Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Aren't you wearing tweed?

I just remembered the day I decided to be a writer.
Ivan Southall came to visit our school. I'm not sure how old I was, but I must have been in grade 4 or 5, and as far as I was concerned Ivan Southall was a god.
He'd written what I considered to be the greatest book ever published, To The Wild Sky. I loved all my historical favourites, but Ivan Southall's books like Hills End, Ash Road and The Fox Hole were different. They were Australian. They were about kids in the bush. Hot days, bushfires, floods. They were about me.
If Geoffrey Trease had visited my school I'd have fainted. But Ivan Southall was the local hero, having gone to school in Box Hill, and so I stayed vaguely conscious.
Big events like that never happened at our school. It was just a little primary school, out on what was then the edge of the city, edged with bush. There were bushfire evacuations every so often, and once the Duke of Edinburgh drove past and we all had to stand for hours, waiting by the side of the road, waving our flags at every car in case it was him. When Armstrong landed on the room, they moved the (only) television out into the hallway and we all sat on the cool lino and watched.
So a visiting author was big news. That was also the first time I experienced the terror and thrill of being star-struck. Mr Southall (even now I can't call him anything else) wore a tweed jacket. Of course he did. He was an author.
So that's the bit I could be making up. For all I know he was clad in walk shorts and long white socks with sandals, but in my mind he will always be in a tweed jacket. Possibly smoking a pipe. Because, as everyone knows, that's what authors do. I even did that in about 1980, which just shows you how tragic I am. Even the pipe (it was horrible). But to this day I'm very fond of a good tweed jacket.
I can't recall a thing he said. I remember him as being rather stern, and extremely tall, and I was too awestruck to ask any questions. Mr Southall wasn't just an author: he was a decorated air ace, a DFC for God's sake, a war hero. He became one of Australia's most decorated children's authors, winning the Carnegie Medal for Josh in 1971 and the Children’s Book of the Year Award four times. In 2003 he won both the Dromkeen Medal and the Phoenix Award for his work over the years.
But back in 1970 at Antonio Park Primary School something about seeing a real live writer in the flesh (and tweed) made me realise that there were people who just wrote for a job, who lived in houses just like me and drank tea and who, although clearly godlike, were probably quite normal when you got to know them.
I think I got my gorgeous hardback copy of Hills End signed, but I was probably too scared, and it's in a box somewhere in Melbourne so I can't check. I'm not very good at getting books signed. Once I stood next to Marina Warner, book in hand, and held my breath for so long I got dizzy, but somehow it just seemed too much to ask the poor woman.
But then again she wasn't in a tweed jacket.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The blank screen

I usually think of myself as a writer as being the first reader of the book. I just happen to be in the position of a reader who turns over the next page and finds it blank.
- David Malouf

Friday, January 27, 2006

Greedy Cat and Nickle Nackle get the gongs

Robyn Belton is this year's winner of New Zealand's most prestigious award for children's literature, the Margaret Mahy Medal.
The award is given annually by Storylines (the Children's Literature Foundation of New Zealand) for "a distinguished contribution to children's literature and literacy". Last year's winner was the lovely David Hill.
Storylines also announced yesterday that much-loved author-illustrator, Lynley Dodd, creator of Hairy Maclary (who happens to be a dead-ringer for my late lamented dog Lil), has won the 2006 Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-loved Book for her first book, The Nickle Nackle Tree.
Published in Britain in 1976, the picture book was Dodd's first after the successful My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes with writer Eve Sutton (1973), and has remained in print ever since.
The annual award recognises a book unheralded at the time of publication but which has remained in print and proven itself a favourite with readers. Last year's winner was Tessa Duder's classic Night Race to Kawau .
In a career spanning more than 30 years, Lynley Dodd has created such well-loved and iconic characters as Hairy Maclary, Slinky Malinky, Schnitzel von Krumm and her latest, Zachary Quack. Her books, admired for the wit and technical mastery of both the verse and pictures, have been regular award winners in New Zealand and are widely published in America, Australia and elsewhere.
Robyn Belton, a graduate of the Canterbury University School of Fine Arts, and now an illustrator and tertiary lecturer (based in Dunedin) has been a leading New Zealand illustrator for more than 20 years.
Her debut work, The Duck in the Gun, an anti-war picture book published in 1984 with text by Joy Cowley, won the Russell Clark Award and was one of 10 children's books selected for the Hiroshima Peace Museum. But Belton's most beloved creation is Greedy Cat (also with text by Cowley). I'm particularly fond of her exquisite Bow Down, Shadrach and The Bantam and the Soldier.
Belton will present the customary lecture, given each year as part of the acceptance of the award, at the Storylines annual Margaret Mahy Day, on March 11 in Auckland. The inaugural lecture was presented by Margaret Mahy in 1991. This year is also Margaret Mahy's 70th birthday, to be celebrated that day with a dinner and a hui for writers and illustrators. I'll be there, waving a sparkler or some such thing.
The next Storylines Festival of New Zealand's Children's Writers and Illustrators in on 11 to 18 June (in cities around NZ). I'll be there, too.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Historical fiction dilemma # 3: Readership

I don't suppose you've read Peter Raven: Under Fire. It's an odd book. I read it late last year - and I acknowledge that it's vaguely in competition to my own, but then again I've read more kids' naval adventure books than most people, so it's an informed opinion. Under Fire is trying to be both an adventure for boys 10 to 12, and a romance for girls a bit older. It's going for a balance between Hornblower and Hillary Duff.
Either story might have worked. Trying to do both makes its narrative jump and its pace jerk. One minute you're in a naval battle, the next a ballroom. I also fear that the young male readers will be turned off by the romance bits.
I can hear it now. "Is this a kissing book?"
Yes and no.
But I can sympathise with the author, Michael Malloy. There are few kids' adventure books read avidly by both girls and boys. The exceptions include some of the biggest titles in publishing (Harry Potter, Narnia, Deltora), so clearly it's a balancing act you want to get right, unless you've got a very specific readership in mind. Boys won't read a book with a girl on the cover, or a female protagonist. It's sad, but there you go.
On the other hand, years ago I knew many women who wouldn't read books by men (it was the '80s). "What about War and Peace?" I'd ask. But I did understand. They'd spent a lifetime looking for their lives to be reflected in books - you could be Elizabeth Bennett or Madame Bovary, throwing yourself at Darcy or throwing yourself under a train, and there wasn't too much in between, or that's how it seemed. So once they got their hands on books by women like Fay Weldon or Iris Murdoch, or even good old Marge Piercy, they weren't about to go back to hacks like Hemingway. It was a phase. Perhaps a necessary one. Without it, there'd have been no Virago, no Women's Press.
It wasn't just about gender. It was the same for working men - or unemployed men, for that matter - before Lawrence and Wells. It was the same for queers before Genet or Baldwin, for ... well, you get the idea.
Can you remember what that was like? To search high and low for a protagonist who sounded like you; who lived, if not your life, at least something vaguely recognisable or felt and thought about the world in a way you understood; to read about someone you could have been or could be or perhaps might once have been?
Now women readers have the luxury of relating to everyone from Bridget Jones to Lily Brett to Jhumpa Lahiri. We can choose to align ourselves with a whole world of characters, navigate through myriad worlds and lives.
So readership has become a very specialised thing. There are no more truths universally acknowledged. There's Young Adult Chick Lit. Coming-of-Age Westerns. Christian Thrillers. Africana Science Fantasy. Visionary and Metaphysical Fiction.
Each one of these has a market, a readership of varying sizes (especially in the US), a shelf at Borders, and quite often a formula that allows readers to recognise a familiar genre.
At present I'm working on a time slip novel. It's got its own genre (time slip is of course a long-established tradition, but it's now divided into sub-genres).
The Swashbuckler books are conscious tributes to nautical adventure books from O'Brien to Sabatini, but with a tomboy protagonist. The girl pirate book is almost a genre in itself now (mostly aimed at girls). Genre is fun.
Readership is different, and perhaps more complex. Genre is internal - it's about writing as craft, as tradition. Writing for a readership is about making connections, about voice, about listening. I think.

Historical fiction dilemma #2: Voice

Historical fiction dilemma #1: Ethics

Book worms

"Books are the basis of our cultural heritage. Some may influence our world view or even shape our lives. Many of our childhood memories have to do with the books that we read or that were read to us. We identify those who are like us, and understand their inner world, by the books they read. We approach a book as we approach a work of art or a meeting with a new acquaintance, bringing with us our knowledge and experience, and during the encounter - in the course of reading - an intimate relationship is formed between ourselves and the book. The words stimulate our senses and engage our emotions. We see in our mind's eye the characters and places described. We hear their sounds and smell their scents - but we smell the paper, too, and stroke the pages and the covers, and some readers even 'taste' the book by moistening their finger to turn the pages."
From 'Beauty and the Book', an exhibition at the Israel Museum last year.

This piece, by Matej Kren, is called Idiom. The tower is constructed from thousands of books, collected from libraries and publishers. This and more extraordinary photos of the book tunnel are at BookLust.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Lies, damn lies, and fiction

"I became a novelist because I am interested in exploring the truth. If I wanted to lie to readers, I'd write a memoir."
- Tim Hall, Blogcritics.

"Fiction is a piece of truth that turns lies to meaning."
- Dorothy Allison, Skin.

"I am an author of fiction, I lie for a living, I am paid to perpetuate a habit I picked up in childhood; the one which leads me to tell stories which are not true."
- A L Kennedy, Edinburgh Book Festival, 2001.

"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t."
- Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson

"A writer is congenitally unable to tell the truth and that is why we call what he writes fiction."
- William Faulkner

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me."
- Jeannette Winterson, any time, anywhere.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Storyteller on a tightrope

As the stage production of the still-astounding Nights at the Circus opens in London, Paul Barker recalls in The Independent the late, lamented, hilarous, and really rather terrifying Angela Carter: "She wrote with wild grace, like a dandy."

Toast and jam

At last year's Edinburgh International Book Festival, the ABC's Ramona Koval spoke about writing with someone who should know:
Margaret Atwood: My daughter isn’t here ... she somewhat resents this story, but maybe she’s got through her period of resentment because she’s now 29. But when she was five, she and her friend Heather put on a play, and they sold the tickets to this play which were five cents. We bought the tickets and we were, in fact, the only audience members. The play opened, and the play was two characters having breakfast, and they had some orange juice and they had some cereal and they had milk on the cereal and they had some toast and they had butter on the toast and they had jam on the toast...
Ramona Koval: You did have hopes for this play early on though. You thought that you could see in its structure perhaps something Pinteresque or ...
Margaret Atwood: That was after we’d had more toast, more orange juice and more tea and more jam, and then more orange juice, and finally at about the third go around we said, ‘Is anything else going to happen in this play?’ And they said, ‘No.’ We said, ‘In that case, we’re going away, and when you think of something else that’s going to happen, we’ll come back,’ because otherwise it gets to be like an Andy Warhol movie about somebody sleeping. It makes an artistic point but you don’t want to actually sit through it for 12 hours. So that’s the difference. In literature, unless something happens fairly early on in the book, people are probably not going to turn the page.
Ramona Koval: It seems like a simple message but so many people don’t get that.
Margaret Atwood: Well, maybe they have more faith in the reader than they ought to have. Maybe they think they can have the thing happening on page 15. They really need to have it happening on about page three ... something, anything.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The moral of the story

A couple of years ago, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival surveyed its young audience members to ask: "What new and interesting things did you learn from seeing these films?" Here are some of their responses:
Don’t be afraid to help sharks. —A.F., ten
That people in other worlds have more problems then we do. —L.H., ten
I learned that you should never take a former evil king on a long desert hike. —A.S., eleven
Never play that game. —K.S., ten
How to fight about toilets. —L.M., ten
Life. —R.H., eight
I learned that it was sad and that you had to go to someplace and get stuff. —J.T., ten
Do not marry someone that you don’t know. —K.B., nine
We found out what our dog does when we’re away. —M.B., five

And my personal favourites:
If you lose your baby you will get mad. —F.G., ten
Penguins have troubles too. —S.H., ten

These are really very sensible responses (beside the shark thing), although most ten year-olds I know would probably be a bit more articulate, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that:
A. They thought it was a dumb question, or
B. The comments are ripped out of context.
But it really begs the question: why do we feel the need to have a Moral in a children's story?
Is it still the influence of the Victorian authors, of the so-called Golden Age of children's literature, offering the guiding light of faith and goodness through the darkness of the world?
Do we think children need an author to take a moral position, more than adult readers do?
Or do we assume that part of the role of children's literature is the moulding of young ethics - the writer as Jesuit?
I had hoped that the debate over the Chronicles of Narnia would have sparked a bit more questioning on this, but it seems to have been largely an argument over which set of morals is the correct one. The heavyweight Lewis versus Pullman is fun (although it would be more wittily argued if Lewis was here to defend himself against the Pullman right hook), but in their writing they both bang on about right and wrong without questioning whether they have the authority or obligation to do so.
I'm as guilty of it as anyone. There are ethical questions raised in my books about slavery, empire, gender, nationalism and violence, and I'm still thinking about how to deal with the question of Moral in the future.
But it wasn't until writing the third book that I realised I didn't have to provide answers as well as questions.

Who says there's no such thing as a new idea?

Is the term "literary fiction" redundant?
"Popular does not necessarily mean poorly imagined," writes Malcolm Knox in a thoughtful piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. "It's the innovative language and ideas that define truly great writing."
What is literary fiction anyway? Usually it is posed as an opposite for "commercial", and so commercial fiction is what sells in large numbers, and literary fiction is what doesn't sell. But this ignores the fact that most fiction that is written to a formula, for a mass audience, does not sell any more than non-formula fiction. Your average Australian thriller or chick-lit novel sells no more than a work of literary fiction. And sometimes, as in the case of Tim Winton, non-generic fiction sells in large quantities...
Original writing speaks from the real world, from the concrete. The hostility to cultural elites is based on a supposition that they are detached from real life, that their art is only answering other art. Another supposition is that cultural elites have no standards, that everything is relative.
I reject both suppositions. The best original writing... is grounded entirely in life. ... Formulaic writing, on the other hand, is entirely grounded in other writing. This is what cliche is - writing that mimics other writing
... Original writing is always going to threaten such inversions. Formulaic writing on the other hand is going to entrench them, and entertain us while entrenching, by repetition and cliche, what we think we already know. Original writing strives to assign words their true value, not just today's market price.
So why bother? Because art - invention, original thinking - is the answer. Why write? Because the alternative - silence - is unbearable.

You can read his entire argument here.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

In whose opinion?

Opinionated writing is always the most difficult ... simply because it involves retaining in the cold morning-after crystal of the printed word the burning flow of molten feeling.

- Gavin Lyall

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Red letter day

Yesterday I saw the first sketch of the cover of my first book. I could tell you what it's like, but then I'd have to shoot you.
But it's spot on. Better than I had hoped. I'm chuffed.

Monday, January 16, 2006

And another thing

So I watched The Terminal, for some reason. But let's not go there.
The thing is, Catherine Zeta-Jones's air steward character is, inexplicably, fascinated by Napoleon.
She says: "After he lost the Battle of Waterloo, he isolated himself on the island of St Helena."
Why would she say that? Like he had a choice?
I don't particularly care that it's wrong (well, I do, but that's another matter). I just can't get my head around the idea that a multi-million dollar film, with a team of script writers, and someone somewhere who has decided there has to be a constant stream of Napoleon references, includes a detail that is wrong. Somebody in that movie team has researched the topic enough to know all sorts of stupid stuff about Napoleon. But they don't know that he was exiled? It's like not knowing he was Emperor. So why did they put it in there?
It's very odd.
This is where I get to tell you [oh what a dashing segue] all about my great-great-great-great-many-greats uncle, Lieutenant Andrew Mott, who commanded the barge which took Napoleon aboard the glorious Bellepheron where he surrendered his sword to Captain Maitland. Napoleon presented Lieutenant Mott with a set of pistols. And if they ever come up for auction, I'm mortgaging the house.
From Maitland's log:
"At break of day, on the 15th of July 1815, L'Epervier French brig of war was discovered under sail, standing out towards the ship, with a flag of truce up; and at the same time the Superb, bearing Sir Henry Hotham's flag, was seen in the offing.
By half-past five the ebb-tide failed, the wind was blowing right in, and the brig, which was within a mile of us, made no further progress; while the Superb was advancing with the wind and tide in her favour. Thus situated, and being most anxious to terminate the affair I had brought so near a conclusion, previous to the Admiral's arrival, I sent off Mr. Mott, the first Lieutenant, in the barge, who returned soon after six o'clock, bringing Napoleon with him. "

See? The poor man had abdicated, surrendered, and given away his pistols to one of my mob. No wonder he decided to isolate himself on a rock in the middle of the ocean.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lost history

I'm having a bachelor weekend, as my girlfriend's away, which means I watch war movies and shout at the History Channel and eat strange things and sing along with Robbie Williams really loudly and write until late at night. (Not all at once.)
But my shouting at the History Channel this afternoon has been on the topic of Lost History. A BBC (of all people!) documentary called White Slaves, Pirate Gold focused on the discovery of a 17th century ship hoard off the Devon coast, including gold Moroccan coins, Delftware plates, and cannon.
"Renegade pirate attack," I shout, as if I'm a contestant on Mastermind. Specialist topic: pirates.
But oh no. This is Lost History, I'm told. This is clearly an astonishing revelation that only the perceptive people in the documentary research team will ever be able to unravel, and not until the end of the program.
Never mind that every maritime historian interviewed no doubt knows every date of every known corsair attack on the British coast and the name of every commanding captain. This is Lost History. Its unveiling is to take place before our eyes, like those Lost Mummies in Lost Pyramids or the Lost Mammoth and the Lost Ice Age Man. I don't mean to diminish the importance of the find. It's the story-telling that annoys me.
Because apparently none of us has ever heard of the white slave trade. Nobody has ever heard the term "renegade". Nobody knew, Until This Amazing Discovery, that Barbary corsairs had attacked Europe. This is Untold History.
I know that I'm not your normal viewer. I've just written three books about pirates including a renegade. But really. Any history of piracy will tell you all about it -even the kids' books, like DK's Pirate. Good old Rafael Sabatini's original swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk, is one of the most famous pirate novels ever written - all about a renegade, taken in a raid on the Cornish coast.
This isn't Untold History. It's been Told over and bloody over. You just weren't listening, mate.
"Just look up Murad Reis in your stupid encyclopedia," I yell at the screen.
It happens all the time. I'm not sure which is more frustrating: the idea that unless History is Lost History, it's not interesting, which to me only indicates an inadequacy in the script; or the implication that viewers are stupid. Even the experts, whose interviews are edited so that it seems they are only just reaching their conclusions at the same time as the viewer, are made to look as if they are working in the darkness of Lost History.
But fear not. All mysteries can be solved by a documentary team. It's patronising, it negates all other research on the topic, and it doesn't necessarily make for a good documentary - or book.
There are lots of Lost History books about at present. One of the most offensive, and in the same vein, is White Gold, by Giles Milton of Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed The Course Of History fame. That was another fearless expose of Lost History - hey, guess what? The spice trade made people rich! Who'd have thunk it?
Milton also wrote Big Chief Elizabeth: How England's Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World, about Raleigh's failed New World ventures, since of course none of us had ever heard of Elizabeth or Raleigh either, and somehow managed to make two of the most fascinating people in history boring as batshit.
But I digress. White Gold is offensive, in a throw-the-book-across-the-room kind of way, rather than just a shouting way, because its fearless expose of Lost History is also about the white slave trade in Morocco and he indicates absolutely no interest whatsoever in the fate of all the millions of slaves of other races and cultures who were also kidnapped, beaten, starved, and basically destroyed by the trade at that time. It's as if nobody else exists. He bangs on and on about people being white, especially British, as if enslaving them is somehow more horrifying than if people are African, or perhaps even Maltese or Greek.
I could have sworn I was reading some Victorian melodrama.
Of course, it isn't just called White Gold. Oh no. This is Lost History. So it's called White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves.
When these books started appearing, my brother and I used to laugh at our own brilliant ideas for the most ridiculous topics. Brooms: The Invention That Swept The World. Knife: The Cutting Edge of History. But anything we dreamed up has long been surpassed by Dust: A History Of The Small & The Invisible, Flea, Salt, and, for all I know, Sewage: The Pipeline of Humanity (actually, Dust was one of our ideas - I should sue).
I quite liked Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. And anything that gets people reading history is a wonderful thing. But they can be just as easily put off history if they think it's only worthwhile if it's Lost. Surely, if Mark Kurlansky and Simon Winchester can take the reader on an entertaining and informative historical journey, then it ought to be possible for other writers to focus on the history, and tell a good story, instead of just going for the easy, flabby Lost History angle.
And don't even start me on The Da Vinci Code.
Aren't you glad you aren't sitting on the couch with me? I'm about to watch Crusaders: The Crescent and the Cross. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Essential truths

Oh now I get it.
James Frey, whose life story sold millions even though it wasn't exactly his life story, has explained his whole new genre to us, on the Larry King Show (you can lie to Oprah, apparently, so long as you cover your ass on King). Here's how it went:
FREY: We initially shopped the book as a novel and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a non-fiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I'm not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.
KING: Why did you shop it as a novel if it wasn't?
FREY: I think of the book as working in sort of a tradition - a long tradition of what American writers have done in the past, people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.
KING: But they all said fiction.
FREY: Yes, they did. And at the time of their books being published, the genre of memoir didn't exist. I mean, the genre of memoir is one that's very new and the boundaries of it had not been established yet.
KING: But you will agree, if you went into a bookstore and it said memoirs, you would think non-fiction?
FREY: Yes. I mean, it's a classification of non-fiction. Some people think it's creative non-fiction. It's generally recognized that the writer of a memoir is retailing a subjective story. That it's one person's event. I mean, I still stand by the essential truths of the book.

There are so many hilarious elements there, it's hard to know where to start. How about the idea that memoir didn't exist as a genre in the 20th century? He's not just a liar, he's an ignorant schmuck. How about the allegation that the publishers knew it was a novel but decided to market it as memoir? Or the idea that you can pitch a manuscript to publishers as either fiction or non-fiction (pick whichever you need to fill out your list)? Or the dazzling audacity of the man, to place himself in the same literary tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al (maybe he just means drunks)?

I could go on, but everyone else is. I'll end with this gem:
FREY: My publishers have been incredibly supportive. You know, I think they feel the same way that I do, that this is a memoir.
KING: You keep saying that, but a memoir is accepted as fact. I mean, if I see memoir, I accept it as a person's memory of incidents or things in their life. I wrote a memoir. I may not have been exactly right, but it was my memory of incidents.
FREY: I don't think -- I think you could probably find people who would dispute every memoir that was ever published. And a lot of them have been disputed. When Jerzy Kosinski's "Painted Bird" came out and became a big success several years afterwards, people said, "You know what? Jerzy Kosinski never went through the Holocaust." It's happened with a number of recent memoirs. It tends to happen with a lot of the more high-profile memoirs.
KING: And Jerzy killed himself.


You can read the entire tragic obfuscation here.

You want fries with that?

A recent conversation (let's hope it's apocryphal) overheard at the Barnes & Noble store in Brooklyn Heights, NY:

Lady: Excuse me, but I’m looking for a book.

Store chick: And?

Lady: I don’t remember the title or author, but the cover is purple.

Store chick: Our purple books are downstairs.

Lady: They sent me up here.

Store chick: We’re sold out of purple books. You want something in a yellow?


(From Overheard in New York - via Maud Newton)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Discoveries

My experience of ships is that on them one makes an interesting discovery about the world. One finds one can do without it completely.
- Malcolm Bradbury

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

School for scandal

O how I love a good literary scandal. It's indecent of me, I know. But I'll never forget my jubilant dance around the Port Douglas newsagency on the morning the Courier Mail broke the news that the so-called Helen Demidenko's vile, amateurish and virulently anti-Semitic The Hand That Signed the Paper was not, after all, a semi-biographical masterpiece by a young woman of Ukrainian descent who confirmed her ancestry by turning up to collect her many awards in a relentless array of peasant blouses.
No. It was a vile, amateurish and virulently anti-Semitic piece of crap by the daughter of an English taxi driver called Darville.
Weeks passed before a few writers realised that the few good passages in the book seemed familiar - because they'd been lifted from elsewhere. Further evidence of incompetence. If you're going to knock off someone's work in Australia, don't pick on Thomas Kenneally - choose an author nobody's ever read. She kept at it, too, though why any editor in Australia ever trusted her again, I don't know. She's not even very good. Not to mention the taste in clothes.
Loved the Norma Khouri scandal too. At last a publisher took the view that misrepresentation of yourself and your text is a contract breach. The moral: never trust anyone in a peasant blouse.
Poor old Random House. Now it's happened again.
The Smoking Gun has published the comprehensive results of a six week investigation into the "memoir" of James Frey, A Million Little Pieces. In it, Frey apparently tells his true life story of alcoholism, drug addiction, crime and time in prison. But somehow he forgot to mention it was fiction.
Smoking Gun alleges that:
Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey's book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw "wanted in three states."

I haven't read the book (too much vomiting for me). But Oprah Winfrey has. She found it so moving, she named it as her Book Club pick and catapulted it into the charts. Presumably this made him a very rich man - he's sold almost as many copies in the US as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
In the TV interview, Frey told Oprah:
"I was a bad guy. If I was gonna write a book that was true, and I was gonna write a book that was honest, then I was gonna have to write about myself in very, very negative ways."
Oprah was misled. You can't blame her, though some commentators have. It's clearly a very moving and popular book - but it's not true. Doubleday/Random House are standing by their man for now. But I wouldn't want to be the person who answers the phone when Oprah calls.
New York literary agent and blogger, Miss Snark, is interesting on the matter. "We knew," she admitted today. "We all knew. And no-one did anything."
Meanwhile, the New York Times, which knows the feeling only too well, says there's more scandal to follow.

Life cycle

Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots.
- Victor Hugo

Monday, January 09, 2006

What I did on my holiday

I tried to be good last week and read some Improving Novels, after months and months of non-fiction, research and kids' books.
It started promisingly enough, with Conspirators, by Michael Andre Bernstein. It's been described as Proustian, and it is indeed a faceted gem of a book: faceted in many senses; densely and carefully crafted, its core able to be viewed from many perspectives, all slightly obtuse. Proust without quite so many semi-colons, perhaps, although Bernstein's grammar and punctuation are impeccable and engrossing (if you watch comma placement as a spectator sport, which I do).
It's a complex thriller, really - perceptive and unflinching, populated by an entire community of interesting, if not likeable, characters, slowly entrapping the reader in a compelling web of court politics and revolutionary cells, anti-Semitism and Messianic prophecies, and capturing the lumbering Zeppelin that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire before it crashed and burned. Over it all, at least in the mind of the know-all reader, hangs that stultifying fog of foresight: these bright, if silly, young revolutionaries will all soon be dead in World War One; this thriving Jewish community will be gone in another generation.
Things went a little downhill after that, with Elizabeth Knox's Billie's Kiss. I expected much of it, with all her awards and fellowships, and locals here raving about every new book. I admit that Daylight has been sitting in the To Read pile by my bed for a year - you have to be in quite a specific mood for a vampire novel, and I've never quite got there. Still, I launched into Billie's Kiss with enthusiasm, and then found myself laughing out loud a few times in the first few chapters at jarring metaphors and ill-considered adjectives. But finally the plot carried me along through its currents, all Edwardian sideburns and sullen Scots islanders. Again, it becomes something of a thriller, and again the war clouds hang low. I read it in one sitting, which can't be all bad, but finally felt let down by some rapid plot resolution and the tying up of character loose-ends which could have happily been left frayed.
That was the end of my experiment. I promise to try harder. But then I couldn't resist the temptation of Richard Holmes' Footsteps, following the travels and travails of RL Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft in Revolutionary Paris, and Shelley's final years in Italy. The Wollstonecraft chapter led me on to Brian Dolan's Ladies of the Grand Tour, and then the idea of Paris under siege made me pick up a pop history of the Comet Line, Freedom Line, paying tribute to the Belgian, French and Basque people who risked their lives to rescue airmen shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe.
Now it's back into the welcoming leaves of Jan Morris, with her final volume in the Britannia triptych, Farewell the Trumpets. That makes me happy.
But the more I read, the more books I urgently have to write, so I might just stick to Who Weekly from now on.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Say it isn't so

You won't want to believe these are true, but if Miss Snark says so, they're true. Gasp in horror, shriek, wince, and snort coffee out your nose at these excerpts from stories submitted to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. Then go double-check everything you ever wrote.
My favourites:
Out of the dark void came what looked like a giant rabbit followed by small rabbits which had looked as if they had undergone a mutation with three ears and 2 tails. They discovered they were on Rabbitania.

Jake was not a man to show much emotion, but he found himself supressing the urge to smile out loud.

They were human in every way but they owned the necks, heads, facial expressions were that of a chicken.

Ashala's head felt like vermicelli slowly slipping off the platter of her sholders.

It's excruciating. But hilarious. The spelling and all other quirks are original - remember these next time you use the right-click Word thesaurus:
The afternoon was very calm but consolidated. The birds were singing but were not blithesome.

"Stand slow!" a voice rang out with hollow ubiquity.

Indulge in the complete agonising experience here (and if you're a writer or interested in getting published, Miss Snark's is the blog du jour).

Flying backwards

When I flew out of Melbourne on New Year's Eve it was 32 degrees (that's Celsius) at 9am. 44 bushfires were burning further north.
I get very confused at airports. I forget where home is. Deep in my being, home is Melbourne. But for the past seven years, it's been elsewhere - the place where my partner is, where I live, where my books and stuff are waiting, where I work. But I forget.
This is nothing new. It was worst when I lived in Sydney and shuttled back and forth to Melbourne for work all the time. I've often tried to get on the wrong plane in those middle of the night transits in Dubai or Singapore, not quite awake and heading in the wrong direction.
At the weekend I remembered to stand in the correct check-in queue, even though it was only 7am, but by the time I got to the counter, my mind had wandered. Airports do that to me.
"And where are we off to today?" asked the Qantas man.
"Melbourne," I said, confidently.
"You're already in Melbourne," he said gently.
"Oh, well - must be the other place."
"You need to give me more of a hint," he said. He'd probably been working since 4am. They were checking in four flights at once. "The possibilities are Japan, Shanghai via Sydney, Auckland or Hong Kong."
"I'll take Auckland," I said, even though I'm desperate to go to Shanghai and Hong Kong's one of my favourite cities.
I blame e-tickets. You don't have a bit of paper that tells you where you're flying, or, more importantly, tells the weary airline staff which flight you've booked. Well, I might have printed it out but it's ... somewhere. I need it pinned to my lapel, like Paddington Bear. If only I could figure out which destination to write on the label.