Tag Archives: Bel Woods

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…

Vox: Bel Woods

8 Dec

I think blogs remind us of a time when life was more connected. In some ways they’re a new translation of something that has little to do with writing, and more to do with society trying to remember how to communicate in conventional ways. You know, when you bumped into your neighbour at the letterbox and just chatted.

Or when you were read books chapter by chapter at school, the teacher explaining the context of the novel, as you gazed out the window and let it all soak in; when families discussed a news story at the breakfast table, or your parents gossiped, where names were rarely mentioned though everyone knew precisely who was being spoken about; or when your uncle took you out to the yard and gave you gardening tips as you tumbled the earth with your fingers.

Blogs are particularly empowering for writers. They can showcase their flash fiction, or poetry, long before their work hits the shelves. As a new writer, I think it’s more likely we’ll look back at all our postings and cringe.

It concerns me though, this new archaeology (if it is, in fact, a new archaeology). As I watched Pixar’s Wall-E with my son the other week, I started to think about where we are headed if we become linked through technology alone. What if we forget the old ways of communicating? Will this then be a world of internal monologues not wholly shared? Stories created from lives not lived? If so, then it won’t just be the book dwindling, but story itself.

I was discussing this with fellow writer, Les Zig, and he pointed out that for the blog to evolve to that point, where they’re created from lives not lived, it essentially becomes fiction anyhow. To quote him: “It’s actually bizarre if you think about it. Like the snake swallowing its own tail”.

Perhaps it will come down to effort. For many, the novel has always required too much work. It’s an effort to pick it up, it requires effort to read, and it’s an effort to discuss, more so than a simple blog post. Maybe we have only enough energy to keep a narrative if we cut off at the 300 word mark.

Despite this, I firmly believe the book will live on. The novel as a book especially. I’d also advise you not to believe everything you hear.

Les Zigomanis Interviewed by Bel Woods

29 Oct

Bel Woods: The day I met Les Zig he commented on my left-handedness. He then proceeded to list every left-handed person in the Professional Writing and Editing course we were taking at the time. I likened it to that moment in Wonder Boys,  when James lists ‘all the movie suicides’ in alphabetical order. If I were ever to describe Les to someone who’d never met him before, I think I would relay this story. It says so much about the little I do know about him, and the little I don’t.

You write a lot of stories that follow the journey of the writer, whether it be the path to success, or disillusionment, or something else entirely. I remember you once told me that as a teenager you wanted to be professional pool player, and then an actor, that writing was always on the cards, but nothing ‘ordinary’ ever appealed to you. Traditionally, the writer’s path, as with that of the actor or sports star, includes this rising above obstacles. And in many ways you’ve had a lot of obstacles, especially where depression and OCD are concerned. Despite this though, you’re extraordinarily prolific. Is this a matter of pushing yourself even when you’re unwell? Or do you believe writing to have therapeutic benefits that perhaps draw those afflicted to it, and help them write their way back to a feeling of normality? And do you think you could’ve ever done anything else?

Les Zigomanis: I don’t know how realistic some of those alternatives were. I wanted to play pool (and practiced twelve hours a day for about a year, on top of playing ten years) until I broke my arm and suffered bad nerve damage to half my hand, so that went out the window. I also wanted to be a computer programmer at one point, programming games. And I also played guitar, really poorly, and wanted to be in a band with some friends, who also played instruments really poorly, (and some, so poorly, that they didn’t play them at all).

Fundamentally, what a lot of these things had in common – as far as acting, music, and programming went – was that they all had story at their core. For acting, I imagined the stories to be involved in; for music, the stories behind songs; for programming games, the story behind the game. So everything was about telling stories, and that goes back to when I was a kid. In primary school, I loved writing stories. In early high school, I used to turn in epic short stories – I turned in a sixty page handwritten sci-fi short story in Year 9 English – and when I was seventeen I hand-wrote my first novel, which was book one of an intended five book series in the vein of The Lord of the Rings.

