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Archive for May, 2011

What a great read!  Talking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week, the very humble and witty David Mitchell said that he is interested in interconnectedness.  When writing Ghostwritten, his first novel, a collection of nine ‘long’ stories, he said he started out with the first three or so as separate entities and it was only after these that he recognised teh true character of the novel he was writing and started to see the connections between characters and use recurring motifs.  He said he was interested in the question of how and why things happen.  The stories offer numerous possible answers, including chance, fate, luck, God, mistakes, the ghost in the machine.  Mo Muntervary, the protagonist of ‘Clear Island’, thinks [p375]:

Phenomena are interconnected regardless of distance, in a holistic ocean more voodoo than Newton.

The risk with multi-protagonist novels is that one (or more) of the characters lacks something that the others have, that their stories are not of equal quality.  Well, there’s no danger of that here.  The nine stories take us around the world, from the Orient and Mongolia to Petersburg, then Ireland, London and New York.  Each has vitality, linkages, humour, and tragedy.

Mitchell’s fascination with interconnectedness extends beyond this book too – with characters showing up in more than one book.  One of the things he said with regard to this practice was that he does it in part to amuse himself.  One of the joys of this book for us readers is that we can see those moments and share in them.  This extends from the more obvious questions of how does one character fit in another’s story, down through ‘mid-level’ recurrences such as notions of physics, and all the way to motifs which reappear, such as camphor trees, comets, quasars or Kilmagoon whiskey.  As a reader, part of the fun is in those moments of frisson when you become aware or spot another link.

One of the slight misgivings I had with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was that some of the descriptions of ‘place’ seem disconnected or just ‘dropped in’.  There is no evidence of that here.  The descriptions of the cities like Okinawa, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London are vivid and grounded.  Having lived in London, I particularly liked the way Mitchell links the web of suburbs into the narrative (by the sexual conquests of a writer named Marco no less!).  Some other descriptions of setting are imaginative, for example the old Battersea power station described as an upturned table.  The way Mitchell depicts the passage of time in Tokyo through the cherry blossoms is wonderful.  Then they fall thus, [p60]:

The last of the cherry blossom.  On the tree, it turns ever more perfect.  And when it’s perfect, it falls.  And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up.  So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air … I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?’

There’s loads of witty moments too.  Writers are not to be trusted, thinks one character, because they make everything up.  Another character has received a postcard from a friend with a photo of Earth, on which he has written, ‘wish you were here.’  In a lovely description of the forces of physics, gravity is described as being ‘the most down to earth’!  And Schrödinger the cat ‘looks around hypercritically.’

It’s really hard to pick the best of them.  Even the Mongolia chapter, which seemed to sag ever so slightly in the middle, came with such a kick ending that you soon forget any quibbles.  I loved the ‘Clear Island’ chapter, the story of quantum physicist Mo Muntervary, whose brilliant technology has found its way into smart bombs.  She tries to resign but the firm she works for won’t let her.  She goes on the run, escaping back to the island off the coast of west Ireland where she was born and raised.  The way things end up for Mo is spellbinding.  ‘Night Train’, the final of the nine stories, (before a short capstone chapter), is hilarious, with the mysterious caller to Bat Segundo’s late night radio show in New York.  The way Bat assists ‘Zookeeper’ as the person calls themselves in deciding what to do with the animals in the zoo is breathtaking.

AS Byatt proclaimed Ghostwritten to be “the best first novel I have ever read.”  High praise and warranted.  If you haven’t read it yet, make a bee-line for it.  David Mitchell at his best.  Superb.

(The notion of interconnectedness came up elsewhere at SWF 2011: I’m now off to read Gail Jones’s Five Bells which sees the lives of four adults come together in Circular Quay on a single day, and after that I’ve lined up The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay, which is also set in Sydney and links three separate characters across time in a rather unusual way: stay tuned!)

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Sceptre

1999

ISBN: 9780340739754

436 pages

Source: the local municipal library

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Session #191: ‘The Big Reading’: Mitchell, Cunningham, Obreht, Miller, Abdolah: 

Just a short post on this afternoon’s ‘Big Reading’ – a SWF stalwart session.  This year was a real cavalcade of literary luminaries: in reading order:

1. Kei Miller: reading from The Same Earth – not his most recent work, but his debut novel.  A charming section describing a peculiar ‘countdown’ naming convention used by a family of 6 – which started with a boy who became known as ‘Five’ and then subsequent siblings right down to ‘Zero’, a simple boy who witnessed something horrific, something that changes him forever. 

