Tag Archives: Laurie Steed

Do You Remember? (Laurie Steed)

17 Feb

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

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

“They’re all around you,” I say.

“Not these girls. The girls.”

“You mean women?”

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

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

“Who’s your favourite?”

“I like Chloe,” he says.

“Who’s she?”

“Chloe,” he says, “is dynamite.”

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

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

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

“Mm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better just to forget,” says Adam.

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“He said you forget things all the time.”

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

“I need Chloe.”

“Shut up, you’ll make me forget.”

“She’s my girl.”

“Man, just put a…shit! I forgot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His Ahab?”

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

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

“So why Chloe?” I ask again.

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

“She’s not real,” I say.

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

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

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

“Who’s Angela?”

“She used to be my girl.”

“She dumped you, right?” I say.

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

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

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

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

 

Patrick West Interviewed by Laurie Steed

20 Dec

Laurie Steed: You are noted as saying it’s essential a short story “spend time in the foreign territories of the writer before it is midwifed onto the page”. How would you define such territories? What are the roles of time and memory when evaluating accessible life experience versus those moments you’ve yet to fully process?

Patrick West: As a writer I’m happy to receive inspiration and useful insights into creative method from just about anywhere. One book I would recommend to any artist is Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson (1911). Bergson makes a seemingly naïve observation… everything isn’t given all at once. In other words, there is time. But is there really time? Bergson’s point is that our conception of time is such that everything might as well be given all at once. Pre-determining time as a series of static moments, as we tend to do, we always fail to encounter time itself. What is time itself? The existence of time, the fact that everything isn’t given all at once, suggests for Bergson that “Time is invention or it is nothing at all.” The future is always a matter of invention and the past is dead as in “already invented”. On Bergson’s logic artists need to insert themselves into time itself as creation in this sense. To do otherwise is to treat creation as merely the re-creation of the already created, as if, to borrow one of Bergson’s own metaphors, all a painter is doing is returning a jigsaw puzzle to its original state. Great artists tap into the very becoming of time and use it as a resource for true creation. Time, for them, is moment-less not as in without time but as in pure becoming. The test then of originality in all art might be that it produces, out of this flow of becoming, an effect of time never before experienced.

I do not claim to have done anything like this myself! And besides I am only beginning my own adventure with Bergson’s thought as it relates to creative writing. However, I think that I can notice in my writing some indications of what, for Bergson, such an engagement with time itself might consist in—namely, an un-thinking of the usual (time-based) categorisations of our existence. Or an attempt to prise open reality across the grain along which it usually splits. With these ideas in mind I just came across this passage from my short story “Nhill”: “When we made up our minds to go it was in sadness. A single duck’s cry carried to our ears with almost no volume at all, the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins.” I like the notion of being “in sadness” (rather than simply say “feeling sad”) because it opens a chink in sadness out of which may trickle an unfamiliar sense of time. It makes sadness itself into a form of becoming. Similarly, the last part about “the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins” suggests an attempt, at least, to occupy the flow of becoming rather than bear down on it too heavily with timeless modes of writing.

To come back to your question, the “foreign territories of the writer” would by this measure be those places where time is able to go to work on memories by drawing on the resources of that most valuable of things for a writer: his or her own body. Our bodies are an ever-present source of creativity for us as writers. In the simple fact that we are living as we write, we may be put in touch with the becoming of time itself. And, I might add, it is probably in the only half-processed (or apparently so) moments of our experience that we encounter creativity of this order.

Laurie Steed: How does the body both individuate and collaborate in regards to creative practice? Is writing meditative fiction, in a sense, a solitary writer seeking connection with the reader through the memory of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, and how does the mind shape these senses into a finished story? Equally, how do preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative either help or hinder the transmission of our own “body” memories across to the reader?

Patrick West: There is an oft-quoted line in Spinoza’s Ethics (1677): “the body can do many things by the laws of its nature alone at which the mind is amazed.” What are the limits on the power of the body? Does the body lead the mind or is it led by it?