I don’t think there’s a correlation between my fantastic career aspirations and the obstacles I put in front of characters. It’s just infinitely more interesting when a character is flawed and has those obstacles to overcome, (and, often, my characters have psychological obstacles). It shows growth in the character and, I guess, the potential everybody faces within themselves, that they too can unlock, if they overcome their own obstacles.

For me, writing’s always been therapeutic. When I don’t write for a while, I feel ideas backwash in my mind, so I have to get them out, like a form of exorcism. And when I do write – when I actually get into it and I’m flying – I become oblivious to the world around me. It’s a meditative state. It shuts everything out. It’s like going somewhere else. I don’t think it’s entirely a case of writing back to a ‘feeling of normality’, as you put it – at least not for me. I think you can overdo it. In the past, the distant past, when I’d written for twelve-hour sessions, it’s a little hard letting go, when I leave the keyboard. And after finishing something big, if it’s been full-on, writing every day, I find it very draining, and come away flat, so it takes a while to replenish. You put so much of yourself on the page, you can lose too much of yourself, and it takes a while to recharge.

As for writing about the journey of the writer, that’s really just writing about experience, and I’ve had a lot of experience in that regard.

Bel Woods: Another thematic thread, and the drive behind most of your recent stories, is your relationship with your partner. One of my favourite stories inspired by your personal life was the simple yet engaging ‘Bookstore Fetish’ published by Wet Ink in December of last year. I know your partner read and liked that particular piece, but do you find yourself concerned about putting aspects of your life, especially your personal life, into your stories?

Les Zigomanis: Yes. There are a few I haven’t given to her to read, because I think the details are too close. Not personal in a sense where I’d betray her confidence(s), but  maybe because I don’t want her to see what I think of the relationship in some ways. Invariably, I think everybody has to work out things for themselves.

Bel Woods: In 2009 you won a fellowship with Olvar Wood for one of you manuscripts, which assured you a week away to write, along with mentoring throughout the following year. You then when on to be shortlisted for the Atlas Award in 2010 for the same project. What were both experiences like? Has this changed how you feel about writing? How important do you think it is for writers to receive mentoring? Does this kind of thing give you assurance that you’re on the right path?

Les Zigomanis: Olvar Wood was awesome. It was four writers (Paul Garrety, Felicity Castagna, and Kylie Mulcahy) living in the same house for a week, with ‘classes’ during the morning, where we talked about aspects of writing with the two writers/editors who ran the Fellowship, Nike Bourke (author of The Bone Flute, The True Green of Hope, and What the Sky Knows), and Inga Simpson (author of Fatal Development and Off the Grid). Sometime afterward, Paul got a contract with Allen & Unwin, and his book, The Seventh Wave, came out earlier this year. Also, recently, Transit Lounge published Felicity’s collection of short stories, Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia.

The thing I really enjoyed about this was that there was no affectation, which you don’t often get in writing environments. Sometimes, I think people can promote themselves as writers, talk about writing, but never actually do any writing. The rest of the time, we were left to our own devices, which was mostly writing. It’s something I’d recommend to anybody serious about their writing.

The Atlas Award shortlisting was just a hope-for-the-best thing, and waiting for the announcement of the winner, telling myself not to build hopes too high, but building them up anyway, and then not winning is the typical kick-in the-head-resign-from-writing-temporarily-disappointment.

I don’t know if these things tell you you’re on the right path, because you can seem to be on the right path forever, whereas others leapfrog you for success without any of these things at all. I guess it does tell you that your stuff’s at a publishable level, that it’s being considered in these lights.

The mentorship is invaluable, because as a writer – particularly when you’ve been involved with the same piece for so long – you can lose objectivity, so it’s useful to have somebody from the outside looking in, who can offer you feedback, and who you can bounce ideas off and who’ll offer a fresh perspective.

