Thursday, December 9, 2010

Has Stendhal's Mirror had its day?

Over on the marvellous blog of Sci-Fi writer Paul Macauley, Earth and Other Unlikely Worlds a conversation began about whether neo-realistic literature has had its day. Two authors, Peter Handke and  Haruki Murakami have written articles suggesting that this indeed is so. I would recommend a visit to Unlikely Worlds to enter into the wider discussion of this issue, whilst here at The Concrete Midden, I'm reposting a slightly longer version of my response, as it is somewhat tangential to the main topic under discussion at Unlikely Worlds.

First up, cards on the table. I'm a realist writer.  Dunno if I'm a neo-realist, but I'm a new writer and I write crime fiction which is firmly based in reality and incorporates real events. It involves the creation of a fictional world which contains the realistic political and social atmosphere of the 1990s. I’m also a big admirer of science fiction (as can be seen in my other blog world). 

What took me off on a tangent from the discussion of realism/neo-realism versus magic realism at Unlikely Worlds, was the observation, made by Murakami, that realism was no longer relevant because two events, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attack on the twin towers in September 200,1 had " greatly transformed our mentality . . ."

This “the world changed on 9/11” thesis frankly irritates me beyond belief. And when writers start to embrace this thesis and use it as a reason to argue why certain things cannot – or should not - be written, or to suggest the way things should or shouldn't be written, then I start to vent a bit of steam.

In days following 9/11 “the world has changed” was the most common reaction. It was understable. The events were shocking. They were awful in the true sense of that word - they filled one with awe. And they were captured on film, replayed again and again, and we watched, each time hoping somehow for a different outcome. 

But that "world changed" response was also dangerous as it permeated our psyche and permeated our politics. Its legacy has included such things as waterboarding and rendition, shock and awe.

It also permeated a lot of the literary responses.

High profile critic James Wood used it as a reason to bury the social novel, writing in the Guardian in October 2001 Wood claimed that the "Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan. For who would dare to be knowledgeable about politics and society now?" 

Martin Amis took to writing essays about terrorism and making up words like horrorism, as if what was available to describe criminal acts of terror were insufficient. Ian McEwan reckoned that

“… even the best minds, the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon.” 

OK, so I wouldn’t expect McEwan to be familiar with the oeuvre of Tom Clancy and his 1994 novel Debt of Honour, in which a 747 is flown into the US Capitol during the State of Union address, wiping out the President and a fair chunk of Congress (hell, I only know about it because of a ten month stay in a Buddhist monastery in South India where reading material was …. limited) but in both Wood's and McEwan’s reactions I found the retreat from the possibility of creativity and imagination to absorb and reflect what had happened on 9/11 to be overly nihilistic.

Writing in The New Statesman at the end of 2001, literary critic Jason Cowley described the reaction of the literary world to the terrorist attacks as having a: 

“catastrophist - eschatological anxiety and an unconvincing sudden seriousness, as if human nature itself changed the day the towers collapsed. Or perhaps it was merely that we in the relatively benign, affluent west had forgotten that the world has always been a spectacular carnival of suffering.”

It was that “spectacular carnival of suffering” that bothered me about the “world has changed” reaction as well. It contained in it a denial of other places and peoples whose “worlds had changed” but because they hadn’t changed in the heart of a western power and were not captured on TV, well, somehow they didn’t count.

My inchoate misgivings were captured by the phrase – the “parochialism of the present" - and by a rather unlikely source, the foreign policy analyst and editor of The National Interest, Owen Harries. He defined it as:

“[A] condition resulting from a combination of ignorance of history and an egotistical insistence on exaggerating the importance of events that more or less directly involve oneself. Horrifying and atrocious as the acts of terror were, it should be remembered that they have happened at a time when people who experienced the Somme and Verdun, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, are still alive.” 

Well, yes.

Imagine the stories that would never have been written had Erich Maria Remarque decided that the trenches had shattered his Stendhalian mirror, or Primo Levi been silenced by the horror he witnessed, or Bao Ninh or Kurt Vonnegut had allowed their own war experiences to so overwhelm them that they dared not be knowledgeable about politics or society.

Writing about the world we live in can take many forms, magical realism, realism, crime noir, science fiction - in fact some of the strongest writing to take on the post 9/11 world came, I think, from the world of crime writing. Sara Paretsky's Blacklist conveyed not only the fear of being the victims of terror that every American felt after the attacks but the fear of the state as it reacted to that terror with legislation that threatened the Bill of Rights. Ian Rankin, in The Naming of The Dead brought Rebus, George Bush, the G8 and the London Tube bombings into a book that was as much about the fragility of the rule of law as it was about a murder.

So, in summary, I don't believe that realism, the social novel, the social crime novel, are dead and past their use by date. I do believe in science fiction and the exciting imaginative leaps and bounds of alternate worlds and realities that end up telling me something about my own reality.

And, no the world didn't change on 9/11, anymore than it did on April 6, 1994, or August 9, 1945, or July 1, 1916 or 24 August 79AD,  it just added to the layers of pain that make up what it is to be human. And that's what writers, realist, neo-realist, magical, fantastical, speculative, graphic do best, make up stories that help us work out what it means to be human.*  

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Cave of One's Own

Virginia longed for a room. 

