Archive for February, 2010

So, I’m all kinds of delighted (and a bit shy) about announcing my involvement in Format Festival’s Academy of Words. The Adelaide festival has a fine history of supporting Adelaide’s keen artistic folk by putting on lots of free events, and I’ll be there from 12-14 March. Hopefully those dates won’t coincide with a heatwave, though precedent suggests they will. I’m presenting two events. The first is an Editorial Agony Aunts session, which I’m co-hosting with my one-time interviewee, Dion Kagan. It’s going to be intimate, confessional and hopefully a little bit uplifting. However, Dion and I are both firm believers in failure as key to success and if, by that credo, we depress our faithful attendees too much, we’ll buy them a drink after the session.

The other event is the soon-to-be-famous Literary Friction extravaganza. Hosted by Angela Meyer and yours truly (both wearing slinky dresses and sensible shoes), it promises (well, it promised me) to be a shitfight between festival guests desperate to prove that they are the literary champions of the world (…or, the room). If you love trivia, and if you ‘just love books LOL’, then this is the seedy Saturday night for you. Sensitive, well-read folk only, please.

So, a bit of cheeky crowdsourcing. For those of you who are interested in ‘getting into publishing’, what are you most interested in finding out? And what is the most obscure literary trivia question I could ask that you would get right?

February 23, 2010

In popular TV show Thank God You’re Here, Australian actors and comedians are thrown into a situation they know nothing about and attempt to make it out alive, as well as angle for a few laughs along the way. Even as only an occasional television watcher, I’m familiar with the dark edges of Bob Franklin’s deadpanning; in this skit, he tells his ‘employee’, a tea lady, that she is not going to be ‘sacked’, but ‘put down’. That famously head-cocked view of the world paired with its being the first in Affirm Press‘s Long Story Shorts series made Franklin’s début publication, Under Stones, an immediately compelling proposition when Affirm’s Associate Publisher, Rebecca Starford, told me about it late last year. (Note: Bec and I are now colleagues at Kill Your Darlings.)

Franklin’s comedic experience tells in this collection of short stories, but not in the expected tally of belly laughs. (In fact, it’s the most self-consciously quirky story, ‘Thesis Examining a Student’s Path to Crime’, that strikes the one false note for me.) Rather, he’s a deft technician of story and its elements – tension, denouement, character, voice. These competencies serve him well in drawing the reader down through a suburban landscape that is at once familiar and much stranger than we know it. In ‘Ironman’, the first story, Ironman is a high-functioning Australian middle-class hero who ‘pounds the roads’ past the ‘abo’ perched on the beach. ‘Get used to me, I’m part of the landscape now,’ is Ironman’s catchcry, which rebounds between other racially charged insults and his wife’s tired half-silence. The bleakness that Ironman associates with native Australians, however, is visited upon him in a mocking, symbolic and haunting fashion when he arrives home one evening to discover his wife and children have disappeared.

It is clear from this, and many of its companions, that in Under Stones, Franklin has assembled myriad tales of unexpected disturbance and horror that scratch at the wales and wounds we bear. While the situations he describes are unexceptional, the conclusions his characters draw often are. In ‘Soldier On’, Phil, an itinerant but considerate son visits his parents in Paignton, Devon. Phil carps about illicit substances and the painful but necessary observances required of a filial visitor, but he also witnesses an unsettling longing in the elderly he sees around him. At first, it’s reasonable to suspect that his sensitivity is purely a correlate of his discomfort at being a distant son – one visit to the frozen waterside ends in Phil sighting aging faces under the ice. But illicit substances aren’t only for the young and disaffected among us.

Other stories in the collection possess an even more heightened sense of unease. ‘Take the Free Tour’ is a capacious psychological tale that toes the real/unreal divide most chillingly. Its eerie depths are accentuated by the sheer commonness of its protagonist, one Duncan Shaw – ‘unremarkable local reporter by day’ and ‘Dale Thorn, narrator of some of the toughest, most sarcastic private eye adventures that ever failed to impress an editor’ at night. The ‘tour’ of the title is a complimentary gander at a pornographic website, which speedily turns into a fixation. That in itself is no big juice, but the ‘voyeuristic orgy of depravity’ coincides with a number of inexplicable, vile acts at Duncan’s workplace: ‘marks … the colour of pale flesh, and phallic in shape’ turn up on photographs that are supposed to accompany a piece he is writing, and his autumnal desktop background is supplanted by a graphic image of a blonde woman. Endlessly worse manifestations disport themselves, implicating Duncan to his workmates. Frighteningly for Duncan – and the reader – he cannot fathom how these degenerate episodes materialised.

