Archive for October, 2009

October 29, 2009

Some of you might be crying, wondering where the final HELLO INTERN interview is. Yes, that’s right — your favourite blog series with a capital-lettered title (so as to create interest where only salutation exists) is on hiatus for a couple of weeks. Not to worry — you will forget all about it, and then it will pop up on the front page here or in your RSS feed like a friendly chipmunk and you will practically have to tie yourself to the chair to keep from shaking with ecstasy and anticipation. Also, next week will be DAVID FOSTER WALLACE WEEK (note to self: calm down with the caps; it looks vulgar) at 3000 BOOKS. So don’t fret, my loves.

To tide you over, something I always enjoy on other blogs: a trawl through the Google search terms that led some unsuspecting folks here. Hereby:

raymond carver favorite ice cream When I was a kid, I delighted in knowing trivia about my future husband, Darren Hayes. This is the kind of thing I would have Googled, probably, had Google been around when I was thirteen or whatever. But I’m afraid that Raymond Carver is dead, and cannot be your future husband, Unknown Googler.

how can you tell a woman is interested according to philosophy Don’t ask Nietzsche.

how can you tell the name of cigarets you looks on the packit.

hated the slap christo tsiolkas Christos! You have sparked the need for a literary therapy group.

Sometimes, it gets a bit personal.

kate faber anal sex? I don’t know, honey.

buck tooth estelle Hey! Come now. I have pretty nice teeth.

I really like it when people treat Google like the food machine in Enid Blyton’s Land of Do-as-you-Please (or is it Take-What-You-Want?), and just type in whatever it is they hope to receive from the bounty of the internet. Anyhow:

ruby in the smoke book review in 200 words And for me, Frank Camorra as personal chef!

please let me be quiet Christos, I think I’ve found another member for your therapy group.

and my favourite:

grug de maupassant Now, that’s a literary combination I never have thought to desire. But now, how could I wish otherwise?

* Okay, in these fraught times, I realise you can’t really say things like this anymore. From Google homies to Orwellian shackles, right?

+ Irritatingly good and unmissable blog The Second Pass has given me some candidates for the 2009 Tax Return Book Buying Extravaganza. Plus, made me feel not so bad about not enjoying those Nabokov short stories.

+ Reading and very much enjoying Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. Liar‘s structure is many tiny, non-linear vignettes chapterettes enunciations episodes toi-disants; the teenaged Micah trots out a little more of her strange story in each part. Thus, and for other reasons, Matthew Shaer writing about Knut Hamsun in the LA Times speaks to me (via):

In an 1890 essay, Hamsun wrote that a true portrait of the human spirit could never be conceived linearly or politely. Life was not a story, but a scattershot series of episodic flashes, fast-burning and painful to remember. To thrive, an artist must leave the city for the rough living of the country. He must immerse himself in “the unpredictable chaos of perception, the delicate life of the imagination held under the microscope; the meanderings of these thoughts and feelings in the blue, trackless, traceless journeys of the heart and mind, curious workings of the psyche, the whisperings of the blood, prayers of the bone, the entire unconscious life of the mind.

+ Coming from the publisher who went with Tao Lin’s ‘Britney Spears’ stickering campaign, the activity branded ‘most bizarre publicity stunt’ at MOBYLIVES must be pretty weird. It is.

+ If only I worked for the New York Times; then I would be able to interview Ann M. Martin.

+ Gav, Royce, Daisy, Stapes: you will like these Yale ‘Introduction to Theory of Literature’ lectures (via).

+ Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver: a story I never tire of. But Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, has released Beginners, the pre-Lish What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Will I like it more or less? Will I read it before the year ends? These are two possible questions on the topic at hand.

What do I say about this book? Just be brief: ‘I hated it’? Simply state the facts: ‘This book contains 13 short stories’? Attempt to entertain instead of just being grumpy by exaggerating my response: ‘I was so bored while reading this book that I started to wonder if it would be okay to return it to the person I borrowed it from with “I want those hours of my life back, Vladimir” written in eyeliner on the front cover’? Just ask rhetorical questions instead of actually writing something of substance? Hokay, then.

