Kennedy, Saunders…Trump

A thousand apologies, Cate Kennedy and George Saunders, for linking the ‘T’ name with your own, forgiven*, I hope, by the ever-handy ellipsis.

In my last interview post with one of Australia’s national treasures, writer Cate Kennedy, (scroll down, scroll down; wait! read this first) Cate mentioned George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December as a favourite read.

Lr_George_jpg_1647868e‘Tenth of December’, the story after which the collection takes its name, was first published in the New Yorker in October, 2011, and is available to read online (legally, I hasten to add) via www.openculture.com

It’s a knock-your-socks-off work. Trust me.

Speaking of Trust Me soothsayers, the infamous Donald Trump recently caught the attention of the aforementioned George Saunders, who also writes as an essayist for the New Yorker. For those flummoxed, intrigued, entertained or rendered aghast by the curious unfolding of the American political stage, Saunders attended a Donald Trump political rally to find out, Who are all these Trump Supporters?

*If not, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest my armpits…

 

 

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Top Shelf: interview with Cate Kennedy

During the 2015 Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival*, I attended a Master Class run by Australian author Cate Kennedy, whose fiction I love, admire and have learned so much from in my own writing journey. I soaked up every minute of the class discussion on writing, along with Cate’s insights in response to questions from fellow writers.

It should come as no surprise that Cate’s short stories have touched thousands of readers. She has won awards for her two collections, Dark Roots and Like a House on Fire. Equally, she was celebrated for her debut novel The World Beneath, with the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ People’s Choice. Her poetry collection, The Taste of River Water: New and Selected Poems, was awarded the CJ Dennis Prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. When I consider that breadth of writing, it’s quite a roll call.

Recently, the gracious Cate eked out time to consider these questions for Top Shelf. Whether you are a reader of fine fiction, an emerging or an established writer, or would simply like to know more about a remarkable story teller, read on.

When did you first realise that writing was something you could excel at?

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Cate Kennedy

CK: At school I recall realising I could excel at ‘composition’ and essay-writing, because I was always such a huge reader, but that excelling is a very different thing to stepping out onto the tightrope of creativity. That feels more like renouncing learned expertise, and admitting yourself a beginner every time you sit down at the desk. I was thinking the other day what a long spell of ‘not-writing’ I had when I finished school and university, and realised it was almost exactly the same number of years I’d spent in the education system – fifteen years altogether. So maybe the more important realisation was the unlearning, and then finding compelling enough reasons to return to it after such a long time of avoiding it.

When you look back on your earlier stories, do you see a shift or development in how and what you write now?

CK: I do see a shift when I look back at earlier stories. I see I was more tentative about just trusting my reader to make connections themselves, based on what I was attempting to show them. This is everyone’s early problem, I think: lack of confidence makes us tentative and hesitant, and we don’t take risks, so our writing seems to lack that boldness and verve we strive for. Developing a voice takes a long time and doesn’t seem, to me, to be something you can do abstractly or by theory alone – you have to learn it through the writing. Now I try to worry less, and not overthink it – just imagine a kind of telepathic conversation happening between me and the reader.

I am frequently touched by your capacity to inhabit a character, and to imbue even the most unlikely character with empathy. Farmer Frank Slovak in Flexion comes to mind. Can you speak about these qualities?

CK: Thank you for that response. There’s a temptation to want everything to be simpler and more coherent in a story than it feels in real life, but I keep finding (both in fiction and in real life, actually) that while dilemmas and predicaments can be clear and cogent, humans (and characters) demand a bit more time and effort. We’re complex. We self-sabotage. We’re fallible. For a sense of realism and empathy, and to create character dimension, I keep returning to this question of human fallibility. If a character seems two-dimensional, recognising their complexity and trying to step into their skin to do it feels like a way to humanise them. Then they feel realer to me, and something occurs to me that I can plausibly make happen to them to make what they’re trying to keep hidden break the surface. This is true of ‘antagonists’ as well. Our first instinct is to make a black-and-white world where people get what they deserve and learn a moral lesson, etc etc, because we’re brought up on fables and myths which work to gratify that yearning in us.  But to humanise an antagonist, to make a reader practise empathy; when I add those dimensions to a character, another layer opens up. I like that quote “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.”

