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!
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. 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.