Saturday, March 23, 2013

Josephine Rowe - Author Interview

Josephine Rowe is a Melbourne based writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her recent work appears in Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, The Iowa Review and Harvard Review. She is the author of short story collections How a Moth Becomes a Boat (Hunter Publishers, 2010) and Tarcutta Wake (UQP, 2012).

Is writing in the short-form something you plan or is it more organic than that? Is there a reason for the brevity? Can you describe your process for me?

A lot of my fiction is poetically-influenced, and in some ways my methodology for fiction writing—the polishing of fragments, the assembling followed by the endless paring back—is not dissimilar to the way I construct poetry. But I’d consider myself as a fiction writer foremost, whereas poems for me are mysterious creatures that come largely unbidden, and I might only write a handful of them a year.

That fragmentary element is a constant, whatever form I’m working in (non-fic included), but beyond that, the processes differ depending on the piece. Within my shorter stories, or those strange beasts that exist in the space between poetry and fiction, it’s what I call ‘cold drip’ writing; a slow filtration process where the end result is very dense, very sensory; ‘overfull’ (‘Atlantic City’ might be a good example).

More recently I’ve been writing longer stories (long for me is a few thousand words), and I think that in part, the length corresponds to how deeply the story is rooted in a particular landscape (‘TarcuttaWake’, for instance). Something about that geographical grounding invites sprawling. I’m thinking of the root systems of trees here, their relationship to the canopy.

As for brevity, I’ll be honest and say I don’t know the reason for it beyond instinct. Perhaps it can be narrowed down to two basic things: a dislike of waste, and a dislike of condescension—I can’t stand fiction that overexplains.

Raw. Honest. Exquisite. Emotional heart. I’ve read your work and in my opinion these are all accurate descriptions. When you sit down to write are you writing for yourself, for the sake of the story, or do you have an audience in mind? Do you have an ‘ideal’ reader?

‘For the sake of the story’—that’s wonderful, I haven’t been given that option before! For the sake of the story, always. A question that’s often asked is ‘what should a good short story do?’, and I don’t believe there is a form-specific function, or if there is, it’s so broad as to be meaningless (to entertain, to move, etc., etc.). The beauty of the short story as a form is how open and adaptable it is, and I think readers are more willing to go into unfamiliar territory—be it stylistically, linguistically or thematically unfamiliar—purely because of that brevity. Look at Eudora Welty’s ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From’, which is an incredibly brave and troubling story told from the p.o.v of a thoroughly reprehensible ‘other’. No way would you want to spend a whole novel with that narrator, but to spend those few pages with him, that’s manageable. 

In regards to readers, I’m mindful of ‘a’ reader, that the story has to be communicable. But no, I don’t have a particular audience in mind when I write, nor an ideal reader.

Do you ever suffer self-doubt? How do you deal with/push through it?

My self-doubt is highly-evolved, and has the astonishing ability to adapt to any environment. Did I say the right thing? Do I actually take X up on her invitation to drinks/dinner/etc., or was she just being polite? Is this the right brand of tumeric to buy? It’s a running joke, old enough to be funny despite the real and measurable setbacks.

When it comes to writing, it is certainly the biggest inhibitor. A bad morning or a bad day is small change; I might try to shake myself out of it with a walk, a phonecall to a friend or a visit to a gallery. Or I’ll put on some music or the radio and try to do boring admin things, so at least something productive gets done (again, that dislike of waste—what was it that Hemingway said about wasted days?)

But sometimes that doubt proves unshakeable, and it might settle in for a week or even months. I’m getting a little better at riding those dry spells out. They used to terrify me; I thought I’d never write another good thing. But the older I get—well, ha, I’m twenty-eight but please humour me—the older I get the more time I feel I have, the more time I feel I can and should take, and any urgency comes from outside; from deadlines, commissions and such. I sometimes see those unproductive periods as almost a sub-conscious intervention, a kind of opening up to let the rest of life in.

Do you think there is still a market for short stories? Give your reasons.

Are we talking about the Australian market or the global market? We do seem to have it a bit trickier here. I certainly think the short story is still valued in Australia, but ‘short story market’ is something of an oxymoron. Nobody puts out a short story collection in response to the demands of the market—rather, the market demands to know why you aren’t writing a novel. But short stories are still being written and published and read, and will continue to be written and published and read. I do two of those things avidly, and I’d do all three if I had the funds. My advice is to ignore the market and write for the love of it. Let the marketing folks worry about the market.

What are your thoughts on the publishing industry at this time? Indie vs Mainstream? Paper book vs ebook?

I haven’t known the publishing industry at any other time, so I don’t have the strongest grounds for comparison, beyond what I’ve read and what I know from older writers and artists. But I get the sense that the same crises are on something of a rotating roster—the novel has been dying for decades. There has never and will never be a market for short stories. There has always been a treacherous smoking chasm between industry standards of pay and actual pay*, so why don’t we all just burn our manuscripts and take up law?

As mentioned in the last question, I don’t think all that much about markets and the state of the industry (which can’t be all that miserable if million dollar book deals are becoming passé). I just write as well as I can, and try to maintain some perspective—nine years of writing, that’s an eyelash. I plan on sticking around long enough to be painfully embarrassed by everything I’m writing now.

Recently, I came across a quote from Dorothy Hewett in a 1998 interview with Overland: “…there will always be little presses, I believe this. There will always be people who believe in us, in creativity, who set up with virtually no money and just enthusiasm and idealism, to get out books.” That’s still very much the case, fifteen years on.

I don’t see paper books as being in competition with ebooks; the two are simply different platforms for the same content, both with their own limitations and possibilities. I am a paper book buyer and borrower, and imagine I always will be. But I appreciate that ebooks allow for greater accessibility, so I’m not going to launch bottle rockets into the e-camp. It doesn’t have to be an either or.

Name the last five collections you have read. Which was your favourite and why?

Alice Munro The Love of a Good Woman
Ali Smith Free Love
Stephanie Vaughn Sweet Talk
George Saunders Tenth of December
Chris Somerville We Are Not the Same Anymore

Let me clarify/fess up by saying that these are the five collections I am currently jumping between. It’s rare that I’ll read a short story collection straight through, unless it’s for review, or it’s my sole companion on a long-haul flight, or I have to give it back to someone very quickly. All the abovementioned authors are wonderful, but George Saunders… I think anyone who has read or is reading Tenth of December will appreciate my hesitation to talk too much about him here, lest I gush. So I’ll just say that this is the best collection I’ve read since Alistair MacLeod’s Island, and that it is nothing at all like Island, except inasmuch as both works show astounding generosity and humanity, even when dealing in the devastating and the mediocre.

*actually, if there was less of a treacherous smoking chasm between industry rates and actual rates of pay for writers, that would be great. Jennifer Mills has a great post about it here.

Learn more about Josephine here.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Sport and a Pastime - Review

I wanted to love this book. I didn’t. It didn’t satisfy.

I need to be gripped by a story and dragged headlong through it. I want to regret closing the book so I can sleep. I want to race through to the last chapters and then slow down because I don’t want it to end. Because it was that good.

Salter’s language was delicious. The sound of the words, the way he combined them, the rhythm and shape of the sentences. The eroticism. The sometimes surprising frankness was refreshing and delightful. Not since reading Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender have I thought so much about the language of a story, the author’s choice of words. But the story (A Sport…) itself didn’t grip me. I found myself resisting picking it up again. Found myself disconnected from the characters. It felt as though giving them names was an afterthought, and they were there only as vehicles to drive the language of the book.

I remember feeling a little like this while reading Surrender too – as though the writer was keeping me from fully entering the story by ensuring I oohed and ahhed over the language and sentence structure. Like Surrender, A Sport and a Pastime’s language is luminous and poetic and exciting. It rolls from the tongue plump and juicy. It sounds like music to the ears. But for all that this adds and shows the skill and deft touch of the writer, for me. It also takes away from the experience of reading.

I need to be immersed, not only in the language but in the story itself. I want to connect with the characters, to feel as though I am personally involved in their story, and to be swept away by it. I didn’t really care about Dean and Anne-Marie, nor did I care about or for the mystery narrator – though they at least had some substance. The other characters felt more like cardboard cutouts there only to populate a scene.

I am in awe of Salter’s skills as a writer, but I need more than beautiful words. I need a compelling story, and characters I can care about.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Matthew Reilly - Author Event

I freely admit I have not yet read a Matthew Reilly book, but that certainly didn’t stop me from attending his author event at the Cranbourne Community Theatre on Monday night. The event was organised by the Cranbourne Library and well publicised both in the library and in the local media. I was only one of about 250 people who had flocked to see the popular writer of the Jack West Jr.  and the Scarecrow series.
Matthew Reilly is funny and friendly, and he does a great Sean Connery impression. He spent the time before the official event chatting with the early arrivals, his readers, his fans. They talked about movies and why the fifth Die Hard didn’t work, and the last Indiana Jones movie should never have been made. He shared with his fans, his own anger and frustration when his favourite books get butchered in film. We can all relate to that.
When the theatre was filled and the official event started there was a sudden hush where moments before there had been a cacophony of sound. Matthew began by reading to us some of his bad reviews. These were ‘really’ bad reviews. One in particular described his books as “light-weight adventure crap.” Ouch!
Contest – his first stand-alone book – was initially self-published. Here’s the blurb from his wesite:
The New York State Library. A silent sanctuary of knowledge; a 100-year-old labyrinth of towering bookcases, narrow aisles and spiralling staircases. For Doctor Stephen Swain and his eight-year-old daughter, Holly, it is the site of a nightmare. For one night, the State Library is to be the venue for a contest. A contest in which Stephen Swain is to compete – whether he likes it or not. The rules are simple: seven contestants will enter, only one will leave. With his daughter in his arms, Swain is plunged into a terrifying fight for survival. The stakes are high, the odds brutal. He can choose to run, to hide or to fight – but if he wants to live, he has to win. Because in a contest like this, unless you leave as the victor, you do not leave at all.
One interesting piece of trivia is that for the US edition, the publishers asked that he change his imaginary ‘State’ library to the actual New York Public Library, which he did. He visited, took photos, drew up a floor plan and changed the scenes in the book to reflect the true layout. That’s dedication.
Matthew says his writing has evolved since his first book (first published in 1996 with a print run of just 1000 copies), and as a writer I know that the more you write the better you are at it. There’s more to it though. Matthew said that he feels he has to keep up with the audience, “the audience evolves, grows more sophisticated.” He needs to “up the ante.” In regard to Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves, he said “I wanted this book to be relentless in its relentlessness.”
“Your hero is only as good as your villains.”
Some critics have described Matthew’s books as formulaic. He said the only part of his writing that may follow a formula are the openings of the Scarecrow books. “They always start with Scarecrow zooming into danger.”
Matthew headed off one of the most common questions a writer is asked by telling us that he reads a lot of non-fiction and watches a lot of documentaries; both “fire his imagination”, he said. He wants his ideas and his stories to be “world changing.”
“The strangest things in the books are true.”
One of the questions from the audience was “Do you have to visit a place to write about it?” He said that although it’s not necessary, it does help. That said, he revealed that “about 85% of the stuff in Ice Station is true” and no, he hasn’t been to Antarctica; he researched the facts in his local library. The two best places he ‘has’ been in the world are Egypt and Easter Island in that order.
“Don’t antagonise your biggest fans.”
Matthew has long made it a habit to end his chapters on a cliff-hanger. While writing The Six Sacred Stones he decided he would end the whole book in the same way. “It was a good idea at the time,” he said. The trouble was, his fans read fast. They usually purchase his books the moment they hit the shelves and finish them within the first week. They then had to wait two years to learn the outcome of those final pages. To say they weren’t happy would be putting it mildly.
An audience member asked the question that many of Matthew’s fans would probably like to ask. “With the Jack West Jr. series will you continue to write them until you reach number one?” Matthew said he probably will, but with how long it takes him to write each book and the other projects he’ll be working on in between it may take a while.
“My head was exploding by the end of Temple.”
Temple, another of his stand-alone books, is a split story. It is the longest of his books and was also “the hardest to write.” Matthew said if his fans reread the description of character William Race, they would soon realise that it is an exact description of the author himself.
Hover Car Racer is a book you could give a ten year old to read. Matthew said, “It doesn’t have the violence or, let’s face it, the swearing of his other books.” He wanted Hover Car Racer to be fast, fun, and to contain some life lessons. The best message in the book is what Matthew referred to as the ‘Bradbury Principle’ – based on the 2002 Winter Olympic gold medal win by skater Steven Bradbury. Essentially this message boils down to:

“Never give up.
Never say die.
You are always in the race.”

Find out more about Matthew here
Follow Matthew on Twitter