Best Australian Poems and Best Australian Stories).

For me, the approach to any form of writing – whether it be poetry, fiction or non-fiction – is fundamentally the same, and that is to pare back as far as possible, to get to the heart of the matter and set up a little camp there. Never wander so far away that you lose sight of it. Otherwise horses will come and eat your tent (this happened to me once).

I try to tell only as much as needs to be told, and many times I’ve hacked entire stories back to seven or eight line poems.

So the novel is slow going, but that’s something I expected.

Alec Patric: I’ll confess I don’t spend much time thinking about Calliope or her sisters either, but I still find the idea opens up avenues for discussion. I wouldn’t look to a higher power but I think I’ve always been aware of an unknown in that process of emerging from the blank page with something alive. I’ve never understood how so many writers can spend their whole lives engaged with literary craft yet only ever produce dead things laid out on paper like laboratory frogs. I can only guess that something isn’t happening at the source. I suppose I’m a mystic at heart because that ‘source’ doesn’t feel to me like a psychological place within which childhood traumas and last week’s argument with the boss will generate poetry and prose. I know it does for some writers but that derivative quality is always apparent.

Your writing never feels that way, so I was wondering if you had any thoughts as to why so much of the writing that we see being published has the taste of dead matter. In the best of your writing there is often a feeling that the most crucial elements of our lives are on the verge of being understood yet never come into full focus. There’s a potent sense of mystery in these pieces, both as a menace and a lyrical ambient, which makes me wonder whether that’s an aesthetic or philosophy.

Josephine Rowe: That placement at the verge of understanding is probably more of a philosophy than an aesthetic, though often not a consciously presented philosophy. Really it’s more of a base note – we are always seemingly on the verge of understanding ourselves, and generally overlooking the obvious.

Nearly every story in my last book focused on a transitional phase – with the characters either situated at the point of that transition, or viewing it retrospectively.

However, I didn’t realise this until after the stories had been collated, which made me wonder to what extent aspects of our own lives slip into our creative work, whether or not we mean for them to do so.

Again, this is something that can only be measured retrospectively.

The stories we choose to tell – whether they be fictional or anecdotal, written or verbal – these stories define us as people.

The writing that strikes me as being dead matter is that which does nothing to define its author. But the fact is that many writers work to a formula, keeping well inside the parameters of marketable material and allowing little of their own style to disrupt that formula. And many of them do very well from it, at least financially. So perhaps for some of these writers, it doesn’t matter at all that they’re kicking a dead thing around; so long as their books are selling.

Frankly I’d rather keep my day job (or several day jobs, at the moment) than have to worry about whether my writing is marketable.

The Possibilities of Wayne Macauley

25 Oct

Alec Patric: I picked up your new collection, Other Stories, published recently by Black Pepper. In a word, superb. ‘Reply to a Letter’ might just be the great Australian novel boiled down to an essence. This kind of piece often leads to a backward looking perspective but there’s an open hearted dream of multiculturalism in the equally brilliant ‘One Night’ that drives us forward. In that second story you play with a powerful sense of nostalgia for a yet to be realised future. In both, there are subtle notes of surrealism, and though there are degrees of playfulness, your work pushes; it has urgency and relevance. And then I turned to your Acknowledgments page, and was stunned. You’ve won The Age short story competition for ‘Reply to a Letter’ and ‘One Night’ was published in Meanjin, which you’ve done a few times. In fact, the nineteen stories have been published in all of the very best literary journals in the country. So this seems a kind of greatest hits collection, not only of your work, but an anthology of the best writing in Australian literature over the last decade or more. Yet before picking up this superb collection, let me confess, I’d barely heard of you. This might suggest a degree of ignorance on my part but with the kind of continuous success you’ve had, I’d expect you to be at least as well known as writers like Cate Kennedy or Nam Le. I was hoping you might talk a little about writing for Australian literary journals for over a decade and why it has not brought you wider recognition.

Wayne Macauley: Thanks for your kind comments. As to the question of why I have not gained wider recognition for my work, this is on the one hand a very complicated and on the other a very easy question to answer. The easy answer is: I don’t know. You make the work, you put it out there, and hope it lights a spark. If it doesn’t, what can you do? The complicated answer is that every writer is unfortunately a victim of forces outside their control: the shifting moods and tastes of the public, the changing personnel and philosophies of big publishing houses, a contrary zeitgeist, blind luck, and so on. In my case I think I did have the misfortune to begin submitting my work at a time when big changes were happening in the Australian publishing industry. In fact, I would call that time, looking back on it, a very dark chapter in the history of Australian literary publishing. It was the time when economic rationalism began to rule, the big houses here became subsidiaries of head offices elsewhere, publishing was ‘rationalised’, lists cut, risks reduced. Poetry disappeared, as did (with some very rare exceptions) collections of short stories. (You still often hear the mantra from the big publishing houses now—‘Short story collections don’t sell’—proving again how received wisdom becomes a truth. Of course they won’t sell if you don’t want to sell ‘em…) Throughout the 90s and well into 00s it was solely the literary magazines, plus a few small and dedicated alternative presses, that allowed a place for an alternative, fringe, experimental and/or political voice. That is, a different kind of Australian literature. My first novel, which ticks a few of the above boxes, did the rounds of and was rejected by all the main publishing houses during that time before it was picked up by Black Pepper and published in 2004. Of course the magazines were absolutely critical during this period in allowing me to explore and push my prose in the direction I wanted, free of any commercial constraints, and for that I am very grateful to them. But it has to be said this didn’t necessarily do anything for my ‘career’. It’s a cold hard truth, and one we might not like to acknowledge, but the fiction editors of big publishing houses probably don’t read Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Island, much less Going Down Swinging, Harvest, Page Seventeen, Kill Your Darlings or Wet Ink. The literary magazines are a training ground, a testing place—but a path to literary recognition? I’m not sure.

As for the main game, book publishing, thankfully these days things are changing and changing for the good. The lunatics are taking over the asylum. Like the massive changes wrought on the contemporary music industry over the past decade, a seismic shift is happening in publishing. The mainstream publishing industry has begun to devolve. A new generation is asserting itself, small presses and journals have begun to proliferate, and new modes of delivery are challenging the old ways. In every respect big publishing houses are going to have to re-invent themselves—big, lumbering publishing houses with big lumbering structures—while meanwhile those on the fringe have already done the reinventing. I think one of the great consequences of all this is that there will be a lot less of a rift between the new journals and literary blogs and book publishing as such. A serious, alternative publisher of literary fiction will now also read GDS and Verity La. And this has got to be a good thing. It was time for the old paradigm to be challenged.

Finally, at the end of it all, what is ‘recognition’? I am happiest when I am sitting in my study, writing. All the other stuff just becomes an annoyance in the end. I might have been recognised ‘earlier’, and as a human being my ego would have been stoked, but as a writer would it have done me any good?

Alec Patric: There’s a brand of satire you use in your writing that I find incisive and rewarding. There are elements of surrealism, which with most writers comes off as merely fanciful and often just kills a story for me. That’s not the case with your writing. The surrealism in your work has a political dimension that imbues it with gravity. But that brings us to the question of why there’s so little political or experimental fiction in Australian culture. I’m not suggesting we need a Dadaist style smashing of convention but there’s very little that even squirms in the envelope, let alone pushes the edges. Is there a conservative quality to Australian culture that cannot be opened up? You’ve mentioned retreating to your study but I wonder what you think about the roll writers play in other parts of the world as leading cultural agents and why this is not possible in Australia.

Wayne Macauley: Your question is a very broad one and I’m not sure I can answer it all. But I’ll give it a go. I think at the heart of it (I may be wrong) you are asking me about an element of my work that, as you suggest, ‘pushes the envelope’. So let me talk about that first.

In his essay On Authorship and Style, Schopenhauer said: ‘the first rule of a good style is that an author should have something to say’. I spent a lot of years (my twenties and early thirties), before writing the works that would eventually become the pieces collected in Other Stories, doing little else but reading and thinking. I kept a writer’s journal throughout this time (I still do, though not quite so assiduously), in which I wrote down my thoughts on what I’d read, quotes worth keeping and sometimes the beginnings of prose pieces inspired by an idea in one of these quotes. I say idea, and this is important. I wasn’t observing the world and writing down what I saw, I was observing the world through the prism of the ideas I’d got from my reading. I guess in some ways I was looking for evidence of these grand (generally European) ideas in my own backyard, or, more precisely, in the streets of suburban Melbourne. Sometimes I found the evidence I was looking for: Heraclitus’ ‘all is flux’, Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘despair of possibility’,  Plato’s ‘becoming and never being’, Schopenhauer’s ‘human existence must be some kind of error’. After a couple of pots on a Saturday night in a pub in Glen Waverly it was very easy to understand what Nietzsche meant when he said ‘man is absolutely not the crown of creation’.

As you can probably guess, most of my reading throughout this time was philosophy (my fiction diet was almost exclusively second-hand Penguin classics). This wasn’t because of any formal course of study I was doing (I don’t have a tertiary degree) but because I wanted to understand why I was here and, now that I was, what exactly I should be doing. The world already looked strange to me; I wanted to understand why. I believe there are two layers of reality: the one we see, which realist fiction describes, and the one we find when we look, which I guess is what ‘other’ fiction covers. A couple of weeks ago I read something that relates to this in a book of essays by Kundera: ‘The more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality, the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it…’. I agree with this sentiment, which perhaps explains why my surrealism, as you call it, doesn’t, as you suggest, seem forced. (I don’t see it as surrealism, a realism ‘above’ or beyond a common reality, to me it is the realism inside it.)