Setting modesty aside, what do you feel is the greatest personal quality you bring to your writing?

CK: If I can render effectively the way an ordinary person deals with the crazy shit life throws at them in a way which shows a core of integrity fighting to the surface, I’m happy with that.

The World Beneath is an award-winning debut novel that plays out in the Tasmanian wilderness. Were there particular challenges in shifting from short fiction to writing a novel-length work?

CK: There sure was. Try spinning a plate on a stick so it doesn’t fall off and smash, and when you feel you’ve almost got that under control, try setting up nine more plates to spin perfectly and simultaneously. Oh, and don’t forget you’re doing it in front of an audience.  Anyone who’s ever written a novel will know how daunting it is, and how much of your focus and mental energy it demands. I’m deep in the throes of attempting another one, though, so in a way it’s back into the wilderness, trying to find my way out.

As an established writer, do you still draw on feedback from trusted readers as part of your writing process?

CK: I do have a few trusted readers, the people who know my strengths and weaknesses and can point out ‘tics’ which are invisible to me, which can be very enlightening. In the end, though, you’re by yourself in a room, relying on your own instincts, pursuing a vision it’s very difficult to articulate before you’ve got it on paper and can look at it yourself with fresh eyes, to see what you’ve accidentally revealed to yourself. After that tricky generative phase, I’ve found the ‘crafting’ decisions are easier, which is a relief. Getting into a ‘generative’ state of mind, though, is harder – it’s a brainwave state, pretty much, rather than a learned expertise – like daydreaming. The less analysis and second-guessing involved in this state, the better. So I like to have something pretty well-drafted before I show it to anyone else for feedback. Otherwise it can feel like a story written by a committee, and I always feel then like I’ve failed to do my original idea justice. Editorial feedback from a trusted reader whose opinion you respect, though, who’s paying your work close attention: that’s gold.

Can you offer reader-writers a single piece of advice based on your approach to these aspects of craft:

CK: I’ll give it a try!

Character: make up someone who wants something but can’t get it, and doesn’t really get why. Just let them pull you around.

Conflict: The engine of fiction. Try seeing it as duress or pressure. Or heat.

Dialogue: We’re not listening to what’s said, we’re listening for what’s not said.

Language: Sensory, specific, and visceral. Read every day and take note of what moves you.

Openings: Show me someone in revealing action, and trust that I’m paying attention.   Set up something you’re going to pay off later, to indicate that you’ve got your hands on the wheel in terms of structure and shape, and I’ll follow you anywhere.

Pace: Here’s a test of the author’s authority – can they control the pace at which their reader is absorbing and comprehending what’s on the page, while making sure they’re completely oriented about why it matters? Can they render ‘blow-by-blow narrative action’ so it feels real and compelling? Can the writing create a physiological response in a reader, like increased heart-rate, tears, or shortness of breath? Is it immersive? Here’s a very simple tip: practise writing good sentences. Vary their length. Let their tone and pace mimic the emotional experience they’re describing. Write so that someone can lose themselves in your subject matter and not be aware of the ‘writing’ itself.

Resolution: The writer, hopefully, has come out of the story a slightly different person than they were when they went in. So, hopefully, has the character. So, if you’ve managed to pull it off in a sort of miraculous alchemical transfer, has the reader.

Closings: Don’t be tempted to tell the reader what you’ve just eloquently shown them. Trust imagery. Pay attention to what happens in life.

Critiquing your own drafts: Read them aloud, in front of strangers. Feels terrible, right? So don’t do that again. Learn to hear your own faults through your own ‘ear’, so you know if you’re in tune, in pitch, or flat, then when they feel as finished as you can make them, share them with someone whose opinion you value, who doesn’t feel the need to shore up your self-esteem.

A favourite recent read?

CK: George Saunders’ Tenth of December is an amazing collection I often dip back into to be inspired by its sheer bravura. Waiting for me on the bedside table is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

Finally, and importantly, what is something you treasure about your life?

