Re-Writing and July Publications

Diving back into a manuscript that hasn’t felt the sun for over a year is an unnerving and surprising endeavour. I had written and re-written a manuscript of my experiences in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2008. It was much liked but needed work and so it went back into the proverbial drawer (in my case, a taped up cardboard box) while I focused on other projects.

This year, though, I pulled it out and decided to work on a few chapters to get them into ‘stand alone’ state. I set myself deadlines for competitions and submissions and after working through a few of the stories, I decided to send out to two. Both are going to be published this month.

The first one ‘In the Kabul Bubble’ appears in Kill Your Darlings, a journal of contemporary writing in Australia and the second, ‘Then and Now’ in the 2013 Fish Anthology, published in Ireland. The Kill Your Darlings issue is online and in the shops from tomorrow and the Fish Anthology is launched on July 10 at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry in Ireland and will be available to buy online after that.

The process of re-reading and re-thinking and then re-working has taught me much about tone, time and structure. The shifting of gears from approaching the manuscript as a ‘book’ to looking for indicative stories, excerpts or amalgamations that convey a similar feel but reveal different aspects of my time in Kabul, has been intriguing and a genuine freeing of my ideas about writing in general.

It has also been rewarding for both pieces to have found homes on their first outing. The Fish Memoir Competition is highly contested and my piece was judged to be in the top 10 from 810 entries from around the world. That is a great boost to the confidence. Kill Your Darlings is also a highly sought after publication by writers and the journals are always well-reviewed across the nation. Another confidence surge.

I don’t often talk about what I am doing or working away at – I don’t know why and I’m sure it hasn’t helped my ‘career’ over the years. This year I have decided to do things differently. I send work out. I say I have sent it out. I talk about what happens to that work. I am trying to make it obvious that I am ‘writing’. This is, of course, easier today because there is publication involved – an obvious marker of success. But I haven’t received two grants I have applied for this year. I did receive half another grant – ie. half the money – I asked for and because of my tight financial situation I had to turn it down. The project would have cost me more than double what I ‘didn’t get’ from the funding agency and I couldn’t justify that kind of debt. Such is the life of a writer and a student on a scholarship.

This process though, of opening up my world of writing to the outside, is a good and productive one. It has brought comment and discussion and support. Things I am often short on, or at least feel I am. It has also made me more critical of my work, more able to see the patterns, the repetitions, the glossed over sections of pain, than I have been before. It is also significantly about defeating the fear of rejection, of not being good enough. I now know, quite deeply, that sometimes what I write will be good enough, perhaps even really good and sometimes it won’t be. This month happens to be a ‘good’ month. Enjoy if you can afford the cost of the journals.

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Humbling: Newcastle Writers Festival, 2013

There are many aspects of writing that I find humbling. Firstly, that someone would publish my book. Secondly, that it sells at all. Thirdly, that people enjoy it so much they want to talk to me about it. The inaugural Newcastle Writers Festival ran from 5-7 April and I was asked to speak on a memoir panel. (This photo was taken by Festival staff).

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The other two writers on the panel, both wonderful, were the much awarded Marion Halligan (who you can just see on the left of the photo) and Michael Sala, who, while only having published one book, has published many short stories in a range of publications. I found Michael’s book, The Last Thread, to be compelling and so engaging that I can still recall certain scenes months after reading it, so it was a real buzz to be on a panel with him. The Last thread has also just been shortlisted for the 2013 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing and the Commonwealth Book Prize. Marion’s most recent piece of memoir appears in the anthology of Canberra titled, The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words and with the title, ‘Luminous Moments’, I think she captures everything we were trying to communicate on the panel. Memoir is all about revealing the luminous moments, or making moments luminous, or seeing the ‘luminousness’ in the every day. There were some great questions from the floor and, as the panel was held in the old exercise yard of the old Newcastle jail, the ‘floor’ was a particularly evocative one!