2: David Mitchell: reading something from his next novel!   It’s part set in the future – a very dystopic future by the look of things! – and the main theme of the piece he read out was ageism.  Not surprisingly for Mitchell, there are more than one narrative strand – one set in this future world, another set in the ‘Land of Youth’ … very intriguing and wonderful to hear something fresh.  Kudos to him. 

3. Tea Obreht: reading part of the chapter from her acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here) which introduces us to her wonderful – and much loved – character: ‘The Deathless Man’. 

4. Kader Abdolah: easily the most moving of tonight’s stories: Kader told an autobiographical story.  He is from Iran and fled as a refugee, in the process letting down his father because he left him behind.  He ended up in The Netherlands and then tried several quite humorous (and heartbreaking) times to get into the USA.  He learnt Dutch and now writes in Dutch (even translating the Koran into Dutch too).  To get up and speak as he did about his life in English was brilliant.  He then read us a few brief lines from his book The House of the Mosque.  He said the book was his way of travelling home to Iran, the place he can only go now in the imagination.  Wonderful. 

5. Michael Cunningham: he of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours fame, followed in David’s steps by reading us a chapter called The Snow Princess from his next novel, which focussed on the body of a woman who has been dead a week, her body frozen in death in the snow, how she was in a state of ‘in between’ – some of which he had written only last night!  (He said he gets a little weary of reading from what are for him ‘old’ novels.)  Another very exciting glimpse into the stories that will be hitting bookshelves, kindles, i-pads, etc, etc, in the (hopefully) not-to-distant future.  I dare say Cunningham fans will not be disappointed. 

Enjoyed it immensely and will be looking out for Miller and Abdolah’s work, which I’ve not yet read.

The D!

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Session #145: ‘The Vagabonds’: David Mitchell and Daniel Swift in Conversation with Louise Adler

Bomber County is Daniel Swift’s first book.  It was, in part, an attempt to trace what happened to his grandfather who flew in British bombers in WWII and was shot down.  It also looks at the people who were being bombed, what it was like for them, and so the book links the loss of his grandfather with a much greater story of loss.  It is part memoir, part history. 

David Mitchell needs no introduction! 

Both authors were asked about the research in writing historical works, fiction and non-fiction, and how they know when it’s time to stop.  Daniel said you know when to stop things become familiar.  He interviewed many Germans and those who knew his grandfather.  When their stories began to come together – when he started to hear ‘echoes’ between stories – he knew he was near the end.  One of his interests in the telling of history is those things which are left unsaid.  Sometimes it’s not best to know everything in its purest form.  He talked of how the letters airmen wrote home were bland, ‘nothing happened today’-sort of notes, but when he looked at their flight logs for that day they’d been flying over some German city and dropping bombs.  This gap intrigued him.  Bomber County also examines the poetry of WWII. 

David Mitchell came at things from the other end, starting with nothing.  He said there are two forms of research: hard and soft.  The hard research is ‘the girders of history’ – the facts and interconnections (a recurring theme for him) – and where in history a novel might be positioned.  For him, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was placed within the Napoleonic period because he saw it as this tectonic shift which generated its own conflict in which the story could be grounded.  Then the ‘soft’ research commences when you start writing – those ‘1,001 ways human needs are met or not met’ – things like, ‘If you’re sick, what do you do?’ and ‘If you’re hungry…’ and so on.  You do this research, know it, then hide it.  He gave a very humourous account of how not to ‘hide’ the research, describing at length the lighting of a sperm oil lamp or a tallow candle.  He said it might be funny now, but it’s horrible when it was written!  Research operates on the iceberg principle – the 90% needs to be there, hidden, otherwise the top sinks without a trace.  It took him four years to write the book. 

Daniel was asked about the morality of the bombing Dresden.  He talked of how difficult it is, how risky for us, to pass judgement. 