In your question you mentioned “sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.” These, of course, are all capacities of the body, but in the special sense that they operate as aspects of the interface between the body, any body whatsoever, and the world. In fact, the world is absolutely necessary to the exercise of these capacities. If there were nothing to see we would all be blind…. If there were nothing to taste we could not taste.

In my view, the only creatively useful way to think of the body is in the multiplicity of its possible relations with the world. Even sexual difference is sculpted out of the relations of bodies to the world as a whole. The world, of course, is made up not just of things but also of other bodies: human, insect, animal… and after all don’t we call just about the largest things we can contemplate (suns, stars, moons, planets) heavenly bodies?

How does all this relate to creative writing? It seems to me it’s a question of how and to what extent the senses may be evoked in a piece of writing. Scriptwriting theory tells us that a rounded character is the bridging of the gap between apparent wants and unconscious needs. Perhaps this works in performance, but in writing, for mine, a rounded character is one with a zone of indiscernibility about them. When a reader starts to feel uncertain about where a character ends and where other characters and the world begin, that’s when that character comes to life. Characters then are bodies through and through, as even the mind is woven into the body at every level of existence.

One might even argue that the mind is subservient to the body. Spinoza asks us to consider the case of sleepwalkers and “those things [they] do at which they are surprised when they are awake.” As an aside, I like this idea that creative writing may be like sleepwalking… allowing the body to create art at which the waking mind will be amazed.

Janet Frame warns of the dangers of trying to rid oneself, as a writer, of the demands of the body. In a recent review of Frame’s short-story collection The Daylight and the Dust (2010) I wrote this of her short story “Solutions”:

–>In Solutions, a writer tells of another writer who, “bedevilled by the demands of his body . . . decided to rid himself of it completely”. Eventually, all that remains of him is his brain, which, mistaken for a prune, is tossed out by his landlady and eaten by three mice for breakfast, “spitting out the hard bits”. In his final state, as pure brain, the writer is left “blind, speechless, deaf”. “No one could have divined his thoughts; he himself could no longer communicate them.” Writers who ignore the contribution the body makes to their writing, Frame seems to be telling us in this collection, might as well be dead.

The absence of body is the absence of the senses (“blind, speechless, deaf”) and the absence of all writing. It is also, as it happens, death.

One reason I like the short-story form so much is because you can do things in it that would perhaps not be tolerated by publishers or readers in a novel. Thus, while I’m not sure how “preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative” could help in “the transmission of our own ‘body’ memories across to the reader” I don’t regard these preconceptions as particularly a hindrance to such transmission either. (Having said this though, I imagine that there are some bodies out there that do conform, somehow, to “preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative”, although for my part I wouldn’t want to be one of those bodies.)

But what of the mind? What is its role? I wonder if mind is what “individuates and collaborates” by seeking connections both within bodies (as in complex characters and complex writers) and across bodies (as in communities of friends, lovers, fellow writers)? For me, creative writing is all about making connections through the senses (in that double sense of using our senses to engage with the world and also allowing the world into ourselves through the portals of the senses… thus becoming in a way what it is that we see, or hear, or taste, or touch, or smell).

Although, like most writers I imagine, I write alone, and although, unlike many writers perhaps, my characters often appear to be “solitary selves”, I am not usually inclined to think of myself or of my characters as isolated or cut-off from the world. There is, if you like, an art to being solitary or alone yet not isolated or cut-off.

In “Nhill” the male protagonist, you could say, is solitary yet not isolated: the sensitivities that connect him to the world and the world to him suggest both other types of non-human connection and, just perhaps, future forms of (better?) human connection. Many of my stories, I suspect, are variations on this pattern.

Sometimes though it goes the other way. In “As of Shadows” the main character is so enmeshed in things—at a certain level—so weighed down by her abject historical situation, that her very lack of a solitary identity makes her isolated in quite a terrible way. She is unable to make connections with others or with the world that would enable her to feel richly alone.

In short, “Nhill” is about being a crowd though being alone, while “As of Shadows” is about being alone in a crowd… only “a counter of countries” in a world impossibly teeming with countries.

