Inspiration and Dogs

I am a devotee of Cormac McCarthy. There is something I find deeply moving and expansive in all his writing. There is always landscape and men battling to save themselves (or weakly succumb) to the evil that faces them and, usually chases them. Odd friendships and respect built up over time in the most desolate of places. And the history, the history of land, language and civilisation that he seamlessly layers his work with, is a marvel.

And so, for me, it is a fascinating education in writing to read his early books, all in new editions since the success of The Road, and to examine his experiments with style, theme and material. Child of God is a book that was published back in 1974 and it is scarily intense. A growingly depraved man, Lester Ballard, with no ability or desire to stop himself, kills and keeps the bodies of women, in attempts to have an intimate relationship, something he has been excluded from in the ‘real’ world. It is set in a remote part of America in winter and summer, with Ballard being discovered in a cave with the decomposing bodies, some dressed in clothes he has stolen for them, by the police. Yes, it is about sexual violence, necrophilia and abject loneliness. It is also about survival. It is a gruelling disturbing read and one I have not been able to get out of my head.

As an example of McCarthy experimenting with the themes that have become central to his work it is revealing. He pushes the reader into  intensely uncomfortable and violent corners with no exit or even respite from Ballard’s madness, and has said that the character is actually based on a real figure in history. And of course, there is the biblical river that Ballard, the people he kills, the people who hunt him, and the reader, are forced down: we are all children of God.

So, I found it fascinating as I read Gerard Donovan’s book Julius Winsome that I couldn’t stop thinking about Child of God. A loner with no real connection to a community, insulated by his father’s books that line the walls of his low roofed, often snow-bound house and jilted by his one love, Winsome is a man who has had an austere life and who is deeply suspicious of other people. Then his dog, his only friend, is shot dead at close range. Winsome isn’t the mad, outcast from society that Ballard is at the beginning of Child of God but his emotional remoteness from the town he lives near, the isolation of his house, his inability to connect

The similarities are obvious, remoteness in landscape and relationship, memory serving as present, disappointment in love and the realization that they are never going to fit in, and revenge. And the fathers. There is always a father in McCarthy’s stories and similarly in Julius Winsome, the biggest relationship Winsome has is with his father (and grandfather). I wonder if Donovan has ever read Child of God. In this interview he doesn’t mention McCarthy but you never know. I’m NOT saying he has taken anything from McCarthy (if he even has) other than inspiration but perhaps these themes are universal for men?

I guess I find this interesting because writing is such an experiment, an endeavour, an idea realised as best a writer can, and that our influences and imagination are fluid and receptive and hopefully open to all comers, whatever form they take. And I think the idea of a fringe-dweller of any sort offers up a rich canvasfor a story to run across. Now that I’m banging on about it, I am also reminded of Mark O’Flynn’s lovely book Grass Dogs. It’s an Australian novel with similar themes, a man on the fringes of society and acceptance, with only dogs to keep him company. Until, of course, the dogs are taken away. The dogs are always taken away aren’t they? Could be a good panel discussion sometime or other.

 

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Saltwater Vampires

I have finally got around to reading Kirsty Eager’s second novel, Saltwater Vampires. Eager won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult fiction last year with a sensational read titled Raw Blue (mentioned in this review by me in 2009).

As with Raw Blue, Saltwater Vampires includes a lot of beautiful writing about the ocean and waves and surfing. It also includes three storylines which, of course, all end up in one and yes, vampires. Now, I haven’t read many other vampire books. I didn’t read the Ann Rice when I was a teenager, I haven’t read Twilight (or seen the films), and Dracula has never figured on my to read list. But I have read Charlaine Harris’ Sooki Stackhouse series and am thoroughly obsessed with True Blood, the television adaptation. And in some ways, Saltwater Vampires is similar to the Sooki Stackhouse series. It’s a burgeoning sexy read (burgeoning because the main characters are all under 17 years old), it’s got some really creepy vampires and the ‘evil’ is out of this world but firmly embedded in it.

With the wreck of the Batavia in 1629 as the starting point of the insidious creepiness, modern day Amsterdam as the Piravem meet to figure out what to do with the four ‘mutineers’ from the Batavia who have existed in Australia for 400 years and have re-surfaced to perform some act that will increase their powers astronomically, and four school friends who are facing their own human difficulties of growing up but will soon face death, immortality and loss head on, there is almost too much story in the novel – and almost too much story in this sentence. But I think that’s probably the only criticism I have of the book.

While Raw Blue is a much more nuanced book, the gradations of character are all still aplenty in Saltwater Vampires and the story moves along at a cracking pace, so, much so that I couldn’t really put it down until I knew what, how and who (and just how you can show a vampire their own immortality).