David was asked about the structure of Autumns – why he moved us off Dejima and away to the temple.  He said the structure of a book reveals itself – the book will tell you how it should be written.  The walled island, he felt, could really only sustain part of the story rather than a whole one.  He said he needed to leave Dejima before it became boring.  (I’m not so sure about that, I’m sure he could have pulled it off, and for me, the middle part of the story didn’t quite work as well as the Dejima sections). 

He was asked about the midwife character – and he talked about how she came to be a midwife.  He had to ask himself, how do I get a woman onto the island, when there were only traders and prostitutes and spies allowed there?  ‘You wade through a minefield of implausibility until something works.’  A midwife ‘bends’ but doesn’t break, it’s plausible.  Writing, he said, is an ‘act of escapology’.  I really like this, and it ties in with what Markus Zusak said in yessterday when he said ‘I don’t have a good imagination, I just have a lot of problems.’  It’s fascinating that many authors feel this way. 

There was a very interesting discussion about the intersection of non-fiction and fiction.  David talked about the end of movies like Platoon – those images set the terms for people’s understanding of that period of history.  He called it ‘the Oliver Stone Syndrome’!  The border between fiction and nonfiction is ‘unfenced and unpatrolled’.  History isn’t always a matter of what happened, it’s what we think now about what happened.  Fiction, in many ways almost stands in for fact.  Is this a good thing?  He obfuscated a little here, saying he didn’t like the idea of all that power in the hands on one person.  He added that writing has an ethical dimension.  If writers ignore the ethical dimension, it makes writing soulless.  (If only we had Kate Grenville to chime in wither her thoughts here given all the fuss The Secret River and the so-called ‘History Wars’!)

When asked for tips on research, Daniel said that while archives and libraries are good start, other sources are often as good.  He said reading a natural history text on animals in London from 1946 told him a lot about the time.  David’s 2 tips: do the background research, but don’t do the background to the background.  Otherwise 4 years might become 14!  Secondly, stay receptive to happenstance – sometimes the way in is not through the front door.  He then talked about how living in Holland made him aware that a Dutch snowflake is different to an English one.  Found objects, like this piece of knowledge, are often the best, so ‘stay open’.  Beyond that, do what you can, make it up and ‘get your wife to read it’!  He gave a wonderful description of how he tests how good a piece of writing is: he gives it to his wife on the night that it’s her turn to cook and if she has time to prepare a feast then he knows the manuscript is boring, but if dinner is thrown together and a mess, then he knows he’s onto something good!  (I love that – fantastic!) 

A very entertaining session and very interesting for those of us who dabble in research projects from time to time. 

The D!

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Session #109: The Thousand Styles of David Mitchell

Geordie Williams who was in conversation with David Mitchell introduced the session by saying that it was the one that sold out the quickest of all sessions at this year’s SWF. 

Daivd Mitchell is well known for his varied styles, the great shifts he has between each in terms of form, setting, and themes.  He actually started by giving us a reading of a short story that was just over 900 words long, called An Inside Job.  It was a measure of his skill that so much story was packed into such a short length. 

David talked about why it is that he seeks a departure from what has come before when he writes a new novel.  He said if something is the same it has been done, so why do it again?  That being said, there are common threads through his novels in the form of characters who pop up in more than one book.  Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that Ghostwritten, his first ‘book’, is a series of 9 inter-weaving narratives in which characters pop up in different stories, even if in oblique ways.  (I’m just about through Ghostwritten and it is a lot of fun; the links are both obvious and more subtle, but they are all fun – it’s like finding a little gem in a field of rubble and when you see the links and how the characters fit together it gives you a little thrill.) 

David talked about the the five elements of a novel: plot, character, themes/ideas, structure, and style.  (He made an interesting aside here when he said that someone had once asked him about ‘place’ – and he said that he felt it present but not a main element of the overall scheme.  It is interesting to me that in my reading of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the descriptions of place seemed to be ‘dropped in’ and did not quite have the same ‘grounding’ in place as say Tim Winton, or many other Australian authors.  Having said that, some of his sense of place in Ghostwritten is very good, the ‘London’ story, for instance, had great descriptions in it and covers a lot of the city.) 

Style is an ellusive thing for Mitchell.  Part of writing a novel is working out what style the novel wants to be written in.  Always, the narrative – the sense of story – is the most important thing. 

He gave a very funny account of the challenges of writing historical fiction in terms of getting the language / dialogue right.  Language is the tricky thing, he said, you can’t win.  He read a lot of old authors to ‘ingest’ the period language, such as Smollett Fielding Richardson, and wrote for six months and had something that was ‘perfect’ but was baiscally ‘Blackadder’!  Go the other way to being too modern and you sound like Seinfeld.  You need to find the least worst option, waht he calls ‘Bygone-ese’ – ‘how we think they talk back when if we don’t think too much!  Then there’s all the different Bygoneese he needed: for Dutch, English, Japanese, for high-class, ‘oinks’ and so on.  So it was a lot of work.  Four years work. 

He’d always been interested in Dejima – the ‘catflap’ between two worlds, how there was extreme xenophobia on the one hand in Japanese closing off the outside world, but also how they knew the Dutch brought with them all sorts o fwonderful things, which can be encapsulated in the ‘Enlightenment’. 

He spoke briefly about Black Swan Green his book prior to Jacob but not in any great detail, saying that he and the narrator share quite a lot of DNA. 

The best stuff for an author is found ‘stuff’.  Those things you can’t make up.  The place you’re in seeps into you and informs your writing.  He’s very interested in the sense of interdependence, again not surprising considering his practice of using characters more than once.  He spoke about how this is not a new idea of course, Shakespeare had Falstaff appear in more than one play and it makes our understanding of The Merry Winves of Windsor because we know what happens to him in King Henry IV.  The reasons he likes doing this is one, because it amuses him – and there are many moments in his writing where it is clear to us as readers that he is having a lot of fun (as we are too) – and, second, because it transfers ‘concreteness’ from one story to another, i.e., it transfers a sense of reality from story to story.  He was asked why he hadn’t done it for Jacob but answered that he had!  There are four examples of this transferrence, two of which he forgot.  One is a sea Captain who appears at the end, and another is a cat that was also in Black Swan Green(!) 

Mitchell has a great sense of humour and though at times I felt Geordie Williamson might not have got the best out of him today, there are of course only so many minutes in an hour and it was still a lot of fun and very interesting.   

That’s it for Friday.  Bring on Saturday! 

The D! 🙂

Note: comments are of course welcome but as they are moderated it will take me a little while to approve them.  Thanks…

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Session #99: ‘The Fascinator’: Gail Jones, Ashley Hall, and Delia Falconer in Conversation on Sydney:

Another great panel discussion marshalled by Jill Eddington, this time on Sydney and how it speaks to three authors whose latest books are set in or are about the harbour city.  I must confess I have not read any of these books yet (sigh), which, for a Sydney-sider like my good self is a bit poor, and after hearing each talk about their work it seems like even more of a shortcoming. 

Gail Jones has been nominated for the Miles Franklin Award three times.  Her latest is Five Bells is a story of four adults and a child whose lives converge on a single Saturday on Sydney Harbour – specifically around the Quay area. 

Ashley Hay has written several non-fiction books, (I have Gum on my shelf, one that I like particularly).  Her first novel is The Body in the Clouds, which has three different people in Sydney in different time periods (one of whom is William Dawes) witness the same amazing thing: a man falling out of the sky.  It sounds like a great premise for a novel! 

Delia Falconer needs no introduction, but whereas Ashley has gone from non-fiction to fiction, Delia’s latest, Sydney , sees her go the other way.  (I must admit to thinking of Peter Carey’s wonderful little book on Sydney, called Thirty Days in Sydney, which I highly recommend.)

One of the interesting points that Jill Eddington made at the start is how the three books speak to the others, and how they might be read as a triumvirate (I feel a possible reading task for the Dilettante coming on!).  Jill asked them were they aware of each other’s work.  Ashley had read a proof copy of Gail’s story.  Gail knew of Delia’s book after exchanging emails with her about Kenneth Slessor’s famous Sydney harbour poem Five Bells, which they both love.  Delia was delighted in writing a non-fiction book not to have the anxieties that a fiction author might have when they know another author is writing about the same thing.  Ashley said that she had the unnerving reality of knowing Kate Grenville was writing about Dawes too, and indeed Kate made contact with her and they discussed their projects, which she was glad about as she could see that while William Dawes features in both their novels – being the focal point of Kate Grenville’s excellent The Lieutenant (see my review here) – she also saw that they were writing vastly different stories. 

The authors then spoke about the haunting that seems to live within Sydney, the sense of time slip, an obvious influence for Ashley’s book.  Gail said the origins of Five Bells were in the haunting Sydney harbour ferry crossing the harbour in darkness (which made me think of another well known poem, Late Ferry by Robert Grey).  For Gail, there is this sense of the brash light and modern structures but there are dark underpinnings, there are always currents moving beneath the city.  There is this sense of slippage. 

Ashley loves the harbour just beneath the harbour bridge and the bridge itself becomes a character in her book.  Ironically, it was in moving to Brisbane that allowed her to enter into her own imagination more which gave her the freedom to finish the story. 

Delia spoke of the sense of loss that underpins the city, the loss of Eora in the 1789 smallpox epidemic.  She too pointed to the layers in the harbour and spoke of how the ‘fascinator’ of the session’s title spoke to her not just of the brash hat worn by ladies at the races but of a bewitching character she had read in a story that was known by such a name. 

Ashley thought that Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow which she read in formative years (didn’t we all?!) is to blame for all this time slippage, saying that to her that Park’s story was real.   There is a sense in some Sydney streets that you could look down them and not only see, say, the 1800’s, but actually feel like you are in the 1800s, so powerful is the undercurrent. 

The Rocks is one such place – the setting, of course, of Playing Beatie Bow

Gail said there is a wonderful record, I believe she said in the State Library, of photographs of buildings before they were demolished – ny building that was demolished was recorded in a lot of detail.  The photos stretch back to 1890’s – a boon for novelists seeking a streetscape of a by-gone era. 

There were research gems for each author.  Delia spoke of Reverend Franck Cash of Christ Church North Sydney who wrote an ‘insane’ book about the demolition of Milson’s Point to make way for the bridge when it was being built.  He had photos of ‘ghost’ buildings in the act of falling down as they were being demolished. 

For Ashley, going to London and being able to flick through William Dawes’s original notebooks was thrilling.  They are now online too. 

Gail said that she had a dinner with Kate Grenville in London when Kate was reading those same books at another time – a small world!  Gail spoke about her Chinese research – one of her characters in Five Bells is a Chinese woman.  Gail spoke to survivors of the Cultural Revolution when she was in Shanghai, as well as reading many accounts of that time.  Her character comes to Sydney with that weight and shows strength to carry it forward. 

Of course, the harbour is the focal point of Sydney and is that way in these books too (no matter how hard Delia might have tried to avoid it at first!). 

Delia thinks the harbour is so suggestive.  There is a ‘wateriness’ about Sydney.  It’s there in the tides too.  She feels the harbour is a mirror for us. 

Gail said the harbour is a stage – a ‘place for art’.  She tried in her novel to recreate the novelty of those iconic things such as the Opera House and the bridge which many Sydney-siders take for granted (not me!).  Ashley rounded off proceedings by saying an apt tribute to Sydney Harbour is the fact that it is used as an (international?) measure for an amount of water.  In the recent Brisbane floods, she became very aware of ‘Syd Harbs’ – how many Syd Harbs were flowing down the Brisbane River. 

I think it might be a nice future project to read all three and see if Jill was right – whether these three books, two novels, one non-fiction, do indeed speak to each other…

The D!

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Friday at the Festival: Another glorious autumn day in Sydney:

Session #86: ‘Bright Sparks’: Markus Zusak & Sonya Hartnett in Conversation:

What a fascinating session with two of our best Aussie talents, very well chaired by Jill Eddington.  Jill first asked the authors about how they came to writing.  Sonya started early!  She was 9 years old when she started and 13 when she had her first novel.  She was published when still in high school.  She told a delightful story of how she was too young to be intimidated like so many first-time authors are today – all she did was pick up the yellow pages and look under ‘P’ for ‘Publisher’, picked one, sent it in and they published it!  She said she never really wanted to be an ‘writer’ and still has trouble with that label.  She was just an ordinary suburban kid growing up in a large family.  She thought only special people could be writers.  (She calls herself a journalist on the forms you have to fill in in airports for her  job title!)

She spoke of how she has trouble going back to look at a book, something Markus spoke of too. 

