Things that never happen: I loved the work of M. John Harrison when I was in my early twenties. Some of the Viriconium stuff I found a bit tedious, but I delighted in his final novel in this series, In Viriconium, as well as his literary novels The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. But my favourite of them all was his least fantastical novel of all, Climbers, which may have been the book that turned me from a reader of speculative into one of realistic fiction.
I was working in the now-defunct Supernova Books in Perth in 2002 when a review copy of his brand-new SF novel Light came in. I read it immediately, but hated it intensely. What exactly it was that I loathed about the book so much I no longer recall with much clarity. I’m yet to re-read it to find out if my opinion on it has changed.
Twelve years passed, and in that period the only M. John Harrison I read was Climbers, for the third or fourth time, in 2008. I picked up a copy of Nova Swing, his sequel to Light, at around that time, but I didn’t immediately read and then I mislaid my copy somehow. I finally bought a replacement about two years ago, and there it sat unloved until Friday just gone.
Now, this is not to say that I think Nova Swing is the best thing going around, but I read it in two days and found it very enjoyable indeed, and exquisitely written. Either it’s different in some crucial way than its predecessor or I’m different in some crucial way to the person I was in 2002. I don’t read very much SF at all these days, but I will make an exception for Harrison the same way I’ll make an exception for Vandermeer (and yet Vandermeer’s new novel, Authority, has already been castigated to the back burner, unread).
I enjoyed Nova Swing so much that I immediately started re-reading The Course of the Heart, which I finished in less than a day (it was a wet weekend). This one I liked somewhat less than I remembered it, but I’ve just now finished re-reading Signs of Life, which I like somewhat more than I did way back when. So after a twelve year hiatus, I can say I’ve read three M. John Harrison novels in the past four days.
It could have been four novels in five or six days, had it not been for the fourteen books by other authors that just arrived from Better World Books today. I’ve got my eye on giving Light another try, and I’ve ordered a new copy of the third novel in this series, Empty Space, which came out in 2012.
Harrison is close to seventy now. He was the youngest punk of the British New Wave and now he’s a grand old man of SF. He deserves it; he clearly loves the genre a lot more than me, and he can write better than almost anyone. He’s an infuriating writer at times, obsessed with ill women, vomiting, ill women vomiting and all manner of bizarre phantasmagoria, but he’s a gem.
I’m up to 51 books read so far in 2014, so I’m on track to match or better the 82 books I read in 2013. I always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but in fact the volume of books I read has actually increased in recent years. Since I started keeping records of every book I read in 2007 (because, you know, wrapped up in books) I seem to read a little more each year than the one previous. 47 books in 2009, 55 in 2010, 66 in 2011, 71 in 2012 and 82 in 2013 – where will it end? At the current rate, I’ll better 2013’s figure by a handful of books, and then onward toward cracking the ton in 2015, I guess.
Books are pretty damn expensive in this country, which is my poor excuse for not really supporting the ailing Australian bookselling industry. If I paid retail price (like, at least $20) for every book I read, I’d be looking at $1600 just for this year, and that’s if I could buy the books I wanted in the stores, which invariably I can’t. Oh yes, I could order them in. What a quaint concept! I remember this from the pre-internet days. But why on Earth should I do the research on a particular book I want, trundle into the bookshop (100 kilometre drive away), ask them to order said book, drive home, wait several weeks or months for them to get the book in, drive 100 km, just to pay retail price, i.e. including the bookseller’s 40% markup? I just don’t do it anymore. On occasion I will buy a book from Dymocks, the only half-decent Aussie bookshop chain left in this country, but invariably it will be from the $5 or $10 discount pile at the front. The other week I scored a copy of Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever from Big W in trade paperback for $19. I had a look in Dymocks afterwards to see if they had it. Nup. And if they had, it would have been $30-33. Sorry, Dymocks will be next to die, following Angus and Robertson and Borders.
Back to a cheerier subject, as in the books on my current reading list. About two weeks ago I ordered 14 books from Better World Books, which I strongly suggest you check out if you aren’t aware of it. Those 14 books cost me $96 in total. Yes, they are secondhand and no, the author won’t receive any royalties. Guess what–I’m an author too (of three novels and several short stories) and I haven’t made a brass razoo out of my writing. And the other day, after picking up a copy of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for $3 in a charity shop, I’ve ordered two more of his for under $20 in total from Book Depository. That’s 16 books for $114 at $7.12 per book. Yes, most of them are secondhand. But therein lies the problem facing the bookselling industry today. If someone like me won’t support the domestic industry here in Australia, then who will? Answer: no one. If books were substantially cheaper here, let’s say $12 per book instead of $20-23, then I’d buy a heap more locally. But I see absolutely no sign of that happening. And the market wins.
So, let’s have 16:
Auster, Paul – The Invention of Solitude: A Memoir
Barker, Pat -The Man Who Wasn’t There, Blow Your House Down, Liza’s England
Brown, Larry – On Fire, Dirty Work
Chabon, Michael – Manhood for Amateurs, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands
Cross, Helen – Secrets She Keeps, Spilt Milk, Black Coffee
Murakami, Haruki – Kafka on the Shore, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Raymond, Derek – He Died with His Eyes Open, Dead Man Upright
Whorton, James – Angela Sloan
I haven’t read a lot of Auster but I’m trying to persevere with his often dry prose and I have an inkling that I will like his nonfiction. Pat Barker, on the other hand, is a favourite of mine and these three early novels are the only ones I don’t yet own. I’m a bit ambivalent about Larry Brown but again I’m keen to read his nonfiction (On Fire) as well as his first novel. Chabon is another of my favourites and these are the only books of his I don’t own aside from his YA novel Summerland. Helen Cross is an author new to me. I very much enjoyed her My Summer of Love earlier this year. These are her other two novels. Murakami I mentioned above. Derek Raymond’s Factory novels are very grim and harrowing. This is the first and last in the series; I’ve previously read the middle three. And lastly, I’ve previously read James Whorton’s first two novels, so now for the third.
Finally, here’s the song that this blog is named after. Happy listening. Feel free to post your own reading lists in the comments, recommendations etc.
I read a lot of books and I’m always searching for ‘new’ authors to become obsessed by. Once or twice a year I find an author especially to my liking. Preferably they’ve written a fair few books (at least 5) but not as many as 20-30 or it’ll take me forever to read everything they’ve written (see Elmore Leonard). They can be living but it’s all the same to me if they’re dead. At least that way you’re likely to get a biography or two. ‘New’ authors have to follow my ‘1918 Rule’ which simply states that they must have published their books since the end of the First World War (the birth of the modern era). I am especially partial to American authors, but I’ve read writers from all over the (mostly Western) world. In recent years I’ve been especially enamoured with the works of Raymond Carver, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott, to name but three. 2014’s best ‘new’ author for me is Mikhail Bulgakov, who died in Stalin’s Russia in 1940.
I’ve read a bit of Russian literature over the years but it has tended to be single books by famous authors such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. I haven’t really bonded with a Russian author before. At one point I thought I was going to like Andrey Kurkov (okay, so he’s Ukranian) but 3-4 books later my ardour for his work has cooled. I hadn’t heard of Bulgakov until I read an essay on him in Overland magazine, and that inspired me to buy a copy of his best known work, The Master and Margarita.
This novel is like nothing else I’ve read in Russian literature, which normally seems to exclusively consist of bleak realism, not that I have anything against that. Fresh from that novel, I ordered a copy of a volume of Bulgakov’s letters and diaries, which also serves as a quasi-biography. I highly recommend it.
By now I was hooked and determined to read the rest of Bulgakov’s work. Luckily for me, Vintage has six volumes of his novels and stories (but not his plays), meaning that I could get uniform editions which look nice on the shelf with their red spines. A Heart of a Dog (also known, in a different translation, as A Dog’s Heart) was an amusing read, too.
Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel (confusingly, also known as A Dead Man’s Memoir) is an interesting, albeit unfinished and not altogether satisfying satire about the Moscow theatre of the 20s. It was worth a read.