CK: I treasure having a private life, and all the friends I have made through struggling on with the writing – other writers who’ve turned me in new more coherent directions, enlightening conversations about ideas, the joys of finding your ‘tribe’. And of course, stories. That’s what it’s all about now for me – the relationships and the stories. That’s become the connective tissue. It’s so strange, isn’t it, how creating fictional stories gets you to something that feels so unmistakeably true?


*The next Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival takes place in Hobart in September 2017

 

 

Top Shelf: Annabel Smith

TOP SHELF showcases a talented writer or artist who I admire. This month I welcome long-time writing colleague and friend Annabel Smith whose personal journey I find as compelling as the novels she creates. Annabel is the author of A New Map of the Universe; Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot (branded in the USA as Whiskey & Charlie); and The Ark. Annabel regularly chairs and presents at writing festivals.

2016 Annabel Smith author photo

Annabel: I always feel proud to cite you as an inspiration to writers, particularly for these two reasons: No. 1: in the time of writing Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot, you married, became a new mother and, despite the associated joys, felt despair at ever again finding time to complete your manuscript. Tell us about the writing deal you struck with your husband.

AS: Idiotically, I had imagined having time to write each day while my baby napped contentedly. My son shattered my delusions by deciding that two half-hour naps a day were plenty, which meant that, not only could I not write in the day, but by the evening I was too exhausted to even contemplate it. So on Saturday afternoons my husband would do his fatherly duty and I would go off to the library and write furiously until they threw me out. Those three or four hours each week saved my sanity.

No. 2: When I think back to Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot’s long…long road to publication, I cite you as the Diva of Perseverance, particularly to fellow writers who are dealing with rejection. Spill the beans on that episode.

AS: Initially, I submitted the novel to agents—a dozen or so, mostly in Australia, a couple in the US and UK. On one occasion I came close to securing representation but in the end the agent was ‘not sufficiently enthusiastic’ (a phrase they’re fond of in their rejection letters). Then I began submitting to those publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts—mostly small independent presses—collecting more rejections.

Each time I received a rejection I’d lose confidence for a while, but then I’d read a part of my manuscript and my confidence would return. If your work is good enough, finding someone who loves it becomes a numbers game: you just have to keep sending it out until you get it in front of an editor who connects with it. After 17 rejections I found that editor in Georgia Richter at Fremantle Press. Cue: tears, champagne.

Whiskey & Charlie was subsequently adopted by a USA publisher and chosen by megastore Target as their Book of the Month. What d’you say to that!

AS: It was beyond my wildest dreams! When I received the email from my publisher to say that Target wanted to print 30,000 copies, I wrote back to check that they hadn’t accidentally added an extra zero! When they confirmed that it was THIRTY THOUSAND I was so overwhelmed I actually cried. I had to sign 5,000 pages to be inserted. (A little known-fact about mass signings is that it is not the signing arm that gets tired—it is the other arm, which has to keep taking off the signed page to expose the next one.) The market is so ginormous there. It has made me so happy to know that many thousands more readers have read my book as a result of my publication there, and I’ve had some lovely responses from US readers. To be honest, I still have to pinch myself every time I get an update on the sales figures. (Check out Annabel’s hilarious time lapse)

What do you most treasure about your writing life? What are you most proud of?

AS: I treasure being able to build a life around what I love—so many people do not have that luxury.

I treasure the quiet space and time alone at my desk.

I treasure the momentum that occasionally comes after long periods of hard work, when the words pour out effortlessly. Writing feels like climbing a hill (or a series of them). You climb up—sometimes energetically, sometimes listlessly, meandering from side to side, perhaps limping, sometimes the progress is so slow you feel like you’re crawling. Then, suddenly you’re at the top and the view is unbelievable, and you go charging down the other side and it all feels worthwhile.

I treasure being part of a community of writers. I have met so many lovely people—writers and readers—through writing: online, and at libraries and bookshops and talks and festivals. Book people are the best people.

I’m proud of each book for different reasons: A New Map of the Universe, because it was my first book and I didn’t even know if I could write a book; Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (branded as Whiskey & Charlie for the US market) because it was so difficult to find a publisher but I believed in it enough to persevere; and The Ark because I tried something completely new and different and I learnt so much from the process.

What kind of things pose the greatest challenges?

AS: Balancing the need to earn money with finding time to write is an ongoing challenge. I’m always trying to work out ways to earn the highest possible amount of money in the shortest possible amount of hours, so that I’ll have more time for writing; this week, for example, I toyed with the idea of becoming a foot model! At the moment I work two days a week teaching English as a Second Language to international students entering postgraduate courses at Edith Cowan University. I enjoy it a lot but i would give it up in a heartbeat if it meant I could have those two days for writing instead.

Another great challenge is rejection. As a writer, it is part of the terrain, but accepting that at a rational level and coping with it at an emotional level are two entirely different things. The writing life is an endless round of competitions—or publication, for grants, for awards, for sales, for reviews—most of which you don’t win. Sometimes it feels excoriating and I feel like I can’t bear it anymore. But somehow I always do.

Your career has progressed from a debut novel to two subsequent novels. You now have a fourth in the making (Monkey See). What I find remarkable about that collection is the breadth of imagination—four different worlds, four markedly different modes of writing and story…

AS: Two of my novels are firmly in the realist mode, whereas two have speculative fiction elements. One spans half a century, while the other three take place within compressed time periods of a couple of years. One is very poetic, the others are much less consciously prosaic; more conversational. In one we see everything from a single character’s point of view, whereas the other three have multiple narrative voices. The Ark has no real authorial voice as it is an epistolary novel, told as a series of emails, blog posts and other digital communiques. One has historical elements, one is set in the present day, one in the near future, and one in a distant future that resembles the past! I could go on, but I think you get the picture: they are all very different.

But none of these choices have been conscious. I don’t say ‘I’ve tried historical; now I’m going to write something contemporary’; I never set out to write a certain type of book. I get an idea for a story, and the structure and the voice(s) seem to make themselves felt as I begin to write. Commercially, I know it’s not recommended to write books which are all so different to each other, as many readers like authors to produce something ‘same same but different’. But creatively, the thought of being confined to a certain genre, or style is anathema to me. Doing something different with each book means I’m always learning and that’s what keeps me interested. Having said that, I do sometimes wonder why I always have to make things so difficult for myself!

Those who know you might coin it ‘an Annabel moment’—one of disarming honesty—when, as an established author, you posted your meager annual salary online for all to see. What did you learn from the flood of responses to that blog post?

Royalties                   $2,210
Speaking events             $4,350
Other publications            $500
Lending rights                $260
Total:                      $7,320

AS: The first thing I learnt is that telling the truth about what you earn (if it’s not much) is practically unheard of, which is why it received so much attention. The responses suggested that I was far from being alone in my lowly financial position: most writers make a pittance. But perhaps my most important takeaway from that post was the realisation that it is perhaps a little entitled to expect to make a living from writing when so few people do. Why should I be different to the rest? There are many writers out there who fully expect to have to work full-time to support their writing, and the idea of being able to write for a living is a fairly modern (and mostly unrealistic) one. I explored some of the issues around why writers earn so little in a follow-up piece I wrote for The Wheeler Centre.

You read a phenomenal volume and range of novels, and you regularly review them on your blog. Do you fork out squillions on books? How do you make the time to read and review?

AS: A majority of the books I read come from the library. For the most part, I only buy books if I’m a long-term fan of an author’s work, or if I start reading and love a book so much I want to underline all my favourite bits! When I am really into a book I neglect all my other duties in favour of reading. I let my son watch TV, tell my husband it’s takeaway for dinner, and ignore anyone who tries to speak to me! I’ve stopped reviewing now. It was very time-consuming, and began to feel like a chore instead of a pleasure. Also I got into some sticky situations with other writers who took umbrage at what I’d said about their books.

As well as writing, reading and blogging, you chair writing festival sessions, to fine acclaim! Do you ever feel nervous? How important is the chair to making a scintillating festival session? What advice would you give yourself, and the author(s) you interview, when readying for a session?

AS: I was extremely nervous when I first started chairing. I felt a tremendous responsibility to give each author a chance to showcase their books as well as making sure the audience felt ‘entertained’ by the discussion. I’m not really nervous now I’ve had more practice; I enjoy it very much, and I’ve been blessed with very lovely interviewees who’ve made me feel at ease.

My mum always said ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ and this holds true when it comes to chairing: even a first-rate chair can’t make a dull guest interesting. But a poor chair can ruin a potentially fantastic discussion (and I have, unfortunately, seen this happen many times).

The most essential ingredient for the chair is preparedness: you have to know the books to be discussed inside out. (I usually read each one twice, making notes as I go). It’s vital to craft questions that dig into the most important or interesting aspects of the books—whether those relate to origin stories, style, themes etc. After that, you just have to get out of the way as much as possible and let the authors talk.

Monkey See, your new work in progress, is at its final stage of revision. Can you give us a sneak preview?

AS: I always feel a little embarrassed when I describe this project because, even to my own ears, it sounds totally crazy. So, keep an open mind folks! It’s a contemporary take on an epic quest story, or what I like to describe as a rollicking tale of adventure!

In a post-technological future which resembles the past, the city of Santiago, Chile is in thrall to a sadistic cult which claims to ward off tsunamis by sacrificing mute children to the ocean. When a young, mute boy is captured, his teenage brother Uardo joins the cult in a bid to protect him. But after encountering Chacho, a super-intelligent, technologically-enhanced spider monkey, and his sidekick, a cocaine-addicted former scientist named Danior, Uardo realises that the only way to save his brother is to overthrow the cult before the next tsunami strikes.

Bring on the unleashing!

Finally, any words of advice to fellow writers?

AS: As a writer, it’s easy to get fixated on outcomes: finishing the book, getting an agent, getting a publisher, winning a prize, making a bestseller list etc. But, for most writers, the outcomes are not the reason you started writing; they’re simply perks along the way. The real and lasting satisfaction comes from the work itself, so I always remind myself to enjoy the process.

Visit Australian author Annabel Smith at: http://annabelsmith.com

Radio National’s Top Shelf

ABC Radio National Books & Arts airs an occasional 5-minute segment entitled Top Shelf, in which a writer, artist or performer is invited to speak about several artworks, of any form, that have touched or inspired their life and work. RN recently invited me to participate. If you didn’t catch it and have 5 minutes to spare, please listen here. Previous guests include writers Chigozie Obioma, Louis Nowra, Linda Jaivan, Tristan Bancks and Colum McCann.

With thoughts of inspirational places that have touched my life, these images below.

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Chimayo pilgrimage church, New Mexico

 

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Pelican Point, Bunbury, in Western Australia’s South West

 

 

 

Top shelf

IMG_2760 Amanda Curtin's books

Amanda Curtin

Author Amanda Curtin

Recently, Western Australian writer extraordinaire, book editor and long-time friend Amanda Curtin was nice enough to chat with me about my new novel Wildlight in her post: 2 2 and 2: writers and new books

Amanda Curtin is author of three remarkable works of fiction. Her most recent, Elemental, was published to acclaim in Australia, shortlisted for the 2014 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards and, at any tick of the clock, will debut in the United Kingdom. ‘How glamorous things seem from afar when you’ve never felt the everyday of them,’ says Meggie Duthie Tulloch, once ‘Fish Meggie’ during the height of Scotland’s herring trade with its troupes of gutting girls. Elemental spans Meggie’s life from her birthplace in north-east Scotland at the start of the twentieth century, to the close of her life in 1970s Western Australia. The voice of Meggie, and the beauty and restraint of Amanda’s language, empowers this narrative with a consciousness that gives the work a unique vision and a deep-felt humanness that connects us all.

Amanda’s Inherited, a collection of short literary fiction about the gifts and burdens we inherit from the world…and those we leave behind, is a MUST READ. The story ‘Rush’ still gives me shivers.

Amanda’s debut novel The Sinkings, centres on Willa Samson, a grief-stricken mother who searches for answers to a very private loss, while unpicking clues to the actual 1882 murder and controversy over the remains of Western Australian convict Little Jock. The Sinkings is a haunting story of present and past.

I have all three on my top shelf and I encourage you to add them to yours!