Laurie Steed: Which, in a way, leads on to my next question. What are the limitations of fiction in recreating experience, and do said limitations occur primarily at the point of transcription, or do they surface at every stage of literary engagement, from transcription through to reader reception, and perhaps even literary criticism?

Patrick West: Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “On Exactitude in Science” springs to mind. Borges describes an Empire of such overweening ambition that it creates a map with a one-to-one correspondence to the territory that it maps. The point of the story is that such a map is useless because it is a map no more. For it has become the unmapped territory itself.

The limitations of fiction in recreating experience are, like the limitations of any map less large than what it maps, quite possibly enabling limitations. Just as the map Borges describes could never be of practical use so any fiction that somehow managed to describe the totality of experience would be useless as a means for reconciling ourselves to experience.

As it happens, my desk is covered with a writing pad that is also a map of the world. The scale of the map is “1: 64 100 000 AT THE EQUATOR”, whatever that means.

But what is the scale of fiction’s relationship to the world? And do some genres operate on a larger scale than others? Is Naturalism, for example, a closer approximation to the world than say Magic Realism? Or do none of these questions make any sense?

Georges Perec wrote a curious little story, first published in 1979, entitled “The Winter Voyage”, about a writer whose work, also called The Winter Voyage, seems to contain quotations from a multitude of famous authors who wrote after him. Perec terms The Winter Voyage a “premonitory anthology.”

I am telling you about this story because the name of the author of this fantastical book is Hugo Vernier and a “vernier” or in full “vernier scale” is, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “a short movable scale used on various measuring and positioning instruments, by which fractional readings may be obtained from the divisions of an adjacent graduated scale.” The writings that come after The Winter Voyage might thus be interpreted as fractional readings of the “premonitory anthology.”

Something similar might apply when we talk about fiction and this thing we call experience. What if there is no experience beyond writing, no world beyond words? What if all writing is like a vernier and/or in relationship to a vernier? What if it’s all just a matter of scaling within language?

My short story “The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea” concludes with an immodest attempt to somehow scale an understanding of experience (within writing, the setting is a bookshop) against the scale of the universe. It could be seen on one level as an attempt to travel to the very edge of fiction in order to ascertain if there is “‘something more’”.

–> On the morning of his departure from Japan, with some time to kill, Mr Simone browsed in the multilingual Narita Airport bookshop. Simultaneously with the first boarding call for his flight coming over the PA, he picked up The Oxford dictionary of philosophy and started flicking through its alphabetical entries. An ancient Greek name caught his eye. He began to read the one-paragraph entry about an inch from the bottom: ‘… is also famous for his proof of the universe’s infinitude’. (A gramophone needle stuck in the last groove of any record, thought Mr Simone, answers this question easily.) ‘The curious man should travel to the edge of the known universe and toss a dart into the darkness. Only two things can happen. It may disappear without trace. It may bounce back. Either way, the boundlessness of the universe is proved. There is always something more.’

Of course there is “‘always something more’”, but it is a “‘something more’” that hangs suspended in the sublime abyss between something and nothing. It is a something that could be nothing or anything!

Sometimes I think the fiction we write is like the dart described in this passage, indifferently bouncing back from or disappearing into the maw of experience, telling us very little about what it encounters. Sometimes I think that writing is a very crude instrument for describing or explaining the world or even, as Perec suggests, that it only ever recreates other writings in scaled-down or scaled-up versions, which are geometries that make little sense in the face of the “‘boundlessness of the universe’”.

Better writing, though, than a boundless map….

Laurie Steed: Indeed. And yet despite such constraints or limitations, the written word, at its best, continues to confound, engage, and evoke strong political, emotional, and intellectual responses from the reader. The Oulipo Movement of the 1960’s (which included Georges Perec, as well as Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau, among other writers and mathematicians) seemed to see writing as both freedom and limitation, and indeed described potential literature as “the seeking of new structures and patterns to be used by writers in any way they enjoy”. Here, I’m selling their work criminally short: among other things, they played with palindromes, lipograms, and even chess formulas to create new and exciting narratives.