Eager is a great storyteller and one that should be read widely. She is able to place Australian culture centre stage without falling into stereotype or cliche and her writing of the ocean and surfing in particular is refreshingly real and unsentimental. Saltwater Vampires is a must-read for all of you who have ‘done’ the Twilight, the Vampire Diaries, the Vampire Academy etc…it’s fun and silly, a bit scary, a bit sexy and quite a bit Australian. And the girls can really surf.

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Writerly Distractions

My name is Pip and yes, I am a twitter addict. I check and refresh and update my twitter feed as much as is humanly possible throughout the day and night. First thing in the morning and last thing at night. Lunch. On the train. Walking up the street. I get my news in 140 characters. I get my gossip. I get my laughs. I get…connected. And I find things, like Paris Review interviews with obscure (to me) poets that are terrifically inspiring and revealing of the writing process and ideas and imagination, that I would never have found any other way.

But lately I have become obsessed within this obsession. Jon Winkour’s Advice for Writers is doing my head in. I follow him on twitter and each day he tweets one or two quotes or links to advice by famous and not so famous writers about writing, life and grammar. I read these tweets and then email them to myself to read later or to continue to think about or to write out and stick on my study wall. Quotes from Colm Toibin like ‘Stay in your mental pyjamas all day’ and ‘Always finish what you start’ seem too simple to hold insight but they connect with me and my headspace about a lot of different things – especially the current state of my writing and my writing practice. And there are some real gems:

‘Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.’ Anne Enright

‘Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.’ Annie Dillard 

Ah ha, I hear you saying. Yes, that’s right. I understand now. We all nod our heads sagely in agreement.

 My growing problem, though, is that I forward these tweets to my inbox and then I file them in my folder ‘Links’ to look at later and then I find there is no ‘later’. I just keep adding to this folder and now have hundreds of helpful suggestions, advice and links to more and more helpful advice sitting there just waiting for me to find the time to be enlightened, inspired and productive. But it’s not happening.

I think this practice has to stop really, doesn’t it? Because inadvertently I wind up not doing very much writing and looking to these snippets of information as the holy grail, the silver bullet, the one thing I need to know to finish the book, the short story, the film script I am working on. But, as Anne Lamott says in her superb book Bird by Bird, writing is all about writing. Yes, there is the thinking, the observing, the imagining but ultimately, it is the writing that makes a writer.

And, on thinking about it (‘Don’t think,’ Ray Bradbury said), none of these writers who have pieces of advice to give, got to that point without writing. They know these things because they write. They have written and will continue to write (except for the dead ones).

So, no more quotes for me. I might read them. File them away mentally. Know that the Advice To Writers website will have them all archived and breathe out. Although, I will pay attention to one last quote – Zadie Smith says writing is best done ‘on a computer that isn’t connected to the internet’. Seems like spectacularly good advice.

PS. I printed out and sent off the manuscript of the latest book last week. I sent it to a friend/colleague and I’m hoping for some sizeable feedback. It came to a wad of 190 pages and over 72,000 words. Words that I don’t actually remember writing. Words that I was a little bit impressed by (some of them anyway). It seems such a long time ago, these events that I was writing about. As though in another life. And yet, there they are in black ink on white paper. Writing is such an odd process isn’t it. Or as Cynthia Ozick says, ‘If we had to say what writing is, we would describe it essentially as an act of courage.’

 

 

 

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Re-thinking Restrepo

I watched Restrepo yesterday. It is the documentary that photographer Tim Hetherington, and writer Sebastian Junger, made of their time embedded with the Second Platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007. (Junger also wrote a book War, which gives a more thorough idea of what it was like for the US soldiers in that place at that time).

I admit to being fascinated by war (I even played a bit of Modern Warfare 2 yesterday) and am completely engaged with the war in Afghanistan after being their twice, once in 2004 and again in 2008. But I still don’t get why such fanfare is made of soldiers. Yes, it’s awful. War is awful – but don’t we know that? Don’t we know that men and women who join up for any of the defence forces risk their lives? Don’t we know that we expect them to kill others? Aren’t they trained to within an inch of their lives (in Australia at any rate, ie. SAS: The Search for Warriors) to do this job? (And I’m not saying that they aren’t brave or that they shouldn’t be celebrated, I just find patriotism and triumphalism meaningless when it is loaded upon individuals shoulders – they are just men and women, like you and me – doing a job they have signed up for*).

