I’m pleased to report that I’ve been selected for a two week Emerging Writer-in-Residence gig at the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Western Australia). I’ll be staying at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne from April 12th – 25th, which handily for me falls during the Easter school holidays. While at FAWWA, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on my current novel-in-progress Thirsty Work, which I plan to send off to the Australian/Vogel Award in May. I also have a short story, “The Milk for Free”, to work on during this time. Lastly I’ll be presenting a workshop at FAWWA on Saturday 19th April, so I’ll be a busy boy. More details about this workshop will follow soon.
In April and May of last year, I spent a glorious four weeks at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Greenmount conducting a similar residency. You can read more about my time at KSP here. That was an incredibly enjoyable and productive time for me and I’m sure that the FAWWA residency will be equally successful. Can’t wait!
About five or six years ago now, I was between genres as a reader. A refugee from science fiction (you can read more about that here), I hadn’t yet found the kind of fiction that would sustain me into my next decade. I read some literary fiction and sometimes I read it with enthusiasm, but frequently I found (and find) literary fiction ponderous, slow moving and dull. Two books, read in 2008 and 2009, changed all that. The first was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and the second A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. One crime fiction, one southern fiction or southern gothic. Both by dead American men.
The Big Sleep was a revelation to me. Until I read that, I’d had a strong prejudice against crime fiction that I’d developed in my late teens after having to read a novel by Patricia Cornwell for a university assignment. Now, Patricia Cornwell may be a fabulous writer, for all I know, but in my mind I had a box containing books by people like her and John Grisham labelled under ‘Trash’. Chandler showed me the folly of that. I read each of his novels with enormous enthusiasm for the first time in 2008 and 2009, and thereafter I was on my way into crime land.
I’d have gotten around to Chandler eventually, but it was a chance occurrence in 2009 that opened the door for me to a very different type of fiction. My mother had a box of books sitting in her house that she’d been given by a friend who was moving away, and as I always do I got to sifting through them immediately. I don’t know what about the cover or blurb of A Feast of Snakes it was that appealed to me, but when I read the first page I was hooked. Upon finishing the novel, I promptly started it again to fill the void it’d left. What followed was my ‘Crews Cruise’ (more about that here) that would end up rivaling the fervour I felt for the work of Philip K. Dick when I first read him in my late teens.
Books beget books. From Chandler, I read crime fiction by the likes of Megan Abbott, J. C. Burke, Alan Carter, Garry Disher, James Ellroy, Andrey Kurkov, Ken Kalfus, Julienne van Loon, Andrew McGahan, Derek Raymond, Peter Temple and David Whish-Wilson. From Crews, I read other southern fiction by Larry Brown, William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor and Daniel Woodrell. The boundaries between these genres is porous and, ultimately, probably meaningless, with Abbott writing introductions to Woodrell’s books and Woodrell blurbing Abbott’s. But all of these authors, whether they are from the South or not, whether they write crime narratives or not, whether they are American or not, share something in common. They all write fiction that is pretty fucking tough in character.
Tough fiction is about the ‘real’ world. It isn’t usually fantasy or science fiction (although there are always exceptions, such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and China Mieville’s The City and the City. Tough fiction isn’t metafictional or self-referential. It isn’t self indulgent or bloated, and it rarely lasts for more than 300 pages at a time. Tough fiction contains a very strong, even overbearing line of narrative. It is about life and death and it is often rather violent. Almost always there is some kind of crime, a truckload of cuss words and plenty of misbehaviour. These books contain drugs, foremost among them alcohol. They are, like all the best stories, about people doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. Tough fiction rarely spends long describing settings and yet it conveys a very strong sense of place, of regionality. Tough fiction can be set anywhere, but it is often set in rural landscapes rather than urban ones. While it seems to me that this type of fiction emanates from the U.S., it can be written in the U.K., Australia, and other Western countries. Tough fiction is about Western Civilisation and its apparent decline. But it’s always been declining, as it was when Nathanael West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust in the 1930s.