Markus turned to writing early on as well: he was 16 when he decided he was going to be a writer, and ‘nothing was going to stop me.’  His first ‘novel’ was only 8 pages – he couldn’t get past there.  Writing for him was the thing that makes him happy, and also miserable, but he finds happiness in that misery(!)  He spoke of how even though he has been successful fairly young, his early work was rejected.  At first he wondered why as he saw others getting published that were about the same level, but he now thinks those rejections were good for him because it made him determined to be better. 

As to why their novels have had such large overseas readerships, Sonya said that good books travel.  There are publishers overseas who will be interested, though some books naturally settle in some places better than others: she said she has had a lot of success in Scandinavian countries, and books that do well there might not do so well in the USA. 

Markus relayed a telling story from his childhood: he said he was in a running race at school and thought he had won it, but he was placed 6th.  When he complained to his father, his dad said, ‘one, stop whingeing, two: I thought you won too, but it proves that when you win you have to really win.’  Equating this lesson into his writing, Markus said that ‘you’ve got to write something that only you could write, that nobody else could do.’  That is part of his measure of success.  He said he didn’t feel brave in his choices made in The Book Thief (see my review here) – the ‘dark’ things were necessary to write that story. 

For him, writing The Book Thief was not a great leap – he just scratched the surface of his parents stories (they are both great storytellers), and reach in and pull out the world.  He did some research, but the bulk of it came after he had finished the manuscript. 

Sonya said you need to write what interests you.  Dark subjects, like death, which feature in her work, interest her, and she thinks interests most of us too.  She said she can see other writers who get to a point in their story and need to be brave but cop out – that annoys her.  In terms of her own work, she said using animals and children to explore dark themes seems to work really well as those characters have a ‘cleanliness’ about them, they see the truth in dark things. 

Markus was asked whether the books in The Book Thief were a deliberate prop he developed, but he said ‘you just stumble upon these things’.  He was doing some writing with some school kids when teaching and wrote some stories in that time, one of which had Death as the narrator, and another of which featured a girl in Sydney who goes around stealing books.  He gave the analogy of a painter in art class who paints something and then has paint dribbling down the canvas, and the art teacher tells them they must leave the dribble in.  Accidents are not really accidents.  They might seem so at first, but when he looks back he sees that those things were the only way to tell the story.  This also extends to plot: he said his favourite character in the book is Rudi, but although it might have been nice to keep him alive, there was never any consideration to do so: his death was necessary for the book. 

Sonya echoed this, saying that a book chooses its own focus.  Things like the narrator, their point of view, and so on, choose themselves. 

Markus spoke about how he came to have Death as the narrator.  He said people often say to him that he must have a great imagination, but he always responds by saying, ‘No, I just have a lot of problems’!  Necessity is the mother of invention.  He tried Death as narrator but didn’t have the right voice for him.   He then tried Leisel as narrator but that didn’t work either – he just ended up with the most Australian sounding German girl!  He returned to Death as narrator and eventually found the right balance in his character and from that the right voice.  This gave him a route to the end and the impetus to finish. 

The two authors then spoke about the process of writing which was very interesting and quite funny.  Sonya spoke about her storyboard approach.  She studied film after school but the ‘cards’ storyboarding method took her years to develop.  She used to start a story and make a lot of mistakes – this is the best way to learn, she says.  She calls it the ‘Ride the Wild Pony’ approach.  Now she does ‘Dressage’! – starting with what she calls ‘clouds’ – characters, setting, plot issues, ideas, (etc), and organises them visually before she writes a thing.  These clouds are colour coded so she can see when there is an imbalance in the structure, and see where she might need to add/subtract a scene. 

Markus says he rides the wild pony!  He organises by chapter headings.  He has a mathematical mind and so sees the structure in the number and order of chapters.  He will only start a book if he knows he can finish it.  He has plenty of bad days, getting thrown off the pony, but he gets back on always having a sense of where he’s going.  You need tenacity as a writer. 

When asked by an audience member about ‘contentment’, Markus said he is content with the success in material terms but never content with his writing.  He said, ‘you’re never going forward unless you’re unhappy’! 

Sonya answered this same question by talking about her Astrid Lindgren Prize win by saying it was nice to win, but it was already in the past – she was already wondering about what was next.  Also, to make the next book better, you need to ‘hate’ the last one! 

Markus said he thought The Book Thief would be his least-read book.  He didn’t try to please the audience.  He considered his first four novels his ‘first’ novel, The Book Thief his second, and his next, titled (The) Clay Bridge, the third: due ‘soon’.  He said he regrets the end of Messenger, he didn’t get it right, but the risk he took gave him the ability to write The Book Thief.   

Sonya says as a writer there are countless decisions you have to make and you need to stand by the ones you made at the time.  Her own regret is killing off Adrian in Of a Boy.

A fascinating insight into the minds of two of our best.  The similarities in determination, in never settling, in always looking to improve all stood out.  And the differing ways they go about the process of writing were very interesting.  A great session.

More to come from Friday…

The D!

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(#69): The Finkler Question: Howard Jacobson in discussion with Rick Gekoski

Well, confession time: although I managed to read a few of the authors’ books that I went to sessions on today, such as Tea Obreht and Kim Scott, I haven’t yet got to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.  As Darren Hinch might have said: “Shame, Dilettante, Shame!”  And it seems that it is a shame as this session was so entertaining.  Jacobson seemed more comedian than author, but of course, one would expect that as that is his thing: comic fiction.  It will be very difficult for me to convey the humour in static, bland, black on white text.  I thoroughly recommend you all hunt down the audio (possibly video too?) recordings on the SWF website when they get them up, you’ll have great fun. 

Given Finkler’s Man Booker Prize win Jacobson was asked by Rick Gekoski what his views on literary prizes were.  He replied by saying that he has two views: one when he hasn’t won (they are the worst things, an abomination), and one when he does win (literary life is healthy and all is right with the world)!  He said he could never be a judge.  He is a writer not a reader.  He couldn’t read that many books, he said.  When he was shortlisted, he thought for moment, ‘I’ve won’ – as it meant the judges had read his book at least twice and for some just getting past the first page of his books is a problem!  He had many funny tales of his mother.  She told him he wouldn’t win, it was too Jewsih – he said that as a Jewish mother she couldn’t stand her son being in a state of hope!  (Apparently when he was accepted into Oxford he got his acceptance letter and told his mother he was in – she said, ‘let’s just check the envelope was addressed correctly!)  So he went to the Booker presentation dinner not feeling nervous as by then he had calmed down and wasn’t nervous, unlike everyone else.  As Andrew Motion, the chair of judges last year, summarised the winner, he was using words that Jacobson thought described Peter Carey’s book, then others’ books, until there was one word that caught his ear and he thought, I’m going to win this.  But then came the announcement that the winner was the Finkler Qu- and he thought, Damn, some guy called Finkler has won!  (But he did have an acceptance speech ready, he says he always has one ready, even on Oscars night he has one ready!). 

When he was asked why his books are so polarising, he said it was because laughter is divisive – comedy is harder to get people to agree on.  One look at people’s reviews on Amazon or the blogosphere will tell you that.  But when all is said and done Finkler will have outsold all his other novels combined.  He mentioned a very curious fact: that he has been #1 in Pakistan.  When asked why that might be so, he said that he always saw the flip side of questions and said, I don’t know why I’m number one, but the flip side is this: why haven’t I always been #1 in Pakistan?!  Still he thought it wonderful that Osama Bin Laden might have been captured because he was so deeply engrossed in the stories of Jewish men in London!

Jacobson has a long history with Australia and with Sydney in particular – he lectured at Sydney University for three years ‘way back’ and said of his time that he loved it, that he was having too much fun, that to work, to become a success, he needed to get back to dreary old England.  Too much fun can be a bad thing. 

When it was said that he is often compared to Philip Roth, he said he prefered to be thought of as the Jewish Jane Austen.  He spoke lovingly about Persuasion.  He said both he and Austen both write about social comedy.  Other influences include all the English titans: Dickens and Austen particularly, and all the big names, as well as ‘the Russians’: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. 

He did one reading from The Finkler Question.  He said of the book it is a tragedy, but one that should, he hopes, make us laugh out loud. 

I don’t think anyone in the audience left without a smile on their face.  Really great fun.  And Finkler is going straight to the top of the To Be Read Tower!

That’s it for Thursday.  Bring on Friday! 

The D!  🙂

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(#59): ‘On Our Selection’: The Art of the Anthology with Cate Kennedy and James Bradley, with Tim Herbert

The Bangarra Mezzanine is a lovely room, but just not at 4-5pm on a beautiful sunny autumn day in Sydney with all that sun, sun and more sun streaming in!  I had a similar experience last year.  I don’t know why the event organisers can’t put up some shade cloth over at least some of the windows.  We in the audience were all wearing our sunglasses and shading ourselves with programmes from the sun!  It was a shame as the room was not full and I just wonder whether it was because of this, as the topic was very interesting with both James and Cate talking about the art of creating an anthology. 

Cate, of course, has done a few anthologies, most recently last year’s wonderful The Best Australian Stories – and has signed up for this year’s as well.   James Bradley has edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean.  So, what is the art of the anthology?  Well to kick things off, Tim Herbert gave us the etymology of the word ‘anthology’: from Greek: ‘anthos’ meaning ‘a flower’, and ‘logia’ meaning ‘collection’ – so off we went to talk about how these two well known authors in their own right came to select the flowers for their bouquet. 

For Cate, the process is really about choosing the absolute best stories.  She is aware of the reader’s experience in terms of the emotional charge of the stories and their order of placement and orders stories in this way. 

For James, the task with the very well reviewed Book of the Ocean was different.  He tried to make a shape.  The stories needed to talk to one another and the order of them was a very deliberate thing.  He reflected on how hard it was for him to lose some things which perhaps should be in the book but just didn’t fit the shape.  He equated editing his anthology with trying to make a poem out of found objects, which I quite like the idea of.  Following on from this ‘fitting’ comment he talked about how he sometimes had to select a piece from an author which wasn’t their best piece of writing because it didn’t fit or because another of theirs fit better.  He gave the example of the account of the sinking of the Essex, written by Owen Chase, which Melville used as the inspiration for Moby-Dick.  The section that Owen wrote after the sinking, where the survivors resort to cannibalism to survive is much more harrowing and riveting, but he needed to use the account of the sinking itself as it fit with the inclusion of a section of Moby-Dick

What was interesting was the discussion that there is not a lot of Australian stories set in the sea or ocean with the obvious exceptions (Nam Le’s excellent The Boat or Tim  Winton’s stories).  Most of our stories are landlocked. 

Cate selects stories that are still speaking to her several days later.  Interestingly, the 2010 collection were quite dark and she spoke about how she thought whether she needed to balance this darkness out, but she eschewed that approach, believing that if the submissions for that year were dark then that was reflecting something in the public mood which she didn’t want to tamper with.  She also said that the gender balance (very close to equal male and female representation) was not intentional. 

James was aware right from the off that he was going to have quite a gender imbalance.  There was no way around it, he said, most of the accounts of sailing and sailors were written by men.  Part of his response was to open and close the book with pieces by women.   

Cate spoke of the enjoyable challenge of reading so many submissions (last year around 800 short stories, this year already 600 submitted and counting).  It is a huge task but Cate loves it.  She said she gets to find those special gems.  The stories are not really edited, they are selected, so they need to come in as perfect as they can be.  She spoke of what made a good short story: how she preferred things should be implicit rather than explicit, how it should be cinematic in the sense that we are shown something happening and all the subtext and theme are implicit.  She talked about how there were a huge range of formats of stories that make it interesting, such as one story from last year which was a list of 100 things, and which, when you reached the end had revealed the structure and theme in this implicit manner.  She gave some sage wisdom on what constitutes plot, which she summarised in three words: ‘things get worse'(!) – a fantastic description!  And she talked about her own journey as a writer and how short stories are wonderful learning ground – “nothing teaches like the blank page” – and nothing teaches like the short form. 

There was an interesting discussion on the so-called renaissance in short stories.  James made the point that he thought it was not so much a renaissance in the form but more a renaissance in a certain literary culture.  Cate hopes that the reason short stories are becoming more popular is not because we are all time poor but simply because there is a realisation that the form is a wonderful thing in itself, when it is done well, there is nothing like it.  I couldn’t agree more. 

There was also some discussion on the evils and benefits of social media.  James was more in favour.  Cate sees them as antithetical to the creative process. 

A great little (sun-drenched!) session. 

BTW: James writes an excellent blog at: City of Tongues

The D!

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