I think there’s a lot of writers – a lot – who are (or would be) publishable if they had some guidance and nurturing along the way, but unfortunately those sort of resources aren’t available.

Bel Woods: Anyone who knows you will understand you have strong views where writing and publishing are concerned. There are industry no-nos they harp on about in a lot of the university classes, but you’re one of the few writers I’ve met who figure it’s hard enough out there without limiting yourself. Over the years you’ve edited for both ‘reputable’ and borderline vanity publishing companies, you’ve published erotic fiction under a non de plume, and while you’ve sat on the other side of that editorial desk, you still express unapologetic views on the conduct of some Australian literary journals and publishing houses. Do you think writers, particularly now, are too frightened to break away from what they’ve been taught and just ‘make it’ rather than interning, studying, and submitting at/to the ‘right’ places? And do you think they do this to the detriment of making money and changing the industry to financially support emerging talent?

Les Zigomanis: I don’t know if they’re too frightened to break away. I mean, there could be – just for example – the Australian equivalent of Stephen King out there who we don’t know about because he/she isn’t getting published because, for the most part, mainstream fiction doesn’t seem to get the same sort of exposure in Australia as literary fiction. It’s almost like we have an impoverished financial arts economy (same applies to film) so if anything gets made, it has to have some artistic merit, some literary enrichment (or ennoblement), to justify its expense. There’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but it just seems to dominate our markets. You never read about a killer clown lurking in sewers (a la IT from Stephen King). I use King as an example, as I think he writes, primarily, because he likes to tell a good story.

When I was studying, everybody was writing their own things. I didn’t know anybody who was writing what they thought the market wanted. And some of these people were really good writers with really good stories. Now if you look at that as just the tiniest sample of the writing demographic, there’s a lot of stuff being written. But a lot of the stuff which is invariably published seems the same.

Bel Woods: You’re a big part of Blaise Van Hecke’s [untitled] team and one of her best friends. This idea for a journal outside of the existing Melbourne writing circles, was first formulated when we were all enrolled in a Small Press Publishing class. Now that you’re four issues in, has it changed how you work together? Has it made you more sympathetic to the perils of journal publication? Has it changed how you look at submitting as a writer?

Les Zigomanis: It hasn’t really changed how we work together. If anything, we probably know what’s expected of each other more now. Blaise is going to do less editing for hereon because she’s so overloaded doing everything else – layout, dealing with printers, organising the launch, etc. At launches, she’s the only one that doesn’t get thanked, but does so much of the work.

I don’t think working on [untitled] has changed how I look at submitting myself, because as I got older and more experienced, (less stupid), I tried to be fastidious in meeting a target market’s submission guidelines. That’s the most important thing for me. Present a story as it’s requested. It’s annoying to get something in Comic Sans or which blows away the word limit, as if the author thinks it’s going to be so awesome that we’ll overlook any other liberties, (although, to be honest, when I was much younger, I behaved a bit similarly).

I don’t know that it’s made me sympathetic to the perils of journal publication either, other than to maybe show me there’s a limited number of spots for stories in any one journal, and way too many submissions to accommodate them all.

But I know during the first issue, when I was handling our mailbox (which we now have interns doing) I felt absolutely horrible sending out rejections to people, knowing they were going to experience that dejection I’ve felt so often. It was actually draining. I wondered if the people who’d sent me rejections felt the same.

Bel Woods: The journal itself is interesting. You have policies regarding submitting to allow space for new writers to get their work out there, you often offer feedback and editorial support to accepted writers, and you accept all fiction, placing genre and commercial fiction at the same importance as literary fiction. This, alongside the fact you’re not affiliated with any universities or writing organisations, has made you appear a more accessible publication to writers in general, not just new writers. Was this what you were aiming to do? – To create a comfortable, inviting, submission space for writers? Or do think this has for to do with family-like environment Blaise has adopted for everyone involved?