Afterwards I met a young woman, also called Phillipa, who spelt her name in exactly the same way as I do – a rare thing. Phillipa is in her last year of high school and was almost moved to tears to meet me – a very flattering thing to happen. She said that both she and her mum read and re-read my book. That’s the fourth humbling thing on my list. We both got teary in the sandstone alcove of the lock up. Bryan also came up to speak to me. He asked me about writing and how I remember as much as I do. Simply put, I find that once I start down the road of ‘remembering’ other memories quickly rush up ahead of me. I hope Bryan writes his memories down as he has had a fascinating and thoughtful life. He told me about his early life in the seminary and one particularly vivid memory of young men dressed in black leaping out of train windows to avoid returning for the rest of their training. It was instantly engaging and I wanted to know more. Bryan left the priesthood and married and continued on with his life but has always had questions around his desire to be a priest. I really hope he starts writing. I would love to read his book. 

I also hosted a great panel on travel writing with three marvellous women: Nancy Knudsen, Hilary Linstead and Monica Trapaga. What fun! Their books, Shooting Stars and Flying Fish, Growing Old Outrageously and A Bite of the Big Apple respectively, are inspiring for all sorts of different reasons but the women had a few things in common: ‘chutzpah’, curiosity and all kinds of bravery. They were such lovely women with fabulous books.

Newcastle was nothing like I remembered from my childhood. It felt warm and relaxed as well as being old and grand. I think the point, Nobby’s Beach and the waterfront on the harbour is one of the most beautiful areas on the coast. The festival was also terrific – many thanks and congratulations to Rosemarie Milsom the director and chief organiser, and her many supporters. I am already looking forward to next year’s.  

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An Update

Posterous is closing on April 30 so I have moved all my previous blog posts into this WordPress blog. It feels fresh and new, all clean and straight lines…I wonder how long until the toast crumbs begin to gather?

You shall now find me here: pipnewling.com yes, my very own virtual home. I feel a bit flash and grown up about that. I have also changed the name of the blog and am aiming to add all sorts of things – not just thoughts on writing and reading – because these days I can classify (justify?) anything as ‘research’.

I also wanted to tell you a story I have told twice in the last few weeks. It happened last year just before I left Shearer’s Bookshop and became a really full, full time student. A small, light haired woman, on the upward edge of middle age, came in and asked for a copy of Luke Davies’ Interferon Psalms. As blog readers (and all my friends) know this slim book of poetry was a life-changing read for me. I blogged about it here. As I walked my customer to the poetry section and pulled out a copy of the book, I began raving about how wonderful it was and how pleased I was that he had won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for it.

‘Yes, it is wonderful,’ the woman said. ‘I’m his mother and I’m buying this copy for a friend.’ I practically burst into tears. His Mother!

‘You should be very proud of him,’ I said, appreciating the difficulties that Davies’ life choices must have caused her, ‘the book is a real affirmation of life’. I knew I had tears in my eyes but she didn’t mind.

‘Yes. It is isn’t it. He had to borrow money to come to Australia just on the off-chance he won. He couldn’t afford the flight,’ she said. We pause. In that small silence there is pain and heartbreak but also wonder.

‘Please tell him that his book touched me, a complete stranger, just a reader, an ordinary person. I keep it by my bed now, just in case’, I said.

In the last two weeks I have had cause to recount this story, once to a man who asked if I had read the book and the second time to one of my sisters who I think became embarrassed at my emotional response to words on a page. Not just any words on a page though.

And so now, this telling makes three. Luke Davies’ mum is ace. So is Interferon Psalms.

