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.
I read a lot of books, around 100 per year, and perhaps once a year I find an author I haven’t previously read who really gels with me. In 2014 it was Mikhail Bulgakov. 2013, Raymond Carver, 2012, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott. My author of 2015 is Jim Thompson, 20th century American noir author. Pictured above is my recently-assembled collection of Jim Thompson novels, about 50% of his total output (and reputedly the better half). Hardcore, a collection of three titles (The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy) arrived yesterday, and I’ve read everything else pictured here. Ideally I’d collect all the Vintage/Black Lizard editions, as I particularly like those, but financial necessities have meant that I got whatever was cheapest on Ebay, Better World or Abebooks. The only one of these I bought from a physical bookstore was Savage Night, the book that started it all for me. I enjoyed all of these titles to greater or lesser extents. My favourite novel is Pop 1280, but I also loved Savage Night, A Swell-Looking Babe and Polito’s biography, Savage Art.
I’ve also watched three films based on Thompson’s films in The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Farewell, My Lovely. The Grifters was far and away the best of these. I have Peckinpah’s The Getaway to watch, as well as Coup de Torchon (based on Pop 1280). I haven’t read the books in Hardcore yet, although having made a brief start on The Nothing Man I feel sure I will enjoy that one. Fireworks is an interesting if uneven volume. I was a little disappointed with “This World, Then the Fireworks” to be honest, but I loved the early work and especially “An Alcoholic Looks at Himself”.
So my question to you, Jim Thompson fans of the internet, is what else of his is worth pursuing? My reading of the biography and various bits and pieces on the internet persuaded me to pursue these books and not the others, but perhaps you have a soft spot for a particular Jim Thompson work not mentioned here? I’m given to understand that the earlier biography is superfluous, but how do I know?
A note on costs. Now that the poor old Aussie dollar is only worth about 70 US cents (and falling), I’ve had to shop around for books a bit more. For several years I was only paying $10-12 dollars for new books from Book Depository, but it seems those days are gone, not only because of the exchange rate but also them hiking up the prices a fair bit. So I am back to secondhand books again, like I was before Book Depository ever came along. These 14 books cost me in total $133, or $9.50 per book, which is about 50% of what they’d have cost new (those in print, anyway).
Anyway, it’s been a great ride. If I manage to finish Hardcore within the next couple of weeks, then I’ll have read 11 JT novels, 1 collection of miscellany, 1 biography and 1 autobiography in about three months. That ain’t bad….
The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the Perth foothills has had an important place in my writing life ever since I was lucky enough to win the Young Writers category of the Short Fiction award way back in 1999, when I was but a callow youth. More recently, I was even luckier to be awarded a four-week Emerging Writer residency (on the fourth try), a role I undertook in April/May 2013. I served on KSP’s Board of Management from 2012-14, and transferred over to their Literary Committee in late 2014. My main task in 2015 has been working with KSP stalwart and poet Mardi May and acclaimed WA author and editor Amanda Curtin in helping to select next year’s Emerging Writers in Residence. I don’t think the winners have been formally announced as yet, but rest assured that the three chosen authors will represent KSP with distinction in 2016.
Another task I’ve had the pleasure of performing is judging the Secondary WA category of this year’s Write-a-Book-in-a-Day competition. This is a very worthy cause, raising money for the Kids’ Cancer Project, and it sees teams of writers from across the country frantically writing, illustrating and presenting picture books in a single day. There are more than a dozen entries in this category this year, and I’m just about to get cracking on finishing my part of the judging process this weekend. It’s humbling to be a part of this program in my own small way, but the real credit must go to the teams of writers themselves, who’ve crafted some stunning work and, in doing so, given me a headache in trying to decide which entry ought to be the winner.
Finally, I’ve been invited to present a writing workshop, ‘The Narrative Engine’, at this year’s Avon Valley Writers Festival, at the Northam library on Sunday 20th September. This is the third iteration of the festival after similar events in 2012 and 2013. The festival was on hiatus in 2014, but it’s back bigger and better than ever this year, and it boasts a strong line up of authors, including the likes of Ian Reid, Amanda Curtin, James Foley and Sami Shah. Here’s the blurb for my workshop: What makes stories tick? How do you create suspense? This workshop will consider the finer points of narrative fiction with reference to some of the great artists of short fiction: Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and others. We’ll zero in on thorny topics such as point of view, narration and interior monologue, and discuss how inciting incidents and rising tension make for great short stories, no matter what time or place they’re written in.
When I reflect on my writing career, such as it is circa 2015, it strikes me that the bulk of my modest achievements have been realised in conjunction with KSP. Writing is and remains a lonely business, but you could do much worse than joining the local writers’ centre in your area.
Note: this story was written in collaboration with my partner, Naomi (pictured above!) and Walter, her Humber Super Snipe.
Lara made her escape from the suffocating house and went out onto the front verandah. The sun was still high. Her singlet was soaked through with sweat from helping Chris hump that monstrosity of a four piece-suite up onto the trailer. But now it was done and they could get the fuck out, just as soon as he had finished signing the settlement papers with his soon-to-be ex-wife, Anna.
“Just for a quick spin,” Chris said, opening the front door but looking back over his shoulder. Anna followed him out, her fat fingers vainly trying to smooth out the many folds in her bunched-up tee-shirt.
“Quick spin in what, Chris?” Lara asked, wiping her brow.
“Anna has her Humber going at last,” Chris explained.
“It isn’t quite roadworthy yet, but it’s drivable,” Anna said.
Lara followed them across the dusty paddock to the shed, thinking hateful thoughts. Anna slid back the shed door with a pig-like grunt.
“It’s a ’61 Super Snipe,” Chris said, putting his arm around Lara.
Lara pushed away. “I’ll wait in our car,” she said. “I’ll have the air-con running.”
“But you’re the happy couple now. I insist,” Anna said.
Lara got in the passenger side and Anna closed the door behind her. Chris turned the ignition and the Humber boomed to life. He reversed out and drove the car past the house and onto the gravel driveway.
“We’ve got a two hour drive ahead of us, Chris.”
“I’ll just go to the end of the driveway and back,” he said. “I’m humouring her.”
Sheep watched them as they bumped along and Lara’s stomach lurched. She went to crank down the window but there was no handle. “Any aircon in this bucket?”
Lara eased back into the seat, exposed flesh sticking to the bright red vinyl.
The gate at the top of the driveway was shut.
“Can you open it, babe?” Chris asked.
Lara reached for the door handle, but there wasn’t one. “How do I get out?”
“Shit, she hasn’t put the inner door in yet.” Their eyes turned to the driver’s door. The grey, webbed panel was missing its door handle and window winder. “I’ll have to reverse back out.” He craned his neck around. Lara could barely see a thing in the swirl of red dust. And the heat.
Chris found a wider place and managed to manhandle the aged hulk around. They drove back to the house, but Anna was nowhere to be seen. Chris pressed the horn but there was no sound.
“Let me guess, she hasn’t hooked that up yet either,” Lara said.
Chris circumnavigated the house. No Anna. “She can’t have gone far.”
The heat pressed in. “I’m going to kick this fucking window out in a minute!”
“You won’t be able to; it’s shatterproof glass. Just settle down.”
Lara clambered into the back seat but found no way out there either. They were trapped and her guts were churning. “The bitch did this deliberately, Chris. Get us out!”
Lara climbed back into the front and tried to think straight. The sun burned white and the car was a furnace.
“Fucking thing corners like a tank,” Chris said, steering around to the front of the house again. His arms were trembling. “She’s on the verandah.” He waved with one hand, but Anna seemed not to see them.
Lara thumped the burning glass with the heel of her hand. “Let me out of here, you fat cow!”
Anna looked up from whatever she was doing. It wasn’t clear whether she could hear them. She raised the thing in her lap so that it came into view. It was the long barrel of a rifle and now she rested it on the frame of the verandah. She had something else, the settlement papers. She proceeded to tear the papers into strips, letting the strips flutter down over the side of the verandah. Then she raised the rifle.
As she waited for the shot to come, Lara hadn’t yet decided at which of them Anna was aiming.