About once a year I discover a writer whose work intrigues me sufficiently that I allow myself to become obsessed with their lives and work. Most of these have tended to be American crime or country noir authors. In 2009-10 that writer was Harry Crews. In 2012 it was two authors, Megan Abbott and William Gay. Two again in 2013 with Derek Raymond and Daniel Woodrell. In 2014 it was a Russian, Mikhail Bulgakov. In 2015 I discovered Jim Thompson and in 2016 I read almost everything by James Sallis. Though the year is young, 2017 is shaping up as the year of David Goodis.
In the case of many of these writers, such as Thompson, Raymond and Goodis, their status nowadays is that of ‘long forgotten, recently rediscovered cult crime author’. All three were relatively successful in their time, all three had plenty of movies adapted from their novels, all fell from favour after their deaths only for their work to be resurrected decades later. Goodis’ personal life story seems especially poignant and I won’t try to summarise it here, but suffice to say that his fall from grace during his lifetime was the steepest of the three. A successful author and Hollywood screenwriter by the age of 30 (pictured below with Bogart and Bacall, stars of the 1947 noir film Dark Passage, adapted from Goodis’ novel of the same name), a decade later he was churning out cheap paperback originals for the same pulp houses as Jim Thompson. A decade after that, at 49, Goodis was dead.
Goodis is by no means the perfect writer. Having read four of his novels now, I feel safe in saying that. His plots creak and often threaten to bust at the seams. He is overly reliant on coincidence and often having a character overhear long sections of dialogue. His protagonists are almost always the exact same kind of morose down-and-out. Goodis often uses lengthy expository passages and pages and pages of interior monologue (this last point is both strength and weakness).
And yet Goodis has heart. This, above anything else, is his greatest strength as a writer. He demonstrates care not only for his suicidal protagonists, but for those practically all of those downtrodden souls who inhabit his books. Goodis uses flashback sections effectively to explain the plights of his protagonists and also to link prior action to that happening now. He writes action scenes and especially punch-ups particularly effectively. He demonstrates an admirable attitude toward women and ethnic minorities, and writes largely without racial prejudice. Goodis describes settings in atmospheric fashion, often using the weather itself as a character in his work. In short, he’s a diamond in the rough.
To the novels themselves, I began with Shoot the Piano Player, renamed thus from Down There after the French film upon which it is based. I liked this plenty, especially the frozen setting of deep winter in Philadelphia. Goodis’ most obvious attribute as a writer is that he genuinely writes about the down-and-outs of society, and these pages are filled with them. I also really dig the early 90s Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition pictured here (I have several Jim Thompson novels in these editions). Under its original title, the novel is also available in a Library of America edition of 50s noir.
Far less successful in my view is The Wounded and the Slain, available from Hard Case Crime. This one is probably unique in Goodis’ ouevre in that it’s set outside the U.S., in Jamaica (which Goodis apparently visited). I didn’t much care for the sunny setting but what especially galled me here was the extremely poor plotting. I thought the writing and characters reasonable enough, but the plotting to be on the level one might expect from a small child. Others apparently disagree.
2012 must have been a watershed year for Goodis’ fans, as this signalled the release of Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s from the Library of America, an edition I’ve recently obtained. In fact, many of the novels herein are only in print in this edition. So far I’ve only read The Burglar and Street of No Return, meaning I still have Dark Passage, Nightfall and The Moon in the Gutter to come. Quite brief at 52,000 words, The Burglar is a sharp noir tale set in Philly and Atlantic City in the 50s. All the main characters are well drawn, the protagonist’s manias are convincing and there aren’t too many dumb things in the plot. I enjoyed the hell out of this, basically.
Street of No Return reads like an inferior Shoot the Piano Player, however. There our protagonist previously had a glittering career playing the piano, whereas here he was a singer, but otherwise the setup is much the same. One of the problems with this is clunky plotting. Here there are three separate groups: cops, white crims and Puerto Rican crims, all vying for control of the Hellhole in central Philly, but Goodis doesn’t seem to have the necessary skill to pit them against each other convincingly. Another problem is that here the femme fatale barely appears on the page at all, other than in a flashback chapter (Chapter 6 – by my reckoning the best in the book).
I’m waiting for the arrival of Black Friday and Selected Stories not only for the title novella but also for the stories, many of which were written in the 30s and 40s. There’s also an essay by Adrian Wootton on Goodis that I’m keen to read. I’ve also managed to find an old paperback of Cassidy’s Girl on Ebay for a reasonable price, which brings me up to nine novels of the eighteen Goodis published owned. The others are all available secondhand, but are usually very expensive. I have my eye on copies of In Tender Sin, The Blonde on the Street Corner and Night Squad as all three were at least reprinted at some point in the nineties. The other six appear not to have been reprinted for many years. All are available, but none cheaply.
Those like me attempting to absorb anything Goodis related as quickly and as cheaply as possible have their work cut out for them, unfortunately. There’s a 2010 documentary that I’ve just ordered on Ebay (the DVD seems to have recently gone out of print on Amazon). There’s even a biography written in French in the eighties that was only published in English in recent years (Goodis: A Life in Black and White), but this can only be obtained direct from the publisher at a hefty cost of $65 including shipping for us poor Aussies. There’s even a short book by James Sallis (Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson – David Goodis – Chester Himes) but it’s out of print and prohibitively expensive secondhand. Online, there’s a wealth of (not very clearly organised) material on davidgoodis.com, and there’s the occasional excellent review by the likes of Australian author Andrew Nette.
As for finding copies of Goodis’ novels cheaply secondhand, it seems that the French have been the real curators of his legacy over the years. The downside to this is that most of the cheap editions of Goodis’ novels on Ebay are in French translation and thus of little use to me. I’ve just ordered a DVD of the 1947 film version of Dark Passage and no doubt the other adaptions are available in some way and for some price, but that will have to do me for now.
Off I go, back down there into The Moon in the Gutter.
Today, the 18th January, I completed the draft of my new crime novel City of Rubber Stamps, which was written in its entirety over the past four months while I’ve been on Long Service Leave from teaching. I’m having a beer to celebrate, but here are some stats (I love stats):
Word count – 85, 306
Approximate hours of actual composition, excluding planning, re-reading and revision – 220
Actual writing days – 81
Words written per hour on average – 387
Non-writing days – 36 (this includes my wedding day and two week honeymoon in Tasmania).
Cups of coffees drunk – at least 250 and probably well over 300
Days until I’m due back at work – 11
Time for that beer 🙂
I’ve been busy this week, not only in chipping away at the draft of City of Rubber Stamps, but also with some other writerly events. Firstly, my review of David Whish-Wilson’s excellent Perth crime novel Old Scores is up at Westerly’s Editor’s Desk. My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the novel’s launch at the suitably noirish Buffalo Club in Fremantle on Wednesday night. There I caught up not only with David but with a cadre of Perth crime fiction aficionados and writers like Ron Elliot, Bruce Russell, Michelle Michau-Crawford and Ian Reid. Old Scores is a rip-roaring trip through eighties Perth and highly recommended. You can read more about it and even a sample chapter over at the Fremantle Press website.
Tonight I’m off to my second launch for the week, this one at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. It’s launch day for Writing the Dream from Serenity Press, which is a book of non-fiction pieces on writing and publishing by 25 mostly WA authors, including the likes of Juliet Marillier, Natasha Lester and Louise Allan. If you are keen on meeting the authors and picking up a signed copy, then you’ll need to head up to the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Greenmount on Sunday 27th November for the second launch date. I’d love to attend this myself, but as I’ll be on my honeymoon in Tasmania it’d be a long way to travel. Writing the Dream is an outstanding and highly practical ‘how to’ guide to writing and publishing as well as being a source of inspiration for aspiring writers. It’s available now from any number of online outlets such as Amazon and Booktopia.
The year was 2005. I was a 23 year-old Dip Ed student, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was about to complete my final teaching practicum. My prac teacher and one of her colleagues, whose names I’ve forgotten, said that while I’d probably be able to get a job teaching the following year, I could forget about ever earning any Long Service Leave. ‘They’ll get rid of it before then,’ one of them said.
They were wrong.
When I started teaching in Merredin in 2006, the Long Service Leave date on my payslip read 31/01/2016, at which time I’d be entitled to thirteen weeks paid leave. It might as well have read 2099 for how distant that date seemed, but as the years rolled by, and I became a teaching survivor rather than one of many casualties, 2016 drew inexorably nearer.
