The First Fifteen Minutes

Does anyone recall last year’s 15 Minutes of Fame? Angela Meyer perched on a stool, interviewing timid-looking writers also perched on stools. Free wine tastings. Small room. Guy slumped in the pod on the other side of the glass wall, oblivious to the EWF happenings.

Well, this year’s first 15 Minutes is like last year’s 15 Minutes on steroids. Think imposing  Wheeler Centre stage, bright lights, square armchairs. Think Estelle Tang with seductively husky radio voice, telling post-Catholic neurotic, Joel Magarey, to ‘suck it up’ on stage*.  Think Meyer and Tang having a face-off, with Meyer later admiting that Tang’s 15 Minutes was funnier than hers. You missed out. Yeah, you did.

Tonight’s line up included Miscellaneous Voices, Andee Jones, Lucienne Noontil, as well as Joel Magarey.

Miscellaneous Voices, an anthology of Australian blog writing, is Miscellaneous Press’ first title. Editor Karen Andrews and contributor Carla Del Vecchio represented the anthology; both discussed their blogs and why they loved blogging. In spite of the imperfections, blog posts are often written in the heat of the moment and thus have a ‘raw power or beauty about them’. Andrews tried to distill this in the anthology, choosing pieces that resonated with a coincidentally personal bent.

Reviews for Miscellaneous Voices were mostly positive. There was one reviewer who didn’t see the point of such a book, since they had already read five of their favourite pieces previously online, but Tang was quick to note that Voices would have been a great introduction to twenty-six other bloggers. Geordie Williamson’s review also came up. In response to  ‘some pieces show signs of having been gussied up at the last moment for publication’, Andrews declared that the edits were similar to that of any other book.

Andee Jones, writer of the memoir Kissing Frogs, started her fifteen minutes with a tongue-in-cheek performance, establishing the tone for the rest of the evening. Her memoir details a mature woman’s experience with internet dating. A child of the sixties, she had never been on a date before, believed it to only happen on sitcoms. But she had hoped that one got braver as one got older, so she gave it a try. Jones comes across as sassy and self-reliant and her book seems less cynical than Michaela McGuire or Clementine Ford’s thoughts on internet dating.

Next up was Lucienne Noontil who wrote and illustrated Possum Tales. Storytelling for adults is not quite the same as it is for kids. Noontil deliberately adopted a patronising tone in her reading and was rewarded by silly interjections from Tang. Afterwards, the two spoke about the editing process, how every word has to count in a children’s book and how one has to avoid offending readers. For instance, Rusty the possum leaves home, but Noontil had to word it in such a way so that it didn’t sound like he was getting kicked out of home.

In the last quarter, Joel Magarey spoke about his book Exposure, which details his global odyssey. He had hoped to replicate a state of being he had experienced while living with a tribe in Papua New Guinea; he believed that his Western existence had a surplus of choice, leading to bewilderment and anxiety.

Magarey described the process of writing Exposure as psychotherapy: he had been through the pain during his travels but learning to understand it was like light. What he noted was that comedy equals tragedy plus time and was darkness transposed, something he would talk about further in his other EWF gig, Going to a Dark Place. Yes, 15 minutes is all about the spruiking, people**. Get over it.

15 Minutes of Fame happens around seven at The Wheeler Centre each night until Thursday. That means you’ve only got three more 4 15 Minutes. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Now who’s up for some Madonna?

*She did apologise profusely afterwards.

**More spruiking: Literary Minded’s review of Exposure here, and Killings podcast on Joel here. It’s a spruik-fest.

Update: Damnit, Jodie Kinnersley beat me to it. She’s already posted on 15 Minutes. THIS IS NOT A COMPETITION.

January 18: What’s happening, Melbourne?

Tickets for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival event ‘Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show On Earth’ (5 March 2010) were supposed go on sale today, except the event has sold out during prelease sales. Sneaky. However, I have managed to nab some tickets during the last buying frenzy. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionist and a hardcore atheist who has written titles such as The God Delusion, and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. He rants a lot, but The God Delusion was a helpful resource when I started questioning my agnosticism: it verbalised much of my frustration towards religion. In particular, I remember reading an example of how religion permits all sorts of intolerance:

The Los Angeles Times (10 April 2006) reported that numerous Christian groups on campuses around the United States were suing their universities for enforcing anti-discrimination rules, including prohibitions against harassing or abusing homosexuals. As a typical example, in 2004 James Nixon, a twelve-year-old boy in Ohio, won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words ‘Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!’ The school told him not to wear the T-shirt–and the boy’s parents sued the school. The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn’t: indeed, they couldn’t because free speech is deemed not to include ‘hate speech’. But hate only has to prove it is religious, and it no longer counts as hate. So, instead of freedom of speech, the Nixons’ lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. Their victorious lawsuit was supported by the Alliance Defense Fund of Arizona, whose business it is to ‘press the legal battle for religious freedom’. (Dawkins 2006, p 23)

Suffice to say, after reading The God Delusion and a couple of other texts, I felt more at ease with my lack of faith. I have yet to read The Greatest Show on Earth but I hope I shall get round to it before Dawkins’ Melbourne appearance.

March is still more than a month away though. What’s on now?

For all you Brow fans, the sixth issue of The Lifted Brow (aka ‘Atlas’) has already hit the shelves, and the Melbourne launch is happening this Friday at Bella Union Bar. Performers include Clue to Kalo, Guy Blackman, Rat vs. Possum, and Absolute Boys. It’s going to be a big night with some cultural action. Check out the Facebook Event page for more details.

Speaking of cultural, Lunar New Year (Tet) falls on Valentine’s Day this year. Melbourne’s Vietnamese diaspora isn’t as centralised as the Chinese one, so there will be a Tet street festival held in various Vietnamese locales each weekend over the next few weeks.This Sunday (24 Jan), I’ll be going to the Victoria Street event for some much needed hawker food.

And finalement, my favourite philosopher of the bedroom variety, Justin Heazlewood, has released the erotically charged ‘Tram Inspector’ on iTunes and now he’s on repeat in my head:

…baby, I’m a tram inspector,
my heart is a lie detector,
bad ticket I will respect you,
fare evade and I will eject you…(loop)

Neon Pilgrim Launch

Lisa Dempster’s travel memoir, Neon Pilgrim, will be launching at Readings in Carlton today. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Lisa’s work, Lisa keeps a blog, Unwakeable, which talks about topics like veganism, indie publishing, and twittering/tweeting. Her posts often stimulate discussion amongst her followers and their comments are worth a read too. 

Neon Pilgrim is Lisa’s third book, and it narrates her attempt to hike the henro michi, a 1200 kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage that visits eighty-eight Japanese temples. Lisa has put up an excerpt from the book on her blog, detailing the start of her journey; the blog has links to a couple of Neon Pilgrim reviews as well.

Anyway, the launch is tonight. Things start happening at 7pm, so drop by at Readings Carlton to check it out.

The Humble Reader from EWF

In September, post-Melbourne Writers Festival 2009, I wrote a post about Writers’ Festival Withdrawal (WFW):

There’s a lot of WFW going around at the moment. The Melbourne Writers Festival is over for 2009, and everyone has been posting about their feelings of dejection (as opposed to the usual feelings of rejection), which is crazy since Overload and TINA (This Is Not Art) are coming up. (1 September 2009)

I didn’t understand why people weren’t coping. MWF  was great, but work, social engagements, and an evil real estate lady ensured that I was just a casual punter; I hadn’t experienced total festival emersion, and didn’t know any better.

TINA, however, was in another state. I was on holidays from work, friends, and family; TINA became my work, my social interactions, my drink of choice. I started getting the shakes when I landed back in Melbourne, spent a lot of time checking other writers’ Facebook profiles, but it wasn’t the same. I needed a literary Valium, so I went to the launch of EMF’s The Reader

After drinks and some amazing tempura prawns/beans/calamari and a discussion on the sexual preferences of Bret Easton Ellis, I started reading The Reader on the tram home, finishing the anthology the day after. With its mix of informative articles, artwork, themed poetry and fiction, The Reader puts me much in mind of Julian Fleetwood’s Sex Mook*, which is unsurprising since Death Mook editor Dion Kagan is captaining this EWF ship. The Reader is like a Writing Mook, elegantly bound in black and silver, exploring a diverse range of writing issues. There’s a how-to on re-writing screenwriting by John Pace, a frank article from Lisa Dempster on how much writers should get paid, while Jane Hawtin talks about turning academic writing into commercially viable publications. Scattered amongst the advice is a poem about rejection letters, reviews on writing books/software from Angela Meyer and Cameron White, and an adorable comic about making comics from Christopher Downes.

