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‘Well, it’s fifty cups of coffee and you know it’s on’: writing City of Rubber Stamps

November 4, 2016 Leave a comment

beasties

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.’

Book Review – The Last Sky by Alice Nelson

August 26, 2008 1 comment

Alice Nelson’s The Last Sky is the eighth winner of Western Australia’s TAG Hungerford Award. For those who don’t know, the Hungerford is a biannual award for W.A. writers who haven’t yet published a novel length work. The award is presented by none other than Tom Hungerford himself, who is well into his nineties now. Many of Tom Hungerford’s stories have been collected in the volume Straightshooter, which is made up of three earlier collections. Nelson’s novel won the award for 2006, which was actually awarded in Feb 2007, and the book was released in August 2008. No wonder, then, that the cover says ‘Winner of the TAG Hungerford Award’ rather than ‘Winner of the TAG Hungerford Award 2006.’ But I digress. The Last Sky is an effective mood piece of a novel, reminiscent of the works of earlier TAG Hungerford Award winning writers Gail Jones and Simone Lazaroo. Nelson rather impressively carves out her own space in this literary constellation, as this review will attempt to describe.

The cast of The Last Sky is fairly small. Maya Wise is the viewpoint character, although Nelson certainly blurs the boundaries between the perspectives of different characters. She is unhappily married to an archaeologist named Joseph. During the course of her time in Hong Kong shortly before the ‘Handover’ to Chinese rule, Maya meets Ken Tiger and Clarissa. Joseph is the protege of a famous archaeologist named Aurel Stein, whose name certainly rang a bell. My own interest in Chinese history has led to have a vague idea that Aurel Stein was an explorer of the Silk Road region in the early twentieth century. It turns out that the real Aurel Stein died in 1943, at age eighty. Nelson seems to have sent Stein a few decades into his future for the purpose of this novel. Through Ken Tiger, Maya learns about the lives of Ada Lang and Victor Kadoorie. We are also introduced to Maya and Joseph’s respective families through Maya’s ‘flights of fancy’ embellished from shreds of information. It’s hard to say who the main characters of this novel truly are, or what time period the book is mostly set in. Nelson’s technique is slippery and elusive, and for the most part well realised.

The Last Sky doesn’t have a plot, at least very little of one that is occurring in Maya Wise’s present. I could probably summarise the main events in a short paragraph, and it probably wouldn’t seem very impressive, but to do so would be to misunderstand The Last Sky’s subtle art. Rather there are events being remembered (or imagined) in various times, interwoven and interlocking. It’s the kind of thing I suspect would turn a fair few readers off, but I found the technique to be interesting enough. Maya’s life seems to consist of real and imagined wanderings around Hong Kong, as well as her recollections of various events in her own past. The only forward movement in time that I can discern relates to the drawing closer of the actual ‘Handover’ date, with which the novel ends.

One of Maya’s problems is that she feels no real affinity with the Chinese around her. Fairly early on she confesses to this and it causes her to feel alienated from Hong Kong society. For me this was a slight disappointment, as it meant that the narrative lacked the insider dimension that makes Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made so exquisite. Her husband Joseph is even less tolerant of the Chinese, whom he sees as barbarians unappreciative of his works of excavation and scholarship. Maya becomes increasingly ambivalent about Joseph’s charms (or lack thereof) and as such I found him to be an unlikeable character. Maya doesn’t have much more luck with the Chinese than her husband:

“Sometimes I think that these people [the Chinese] will always be inaccessible to me. Once I told Joseph that I thought they deliberately conspired to fulfil all the western cliches about them, about their inscrutability.” (p. 127)

But Nelson’s novel is not so much about this sense of dislocation as about her imagined flights into the lives of Ken Tiger, his lover Ada, and her husband Victor Kadoorie. Maya says it best herself, neatly summarising this novel’s methodology:

“Yes, that’s the place I’d like to be. In the landscape of someone else’s past, between the closed pages of the history book.” (p. 153)

This technique is by its very nature elusive and tangential, and thus the narrative does not so much progress as unfold. Late in the story, Maya rues the fact that:

“I have clung too tightly to a world that is not my own. Ken Tiger and Ada and Victor and Clarissa and Joseph. I have spent all these months here trying to pin them down. Have I become only a prism that refracts their stories, their lives?” (p. 228)

The Last Sky is easy to read, but difficult to review. The various strands fall together neatly and yet seem insubstantial when analysed in isolation. I read this over the course of something less than four hours, in two sessions over the course of one day. This serves as a testament to this novel’s readability, for readers of this blog will know that I often abandon novels mid-course. I found the impact of the novel to build to something like a crescendo toward the end, which is of course a good thing.

