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Posts Tagged ‘Stella Prize’

Don Watson: The Bush

The Bush by Don WatsonIt was a wild and rugged start to Friday weather-wise, with rain and a bit of wind. But such barriers only make us more determined, don’t they? It was in a way a perfect stage for the first session of the day, and perhaps the most entertaining of the week: Don Watson in conversation with Eleanor Hall about his ‘poetic yarn’ The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia. I’ve read part of The Bush and enjoyed every page, and am dying to get back to finish it off after hearing the very wry and very wise Watson. I must admit, I was so entertained, my notes leave a little to be desired…

He opened by acknowledging some of the magic of the Australian bush, the place that gave songbirds and parrots to the world (referencing Tim Low’s wonderful book Where Song Began: more on that below). He spoke about the mountain ash, the tallest hardwoods in the world. And he marvelled at the majesty and mimicry of the lyrebird. He rattled off species after species. Later, he said that 40% of Australian flora is not identified, (which made me wonder how anyone could put a figure on it). The point being, that when the first European settlers arrived, here was a wealth of flora and fauna that was both of the world in ways that were only understood recently, and not of it in ways that made it alien and in want of ‘improvement’ in the eyes of newcomers.

How did the idea for the book take hold? Why did he write it? It grew out of an anthology idea that his publishers thought he could edit. He preferred the idea of doing it himself! It took him eight long years, during which time he ‘wondered why I had been fool enough to agree to write it’! And we were off, with Watson riffing on all sorts of topics, both within the book and not.

On the topic of writing, he said a good writing day is one in which you find yourself in a place you weren’t in the morning.

As for the bush itself, he feels it’s forced onto new arrivals to Australia rather like the idea of ‘mateship’. He skewered mateship, saying it suggests friendship in other countries isn’t held in very high regard! (He also recounted an anecdote on the aftermath of Paul Keating questioning the British flag in the top corner of our flag, how this spawned a furious reaction from conservatives (and still would by the look of things). It also spawned a minor industry of school children drawing the flag they wanted, for which teachers were probably thankful because it gave the kids something to do for a few periods. These flag designs were duly sent to Keating’s office, and, rather like some of the suggestions submitted in New Zealand’s current call for alternative designs for their national flag, created some rather odd-ball efforts, including one that featured Bob Hawke up a gum tree, which was rather well received by Keating!)

But of course, part of The Bush’s purpose is to document the tragedy of the clearing done by the selectors and settlers. ‘We made an incredible mess of the landscape’ Watson said. Watson charted the scale of the disaster, the ring-barking, how much could be cleared in how many hours, the horrible mathematics of it, including his forebears’ role in it. You had to ‘improve’ the land, and that improvement meant destruction. It created a silence in the mind, and is a source of great melancholy. He recounted the story of, if memory serves, Lyle Courtney, whose father never got over destroying a great forest.

A concurrent theme of frontier destruction centres on the plight of Aboriginal peoples. There have been other books on this, as Watson noted himself, such as ‘anything’ by Henry Reynolds (his latest is Forgotten War and is a must read). There were, said Watson, ‘depraved, deliberate and appalling’ things done, such as one settler who had 40-50 sets of Aboriginal ears pinned up to the wall of his cabin. Watson was astonished by the regression of the mid-1990s debate in Australian politics, lamenting the attack on what conservatives derogatively called the ‘black armband’ history. I couldn’t help but think back to his earlier ‘silence of the mind’ observation. Watson asked, why can’t confront the facts? Why indeed.

With regard to land use, there are some positive signs. Farmers are listening to the land, but there is a great national effort required to regenerate the land, something a national government should be involved in, said Watson, for farmers are too indebted to achieve it in any holistic sense. We love the bush, but we don’t understand it, not really. It is full of complexity and contradictions: and these things are good because we need to see them. But the National Party seem to be the farmer’s ‘worst enemy’. We need to support science, and allow it to form our approach. He is hopeful because the land’s powers of renewal are phenomenal, noting the example of platypus returning to once-dead rivers, and trees reclaiming riverbanks. It can be done.

He admitted there were gaps in the book. He didn’t get to the Kimberley, much though he wanted to. But there are lovely humorous things. He spoke about the names us colonials have written onto the landscape (and over Aboriginal names), how some of these names are suggestive of things, such as Wallaby Creek. But there were some strange ones, like Mt Aunty, which had Watson wondering why the person responsible for naming it couldn’t recall their poor aunt’s name. You’d think if someone was going to rename something that had had a name for millennia they could at least remember their aunt’s name!

It was the perfect session: informative, reflective, humorous and entertaining. It probed an author’s book but allowed them freedom to roam over other matters too. I highly recommend you listen to the podcast of it, or better yet, read Watson’s book and go bush.

 

Books of the Year: the Australian Book Industry’s Awards

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba ClarkeThe Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIAs) were on the Thursday night, and three of the category winners were summarily hooked into this Friday morning session. Good on them for making themselves available at such short notice. Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of Foreign Soil, a collection of short stories set all around the world, won the Literary Fiction Book of the Year, (this after being shortlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize too).

These ten stories focus on people ‘trying to find their place in the world’. It is her first work of fiction, with her previous three works all poetry. She found a natural progression from writing poetry into longer narrative forms.

When asked by chair Jill Edington about the path to publication, she said it was winning the Victorian Premiers Award for best unpublished manuscript that got her noticed and the publishers interested in a book of short stories. (There has been a renaissance in short story collections, even by debut authors in recent times. Abigail Ulman’s very good Hot Little Hands springs to mind.) Clarke humbly suggested she won because the issue of refugees and home is a hot topic at the moment.

Where Song Began by Tim LowTim Low’s acclaimed Where Song Began won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year, beating a stellar list of nominees including Don Watson, Helen Garner and Annabel Crabb. He spoke about his desire to write something for general readers (his earlier work on identifying a new lizard species ‘probably only interested around 20 people worldwide’, he admitted rather wryly). The book took him ten years to write.

Always a committed naturalist, his research showed the songbirds that the English champion, such as larks and so on, are in fact descendants of Australian songbirds. All parrot species, too, can be traced back to Australian parrots. When the first European settlers arrived, something I’ve noted in reading early settler accounts, they didn’t comment much on birdsong, and it is true that Australian birds are good ‘fighters’ over territory. Watkin Tench was in the minority when observing both nature and the Aboriginal people.

Withering-by-Sea by Judith RossellWithering-by-Sea, by Judith Rossell, which I’ve seen in every book shop lately, won Book of the Year for Older Children. Judith spoke about her transition from book illustrator to author, and the joy of having creative control of the story from the outset rather than ‘just’ interpreting story into pictures.

Her ‘Victorian fantasy adventure’ is targeted towards girls of around ten, but she is hopeful of picking up a few boy readers too. There could be more prizes coming, because this is the first in a series.

(Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found (my review here) won General Fiction Book of the Year, and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer.)

Congratulations to all the winners.

 

David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David MitchellDavid Mitchell is always, if nothing else, entertaining. He has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. If you want to see what I thought of the novel, you can read my musings here. The podcast of this session is already available on Radio National here.

There are great existential questions in the novel, which focusses on deep time and the Faustian pact some people enter in order to claim immortality. In doing so, Mitchell wanted to ask the question what these people gave up, whether they gave away their very humanity. The name ‘bone clocks’ is a pejorative term used by the ‘bad’ immortals for us humans. It’s a lovely description of the time-bound nature of our bones. They dehumanise us, said Mitchell, as we ourselves dehumanise the underclass.

Like Cloud Atlas (my review here) and the superlative Ghostwritten (my review here), his two most successful works prior to TBCs, Mitchell uses a structure of linked novellas here. He in fact said (admitted?) that ‘I’m not a novelist. I am a novella writer.’ I think this was a fascinating thing to say. Of his more ‘traditional’ novels, I’ve only read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (my review here), but even that felt like two stories (and genres) bolted together, and in my view wasn’t all that satisfying because of it. Whereas in Cloud Atlas he ‘went for broke’, asking himself ‘could the structure hold itself together?’, in The Bone Clocks he used Holly Sykes as ‘the glue’ that bound the different novellas together, almost as an antidote or solution to his ‘promiscuity’ in the things he wanted to have in the book. In the six genre-busting ‘episodes’, we encounter her roughly every ten years through to the 2040s in a very dystopian, post-oil Ireland. The benefit is ‘diversity’ but the cost is ‘how do you glue it together?’ The answer was Holly Sykes.

I was wanting to ask him why on earth he had chosen to feature the Perth Writers’ Festival rather than the Sydney Writers’ Festival in his most recent novel The Bone Clocks, a point raised by Kate Evans in her questioning. He reuses Marinus, who appeared in The Thousand Autumns and is one of his favourite characters, as one of his good immortals. Also on the side of good is the oldest ‘reincarnatee’, Esther Little. When he wanted to create a character who possessed such ‘deep time’, there was only one place to go: Australia, and to the Aboriginal people, specifically in this case the Noongar people of south Western Australia. Mitchell acknowledged the debt he owed to celebrated Noongar author Kim Scott and That Deadman Dance (my review here). He met Scott in 2011 at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and spent an entertaining day travelling around the suburbs of Sydney in a minivan with a bunch of authors including Scott. He said as a writer it is incumbent on you to interrogate people you meet in order to learn things you knew nothing about.

When asked about whether creating an aboriginal character gave him ‘pause’, he replied, ‘I’m a white European, of course it did.’ While he was at pains to point out that he didn’t use an Aboriginal point-of-view character, I think he feels that it’s a case of I’m an author, it’s my job to create characters and to put voices in their mouths.

He spoke about the dastardly Crispin Hersey, the bad boy of English letters. Asked if Crispin was a kind of cipher for himself, he lifted his cup of tea and said words to the effect of ‘Trust me, I’m no bad boy.’ He did, however, admit to adding some sparkling mineral water by mistake which made it the most interesting cup of tea he’d had in a while. Other food diversions discussed included Vegemite and some New Zealand sweet treat whose name escapes me. But back to Crispin: who is based on a kind of Scrooge, where vanity and ego rule the roost.

He was asked about his ‘uber’ book, the interlinking of all his books through the reuse of characters from one to another. He said there was no master plan as such; it was more akin to a large piece of paper he was slowly inking-in, like a map.

He spoke about the stammering he suffered growing up, and the short cuts he has devised for coping with this, including scanning a sentence almost visually before it is spoken and the ability to see difficult words in advance and seek a way around them. These solutions are ‘largely built-in now’, although you notice in his speaking where he has come from.

He was also asked about whether having an autistic son has changed his writing in any way. His son, he said, is forced to build from scratch the ability and wiring for language that we all come ‘pre-loaded’ with. Watching him had given Mitchell a new appreciation for the mechanics of words and language.

As I left, the queue for the signing table stretched out of the theatre’s foyer and into the sodden street. I don’t think anyone was complaining.

More from David Mitchell on SWF Saturday.

 

Friday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: um, the weather? I guess we can’t have perfect festival weather every day…

Thumbs up for: Terry Hayes announcing he has sketched out two sequels to I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayeshis blockbuster thriller I Am Pilgrim. He’s also almost finished the screenplay for the novel, which is to be made by MGM and directed by ‘a well-known and hugely respected international director’. Here’s hoping it’s as good as the book!

Thumbs up also go to festival organisers for live-streaming some events to regional NSW.

Next up, Saturday at the festival…

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SWF 2014 logoI am a dilly-dallier aren’t I? I’m still catching up on my SWF posts. Apologies for the delay, but sometimes life gets in the way.

On SWF Friday I went to a panel session entitled ‘Judging Women’, sponsored by the Stella Prize. Chaired by Aviva Tuffield, Executor Director of the Stella Prize; Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries (my review here); Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her non-fiction history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see Lisa’s review at ANZ Litlovers); and Tony Birch, one of the Stella Prize’s judges, historian and novelist, who was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for his novel Blood.

Tuffield opened the session with a history of why the Stella Prize was created, listing the statistics in key areas which indicates the bias shown toward male authors: the way males dominated literary award shortlists and winner-lists (both in the Miles Franklin (the much publicised ‘sausage fest’ year was noted) and also in State Premier’s Awards, as well as overseas awards such as the Booker Prize; the bias toward male authors in reviews in literary journals and newspapers; and the higher proportion of male reviewers of said works. Women writers are also under-represented in school reading lists. The statistics on the Booker Prize are worth highlighting, with men accounting for circa 90% of shortlist nominees. Hence the setting up of the Stella Prize. Tuffield noted wryly that in the two years after the creation of the Stella Prize, two women have won the Miles Franklin, and she noted the all-women shortlist of last year. Coincidence? She suspects not.

Opening up the discussion to the panel, Tuffield asked Catton about the furore she created in the wake of winning the Booker when in an interview she said male authors get asked what they think, whereas female authors get asked what they feel. Catton said her experience was that it was not men ‘keeping women down’, and most often the stereotyping interview questions she was asked came from women. To her, feminism is being aware of the statistics. And being self-aware, too, because she went on to note that she had to catch herself sometimes, for when she thought about philosophers she always pictured or thought of men rather than women, as if men were the only ones capable of being thinkers. So we’re all complicit in the way women are thought of, but, she felt, ‘feminism goes wrong in laying blame’.