And, what’s more, I don’t think Restrepo is a good documentary. It doesn’t delve into the psyches of the men, it doesn’t really show the difficulties of getting to the Restrepo outpost only 700 or 800 metres from The Kop, the main outpost, in this contested valley. And, now I think about it, that 800 metre walk, vulnerable and ever-watched by Taliban who were literally just a small arms firing range across the valley, could have shown more about the daily lives of the soldiers than anything else we see in the 93 minutes. That would have been harrowing for any soldier or journalist or photographer.

I have to come back to my theory of the obvious insularity of the American media and the American public discourse for reasons as to why this documentary has received such praise and awards. Yes, this doco was probably shocking for Americans who know nothing about the actual war on the ground in Afghanistan. And, coming after David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers, and all the Wikileaks stuff from Iraq (and yes, Finkel is the Washington Post journalist who sat on the video of US military killing Iraqi journalists later released by Wikileaks), perhaps the zeitgeist hit last year in America about the potential pointlessness and clear clumsiness of the US campaign in Afghanistan and the documentary assisted that (or was assisted by that). I don’t know.

But the truly shocking element of the documentary (and book) is that after four years of fighting the Taliban in the valley, and over 40 deaths of US soldiers and hundreds of wounded, the US pulled out, burning everything they couldn’t carry or didn’t want the Taliban to use, when the strategy to police more populated areas across Afghanistan came into force in 2010. Attempting to take over the Korengal Valley was ultimately a pointless exercise, the men who died fighting for and building the Restrepo outpost are too obviously political and cultural casualties. And this fact, this truth is written in the fine print at the end of the film. Wouldn’t want a truth to get in the way of a good story, huh.

I have to agree with Hannah Gurmann, when she contextualises Restrepo against the current American feeling towards the war in Afghanistan, the new-ish US strategy and the complete (as displayed in the film) ignorance Americans have for Afghan culture and people.

I find it revealing that in a place as small and conservative as the Korengal Valley, with prayer being called five times a day, that the only time in the documentary we hear a muezzin call, is in one of the deleted scenes on the DVD extras. Over 15 months of embedded time with the platoon and Hetherington and Junger only manage to include one call to prayer and then delete it from the main documentary. It’s telling, I think, don’t you? As Gurmann writes, ‘We can’t possibly re-think Afghanistan until we first think about Afghanistan.’

*If defence forces are forced into situations (or create situations themselves) that are not what they are trained for – Vietnam, Iraq, and elements of the Afghanistan campaign, then that is a different matter all together, and it could be argued that the US troops in the Korengal were in fact, in one of those situations, perhaps similar to situations in Vietnam, not knowing who the enemy was or when, where, how they would be attacked – just knowing they would be – or really why they were there in the first place. Situations created on high, unnecessarily risking life and limb are not what a soldier signs up for.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I don’t think I have told you about David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet yet, have I? It’s an epic story of 1799 Japan and Dejima, the section that the foreigners are confined to stay in while trading with, or living in, Japan. And Mitchell creates such a beautiful, intimate, almost longing, portrait of Jacob de Zoet, the Dutch clerk sent out with the Dutch East India Trading Company, that after over 600 pages later, I found myself almost weeping over the last three pages of the novel. Mostly love story, this historical fiction includes a huge array of secondary characters from samurai to slaves, midwives to Masters, Lords and limping, gout ridden Captains. The novel is an extraordinary piece of work by Mitchell. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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The Mary Smokes Boys

Now that I am not blogging for Readings anymore, I thought I would stop blogging. The pressure, the pressure, the constant pressure to think of new things to write each week was one of the drawbacks of committing to writing a non-marketing blog for them. But, then I read The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland and, apart from colleagues and customers, had no one to really share the joy with. And what joy. It is sad and desperate but a touch mythical and lyrical and he writes with such confidence and (clearly) knowledge of small town-ness. New Australian Gothic. A real diamond of the year for me. I really couldn’t wait to read more from him.

So, I went fishing for him online and found a few of his stories for the Griffith Review here. Yes, he is one to watch. A slow burn of a writer who obviously has a clear eyed approach to story. Read The Mary Smokes Boys. It’s great.

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Fun in the City

On Thursday we headed into the city to see the Ricky Swallow show Bricoleur at the Ian Potter NGV Gallery in Federation Square. On the way up the stairs at the gallery we wandered through the 2009 Clemenger Art Award and came across Destiny Deacon’s latest piece. She is always super cool and precise in her gaze. I was also overcome with joy when I realised that by participating in Julie Gough’s Forcefield 2, I could help erase the text of Keith Windschuttle’s book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. It cheered me up immensely and I stepped on every page glued to the floor. Language, symbols and words have significance and power and change the way people think. They need to be addressed with energy and thought and that is precisely what Deacon and Gough ensure we do. Go and dance on Windschuttle’s lies in the knowledge that some white Australians are still trying to deny our black history while you grin at the bravado and cheekiness of Deacon’s Miss Diss Graces and Jacky Of All Trades and the stereotypes and perceptions they are aiming to subvert.