Les Zigomanis: When we originally discussed [untitled], we wanted it to be accessible to mainstream and genre writers as well. Literary fiction is well-represented in Australia. That’s not to say we won’t publish it, because we’ve had some literary stories. But we wanted to be open to everything, as long as it’s a good story, whereas it seems some other markets are only open to a good story if it’s a literary story.

Originally, we also wanted to personalise rejections to everybody, and we did that to begin with. But as we got more and more submissions per issue, we found it was just too hard to keep up the practice so, sadly, we reverted to form rejections, for the most part – although we’ll still personalise the occasional rejection. Sometimes, it’ll be for something which we were close to accepting. Other times, it might be to somebody you can see is starting out, and offering a few suggestions to help them along. It’d be great to personalise them all but, again, with the amount of submissions coming in, it makes it impossible.

Bel Woods: Most recently, you’ve been working on a YA fantasy novel – a large break away from your literary and realism work. Is this a genre you’d like to work in more? And given the extraordinarily short amount of time you spent writing the novel (just weeks, wasn’t it?), do you believe this could be the genre you’re most comfortable with?

Les Zigomanis: I wrote my young adult novel, which was 75,000 words, in about six weeks, and most of it was in the last month, because Blaise challenged me to finish it in time to enter in the Text Prize.

I’ve always liked fantasy. That’s actually where all my writing began. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve, and while some people find them overwritten and/or boring, the thing which really astonished me was their depth. They weren’t just self-contained stories with hastily-written backdrops.

Tolkien had built this foundation of history (which was later explored in his other books, like The Silmarillion, and the various anthologies his son compiled from his short stories and unfinished work) that spanned millennia, and made LotR incredibly layered and textured, which I think some people miss. The world is so dense and storied.

That was actually my first lesson as a writer: before I begin writing anything, build the world from the ground up. I don’t plan the story itself, just the world in which the story unfolds. So a lot of times I’ll come up with characters and locations, etc., which I might never use. But it helps, because you never get to the point where you have to contemplate who the characters are meeting or where they’re going. Those things are there, and they propel the story.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to write fantasy. I handwrote book one of an intended five book series, then rewrote it several times (once by typewriter, another by computer). I wrote another fantasy epic (260,000 words), which is sitting on my computer, waiting to be redrafted. I never really did much with them, though. I know the first book got past a round of reading, but was rejected. The other didn’t really go anywhere. Back then, I was great at sitting down and writing and finishing stuff, but horrible at submitting stuff after it was done.

I don’t think I’m really comfortable with this genre. I’m probably most at ease with stories based around writing where the protagonists are deeply flawed, but I like fantasy, (which is why I’ll keep writing in the genre and hope to publish a best-seller). I like that all things are possible, and that ultimately it comes down to classical archetypes of good versus evil.

I just like to write to write, to tell a story, whatever that story might contain. If I wanted to attribute any meaning to it all, I think with writing, it’s constantly a reinterpretation of self. Even if you’re writing something fantastic or other-worldly. I always see bits of myself in my protagonists, and bits of friends, family, etc., in the other characters. It’s almost like a way of making (or trying to make) sense of yourself.

* * *

You can find [untitled] here: http://www.untitledonline.com.au/

Jessica Au’s Cargo reviewed by Bel Woods

5 Aug

If Puberty Blues was one extreme of teenage beach culture, Cargo is another. It’s the loners; the kids who mature quietly at the fringes, drift, dip their toes into the social norms associated with those last teenage summers, but don’t necessarily embrace them. They carry with them trauma, dysfunction, and share indignities usually associated with adult life, and they wade in and around one another’s lives in a cinematic fashion, especially towards the latter end of the book, rarely intersecting, and maturing separately, despite their similarities.

Set during a summer in the 90s, Cargo (published by Picador) follows three reluctant characters: Frankie, Gillian and Jacob through that shift from teenager to young adult. With individual chapters devoted to the point of view of the character at hand, we hear the story of a small coastal town.

