Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Next Big Thing

Have you seen this literary meme doing the rounds of the blogosphere? It’s a modern chain letter of sorts where writers talk about their current projects.  I was tagged by Irma Gold who wrote about her forthcoming children’s book Meguma and the Bear.  It’s illustrated by Craig Phillips and will be released by Walker Books in June. You can pick up her news about the book at www.irmagold/blog--news.html.  (The next big thing: Megumi and the Bear, 01/12/2013)

Here then, are the questions she sent me about mine. And my attempts at answers:

What is the working title of your current/next book?

I’m working on a memoir that I began when I was living in Canada and my agent there suggested that North Americans would be interested in hearing about life in Australia.   She somehow had the notion that life in Australia was particularly challenging.  Crocodile Dundee and all that.

Where did the idea come from?

The idea was the agent’s, as said.  But to tell the truth I was sort of bored writing it – I’ve always found writing fiction more interesting than writing nonfiction but it’s possible I’m better at the latter.   Because an agent here asked to see what I’d written so far and is keen that I finish it.  Memoirs, after all, do sell.

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir.  But that’s the marketing term for it.  To describe what a memoir is, or what this one might be is a little trickier.  I’ve had to lop off the end of it, which had been about my experiences in government and concentrate on the earlier years, my childhood and adolescence in America and my first encounters with Australia.  I’ve found that as I’ve got into it that it’s chiefly about the extraordinary lives of my parents and their impact on me.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
You’ve got to be joking.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A maverick’s take on growing up in Hollywood and fleeing from it.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I have no idea.  The publishing industry is in serious transition at the moment.  Nothing can be predicted with any certainty, even for someone who has published a fair bit already.  My career came to a skidding halt in the late 1990s when Penguin Australia, who had been my publisher, changed their staff and strategy.  As a result of these difficulties I also lost my agent.  I’ve been working intermittently on a number of manuscripts since then, drafting and redrafting, submitting and being rejected.  A novel set in British Mandate Palestine was my first priority and now that that’s finished I’m turning to the others.  I’ve cheered myself up during these years by taking up painting, taking a break, that is, from the word.   

The interesting thing for me has been tracing the rapidly accelerated understanding of literature as fundamentally a form of entertainment, and how much it’s taken on the imperatives of the show business I grew up with.  As in you’re only as good as your last book.  Or the development of a star system with only a few selected authors having a back list.  Of course, publishing has always been an industry and publishers have to make money, but the rise of the conglomerates has accentuated this.  The real hope is with small publishers and perhaps even author collectives.  I’ve been researching that.  

How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I’m still drafting.  The hardest part has been coming to grips with my father’s story, a sort of Hollywood Gatsby.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The trouble is I’m a writer, not a marketeer.  And my tastes are often at odds with prevailing interests, though I’m an avid reader of contemporary fiction and am the first to delight in the good books being published (in spite of the above) and the achievements of many fine writers.  But the self-promotion that’s required is difficult for me.  It’s partly a generational thing – people my age tend on the whole to admire self-deprecation – but I suspect it’s a problem for most writers.  We’re introverts in the main, and even when we try to raise our heads over the parapet we can feel a bit like clown dolls opening our mouths at a carnival.   

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
While it started out as a brazenly commercial exercise it is no longer that at all.  I am staring into the very heart of the mystery of my own identity, something that I’ve avoided for years.  So the momentum is quite different for me now.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
My challenge has been to write a Hollywood story that has few of the hallmarks of the genre.  It’s been written about so often and so diversely that it’s been hard come up with a treatment with any depth.  The agent with whom I parted ways years ago was very unencouraging, but an essay about Ava Gardner that I worked up from the material and published in Meanjin has been re-published three times.  This may be a sign that I’m on to something.      

Taking my cue from Gold (who included an edited version of the essay in her anthology The Invisible Thread) I’ve tagged a few other writers but so far only Bob Hefner has responded.  Many will know Bob as the former literary editor of the Canberra Times in the 1990s.  He’s a fine musician and a writer, and here’s his next big thing:

‘My next big project is a compilation of short stories, poems, essays, interviews, columns and speeches that chronicle my life as a writer and journalist in Australia and the United States. The book will contain both previously published and new material, including brief narratives that link the longer passages thematically.’

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Word and Image

Charlotte is moved. My friend and esteemed artist Suzanne Bellamy recently posted a link on her Facebook page that gladdened my heart, an article by Sam Sacks published in the New Yorker on February 22, America’s President’s Day. Sacks, who writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal, explores a subject that’s been niggling me ever since I took time out from writing to doodle with visuals on a page.

Actually, it wasn’t a page.  As I was entering my sixties and leaving for a stay in Canada, a very kind friend put Adobe Photoshop on my laptop, and it was on the computer that I started creating images. I started out small, making cards, and gradually my digital works found their way onto the odd café or gallery wall. That made me confident enough to get my hands dirty, picking up a brush and applying proper paint to canvas or paper.Yet joyful as all this was for me, it made me uncomfortable. Was I, too, abandoning text for image? Was I too swept up in the wave causing newspapers to shrink their word content to make room for coloured photos? Was mine some kind of odious surrender? And this was in the late 1990s, when few of us had the foggiest notion just how far this would go. I was uneasy enough to have a stab at an essay about it but found the subject too broad and was never happy with my efforts.Here, though, is a heavily edited sample of where my angst was taking me, five years later, on my return to Australia:

‘The studio is cut from the sandstone cliff supporting the Mosman house. Three of its walls are glass and look out onto Sirius Cove, with views of Port Jackson all the way to the Bridge. This is Margaret Preston country. I have walked the streets nearby looking for the houses Preston painted in the 1920s. With a single exception, the houses are no longer there, but I can still see her colours, or imagine them. This is what I’ve been doing of late, imagining shapes and colours. I have found it both exciting and disturbing.

It was a fluke that led me to the studio. A friend asked if I would like to join her artists’ group and I went along. I was by far the least experienced. I had only been painting for five years and had strenuously avoided tuition. This was a hobby, I told myself. It was important, as well, that the others knew I was a writer; it buffered me from any serious criticism and kept me from becoming too serious myself. For the issue was that I was doing more painting than writing. It had got to the point that my deepest responses to the world seemed ineffable, unable to be translated into words. I was drawn more and more to the speechlessness of images. Yet I felt like an apostate, a traitor. I was betraying my art; betraying Logos, the word.’

But there was more:

‘The irony is that when I return, as I do, to the word, I’ve been making new discoveries. Thanks to Miriam Margoyles, whose enthusiasm for Dickens has been so infectious, I’ve embarked on a Dickens project of my own. Still unfinished, but fruitful in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. For even the cheap paperback reprints of his works are illustrated. Here and there, the black-and-white etchings pop up in the text, correcting, though not entirely, the stubborn images of the characters the author’s words had already planted in my head. And most nineteenth century novels were illustrated, as the custom was to serialise them in newsprint before binding up the pages in books, and newspapers welcomed etchings and engravings as, increasingly, modern print journals privilege photographs. Some of the illustrations were even coloured - what would Lewis Carroll be without Cruikshank’s marvelous drawings? All of which sets me wondering about when and why the practice ceased. Was it the twentieth century’s wars and their paper shortages, which had such a deleterious effect on publishing in general? Or was it merely the cost of reproducing pictures? Or was it because newspapers no longer serialised fiction much, as advertising began to overtake circulation as the principal source of their revenue?’

Well, Sacks has a few answers. But rather than delve into microeconomics, he puts some of the blame on that wordiest of great writers, Henry James. ‘Basically, James was worried about movies. If prose was going to lean on the crutch of pictures, however charming, it was going to quickly find itself surpassed by far more dazzling mediums of visual entertainment. Literature needed to apply itself to doing the things that photography and film could not—it needed to evoke a scene’s inner workings.’ Virginia Woolf expressed her qualms too. ‘So writers somewhat defensively cleaved to this division,’ Sacks tells us. ‘Pictures were about superficial titillation; prose was about essences. And over time the opinion hardened that the old custom of accompanying illustration was a form of aesthetic corruption.’

Apparently not all last century’s writers were convinced. I’m heartened to learn that earlier editions of John Dos Passos’s USA, one of my all-time favourites, were illustrated, and that Scott Fitzgerald actually altered the text of The Great Gatsby when he inserted the novel’s most striking image after seeing Francis Cugat’s illustration of the optometry sign for the cover. (Sacks says this is famous but it’s news to me and exciting to read of it.) A year or so ago I checked out a copy of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy from the Manly library and was delighted with Grant Reynard’s drawing on the cover and the others sprinkled through the text. So much so I began to copy them in a pen-and-ink style I was developing for myself.

It’s hardly original to suggest that the twenty-first century is besotted with the visual. But it’s also true that words and images are uniting again and there’s a case to be made for it and against them divorcing in the first place, at least in literary fiction. Lower down, well, things were always different. Now we take graphic novels seriously but the earliest ones were considered comics for functionally illiterate grown-ups – real readers needn’t have applied. I have in my possession two Mexican Marxist comics – one of the Communist Manifesto – designed to inspire those many of Mexico’s citizens whose formal education never went past the sixth grade. They’re delicious to read, with their genial Karl and Friedrich, hardly the usual grim face of polemic. So, too, were the Classic Comics that introduced me to the Old Testament and Jane Eyre. But I never felt comfortable confessing my admiration for these ingenious artifacts in literary company before. How things have changed. The fact that I’ve even read a Classic Comic singles me out today as daringly avant-garde. So pictures are creeping into everything and multiplying and spreading like never before.  But something else is happening.  Text is popping up everywhere, in what we would once call pictures – take the work of the late Rosalie Gascoigne for one highly esteemed example.  That could be the subject for a whole new blog, but in the meantime check out