What I loved most about The Reader was its ability to play without sacrificing content, with self-help on self-promotion juxtaposed against fears of selling out. Each piece had something to offer to the emerging writer, and was written in an engaging way. Some pieces were earnest, like Stephanie Honor Convery’s Black Saturday experiences, or parodic like Clem Bastow’s ‘Free(lance)-Falling’. But what seemed ubiquitous in such a diverse range of pieces was a self-awareness, a sense of ‘not having quite made it but hopefully getting there’; The Reader’s a humble but essential guide for any emerging writer. 

 

The Reader, image courtesy of EWF.

The Reader - available for $20 from all good bookstores (image courtesy of EWF)

*I have yet to read Death Mook.

Workshop with Wells Tower

After finishing Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, I am ashamed that I needed a workshop to force me into reading Wells Tower’s work. Angry, frustrating, dark, and full of pain, his stories succeed without trying to be clever; they push so much emotion without getting lost in sentimentality.

There are many ways to describe the short story, and today, Wells Tower used a punch bowl allegory. A friend of his couldn’t seem to hold onto a long-term partner; at some point in the relationship, he was afraid that someone would make him hold a crystal punch bowl. There were different kinds of punch bowls out there, and short stories had different kinds of functions. Maybe you wanted your reader to enjoy the language of your piece, maybe you wanted them to invest in particular character. Whatever the case was, that function was a punch bowl, and you had to convince your reader to hold it.

During the workshop, we examined two different short stories: ‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff and ‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace. While ‘Bullet in the Brain’ moved efficiently, ‘Forever Overhead’ meandered in its description of a thirteen-year-old boy sensory experience at a public swimming pool. In each, Tower discussed the overall structure of the piece, the techniques used, and his peculiar notion of ‘credits’. He spoke of checking sentimentality with the analytical. For instance, ‘Forever Overhead’ begins with clipped sentences, growing more sensory, more lyrical, before tapering off, returning to the clipped and analytical.

After lunch, he emphasised the importance of revision. For one idea, Wells wrote up to ten completely different short stories, and he ‘expose[d his stories]…to every single piece of editorial violence’ until nothing in them felt like a ‘cheap trick’. He then handed out two different drafts of  ‘Door in Your Eye’, and it’s fascinating comparing the two. In the earlier draft, his protagonist is a twenty-year-old who checks out the ‘hooker’ next door. In the final draft, the protagonist is recast as an old man who is looking for his last erotic experience in life: ‘…it came into my mind that maybe this would be the last woman I would ever get the chance to touch.’

Most of the writers who attended the workshop had been previously published, so much the workshop material was of a decent standard: Samuel Rutter had a piece that read beautifully, a novellist gave us a chapter from a draft manuscript, and Chris Currie snuck in a piece published in the current Lifted Brow. Among such literary types, I felt a bit audacious sounding out my second draft of a sci-fi short story—’She brought science fiction to a serious writers’ workshop…how dare she!’ There were a couple of ‘I don’t usually read science fiction…’ comments, and I think Wells Tower was being conciliatory when he complimented my writing style, but I got what I wanted. I knew the piece needed more depth, and it was good to have that reiterated by other writers. I wished I had been as equally helpful with other people’s stuff. ‘Tis hard listening to people’s stories; reading them is much easier on the noggin.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: a collection of short stories by Wells Tower

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: a collection of short stories by Wells Tower

For more on Wells Tower, Bookslut has an interview with him on their site. Chris Currie will also be putting up his interview with the author on Literary Minded in the near future. Aaaaand to get a better sense of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Estelle Tang has reviewed his book on her blog, 3000 Books.

Big day out at the Melbourne Writers Festival

It’s been a long and arduous day of drinking soy chais, eating baguettes, and listening to people read their writing. This morning, I hurried down to Fed Square for the Morning Read with Philip Hensher, Kent MacCarter, and Kamila Shamsie for some MWF goodness. Kamila Shamsie’s new book, Burnt Shadow, sounds ambitious, leapfrogging through time and space. Q & A was a little more lively than usual with a discussion on geographical authenticity. Someone had asked the panel about the authenticity of a tourist’s perspective; Philip Hensher believed that one could, citing William Golding’s An Egyptian Journal as evidence.

Next up was Alice Pung interviewing Wayson Choy in Wayson Choy in Conversation. Choy spoke mostly about his life: being a ‘bridge between two cultures’, growing up in a society where ‘you stuck to your own kind’, learning that he had been adopted and that being gay wasn’t a phase one could grow out of, and his near-death experiences. He also discussed how he initially found writing memoir very difficult. He had been obsessed with the facts, until he realised that ‘non fiction…[was] just another form of fiction’. Writers have a right to their memory; they shouldn’t worry whether other people will be pleased with their work.

Josephine Emery during her session, Josephine on Joy, also had some advice for aspiring memoirists. (Is that even a word? That is so a made-up word.) She treated herself as a character in a novel; consequently, she was able to avoid the self-justification that is usually seen in post-gender-transition narratives. With a background in screen as well as print, Josephine is all for the Kerouac narrative, transcribing the movie in your mind, and believes that Shakespeare’s tragedies, a rising series of climaxes, demonstrates the perfect structure for a novel. For more on Josephine, check out Angela Meyer’s recent interview with Josephine about her latest work, The Real Possibility of Joy.

After Josephine Emery, I managed to grab a baguette from the very popular Belgian Waffles man in Degraves Street. My baguette was very filling with its ham, tomato, lettuce, and brie, and it got a gold star for its sleep-inducing ability. However, it failed to explain the mystery that was writing and publishing so I headed back to Fed Square for my last serious session for the day, Marketing in the Info Age with Jessa Crispin (Bookslut), Brett Osmond (Random House), and Adam Noonan (Lonely Planet).

Most of Marketing was common sense, though Brett Osmond backed up his advice with some facts. Apparently today’s consumer is three times more influenced by their peers than formal commentators, so publishers have been forced to engage consumers in a more interactive/conversational manner. He listed a couple of examples that Random House had used, such as Facebook fan pages, online games, and chain novels. He did warn, however, that such methods could be potentially resource draining.

Adam Noonan spoke about the importance of search engine optimisation, how a website’s success depends on its Google ranking. Google rates sites according to their relevance to the search term and their importance. For those who wanted to know more about search engine optimisation, Noonan recommended checking out www.bruceclay.com and the Google Webmaster Guidelines.

Jessa Crispin had very little to add on the topic; her web magazine, Bookslut, doesn’t do comments or Facebook or forums. But she did emphasise that publishers had to rely on someone else to push their product, and sometimes the ‘someone else’ is a skeptical blogger who is unwilling to do such work.

The final item on today’s MWF itinery was the Above Water launch. Marisabel Bonet-Cruz’s reading with a mish-mash of Spanish (?) and English was beautiful to listen to, so I’m looking forward to reading it along with the rest of the journal.

Okay, it’s eight now. Off to the Toff for some sorely needed MJ.

YA Shame

At my parents’ place, there’s a stash of YA books tucked away in a cupboard. As much as I love them, I can’t bear the thought of other people finding them on my bookshelf. I guess I am one of Scott Westerfeld’s ‘delicate creatures’, otherwise known as adults.

Along with Isobelle Carmody and Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld writes young adult fiction. Yesterday, the three of them discussed why adults were attracted to the genre at their MWF panel session ‘Taking Over the Grown Ups’ Table’.

Left to right: Agnes Nieuwanhuizen (chair), Justine Larbalestier, Isobelle Carmody, Scott Westerfeld

Left to right: Agnes Nieuwanhuizen (chair), Justine Larbalestier, Isobelle Carmody, Scott Westerfeld

According to Westerfeld, adults read YA for the great narrative drive and good, old-fashioned storytelling. His wife, Larbalestier, thinks that YA appeals simply because every adult has gone through the trauma of puberty. On the other hand, Isobelle Carmody believes that YA fiction demands less from their readers.

Oddly enough, these writers do not write with teenagers in mind. Isobelle Carmody, for instance, writes to entertain herself, while Justine Larbalestier never censors out the swearing, sex, and drugs during the drafting process. It is only later, during production and marketing, when their babies get categorised.

Grrr. Marketing. One would hope that good writing sells on its own merit, but unfortunately this is not the case. A book’s success is hugely influenced by how it is marketed. Larbalestier touched on how books portraying protagonists of colour don’t sell as well in the US because publishers aren’t pushing them as strongly as they should. A different example was brought up. Packaged as a literary novel, a book had been selling well in the adult market, but sales plummeted as soon as it won a speculative fiction award, highlighting the adult disdain towards YA and genre fiction.

Westerfeld, Larbalestier, and Carmody nearly shamed me into dragging out my corpse of a YA manuscript, which I had written in high school. However, the thought of drafting and redrafting was so off-putting (inaugural Text Prize winner Richard Newsome took ten years to write his YA novel) that I decided to confess my YA shame on the Internet instead: ‘I HAVE YA SHAME BUT I STILL READ IT. I HEART YOU JACOB*!’

For a more detailed account of what happened at ‘Taking Over the Grown Ups’ Table’, Estelle Tang from 3000 Books has posted up ‘Literature for the Yoof, or for everyone?’ on the MWF blog.

*Disclaimer: I lied about liking Jacob, but I do like Eric from True Blood and the Sookie Stackhouse novels. Mmm. Vampires. Yumcakes.

On dinosaurs and books (mainly books, not so much dinosaurs)

Tonight, I was fortunate enough to attend ‘Restrictions on parallel imports: to remove or not to remove?’, which was chaired by Dr Mark Davis at ACMI for MWF. Below is a summary of what was brought up during the debate surrounding the Productivity Commission’s report

According to Professor Allan Fels, ex-chairman of the ACCC, the average price of books in Australia was substantially higher than overseas editions. The introduction of parallel importation in the music industry did reduce the price of CDs significantly, and similar reforms in the publishing industry should produce similar benefits for the consumer. He conceded that there would be some impact on Australian writers, but this would not be significant as there was currently a strong demand for good, Australian writing. To minimise impact on emerging Australian writers, he was in favour of direct assistance (i.e. grants), an idea that attracted grumblings from other panellists and the audience.

Industry blogger Peter Donoughue was also in favour of parallel importation. He was sceptical in regards to a guaranteed price drop, since price depended on currency volatility and freight costs, but he did believe that parallel importation would force major Australian publishers to become more responsive to the market. ‘The publishing industry should not fear change, but be wary of change.’ He then used the analogy of an apartment block (the Australian publishing market) and an untidy fence (current parallel import restrictions). Removal of the fence did not destroy one’s rights to the property.

Representatives from the publishing industry, however, spoke heatedly against parallel importation. Penguin’s Gabrielle Conye did not believe that prices of books would go down, citing Hong Kong as an example where booksellers were not passing on savings to consumers, while Hardie Grant’s Sandy Grant explained that parallel importation would disadvantage Australian publishers. The US and UK weren’t going to open their markets; Australian publishers could not export cheaper books to such countries; why should Australia open its market?

Grant also spoke of ‘cultural damage’. If Australian publishing became less profitable, then Australian publishers would be less likely to take risks with new Australian writers. In regards to Professor Fels’s suggestion of direct assistance, he wanted to know why subsidies were necessary when a robust industry already existed.

Dr Mark Davis then introduced music industry representative David Vodicka who explained how the Australian music industry had been affected by parallel importation. Though prices of CDs have dropped over the years, Vodicka believed that this was due to the internet and not industry reform. He warned that emerging artists and smaller labels had difficulty accessing the market, that stores cared little for ‘cultural diversity’, and that government subsidies were often unreliable.

Towards the end of the debate Professor Fels reassured everyone that parallel importation would have little direct impact on Australian writers. Very few Australian writers were printed overseas. It was unlikely that an imported, cheaper edition would compete with local editions.

Nevertheless, with profits shifting from the publishers to booksellers, I cannot help but worry. After all, it was the after-effects of the comet’s impact, and not the comet itself, that wiped out the dinosaurs.

productivity commission debate

Left to right: Peter Donoughue, Sandy Grant, Gabrielle Coyne, David Vodicka, Prof. Allan Fels, Dr Mark Davis

For more on parallel importation, read the Productivity Commission’s report on the internet, the Australian Society of Authors’ response. Hate the PC already? Sign the petition against the PC’s recommendations at savingaussiebooks.wordpress.com.

How a Moth Became a Boat and other things

I bought Josephine Rowe’s How a Moth Became a Boat at its Melbourne launch and managed to finish reading it in the semi-darkness of the Willow Bar. Some of Josephine’s delicate phrases have already nested in my mind: ‘Belarus a bruise above her knee’ (‘Maps’); ‘When I hand him his ticket and his change I am always conscious of my wrists’ (‘Work’).

However, it is ‘Love’ that I like the most. In ‘Love’, Josephine doesn’t try to cover up a difficult father-daughter relationship with beautiful imagery but carefully measures out each word, and the few hard details she offers are weighted with meaning:

He is teaching her how to break bottles against the side of the house. A whisky bottle works best, he tells her. She thinks this is very lucky, because that is what they have the most of—he has spent the last few weeks emptying them. 

I hope I’ll get to see her perform ‘Love’ one day. Until then, I’ll have to settle for ‘Maps’, which currently seems to be Josephine’s favourite performance piece: