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My new book, How Bright Are All Things Here, had its launch on Sunday. After feeling that I was about to face the guillotine for the past couple of weeks, my distress reached peak intensity just before the speeches began.
But, of course, all went well. Professor Charles Green in the Art History program in the University of Melbourne gave an excellent speech, saying things about my book that made me blush. The show pony in me took over as soon as I began to speak. People clapped.
And it was over!
The sun shone; more than 80 friends and well-wishers were there; there was too much food but not quite enough wine (must remember that!); people bought books and I signed them; noble friends and family took over the kitchen after other arrangements fell through; there was talk and laughter and meeting and greeting for a couple of hours in the lovely courtyard of Buda, a historic house and garden. Pre-launch, I wondered (frequently!) why I was doing this thing that makes me almost catatonic with nerves. The answer is, that really, it’s a celebration. It was a lovely launch. In retrospect, I had a great time.
And in the evening, after everyone had gone, we split a bottle of champagne (a gift), ate leftover crackers and dips, and I tottered off to bed, shattered with exhaustion and very happy.
I forgot to ask anyone to take pictures, so I’ll just have to keep it in my memory.
I’ve just finished a couple of Siri Hustvedt books; a novel and a collection of essays.
I’ve had Sorrows of an American for ages, but never read it. And within a few minutes, I was so absorbed that I knocked it over in a day and a night.
It’s on one level a kind of family mystery where after the death of a parent, another version emerges. So it is when Erik Davidsen sorts through his father’s papers. He finds a cryptic letter from an unknown woman, which starts him on a search for deeper understanding of the man he loved and respected, but didn’t really know. There are other questions, too, around his dead brother-in-law and his new tenant, a young single mother and artist. And then there are all other mysteries – love and life and art and relationships and death and trauma and memory… You know the drill.
I’ve found that people can have strong opinions Hustvedt’s books. I have one friend who just loves them – her favourite book is What I Loved. And another who just can’t see it. “All those descriptions of imaginary art works and dreams! Boring.” Actually, I have a dirty little (not-so) secret. I’m a great skipper. I rarely read every word. So the imaginary artworks just blur in my imagination. “Here’s the art,” I say to myself. And move on. (Though my greatest crime, according to my husband, is that I’ll often read the end first).
I also had this recent collection of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.
This is my second or even third reading of some of these essays. Despite my abiding interest in the brain/mind story, neither philosophy or science are really my strong suit, and I’ve had the funny experience of reading about the workings of the brain whilst aware that my own brain, sitting there on top of my neck, is itself working so hard that I can almost feel it. This isn’t to say that I’ve not enjoyed these essays. Or perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right word. This kind of reading is not for entertainment, but for education, enlightenment, growth. I’ll have a binge on this kind of book and then dive into a murder mystery.
(And as an aside, isn’t it an odd feeling when you realise that you’re turning into your mother? Well, not quite, but turning towards her. My mother was a voracious reader of crime and murder – she had a collection of around 2,000 novels. Since she was by training and temperament a historian, it traced the history of the crime novel. I sold them after she died -and now I really wish I hadn’t!)
Also hard work was a complementary book, The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough. It’s subtitled The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves. Mystics, prophets, poets, artists, writers, schizophrenia sufferers, trauma victims, athletes, inventors and many other people hear voices. It’s difficult to research, as you can imagine. One project involves people wearing a beeper that interrupts them a few times a day. They’re asked then to write down their self-talk as exactly as they can. One subject even did this in a CT scanner, so that researchers could study which areas of the brain were active. Another project involved investigating writers and their literary process. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell, who describes fiction writing as ‘a kind of controlled personality disorder…to make it work you have to concentrate on the voices in your head and get them talking to each other.’ p94
Siri Hustvedt hears voices, too.
As a novelist, I spend a lot of time imagining that I am other people. I have written from the points of view of women and men with different personalities and backgrounds and troubles and sympathies. Once I hear and feel the imaginary person, even if he or she is unlike me, I can write the character. I do not calculate my way into these people. i do not make lists of their qualities and decide consciously how someone will speak. They take up residence inside me and begin to speak. Rhythm is important, essential. Different characters have different cadences. Where does that come from? p310
The Sorrows of an American Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre 2008
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre 2016
The Voices Within Charles Fernyhough, Profile Books 2016.
It seems that often my random reading continues a kind of conversation in my head. After writing my last post, on Tim Parks’ book, I’ve been thinking about thinking. The problem of too much thinking. Thinking when I’d rather not.
Let’s take yesterday – a sunny day, an hour or two in the garden pulling weeds, enjoyable exercise rather than a chore – and yet I just could not stop that voice in my head. It wasn’t all bad. Sometimes it was just a commentary interspersed with memories, to-do lists, future plans. There were the odd instants of delight and wonder (the green of new grass, the toughness of some weed roots, scarlet parrots in a bare tree). But also much perplexity and discontent (Donald Trump, how to not buy anything in plastic, can I project-manage the new kitchen and work on the new book at the same time?). Gradually a kind of non-stop, nagging, argumenative chatter took over. I had to speak to myself sternly. It’s a beautiful day. You’re alive and not in pain or distress. Pull weeds. Stop thinking.
And then, when I went inside for a cup of tea and propped my book – Mary Swann by Carol Shields, Flamingo, 1993 – up on the teapot, after a few pages I read this:
…I’ve never been able to see the point of emptying one’s mind of thought. Our thoughts are all we have. I love my thoughts, even when they take me up and down sour-smelling byways where I’d rather not venture. Whatever flickers on in my head is mine and I want it, all the blinking impulses and inclinations and connections and weirdness, and especially those bright purple flares that come streaming out of nowhere, announcing that you’re at some mystic juncture or turning point and that you’d better pay attention.
I love my thoughts, too. Mostly. Wandering, discursive, curious; linking and connecting; interpreting and inventing and basically making stuff up, gold from straw, like the spinning maiden in Rumpelstilstkin – where would I be if my mind was empty? I wouldn’t be a writer, that’s certain. For years I’ve wondered if I could write and at the same time achieve that possibly mythical but much desired state of ‘living in the moment’. I’d be happier, perhaps. But maybe I wouldn’t be able to write. And that would make me unhappy. It’s a matter of balance – like everything, I suppose – and patience. I get stuck – enmired is Tim Parks’ word – in kitchen renovation and Donald Trump and general discontent, and then get jolted out of it by a parrot or a blade of new grass.
PS. Does anyone read Carol Shields any more? She was a terrific writer. I read The Stone Diaries (shortlisted for the Booker in 1993, it won Shields the Pulitzer in 1995) when it came out, and was amazed at how wonderful and deep and engrossing and illuminating she’d made an ‘ordinary’ woman’s life. This year I’ve found The Republic of Love, Larry’s Party and Unless in various Opportunity Shops. Mary Swann was in the library’s shelf at the railway station. So random! Shields’ books are sophisticated and ingenious, funny as well as dark, and particularly good on ‘domesticity – the shaggy beast that eats up 50 percent of our lives’. She died too young, in 2003, at 68.
Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From is a collection of articles originally written for the New York Review of Books between 2010 and 2014.
The introduction starts with a fusillade of questions.
It’s time to rethink everything. Everything. What it means to write and what it means to write for a public – and which public? What do I want from this writing? Money? A career? Recognition? A place in the community? A change in the government? Is it an artifice, is it therapy? Is it therapy because it is an artifice, or in spite of that? Does it have to do with constructing an identity, a position in society? Or simply with entertaining others? Will I still write if they don’t pay me?
Questions, questions, questions.
And the kind that I am asking myself at the moment, in the breathing space between finishing a first draft and waiting for the editor’s response (let’s not even think about all the work to come). I thought I would enjoy this break a little more, for it’s been a hard slog, with two books on the go, since early 2016. I could blame the weather – which is gloomy and cold – and say it’s a case of mid-winter blues, but it’s more likely the case that I am so used to having a project on the go, I feel at a loss without one. Where am I writing from? After this children’s book is all done and dusted, what will I do next?
Does copyright matter? Why finish books? Does money make us better writers?
Parks is well qualified to ask and to answer – in a long career, he’s written non-fiction, novels, essays; he’s also a translator and teacher. I read two early books, Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education, twenty odd years ago; they were a clear-eyed corrective to the “Living in Tuscany” fantasy genre. And I’ve read and re-read his memoir of chronic pain and meditation, Teach Me To Sit Still, and enjoyed the meditation retreat novel, Sex is Forbidden.
Do we need stories?
Parks thinks, not really.
He writes that just as the reader imagines that he or she is a “self”, so the character in a novel is a “self” too, and his or her story reinforces the reader’s own process of self-creation. In trying to understand what he means, I remember myself (there’s that word again) as a young girl reading novels like Jane Eyre, and discovering an intense, passionate, inner world that both echoed and helped me create my own. Parks asks whether we really need this “intensification of self”, when it is the separate self that often makes us (in Westernised countries, at any rate) so miserable.
Having read my fair share of Buddhist literature, I get where he’s coming from, but I’ve always wondered – if I really detached from my particular invented self, with all of its stories, loves and hates and joys and (often pointless and self-inflicted) suffering, would I still write? And if I didn’t, would it matter?
Parks ends by admitting that he’s in too far – ‘enmired in narrative and self-narrative” – and that he loves a novel. He’s just not sure if he actually needs it.
Where I’m Reading From Tim Parks, Harvill Secker, London, 2014
I read Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour over an afternoon and evening; I literally couldn’t put it down.
It wasn’t because of suspense; there was no ‘how will this story turn out’; there was never any doubt about the ending. Nina Riggs, a 38-year-old poet and teacher, with a husband and two young sons, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years before she died in February this year. A ‘little spot’ turned into an extremely aggressive cancer – and her lovely memoir is about that time, living in the shadow of illness and death, but still, living. It’s full of the beauty of the everyday – there’s no ‘bucket list’ of amazing adventures in exotic places, just life.
The title is taken from a piece by Riggs’ ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that he was “cheered with the moist, warm, glittering, budding and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its pulsation and life to the very horizon. That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as the World.”
There were many ‘bright hours’ – spent with her father, her mother (also dying of cancer), her husband and two young sons. The boys are beautiful individual portraits and I especially loved the black humour of the jokes Riggs shared with friend who was also going through cancer treatment. The ‘casserole bitches’ made me laugh out loud.
There was much in her life that was warm, glittering, budding and melodious; when her husband talked about things ‘getting back to normal’, she responded that this was her normal now, and she must love it.
I cried a little, though the memoir was never maudlin. Mostly I was simply moved and occasionally sobered (for there’s always the thought, what would I do in her situation?) by her truthfulness and courage.
There’s a ‘bright’ in the title of my new book, too.
How Bright Are All Things Here is my first for adults, published by Pan Macmillan, and released in September. The title, too, is part of something else, a quotation; it’s from a poem called Wonder by Thomas Traherne, an English mystical poet of the 17th century.
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
The novel is all about Bliss, a dying woman in her her late 70’s, who’s reviewing her life and loves and relationships. Time twists and curls and loops back; she reflects on her past and she relives it, while her three step-children hover. I chose the poem because I’ve always loved it; it takes me back to a very early memory, of lying on my bed watching glittering motes of dust whirling and spinning in the air, not knowing that they were dust, entranced by the glitter and the spin.
It’s taken close to ten years to get to this point and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. Excited and happy, naturally – I wouldn’t have pressed on for years with this novel if I didn’t want it published. So there’s a great sense of satisfaction.
But I’m also having to get used to an odd feeling of loss, a bit like I felt when my son left home. The book was always there, to work on and think about, and now it’s finished and gone. There’s an absence. I’m not quite ready yet to fill it with something else; though there is another novel quietly percolating away, it’s too soon to do anything with it and I’m a great believer in leaving well alone. We shall see.
Just finished Sally Abbott’s Closing Down.
I was at a dinner party here in Castlemaine a couple of years ago when I met Sally for the first time. She was still finishing the book, with chapters flying to and fro between her and her editor at Hachette; I could sense her excitement at the opportunity (the manuscript was the winner of the inaugural Richell Prize for Emerging Writers) and her commitment to the hard, hard work that was involved. So it was a thrill to go as the bookseller to the launch a couple of months ago, and see the pile of novels diminishing as happy punters paid for their copies.
It’s an engrossing read, set in a future that’s maybe not so far away. As a result of climate change and geopolitical shifts, the Australian government is closing down rural towns and communities. Under the all-too-believable program, “A New ERA: Energising Rural Australia”, residents are forcibly relocated and provided with only the barest of essentials. It’s a soul-destroying business; many people simply take the the roads and become ‘walkers’; others suicide.
When Clare loses her run-down rental property, it looks as if her hard-won security will vanish. Here the gritty dystopian world turns a little strange; magical, in fact. With the aid of cat and mysterious town matriarch Granna Adams, Clare manages a kind of happy ending.
Outside Australia, giant refugee camps have sprung up to process millions of desperate people. Granna’s grandson Roberto and his lover Ella are the other protagonists; Ella works at a high level in the aid sector; Roberto is a journalist. Their jobs mean travel, money, a kind of freedom; these can insulate their lives, but can’t block out the surreal disaster unfolding across the planet.
It’s an engrossing read; dystopian fiction, certainly, but there’s hope in there too. Human kindness and goodness can, sometimes, prevail.
I especially loved the teasing suspicion that harmless-seeming old ladies may, just possibly, be able to save the world.
Continuing the stationery theme from my last post…
End of financial year always has me scrabbling around for receipts and invoices. In general, they’re properly filed away but occasionally not. That’s when I go looking, and in looking find all sorts of things I wasn’t seeking. Over the weekend, it was my scrapbooks.
I started keeping scrapbooks about five years ago. Before that, it was folders filled with – well, with scraps. I could have thrown everything out – but no, I couldn’t bear to.
Instead, I chose to buy a couple of cheap stapled scrapbooks, the ones little kids used to use (maybe they still do) at school. Mine had dinosaurs on the covers, but I soon covered them over with pictures from old calendars. I went through a lot of gluesticks.
They get very bulgy, those cheap books. A couple of years ago, I switched to spiral bound Visual Diaries. I’ve got a couple of those, A4 size, and then I decided they weren’t big enough (there was a lot of folding of newspaper articles) so my current book is A3.
This assortment looked very scrappy on the shelf. The thought occurred to me that if I had a standard format, there would eventually be a whole row of beautifully matching scrapbooks. And if I indexed them – imagine, both matching AND indexed – how splendid that would be – a shelf to be proud of. And I could be diligent, instead of slack, and keep up with the clippings and the pasting and the indexing, and print out stuff off the Internet as well…
Quite the project, eh?
That’s it, though, isn’t it? Quite the project, and do I really need any more of those? Like I need a hole in the head.
Like lots of us (women more than men? I’m not sure) I’m drawn to the lure of the new start, the perfect system; quite simply, perfection. A new calendar, notebook, journal, diary or scrapbook signals an opportunity to be more organised, more disciplined, more systematic – in a word, better.
And how will this betterness actually improve my life – my writing life, in particular? Not all that much, really. The matchy-matchy spines on a shelf would simply please my eye. Though, come to think of it, an index would be wonderful. A grand project (like sorting the photo albums) which I will get stuck into if ever I break a leg or have to recuperate from an operation. Index-less, there is however a lucky dip quality to the scrapbooks, a happy randomness. The first few pages contain cuttings on the following:
‘late style’ in literature
losing one’s notebook
creepy 19th century photographs of dead children and babies
It’s rather like reading an old copy of Susan magazine. If there was such a thing as Susan magazine. I still have folders of clippings – they’re just waiting for a session with the glue stick – however, I’ve just bought a book on artist’s journals (pictured). It’s a fabulous trove of images and ideas and I think – when I’ve got the time – I’ll try to make some art out of the clippings file. Another project…