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Archive for May 19th, 2011

(#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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Not a bad spot for a literary festival!

(#51): ‘The Tiger’s Wife’: Téa Obreht in Discussion with Stephen Romei:

Well just about everyone has heard about the sensational debut novel by Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here).  It is a sparkling and ambitious novel.  And in person she is sparkling too.  Obreht is in her words a ‘nomad’.  She was born in Belgrade, has lived in Cyprus and Egypt on her way to New York where she has lived since she was 12.  Given that around half of her life has been spent in the US Stephen asked her why it was she chose to write about the Balkans.  She responded by saying that distance helps.  She spoke about the tremendous influence her own grandfather has been on her life and how she came to write the novel 7-8 months after he had passed away unexpectedly.  Those events drew her to writing about her childhood, (and she made the interesting observation that many novelists’ first book is about their childhood). 

There is a great oral story-telling tradition in the Balkans countries, but also Cyprus and Egypt.  Those old tales, the folklore, the history are ever present things in people’s lives.  There is immense superstition – something which readers of the book will be familiar with! – in these cultures.  She told the story of how I think it was her grandmother who places a pair of scissors on the floor with the sharp edge pointing toward the door to ward off evil. 

When asked about how she has found the immensely positive reaction and whether it places extra pressure on her for her next book, she said that her only fear is that the 2nd novel might not come from the same emotional ‘well’ that The Tiger’s Wife has come from.  She said stories are like people: some you date, some you fall in love with.  She needs to feel that she is in love with the next story, that there is that emotional bond with it, that way she feels it will have the same resonance for readers too.  The sudden readership, she says, is wonderful and amazing and surreal. 

She’s always wanted to be a writer.  She lists many literary influences and loves: as a kid she was exposed and loved Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling (no surprise there – The Jungle Book is a very important ‘prop’ for the grandfather character in her book).  Then the Bronte sisters. Then Victor Hugo and Mikhael Bulgakov’s marvellous The Master and Margarita – which is one of her favourite books (and mine too – I like her taste!).  Gabriel Garcia Marquez also a big influence and then modernist masters like Hemingway, Chandler, et al.  She believes that the favourite experiences of reading these authors seeps into her own writing – and it is clear to me that Bulgakov comes through in The Tiger’s Wife very much. 

She talked a lot about one of the other characters in the book: the Deathless Man.  Apparently he is one of people’s favourite characters.  She intended him to be more sinister at first, but as she went she found him to be very sympathetic and easy to write.  Many of his sections survived editing without much rework.  She said the shock death of her grandfather fed into the character; he was in part a response to death and her trying to comes to terms with it in her own life.  She admitted that he was probably her favourite character. 

She was asked whether the story of the tiger’s wife is real folklore: she said it was her own (based a bit on a Beauty and The Beast theme) but it’s structured and told in the form of a real folklore story.  Having read the book I can attest that this is how it reads: as if it was one of those real stories that grew out of a village.  She also spoke about some of the research she did: and how a much earlier visit to that part of the world in chase of village stories on vampries gave her a real sense of not only how such stories were told, but how the villagers told them.  Also, she mentioned that the digging scene(s) in the book where people dig up fields in search of family members killed during the war so they can be given a proper burial is based on fact – many people have done exactly that. 

She is optimistic about the future of the book and the future of the former Yugoslavia.  And finally, she loves editing.  She had to lose sections of the story in editing which she was attached to, but could see the reasons for editing them out and has learnt a whole new side of writing and a new skill in the editing process. 

Another great session: Tea Obreht has a very bubbly and engaging sense of warmth and humour.  I highly recommend The Tiger’s Wife and look forward to her next book.  

More to come from Thursday…

The D!

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Not a bad spot for a literary festival!

Well, what a great – and packed – start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF).  Here’s the start of my summary of the sessions I managed to get to today. 

1: (session #18): ‘That Deadman Dance’: Kim Scott in Discussion with Geordie Williamson

I couldn’t think of a better way to start the heart of the SWF week than sitting down to listen to Kim Scott talk about his Miles Franklin and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-shortlisted That Deadman Dance.  I loved the book (read my review here) so it was great to hear Kim talk about some of the thinking behind it.  Asked about where the title came from he spoke about how it refers to an actual historical event in which the indigenous Noongar people appropriated a British soliders’ drill which they had seen and made it into a dance – how this signified both the way in which Noongar people shared stories and absorbed culture into their own, and also how it spoke of something that is essentially a show of force and rigour into something that became an altogether more poetic thing – a dance.  There were many such examples of cross-cultural pollination.  The novel seeks to do the same.  

Kim works spends time working on the revitalisation of the Noongar language.  He spoke about the reading of landscape, how the Noongar most probably believed at the time of colonisation that the white settlers could not steal the spirit inherent in the landscape and in their people.  This in part might explain why they were so willing to help the new comers, to lead them to good land and show them where to find water. 

Kim was asked to speak to a specific image in the later part of the book in which the heavy weight of the nation’s flag flies atop the bones of his people.  It was not just his people, but those of Dr Cross, one of the few white settlers in the book who attempted to recognise the Noongars’ right of ownership of the land.  It is something that is difficult to think about and talk about, said Scott, that heavy weight built on the bones of such people. 

He spoke of the Noongar literary records he has been researching and how the Noongar people appropriated words of English such as glass into their documents – this is another example of the possible grafting of languages, one into another.  Culture is not a static thing, it is dynamic. 

He said when asked about the black and white worlds in Australia, how he preferred to think of it as one world, though he made the point that this is very simplistic.  He went onto make a very telling point about how western thinking is one way of thinking: empirical, linear, and so on – whereas Noongar and indigenous thinking is different, is centred on place.  He spoke that we have perhaps made the mistake of trying to make one way of thinking (black) fit into the other (white) way, whereas we should be trying to fit the white way into the black – that is to say we should make more of an effort to think in terms of place.  Geordie made the point that this is not just an Australian-centric issue, that all countries are faced with trying to make this shift too, to look after the scarce resources, to take care of the world in which we live. 

He spoke about how difficult it was to write about the inter-tribal relationships in the book, how some non-Noongar tribes acted in consort with white settlers against Noongar, but it was part of the richness of relationships that needed to be part of the novel. 

He spoke too about the character name of Bobby Wabalanginy – how his surname is a combination of noongar words which means ‘all of us playing together’, and yet Bobby was a name routinely given to black ambassadors in colonial records, something derogatory and demeaning to turn these helpful people into ‘Bobby’, (possibly based on the English Bobby as the local policeman).  So the character name is a combination of these things: the ambassador, the ‘cruel’ name of Bobby, and the positive surname. 

The richness of the Noongar language, said Scott, is ‘mindblowing’.  The word for kiss – which sounded like ‘Muun’ (forgive my spelling, I figure it is incorrect) – is wonderful as the act of saying that word with the lips makes the act of kissing.  Saying the word makes the word.  There is a richness in indigenous language which he sees as something we should all be protecting and also as something which can empower indigenous peoples. 

A great book.  A great session. 

My only gripe?  Some of those windows letting in the glorious Sydney sun behind the stage need to be covered up to improve attendees’ viewing comfort.  There’s plenty of natural light coming in through the sides. 

(More to come from day one…)

The D!

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