Through Gillian’s narrative, soaks a stain that you know will stay within the local folklore for years to come; through Jacob you see the ghost of a story pass and the boy who can hardly remember it; and through the lighter character of Frankie, you see that girl who grows as much from what she doesn’t experience, as from what she does.

Interestingly, this young adult novel has a strong literary feel. The language is in equal parts, sublime, sparse, and poetic. You read on for the moments of pin-point observation – the needle of the radio, the leftover warmth from Jacob’s brother’s hands on the wax block, the beehive glass on James’s house; you read on, similarly, for the language of these observations, like when Au has Gillian compare the water of her old home: “… a sluggish brown river that roped around town like a broken lasso” to the water of her new home: “The first time she’d seen the ocean – the real thing – they’d come up over a rise and slipped onto the highway parallel to the water”. There are so many golden lines throughout the pages, the kind that make you nod and sigh and wish you’d written them yourself.

Jessica Au may be at the beginning of her career, but this book doesn’t read like a first novel. There’s a real sense of power in the voices and a true appreciation that less is more. And although there are subtle movements in the story, a big part of this book is driven by these voices.

The narrative gains shape through the characters and their families and the community that surrounds them, but the reader is never stifled by plot or the thematic intentions of the author. In fact, when you’re feeling the pull of the wind-down, you don’t want it to tie up or end. But it does.

In Au’s skillful hands, you leave the novel feeling comforted, that everything is as it should be, regardless of whether it is or not.

Cargo is a true gift to the young adult world.


You have been reading Verity La’s Bel Woods.

Louise Swinn interviewed by Bel Woods

23 Jul

Bel Woods: I have a fondness for the stories that sneak up on you long after you and the story have parted, that seize you when you least expect it. I feel when reading about Sleepers – your beginnings, your accomplishments, the quality of the short stories, your plans for the future – that, you and Zoe are emulating the work you’ve produced, and are sneaking up on the Australian publishing industry. And even with your novels, as varied and unestablished as the authors are, you’re representing the current Australian writers and readers; by producing what is good over what we’re told is in vogue. I know it’s early to say, but in light of past movements in writing, those that have contributed to the evolution of the novel, short story, and publishing in general, do you believe you’re contributing a space for a new type of Australian novel? A renaissance for the short story? And all the while, in keeping a balance between paper and digital media, a new wave of Australian publishing?

Louise Swinn: I don’t want to be one of those people who answers “that’s a difficult question” but that is a difficult question to answer when you think self-importance is a big evil. I think we’re contributing something useful and I think we are some of the people helping to make broader the acceptance for different literature in general, be they novels or not, be they Australian or not. There are many good people working in this field right now, and especially here in Melbourne, in Australia; being around it all is part of the thrill.

Short stories have been around for a while, of course, and there are always a few people worried about them but whether this is a renaissance or whether it’s just what is happening right now, I’m not sure. We are called Sleepers, and that is not insignificant – we do want our work to be affecting, if gradually. We do really believe in the books we put out. I think I thought when we first started eight years ago that eventually it would become easier to publish books that we cared less for, and in fact the opposite has become the case for me – I feel, more than ever, that I could not publish, promote and stand by books I don’t love. I guess it’s because now I have a real sense of what goes into them. After eight years with Sleepers, life has stopped being about parties and drinking and it’s become more about getting home after that late meeting to spend the evening sitting at my laptop. There is little romance in this line of business but there is romance in the work itself. I adore the work I publish. I think it’s hard to find a space to express unironically how you feel when you feel the way I do about these books, but I am honoured, on a weekly basis, to be able to read and publish the books we publish. If you think that stories and books can change people’s lives, then books are important to you, and I do believe in our books – I believe they have longevity. There’s also this thing that I read way, way more books that I never end up publishing, for many different reasons. So many of the books I’ve read and haven’t gone on to publish, for whatever reason, have stayed with me – so I am in this fortunate position of having people’s stories in my head all the time.