In 2007-8 I became fixated on the idea of winning the TAG Hungerford Award for my first novel, The Kingdom of Four Rivers (eventually published by the now-defunct Equilibrium Books), and when that dream evaporated, my hopes were transferred onto the thought of winning the Vogel. I’ve written about this before so I won’t dwell on it now, but suffice to say that 31/5/2016 was my final Vogel due date, the final year I’d be young enough to be eligible. Thus the two dates became intertwined in my mind. I’d do my ten years of teaching, take Long Service Leave in early 2016, and give the Vogel a red hot crack.
It didn’t work out like that.
In 2012 I spent nine months working for the State School Teachers Union of Western Australia, which was an interesting experience and a nice break from teaching, but it also blew out my Long Service Leave date to October 2016. Too late for the Vogel. My last chance at that turned out to be my crime novel Thirsty Work, written 2013-4, but I didn’t get anywhere with it. I went back to teaching in 2013, put in another three and three-quarter years, and voila, I became eligible for LSL on the fourth of October of this year. I started my leave on the tenth. Including school holidays, I’d have more than four months off.
All I ever wanted was the time and money required to sit down and write, and now I had one hundred and twenty eight days to produce an entire novel, one that had been brewing in my mind for a couple of years, City of Rubber Stamps. The plan was (and is) to produce a solid draft of the novel of around 80,000 words by Monday 30th January 2017, the day I’m due back at work. Given that I average around 1000 words per day when writing, that seemed (and seems) an achievable goal. I’ve written about my writing tribulations and occasional successes in my piece, ‘Hard Travelin’, which is soon to be released in Writing the Dream from Serenity Press.
One of the greatest days of my life, then, was the 23rd of September 2016, my last day of work for the year and co-incidentally my daughter’s eleventh birthday, the same daughter who was yet to be born in 2005.
Six weeks into my eighteen week block of writing, things are (touch wood) progressing smoothly. I had 3,000 words of the novel already written by the time I started my LSL, and in the intervening six weeks I’ve added another 30,000 words at a rate of 5,000 words per week. 5,000 words doesn’t sound like very much to me, but I can assure you that those words are all hard-earned. It takes me between two and three hours to write my 1000 words for the day and I’ve recently decided that three black coffees is my limit (incidentally, the quote in the title of this piece is from the song ‘Super Disco Breakin’ by the Beastie Boys. Along with Beck and Radiohead, these are the three most important bands and artists to me in the music world. I often listen to the Beasties, especially their album Hello Nasty, as a way of jump-starting my brain in the morning).
I’ve always been a fan of number crunching and statistics, so here goes. An 80,000 word novel draft ought to take me around 16 weeks to produce. At 2.5 hours per 1,000 words, that’s 200 hours of actual composing at the keyboard, not to mention an unknowable number of hours planning, tinkering, thinking and redrafting. This isn’t 200 hours of punching the clock in the way we all do in our quotidian lives, but 200 hours of actual creative endeavour. I’ll also consume at least 240 black coffees in the production of the novel draft and an unknown amount of extra strong Dilmah tea.
Six weeks in, I have 33,000 words done and at least 47,000 words to go. I’m slightly ahead of schedule in that I’m 41% of the way through the draft and only 33% of the way through my LSL. I hope to get even further ahead of the curve over the next fortnight before I take a fortnight off from writing while honeymooning with my new bride in Tasmania. I’ve never written an entire draft of a novel in one block before, mainly because I’ve never had this much time to work on a project in my adult life, so I’m hoping that the fortnight off will act as a much-needed refresher.
City of Rubber Stamps will be the twelfth novel I’ve written, my first being completed twenty years ago when I was still in high school, and I’m hopeful that it will be the fourth to be published. I ‘only’ have to work another seven full years to accrue another thirteen weeks LSL, but the thought of having to wait that long to have another crack at a novel doesn’t appeal, so my intention is to enrol in the Deferred Salary Scheme in 2017, whereby I’ll work four years at 80% pay and thus earns the fifth year off at the same 80%
Roll on 2021, the year I’ll turn forty.
In the meantime, I’ve started how I mean to continue on the current project. With any luck, I’ll have a complete draft of City of Rubber Stamps in under three months time. Writing is hard work, finding the time to do it even harder, but this has been my path. As the Beasties say, ‘you gotta have the dreams to make it all worthwhile.’
‘Frank’ and a bevy of other works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by emerging WA writers are online and free to download in Westerly: New Creative as of this minute. I’m really stoked to have a piece in such a venerable publication and I’m also looking forward to the official launch of the ebook at the upcoming Australian Short Story Festival on October 23rd. Thanks to Rashida Murphy for pointing this out and to Josephine Taylor for working with me on editing ‘Frank’ for publication.
I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the Avon Valley Readers and Writers Festival since its inception in 2012, and I’m pleased to report that the 2016 iteration was the best yet. For the first time, the AVRWF stretched across York, Northam and Toodyay, with each Wheatbelt town spending a day in the spotlight. The festival kicked off for me on Friday night at Barclay Books in York with Portland Jones reading from her recently-released novel Seeing the Elephant, accompanied by William Yeoman on guitar. Portland read beautifully and I was sure to pick up a signed copy of her book before the night was through. I also met Rashida Murphy, whose novel The Historian’s Daughter was also recently released to widespread acclaim.
On Saturday, I missed out on seeing Ian Reid’s session on writing historical fiction due to my kids playing in a hockey grand final in Beverley (they lost but were proud to have made it that far), but I scurried back to Northam in time for Ron Elliot’s workshop on scriptwriting. Ron won’t remember this, but he’s actually taught me scriptwriting before, way back in 2000 at Curtin University. After lunch, I attended sessions by the very witty Brigid Lowry (who reminds me more than a little of another Kiwi import in Juliet Marillier, not least because of her accent) and Sara Foster. Saturday ended with a bang at the Riverside Hotel, literally a two minute walk from my front door, for the customary dinner and author panel. The panel was facilitated by Kelli McCluskey and included Tabetha Beggs, Ron Elliot, Corina Martin, myself and one other person whose name temporarily escapes me. Everyone got a chance to say their piece, including members of the audience (many of them esteemed festival guests) and a good time was had.
On Sunday the show decamped to blustery Toodyay where I first attended a session by Tabetha Beggs (Chairperson of KSP) and Belinda Hermawan (President of FAWWA) on why WA authors and readers should band together in the face of government funding cuts and other threats. Next up was a fascinating session by Sam Carmody and Brooke Davis on their writing friendship and journeys to publication and acclaim. After lunch we heard from Michelle Michau-Crawford, winner of the Elizabeth Jolley Award and author of the excellent Leaving Elvis and Other Stories regarding a sense of place in fiction. Finally it was time for my own session on writing short fiction and entering relevant competitions, which seemed to pass by without calamity.
Then it was 4pm and everyone was saying goodbye. It was a privilege to have been a part of this year’s Avon Valley Readers and Writers Festival, which almost literally brought a bevy of talented WA authors to my doorstep. Thanks very much to Angi McCluskey for coordinating the whole shebang and to the rest of the hardworking library employees for allowing the whole thing to happen. I can only hope that next year’s AVRWF will be even bigger and better than the 2016 edition.
The fourth annual Avon Valley Readers and Writers Festival is upon us, on the weekend of 9-11th September. This year the Festival will stretch across the Wheatbelt towns of York, Northam and Toodyay. This promises to be the biggest and best AVRWF yet with dozens of notable authors in attendance. The full program is online here.
I’ll be presenting a session on writing short fiction on Sunday 11th from 3pm at Toodyay Public Library. This session will cover some mechanics of story construction, tips on entering short fiction competitions, and I’ll be reading ‘Frank’ from the newly-minted Award Winning Australian Writing 2016, which was launched just last week in Melbourne. Here’s a link to my session on facebook.
I’m really looking forward to the festival and in particular meeting WA authors like Sam Carmody, Brooke Davis and Michelle Michau-Crawford, whose books I have read and very much enjoyed recently. I’m also looking forward to the dinner and author forum on Saturday night at the Riverside Hotel, where I’ll be appearing alongside Ron Elliot, Fleur McDonald, Tabetha Beggs and Kelli McCluskey.