And Swallow’s work? Amazing. Detailed and powerful wood sculptures because of the detail.

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homelessness and leasehold

So, in this week of Homelessness Awareness have a read of this great article from The Age by Chris Middendorp about Victorian homelessness and then this an article from the Centre for Policy Development website by Barbara Coombs.

If, like me, you see a link then push the idea at the dinner table, on the tram, at the water cooler.

Leasehold as a direct form of public housing. Sure, it will cost money to set up and support but imagine if there was a way of ensuring the least lucky of us could stay in residential housing for long periods of time. Imagine if they knew they were secure. Not secure as in housing commission but secure in that they would own their own place for 20 years or 30 years or 40 years.

Imagine if the rental crisis, the absence of affordable rental properties for people like you and I where we wind up paying huge percentages of our income in rent, turned into an investment boon for low income people like you and I. I don’t mind paying rent but in the toss up between leasehold or tenancy: leasehold would win. I could probably even afford it. And I’d be able to renovate the kitchen.

As any renter knows leasehold means you could stay in the area, the area you want to live in, even if it becomes uber-groovy and full of warehouse conversions. And if you have kids and you want them to go to your really good local public school you could stay without the worry of having to find cheaper rent and moving out of the area. You can get to know your neighbours properly and join the local gym.

We are all closer to the homeless then we believe or realise. A few missed mortgage payments, a rent payment missed, credit cards, phone bills – and before you know it you could be on that spiral down. Some of us are just lucky. But if we had residential leasehold then there would be more lower income people in stable accommodation over longer periods of time and it might just help a few sidestep the road to homelessness.

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People who post

I have just read that Joel Fitzgibbon supports sending troops into Pakistan:

What I found even more interesting and worth a ponder were all the comments posted. 100 at last look.

But why all the shouting and crowing – Labor versus Liberal is all a bit old school isn’t it when both parties are significantly similar in their approaches to issues both domestically and internationally. Well, OK Labor has amended the mandatory detention legislation (but hasn’t got rid of it – although it was a Labor government that started the policy wasn’t it?).

Whichever party is in don’t we simply expect them to help us make things better and if not that – make things better for us. And that ‘us’ can be your family or as far reaching as people on the other side of the world if it is possible. Who would say no to that.

I was in Kabul in May this year and wound up in a conversation at a party with a Pakistani consular official who had quite a few thoughts on this very matter. He quoted a Pashtun proverb:

‘If you are worried for your country, look to your state.
If you are worried for your state, look to your village.
If you are worried for your village, look to your family.
If you are worried for your family, look to yourself.’

He then went on to say that he was now worried for his village. His grandmother still lived in the village one hundred or so kilometres north of Peshawar and that an Afghan mullah has begun to preach violence and mayhem and moral fundamentalism including the seclusion of women from work. This man grew more distraught and animated as he described how his village had been peaceful for centuries and centuries. He then said:

‘There is a jungle fire coming my way and it will engulf you too.’ He was pointing at me and meant Australia.

Now whether you believe this or not is not my point. Neither is whether you support troops going into Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq or not. My point is that this situation (and all others in this contemporary world) needs to be engaged with, thought about and not used simply to criticise one political party or the other. That is what has gone before. Now we need a different way forward. If we have learnt anything surely we must have learnt that. It doesn’t serve anyone to repeat mistakes or history.

And here’s another story off the ABC news site about the fishing rights win in NT

When I posted my comment on that story there were no other comments posted (there are now 12). Why not 100? Why is there not as much interest in this story? It is a first for Indigenous people in Australia and has taken 30 years of fighting to win. It is important to Australia and Australian law for a vast number of reasons. Is it because people don’t know any indigenous people? Because it happened in the NT so what do Syd-Melb care? Because it is boring Australian law and no one really understands what effects it has on our lives?

Perhaps all the people who commented on Joel Fitzgibbon’s statement know Afghans, Pakistanis or Australian defence force personnel and they have an emotional and personal response to the thought that Australian troops may end up in Pakistan? Perhaps it is easier to grandstand about things external than think thoroughly about an issue. Or perhaps posts just aren’t the place for comment of this nature and is only good for posturing. I don’t know but it is worth a thought.

Or perhaps they all need to be paying more attention to their villages?

Just a thought.

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