Some writers can afford something a tad grander ....

... and then there are the rest of us.

But the desire to have some place to go and make stuff up is pretty universal.

Stephen King in On Writing agrees with Virginia that "We do best in a place of our own." 

And - he's right.

There are quite a few things that lend themselves to being done with a background hum, that don't really suffer from random interruptions, phones, doors, distractions, twittering. In fact, sometimes it's nice to have human company when the word track blues strike. 

And then there's the other stuff.

The getting-it-out stuff. The first draft stuff, in fact the bits and pieces that come before the first draft. That stuff is better done alone. We all know what happened to the creative flow thanks to the visitor from Porlock. To quote Stephen King again, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open" - and I'd add, ignore the visitors.

Ignoring family members who drop by, or those who live in, is somewhat easier said than done, and can have certain ramifications. This is one reason why I like to write by hand, in notebooks, out and about, in parks, by the pool, on the train. That's where a lot of the fresh stuff gets its first airing. Away from the screen, from the delete and back buttons. I'm not in a room alone, but I'm still alone. No distractions. 

But it's finding a space for the next stage that has been trickier this time round. The Old School made its transition from pen to pixel in a study space provided by my university, UTS, where I was enrolled in a research degree. Hours would fly past. No phone. No doors. Lots of wall space to blu-tack up images. The day would turn into night and I wouldn't even notice. 

I'm discovering, with Book 2, what writers always say, that every book is different. This time around I'm working from home. Not an office but a corner of a room. And sometimes I have to share it.

This time around is different. I find I'm wanting wall space to write on. I'm close to the end of the first draft and I have a burning need to have a space to "see" it laid out - plots and people - but even more importantly emotional touchstones. 

This book has required me to step a bit out of my comfort zone. To explore, in some detail,  psychological spaces I haven't (thankfully) been. I've felt the need to create a space where I can have certain truths about the wounds my characters carry, and the way those wounds effect them, "in my face" as I write and as I edit the first draft.

I need to be able to look up and weigh the truth of what I've written against the truth of what I have discovered. Such things don't really belong on the walls of rooms that non-writers, visitors and family members share.

So, I've found a cave.  

All it needed was to have some storage things crammed into other storage places and then I could cram in me.

It's a small rom. With a small window. And lots and lots of wall space.

This was taken a few weeks ago. The walls have more posters blu tacked up now. Notes to self scrawled. The white board has been wiped and new notes added, subtracted, altered.

There's even a bit of a view out the door for when I want to keep it open.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about crime - with the Sisters in Crime

While it was an eventful journey just getting to the event, once we all landed safely we had a great night with the Sisters down in Melbourne last Friday.

The panel was chaired by Robin Bowles, who'd done her homework on Sulari Gentill and Angela Savage just as effectively as she had on me. For two completely different takes on the same night, check out Sulari's blog and Angela's blog. And just to prove the old adage that three eye-witnesses will provide three entirely different descriptions, I'll now add another.

Place is my "thing". It's what gets me excited about reading crime and it's what excites me about writing crime. With a great deal of help from a marvellous editor, Dr Malcah Effron, I have recently finished a chapter for an upcoming academic monograph on what I've dubbed "The Politics of Place" specifically how place is developed in Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead and Sara Paretsky's Blacklist as they chart the disintegration of western legal values and traditions in the wake of 9/11.

In both Sulari and Angela's novels, place is given a high degree of attention but in very different and interesting ways.

Sulari commented that she had had letters from elderly people whose memories of the New Guard in those days of madness in Sydney during the 1930s had been reawakened in the pages of her novel, A Few Right Thinking Men. I feel that this kind of response is a real tribute to the sense of political and cultural place Sulari created and proof, yet again, that a real sense of place involves a whole lot more than just getting the names of the streets and the numbers of the buses right. It involves creating a real sense of the place, of the culture, of the conflicts, of the news and the gossip and the violence and the struggles, just as it was in that time for those people.

Like her first novel, Angela's second, The Half-Childis set in ThailandWhen Angela began talking about writing Thailand, a place she loves and wants to share with her readers, she described her unease when she acknowledged that writing crime set there would mean dredging up all the negative stereotypes people harbour about that country; crime, corruption, drugs, vice, sex, exploitation. For her this meant she had to think carefully about how she handled the material, about making sure her characters and issues were real and complex.

This area of discussion came up towards the end of our allotted time, unfortunately, as it is something that is also of concern to me in my work. How to write about issues such as police corruption with nuance and depth, avoiding the cliches, making it real without making it repellent, keeping it authentic which means, to some degree showing how and why it occurs with subtlety, even empathy.

I related very strongly to Angela's concerns in depicting an Asian setting with both honesty and affection, as I have set the events of Book 2 in Cabramatta in early 1993. A quick glance at the headlines of that time ticks all the boxes of a great crime novel; young, violent gangs fighting and killing over a share of the drug market, home invasions and extortion, gambling and prostitution, drug sellers taking over the streets, crime out of control, police overwhelmed - every headline a story. And every headline fodder for those who did not want to see the development of an Australia where a good percentage of its population would not come from Anglo-Celtic-European backgrounds but from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos.

No doubt about it, Cabramatta in 1993 was quite a place. A complex, rich and troubled place, where some kids went "out to play", ra choi, and ended up dead, others went to school while their parents tried to learn English, worked two jobs. Some kids went to jail and some kids went to university, carrying all the weight of expectation on their shoulders that they could claw back something of what their parents had given up to come to Australia.

It this nuanced Cabramatta I want the next book to explore. A place where kids dealt drugs and carried knives and lived in groups like little families taking care of each other, while behind closed doors, other families, damaged beyond all repair by war, just tried to hold on.

One of these days Angela and Sulari and I will have to have a good long talk about writing honestly but with nuance about places and people that are all too often seen in black and white*.

*Which is to say we're available for weddings, parties anything ....

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sisters in Crime and a Stitch in Time

I am a pretty uncoordinated person. Never ask me to dance. In fact, discovering aqua-aerobics was a huge boon. No longer condemned to hide in the back row of the gym, stumbling my way through another series of complicated moves, always a beat or two behind the music. Oh the joy, of thrashing away in the pool where no one can see you moving below the neck.

My uncoordinated approach to movement often sees me shoulder charge into doorways rather than moving gracefully through them, pinball off the edges of tables and somehow be able to trip over a dust mote. So on Friday night, battling the wind, the driving rain and a thick layer of treacherous slippery foliage that had been stripped from the trees by day of vicious weather, I was tiptoeing very cautiously from my hotel to the edge of the road to try to flag down a cab to attend my first Melbourne writing event. 

Sisters in Crime, a meal at Bell's Hotel to be followed by a good chat about crime with two wonderful writers Sulari Gentill and Angela Savage, with Robin Bowles on hand to steer the conversation and keep us on our toes.

I was feeling pretty good, the terrible weather at least providing the excuse to give the black winter coat that goes swoosh a final trot before summer, make-up was in place, hair not looking too weird, all I had to do was find a cab. Miraculously one appeared creeping up Fitzroy Street and pulling in as I waved my hand. 

Ever so carefully I stepped off the curb, my leather soled cowboy boots, a souvenir from a ski holiday in Steamboat Colorado, have a tendency to feel like they're skating on ice when its wet, but I remained upright and advanced on the cab, steadied myself on it before opening the door, leaning down to speak to the cab driver. Unfortunately, as I performed both actions simultaneously I ended up clobbering my face with the edge of the door.

Reeling back, I kept hold of the door, cabs on a wet Friday night in Melbourne were not to be given up so easily. I bent down to talk to the driver, to tell him where I wanted to go and noticed he was shrinking away from me.

"There is a little blood," he said just a little nervously. 

I reached up, touched my forehead, which it was true did now feel a trifle lumpy. My fingers came away bright red and wet.

It was a similar moment, to the way I felt as I sailed through the air two days before the Joss Whedon event at the Sydney Opera House - oh nooooooooooo. But, whereas that fall had seemed to take forever as I flailed and fell through the air prior to crashing in an ungainly pile on the ground, this one seemed to have happened before I'd even realised it. 

Reluctantly I released my cab back into the wilds of Friday night and ever so carefully retraced my wet slippery steps back into the Tolarno Hotel, digging a crumpled tissue out of the handbag to press against my forehead. A quick check in the mirror of the ladies room by reception was enough to convince me that a Band-Aid at least was going to be required if I was to speak at my event without blinking through blood.

At the reception desk Amanda had just started her shift, she looked up and sprinted out from the office, insisting politely that I should sit down and she would get something. I retrieved my running list for the night and managed to punch in the number of my soon-to-be-equally-marvellous-under-pressure publicist from Penguin, Dianne Biviano, and leave a message, at which point Amanda returned wearing latex gloves and bearing a fairly large dressing which she pressed against my head and started talking stitches. 

At this point my natural instincts to not-feel-very-well-at-the-thought-of-blood-kicked-in and I slumped back in the lounge, feeling just a bit too warm and murmuring things like, "but I have to give a talk".  Amanda took over my phone and my now slightly blood spattered running list -

and in short order Amanda had organised Dianne to collect me, had been in contact with Carmel Shute who supplied the location of the closest doctor's clinic, for which Amanda then printed up a Google map, whilst supplying me with water and a lolly. 

By the time Dianne arrived to take over and ferry me to the Acland Street St Kilda super clinic, I'd rallied to the point that I ooohed and ahhhed at my first glimpse of The Palais from the Coles Supermarket carpark. The clinic was doing brisk business but thanks to Amanda's preparatory call, we found that walking in with a head wound is a good way of getting a bed and a good lie down. There, the lovely Sara cleaned the wound and provided me with an ice pack which felt so good I didn't want to give it back and the equally wonderful Doctor Bert who, in between treating a bustling waiting room, managed to pop in an injection of anaesthetic along with a few neat stitches, and a classy little dressing to cover it up.

Thank you again, Amanda, Dianne, Carmel, Sarah and Dr. Bert.

And so it came to pass that on a wild and wet and stormy night in Melbourne, I was only a little bit late to my first big adventure and had an excellent night, in fine company, sharing some great conversations about crime.

Of which more later .......

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Having a chat and working on my three-legged table

Four bookclubs in the last few months, two by twitter and two with friends who inflicted suggested The Old School to their clubs. Different experiences but all vastly good fun.

Bookclub by twitter is intense. An hour of frantic reading, typing, keeping it concise, checking to see what's come through on the feed and backtracking to answer ... lucky the cyber drinks & nibbles are, well, imaginary. I was lucky to do one with the NSW Writers' Centre and the second with Avid Reader Bookstore in Brizzy. I'd have loved to have been sitting on the backdeck of Avid with their gang, but twitter was a great way of connecting to a live bookclub when you can't be there in person.

Bookclub with live readers is a far more leisurely event. You have a few hours to talk, about "the book", about other books, about politics, about life, about great TV and movies. Oh, and then of course there are the drinks and nibbles. Yum. Thanks Helen and Kate for lending your bookclubs to me for the night.

Now looking at some more live appearances. Off to Melbourne tomorrow to a Sisters in Crime event, From the Sydney of the Past to the Thailand of Today, with Angela Savage, Sulari Gentill with Robin Bowles interviewing us. Friday night, Bells Hotel, South Melbourne, brothers-in-law welcome.

Sulari's A Few Right Thinking Men and Angela's Behind the Night Bazaar, are crime novels which are as different as they can be from each other and from The Old School. Sulari's involves the New Guard and political intrigue in 1930s Sydney, Angela's, set in mid-1990s Thailand, involves police corruption and child prostitution rackets, and mine, set in Sydney in the early 1990s deals with police corruption, land rights and the Vietnam War. To some extent we are all a little bit stuck in the past!

The range of topics is a good example of why I love crime. It provides a sturdy skeleton but what goes around it, well, that's as unique as the author cares to make it.

And that's why I was thrilled to be asked to be on a panel for the Emerging Writers' Festival Roadshow when it swings into Sydney next month. More about that in an upcoming blog but at this stage put Sunday 7th November in your pocket and come on out to the NSW Writers' Centre in Rozelle. The session I'll be doing is titled Genre is Not a Dirty Word.

If free events are more your speed then come along to Kings Cross Library on Tuesday evening 26 October for a talk in the library about writing crime about Sydney. You may need to book details here.

Now off to work on my 3 legged table ...

... that pile of paper there is my three-legged table. It's Book 2, finally printed out but still missing one major plot line which I now need to weave through it. The subject matter has been intimidating me for a wee while. Then had a mental breakthrough a few days ago. Realised I was approaching it ALL WRONG. Could almost hear all the little levers and gears clicking into place for new approach. 

So work printed up (with very wide margins all round - don't panic at the size of the pile yet Jo!) so that I can now start reading through what's there, editing as I go and writing in the fourth leg. 

I can share the first line ...........

It was still a wound, not yet a scar.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

That was fun - twitter and architecture

So, can twitter and book club work?

We found out on Wednesday when the NSW Writers' Centre Book Club kicked off on twitter. It was hectic but a lot of fun. I was a bit worried no one would turn up, but we ended up with enough people to have me head down at the keyboard typing responses and trying to keep up.

There were some thoughtful questions and it was challenging to come up with answers that were cogent and short. It really makes you think about the heart and soul of an answer without any of the caveats, waffle or padding.

If you want to have a read then the twitterstream can be found here. You don't have to have a twitter account to look - it opens up just like an ordinary web page. Click on the bottom link to older tweets to get the full discussion.

An interesting morning before the bookclub - I sat in on a session with some very, very, very smart architects presenting papers on their forensic architecture case studies in Beirut as part of an intensive workshop they were doing with Eyal Weizman Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University, London. Weizman was also giving a series of lectures titled Political Plastic at UTS.

Why was an ex-cop, crime writing, part time librarian in that room?

Well, the idea was to listen to the papers and offer feedback from the perspective of a cop, on evidence gathering, compiling a brief, considering material evidence. It was fascinating, however I suspect I got more out of it than the students got out of me. It was one of those situations where I spent the rest of the day (between tweeting) thinking "Oh, I shoulda said that" .....

Quite a week, working with High School English students and MCing a Get Reading event on Monday at GleeBooks, discovering a whole new and exciting area of research and a new way to talk about books on Wednesday.

Meanwhile back at the ranch ...... an academic book chapter to wrestle through its third (and please final edit) then I can get stuck into the final section of Book 2 draft 1.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tweeting, talking and teaching.

Spring is finally making an appearance - the pittosporum is popping, starting to scent the days and nights with a lemony sweet promise that summer isn't far away.

Meanwhile - things are hopping.

Tomorrow - Wednesday 15th September - I'm having a go at a Twitter Book Club run by the NSW Writers' Centre. We'll be meeting at the hash tag #NSWWCBookClub and having a tweet about The Old School at 1pm - so you can tweet and eat lunch.

Hoping to "see" some familiar faces in the twitterverse -

Walter Mason, author of Destination Saigon, making an astute book purchase at Dymocks, Liverpool.

A few events are also rapidly approaching -

Friday 15 October is shaping up to be a great night with Sisters in Crime in Melbourne. I'll be chatting with Angela Savage and Sulari Gentill while Robin Bowles wrangles us into order. So if you're in Melbourne come along to Bells Hotel at 8pm and join in as we talk about crime, in Sydney and Thailand, in the past and today.

Hopefully I'll get to put some faces to names during the trip to Melbourne, both in the house of the Penguins and also out and about with some of the hardy handselling indie booksellers I've met in only in twitterland.

Back home, if you're in Sydney, then there's another event in late October. Come along to Kings Cross Library on Tuesday 26 October and we can talk about all things criminal. Booking details will be available in early October from the library.

And if you have a crime short story (or book review) inside you, then now is the time to get it out. I've been asked to judge this year's Queen of Crime competition for Partners in Crime so break out your plot machine and get writing. The closing date is 29 October, 2010 and their are plenty of good prizes to look forward to.

And lastly - best wishes to the Year 12 gals of Extension 1 English at Hornsby Girls High School as the countdown to HSC approaches. We spent one crowded hour mashing some ideas about crime and genre and writing together. Good luck with those exam response questions.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Joss Whedon and writing from “the dark place”

Joss Whedon at the Sydney Opera House with Wil Anderson (from notes scrawled in the darkness).

When it comes to telling stories, Whedon’s the man. When it comes to combining those stories with characters, emotion, sex, wit, sly humour, and dialogue that rewards use of the rewind button – Whedon’s the man.

So, when word went around that he was slipping up to Sydney after strutting his stuff in Melbourne for the MWF – I knew I wanted to be in that audience. In fact as I sailed through the air two days ago, airborne as a result of hitting a mossy wet footpath in plastic soled shoes, the thought that went through my brain as I crashed towards concrete was “Noooooooooooo, can’t hurt myself, tickets for Sundaaaaaaaay.’

Thirty-six hours later, ice packs and painkillers had done their job and I limped up the stairs with fellow acolyte Sophie to hear from The Master.

It was a beautiful sunny Sydney sprinter day – winter about to end and spring finally poised. Fair enough then, that Joss Whedon wondered ….. why? Why were we all prepared to surrender such a glorious afternoon to come and sit in a dark place and listen to him?

Well, clearly, it was because we were part of a cult, he told us. That was the term often used to describe people such as the couple of thousand gathered beneath the shells on Sydney Harbour this afternoon, and though Whedon used it self-deprecatingly and the audience laughed, he made the point that the term was often used to denigrate and marginalize. And so he touched on a theme that would become central to the question he then posed himself. Whedon decided that we were the ones who deserved an explanation. An answer to the question - why?

Why he does what he does and why he writes what he does and why it comes from “a dark place.”

And he did.

In a chat – it was too relaxed to be called a speech – he shared with the audience the discoveries he had made in thinking about why he writes what he writes and who he writes about. He recalled a starting point came about during a conversation with Stephen Sondheim about writing and about what their universal themes were. Whedon said that he always ended up writing about adolescent young girls with super powers. Sondheim said that his own writing would always be about yearning.

Whedon decided he needed to think somewhat more deeply about what he wrote – young adolescent girls with superpowers – and work out – why?

This took him back to his childhood which, he has to confess was boringly normal, a father he feared disappointing, elder brothers who teased him, certainly no grist for the horror memoir mill. But nevertheless he was physically a small child, curly haired and often mistaken for a little girl, who felt afraid and helpless.

So perhaps it was no coincidence that the characters he ended up writing were, on the surface, similarly small and helpless. He says he grew up feeling scared and alone, not scared and lonely, but scared and alone. Not all bad, he points out, as writers who wish to write should probably love being alone.

So, he asked, “Why is my avatar a female? Am I a literary transvestite? Why do I identify with these girls?”

The revelation, when it came, surprised him. For the 7 years he wrote Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, he identified with Xander, funny, clueless and never getting laid. Then when he was writing an extended piece of prose about a Buffy-type character, a first person narrative, it struck him that he was bucketing therapy on to the page. Only then did he finally see it –  “Buffy was me.”

Writers often talk about creating a loveable character, someone for the reader/audience to relate to. But Whedon describes writing characters that he wants to love him. And in a transmogrification they become him.

His avatar. “She will save my life. I’m tiny, terrified and in need of saving and this girl is going to save my life”

This then was “the dark place” Whedon draws his characters from.

It’s a fascinating and generous admission and one that most writers would respond to, knowing as we do, that stories, characters, ideas, come tumbling out of dark places that not all of us are willing to even look at – let alone share with a vast audience on a sunny afternoon in Sydney. Whedon admits he was always helpless. He describes getting mugged regularly in New York, the first time was when he was going to the comic store. He attempted to defend himself from future attacks by taping coins to the inside of his coat so that they wouldn’t jangle. The adult version of helpless was clueless, he tells the audience.

Returning to talking about character he insists that it’s vital that he respect all his characters. Good guys and bad guys and, when you respect your characters – the greatest act of disrespect is killing one of them. “I want them to overcome danger,” he says.

Every character has to have something to say, and a reason for being there. The villains as well as the heroes because, he asks, if you don’t have respect for them, then how can you write them. “Respect is the essence of why I write”. It can be a problem he says, because by giving the bad guys so much time, by making sure that all their actions have reasons, it can destroy the drama.

He talks about writing character and story as a need. “The need I have for everyone to feel that they are IN this story and respected.” The audience responds because it feels that need. He describes a desperate love of the character. The situation and the character comes first. He loves to create a character no one takes seriously and has knowledge that nobody else has.

In the end, Whedon says, he can’t really understand his own dark place, but he reckons all writers need to find their own dark place. Get stuck in with a trowel if necessary.

“Stories come from darkness and pain.”

“If there’s no why in your story then you’re just spinning a yarn.”

He discussed the episode, The Body, from Season 5 of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. He wanted to write about the surreal experience of the first few hours of a death. The dull pain of it. The way it goes on with no opening up because there IS no opening up in death, swimming through death.

After his talk about drawing on the dark places – Wil Anderson then joined Whedon onstage and conducted a Q and A followed by some audience questions.

Firefly cancellation - did it hurt? Did you have more stories?  “Are you fucking kidding?" Everyday the stories of Firefly, characters, dialogue still haunt him. “I learned about grief from Firefly. You never get over it you adjust.”

How to create a cult? Do it well. Work hard. Pop culture is about reaching out to the audience. Says he is lucky and a hard worker.

Music?  He comes from a musical family. Bonding with Dad meant listening to all the Sondheim musicals over beer. House filled with music. Music, like drawing, something he dabbled with. He was a talented 12 year old artist and still draws like a talented 12 year old artist, no follow through on anything except writing.

Fan fic? No greater compliment – the most beautiful part of this thing is the fan fic, the worlds people build.

TV Networks? Monkeys understand his work better than Network executives, but terror of cancellation makes the work better. Knowing the executives are outside the door makes the team inside work harder to make something good into something great.

Writing dialogue? Is a lot like joke writing, points out he was raised by a pack of comedians. He looks for the heightened moment in writing dialogue. Writes to movie scores, mood pieces where you just feel. Thinks about what do the characters actually have to say – the lines feed off each other – every line a leapfrog they’ve taken over the scene. He collects dialogue. Some lines are stolen from movies, but usually it comes in the moment of creation.

Character killer? Whedon jokes that he’s a bit shirty about being accused of killing too many characters, and he asks people to look at the percentage here. Says the common response on his gig directing Glee was - “Oh he’s directing Glee who’s he going to kill?” He defends himself - “I’m not the grim fucking reaper.”

He points out that when people die in his work, he does kill people that people love. He lost his mother suddenly. He understands death. Killing people that people care about is not something that happens too often. But when it does, the audience will feel something.

Broadway or Opera? Love to do both. – a pipe dream, a really good pipe. But difficult to find time, money – would love to see Buffy the Musical or Dr. Horrible.

The long form narrative for TV – initially Angel was going to be “Touched by The Equalizer” and it began as episodic TV then they realized they didn’t really do that – so went for the long form. Dollhouse had an ending then was surprisingly renewed.

Vampires? Whedon’s fault? Won’t take the blame for Vampires. “Ain’t taking the heat – Anne Rice can” he saw Interview with a Vampire as a teenager and it “totally changed some shit.”

Working on Dr. Horrible? Tells a story about arguing over the songs and sums it up with a deadpan “We’re cynical, ugly people, especially Nathan Fillion.”

Firefly – western? Civil war? – He was reading The Killer Angels a book about Gettysburgh and it was the catalyst for Firefly. He read it on his first vacation from Buffy.

The dialogue in Firefly came from old movies, from Elizabethan language. Slang from any age “I love language”. Speaks aloud as he writes. Loves writing the left of centre characters, River, Dru, Illyria.

And then it was over. Time had run out. Some of the questions had been personal statements – how Buffy had got a young woman called “Bella” through school, she’d “saved” her. How “The Body” had helped a young man feel connected and not so scared and alone in the wake of his mother’s sudden death from a brain aneurism.

Proof, if any were needed, of the power of stories and characters to reach into real lives and remind us that we are not alone, that human beings exist to tell and be told stories.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Music of crime

Music and crime. In much the same way that place has come to be seen as a crucial element of crime fiction, music has also become linked with crime writing.

Think Rebus, alone at night with a bottle of whisky, we'll learn a lot about his state of mind by what his choice of music. If it's The Stones we might suspect he's getting ready to rock and roll on the case but if he summons up Leonard Cohen for company then we can guess that if he's not actually at rock bottom, then he can probably see it. Rebus's record collection became an iconic image of the Ian Rankin's lonely, damaged detective. Whilst the soundtrack to a Rebus novel reflects the author's own taste, it also adds significantly to the reader's sense of Rebus the man.

Peter Temple, in The Broken Shore, uses music, in this case the development of a taste for opera, as a moving and highly effective metaphor for both the healing of Joe Cashin's physical wounds as well as the opening of the man to a new way of experiencing the world.

So, when it came to writing The Old School, I knew that music could play any number of parts in the story. On one level, it could serve the very basic purpose of providing a crime fiction trope that the reader would recognise and expect to see. As the events of the book take place in late 1992, music could also serve as a a useful purpose in placing the book in a specific time. But, as a someone who travelled across the world to Mali on the strength of the hearing Salif Keita's soaring voice one night in a park in Adelaide, I knew that I wanted music to be more than just a device or a time marker, I wanted it to be eloquent.

I had been writing about music, West African music, before I even knew I had a crime novel (or two) inside my head. In retrospect, music was clearly instrumental (!) in unlocking that story.

The choice of songs was made as carefully as if they were a soundtrack, each adding to the atmosphere, and each reflecting something about the character, Ned, as she listens and responds to them. I wanted, originally, to use some lyrics, however, the harsh reality of rights and commerce meant that using the actual words was not an option.

With the wonder of youtube it's now possible to assemble a mini soundtrack to The Old School. For those familiar with the music in the book, I hope you enjoy this reprise. For those of you unfamiliar with some 1970s Joan Armatrading or Malian griot Salif Keita - kick back and enjoy.

Breaking the girl - Red Hot Chili Peppers is a song that, when it first came out, I found particularly disturbing. Having worked in Sexual Assault it was difficult for me to separate the lyrics from their literal meaning. It was easy therefore to imagine this as a song that Ned would find haunting and unsettling, and she does.

He started the car. The tape player came on. Music wound out, sinuous and sinister. 
p. 11 The Old School

Down to zero - Joan Armatrading An old album from a wonderful artist. Joan Armatrading was, in fact, the first serious concert I ever attended. I liked the fact that the music "fit" the scene, when Ned was feeling a bit battered by life, as well as being a latent memory of a song she'd heard in her childhood.

The familiar guitar riff slithered out. Ned’s skin tightened. She punched a cassette in, one of her sister Linh’s oldies. 
Light reggae and a rich voice replaced the Chili Peppers. ‘Down to Zero’. 
p.14 The Old School

Sina - Salif Keita A good example of the high energy drive and excitement of the music of Mali, of which Salif Keita is a fabulous example. Impossible to listen to without moving. Imagine this blasting out of the speakers as TC settles back in the passenger seat.

He rummaged in the glove box, came up with one of Ned’s cassettes and popped it in. 
Salif Keita’s wails and beats leapt from the speakers.
‘Jesus, girl. What the hell is this shit?’
‘It’s African.’
‘African bloody bonking music, if you ask me.’ 
p. 22 The Old School

True tears of joy - Hunters & Collectors Classic Australian sound. Romantic but rough around the edges, passionate but tinged with sadness. A love song that is about lust and desire and wrong choices.

It was a mostly silent trip back over the bridge. Hunters and Collectors on the stereo filled in the gaps. 
Ned stared hard out the window, blinking her eyes dry. 
p.226 The Old School

Television: The Drug of the Nation- Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy Cops spend a lot of time in cars. Driving to and from work, driving to jobs, aside from sitting a desk, sitting in a car takes up a lot of the job. When you share cars, you have to share music and radio choices. At one point Ned climbs into a car to find the radio set on a shock jock talk back station. She drops in one of her cassettes, and when the Disposable Heroes start up ... she has a bit of fun with the lyrics.

Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy replaced the anger of talkback with some equally angry hip-hop.
Beating her hands against the steering wheel, she sang her own version of the chorus. 
p. 294 The Old School

Sanni Kegniba - Salif Keita A sublime piece by Salif Keita that throbs with heat and grief. Sanni the Beautiful is dead, the translated lyrics tell us. The hypnotic music and the keening vocals provide a soundscape to the meeting between Ned and Marcus.

... ‘Sanni Kegniba’ was dissolving in a waterfall of notes from the kora. 
p 273 The Old School. 

Save Me - Joan Armatrading The discovery song. An album track that, as I discovered when I looked for it on youtube, has been used in the series Oz - to devastating effect. This is the track that Ned is re-discovers as she listens to her Discman in the final pages of the book.

She pressed play, and the music began, precise and CD-clean. The simple strummed guitar, 
then piano, then that unique voice, full and round and splendid. 
p.362 The Old School

Now well into Book 2, I'm already "hearing" the soundtrack to many of the scenes ..........

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Talking about The Old School - Writers Radio & gleebooks

During the past few weeks I have had the chance to talk about The Old School on radio with a range of people across the country. It was a great experience and wonderful opportunity.

One of those conversations was with Cath Kenneally for Writers Radio in Adelaide. It was a luxury to have the time to get into a good long discussion about the book, about writing about places and times that are real ... I really enjoyed it. So, as the podcast is now up I thought I'd let you know that if you'd like to have a listen - you can.

If you liked the sound of that, and you'd like to hear more, then come along to gleebooks in Glebe this Friday night, 13th of August.

Camilla Nelson, author of Crooked, and I will be having a conversation about crime, about the fascination with crime that we see in books - true crime and fiction - and the recent popularity of TV series such as Underbelly and The Wire. It should be a great night. Contact gleebooks for tickets.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing retreat, "moving forward" and in the wild

Wrapping up a two week break of house (and cat) sitting in the rural loveliness of Perthville and putting in some concentrated hours on the elusive Book 2. Set my self a target of 30,000 words and, surprising myself, I've achieved it. I think a big factor was forgetting to pack my portable hard drive which had Time Machine on it, which forced me to go forth and write on with no looking back.

It wasn't that straight forward of course.

After discovering I'd forgotten it, I fretted and had my security blanket hard drive posted up from Sydney, only to find  that as I had not formatted and exported my copy of the novel from Scrivener, I couldn't open the file on a new computer! So I was there, on the road to novel, without the comforting distraction of "Oh, I'll just go through what I've already done and edit it a bit" to provide the appearance of activity without making any actual forward progress.

So I have been writing off the map, so to speak. Resisting the temptation to tinker, just creating the next piece of the jigsaw, and the next, oh and a bit over there, and something that might go down there, and this might work later on in the piece after that ... scenes and sketches that will need to be fleshed out, slotted into place, re-worked, in some cases possibly scrapped but .... they are now in existence. And that's a happy thing to be.

So thank you to the beautiful - though bloody cold - Central West for providing excellent walking, thinking and dictating landscapes:

Thanks to those I met along the road:

and cheers to the welcome glimpse of sprinter:

Meanwhile back at the ranch! 

Thanks Maggie for two sightings of The Old School in the wilds of Paddington!

Maggie at Berkeluow's at Paddington

The Old School - face out at Ariel Paddington! 

So, back to Sydney tomorrow, to warmer weather (I hope) and tickets to see Neil Gaiman read "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" at the Sydney Opera House thanks to Galaxy Bookshop's competition.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Writer's retreat, software, hardware and spotting The Old School in the wild

How to make the best use of three plus hours in the car en route to a couple of weeks writing retreat? That was the question I considered as I was preparing to head out of town.

I’m prepared to experiment with different approaches to writing. Although, as I’ve said before, I’m pretty old school, I like my pen and notebook and the freedom it gives me to get out of the house, away from the tyranny of the screen, and most importantly away from the backspace and delete keys. It’s so much easier to turn off that internal editor when you write by longhand. Having now seen a text through to publication, I realise there are going to be plenty of opportunities for editing down the track.

For me, creating straight on to the screen provides too many temptations to second guess and edit as I go. I’m way more productive (and creative) if I just write and save the first edit for when I’m transferring the work from notebook to the computer.

Despite my love of pen and paper I’m no Luddite. In fact I’m a big fan of new technology – an unabashed if not always entirely successful geek. So when I picked up a reference to a software program called Scrivener from John Birmingham’s blog, I decided to give it a whirl and downloaded the trial version. They are smart folks those Scrivener folks. They let you have a good long trial period – one that works on how often you open the program rather than by dates. It took me about three weeks to get the hang of it, to see the potential of it and to realise that I wanted it in my life (in fact I've become embarrassingly fannish about it - first the conversion to Mac, now proselytising for software - the shame, the shame). However, the best news is that it is such an inexpensive program (under fifty bucks!) that you really don’t have to think twice about it when it comes to affordability.  

So, what does it do? Well for a start it doesn’t hang and crash like my word program does. But better than that is that it somehow manages to turn all those tactile creative processes I like to use, such as making notes about plot, about characters, pinning things up on a board, shuffling the order of chapters, of scenes within chapters, of having a great big pile of research that I sometimes want to have open at the same time that I’m working on the manuscript – well, Scrivener makes all of that possible. 

I’ve also invested in MacSpeech Dictate in order to rest a chronically sore shoulder I’ve developed from over use of the dreaded mouse. Unlike Scrivener, this is a software package that is going to take me a little longer to master. At this stage I’ve pretty much limited it to a dictation tool. I can read from my handwritten notebooks to get that precious first rough-as-guts draft into the computer. It’s taken a bit of time (and the necessity of privacy) to get used to saying my writing out loud but .... what it did do was plant the seed of an idea, which brings me back to making use of that driving time.

As I had the car to myself for the drive up I decided to try the dictation thing in the raw, so to speak. I bought a pretty basic inexpensive digital voice recorder and set off. I admit to feeling pretty self-conscious, not to say foolish, when I pulled it out and began to “write” but I found that as I went along I started to forget myself and I got stuck into the story. Although it’s certainly not “writing” I was surprised to find that it did begin to feel like I was “creating” and "talking" the dialogue was a something of a revelation.  Like writing in notebooks, dictating lent itself to “finding” the way (stumbling) into a scene, via false starts, digressions, intuitive leaps, realisations that something would need to happen before or after this particular scene. The time and the kilometres flashed past and I arrived at my destination with that sense of satisfaction that only a good writing session can deliver.

So now I’ve settled in, transcribed the first couple of files from yesterday's travel recording and discovered that I’ve had a 3,000 word day. It's rough, there's still much to tidy up – but I’m resisting the temptation to fiddle too much at this stage. I have a couple of weeks to really get stuck into building the scaffolding of this novel; the polishing, the refining, the embroidering and yes, the inevitable stripping out, will come through once the structure is there. 

I have a sensational work environment -

– my view from the computer desk is pure Australia Felix.

 And I have a companion who keeps watch over the word count.

Meanwhile, The Old School is still out and about, lurking in bookstores, sharing shelf space with some pretty fancy company as can be seen here.

Thanks to Sophie who spotted this at Tullarmarine...

... and thanks Barbara for a shot at Berkelouw's in Newtown. 

Both up front and cover out! 

So, tomorrow - another session transcribing from files made during the car journey. Then, I might take a walk, voice recorder in hand and try out a few scenes on the locals. There's a delightfully absurd bunch of alpacas living up the road who look like they might enjoy a spot of crime fiction.