A Country Doctor’s Notebook (or A Young Doctor’s Notebook) is my favourite Bulgakov behind The Master and Margarita. I thought this was some kind of diary from the author’s time as a rural doctor duing WWI, but it turns out that the stories were written in the 20s and are highly polished. This is very good and very accessible, probably a great place to start with Bulgakov. Apparently it’s been made into a TV series, too.
Bulgakov’s only volume of short stories, Diaboliad, was suppressed during the author’s lifetime along with most of the rest of his work. Confusingly, some editions (thankfully not the Vintage) DON’T contain the novella length ‘The Fatal Eggs’ which is also available as a standalone title. Seeing as ‘The Fatal Eggs’ represents about 2/3 of the pages in the Vintage edition, that would really suck. I didn’t much like the three later stories in Diaboliad, but I liked ‘The Fatal Eggs’ (a SF story reminiscent of H. G. Wells) and especially the title story, which is something of a prototype for The Master and Margarita.
The sixth and final book in Vintage (all translated by Michael Glenny) is Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, which is based on the author’s wartime experiences. Bulgakov’s most famous and successful play during his lifetime, “The Day of the Turbins”, is based on this. I haven’t got around to purchasing this sixth Vintage volume yet, but I will.
In addition to these six Vintage volumes, there are a handful of other obscure titles not available in Vintage. There’s something called Notes from the Cuff which I believe to be more short stories, there are collections of Bulgakov’s surviving plays and even a biography of Moliere which seems to be out of print. Hopefully I’ll get to these one day. Let me know if you’ve read any of these more obscure titles (or indeed any Bulgakov). I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what I like about Bulgakov so much. He certainly seems atypical for a Russian writer, more Continental in character. His work is very dark and very funny, and the story of his life is one of perseverance in the face of the harshest of adversity. There are only a few photos of Bulgakov floating around on the internet. This one of he and his third wife, taken shortly before his premature death in 1940, I find especially haunting.
On Saturday 3rd May, I was lucky enough to attend a Market Development Skills Workshop at the State Library in Perth in conjunction with WritingWA and the Australia Council. Hosted by Jaki Arthur, Publicity Manager at Hachette, the full day workshop was offered to WA writers with at least one published title to their name. Participants included those I’d seen around the traps before in Satima Flavell, Iris Lavell and Deb Fitzpatrick, as well as other writers I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting previously.
From the outset, Jaki was keen to have the fifteen precious souls before her see themselves not as the be-all-and-end-all of the book industry, but as admittedly important cogs in a larger machine. Writers were to avoid diva-ish behaviour (surely sound advice for anyone) and to strive to market themselves in an increasing competitive, increasingly lean and mean world of modern publishing. Jaki herself has been working in this world for many years and it was plain to see that she’s a veteran not inclined to fall for the latest fad. Kindles are yesterday’s news, ebooks accounting for a plateauing 21% of the Australian market. And her view on author blogs? Tangential at best. Just don’t email Hachette saying you’re a blog reviewer looking for a handout. I found Jaki’s approach refreshing and I know that many of the other participants were in agreement.
So what pearls of wisdom were dispensed? I was chastised for referring to myself as a ‘literary crime writer’ – ‘suburban noir’ sounds edgier. I did better at crafting a ‘strap line’, which is a 1-2 sentence blurb that you can roll out on command at tête-à-têtes at (or in the vicinity of) the bar. Here’s mine: “Thirsty Work is a suburban noir novel about an alcoholic ex-AFL player, the bottleshop where he works and the dodgy dudes in his life.” Looking at it now, I’m tempted to insert ‘plethora of’ before ‘dodgy dudes’ in that sentence, but I’ll refrain. We were instructed to write biographies of ourselves that didn’t read ‘X was shortlisted for Y award and won first prize at last year’s Z.’ No, our job is to entertain, to offer angles for publicists and other media types to exploit. Thus I was left scrabbling to remember amusing-sounding jobs I’d had to whack into my bio. High school English teacher is decidedly unsexy, but delivery driver for corrupt Romanian fish-and-chips outfit? Yes.
There was more. Big W, I learned, is now the biggest and most influential book retailer in Australia, but they won’t tolerate the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ in books they stock. That’s fucking shit if you ask me. We had to come up with seven themes to describe our work, and here I groaned inwardly, recalling a conversation I’d had with my Year 12s the other day about my dislike of the word ‘theme’. But I tried, and I figured that as long as ‘white trash’ could be considered a theme, then I was all right. The merits of literary festivals were discussed, the consensus being that as long as you are invited and you don’t get turpsed and turn up in your undies, festivals are worthwhile. Oh, and you should read the other panelists’ book(s) before appearing on-stage with them in public. Again, I felt this to be the sagest of sage advice.
It all boiled down to something that no writer wants to hear and yet every writer needs to hear, including me: it’s not all about you. “You’re not a writer,” I joked to one of my colleagues, “you’re a content provider.” We were encouraged to think about who we might consider our nemesis in the literary world, but then to get over it. What? We’re not to hold grudges interminably? Publishing is a people industry and we’d need to be people people if we didn’t want to end up on some publicist’s blacklist.
Then it was over and people were swapping business cards. Or, rather, people were handing me business cards and I was failing to reciprocate, my business card being non-existent. Another black mark. I left the session feeling energised. No, inspired. Heartfelt thanks to Jaki for bringing the expertise and to my fellow WA writers for bringing their goodwill and good humour.
In April 2014, I spent two glorious weeks living and working in Mattie Furphy House at the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Western Australia). During this time, I spent many hours revising my literary crime novel Thirsty Work, a draft of which had previously been written, in part, while undertaking a similar residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in 2013. My two other main roles were mentoring FAWWA members and conducting a three hour workshop on novel writing. I found Mattie Furphy House to be an inspirational place in which to work, not only the house itself but the tranquil location in which it is set, Allen Park.
My workshop on Saturday 19th April, Writing Your Novel: How To Stick It Out and Get It Done, provided me with an opportunity to teach beginning and emerging writers numerous technical concepts relating to novel writing, as well as providing an idea of the overall journey that writing a novel entails an author to undertake. Twelve participants attended the workshop and they proved to be a very enthusiastic group. I went half an hour over the scheduled time in order to complete my presentation, and almost all of the participants stayed to the end and provided positive feedback upon its completion. I’m hoping that FAWWA will get me back later in the year to run my second workshop, Breaking into Publishing.
One of my roles as FAWWA Writer-in-Residence was to offer mentoring to a FAWWA member. Danka Scholtz von Lorentz was chosen for this purpose, and prior to the beginning of the residency I was given the opportunity to read twenty pages of Danka’s work in progress. Subsequently, I met Danka at Mattie Furphy House and I spent more than two hours working with her on her manuscript. I have encouraged Danka to keep in contact with me so that I can further monitor her progress in the months ahead.
At the beginning of my residency, I set myself a target of forty hours revision on Thirsty Work, which I am pleased to say I was able to exceed. This meant that I would be spending around three hours per day working on the novel. Thirsty Work had already been revised to some extent prior to this, but those forty hours enabled me to significantly tighten and polish the novel as a whole, reducing the overall length from 75,000 to 66,000 words in the process. This residency came at a critical time for me in that I am preparing to submit Thirsty Work to publishers, and I am pleased to report that I consider my revision work on the novel to have been a success.
Over the course of my two weeks at Mattie Furphy House, I was acutely aware of the privilege that had been bestowed on me by FAWWA to work in such a beautiful, even awe-inspiring environment. The house is not only an excellent work space for writers itself, but it is a beautiful house and historical artefact in its own right. Early in my residency, I realised that there was a walk trail directly behind Mattie Furphy House leading up to a lookout which offers spectacular views of the nearby ocean. Each day I walked this route to Swanbourne Beach and on a couple of occasions I treated myself to breakfast at the Naked Fig Café. I also found the local Kirkwood Deli particularly useful and I found their macchiato not only to be excellent but extremely cheap as well. I took the opportunity to travel to nearby Fremantle frequently, something I rarely get to do from my hometown of York. I sat editing in Allen Park many times and it is certainly true that the peaceful ambience of the place is extremely beneficial for writers. Not only has my time at FAWWA provided a valuable workspace for me, it has also been an amazing life experience that I will cherish for a long time.
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. 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!