Tough fiction is also usually class conscious, and it is almost always written from the bottom looking up. It often demonstrates a working-class ethos but it’s rarely political. Its protagonists aren’t hedonistic, but they crave sensory experience. They might be religious but more frequently they are not. In the past, tough fiction has more often than not been written by men, but this is changing. Pat Barker’s World War 1 novels are prime examples of tough fiction. So is the work of Zoe Heller, especially her first novel, Everything You Know. Sometimes tough fiction straddles other genres, for example horror. The late Paul Haines wrote fiction of the toughest kind, and so does Kaaron Warren, in books like Dead Sea Fruit. Some of the toughest stuff isn’t even fiction, like Jack Black’s long-ago crime memoir You Can’t Win, which was championed decades after Black’s death by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was a tough guy himself, not only in Naked Lunch but in his later Westerns like The Place of Dead Roads. Tough fiction can also be short fiction, such as the stories of Raymond Carver. It doesn’t come much tougher than that.
All of the books mentioned above are examples of tough fiction, but I’ve saved what I think of as the quintessential tough fiction novel for last. I read James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, later made into a film of the same name, barely a year ago. Dickey was a poet and it shows in this book, because the prose jumps right off the page at you and smacks you in the head with its brilliance. And yet the story is about four dudes and their ill-fated canoeing trip. If you haven’t read Deliverance, then you must. Then you’ll know what I mean by the label of tough fiction.
If you like that, then you’ll like what I like. If you don’t, you won’t.
FOR FURTHER READING – SOME TOUGH FICTION
Megan Abbott – Queenpin, Bury Me Deep, The End of Everything
Pat Barker – The Eye in the Door, Toby’s Room
Jack Black – You Can’t Win
JC Burke – Pig Boy
Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye
Harry Crews – A Feast of Snakes, The Gypsy’s Curse, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place
Kenneth Cooke – Wake in Fright
J M Coetzee – Disgrace
Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Joel Deane – Another
James Dickey – Deliverance
William Gay – Provinces of Night, The Long Home, Twilight
M John Harrison – Climbers
Zoe Heller – Everything You Know, Notes on a Scandal
Paul Haines – Slice of Life, The Last Days of Kali Yuga and Other Stories
Julienne van Loon – Road Story
Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing
Andrew McGahan – Praise, 1988
Derek Raymond – The Devil’s Home on Leave, I Was Dora Suarez
Peter Temple – Truth, The Broken Shore
Kaaron Warren – Dead Sea Fruit
Nathaniel West – Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust
Daniel Woodrell – Winter’s Bone, The Maid’s Version
David Whish-Wilson – Zero at the Bone
2013 was a breakthrough year for me in a number of ways relating to my nebulous writing career. This year I wrote 100,000 words of prose fiction for the first time in a decade. In April and May I was an Emerging Writer-in-Residence at the KSP Writers’ Centre. I completed one novel, Yellowcake Summer, which was published by IP in September, and started working on another, Thirsty Work. This year I wrote just one short story, “A Void”, which was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Award and was recently published in The Great Unknown, edited by Angela Meyer. I had a further three stories published in 2013, all of which were written in 2012, and I made my editorial debut alongside Andrez Bergen with The Tobacco-Stained Sky.
Like I said, I hit 100,000 words of prose written for the year, which I’m very happy about. The bulk of these words consist of the second half of Yellowcake Summer and the first half of Thirsty Work. 40,000 words of Thirsty Work were written in three weeks while I was at KSP, so I have the residency to thank for reaching this total. This is in additional to working full time as an English teacher, although I am lucky enough to have twelve weeks off from that per year.
Earlier this year I was invited by Andrez Bergen to co-edit The Tobacco-Stained Sky with him. Andrez had already selected a story of mine, “The Dying Rain”, for the anthology, but the book was in need of a prose editor and I was happy to step up to the plate. This was a demanding but enormously satisfying experience for me, and I’m very proud of the anthology. Thanks again to Andrez and to Kristopher Young of Another Sky Press for affording me this opportunity. I’ve always (rather perversely) enjoyed line-by-line editing, and as part of my KSP residency I also enjoyed mentoring WA writer Franci Leibenberg and editing a novel-in-progress of hers.
