Sunday, May 30, 2010

What I've been reading lately

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Shot by Gail Bell
Ciara's Gift by Una Glennon
90 Packets of Instant Noodles by Deb Fitzpatrick
Wilt on High by Tom Sharpe
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (both books)
The Boat by Name Le
Beautiful Monster by Kate McCaffrey
Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (I thought I'd read this before, but if I did, I have no memory of it)
A People's History of Science by Clifford D. Conner

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What writers want

As I ponder purchasing furniture for my first ever study, I have also been pondering what a writer needs to write.  Some writers need silence; others music; Annie Dillard reportedly papers over the windows in her study, lest she be distracted from her (glorious) work (if you haven't read An American Childhood, you're missing a gem).  It's not only a physical space in which to write that has been lacking to date; I also work full time in a demanding job, as well as being the parent of a teenager.  When people ask me how I find time to write, I often say, I don't know.  Because I don't.  I make time, obviously, either in holidays or on weekends or during insomniac hours or on trains or instead of watching television.  Maybe it's not the how: it's the why.  Why, when each hour of life is so precious, would I spend time writing, when the world would neither know nor care if I spent my rare hours of free time at the beach, or planting out my vege bed, or seeing much neglected friends and family?

Like most mid-career (shudder) authors, I've wished I lived in a culture where I could live off my writing (or wrote the kinds of books that would make it possible in this one), or had a sugar daddy, or could magically have my mortgage paid off, or could win a massive prize that meant I could dedicate myself (in my shiny new study) to writing.  Some days, it really bites that I have to expend energy where I would rather not; some days I resent the demands that mean I can't do what I love.  Virginia Woolf wrote that women writers need money and a room of my own, but I've managed without either.  Have I written The Waves?  Maybe not.  Has the pressure of working changed the kinds of books that I've written?  Absolutely.  It's no coincidence that my best novel was written when I had the year of grace afforded me by an Australia Council grant: working full time prevents me from traversing that kind of territory again. 

Because of what they cost me, I love my books like the unruly children they are, even if they're not top of the class, or the most popular, or the best looking.  I love them for their soul, their character.  They each have their friends, their circle who would miss them if they weren't there.  Each one is a product of its time: they could only have appeared when they did, and, if I hadn't seized the moment, their story would have passed unnoticed, unrecorded. 

So having a room to write in is a luxury, not a necessity.  To write, all you need is an ear attuned to the story that is only for you - and to write it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Of things past

This is the only photograph I have of my paternal grandfather, taken during World War Two.  I don't remember how old I was when I first saw it: maybe when I was about ten, when I got my first letter from him, written in all capitals on blue airmail paper, warning me to BE CAREFUL OF SHARKS and enclosing similarly capitalised newspaper headings, such as WOMAN DIES AFTER POISONOUS SNAKEBITE and TOURIST WASHED OFF ROCKS BY FREAK WAVE, clearly the only times Australia made it into the English papers in that innocent, pre-Neighbours world.  I wondered if he was demented, but wrote back all the same.  It was a novelty, discovering an extra grandparent I had supposed to be dead: nobody had ever mentioned him until my aunty took it upon herself to write to the address he'd lived in twenty years earlier, enclosing details of the grandchildren he hadn't known about, and we began getting his strange, spidery-lettered missives from the other side of the world.

When I was twenty-one I took a bus up from London to see him, expecting to meet the handsome, robust man above, and had to hide my shock at meeting a stoop-backed old man with rheumy blue eyes, living on the ground floor of the council house in which he lived from birth to death, replete with photo frames caked with dust on the mantel.  He proudly showed me the contents of his fridge ('I look after meself, you know') - a half-finished tin of Spam, a single, cooked sausage, some milk - before taking me into town and to visit some cousins.  On the way he said 'I just want you to know, I don't know anything about all that other business' - I didn't dare ask what he meant - and then pointed at the factory he used to work in, before launching into a discussion about the outrageous price of sports shoes.  I declined the offer of a dusty, upstairs bed and caught the train to Liverpool in the dusk, where I found myself wandering the streets, weeping inconsolably without the faintest awareness why.

I didn't take a photo of him.  I wanted to protect his dignity, maybe: something told me he wouldn't want to have his image taken back to Australia, in his grimy front room, surrounded by pictures of people long dead, or long gone.  But maybe I wanted the picture of when I hadn't known him to be the only one, before he became such a disappointment to those who had loved him.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bits of things

Having sent off major rewrite of the V Girls to my dear, patient publishers, my head is full of scattery thoughts and reflections, like:

1.  Last weekend I went to the 80th birthday of a third cousin, Dawnie, a wonderful, lively woman who is an inspiration re how to live.  I saw a photograph, for the first time, of my great-great-great grandfather, William Parmenter, a convict who was sent over on the Norwood in 1862, and who settled in Bunbury with his wife and children, whom he paid 3 pounds something to bring over once he got his ticket of leave. (There was also a photograph of her.)  One of his children, a twin, died on the voyage.

I also saw a letter written by my great-great uncle, also William Parmenter, in 29 June 1918, from wherever he was fighting in the war.  He was writing to his sister, Martha (whose deathbed I remember attending when I was a small child).  He said if he didn't get home soon, all his sisters would be married.  He commented that he mind that, so long as his girl wasn't married.  Then he asked his sister how Annie was: he hadn't heard from her.  Two sentences: so much sadness wedged between them.

Between 29 June and November, when the war ended, William was killed.  His mother was out, the morning the telegram was delivered.  After that, she never wanted to leave the house, convinced that something terrible would happen if she did. 

2.  I've almost finished Gail Bell's Shot.  The subtle exploration of how trauma affects people is remarkable, and should shut up the people who say Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is rubbish.  Having survived twice being close to (or fearing I was close to) death through traumatic experiences (once being attacked on a beach; once having a bone-crushing fall off a horse), I'm struck by how similar my reactions were to such disparate experiences. 

3.  Next week I am going to Sydney for work.  I'm reflecting on how different it is, travelling this way, than my first arrival in Sydney in 1987, when my friend Carita and I were dropped off in the pre-dawn dark in Alexandria by a speed-affected truck driver, who had kept yanking our hands over to the wheel, to get us to steer (as a prelude, I believed, yanking my hands back, to putting our hands elsewhere).  He did, however, take a detour on the way up from Melbourne to show me the Dog on the Tuckerbox, for which I am still grateful.