Now to the difficult part of your question which asks (to paraphrase): Yes, but what does all this mean to one living in Lotus Land drinking cold beer and swatting the flies off the meat?

When Socrates drank his hemlock he died for an idea. I can’t yet see an Australian writer dying for an idea, but perhaps that’s only because we’ve had no occasion to, yet. You have to remember this culture we’re talking about (white, European-derived culture) is only two hundred years old. Our relationship to most other (read European) cultures is still that of a small child: looking up in awe for approval, smiling when we get it, bawling when we don’t. When you talk about a ‘conservatism’ in Australian culture, though, I presume you are talking about literary culture. The contemporary visual arts scene for example is anything but conservative, the contemporary music scene likewise, the architecture scene is as alive as a scene can get, the contemporary theatre scene, which I myself have been involved in, takes way more risks than I ever see in contemporary literature. No, we have a very conservative literature, protected by very conservative gatekeepers. Somewhere along the line (the early 90s) a white surrender flag was put up about what ‘Australian literature’ is. Carey had done his ‘Fat Man…’, Bail his ‘Contemporary Portraits…’—and that’s quite enough experimentation for us now thankyou very much. Since then I think the main object of Australian literary publishing has been to shore up what 80s-defined Australian literature was. Why change the tyres when the car’s running fine?

There is no such thing as a definitive ‘Australian film’, a definitive ‘Australian theatre’, a definitive ‘Australian sound’, god forbid a definitive ‘Australian literature’. We’re a baby. Nothing’s defined. We’re still making it up. And we’ll be making it up for centuries yet. This, for me, is what is exciting (as opposed to frustrating) about being an Australian artist—and I hope one day it will be seen that way for the gatekeepers too. There are no rules, other than the ones we write. Everything is possibility.



SPUNC – Zoe Dattner

29 Sep

Alec Patric: A small press publisher called Russian Thought released a story called The Lady with a Little Dog in their December issue, in 1899. A little earlier, The Russian Messenger had released chapters of War and Peace in alternate issues with Crime and Punishment. The authors Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski were not gracing the pages from the height of literary success and prestige. Those small press publishers were instrumental in bringing these works of literature into being. For me it’s always represented an ideal of small press publishing and perhaps a mythical era never to be seen again. If we contrast this to the embattled small press scene in Australia at the moment, we might feel a sense of tragic diminishment. But small presses are proliferating as small press publication becomes more broadly available. There are more passionate writers than ever in this country, and more Aussie publishers expressing a fierce dedication to grass roots work. The cultivation of an avid literary culture seems all that’s missing. What are your thoughts on this perspective and how can an organisation like SPUNC help in creating that kind of climate?

Zoe Dattner: I think that Australia does have a reasonably avid literary culture. If it didn’t we wouldn’t have such a proliferation of small presses, journals, university courses and independent bookstores – not to mention the number of individuals deeply passionate about writing and reading. Also, SPUNC wouldn’t exist. SPUNC came to be because a group of small publishers in Melbourne perceived an ever-growing small press sector that needed industry cohesion and representation. That is, the mass was approaching a critical one, which is fantastic news for emerging writers and adventurous readers, and the independent bookselling industry. As for the story you invoke about Chekhov, I’m pleased to say that this is something that continues to occur with those authors who are unearthed by small publishers. Helen Garner first emerged when a small publishing company called McPhee Gribble published Monkey Grip back in the 70s. Giramondo, a two person team in Sydney, continue to attract awards and nominations for a number of their books, as do many other publishers who are members of SPUNC. There are so many wonderful stories where authors who were rejected by every major publishing company are picked up by smaller ones, willing to take a risk, and having it pay off with critical acclaim, awards, or even better, high book sales. Most of these publishers you would never have heard of, and I hope that SPUNC is helping to attract more attention to these small outfits. In a lot of cases, these presses are operated part time, subsidised by other ‘day jobs’, and a lot of voluntary or unpaid work by people passionate about the titles, and keen to be a part of Australian publishing.

The mythical era you allude to is well and truly alive and vibrant right now. The future of publishing is abuzz with debate and as massive companies such as Amazon and Apple (and there are many others of course) enter the fray with predictions of how we will read, the issue of humans telling stories and conveying them to audiences has become a much bigger and globally shared conversation. Which is really very wonderful for us all. And small presses are able to take part in that conversation from ground zero. Because that is the only thing we have ever been that interested in. Many small publishers (including myself, probably) wouldn’t know a Da Vinci Code if it was hand delivered by golden angels descending from the sky with choral refrains of ‘This is going to be the biggest selling novel ever published’, but we know a Chekhov when we see one. No doubt about it. And we will publish it, and we will celebrate it, and we will feel chuffed. And the reader shall reap the rewards.

Disturbing Dialogues, Kuzhali Manickavel

9 Sep

Alec Patric: You have warned me not to ask you what life in India is like. I wouldn’t even have thought to ask you that, but I must confess, you’ve piqued my interest now. You also say you don’t ‘actually give a good interview.’ So strange that you’d say that when it seems you’re in a constant process of interviewing yourself. Now, I suppose we’re always doing this as writers. We ask ourselves how we feel about something, and we explore that dynamic through characters and situations. You have evolved a more direct approach and often write in pure dialogue. Which is easier said than done. We use characters to give ideas shape and momentum. We dress our personal dilemmas in dramatic narratives to give them appeal and amplification. You have been able to sidestep these conventions through a wicked sense of humour, which almost always has a cutting political message at the centre of it. So I’m wondering if you could explore how this process of pure dialogue developed for you and how important the political message is in your work.

Kuzhali Manickavel: I just get very nervous when people ask me what life in India is like because I don’t know what they want me to say. I think it has a lot to do with this suspicion I have that all questions about life in India are actually veiled questions about elephants. So I’m like, they want me to talk about elephants now, right? Is this an elephant question? Will they judge me if I say I don’t know anything about elephants? It’s just really stressful for me.

Anyway, I like dialogue and conversations, I like listening to how they happen in real life. Usually they’ll start in one place and end somewhere else entirely. And sometimes a group of people think they’re all talking about the same thing but everyone involved will be on totally different lines of thought for whatever reasons, so there’s this whole other conversation happening which is comprised of all these unrelated conversation threads. I also like the language people use in dialogue, words get stretched or chopped up or smashed together, words are used in the “wrong” way and a lot of times, people will say things without thinking.

I don’t actually set out to write anything political but sometimes, I’ll look at some situation or incident and think, that is so fucking crazy. I mention Warren Anderson in some of the things I write because I think it’s seriously mindblowingly nuts that he’s chilling in the States because I guess that whole Bhopal thing really bummed him out and returning to India to face consequences for that would just bum him out even more. I am totally against bumming out rich white corporate American dudes because it’s just so racist. So much of the Bhopal Disaster contains craziness like that. Like on the issue of compensation for the Bhopal victims, someone called Kathy Hunt, who I understand was a PR official with Dow Chemical at the time said,

“$500 [in compensation] is plenty good for an Indian.” http://www.greenpeace.org/india/campaigns/toxics-free-future/the-bhopal-legacy

How do you even begin to rate the fuckwittery on a quote like this? Why is she talking like she’s in some b-rate phail movie about the Wild West? Where did she get her awesome PR skillz? Was she wearing a cowboy hat when she said this? Did she think she was the sheriff? It blows my mind that she actually opened her mouth and these words came out and they are on record because obviously, it’s just Indians and it doesn’t matter that it was the worst chemical disaster in history because it’s just Indians so whatever. $500 is plenty good for an Indian. Everything else aside, I can’t believe she said ‘plenty good’.

Did I even answer your question? I don’t think I did.

Alec Patric: Being an expert on all things Koala & Kangaroo, I feel devastated by your ignorance with your own national animals. Since you were born in Canada and spent the first 13 years of your life there, I’ll assume you’re an expert on the Moose, but I’m not as interested in the Moose as I am in Elephants. Maybe you can point me in the direction of Indian writers more culturally relevant. But since I’ve only got you at the moment, let’s talk about the micro-fiction of your collection, Insects are just like you and me except some of them have wings. I first noticed your work in an issue of Going Down Swinging we were both in. There was a snake in that story, so it seems beyond Moose expertise, and a fascination with insects, there’s also this penchant for the reptile. Do you feel a different focus with your short fiction? Are the inspirations for them different to the dialogues? Do you differentiate between micro-fiction and regular short stories?

Kuzhali Manickavel: First let me say that I think it’s great that you maintain your Australian cultural relevancy and credibility by being an expert on all things Koala & Kangaroo. I personally don’t believe in Koalas but I can understand that people in other cultures may believe in them and I always think we should try and respect people for their other beliefs.

I think the initial ideas for the dialogues are a lot clearer for me than the ideas for short fiction. With the conversations, I’ll come across something and think ok that’s interesting but I’ve found that you really have to think them through beforehand. A lot of times the conversation won’t go the way I think it will and my initial thoughts about the issue will change as I learn more about it and work through it with the dialogue. And I think it’s important to do it honestly, and by honestly I mean without trying to stick in a funny line or agenda just for the sake of the funny line or agenda. With short fiction, I have a lot less focus, oftentimes no focus at all which is probably not the best thing for a writer to say but whatever. I might start with a line or an idea but the line or idea often won’t show up in the final, I go through a lot of drafts and things change a lot from the first to final draft. I’ve found that while I do a lot of editing with the conversations, I don’t make as many major changes from the first to final drafts. Also, I’ve found that the ‘thinking it through honestly’ process works a little differently, I feel I have more wiggle room with my short fiction whereas a lot of times the conversations will completely collapse if I haven’t thought them through enough or honestly enough. That could also be because the conversations are a tighter format so flaws and inconsistencies are not only more obvious, sometimes they’re harder to fix because I’ll often have to follow the thread back to my own thinking process and prejudices to see why it isn’t working.