Your work, at least to this particular writer, seems to take the Oulipo spirit as one of its departure points, and if there’s one thing I noted about The World Swimmers, it’s a willingness to showcase rather than summarise, by which I mean you’re willing to see each story as its own point of departure. In West’s world, there is no necessary need for an overarching connectivity between narratives; your stories hint at both solitude, connectivity, and even the malleable nature of time, but all do this in such different ways that there’s a necessary divide between them.

If one, then, was to accurately sum up Patrick West, the writer, what would be the necessary themes, preoccupations, and motivations to be cited? More importantly, how do you see that particular trajectory informing your work that’s still to come?

Patrick West: At the Melbourne launch of The World Swimmers Paul Carter suggested that, though there is considerable geographic range across the stories of my collection, I am not really writing about places themselves so much as about the senses by which we encounter place. Or by which we encounter anything at all for that matter.

This was something I hadn’t really thought of myself until Paul pointed it out, but once he’d said it, it seemed suddenly obvious. I would add that it is not only senses as in the senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on that are in play here. I realize now, on the evidence of my own stories, that I am a writer interested potentially in all of the infinite number of ways by which humans have sensations of the world and of themselves.

To “re-sense” the world and/or yourself, as it were, one has to do what you suggest in your question: “showcase rather than summarise”. For when you “summarise” you take much more for granted than perhaps you should as a writer. Realism as a form tends to summarize in its very foundations. Effectively it says, here is a world that we share, now let’s create a story within that world. The story told may be truly fascinating but it will probably not suggest new ways of sensing the world. It won’t re-create it, make it over. The conventions of language Realism employs won’t allow that.

I like what you say about the Oulipo Movement and writerly experimentation. My writing is sometimes referred to as experimental too (I have a fondness for chiasmus that I couldn’t even begin to explain!). But I hope that what my experimental writing explores is not experimentation for its own sake (something that would be remote from the preoccupations of the everyday world) but experimentation as a way of discovering and perhaps even interrogating other possible ways of sensing.

Experiments of language (which in one very powerful sense at least is all that writers have to work with) may create opportunities for different ways of sensing ourselves and the world of which we are a part. And in these opportunities, to return to an earlier theme of our discussion, there will almost inevitably be new modes of time as an expression of new modes of becoming or being in the world. All of these themes—language experimentation, the sensing of the world, the sensing of oneself, time itself, notions of living—are contained in this paragraph from “The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea”:

–> Mr Simone crossed the room and placed his palms down flat on the window sill. Distractedly, with just the tips of his fingers, he nudged what he thought of as only some value-less trinkets. Finally raising both hands, he took the smallest of these objects into his grasp, felt its lightness. Replacing it in its original position after several minutes, Mr Simone then turned away. He was never to know of this thing’s aliveness. There is a species of insect that hibernates trustingly in the open the length of the Japanese winter. Now, spring was just around the corner. The thing uncurled itself a fraction on the window sill. Pray mercy, the birds …

The “point of departure” for this story is Mr Simone’s lack of awareness of “this thing’s aliveness”. I hope and imagine that ideas of what it means to be alive—the spectrum from deepest death to fullest life—will continue to preoccupy me in my future writings. And that, perhaps, if I’m lucky, some odd notions of how to sense ourselves and the world differently will slide off the page and take up their place in the world and in our bodies. To make that happen, though, in my view, one needs to engage in concentrated experimentation. One needs to sweep away the “taken for granted” and, almost, to un-learn the lessons that we don’t even know we have learned. For these lessons obscure the new.

* * *

 

Vox: Laurie Steed

23 Aug

I would challenge a couple of statements in the preamble to the question. While cinema has undoubtedly played a major role in the shaping of global and indeed western culture, I think television, music, and even video games have all played equally important parts in the formation of said culture. I bring this up not to be pedantic, but to approach the question more generally, as to better state my answer.