We read books from anyone, not just through agents, and, because I am a writer too, these are my peers, so sometimes I am in a room and I have rejected books by half the people in the room. This is a curious position to be in, because often these people are my friends. I think what that does for my work as a publisher is that it makes me care more for each book that comes into my Inbox, makes me take real care with each book. I find it terribly hard to reject books – it doesn’t seem to be something that gets easier – even though I have to do it every day. Mainly because many of the books I read are of a very high standard, often better than other published books, and I feel as though if that manuscript could find an editor or publisher who loved it like I love the books I’ve published, it could go well. I have turned down books that are less flawed than books I have gone on to publish, because sometimes you just love something. How can you describe the best love?

What this reading does to my work as a writer is that it can silence me. There is often too much noise. But I am here for the long haul and there is no getting away from the fact that words and books take up so much of my brain, and I can’t imagine it being different in the future. I would like to think that I am helping to contribute to the greater good of books in all the work I do, including the reviewing.

At Sleepers, we are trying to keep a balance between paper and digital media, and I am a big fan of both. There is so much fear out there right now in our microcosm and sometimes it can all get a bit underwhelming how small people’s thinking can be. Aside from anything else, any student of even the most basic history knows that to ignore electronic publishing formats right now would be foolish, but I am really embracing what this will also mean for the paper book and the new ways publishers are forced to think about how they publish and promote their books. I think those who benefitted from the long-lunch, big-advance, only-reading-work-from-agents publisher models are fewer and further between, and that new models need to reflect new readers and new authors. I do believe in fairness and in remaining balanced and sensible, but I do think it is a pretty exciting time to be reading, writing, publishing and selling books right now.


Bel Woods: I must admit the idea of digital media had me apprehensive for a while. As a writer it doesn’t bother me, but as a reader… (I don’t enjoy reading more than a few pages of text from a screen, and I know I began buying Sleepers books for their look and feel as much as the content.) This said, I agree we’re definitely in a shift. I know I love being able to flick up a good short fiction piece while working online, but at the same time I love curling up on the couch with a journal. So for the most part I’m torn. I expect, at Sleepers, you’re feeling the pressure to abandon one for the other more than most. The fact you haven’t is commendable, but having lost one prominent journal recently to the digital world, I know the concern out there is that other journals will follow suit. Do you think, for publishers, the question really has become one of progressiveness or diplomacy? Or is this something exclusive to boutique publishers – where there is a smaller, more literary, audience?

Louise Swinn: In a sense it’s easier for those of us publishing books, like the Almanac, that don’t really make money, to stick with older methods of publication, i.e. paper books; though it’s a simplistic argument, the reality is that if you aren’t used to making any money from the product, then losing a bit of money or losing a bit more – well, there’s not as much in it as there is in a product that could make big money in one format and lose it in another.

Bel Woods: You mention in your first answer that the reading you do for Sleepers can silence you as a writer, and I really loved how you’re at peace with the fact this relationship between your life and books is multifarious, especially when I look at the body of work Sleepers has produced. I agree it’s worth the inevitable noise. But your name is one I’ve stumbled across in Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings etc., so somewhere, somehow, you’ve still managed to produce some sophisticated stories. I’m curious; do you, at certain points throughout the year, take time away from the publishing to write for yourself? Or is it a matter of overcoming the noise and finding the eye within the storm?

Louise Swinn: It’s a bit of both but I’m a bit of a late bloomer, by nature – I’m slowly getting there. The reality is that if I did nothing but write right now it would… well, it would be of a higher quality than it would have been ten years ago, but it wouldn’t be my best, not yet – a lot of it would be terribly cringeworthy, not worthy of your fine attention. The rest of the things I do in life are good for my writing, for sure. It always sounds like a cop out when someone says they are “always writing” but there’s some truth in that, isn’t there. I’m not always writing but I am always a writer, I guess, somewhere, in the way I think and see.

Bel Woods: One of the more exciting things I’ve read about you (Sleepers and your own writing aside) is your involvement in the bid for an Australian ‘Orange Prize’. Considering the amount of years the gender imbalance on shortlists of other Australian awards has been apparent, there are many who’d say it’s been a long time coming. Why do you think it has taken so long for someone (or a group of someones) to step forward and demand this? Was this cautiousness to address our own worth a contributing factor in the imbalance in publishing across the board? Or do you think we were, in good faith, waiting for the writing to be acknowledged on an equal playing field?

Louise Swinn: I don’t know. I think there is the sense that it would be great if we could find some other way of fixing this issue than to set up another bloody award, so I think there’s probably been the hope that it would resolve itself. I also think that the people who feel and think the problem greatest are people who have so many things to do outside of their main job/s already that it was just a matter of it being that midnight thought that, by the time the morning came around again, they had more immediate concerns and work and committees they were already devoting themselves to. Plus, it’s a generalisation sure, but I don’t think we like to be whingers. I think we wish so badly it weren’t the case that we’ve been hoping it isn’t for that long, and almost believed it.

Bel Woods: I’ve long admired the work/life balance you and many other women in the industry manage to maintain. I’m a mother myself and know the obstacles I have to overcome in order to be a part of the writing and publishing world. Do you think being at the forefront helps? Or do you find the further you immerse yourself, the harder it gets?

Louise Swinn: I think balancing life – domestic, creative, paid work, volunteer work – is a tricky one and while I appreciate you including me in that, I’m not sure I do achieve it. It is a daily task, to try to balance it all out. Anyone who has multiple passions is always going to be hard pressed meeting their needs, and it’s tough when you sign up for a lot in life, to meet all of life’s demands on you – but I can’t really see any other way. For me, the only alternative would be to have a proper paid job and just work the regular 40 hours a week but then, what would I do with the rest of the time and my brain? I’d probably just start a publishing company again. We’re our own worst enemies.

Bel Woods: When you talk about your passion and ‘big love’ for writing and all that you do, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm and want to be involved. There are a lot of new and emerging writers and editors who I’m sure feel the same way. This does lead me to ask, who, in your life, have you found inspirational and/or influential? And if there was a particular person, how did they help you reach where you are now?

Louise Swinn: Even though teachers are often the people I knock heads with, I actually think it is a vastly under-appreciated profession – in my next life I’ll be involved in education policy. There are some truly amazing teachers, and some of the biggest influences on my life have been teachers – when I was a kid in the UK, Sue McDermott and Max Markiewicz, and here in Oz, Maureen McFadzean. I have the cliché of particular family members who have been huge influences on me, too, chiefly my nan who used to fume over typos in the Guardian, and my mum – restaurant quality food, a shipshape house, worked while studying, and brought up four kids. I have a bunch of friends who are juggling artistic careers with paid employment and domestic life, and I find them to be hugely inspiring now when it seems easy to lose sight of the things we deemed important at eighteen. You may think this mad but some of the greatest influences have been characters: Jo March, the Salingers, Antoine Roquentin, Denise Lambert, Edith Campbell Berry, Stephen Dedalus – as well as their writers. I’ve had tonnes of good influences, and I’m impressionable. Katherine Graham, Anne Frank, Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Saunders, Victoria Wood, Hugh Laurie, Amy Witting, Morrissey, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Michael Stipe, my sister, Miranda Hart, Annie Lennox. I do surround myself with a lot of people who inspire me and their influence rubs off – passion and energy I find very attractive. Everybody has self-doubt but I guess what I get from these people is that sense that if you rise above the self-doubt, or at least learn to ignore it, then you can produce good things. Also the need to be useful, to be of use, to create things that are worthwhile, to not waste my time here. These are some of the things they teach me.

