It’s not easy being an emerging writer in Australia, or probably any other country for that matter. Arts budgets have been slashed, bookstores are closing, even the Australia Council is under threat. In this landscape, The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is a beacon of hope, offering Australian writers under 35 the possibility of breaking out of obscurity and earning $20,000 as part of the bargain. For a long time it was my overriding literary ambition to one day win the Vogel, and I knew that my final, final deadline was May 31st, 2016. By 2017, I’d be too old to enter and thus for the best part of a decade I’ve seen thirty-five as my expiry date, Logan’s Run style.
I had a plan, one that I first concocted in 2008. I’d churn out a novel every two years in the twelve weeks of annual leave afforded to me in my role of English teacher in WA’s Wheatbelt. For the most part, I kept my end of the deal. I entered my dystopian novel Yellowcake Springs in 2010, and while it didn’t get anywhere in the Vogel it later won the IP Picks Award and was thus published by IP in 2011. I didn’t enter Yellowcake Summer, reasoning that it was a sequel and not likely to feature, but I was unperturbed. I had another far off date in mind, Jan 31st 2016, by which time I’d have completed ten years of teaching and thus would be entitled to thirteen weeks Long Service Leave. I’d take this as soon as it became available, in Term 1 2016. This would give me the opportunity to give the Vogel one final crack.
Unfortunately, but seemingly inevitably, it didn’t work out like that. In 2012, I spent the best part of the year working for the State School Teachers Union of WA, which made for a welcome break from teaching but blew my Long Service Leave date out to October 2016. I knew exactly what this meant: there’d be no last hurrah in 2016. If I was going to win the Vogel, I’d have to do it the hard way. The novel that materialised, my first crime novel, was Thirsty Work, which was written in part during my Katharine Susannah Prichard residency in 2013. I put what I thought to be the finishing touches on the novel in April 2014, during a second residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA. I sent off my Vogel entry a month before the deadline and then, reasoning that it was folly to put all one’s eggs in the one basket, sent an extract of the novel to Fremantle Press. I went back to work with high hopes.
Six months later, Thirsty Work hadn’t been shortlisted for the Vogel, Fremantle Press had rejected it (albeit with words of encouragement) and my marriage of twelve years was over. In the summer of 2014/15 I had two choices: to stick with Thirsty Work and try to make the changes Fremantle Press had suggested, or twist and try to write a new novel in time to enter it into the Vogel in May 2016. I stuck, and struck out: Fremantle Press rejected the revised version of Thirsty Work, the novel was rejected by at least a dozen other Australian publishers, and I’d be turning thirty-five in less than eighteen months.
I did have an idea for a subsequent novel, City of Rubber Stamps, but it failed to cohere in time. I produced an abortive 10,000 word start on the novel in 2015, but in my heart I knew I wasn’t ready. During these months, I produced a handful of short stories when I had the chance and had some success in publishing these. Writing short stories seemed an altogether happier task than slogging my way through drafting novels that’d likely never see the light of day anyway. In the summer of 2015/16, I wrote only two short pieces: ‘Hard Travelin”, which will appear in November 2016 in Writing the Dream, and ‘The Not-Bird’, a retread of an earlier story. I was, and quite probably still am, at a low ebb.
Now, in July 2016, a month shy of my thirty-fifth birthday, I have that Long Service Leave up my sleeve, but by next year I’ll be too old for the Vogel. My last day of school for the year will be September 23rd, my daughter’s eleventh birthday. Thereafter I’ll have four glorious months to get cracking on City of Rubber Stamps. I’m getting married again in that time, too. My partner and I will be spending two weeks trekking around Tasmania in a campervan, but I’ll have my laptop handy. I might be too old for the Vogel, but with any luck there’ll be other dawns and new horizons.
It was 2009 when I first picked up an old paperback with an intriguing cover depicting a snake, Ouroboros-style, eating its own tail. The book was A Feast of Snakes, its author Harry Crews unknown to me, but as I sat down to read I was electrified. I’ve only felt this way a handful of times, experiencing an instant, profound connection with a book and author. I enjoyed A Feast of Snakes so much that, upon completing it later that day, I started from page one and read it cover to cover again. Thus began my ‘Crews Cruise’, a year-long quest to obtain and read all twenty or so of the author’s books. The only book of Crews’ that I didn’t obtain and read at that time, aside from obscure titles like The Enthusiast and Madonna at Ringside, was the very expensive, never-released-in-paperback This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven. I eventually rectified that omission in 2013, but by then Harry Crews was dead.
Having read pretty much all of the published secondary material on Crews as well, I proceeded to wait patiently for the author’s follow-up to his heartwrenching memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. Crews had completed writing it before he died, I’d read. That title, Assault of Memory, never came, but here’s the next best thing, a touching biography by Ted Geltner. (As an aside, I must be about the first person in Australia to have read this book, several weeks before its slated release date. I have my local bookstore, Barclay Books, to thank for that.) Not every author gets the biography they deserve. Some years ago I was rather underwhelmed by a book on the never-boring Brion Gysin, whereas on the other hand Julie Philips’ biography of James Tiptree Jr has to be the best I’ve ever read. Happily, Blood, Bone, and Marrow falls squarely in the latter camp.
Harry Crews led an immensely interesting life, but I’ve long been starved of information on all but the first decade of that life. The outstanding documentary “Harry Crews: Survival is Triumph Enough” makes for compelling viewing, but it’s almost completely devoid of anything about Crews’ actual publishing journey. Similarly, no one could write better about Crews’ childhood than the man himself, but that seminal memoir ends with the author still a small boy. Most of the remaining seven decades of Crews’ life were blank to me, interspersed as they were by snippets from interviews (most of them collected in Getting Naked with Harry Crews and Critical Perspectives on Harry Crews) and non-fiction pieces collected in Blood and Grits and Florida Frenzy. Geltner’s biography fills those blanks for me and I believe that that’s a major part of what a literary biography should do.
More than that, though, Blood, Bone and Marrow offers a compelling, often funny and frequently sad account of a deeply flawed and yet profoundly influential American writer. Harry Crews toiled his whole life against the cards life had dealt him and he went to his grave without knowing the answer to one of the most fundamental of life’s questions: Who is my daddy? What blood runs through these veins? When Harry Crews passed away in 2012 I felt like I lost a treasured great uncle. Around the same time I lost J. G. Ballard and William Gay, too. I can only thank and applaud Ted Geltner for bringing Harry Crews alive for me again, albeit fleetingly.
The epigraph of the book’s final chapter is a quote from Crews himself: “The big oaks have to fall down so the little oaks can grow up. And now it’s my turn to go down.” Harry Crews was a big oak, one of the biggest, and in my mind he’ll never go down.
Three pieces of recent publishing news: first, my story ‘Frank’, which won the 2015 City of Rockingham Short Fiction Award, has now been chosen for publication in Westerly’s upcoming ‘New Creative‘ online issue. I’m really looking forward to appearing alongside a host of other (as yet unnamed) emerging authors.
Secondly, my baroque future fantasy piece, ‘when the jellyfish rule the oceans’, has been published online in Pound of Flash.
And finally, a non-fiction piece about my (torturous) pathway to publication, ‘Hard Travelin’, will be published later this year in Writing the Dream.
I’m pleased to be able to report these successes, but I’m still looking for homes for my fourth Tyler Bramble detective story, ‘Epoch O’Lips’, as well as a literary story about obsessive compulsive disorder and a dead ferret, ‘Losing Her Zen’. Hopefully I’ll find suitable homes for them in the coming months.
In 2015, for the second consecutive year, I read more than 100 books. A few of these were in conjunction with my work as an English teacher (indeed I read a couple of these books aloud to students), but the vast majority were for my own personal reading. Around a third of these were crime fiction, with the rest being literary fiction, non-fiction and the odd SF novel. This year I revisited the works of J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, all of whom are authors who were important to me in my twenties. I completed my reading of the works of Pat Barker, Mikhail Bulgakov and Derek Raymond, and I’m one book short of completing everything by Peter Temple, too. I read multiple titles by the likes of James Lee Burke, J. M. Coetzee, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vicki Hendricks, Cormac McCarthy and Larry Watson. Authors that I read for the first time in 2015 include Julian Barnes, James Darnielle, Candice Fox, Christopher Isherwood, Henning Mankell and Ron Rash. I didn’t enjoy all of these books and authors equally, but all have something to recommend them. My author of 2015, however, was definitely Jim Thompson. I ended up reading twelve of his books. What follows is my top ten reads for 2015 with brief description and links to Goodreads.
Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop
It’s a sequel to Frankenstein, set in the US in the first half of the twentieth century. Oh, and the monster plays baseball. He can really hit them out of the park.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of what happened in this slim volume. I do remember, however, than the writing was exceptional.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
I’ve read about ten of Coetzee’s novels now; this is yet another outstanding piece of work from the Nobel Prize winner.
Liza’s England by Pat Barker
Pat Barker is an exceptional writer but in general I prefer her WWI books to the rest. This one, however, a bildungsroman set in England in the early twentieth century, is very powerful and far superior to the recently-released Noon Day.
Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
This is a fascinating portrait of life in late-Weimar Germany told through the ‘camera’ of ‘Christopher Isherwood’. I’ve read four Isherwood titles recently, but this was my favourite of them.
A State of Denmark by Derek Raymond
Probably the best of Raymond’s non-Factory novels, this is part Orwellian dystopian England, part rural Italy. Fascinating.
The Hidden Files by Derek Raymond
Raymond’s memoir is part autobiography and part thesis on what he calls the ‘black novel’. Rambling but ultimately rewarding for authors of crime fiction.
Savage Night by Jim Thompson
The first Thompson novel I read happened to be one of his very best, and it precipitated a book-buying-bender on my part. This is a slim and savage little crime novel that I greatly admire.
A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson
I especially liked this Oedipal (and partly autobiographical) tale of Dusty Rhodes, hotel porter. It’s another Thompson stunner.
Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson
I’m saving the best for last. This is by far my favourite book of 2015; it’s a caustic, outrageous comedy noir set in Hicktown, USA at the turn of the twentieth century. This has to be the very best of Jim Thompson and that’s really saying something. Go read this book immediately!
I hadn’t heard of UK crime writer Derek Raymond until I was given a copy of his novel The Devil’s Home on Leave about two years ago. I enjoyed that well enough, finding it to be exceedingly gritty and bleak (and thus to my tastes) and in time I got my hands on the other novels in the Factory series, He Died With His Eyes Open, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright. The first of these I liked best, the last the least, and I didn’t enjoy the much hyped Suarez as much as I thought I might, although perhaps that was the point. Raymond can be artless at times and there’s a certain repetitiveness to his work, but it’s genuine, powerful and oh so very sordid. Ideally I’d obtain the entire Factory series in either the UK Serpent’s Tail editions or the US Melville House, but as usual (as you can see from the above photo), I’ve ended up with a bit of both.
There’s more to Derek Raymond than the Factory novels; quite a bit more, in fact. Next cab off the rank for me was the excellent A State of Denmark, a remarkable mix of 1984 and some really vivid writing about country life in Italy. This would be close to the best of Raymond’s earlier work, originally published under his real name of Robin Cook (he chose the pseudonym in the 80s due to the popularity of the other Robin Cook). The other early novel published by Serpent’s Tail is The Crust on its Uppers, the author’s first. I didn’t enjoy this very much, and nor did I like the late, weak Nightmare in the Street. Raymond did have one more good shot in him, as it turned out, the posthumously-released Not Till the Red Fog Rises, which I’ve just finished reading today. This reads very much like the Factory novels except that here we see things from the criminal mind of Gust, a dangerous man to cross. Finally there’s Raymond’s memoir The Hidden Files, a combination of personal history, treatise on the ‘black novel’ and a lot of other oddities thrown in for good measure. Out of print, expensive and obscure, this is nonetheless an important and very interesting book.
So that’s the end of my Derek Raymond adventure, or is it? As Robin Cook, the author published four other early novels that are yet to be reprinted and may forever remain so, given that the author died more than twenty years ago. They are named Bombe Surprise, The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, Public Parts and Private Places and The Tenants of Dirt Street. All are obtainable secondhand, but all are expensive. After finding The Crust on its Uppers a chore to get through, I’m disinclined to blow my money on these obscurities, but perhaps I’m making a mistake? If you know, let me know.
In summary, Derek Raymond is for lovers of British noir. He’s not for the squeamish, and perhaps it’s best not to read too many of his books in one go. His best work, in my view, can be found in novels like He Died With His Eyes Open, A State of Denmark and Not Till the Red Fog Rises. If you like your novels served black, then you’ll very much enjoy these titles.
I’m very pleased to announce that my short story, ‘Frank’, has been awarded First Prize in the Open Section of the 2015 City of Rockingham Short Fiction Award! Competition judge KA Bedford praised the story’s “Intrigue and hijinks, leading to a very satisfying resolution follow,” and said “This was a great piece, and I award it First Prize with no reservations”. I’m very pleased to have won this award, even more so in that I admire Bedford’s Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, surely the only time travel novel in the history of science fiction to be set in Malaga, Western Australia. A requirement for entering this competition was that stories had to use the above picture, ‘(Light) House of the Rising Sun’ by Julie Podstolski, as a stimulus. In writing ‘Frank’, I also decided to listen to the Animals’ famous song every day before writing to get myself in the mood; hopefully some of that bluesy feeling made it into the finished story. There’s no publication associated with this award, but it hasn’t escaped my attention that this win makes the story eligible for entry into next year’s Award Winning Australian Writing anthology from Melbourne Books.
After my run of outs in recent times, this news comes as a much needed boost to my confidence. This award has been running for a few years now but it’s the first time I’ve entered. Not many writing competitions have free entry these days, and the prizes are pretty generous too. Thanks to the City of Rockingham and Lee Battersby (Coordinator Cultural Development and Arts) for supporting this award.
My writing career has been in the doldrums for the past eighteen months. 2013 was an amazing year for me in that I published four stories (one of which was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Award), one novel, and I completed a Emerging Writer-in-Residence stint at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. 2014 started pretty well too, with a similar residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) in April.
Then, nothing. Or, rather, worse than nothing: piles and piles of rejections. In an eighteen month stretch, I had thirty-eight rejections and one acceptance. The one acceptance was for my story ‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’, published in Tincture Journal. The bulk of these rejections were for my crime novel Thirsty Work, but my story ‘when the jellyfish rule the oceans’ has been rejected eight times, and ‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’ six before being picked up. I had a PhD application rejected on the grounds that there was no one to supervise me. I had stories rejected because magazines were folding (once, cruelly, I was told this after they had accepted the story!), and short fiction competition pieces borne away in a flood of entries, like the Henry Handel Richardson Writing Competition, which had 450 entries in 2014.
It’s enough to make anyone melancholy and to knock one’s self-belief for six. This is where I’m supposed to say that if you try, try, try again it’ll all work out in the end. J. K. Rowling was rejected a zillion times. The recent Man Booker award-winner, Marlon James, recently said a similar thing. But for one Marlon James or J. K. Rowling, how many other writers are out there with the same self-belief and tireless perseverance? How do you keep going in the face of the world’s indifference?
For me personally, this last question is a false one. Whenever I’m brought low by my latest rejection, I try to imagine a life in which I didn’t write. Truth is, I can’t. Seems I’m consigned to a life of writing, if necessary in the face of continuous rejection. I’m not sure that that’s perseverance or even bloody-mindedness as much as an acknowledgement that this is truly who I am. Not writing would be a form of extinction, and I ain’t extinct yet.
We’re told not to take rejection too personally. Personally, I struggle with that, too. But I do have a piece of advice for those in a similar circumstance, after all, which is not to put all your eggs in one basket. The months of waiting are agonising, the almost inevitable rejection a punch to the guts, but this can be mollified by multiple entries and multiple submissions. Right now I have five short stories doing the rounds, the most I’ve ever had, so when I get a rejection I transfer my forlorn hopes onto the next competition or publishing target. Every time I get a rejection, I make sure to send the story somewhere else that same day. That way at least I feel I’m doing something positive, not just wallowing in self-pity.
And then there’s the money. Or, rather, there isn’t the money. Apparently, the average Australian author earns $12,900 per year, which is frankly a hell of a lot more than I make out of writing but still nowhere near a living wage. I recently estimated that I’ve earned something like $5000 from writing in the past five years. Given that I earn 10% royalties on my novels, that equates to 2500 copies sold, no? Well, no. The $5000 hasn’t come from royalties at all, but from the aforementioned residencies, workshops and, occasionally, judging. Luckily for me, I earn a good wage as a high school English teacher, so I don’t think about the money very much. It’s best not to. And the simple truth is that I’d do it for free anyway.
Where does that leave me? Pretty much where I started, I suppose. Best to think of this as a hare and tortoise situation after all. Even if I never win the Booker or sell millions of copies, at least I’ll be able to say, to myself if no one else, that I never took no for an answer.