My point here is simple. Just as we couldn’t have predicted the rise of certain technologies like those listed above, I can’t say what e-form will emerge as the new literary standard; hell, I can’t even say that one single form will become the standard. Things may occur this way, but it’s just as likely that competing companies will develop their own formats to attempt to gain their rightful share of the market. As was the case with digital music, interested parties may come up with interesting (if infuriating) solutions. As a user format, the MP3 was easily the most accessible format for recording and listening to digital music. The MP4 came soon after, and opened up DRM encoding in individual files. This format presented users with a legal digital alternative to piracy while also helping companies like Apple forge partnerships with major record labels keen to profit from emerging technologies.

I would like to say book publishers will decide on a DRM free publishing standard, but this seems unlikely. Book publishers are trying to minimise price shrinkage in their move from print to digital, but here’s the rub; in a digital market, the price point has to be lower, if only because there’s almost always a free (if illegal) way to attain said products that doesn’t involve DRM or a limited stock selection.

Book publishers, then, are in a whole lot of trouble. Rather than relying on local booksellers, with whom they have a long-standing business relationship, they’ll soon be dealing with information companies like Google and Apple, neither of whom seem particularly keen to support grass roots industry. True, it’s likely that print books will exist in some form for many more years, and this will buy publishers some time, but the digital realm is already close to conquered; in Amazon, Google, and Apple, we have our three main contenders for multimedia dominance, each is keen to keep their piece of the pie, and each will most likely discover a format that’s hard to share, easy to read, and remarkably cost-effective when placed alongside its print competitor.

Booksellers are similarly burdened. Unless they realign themselves to fit better with a gift/collectable market (or a niche market at best), they will serve only those buying on a whim, those ignorant of online retailing, or those too rich to care about price. Those who’ve looked into online retailers (such as bookdepository.co.uk) will find it increasingly difficult to defend high local prices when they can obtain the same product for ten dollars cheaper, with postage included.

Regarding the second question, blogs are fascinating things. At best, they tap into shifting notions of time; they unite people around the globe, they tap into niches and they encourage discussion. At their worst, they are intolerable, navel-gazing insights into people who should really be out helping the elderly.

Blogs, then, are artefacts in the purest sense, in that they’re already articles of archaeological interest; they signal things how things were at a particular time and a particular place. I feel that traditional blog platforms are fast losing their relevance, thanks mostly to micro-blogging platforms like Tumblr and social media platforms such as Twitter, which is itself a micro-blogging platform of sorts. Put simply, blogs have become victims of their own availability; the information glut of open access blogging has lead to relevant, interesting content becoming increasingly difficult to find amongst a) the commercially-funded blog b) the self-obsessed blog c) the porn blog (I’ve heard these exist) and d) the spam blog, which is self explanatory. I’ve listed four horrible types of blog here without scratching my head, but my list is by no means exhaustive…

Digital archaeology could begin with the blog, but if we’re being pedantic, then both bulletin boards and html are probably better places to start.

Whatever our definitions, one thing is certain, we’re experiencing an unprecedented change from industrial (i.e. the production of material goods) to digital (the production of data as ‘goods’), and I for one, am sceptical. In a digital world, there is no real-world depreciation of product; the plus of this is less shit in the world; less waste, less unwanted goods. The downside is we’re creating a digital oligarchy, whereby the distribution of all digital content is handled by a small number of key players; these players will forge relationships with the largest businesses in any sector; in book publishing, that’s four multinationals: Penguin, Bertelsmann Media Worldwide, VerlagsGruppe GeorgVon Holtzbrinck and Harper Collins.

Where then, do smaller publishers fit in? The Small Press Network (SPUNC) is trying to ensure that they stay relevant in the digital marketplace, but I don’t envy such a mission. Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer, i.e. you and me, to choose what we prioritise, regardless of what Amazon, or Apple or YouTube is telling us. It’s a chance to sift information according to our needs, your interests. It’s a chance to support like-minded people who create innovative and collaborative ventures, both in the real world and online. And it’s a chance to seek knowledge for knowledge itself, outside of capitalism or the acquisition of goods.

For me, such a future is more exciting than any single file type or format.

 

 

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.