Trying to formulate a compelling comment about a book I disliked so much feels like being in the chair of a halitosic dentist after having eaten nothing but sweets for seven years. I’ve read Lolita, of course, a long time ago, and remember being enthusiastic in no minor way about it. Nabokov’s faculty for witty and beautiful language is an absolute treat in that book. His familiar/formal tone perfectly made present the strangeness of child-lover Humbert Humbert. Just think upon this little excerpt:

Finally, on a Californian beach, perverse privacy in a kind of cave whence you could hear the separate part of the beach, behind rotting trees; but the fog was like a wet blanket, and the sand was gritty and clammy, and Lo was all gooseflesh and grit, and for the first time in my life I had as little desire for her as for a manatee.

Just look at that sentence structure, all elegant echoes; and the way Humbert seems fussy, while the language itself is not. I picked this sentence out pretty well at random, but it’s a juicy one: clean and balanced and alliterative; a tensile string prettily plucked at its end.

The problem in Nabokov’s Dozen (and who on earth picked that title?) isn’t the language. It’s a collection from which an interested random-excerpter could easily isolate many sweetly flavoured phrases of incomparable virtuosity and verve. I love this, from the end of ‘Signs and Symbols’:

His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again.

I mean, you can’t fault this writing. And there is a lot of the real breathtaking, high-wire stuff in here, too: there are model firmaments and teetotums gyrating and things get a bit violaceous. A reader’s attention can be well fed by writing like this for a little while. But there’s only so much this reader could take before she began to feel herself giving less and less of a shit about what happens. Sentences like these are fabulous on their own, but they aren’t put to much use in Nabokov’s Dozen. Instead, they have the brave, panicky sense of having been shoved up against each other like prize pooches at an animal show that’s particularly short on space.

Part of why this book failed to fully charm me can be characterised as a tendency towards over-the-top drama. Two of the stories have similar plosive endings, even though the characters and the situations are quite different. Just use your imagination a little bit, Vlad. However, these two stories were the ones I probably enjoyed the most in the collection, seeing as they actually had some drama in them. One was ‘Spring in Fialta’, a lovely but distant chase through a man’s memories of a woman, Nina, whom he loved but never managed to properly hold on to. The other, ‘The Aurelian’, tells the story of Paul Pilgram, a seller of butterflies, whose life is unexpectedly enlivened by the arrival of a customer with great enthusiasm for Pilgram’s colourful specimens. It’s a gorgeous story that depicts with pathos the inevitable decline of dreams, which is made more cruel by the exotic, unattainable nature of the insects Pilgram loves so much. Bonus points: Nabokov was a real-life butterfly enthusiast.

But there are some stories that lacked drama, or even any narrative drive. The final story, ‘Lance’, is like an overworded version of The Little Prince, with gerbils. I gave up on trying to understand what was happening — and I think only a couple of lines really served the ‘plot’ — and tried not to get a headache from all the florid prose. A couple of the stories are based loosely on people from Nabokov’s past; his childhood French instructor gets a look in (‘Mademoiselle O’) and his first beloved, as well (‘First Love’). Non-climactic and strongly sentimental, these are more like personal essays than stories per se. I don’t know why he bothered to fictionalise them; they might even have been more interesting as actual essays.

So, I don’t think I will be reading this. I might have to re-read Lolita soon, though. I really like stories with strong narrative arcs and finely judged moral or character tension. Good luck finding much of that in Nabokov’s Dozen. The writing’s nice, though.

(Don’t ask: this is the picture Jen gave me.)

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with the bushy-eyed beginners of the publishing industry — interns. You can see HELLO INTERN interviews here with the other Australian Publishers Association interns, who are, respectively, at Scribe Publications, black dog books, Oxford University Press and Text Publishing.

Onto the present, and Oxford University Press intern Jennifer Butler. Jen is actually doing her internship through the Melbourne University Postgraduate Diploma in Editing and Communications. We both work at OUP, and since I’m not attracted enough to whiplash-type injuries to conduct an interview with myself, here’s a peek into her internship hijinks. She’s tall and really disciplined, and if I were honest with myself I would say that we were at polar ends of the spectra for those particular characteristics. (I’m five feet tall and have a really dusty yoga mat.)

I know about you, but the internet doesn’t know as much as I do (for once). Tell it a bit about yourself.

How do you know the internet doesn’t know as much about me as you do? Have you googled me? Hmm?