 

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Seasons of Change

Seasons of Change

The moon hasn’t set yet. It’s a white hazey ball – a mirror of the big Chinese lantern still lit as dawn comes to the scene of the wedding, a paddock marked with golden bunting. Sleeping, over-dressed people piled up on top of each other. A Shetland pony eats the remains of the wedding cake. A Border Collie quietly thumps her tail as we walk to the stained and teetering table that served as a bar. The sky, all above as far as our eye can see, is turning a wonderful Royal Blue, the indigo notes highlighted by the white gaze of the moon. It is quiet, with birds just now waking. The dog is beside us now, nose pushed into our hands. A tender, casual gesture that warms our hearts. It was a lovely wedding but we must be off. This isn’t really our scene, our place. The dog follows as we walk softly through the dewy grass to the car park. The sky is lightening. We must go. Tess, the name we have given the dog, nuzzles us one more time and then sits waiting and watching as the engine fires, we reverse and then edge forward. It is morning. The starlings and swallows tell us so. A new day.

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A Chat With Andy Griffiths (courtesy Shearer’s Bookshop)

THURSDAY, 12 APRIL 2012

Just Doomed is the Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s eighth book in the Just series. Griffith’s’ books have sold over 3 million copies worldwide, have featured on the New York Times bestseller lists, and have won over 30 Australian children’s choice awards. To mark the occasion of the publication of Just Doomed, I phoned him up for a chat. 

Since being introduced to Terry Denton by a publisher back in 1997, the pair have published 24 children’s books together. It has been a productive and inspiring creative relationship. Just Trickingwas their first collaboration in 1997 but overtime their collaborative working relationship has changed. 

‘It used to be, particularly with the Just series, that I would do about 80% and Terry 20%. I’d write the words and then send it to Terry and he would draw all over my words and any empty space he could find’, said Griffiths. 

But The Bad Book really began to change things and how we worked. The Bad Book, followed by The Cat on the Mat is Flat and the Cow Kapow, were much more about both of us creatively collaborating from the start. This continued with The Very Bad Book and The Body Parts Book when I discovered that Terry could draw quite medical drawings. But it wasn’t until, as part of the writing Just Doomed, that I asked if Terry could draw me a tree house. He drew the most elaborate and beautifully idiosyncratic tree house that it deserved its own book.’ This became The 13 Storey Tree House, published last year. 

The Just series works on a number of different levels. The books are all short stories, or lists or diary entries that feature the same characters. There’s craziness and grossness and laugh out loud stupidity throughout and nothing ever gets too dark and emotional – other than the character Andy’s long running crush on Lisa Mackney. 

‘Andy is a tragic romantic’, the real Andy Griffiths says. ‘And his unrequited love is based on my real crush on the real Lisa Mackney when we were at school’, he said. Confused yet? 

‘When I wrote Just Tricking’, Andy says, ‘I never thought it would take off in the way it did, so I wrote the characters with all my old childhood friends names, the streets are the ones I used to live on. The teachers are named and based on my real teachers.’ Has he had any complaints from the now much older Lisa, Danny and the rest?

‘Well, once Just Tricking took off, I had a problem. Some people weren’t happy that their real names were used but others were fine about it and some I had embedded so deeply into the story that I couldn’t change them – like Danny and Lisa.’ Luckily, the real Lisa Mackney is quite happy to be featured in Griffiths’ books and they are good friends again. Danny Pickett has always remained a friend and is, according to Griffiths, ‘absolutely idiotic’ as Andy in the books describes him. ‘He is a great friend. Always up for anything. Always smiling.’ 

Some of the inspiration for the Just series comes from observing children and seeing how they interact with the world around them. ‘There’s a story about a trip to a museum in Just Doomed, Griffiths explains. ‘I happened to see these boys at a museum and they were really not paying attention to anything the guide was saying. They were just doing their own thing and enjoying themselves. They weren’t really learning anything but were having a good time and I thought, that’s what Danny and Andy would be doing at the museum.’

Museum Guide:
 Hi, I’m Chris your museum guide. If there is anything you want to know please ask me? 

Student 1: Have you got a girlfriend?
 Student 2: Do you like cheese?
 Student 3: Were you embarrassed when you pooped in your nappy when you were a baby?

And for those fans of Griffith’s re-writing of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Just Macbeth, there’s more Shakespeare in Just Doomed. This time, Griffiths does a re-working of Romeo and Juliet. Just Macbeth, Griffiths parody of Macbeth, was very successful both as a touring play for the Bell Shakespeare Company and as a book. 

‘Five years ago, the Bell Shakespeare Company rang me and asked if I’d like to work on a re-working of Shakespeare as they were trying to get younger children into their shows’, he said. During the writing of the play and the book, Griffiths re-discovered Shakespeare as an entertainer. 

‘When I hit Shakespeare in secondary school it was so foreign and I realised that [by re-writing Shakespeare] I could introduce kids to the world of Shakespeare’s stage craft, his words and the idea of performance’, he said.  ‘Once I began looking I found all sorts of parallels with the Just world – unrequited love, friendships, parents’.

Romeo and Juliet features in diary form inJust Doomed and Griffiths has just finished writing the script adaptation for the Bell Shakespeare Company. ‘It was a lot of fun to do especially after struggling in vain for years with a re-writing of Hamlet. Hamlet was too non-linear and dark.’ The Andy Griffith’s version of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet and Danny, Lisa and Me, will be on stage by
2013. ‘Shakespeare really surprises you with how modern and funny he his,’ Griffiths said. For now though, kids (and adults) will have to get their fix of Shakespearean Griffiths in Just Doomed

‘I remember growing up with really special books and that’s what I want to give kids. I want them to read my books and say ‘that was great’ and then run off to get a second one,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to teach them anything other than quite simply, reading. I want all kids to be able to read to a good level so they can live their lives as best they can,’ Griffiths said. He is an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) for this very reason. 

‘Resources are so limited in remote Aboriginal communities. Often these kids are speaking four or five languages at home and they don’t meet English until they go to school. They don’t have books until school so their literacy is incredibly limited and limiting. If you can’t read you can’t understand documents that effect your life, or the labels on medicine bottles or have a choice about whether you stay in the community or not. The ILF is in on the ground floor working community by community. It is incredibly significant work,’ he said. 

Out of his workshops with Aboriginal children has come the book The Naked Boy and the Crocodile. The thirteen stories included in the book tell tales of playing with friends, riding motorbikes, picking berries, hunting for emu eggs and wild pigs, terrifying turkeys and angry mamus. All proceeds from sales of the book go back to the ILF. 

This feeds directly into one of Griffiths’ overriding philosophies – ‘words are to be played with and not to be feared’. I have to ask him whether he finds a perverse pleasure in having his Bumosaurus series reach the New York Times bestsellers lists and therefore having the word ‘butt’ (Americans don’t understand the word ‘bum’) published in that august newspaper.

‘Of course’, he says. ‘What was even better though was I went to the USA on a book tour with Zombie Butts from Uranus. It was hilarious, we’d be in some great big Barnes & Noble bookstore for an event and the announcement would come over the loudspeaker ‘if you are here for the Zombie Butts from Uranus event…’ and everyone in the store would just fall apart. It was great.’ 

With the publication of 13th Storey Treehouse last year, it felt as though Denton and Griffiths’ creative partnership had really taken a major creative leap forward. 

‘That’s quite true,’ Griffiths says. ‘Once we had the tree house we began to play with ideas of who and what would live in it’, he said. ‘Kids are always writing to me asking about how Terry and I work together and so we thought it might be a fun idea to create an imaginary tree house where Andy and Terry draw and write together while cooking up experiments in the basement and avoiding the sharks in the swimming pool’, he said.

The 13 Storey Tree House
 contains all the elements of the Just books but with an overarching story. ‘Kids love a narrative and we wanted to capture that energy from the Just books as well,’ he said. 

The 26 Storey Tree House is out in September and The 39 Storey Tree Houseis out next year. Dizzying heights of silliness will be reached but until then, we have Just Doomed, a laugh out loud and crazy passion-filled book for lovers and laughers all. 

You can find out more than you ever wanted to know about Andy Griffiths on his website here: http://www.andygriffiths.com.au/ 

And Terry Denton here: http://www.terrydenton.com/ 

And the Indigenous Literacy Foundation here:http://www.indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au/ 

This interview first appeared on the Shearer’s Bookshop website.

 

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Interferon Psalms: Luke Davies

Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God is the complete title of Luke Davies latest work of poetry and from this alone, we know we need to prepare to undertake a journey with Davies. Pulling from the Psalms, songs of praise, lament and repetition encompassing all elements of faith, Davies has created a dark, shuddering, majestic experience for the reader.

Following on from his uplifting, loved-up TotemInterferon Psalms becomes a metaphysical suite of poems pushing onwards to the silence, the space inside where only words are left. In Davies’ attempt to make meaning of suffering his ‘inner ‘fearin’ becomes meaningful, resonant for all of us. The swooping, whooping energy of his images and the heartbreaking minutiae of his days spent in the grasp of the drug, interferon, used to clean out Hep C, (‘There was, what, plasma flowing through me?’) sent me crashing and tumbling and slowed my reading.

From the Cormac McCarthy quote from Cities of the Plain Davies uses as the epigraph (Cities of the Plain being my favourite McCarthy novel) to the almost peace he finds with his God, his past, his blood, Interferon Psalms engulfed my senses for the week it took me to work through my first reading. The work is ambitious and almost reckless in its submission to ideas, to poetry, to life and to death. My experience of reading this slim (120 pages) book of poetry is unparalleled in emotional intensity and the book has become an inspiring and haunting touchstone for me.

There are also clear moments of insight into writing and what, where, why words emerge and as a writer, I found a number of these transforming for my own writing process. However, while Davies is a master of life and suffering and poetry and words, it is the luminous humanity lying underneath his words that will bring me back to re-read Interferon Psalms. Everyone should read this contemporary liturgy and stumble through the humour, the blackness of guilt and remorse, the light of hope where there should be none nor none deserved, for themselves. Make your own discoveries and disavowals. It is a beautiful, exciting and deeply affecting work.

‘I returned to the poem, the one true place.’

Listen to an interview with Davies on The Book Show here where he talks about the writing and the architecture of the poems.

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My Reading Picks for 2011 and the Australian Women Writers Challenge

I am a month in at Shearer’s Bookshop in Norton Street, Sydney and it has been quite a lot of fun so far. The staff are all lovely, Barbara has been terrific and the customers have been interesting and aplenty. Christmas shopping is heating up and Mark (who does all the online end of the bookshop) has been asking the staff for each of our favourite reads of 2011. Here are mine http://shearersbooks.blogspot.com/ but if you scroll down you will find many other staff recommendations as well. The added bonus of doing lists like this is that it opens up opportunities for discussions that might not have otherwise happened. I was raving to Alexis, a fellow staff member, about Thirty Australian Poets and how eloquent and acute the selection of poets and their work was, and how every bookshelf in Australia needed to carry a copy when who should walk into the shop but the editor, Felicity Plunkett. We had a brief chat about the book and I told her how significant I think it is. I even managed to tell Felicity (without blushing!) that I keep the book on my bedside table for bouts of inspiration and thought provoking reading. 

Yes, as you might have guessed from the my favourite’s list, I read a lot of Australian writing. It is therefore, completely and absolutely logical that I have signed up for the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. I think this is a great way of highlighting not just the lack of women writers being reviewed and female reviewers in general, but also the fact that Australian fiction is not high on many readers’ lists at all. I asked one of the young staff members at Shearer’s what he reads and he listed all the (American) greats: Kerouac, Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Ginsberg. I then asked him which female writers he liked…he had to stop and think. He couldn’t tell me a single female writer that he had read, let a lone enjoyed. So, let’s get to it. Get reading, reviewing, discussing and passing around writing by Australian women. Bring on 2012!

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