My Sheets Were Freshly Cleaned and Smelled of Lilac (Bel Woods)

26 Jul

She smiled that day, when I told her I was Yugoslavian, her bright lips an open suitcase – one of those soft slouchy ones with a saggy zipper – not really a suitcase at all, a bag. Her face was open and pale and her eyelids a deep salmon colour. She was, in personality, what they call ‘bubbly’ over here.

She was younger and I was older, and her nurse uniform was pants and a patterned shirt. This disappointed me a little, as I preferred the crisp white dresses of the past. I was tactless enough to say this out loud and she’d paused momentarily, removing her hand from my arm.

She’d worn a little rectangle tag around her neck and a pen on a chain, new school; a pinned analogue clock face to her breast, old school.

On the way to my building we discussed the suburb I lived in – in Sydney, Australia.


The country I picked from the sound of its name alone; it wasn’t anything like my home.  The suburbs all seemed the same to me, but she assured me they all had individual sub-cultures. The term ‘sub-cultures’ was unfamiliar to me, so I said nothing as we walked in the sunshine.

I missed my home.

When she bounded up the stairs to my apartment, I watched her hips sway in the dim light and began to feel less burdened again – some things were the same everywhere.

‘7’, I called out to her, ‘looks like an L – 7 upside down.’

She shrugged and leaned against the wall, in that way teenagers do when they’re bored. She waited quietly as my door was opened, and we shuffled inside my brown-walled bed-sit. Her body was then flattened up against me – against my crutch. I held my breath unsure if my body would remember how.

‘Hmmm,’ she purred, moving away until she was standing with her back to me. ‘My jacket,’ she said after a few minutes.

I lifted her up and carried her to my bed – she flung her head back and laughed as clothes escaped her and legs wrapped easily around my hips; pillows fell to the floor.

I felt alive and free in this moment.

My sheets were freshly cleaned and smelled of lilac – I changed them often due to severe night sweats. My open shirts promote an easy personality, but this anxious perspiring would happen regularly.

Still now.

I woke with her beside me, and she sighed softly, her body whole and lifting while breathing out on my face. I rolled away and thought of my parents – my wife: her body, their bodies, in pieces; my heart tripping in my chest. Grief visits at the most inconvenient times.

My hand stretched back towards this woman in my bed and she held it against her softness. She climbed over me – light and ready for whatever the world would bring.

I choked softly under the weight of her body.

She talked: ‘why did you say you were Yugoslavian? I thought Yugoslavia was gone.’

‘Yugoslavia lives,’ I said, grasping her hand and pushing it to my chest, ‘here.’

She sat back a little.

‘What’s your name? She quizzed me, running short fingers through my greying hair and creeping kisses up the line of my neck.

‘Why do you want to know?’ I pretended to tease, pulling her away from me and getting up from the bed; discarding her in order for her to understand.

She was quiet then, like a scolded child, and put her clothes back on. I felt the heaviness return and put on my thongs, getting ready for the trip to the showers at the end of the hall.

‘I’ll walk myself out then, shall I?’

I barely heard her and stared at her face, motionless, emotionless. She gripped my arm hard.

‘I figured my name might mean something to you. When we met, you… I thought after, we’d be friends at least. I pulled away from her and she lifted up her tag – squarely, in front of her face. ‘I’m Diana, anyway.’ She then opened her arms and lifted her mouth to mine.

It was an awkward goodbye.

I wanted to say something to make her feel better, but instead I walked clutching my robe and toiletries in the opposite direction; she walked down the stairs. The insistent memories of my wife’s moaning returned, and each step took more effort than the last.

In the end, some minutes later, when my fingertips were on the cold steel of the doorknob, and my eyes were transfixed on the porcelain plaque wrought with yellow and green daisies spelling out an almost unreadable ‘bathroom’, I yelled back into the space, into the hall that met the stairs, my name: