Thursday, March 30, 2006

This Writing Life

The question people seem to want to ask writers is about what the life is like. If it's not nine to five, then when and how and according to what schedule does one work? Does one sit staring at the keyboard waiting for the Muse to descend? Inspiration or perspiration? Where do you get your ideas from? And so on.

Interestingly this sort of questioning does seem to have died down a bit over the last ten or fifteen years though. Me, I think it's computers. The romance of the quill pen and the attic starvation routine is comprehensively over. Everyone uses computers for all kinds of things, and that fact has demystified the whole Being a Writer schtick quite a lot. From the inside, it was never mystified in the first place; just hardscrabble bouncing from one gig to another, providing of course that you're lucky enough to be getting enough work to live on in the first place.

So, MY DAY: Having got home last night from participating in a forum about writing just in time to watch House, I then did a couple of hours on some examining of dissertations in Gastronomy, results urgently needed by the university, before I went to bed. Up this morning to try to finish the last of said dissertations (marks, at least; the reports will have to wait) before going off to teach a 90-minute master class to the group who formed the hard core of the forum audience last night.

Between getting home from that mid-afternoon and going out again tonight to a review a play (theatre 29 km from my house; the review will have to be written and filed before I go to bed, and I don't expect to be home much before eleven) I need to start working on the two book reviews, one of which is due on April 1, the other already overdue. Tomorrow I will work on the book reviews and the examiners' reports, stopping only for a working lunch with the editor of a magazine to which I contribute.

Some time in there I expect to get an email from the person working on the grant application for a big project I'm involved in to say that my contribution to the application isn't good enough and could I please make it bigger and better. Tomorrow I also need to do a bit of creative banking, as some of the work I've not yet been paid for was done and dusted as long ago as the beginning of February.

From where I'm standing, the writer's life is one in which no books get written. You're too busy making a living.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

On Literary Prizes

Recently I had an email from a US blogger asking me a very interesting question about prizes: he wanted to know whether I thought the (Man) Booker prize had ever gone to the wrong book.

I checked out available lists of shortlists and winners and was ashamed to discover that I hadn't read a large enough proportion of them to be able to give a meaningful answer to his question. My excuse is that when one reads for a living, one's reading, while reasonably voluminous, is of necessity shockingly skewed.

All I could say for sure was that there were a handful of winners I thought would have deserved the prize no matter what the competition was: Coetzee for Disgrace, Byatt for Possession, Pat Barker for The Ghost Road, Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things and Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Day. Even that list is a tad meaningless, as there are many other winners I've not read. (Which of these Titans woud be the über-winner? Could such a choice be made, and if it could, could it possibly mean anything?)

Readers get passionate and writers get vulnerable whenever the topic of prizes comes up. People on judging committees stare at each other in wide-eyed, jaw-dropped disbelief, unable to process whatever mad opinions they have just heard coming out of each others' mouths. Writers who get shortlisted and then don't win are unable to keep up the exultation of getting shortlisted and instead just sulk because someone else beat them.

(Amusingly, sometimes their partners sulk vicariously; you can tell a great deal about what drives a writer's relationship with his or her partner by watching the partner's behaviour on prize nights.)

Are literary prizes a good thing or not? The same arguments tend to get trotted out and rehashed over and over, and I'm usually quite up to arguing sincerely on both sides of the issue. Yes, prizes are bad because they encourage the idea of competition in art (corruptive) as well as the idea that it's possible to come up with an evaluative hierarchy and say with conviction 'This book is better than that book', an activity I dislike. But on the other hand, no, prizes are not a bad thing, because they mean money for writers. Can't go past that one.

What brought all this on, of course, apart from the email from the US blogger, was the announcement last week of Kate Grenville's Commonwealth Writers' Prize win for The Secret River, closely followed by the announcement of this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist. Grenville is on that list as well, and has to be the front runner. Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose seemed genuinely startled, when I saw him last week, to find his novel A Case of Knives on the same longlist, which was one of the most endearingly modest moments I've ever seen from any writer I've ever met.

Potentially controversial choices from this longlist include Peter Temple's The Broken Shore, which is brilliantly written borderline generic 'crime', and Christos Tsiolkas's Dead Europe, which has made some rational grown-up men and women grind their teeth and/or throw up -- a new and colourful addition, in the critics' lexicon, to the more usual 'I laughed, I cried.'

This was Kate Grenville's competition for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize:

Regional shortlist (South East Asia and the South Pacific)

March by Geraldine Brooks
Grace by Robert Drewe
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer
Blindsight by Maurice Gee
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Surrender by Sonia Hartnett
Sandstone by Stephen Lacey
The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald
The Marsh Birds by Eva Sallis
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Regional winners

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The Sun by NIght by Benjamin Kwakye
Alligator by Lisa Moore

And here's the Miles Franklin longlist:

Anne Bartlett, Knitting
Brian Castro, The Garden Book
Kate Grenville, The Secret River
Steven Lang, An Accidental Terrorist
Roger McDonald, The Ballad of Desmond Kale
Alex Miller, Prochownik's Dream
Joanna Murray-Smith, Sunnyside
Peter Rose, A Case of Knives
Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe
Peter Temple, The Broken Shore
Carrie Tiffany, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living
Brenda Walker, The Wing of Night

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Writers' Week Wrap

While it's always lovely to have the literary world turn up in one's home town -- cheaper, too -- there is one major drawback: constantly having to choose between two parallel sessions, both of which you want to go to, is par for the course at any writers' festival, but that's exacerbated by the fact that in your home town, real life goes on. The house and the family and other aspects of daily life continue to need your attention on a daily basis: the cats, the plumbing, the convalescent sister, and of course the small matter of making a living.

And one or other of these things meant I missed hearing a number of Australian writers that I really wanted to hear: Malcolm Knox, Marion Halligan, David Malouf and Sonia Hartnett, for a start. I also shamefully didn't make it to the special citizenship ceremony for J.M. Coetzee that was held on the Monday morning.

But I did hear Delia Falconer read beautifully from The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers and answer a more than usually interesting series of questions from the audience. I heard Helen Garner talking about what it's like to re-take-up fencing in middle age: 'I learned to fight with a sword.' I heard Peter Goldsworthy read poems I've always liked, and Nick Jose talk so engagingly about his new novel Original Face that I'm now several chapters into it and bloody good it is too.

Fiction writer, poet, essayist, biographer and historian Barry Hill, newly returned from six months in the Whiting Studio in Rome with his wife Rose Bygrave of Goanna Band fame, came over from Victoria just to be in the audience and to see South Australian friends; while people are still talking about Hill's Broken Song, and while he began to collect prizes for his next book, The Enduring Rip, before the prizes for Broken Song had quite dried up, he's now well into his next project -- a collection of poems on the paintings of Lucien Freud -- as well as the two after that, one of which involves Japan and the other one opera. (It's exhausting just to listen to this kind of thing; it makes you want to take up making embroidered pot-holders and never write another word.)

Other random impressions and sightings: Dutch journalist, novelist and screenwriter Tim Krabbé is very funny, Canberra fiction writer Dorothy Johnston is very smart, novelist and essayist Marion Halligan worries more than she needs to about the reviews of her books, historian Stuart Macintyre looks fitter and saner than any Dean of an Arts Faculty has a right to look in 2006, novelist James Bradley's new novel The Resurrectionist looks black but riveting, ABR editor Peter Rose goes right on working at cafe tables even when at writers' festivals, Robert Fisk has a bloody enormous Adelaide fan base, and UK poet Simon Armitage and NSW nonfiction writer John Hughes are both extremely cute.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Writers' Week: 'Look out'

British journalist Robert Fisk, the West's chief witness to the current state of the Middle East, gave the Writers' Week lecture on Wednesday afternoon to a crowd that spread in every direction as far as the tent could reach, with the numbers actually under the shelter of the tent replicated again to its west, south and east by people spilling over onto the Parade Ground lawns, up the slope to the back wall of Government House, and back as far as the book tent.

Describing some of the things he has been witness to, his voice broke several times. I was going to say he lost his composure, but actually, composure and Robert Fisk are two. As anyone who has heard him on Late Night Live will know, he is a man who can talk over the top of Phillip Adams. He has a loud, carrying voice with UK vowels underlying an international sort of accent-absence; you notice not the phonemes but the tone, and the tone is urgent bordering on hectoring. Some of the things he has seen are horrible beyond imagination, and he appears to be a man in urgent need of a longish rest.His sympathies are with the Middle East, his images graphic, and his message about the future grim: 'Look out.'

More on Writers' Week

Have been too busy going to WW to blog about it in instalments as I had hoped to do. If one is a home-town littery person but with no actual book out, one is likely to find oneself chairing sessions and that is how I spent Tuesday -- Minette Walters in the morning and Helen Garner in the afternoon both said they would rather do their Meet the Author sessions as a conversation than as a presentation, so there was a bit of preparation to be done, making sure one did not run out of probing questions.

Actually, I hate probing questions, at least in this context. Most writers have done nothing to deserve to be probed, which in any case I had no desire to do; nor was there any need, since it's a defining characteristic of writers that they do actually want to talk. What seems to me a very masculinist (and rampant, heh) aspect of (radio and TV at least) journalism culture at the moment is some odd notion that an interview is a contest, and that a good journalist will win it at any cost and make his or her subject look as silly and evil in the process as possible, using any means including bullying, misrepresentation, constant interruption and/or naked pig-rudeness in order to do so.

Fortunately none of these was appropriate either to Walters or to Garner, who were both generous and forthcoming in their answers to questions. Walters inserted a soft layer of English good manners between herself and my questions and so was utterly charming but not entirely direct; Garner was more forthcoming and hurled herself head-on at whatever she was asked, including an audience question at the end when a woman got up and said 'I told my friend's daughter I was coming to see you and she said ERGH, I HATE Helen Garner!'

Garner was flawlessly courteous in the face of this, as it seemed to me, breathtakingly rude and ill-willed intervention. It wasn't even brave; the woman expressed her hostility while directing it through two layers of indirectness ('my friend's daughter'), pinning the source of the bad feeling on an absent young woman so people wouldn't react with hostility to her personally, and smiling as she said it -- a classic deflector of others' responses to whatever dreadful thing is coming out of one's own smiling mouth.

But even without that, it seemed to me an appalling thing to pin down a stranger, and a guest, in front of a large crowd with a remark like that, and put to her in a position where she is obliged to respond with courtesy when clearly the more appropriate response is a smack upside the head -- regardless of where one stands on the whole First Stone question. Or stood. It is, as Garner pointed out, over ten years since that book came out. Much has changed.

Anyway. More later, when I get back from today's last-day sessions.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Adelaide Writers' Week, Days 1 and 2

The weather yesterday on Sunday (here it is the afternoon of Day Three, so I am already two days behind) was just a touch too hot and glittery to be celestial on the first day of Adelaide Writers' Week, but the palm trees in the peaceful Pioneer Women's Gardens suited the temperature and softened the precarious knowledge you always have in Adelaide that you are on the edge of the desert. Publishers Random House were giving out free fans, sitting around by the basketful on the counters of the sauna-like bookshop tent.

Suspicious as always of blinding charm, I passed on Vikram Seth, the crowd for whose talk stretched right up the slope and braved the excessive sun, in favour of a chair in the shade at the back of the comparatively modest but still healthy crowd that turned out for the wonderful Val McDermid.

She was very funny and sensible, chatting (in the world's most beautiful accent, softened Scottish, and a resonant alto-chorister's voice) about her theory that writing crime fiction, with all its blood, gore and aberrant psychology, makes crime writers psychologically very healthy, having let out all the murky stuff and purged it on the page.

When asked a question about the screen adaptations of her books, she said she was glad to have retained a right of veto which meant she could prevent them from killing off Carol Jordan's cat Nelson. She said she'd told them: "You can pretend he's dead and then bring him back triumphantly at the end if you like, but you can't possibly kill off that cat for good. It's the ony functional relationship the woman has."

Under the trees at the tables where people come and go and little groups constantly form, shape-shift and break up as the day wears on, David Malouf ate a salad with lentils in it, talked in a measured way about the history wars, and firmly deflected conversation from himself. Peter Goldsworthy sat under a tree in what I think was an akubra, looking uncharacteristically fragile and quiet despite the rave reviews he's been getting for the stage version of Honk if You are Jesus.

Andrew Taylor (the Australian poet not the British (?) crime (?) writer) was looking fit and exuberant, three years on after a very nasty brush with mortality. Gerard Windsor sat in the shade with Marion Halligan and her sister Rosie Fitzgibbon (ex-UQP) and watched the world go by.

At the Festival Awards presentation in the afternoon, Gail Jones looked exquisite and sharp in a black-and-tealy-blue outfit that did amazing things with and for her own colouring, but seemed a bit remote and distracted as she accepted her festival Award for Sixty Lights and then the overall SA Premier's Award for the same book. Mandy Sayer accepted her non-fiction award for Velocity looking and sounding more upbeat and jumpy in a wonderful hat, and dedicated the award to her late mother.

On Day Two, this time in perfect weather, Gerard Windsor rounded up a bunch of slightly unruly panel participants on the subject of 'Who Needs to Know?', where Sandy McCutcheon talked about the pain of writing memoir, how he would sit at his desk and cry as he wrote, and Helen Garner said 'Memoir? I'm like that when I'm writing a film review!'

Editor Peter Rose and guest editor Luke Morgan launched the latest issue of Australian Book Review, focusing on visual arts criticism, and were joined onstage by novelist James Bradley, the chairman of Copyright Agency Limited, to announce a new essay prize, the Calibre prize, to be administered by ABR and funded by CAL.

And I got to hear Vikram Seth after all, as I was driving home mid-afternoon and he came into the local ABC radio studios, hobbling from freshly-diagnosed gout ('Too much Barossa Valley red wine') to chat with Carol Whitelock and read from Two Lives, which I won't say anything about here except to recommend it as one of the important books about what the 20th century did to the people who lived through it. I think Seth's charm must be located somewhere at the intersection of evasiveness and vulnerability. He was chatting away about his gout and about his horror at the doctor's ban on drinking -- he needed to drink the lovely wine, he said, to help him get through the intensities of being a writer at an event like this, chatting with ardent fans and signing books and putting himself on the line in interviews and so on.

And yet, at the same time, there was a kind of Teflon-like aura, a sense that he was spinning an invisible layer of protective coating around himself that no weapon, question or fragment of someone else's charm could ever penetrate. He was the absolute opposite in this respect of someone like Helen Garner or the UK poet Simon Armitage, both of whom seemed wholly open and fearlessly out there, on the line.

... to be continued ...

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Visitors welcome, do come in

Evidence of various strange kinds pops up from time to time, sometimes in the most unexpected places, that people have visited this blog accidentally or otherwise.

So, if you're out there, do please leave a paw print -- check in to the comments box (no trace of your identity or email address will be visible if you just sign in as Anonymous, although it would be nice to know who you are, and I don't mean to encourage psycho flamers or anything) and say what's on your mind. I'm assuming only people with some interest in Aust Lit are likely to end up here, either via Google or some other way, so you're more likely than not to have some opinion to express.