There was a huge difference, Catton said, between sexism and misogyny. She believes there is sexism in the publishing industry, but not misogyny. She felt there is a problematic expectation that as a woman author her writing must speak to feminist issues. Briefly outlining the way her novel is structured around twelve men who represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, she noted that had sheused twelve women the story would have been about women; using men allowed the story to be about other things, such as astrology and determination.

Tuffield turned to Wright who, when she announced to her male academic colleagues she was going to write a book about the Eureka Stockade, they said ‘what can you possibly add to the story?’ It had been done, they said. Unless she could unearth new primary sources, the subject had been exhausted. Her approach was to go back to the same archives with different questions. As a result, she came back with different answers. Women were in the records, they just hadn’t been written about before. Indeed, the book took ten years to write not because she was off searching for needles in the haystack, but because there was so much material.

Wright made fun of the fact that she is rarely asked what she feels – perhaps, she said, academics don’t have feelings?! But she is asked about gender often.

Her book is about democracy, one of the ‘big’ topics. She talked about previous experience in trying to make the documentary Utopia Girls, learning that you cannot pitch to broadcasters that you want to make a doco about women: you have to say the doco is about ‘a great Australian story’. That is the approach that opens doors.

She went on to talk about the presentation of her book in bookstores, particularly in airports, with her off-handed social media comment about tables in airport bookstores being ‘dick tables’. She would go and re-arrange the books in the stores so hers, which was usually buried somewhere in the back, had more prominence! Now, after winning the Stella Prize, her book was front and centre, so the prize is definitely working.

Tuffield noted the reaction to the second year of the prize was much different than the first. In the first year it was all about the gender question. This year the focus was on great books. This was a great time to bring Birch into the discussion. He outlined the very deliberate and considered approach to judging that chair of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, demanded. He said she had scheduled a full day for the final discussion of the shortlist in the choosing of the winner. Birch said he had judged other prizes but none had the same passion in organisation that the Stella Prize has.  As a result, he himself felt even more committed to the process.

Birch made the comment that the body of work read this year – 160 books! – was more complex and enlightening that he had read before. Echoing Tuffield’s need for the prize, he gave his own experience, recalling the time he had read a tiny review of Meme McDonald’s Love Like Water, which he considers a great Australian novel, and next to it was a huge two-page spread on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is all about the tragedy of male premature ejaculation!

He felt women give more to their work, and young aspiring female writers need more role models, especially as women don’t put themselves forward in the same way men do. Catton echoed the need for role models, underlining the importance of the confidence to take risks as a writer. And having read The Luminaries, and heard Catton talk about that book in another session at SWF, it is clear she does not lack in confidence (in a good way).

Tuffield asked Birch what it was like to judge fiction versus non-fiction. Was it challenging? Not in a negative sense, no, he said. Birch himself has been a historian, as well as a fiction writer, so he quite enjoyed reading across genres and forms. The judges never judged one genre against the other. It was all about the quality of the work. Someone had come up to him this year and said a non-fiction work would have to win because fiction won in the first year, but there was never any question of that. The three criterions used in judging were: originality, engagement, and excellence.

I must admit it did make me wonder: if the Stella Prize had the funds to award both a fiction and a non-fiction prize, would they do so? On the evidence of this discussion, they would not.

Tuffield noted the coincidental links between Catton and Wright’s works: 19th Century goldfields. Catton said she read a lot of 19th Century literature in preparation for writing The Luminaries, including a period in which she read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, and Portrait of a Lady in succession, all novels that end in much the same way. It was both a great and heart-wrenching period, and she asked herself why women protagonists had to die at the end of such great works. She suspected it was because in those days the notion of women with eyes wide open was too threatening for society. She was, as a result, conscious when in writing a book in that style, to have women end in a position of some power, although Wright picked Catton up on the type of characters Catton chose for her women: a prostitute and a madam, arguing that in the goldfields women were a much more varied lot than these two stereotypes(!)

Overall, a very interesting discussion. Yes, it was run by the Stella Prize and tilted towards its message, but it’s a good message. A little rebalancing in those statistics is a good thing. Each on the panel had something important to add to the question of how we judge women authors. My own view is that much of the exciting writing in fiction right is coming from women. Eleanor Catton is one, to whom you can add Eimear McBride (thoughts on her SWF session coming soon), Jennifer Egan, and our own Alexis Wright. They are experimenting with all manner of things: form, style, genre, myth. (And before you jump on me, yes there are many others, and yes there are exciting male writers doing experimenting too, like Knausgard (a 2013 SWF guest) and Houellebecq, et al. To start a list like this is always doom to failure! The point is women deserve their place in our literary consciousness.

I was going to publish reflections on Alexis Wright in discussion with Geordie Williamson, but you can listen to the full podcast here.

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Mateship with Birds by Carrie TiffanyWinner of the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013, Carrie Tiffany’s tender and sensual Mateship with Birds is the follow-up to her acclaimed debut Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living. Set in Cohuna, rural Victoria, in the 1950s, the story focuses on the gentle-souled Harry, a dairy farmer with a love of birds (and a relish for sex), and Betty, his lonely and lovelorn neighbour, who has escaped the city with her two children, Little Hazel and Michael.

Harry comes over to help them about the house; and visits for Sunday ‘tea’, but feels awkward and leaves directly after because he’s unsure of what should happen next. He ‘knows everything about birds’, which given his unresolved desire for Betty, has a nice note of irony to it. Helping him about the dairy farm on occasion is Michael, who is coming into adolescence and beginning to wonder about girls.

Harry takes it upon himself to teach the lad all he knows about women. Like most men, and certainly most men in the ‘50s, Harry finds talking about such delicate matters difficult. So he writes a diary in verse about the family of kookaburras on his farm, and a much more explicit and direct treatise on sexual matters in a series of letters he gives to Michael—unbeknownst to Betty.

There is much to admire about Tiffany’s craft. I loved the emphasis the first line of dialogue places on the theme of the story. Tellingly, I think, we have to wait until page four for it. Harry is speaking to Betty about his motorbike, and says, ‘It’s a constant labour of love’. The wry Betty replies, ‘It’s just a constant labour, if you ask me.’ It points to the way Tiffany approaches the sexual tension between Harry and Betty: in layers. The lack of dialogue is a feature of the story. There’s a lot that remains unsaid here!

The fragmented narration lends the story another layer of tension. Interspersed within the ongoing developments are snippets of Harry’s verse and letters, Betty’s records of the children’s illnesses and mishaps (the final entry for Michael is “boys’ troubles”, Little Hazel’s bird report for school, as well as memories about past lives and loves. Harry recalls his failed marriage (his wife, rather ironically runs off with another bird watcher, indeed: none other than the President of the Birds Observers’ Club of Victoria!), as well as his own uncertain experiences with sex, including his first lesson: which came in the form of a lecture from a vicar.

It might be fragmented structurally, but each section plays its part and links with other parts. The result is a story dripping with sex, from Freudian dreams, to first experiences, fantasies, masturbation, the milking of cows (yes, it too is related to sex), and perversions (on a neighbouring farm). It’s even present in the birds Harry observes—he describes the skin beneath a particular bird’s feathers as ‘penile’. It’s ‘mateship’ in every sense of the word, and adds a lovely piquancy to the title, which is borrowed from Alec Chisholm’s 1922 naturalist book of the same name.

There is love, too, though. The way Harry tricks up Little Hazel’s sleeping quarters with kapok to make it look like fake snow is touching, as is the way he guides Michael. He cares for them, and they for him, making him lovely presents. Underlining things are several references to wedding dresses.

Harry is a very keen observer of birds; his kookaburras study is very poetic:

A high branch is chosen for hunting.

The kookaburra sits,

watching the ground,

waiting for something to move across its eye.

Then it drops through all that air;

silent, lead-beaked,

like an anchor through seawater.

Tiffany, an agricultural journalist ‘by trade’ (we all know she’s really an author), writes with an authenticity about dairy farming that rivals the way Gillian Mears writes about horses, and even gives Melville a run for his whaling. The same can be said for the way she writes about the human body—it’s laced with visceral immediacy and honesty. The characters’ bodies, particularly Harry and Betty’s, are real. This gives the underlying desire a potent physicality. So when Betty ‘thinks’ the following we feel the thoughts permeating her every fibre: ‘What if she stood up now and just started walking? What if she walked across the paddock and climbed through the fence and walked right up to his door?’

Of course, this being a love story, soon thereafter a spanner is thrown in the works, with Betty finding the explicit letters Harry is writing for Michael’s sex ed. She is none too pleased with them.

Mateship with Birds is a fine exploration of sexual desire within the Australian Women Writers 2013 badgeframework of the natural world. It’s a perfect length, and a worthy winner of the Stella Prize. As a mark of Tiffany the person, she split off a chunk of her Stella winnings and divided it with the other nominees. Kudos to her; it’s a lovely touch.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of judges for the Stella, has thoughtfully summarised the winner here.

Lisa @ ANZ Litlovers liked it too.

Another AWW2013 read. What a wonderful year of reading I’m having!

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

2012

Picador

208 pages

ISBN: 9781742610764

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

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