The conjunction of the ordinary and the weird has long been an inspiration to writers, and Franklin is no different. Far from being merely spooky or bizarre tales, the stories in Under Stones effect their rumour of unease on the winds of what we’re already hiding from: fear, the inexplicable and what’s hiding under stones.

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February 22, 2010

The kindly and learned folks at Kill Your Darlings, a new literary journal, asked me late last year to come aboard as online editor. I said yes and may have cried a little bit. We’ve been working incredibly hard on the new website, which looks amazing, and publicising Issue One, which is available from the website and stockists around Australia. Rebecca, Hannah and Jo have been extremely fun and inspiring to work with, and we’ll be doing some special things with the blog, Killings, including podcasts, interviews and reviews. We’ve got Twitter and Facebook accounts as well. Those of you who come here as a result of Googling ‘Michael Williams’ may be interested to know that he’s launching our first issue in Melbourne on March 11. (Stalking is an offence, you know.)

The appointment has coincided with a number of other new projects, including literary festival appearances, reviews for other media outlets and some writing of my own. This means I may be posting here a little less, though I will still manfully be attempting to chronicle my reading here – my memory remains as poor as ever. If you’re a regular ‘click-on, click-off’ visitor of the website, feel free to subscribe by email or RSS! Otherwise, you may miss exclusive pictures of me stuffing my face with small-sized foodstuffs. But, of course, this isn’t a goodbye, not even an attempt to attenuate one. This blog is a goddamn pastel wonderland; why would I want to leave?

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February 18, 2010

Totally boring compared to the first two. Not as fun or nailbiting as the others. I just finished reading this, and I truly cannot remember what happened. I think there was a werewolf?

You know, I never read Pippi Longstocking when I was little. I know, right? I went to the City Library to borrow Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (a childhood favourite, but my copy now no longer has a cover, nor a spine), and saw Astrid Lindgren’s classic sitting cheerfully beside. It piqued my interest on another account: Stieg Larsson has said that Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of his wildly popular Millenium Trilogy, was inspired in part by Pippi. I suppose Astrid Lindgren is to Swedish children what Enid Blyton is to British children; or perhaps it’s not as geographically specific as that. But Salander’s such an outsider, so wild, that I wondered what a beloved children’s heroine could have in common with her.

Well: a lot, as it turns out. Like Salander, Pippi is an orphan, almost alone in the world. She has ‘neither mother nor father, which was really rather nice, for in this way there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having most fun, and no one to make her take cod-liver-oil when she felt like eating peppermints.’ She’s also isolated, though happily, and lives in an old cottage in an orchard with no one but a monkey called Mr Nelson for company. Her next-door neighbours, Annika and Tommy, are delighted at Pippi’s particular brand of absurd fun – her unpredictable cooking style is likely to see eggs on the cook as well as the bowl. But she’s not like anyone they’ve ever met before.

Another point of similarity between the two Swedish heroines is their fringe status. Pippi is a bit of a conundrum for the townspeople, who decide that she should be in a children’s home. But Pippi uses her abnormal strength to evade the police when they attempt to take away. And, unlike many other children’s books, it’s not normality, assimilation or integration that wins out. Pippi leaves you at the end of the book exactly as you found her, shouting ‘I’m going to be a pirate when I grow up … Are you?’

A little while back, I had a chat with the lovely Davina Bell – founding editor of harvest magazine, and editor in the children’s/young adult division at Penguin Books – about the books we devoured when we were, well, wee. Some of my favourites were Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, the Silver Brumby books, Roald Dahl’s nutty capers and Enid Blyton’s stories of blancmange and boarding school. And, okay, Sweet Valley High books. But no long stockings until now, which is a real shame. Pippi’s so anarchic and fun. I kind of want her to be my friend now.

What were your favourite childhood reads?

February 15, 2010

I was thrilled to have another crack at the Wheeler Centre’s fine canapés on Friday night. But their splendour was overtaken by…

…the spectacle of Jennifer Byrne’s toned arms. Sparkling wine was flowing, heads were balding, editors were stumbling, heads were talking. Sorry, no pictures of the delicious morsels this time – I cleaned the Centre right out. Then on to the naffly titled World of Wine, a bar whose acronym is both subtle and deep, where Toni Jordan drank utterly the most giant gin and tonic I have ever seen. However, mine was normal sized. Clearly discrimination against people who haven’t written a very popular novel.

So, it’s two for two, and I’m rather excited to visit the Centre again tonight for the first Debut Mondays event. It features Sofie Laguna, Madeleine Hamilton, Andrew McDonald and Bob Franklin – whose Under Stones I am currently reading and enjoying very much – reading from their debut books.

Lots of the events have already ‘sold out’ (in inverted commas because most everything is free), so don’t forget to book, etc. I’ve already dropped the ball on the Gala Night and the first Meanland event (the next is Reading in a Time of Technology), so I’ll be ahead of the game for when sweetest of playwrights Lally Katz makes a writer’s mixtape on 23 February and Waleed Aly discusses the future of conservatism on 22 March. See you there.

Far be it from me to be snobby about people’s reading choices. Just because I haven’t picked up those books about a sparkly vampire yet doesn’t mean I don’t want to be spirited away on a cloud of sparkly vampire romance and anti-feminist values. I am pretty sure I foresee a time in my life when those things will be vital ingredients in Project Hermit Weekend (aka Don’t Forget the Sakatas). But I digress, because I am here, of course, to talk about another couple of vampire books: Charlaine Harris’s Dead until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas.

If you’re into ‘background information’ and all that, then I’ll just point out that these books belong to the Southern Vampire series, New York Times bestsellers that inspired the HBO television series True Blood. Sookie, the heroine of the series (there are eleven books in total) is

blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline. I look good in the warm-weather waitress outfit Sam picked for us: black shorts, white T, white socks, black Nikes.

Sookie’s telepathic, and she’s suitably ambivalent about her ‘disability, or gift’, which allows her to listen in on the thoughts of those around her. It causes a bit of havoc in her mental space. She found school trying, what with her having to hear what everyone else thought about the problem they were working on, so she gave up on it and started working as a waitress instead. And she definitely doesn’t take many lovers; no one wants to hear exactly what a paramour is thinking when his hand is on your ass. So Sookie is settled enough, in a way: she’s found a way to live.

But she is fascinated by the undead, the vampires who a couple of years ago ‘came out of the coffin’ to live among the living, breathing human beings of the United States. They congregate in New Orleans, a kind of vampire epicentre, but rarely do the exotic creatures have the inclination to visit Sookie’s Bon Temps, a rural northern Louisiana town. So when Bill Compton sits at one of her tables, with his nose ‘like a prince’s in a Byzantine mosaic’, it doesn’t take long for her to think of him as ‘her vampire’.

Harris is a tidy writer, whose generally workhorse prose can be funny or unexpectedly vivid, which makes the occasional gaffe okay. Our narrator, Sookie, peppers her speech and thoughts with plenty of charming down-homey talk (though she gets syrupy when contemplating her beloved). Bill is the classic tall, dark and handsome stranger, with a twist – he likes Kenny G when not cocooned in peremptory silences, and prefers women to wear long skirts.

These are some snappy, sure crime books, and it’s easy to see why Alan Ball jumped at the opportunity to create a series based on them. Each book contains a stand-alone story arc, but the vampire–human dynamic is a troubled one that plays out with plenty of antipathy and violence. Dead until Dark sees Sookie targeted by a serial killer who targets women who sleep with vampires, and in Living Dead in Dallas, Sookie is requisitioned by the vampires of Dallas to help them find a lost brother, who may have got tangled up with a religious anti-vamp group.

But though the books are classified as crime fiction, there’s no doubt what these books are really about:

Suddenly I came. Bill howled as he reached his own completion, and he collapsed on me, his fangs pulling out and his tongue cleaning the puncture marks.

It’s a little bit unfair of me to extract these prototype soft-porn sentences, but they illustrate very nicely the odd take Harris has on her characters’ nocturnal activities. You won’t see any anatomically correct terms in Dead until Dark, for example; Harris prefers a primly indirect approach: ‘He slid directly into me’. But there’s no getting around the rampaging libidos of the vampires and the humans who want to have sex with them (‘fang-bangers’). Twine the regular pangs of lust with the additional delicious kick that vampires get from ingesting human blood, and you’ve got an all-night disco party. When Sookie is wounded with a toxic weapon, three vampires drain her of blood before giving her a transfusion. Sookie may be dying, but for her pale friends, it’s the degustation menu with matching wines. And the blood exchange doesn’t just go one way. Sookie partakes of Bill’s blood – vampire blood is healing for humans – and it ‘tasted good, salty, the stuff of life. My unbroken arm rose, my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth.’

As my friend Daisy said the other day, ‘sex and death – what more could you want?’ (Well, actually, I think she said ‘sex and death’ and then shrugged. But that’s not an appropriate way to end a blog post.)