I was lucky enough this year to be invited by Martin Livings of the Australian Horror Writers’ Association to be one of three judges for this year’s AHWA Short and Flash Fiction awards. Working alongside Joanne Anderton and Ashlee Scheuerman, I had the rewarding task of reading dozens of stories in these categories and selecting the winners. The Flash Fiction winner jumped out at us, but the judges couldn’t split stories by Alan Baxter and Zena Shapter in the Short Fiction category. All three stories have since been published in Midnight Echo.
2013 was a watershed year for me in publishing, with one novel and no fewer than four short stories seeing print. I’m especially pleased of that second figure, as it represents all four stories I wrote in 2012 and 2013. Sequel to 2011′s Yellowcake Springs, Yellowcake Summer won Best Fiction in this year’s IP Rolling Picks competition and was published by IP in September. A science fiction story, “The Last First”, was published in Alien Sky from Another Sky Press, edited by Justin Nicholes. The other three stories are set in the universe of Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. “Blue Swirls” was the first to see (digital) print in the first issue of Tincture Journal, edited by Daniel Young. “The Dying Rain” got a gig in The Tobacco-Stained Sky, as explained above, and recently “A Void” found a home in The Great Unknown.
Targets for 2014
It’s seldom a good idea to state one’s future targets so publicly, but here goes. In 2014 I aim to completely finish Thirsty Work by May 31st in time to submit it to the Australian/Vogel Award, and if that doesn’t work out I’ll start doing the rounds regarding potential publishers and literary agents thereafter. I’d also love another opportunity to pursue a Writer-in-Residence position in Perth or elsewhere. I want to try my hand at writing some literary stories for submission to Australian journals like Meanjin and Overland, but even if I get somewhere with that, those stories won’t see print until 2015. Nor, in all likelihood, will Dan. So 2014 certainly won’t match 2013 in terms of novels and stories published. I’d love to hit the 100k mark in writing next year, but that will probably be dependent on obtaining another residency. This will also necessitate me starting work on a new novel, perhaps another crime novel. So far I have a title for that and nothing more: Opprobrium.
Since 2008 I’ve been compulsively keeping records of every book I read, and this year I’ve read more than any year since 2008. As of the time of this writing, I’m up to 80 books read and I’ll certainly squeeze in a couple more before the year is out. That seems like an awful lot of books, most of them fiction. I know of one person who reads substantially more than I do in an average year (seasons greetings to Tehani Wessely), but no one else. Workmates can’t help but notice that not only do I have my nose in a book at just about any given time, but that the cover changes practically on a daily basis. Wrapped up in books, indeed.
So what did I read? About a third of these books can be classified as crime fiction. This year I continued to be enthralled by the works of Americans Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell, but I also read and enjoyed Australian crime writers Peter Temple and David Whish-Wilson for the first time. Probably another third fall under the loose category of literary fiction. This year I read pretty much all of Raymond Carver’s short fiction and I also discovered Zoe Heller. And the rest are a grab-bag of young adult novels read for school (the best of which were The Hunger Games and Trash), speculative fiction (my recent Farewell to Science Fiction notwithstanding) and some non-fiction. In 2013 I also read literary journals in Meanjin and Overland.
Another focus for 2013 was reading more books by women. When I started recording my reading in 2008, I couldn’t help but notice that only 9 of the 59 books I read that year were by women. This year that figure is 26, about one third of the books I read. I continued to be impressed by the works of Megan Abbott and Pat Barker, both of whom feature in my top ten, but I also read and enjoyed works by JC Burke, Zoe Heller, Kaaron Warren, Felicity Castagna, Meg Mundell, Marianne de Pierres and Katie Stewart.
Onto the top ten, then. This isn’t a ranked list and I limited myself to one book per writer. I can wholeheartedly recommend these books to anyone and everyone. I’ve linked the images to the listing for each book on Goodreads.
Twilight-Zone themed anthology The Great Unknown, edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders, is out and has already received some great reviews (see below). Including stories by great authors like Krissy Kneen, P. M. Newton, Mark O’Flynn and Deborah Biancotti, the collection also features the literary debut of Carmel Bird Award winner Alex Cothren and five other writers (myself included) whose stories were shortlisted for the award. My contributor copies arrived today and they look beautiful. The Great Unknown is available from physical bookstores like Readings and all the usual online haunts. Don’t forget to add it on Goodreads too.
Kylie Mason of The Newtown Review of Books has some kind words for the anthology, and you can find other reviews here and here. Finally, you can read Angela Meyer’s thoughts on putting the anthology together on the Readings blog. Phew, that’s a lot of links. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into reading The Great Unknown myself, so I’m probably have something more substantive to say about it in a week or two.
This is the sixth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown this month, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology, and give you an idea of what to expect (and, I hope, look forward to). The Great Unknown is available to pre-order from Booktopia, Readings, Fishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.
What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular theme?
As soon as I saw the guidelines for this competition, I was determined to enter. I often struggle to write stories for specific themes, but this one appealed to me for a number of reasons. Short fiction competitions often have very stringent word limits of 3000 words or less, which is a stricture I often struggle with, but I (just) managed to cram what I wanted to cram into 4000 words here. While no aficionado of The Twilight Zone (see below), I am a longtime reader and writer of speculative and slipstream fiction and thus I was well within my comfort zone in writing for this theme. I also enjoy writing about Melbourne, a city I’ve visited many times but never lived in, and so I enjoyed deploying some of my favourite places in Melbourne in ‘A Void’.
Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.
‘A Void’ is the third in an ongoing series of stories featuring Tyler Bramble, an alcoholic and sometimes suicidal detective (or Seeker) living in a near future Melbourne. The first of these stories, ‘The Dying Rain’, was written at the request of Andrez Bergen, who was putting together a spin-off anthology set in the universe of his debut novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. I ended up co-editing that anthology with Andrez, and the book, The Tobacco-Stained Sky, has recently been released by US publisher Another Sky Press. I enjoying writing ‘The Dying Rain’ so much that I wrote a second Tyler Bramble mystery, ‘Blue Swirls’, which appeared earlier this year in the first issue of Tincture Journal. Here, in Tyler’s third adventure, he must contend with the unintended side effects of the drug ‘Void’ and a frigid Melbourne day that starts poorly and goes downhill from there.
What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?
Confession time: I’ve never watched an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits! I didn’t let that dissuade me, however. As a (somewhat disturbed) child I used to watch The X-Files and the ‘true story’ show The Extraordinary that followed directly after. At that age (twelve or thirteen) I was obsessed with cheerful topics like nuclear fallout and the prophecies of Nostradamus. From the age of eighteen, I fell in love with the work of American SF writer Philip K. Dick, who charted territory in novels like Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch similar to that that I’ve explored in ‘A Void’. J. G. Ballard is another major influence. His stories, such as ‘The Voices of Time’, as well as novels like The Atrocity Exhibition and The Unlimited Dream Company, helped to expand my own mental horizons as both a reader and writer.
What thoughts do you have on the current status of genre fiction?
I do think that certain genres are considered more prestigious and highbrow than others. For most of my life I have been writing some mutant variant of science fiction that is a recognisable descendant of the works of writers like Dick and Ballard. I have realised lately, however, that science fiction novels are very much a niche market in today’s publishing landscape. In response to this, I have quite consciously decided to change genres (in my case to crime fiction) to potentially reach a larger audience. This is a pity, because while I do enjoy reading and writing crime (such as the novels of Raymond Chandler, Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell) my first love is for fantastical fiction by writers like William S. Burroughs, John Crowley and Ursula Le Guin.
Note: astute readers will note that the above photo is NOT of Supernova Books. I couldn’t find a photo of the shopfront on Google. But Supernova DID spawn Fantastic Planet, which is now sadly defunct as well.
Note: this was written in 2011 or thereabouts.
I walked into Supernova Books in downtown Perth with the intention of getting a job there on the third of August, 2001. I know this because it was my twentieth birthday. I had been to Supernova before, of course, to that stuffy room on William Street packed with science fiction, fantasy and horror titles. It was like being on the inside of a Rubik’s cube. A month or so previously, I had purchased a big, blue brick of a book called The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction there. It turned out that a guy who served me, Richo, was a fellow student and friend of mine at Curtin University. Little did I know that, sooner rather than later, it’d be me sitting on an office chair behind that aged till and Richo scampering off into the direction of the pub.
Supernova’s owner was a rather forbidding personage named Alwyn. He would have been in his sixties then, and as it turned out with little more than two and a half years to live. I got the job, although it was noted that I was too shy to make eye contact with him (his cavernous face, his pitiless eyes). I would work for two and a half hours on a Thursday afternoon so that Alwyn could play tennis, and alternate the days of the weekend with the other weekend guy. It was, as I told my Romanian employer at the fish and chips shops where I would no longer work, my dream job. It paid $11 an hour.
The shelves were poorly made, frequently damaging the stock; the till was so ancient that it surely dated me; and the “Nova” in the neon sign had long since stopped working. “Super Books,” old men and women read out as they tottered past. They then tottered inside and asked me if me had anything by Danielle Steele. Sales were recorded in an exercise book, the takings calculated on an old calculator. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me—a science fiction bookstore with a primitive till and no computer.
On the evening of September 11, before the infamous attacks, I was putting the finishing touches on a story that the American SF writer Barry Malzberg was helping me with. I had become friendly with Malzberg after posting on the one and only fansite dedicated to his work (run by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, later to become a SF writer and critic himself) and he had sent me signed copies of several of his books. Malzberg seemed to think that my story “Manitee” was good enough to be published in Interzone. He would write to its editor, David Pringle, and recommend my story to him. I had been redrafting “Manitee” for days, adding new scenes and deleting troublesome ones, and my final task was to produce a new ending. Sitting in front of the computer, literally minutes before the attacks, a scene jumped into my head:
“I am wheeling through space—I am the Manitee. The boosters are firing—calamity looms as booster 3 torches its casing and—alas—ignites the others. But my heart is glad. Inside the ship, the part of me which is me smiles in her sleep. Her mouth opens as if to frame a final question but I soothe her, telling her to rest.
We are afire.”
Having written these words, I emailed the story to Malzberg and sat down to watch a classic SF film, “Westworld.” Yul Brynner’s murderous rampage had barely begun when I was interrupted by a friend informing me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center, the existence of which I had been, until that moment, blissfully unaware. Westworld forgotten, we watched in excitement as a second plane hit the other tower. When the Pentagon was hit, we were aware that life as we knew it was ending. “More planes!” we cried. We envisaged a hundred, a thousand planes hitting buildings all over the world, bringing the machinery of capitalism to a halt. My delirium for the apocalypse far outweighed any sense of the hideous human toll being extracted.
But there were no more planes. The next morning there was an email from Malzberg, which said, “As far as I can deduce, this story is now saleable. If life as we are about to know it resumes its stately course (it probably will) I’ll write Pringle and you’ll send it on.” I had known that Malzberg lived in New Jersey, but I hadn’t realised that his house was just three kilometres from Ground Zero. One of his friends, the writer Carter Scholz, had missed the fatal Newark-San Francisco flight by an hour. He later said he had been “sentenced to life.” But like Scholz’ plane, which never ended up leaving the tarmac, so my SF writing career failed to take flight. I never received a reply from Interzone, not even a form rejection letter, and the whole incident eventually faded to a painful memory.
Immediately after 9/11, all the talk in the Old Bailey, the pub I frequented on a Wednesday night for its $4 pints, was of war. Surely America would go to war, and thus Australia. But against who? Malzberg was a steadying influence on me. He had more reason to fret in New Jersey than I did in Perth, but that didn’t stop me from imagining the Bankwest building, just a handful of blocks up William Street from Supernova, collapsing in a hail of concrete and glass. I wondered whether I would survive, cocooned between a layer of Babylon 5 novels and the latest volume in David Weber’s absurdly popular Honor Harrington series.
Working at Supernova was 99% tedium and 1% plain crazy. It took me a few weeks to realise this. In the initial weeks, I spent much of my time dusting the shelves and cleaning the grubby windows, as per Alwyn’s direction. The books never stayed dust-free for long, as there was a constant stream of cars flowing over the Horseshoe Bridge onto William Street, their exhaust fumes settling on the bookshelves and in my lungs. It didn’t take long for inertia to win out.
The 99% tedium is barely worth recalling. A decade on, my memory of those long hours can be boiled down to a single, generalised anecdote. A customer walks in. It’s late afternoon in winter, perhaps four-thirty. The shop assistant smiles inanely, rubbing his bleary eyes, and does not put down his Graham Greene novel nor show any sign of intending to. There’s no one else in the shop. The customer browses without harassment for ten minutes before selecting three popular titles, one of which is a new release hardcover. Our customer will get fifteen cents change from a hundred dollars. During this time, one other customer has been and gone without making a purchase, and the shop assistant has read another chapter of The End of the Affair, which is rather conspicuously not science fiction, fantasy OR horror. Our paying customer makes his offering at the font of commerce, and for this he gets his books taped up in a large paper bag. Despite the minor irritation of having to stop reading for thirty seconds or thereabouts, the shop assistant is making strong progress on the Greene novel and will probably finish it on the train after his shift.
That was my Supernova experience times infinity. I worked there two years, and by the end I wasn’t only reading in the shop (which Alwyn had expressly forbidden, although we were encouraged to take books home to read so that we would become more knowledgeable about the stock), I was listening to AFL football on the radio, much to the annoyance of the customers who thought they had entered a nerdish enclave opposed to mainstream Australian culture, playing X-COM: UFO Defense on my laptop, and generally not being a model employee. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I was caught reading by Alwyn (he had a tendency to pop in when you were otherwise engaged), the job was mine as long as I wanted it and so long as I didn’t ask for a payrise. Alwyn also had a habit of coming in at odd times to collect the previous day’s take, which we were instructed to put, rather predictably, in a paper bag underneath the plastic tray in the till.
The 1% craziness was what made the job interesting. Part of the trouble stemmed from the laundrette on the far side of William Street. Staring out Supernova’s window through the long hours, I came to realise that the kind of people that seemed to cause the most trouble in society were precisely the kind of people who also did not own or did not have ready access to a washing machine. Plenty of washing machine owners cause trouble of their own, of course. I recall a rough Outback character punching walls and harassing people for cigarettes. The tension mounted as the rejections piled up. Finally, to my relief, someone gave him a pack or what was left of one. Going back to my tasks, I was shelving books when he came in and asked, quite politely, whether he could leave his suitcase in the shop overnight. He had nowhere to stay, you see. Terrified, I demurred as gently as I could manage, and the man lugged his suitcase back across the street to the competing Magic Circle bookshop, where I imagined he tried a similar stratagem. More often the crazies weren’t aggressive, simply deranged, like the time a drunken aboriginal crossdresser wanted a plastic bag—two in fact—for his cask of wine, as it was too cumbersome for him to carry. He grinned at me, lipstick smeared all over his face and chin, and asked if I would transfer the wine into the plastic bags, seeing as he was altogether too drunk to perform such a task. Usually people just want change for the parking meter.
For the most part, the customers themselves were far saner. In my mind’s eye a regular customer named Terry claps his hands and parades before me, perusing the new releases. He was a forty year-old kid who wore a baseball cap and a rucksack. Terry was also something of a social Darwinist, proclaiming survival of the fittest as evidenced by characters in the commercial fantasy genre. This went down okay with me, as a less threatening character I could not and still cannot imagine. I encouraged him to talk but he tended to repeat himself in stock phrases like “I’ll see you later my good man” and “it’s all very quiet.” Terry liked something “with a bit of ultra-violence in it” and abhorred the “soppy stuff.”
I remember a rather charming older woman engaging me in conversation regarding Ursula Le Guin and The Dispossessed. “Wouldn’t you like to live there?” she asked, meaning the desert planet Anarres, which was a sort of scarcity utopia. I had to admit that I would like to live “there,” in a word without money, bureaucrats or weapons of mass destruction. She told me that she couldn’t afford to buy new books because she didn’t have a job, and I could sympathise. I rarely bought new books myself, prowling around remainder piles and second-hand bookstores instead. Immediately after she left, a man dumped a tower of Babylon 5 novels in front of me. $341 dollars worth.
Another regular customer, Raylene, was a tall, heavy woman sporting short, curly hair and a snappy demeanour. Gruff, brusque, and sometimes annoying, Raylene was nevertheless one of my favourite customers. She seemed to have a fascination with the lay-by system. When the customer made the appropriate noises, myself or someone like me wrapped the desired books in a paper bag and affixed a piece of paper to the front, upon which the customer’s details were written, along with the amount that had been paid and the amount owing. It was Raylene’s policy not to buy books outright but to add them to a burgeoning lay-by pile, from which she would select one like a gourmand, leaving the rest to simmer for a few more weeks.
Alwyn himself was simpler, or so he seemed to me. As far as I could discern, he had no interest in the books he sold. Still, he knew what the punters wanted and he supplied it to them. His business model relied largely on American imports. Thus, when the exchange rate between the US and Aussie dollars reached a 2:1 ratio, the prices went up. Way up. A new release American hardcover was normally priced at $60 or even $65, and yet they sold. Honor Harrington, Anita Blake and Harry Potter sold like the proverbial hotcakes at these prices. Had Alwyn lived long enough, the internet and the strengthening Aussie dollar would have decimated his business. Amazon would have beaten Supernova to within an inch of its life, and Book Depository would have danced on its grave. But it never came to that. Six months or so before I quit Supernova, Alwyn went on holiday to New Zealand. When I asked him why New Zealand specifically, he said that he wanted to see it before he died.
It was virtually impossible to get fired from Supernova. Probably theft would have done it, but I never sank that low. I found out just how far Alwyn could be pushed late one Friday night. It was winter, and I was in the habit of leaving my suede jacket and other possessions in the shop and returning for them when I was ready to catch the train home. The only problem was that, after six pints of Beck’s on an empty stomach, I was in no condition to go anywhere when I returned for my jacket at around 11pm. I thought I’d lie down on the carpet in the dark for a while. I had half an hour until the 11.30 train anyway. But 11.30 came and went without me being able to raise my head, and I would have missed the midnight train as well had fate not intervened.
To my everlasting horror, the door opened and in stepped Alwyn to collect the day’s take. I had no idea he would leave it so late in the evening. He stood over me, surprised but not angry. “Are you on drugs?” he said. I looked up at him from the floor, and replied, “I’m just pissed, that’s all.” This was the impetus I needed to get to my feet. I was barely able to navigate the traffic on Wellington Street without becoming a statistic. Like Frogger, my chances were slim. I collapsed in a heap at the foot of the Horseshoe Bridge, where I vomited on my expensive suede jacket. Somehow I made the midnight train. To his credit, Alwyn never reminded me of this shameful incident. For all I know, he might have taken it to his grave. Had I not been in the habit of retelling this anecdote to anyone who would listen, no one might have ever known.
The last time I saw Alwyn I was paying off a lay-by of my own, a deluxe edition of Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen I had asked him to order in specially. He seemed untroubled my by decision to quit. I walked out with the Vandermeer and my thoughts, leaving him to his tiny shop and the layers of dust. A few months later, Alwyn was dead.
Supernova outlived its founder, but not by much. My replacement was a guy named Tim. He ran the store for a while after Alwyn’s death before setting up his own SF bookstore, White Dwarf Books, in the adjacent shop. I saw Tim at Swancon recently but I don’t think he remembers me. For a while, Supernova lay empty. Last I saw it, the shop had been converted into a Crazy Teez outlet, the memory of the business that had thrived there for so many years all but erased.