I personally don’t differentiate between micro-fiction and regular short stories because I think that’s really racist. I guess I end up writing shorter pieces though but it’s not a conscious decision. I really feel I should say much more about this but I can’t think of anything else to say. So instead, I’d like to try and salvage some ragged pieces of cultural relevancy by saying that I like elephants. I don’t know them but I like them.

Alec Patric: When I’m reading your work, sometimes I wonder whether you dislike Americans. Maybe you love Americans. Verity La will not judge you, either way. I talked to a Mexican once about this subject. I asked him what it was like living right next to America and he said it was like being in bed with an elephant. I know how you feel about elephants, but this is a true story. And I get the feeling that despite India’s distance, you are in bed with the same naughty elephant. Personally I prefer to get into bed with my wife, but if she’s missing, I prefer Koalas (as I might have mentioned). So what is the fascination with Americans? Are they tramping around your neighborhood in annoying ways? What kind of mattress do you prefer?

Kuzhali Manickavel: This is exceedingly embarrassing. Does it seem like I’m fascinated with Americans? I am very embarrassed that you would ask this, particularly because it’s very unIndian to openly display overt fascinations for Americans. We’re supposed to do it subtly while loudly maintaining that everything American is cultureless and badbadbad and we would rather remove and eat our own gall bladders than go there. Also, I can’t even begin to explain the humiliation of being Indian and having more fascination for Americans than I do for elephants. It’s like sending Mel Gibson back to Australia because the Americans don’t want him anymore. Actually it’s nothing like that but wouldn’t it be funny if they did that? Ok, maybe not very funny for you guys.

Anyway, here’s the thing. We have Tamil movie songs with lines that veryvery sloppily translate like this ‘If I live, I will live here (meaning in India) and never run away.’ But we are also very keen to run away also, particularly to America and never ever come back ever ever ever. We do like to sing about not leaving though and I think ultimately, this is what is important. Is America an elephant? Is India in bed with this American elephant? Should I strongly repudiate the claim that India would ever get in bed with anyone or anything because getting into bed is against Indian culture? I have no answers to any of these questions. But I would like to share some things I have observed about us and Americans and America. These are my wholly imperfect observations so whatever.

If someone of Indian origin in America does something amazing, we like to dedicate vast swathes of media space to talking about how these amazing people are in fact Indian so their achievement makes India amazing by default. We are not bothered by the fact that these people may in fact consider themselves to be American. As far as we’re concerned, they are Indian. For instance, we really really really like to call Jhumpa Lahiri an Indian writer. I guess we do this because no one who actually lives here ever does anything amazing. Ever.

In the tiny corner I inhabit, all families have successfully managed to ensure at least one of their offspring, usually the male, is ‘settled in the States’. All of them. I’m not kidding. When you meet them for the first time, they will introduce themselves by stating that their children are in the States. This supersedes their own name, what they do in life, everything. The only person I know that doesn’t have family members in America is me. So my America fascination is probably just jealousy.

We like to blame a lot of things on America. I have seen people blame America for feminism, homosexuality, pants on women, breasts in art, electric guitars, ‘computer music’, short hair on women, long hair on men, smoking, drinking, loss of Indian traditions and values, English, pornography, MSG, gun culture, drug culture, and of course our personal favorite, no culture. And while there are certainly things happening in India which America seriously needs to answer for, it’s more funner to harp on how they hath wrought the danger and abomination of a woman in pants.

We have a popular flavor of potato chip here called American Style Sour Cream and Onion. We also have a Masala flavor which is far, far less fashionable than the American Style, even though some brave and honest people have admitted to liking the Masala flavor better and feeling that American Style Sour Cream and Onion smells and tastes sharply of packaged vomit. We also had an Australian flavor. That was cilantro flavored. Lemon and cilantro. Or something. You guys eat a lot of cilantro out there? That wasn’t very popular, probably because it wasn’t American.

I forgot to answer your mattress question. Oh whale.

Temple of Literature Ruby J Murray

4 Sep

Alec Patric: Some of us grow up with a sense of crisis. We have a persistent feeling that there’s a looming catastrophe that we need to respond to in whatever way we can. Perhaps the seed to the politically engaged writer is found here, rather than in a more abstract sense of compassion for unknown people and a vast, oblivious planet. So I’m wondering if you’ve ever felt the pressure of that crisis and how you understand your own political motivations as a writer.

Ruby Murray: An ex-partner of mine grew up in California in the last years of the Cold War, when Reagan was rumbling about Star Wars and the nuclear war was something people thought could happen at any moment.  He and his friends used to tell stories about Duck and Cover, and how they used to practice it in the classroom, jumping down under their tables and putting their arms over their heads when the teacher blew a whistle. I think that’s what it means to grow up with a sense of crisis.

I was born in the early 80s.  I remember sitting on the carpet in the front room of the house I grew up in and having my Mum make me watch the Berlin Wall coming down.  For all we laugh at Francis Fukuyama’s End of History now, for a while people really believed he was on to something.  I don’t know if I have a sense of on-going political crisis, so much as a sense of inevitability: that politics is a process, and that crises will continue to arise.

I did grow up with a sense of the importance of stories, though.  My mother is a writer, and a consummate story-teller, and for a long time it was unclear to me what stories about the world were “true” and what were not.  At eight, I probably would have told you that Hansel and Gretel were historical figures.  And in a way, they are.  All story-telling is political.  The degree to which we’re aware of it while we’re doing it varies, but it’s all political.

Alec Patric: Growing up with a writer for a mother must have been interesting. My own parents were immigrants from Serbia and the bookshelves at home were filled with literary artifacts from the life they’d left behind. I didn’t speak English until I went to primary school, so for me, the search for literary identity involved setting out across unknown seas and there was a promise (rather than a threat) of drowning. It’s with a bit of envy that I imagine a childhood with literature growing up around the home like lemon trees planted in the backyard and grass that just needed a bit of a sprinkle of water. But I know there can be other challenges in that kind of life, so I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about that literary childhood.

Ruby Murray: My mother would never let me sleep if I laid claim to that one.  For the first half of my literary childhood I was what you’d probably call functionally illiterate.  Reading required time, and solitude, and was therefore boring.  My mum spent a lot of despairing time cutting letters out of sandpaper so I could trace them with my fingers in an attempt to get me to read, and I spent a lot of time posting said letters through the cracks in the floors, of which our house had an obliging number.

I was convinced I was going to grow up and be Shirley Temple, and I spent a lot of time at the Camberwell Markets in tap-dancing shoes singing Shirley classics while my younger brother strummed his ukulele in a batman suit and my mother tried to defend us from the hecklers.  (I was pretty tone deaf, too, and missing a few front teeth through no fault of my own.)

Then, pretty much overnight, my parents decided to move us all to France.  It sounds romantic but wasn’t.  None of us spoke the language, my parents included.  Becoming deaf and mute overnight was terrifying, isolating, and I guess I can sympathise in a way with that for you.

On the up-side, I suddenly had a lot of time, a lot of solitude, no one to talk to, and an attic of books.  And so I started reading.  Not because I wanted to, but really because I had no choice: it was that, or shrivel up with my own loneliness.  I eventually picked up the French, as children do, and so the move ended up giving me language in more ways than one, and teaching me about the importance of communication.

But even before I started reading, both my parents read to us every night, or told stories when we ran out of books.  My mother made them up for us, some that lasted months, and which we still try and nag her to write and publish, even though she rolls her eyes at us.  I don’t know what makes for a literary childhood.  I’ve never thought to describe mine that way.  Maybe it was in some ways, although I think itinerant would be better.  My mother, who is the YA writer Kirsty Murray, didn’t start writing for publication until I was in my teens.  She’s now published 13 books, the most recent of which, India Dark, was launched last week.   Before that my parents had eclectic careers, as artists in various guises.  I think what she had was an appreciation of stories, and what they can do for you, how they can pull you through hard times, and help you to make sense of the world.

Quite apart from the fact, of course, that through reading I actually got to be Shirley Temple for a little while, which helped me to get over my urge to curl my hair and sing for sailors.  Mostly.

Alec Patric: I remember watching Shirley Temple films, thinking she was adorable, even when I was a child myself. She was such a perfect symbol of innocence; of vivid life and precociousness as well. The world she lived in seemed a brighter dimension of possibility. For me, it was Saint-Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince.’ In fact, my family called me that for most of my childhood. Late in my teens as well, though that had more to do with me refusing to do things like the dishes because I wanted to read or write. But there was a deep fascination back in my early childhood, for the story and images, but also with the biographical details–> the author was a pilot who disappeared over the seas one day. The inspiration for ‘The Little Prince’ being a crash in the dessert years earlier. There are these kinds of seeds that fall into our minds when we’re forming, that begin growing with us, and become so fundamental to who we are it’s hard to imagine a different future and past without them. So I’m wondering whether there was a particular book that was like that for you, but I’m also wondering what your thoughts are on those childhood mythologies that we sometimes discover in the stories our mothers tell us to send us of to sleep and dreams.

Ruby Murray: If I had to pick one moment that was a revelation to me, it would have to be the discovery of fantasy and science fiction.  I remember reading the opening pages of Raymond E Feist’s Magician and having something explode in my brain.  I was eleven at the time, and for the next five or six years my reading was pinned to release dates.  I wasn’t super discerning; I took anything I could get.  David Eddings, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terry Pratchett, Katherine Kerr… I’m proud to say that I did put down Terry Brooks, but still… I used to lie at night sweating at the thought that Robert Jordan might die before he finished the Wheel of Time.  (He did.)  When I ran out I branched into comic books, starting with the X Men and rapidly moving on to anything that could come close to the genre.

People are often dismissive of genre fiction, and it’s true that a lot of bad genre fiction is formulaic at best, and unreadable pulp at its worst.  But when it’s done well, good genre fiction is revelatory.  I think that art often works best with constraints.  I remember a music teacher telling me once that you have to learn the rules before you can learn how to break them, and the best science fiction, the best fantasy, is able to do that.  Take the guidelines, and throw them out.  Make new myths out of the bare bones of storytelling.  Ursula K Le Guin, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbitt, Diana Wynne Jones, Phillip Pullman, Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman.  Sometimes it takes leaving the real world to be able to look back and really understand it.

I think the other thing that science fiction and fantasy gave me as a child was the chance to engage with moral ideas.  Not just in my own life, but on an epic scale.  I lived through ancient and future wars, and made terrible decisions, and started to live with life’s paradoxes for the first time, which is something I’m still trying to learn how to negotiate, something I hope I’ll always be trying to do.

Last, but not least, there were awesome women in fantasy and science fiction.  Adventurers.  Women who didn’t sit in dining rooms or hover at parties or moon over the boys, but who threw themselves into the business of living, who rode into battle for the people they loved and the things they believed in, who saved the world.  That was what I wanted to do.  That, and somehow work out how to shoot lightning bolts from my fingers.  Or at the very least, lasers.

I don’t write genre fiction as much as I’d like.  I hope to one day.  As soon as I can get my laser fingers functioning.

Ampersand & Alice Gage

29 Aug

Alec Patric: Alice Gage created and edits Ampersand, a biannual literary journal deeply informed by visual art. I’ve always been interested in these intersections of text and image. Cinema’s moving images have fundamentally altered the literary medium, making it essentially cinematic. Narrative structures have taken on sequences and rhythms from film. Visual art has also been responsive to the same cinematic influence. But cinema itself is deeply influenced by the theatre that continually makes it to screens, from film adaptations of novels, from photography and art influencing aesthetic possibilities and choices. There’s a constant reference between all the senses and their artistic expressions. A magazine like Ampersand (My Review of Issue #2) stands in the Niagara confluence of these mediums. How deliberate was this positioning and what are your thoughts on these intersections of image, thought, and expression?

Alice Gage: There is nothing and everything deliberate about Ampersand’s positioning at a ‘confluence’ of mediums. Its placement there was as instinctive as eating and as conscious as eating at a good restaurant. I don’t think we have much control over our influences and I don’t think we have any control over our passions (and when I say passions here I mean the kind of art we love). The result of this Tetris is what we create. My love of stories – which is what I personally look for and respond to most in regarding any artform, beit novel or article or painting or film – is the common thread running through all that is published in Ampersand.

Cinema is a medium that does indeed lend itself particularly well to intersections with other mediums, but it follows the same path as any other, that is, conceptualisation, influence and expression. Half of cinema is text so of course it will be influenced by literature. And half of literature is images so of course it will be influenced by cinema. I don’t agree when you say that “Cinema’s moving images have fundamentally altered the literary medium, making it essentially cinematic.” In some cases the intersection will be profound and in others, negligible. The painter, the writer, the musician and the cinematographer all describe a scene, so who “fundamentally” influences whom? There are also many examples of literature that pre-dates cinema that could be described as ‘cinematic’.

I think the intersections between artistic forms are as natural as blood and bone and any artistically minded person is going to have influences from a range of mediums. Like our senses, nothing lives in isolation, especially not imagination. I don’t think it is possible to eliminate the intersection of mediums. Ampersand’s content can be so varied because I am of the conviction that smart, creative people are into pretty much anything. They want to read a self-written eulogy as much as they want to read an essay on the history of Tamarama Gully as much as they want to laugh at a comic as much as they want to watch a DVD of a performance piece as much as they want to look at photographs. As long as all those things are top-shelf quality, of course. That’s pretty much the definition of a magazine, anyway. A curated collection.

I think that rather than looking at mediums and their constructive or opposing relationships, look more to the essence of why we create as artists, or bring together as editors: sympathy, love, humour, pride, sacrifice, skill and knowledge. You know, that kind of shit.

Whiskey Poetry- Tara Mokhtari

9 Aug

Alec Patric: When we write a poem we often feel elated. There’s a sense of accomplishment and validation but there’s also the corrosive; the acid in poetry, and when we let it sit, it burns through our stomach lining. So writing can sometimes be a desperate movement to relieve pain. How do you understand that corrosive element and the way it forces us to dance?

Tara Mokhtari: Accomplishment and validation… The older I get the less intensely I feel those things. Or perhaps it isn’t about age, perhaps it’s about the pace at which I attack each new project. I always have one big writing project on the go – be it a verse novel, my PhD (which I’ve just submitted), a play – and as soon as the thing is finished I get depressed, anxious and sick. There’s a gaping hole left until such time as I start the next thing. Perhaps in the constant quest for validation there’s no room for feelings of accomplishment. Or maybe I’m purely motivated by the work rather than by the feeling it gives me when it’s done.

Individual poems are a bit different. When a poem finally finds its way out of my brain and into my notebook it feels like I’ve freed another little caged animal. That’s a nice thing. I don’t feel personally validated, but I usually feel that the initial concept is now somehow more valid than when it was confined to my imagination. This goes for the majority of my poems, because mostly an inspiration drawn from my life or the everyday stews away in my mind for a while before manifesting itself.

However, there are occasions when a poem charges through me without regard for the usual process. The Darkest Blue is one of those. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety at various stages through my life anyway, but when I wrote that I was going through a particularly dark time. In part because of the subject of my PhD, which is on representations of death in the poetry of Stevie Smith (a rather dark topic to focus four years of ones life upon, apparently). Interestingly, one of the key points in my thesis is that Smith didn’t suffer the same suicidal fate as some of her contemporaries who shared a love of death (Plath, Sexton, etc.) because she indulged the obsession in her writing so prolifically. In a way, everytime she put death into a poem, she experienced the emancipation it brought from the suffering of life. Likewise, when I was horribly depressed and anxious, in bed at 3am at my parents house in Sydney, The Darkest Blue charged out of me and onto the page. I wrote it through tears and the shakes and sleep deprivation. I didn’t edit a word or line-break that came out of me. Not as I was writing and not ever afterwards. When I finished and put the pen down, I was calm. I wasn’t fixed for the long term, but I got to die a little for the fifteen-odd minutes it took to write, and that was a relief. I worry a bit when people tell me they can relate to this particular poem.

I suppose there’s a heavy dose of vitriol in The Darkest Blue. It came from a place of corrosion but in itself it’s fairly explosive. To me, anyway. I wouldn’t call the physicality of what happened to me while I was writing it ‘dance’. It was closer to ‘vomit’. But it’s all just muscle contractions in the end, right?

Someone Else was different. Very different. For 7 or 8 years, half my poems were about one person. If you look hard enough through my catalogue of poems, the same old references resurface: long black hair, guitar, distance, hard drugs… Someone Else was the last of these. Not because he married someone else as the poem suggests, but because I fell for the bass player in his new band and was cured from the one who had cured me of everyman for a decade. Funny that. This poem has themes of corrosion, aside from the way the writing of it made me feel. Corrosion of a strange connection. Corrosion of youth. I didn’t write the poem to vent. There’s a big difference between cathartic poems (like The Darkest Blue) and confessional poems like this one. I wrote it because there’s an interesting story around it, because there were strong images and characteristics to convey. It was a natural poem to write and I drew largely from realism. I think because I tend to remain very close to the absolute truth of the way things looked from my perspective, the emotionality emerges without my having to explain it too much within the poem. Is it a dance? Not so much. It’s more of short walk from the table to the bar. Or the stirring of sugar into a hotel room tea cup. Or something.

The thing is, though… It doesn’t matter how I felt writing the poem. It matters what it communicates to my reader. It matters how the form and sound techniques and vernacular and rhythm work together to deliver something honest and frank to the world. I can’t relate to people who don’t suffer for their art, but I also can’t relate to folks who obsess over it. It is what it is.

Alec Patric: I watched an interview with a dancer, that at the time, was considered the greatest ballerina in the world. Her grace and poise was remarkable. French elegance refined and pitch perfect. So it was surprising when she said, dancing was pain from beginning to end. Her feet were in pain as she spoke, even though she hadn’t danced in weeks. The training, just to keep in shape was grueling, let alone when she was gearing up for a performance. The actual ballet would have been agonizing but there was also the transcendence of the moment to somewhere far beyond pain. She was nearing the end of her career, and while she was thoroughly accepting of the fact, it was a decision forced on her by her body beginning to break down. So for me, there’s the negotiation of pain in art, whichever kind we practice. And I sometimes wonder whether it makes it worse. Are those brief moments of transcendence worth it?

Tara Mokhtari: My short answer is, No. It isn’t worth it but we don’t do it out of choice. It’s just the only way we know how to navigate living.