Yes, I have, but I got numerous results for Bill Murray’s ex-wife, so I thought it better to desist.

Okay, fine, there’s not much about me out there. Here’s a bio I wrote about myself for an upcoming book (the book is not an OUP publication, so in deference to my mentors I won’t name it):

Jennifer Butler completed her undergraduate degree at the Queensland Conservatorium and her PhD on nineteenth-century Russian opera and literature at the University of New South Wales. She then lived in various parts of Russia for two years. She has written liner notes for Decca and Deutsche Grammaphon, and reviews of Mariinsky Theater productions for The Moscow Times. Her hobbies include languages, literature, and slowly sightreading her way through the piano repertoire. Bach is a particular favourite. From time to time she plays badminton. She currently lives in Melbourne, where she teaches English.

I’m interested in publishing because I like being part of a creative process and I like big projects. As for reading, after many years reading obscure nineteenth-century Russian literature I’m trying to get a hold on contemporary literary fiction. That broad enough for you? I also like Ian Rankin and Reginald Hill.

Oh my God. I’m actually scared of you a little bit now. You’re doing an internship with OUP as part of the Melbourne University Postgraduate Diploma in Editing and Communications. How is the internship structured, and how does it fit in with your other studies? Do all the students of that course do internships, or is it an elective?

The internship is structured according to your needs and those of your host. You need to be there for 100 to 120 hours, and complete a research project which helps your host in some way. I’m working on a top secret project involving new editions. I’m not studying anything else at the moment, so fitting it in with other studies is not an issue. Fitting it in with the rest of my life is another matter.

I don’t know if all students do internships, but I think they’d be silly not to. At some point you need a chance to prove yourself.

Did you have a say in where you did the internship? Why did you pick OUP? How did you prepare the internship application?

Yes, we had a say. I chose OUP because I wanted to work for an educational publisher with a good reputation. The internship application involved nominating the publishers and the type of work I was interested in, and sending them my resume via the course co-ordinator. Then I had a meeting with my mentor to discuss the type of work I’d be doing, and that was that. Other students’ applications were a bit more complicated (writing tests, reference checks and so on) but OUP seemed very trusting.

That strikes me as unfair, seeing as I had to do an editing test and two interviews to get my job. But tell me a bit more about the Editing and Communications course.

After you’ve completed some core subjects (Editorial English and Structural Editing) you can continue as you wish, adding subjects to match your interests. I’ve also done Print Production and Design (indesign training) and the Contemporary Publishing Industry (finding out about current industry issues).

Do you know where any of the other interns are posted?

Yep. There are lots at funky literary magazines (including The Lifted Brow), some doing communications work with the government and charities, and others are with fiction publishers. As far as I know I’m the only one with an educational publisher. Aren’t textbooks sexy enough?

What’s the most salient thing you’ve learned from doing the internship?

That my instincts are often right, and they are not only applicable to theses on Russian opera. Constant self-doubt is a common side effect of finishing a PhD, not preening arrogance, as you’d assume.

What are you reading right now?

Dave Eggers’ What is the What.

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October 20, 2009

I have been getting a bit concerned that I only read books about the same things. Do you ever do that? It’s actually kind of a worry when viewed in chart form.

* Of course, this delightful Microsoft Paint image is evidence to the contrary.

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When Stephen Fry tweeted about David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives (‘You will not read a more dazzling book this year than David Eagleman’s “Sum”. If you read it and aren’t enchanted I will eat 40 hats’), sales of the book jumped 6000% on Amazon. It wasn’t on Fry’s recommendation that I was reading Sum, though he is the most darling of celebrity men. The book had endured some serial lending among my friends before finding its way into my hands. Sum is eminently suited to this kind of social transmission: it’s short, quirky, digestible and guaranteed to give you at least a couple of good feelings. It also attempts to answer the question forever beloved of philosophers, armchair or otherwise: what is the deal with this ‘life’ caper?

To answer this question, Sum proposes forty alternative afterlives. They’re delicious little second-person morsels, only a couple of pages each. In ‘The Unnatural’, once you die, you get to ‘make any single change you want, and then live life over again’. Of course, the afterlife wouldn’t be a fruitful target for Eagleman’s fictional propositions if it were going to be simple and settled, or laden with resolution. Thus, ‘you’ decide that you will eradicate death altogether from the planet, although you are warned that you’ve made this decision before. The warning goes unheeded and in your new life, your success in overcoming death for humankind means that people lose motivation and take a lot of naps; people begin to set suicide dates; friends begin to hold surprise killing parties for each other. I think you know what the moral of this story is. In each of the afterlife stories, Eagleman suggests which qualities of life itself we find most valuable: he lionises lovers, remembrance and connection. It’s a conceit made effective by the simplicity of the stories’ language and structure. That said, the more pessimistic of us may gnash our teeth at this same simplicity, these short-form, single-note appeals to our better nature.

When you talk about the possibilities of the afterlife, God generally gets a look in; or perhaps I should say ‘Gods’. Eagleman’s gods are made up of the female and unappreciated; the multiple and unmemorialised; the only-accidental creator; and those minutely specialised in bacteria or objects made of chrome. Like their Greek and Roman counterparts, many of Sum‘s gods are just like people, only with more influence or better skill with biological matter, and they often exhibit as much bewilderment about the curiousness of life as their human counterparts. In one story, ‘Spirals’, humans are supercomputers constructed to answer our creators’ queries about the purpose of existence; when we die, the creators switch us back on and weep because they think we know the answer and are too advanced to communicate it to them. Little do they know, however, that we haven’t got a clue either.

Sum‘s anthroposophical reverence reminds me of something my favourite fictional heroine, Philip Pullman’s Lyra, realised in The Golden Compass: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere. By creating multiple fictional afterlives that mirror and refract our earthly lives, Eagleman foregrounds the cherished experiences that we can actually grasp, know and enhance. Sum urges us to recognise that, whether there truly is an afterlife or not, it is the substance of the life we do have with which we struggle and can sometimes succeed to create meaning.


Guess what? It’s part four of HELLO INTERN, your favourite series of interviews with extremely literate and fun members of society: the people taking part in the Australian Publishers Association‘s internship program. There are six of these internships on offer this year, and they cover a broad range of roles with equally diverse publishing houses. Today’s parley is with Sophie Splatt, editorial intern at black dog books.

Before I sat Sophie down for a chat, I perused black dog books’ titles on their website. Tell me you don’t want to buy Saving Pandas right away. Wait until you see the one with the lamb on the front cover.

Sophie, you must be in the running for the intern with the best name. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I finished a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT last year. Before that I have completed a Bachelor of Creative Arts and a Diploma of Modern Languages (Italian) and worked in Japan, among other things. I also have my own business designing and making crafty goods which you can see here: http://www.mistressoftheupperfifth.com.au/

How did your interest in publishing develop, and what steps did you take to get involved? Can you talk a little bit about your interest in children’s publishing specifically?

I have always loved reading. I went back to study because I wanted to get work in the publishing industry, ideally as an editor. I chose the RMIT course because I had a friend who had done it and really recommended it as being very practical (I love TAFE!). During my time there I did a placement at Allen & Unwin which really confirmed for me that I wanted to work in publishing.

I guess my interest in children’s publishing really stems from my love of all things childlike. I collect picture story books from the 50s, 60s and 70s and vintage children’s fabrics too. I love toys as well and I spent 6 years working in a toy shop on Brunswick St. At RMIT I studied writing for children and writing for young adults and found that as well writing for this age group I still loved reading for it too. It’s wonderful to be working for a publisher who focuses on making great books for kids.

What was the interview process like?

I had two interviews for the internship. I already knew quite a bit about black dog books but of course I prepared for the interview – just like I would for any job.

How is your internship structured?

I am an editorial intern so I am doing mostly editorial work. I have already studied editing but I am learning a lot as I go (and really enjoying the chance to put what I have learnt into practice).

What’s an average day in the life of an intern at black dog books?

I like the fact that every day here is different. While I have some long-term projects that I’m working on, there are always lots of other things to be done. It’s great to work in a smaller company too, so that I get the chance to find out about all the aspects of the publishing industry and not just the editorial side.

You must have been pretty excited at the opportunity to step into the publishing world. What have been the highlights?

Getting a job! I wasn’t sure how hard it would be to find work when I finished my course so I feel very lucky to have this opportunity.

Any advice for people who are interested in working in the industry?

Make a plan – whether this is going back to study, getting work experience or applying for jobs. It’s not impossible!