On the subject of presentation, Fremantle Press have done a good job of presenting what must have been quite a short manuscript (not more than 60,000 words, I wouldn’t have thought) in such a way as to make the novel appear longer than it is. Generous margins and ample use of white space bulks this up to 250 pages, but the pages themselves breeze by. This is clever work by the publisher, who would no doubt have been mindful of the fact that the manuscript was a little on the short side for today’s market.

This is a work of not insignificant promise. Nelson shows glimpses of an ability to produce imagery as dense and as vivid as Gail Jones. Similarly, The Last Sky tantalizes the reader with visions of an exotic Eastern landscape more fully explored in the work of Simone Lazaroo. In time, Nelson may equal those luminaries on both counts.

Two incomplete reviews and a new reading list – 26/8/08

August 26, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve been very, very naughty.

I started reading two novels, Simone Lazaroo’s The Travel Writer and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, but I’ve given up on both of them after 90-100 pages. This is not to say that I disliked them, particularly in the case of the Lazaroo novel. Simone Lazaroo is such a good writer that her prose is exhilarating. She must be the best stylist of the eight Hungerford award winners I’ve read. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t especially interested in her tale of women’s lives in Malacca and London during the twentieth century. This is my loss. I will come back to this, and her second novel The Australian Fiancee, in due course.

Expect to see my review of Alice Nelson’s TAG Hungerford Award winning The Last Sky in the next day or so. I finished reading it on the plane from Melbourne last night and was duly impressed. It also won’t be long before I’ll be able to review Philip K Dick’s Ubik: The Screenplay either, which has just arrived in the post from Amazon. And then there will reviews of Ha Jin’s The Bridegroom and other stories and David Mitchell’s number9dream.

Good times.

Book Review – The Fur by Nathan Hobby

I actually read The Fur about four months ago, but because I had yet to crank up my blog at that stage, I never got around to reviewing it. Here, then, is my belated review of Nathan Hobby’s first novel, which won the TAG Hungerford Award in 2002.

The first thing to be said is that I ripped through this in about four hours. I’m sure that must be annoying – to spend years working on something that can be consumed in one afternoon and evening – but there it is. I am making a habit of binging on books lately, and The Fur was no exception. It’s about a young man by the name of Michael Sullivan, living with his parent/s in the W.A. locales of Collie, Bunbury and finally near Murdoch University. So this is a familiar terrain for W.A. readers.

Only it isn’t familiar at all. The central idea of the The Fur is, well, the fur. What is it? Who can say? The fur is some kind of fungal growth that covers everything from houses, windows to parts of people’s bodies. It’s not exactly malignant, but it’s inconvenient all the same. As a result, most of W.A. has been quarantined by the ‘Wealth, which is an ironic and apt contraction of Commonwealth. The Wealth, with the help of the UN, has rendered W.A. as some kind of exclusion zone. This reminds me of the ‘Zone’ around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine. So this is something of a science fiction narrative, and an alternate history at that: it seems that the fur first struck during the 1970s. And yet, in this alternate world, the Smashing Pumpkins still managed to release their album ‘Mellencollie and the Infinite Sadness.’ W.A., Hobby seems to be saying, is utterly insignificant to the rest of the world. Unless, of course, you happen to be living in it.

Michael Sullivan is at the crossroads of many things: school, love, family, and faith. All of these things impact upon him in the course of The Fur. Schoolwise, this is a familiar tale of trying to get through the TEE, which echoes nothing if not Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi. In matters of the the heart, Michael is afflicted by his affection for a series of young women, the most significant of whom is Rebecca. In terms of family, Michael has to deal with the death of his mother and moving away from his father’s home. Finally, Michael must contend with a number of theological questions in relation to his Christian faith. In short, there’s a lot on Michael’s plate in The Fur.

As I touched on before, the science fictional elements of this story are backgrounded. There is no attempt to bring them into focus. This works surprisingly well, despite the fact that the nature of the fur itself is a massive unsolved mystery. What this story is really about is the need for acceptance, the need to grow apart from one’s parents, and the need for love. These are all basic human drives, and thus Michael Sullivan is something of an everyman. This is a book about growing up, and the harsh lessons that one learns along the way.

When I said there were harsh lessons to be learned in (and from) The Fur, I meant it. There are no happy endings here. In a sense, nothing is resolved. One aspect I found frustrating was Hobby’s practice of unfolding plot-lines, only for them to shrivel and die before flowering (so to speak). In one episode, Michael and Rebecca plan to escape to Melbourne by way of a volleyball competition. This section is where The Fur seems most conventional, as Michael saves money for a false ID by working for an importer. There is even a scene in which he drinks the highly coveted and expensive Coca Cola. But the volleyball narrative drops away, and Michael moves on. This might be more realistic – for what is life but a series of disjointed and incomplete narratives? – but it is hard on the reader nonetheless.

And thus The Fur is ultimately about frustration. Sexual frustration, familial frustration, and existential frustration. We can feel Michael’s dis-ease, his restlessness. At times The Fur can be a confronting read. But it not an unrewarding one. One hopes that Hobby can build on this early success (he completed this novel at twenty years of age) in subsequent books. From what I’ve read of his thus-far unpublished second novel, The House of Zealots, further improvement seems likely.

Book Review – The World Waiting to be Made by Simone Lazaroo

April 23, 2008 2 comments

“The World Waiting to be Made” is Simone Lazaroo’s TAG Hungerford Award winning first novel. Of the four Hungerford winners I’ve now read, I contend this to be the best. The book appears to be a bildungsroman tale of Lazaroo’s own life, although there is a note in the front saying that some things have changed. There is nothing especially interesting about the structure of this book, but Lazaroo has had an interesting childhood, and this is an interesting read. One notable thing is that there is an abundance of titles strewn throughout the book. As well as having named chapters (which seems to be less and less common these days), “The World Waiting to be Made” has named sections within chapters.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what is so appealing about this book. I have been reading it attentively, soaking up the details of the writer’s early life experiences (stealing an expensive dress from K-Mart, losing her virginity to a dodgy guru named Max, taking up a teaching post in the Kimberley) and I can’t quite get a handle on how this book works. Born of Singaporean and Australian parents, Lazaroo’s family emigrated to Australia (“the world waiting to be made,” as several Singaporean characters describe it) as an infant. Lazaroo writes in a strong, though not overly literary style. This is good. She provides interesting details. This is good too. And the story never drags. This is the best thing. I would imagine that it would be hard to write the story of one’s life in such a way as to make it uniformly interesting, but Lazaroo appears to have achieved this effect here. The book seems effortless. But it has its own kind of confidence and insistence, too. It is as if it is saying: “This is an important story. You must read me.”

There are a few things here that remind me of my own life: upon coming to this country as a child, being disconcerted and confused by the children around me; working as a teacher in a remote town; parents divorcing and remarrying. But there is a difference. I myself am English, thus there is no real cultural dislocation in coming to Australia. For Lazaroo, this divide must have been a wide gulf indeed. By the time we get to the part where the protagonist (I was going to write ‘Simone,’ but I don’t think that name is ever used in this book) returns to Singapore to visit her family, three quarters of this book has already passed.

The most intriguing meeting in Asia is with the much-famed Uncle Linus, who is (or at least was) some kind of holy man, or bomoh. He says something about how ‘people came to the world waiting to be made because parts of themselves were unrealised.’ And there is the essence of this book. It’s about a person’s identity coming into being, about becoming ‘realised,’ if that makes sense. But there is a sense of ambivalence, of loss of identity, here too. For a fairly sunny book, “The World Waiting to be Made” has a brooding conclusion. Like life, it eludes neat categorisation.

Book Review – Jacob’s Air by Bruce Russell

April 21, 2008 Leave a comment

I liked Russell’s “Channelling Henry” so much that I made a point of hunting down his earlier novels, the TAG Hungerford Award-winning “Jacob’s Air, and his second novel, “The Chelsea Manifesto.” “Jacob’s Air” was the 1995 winner of the Hungerford Award (which is for a writer who hasn’t yet published a novel length work and is based in W.A.) Russell is from Sydney but he’s lived in Perth about as long as I have, I think (since 1990).

“Jacob’s Air” is set in the Glebe, a suburb of Sydney, in 1984. Specifically, most of the action takes place in an old house by the name of Octavia. The novel is told from the point of view of Delmarie Fairbridge (Deli for short), a twenty-something woman whom we discover is a recovering alcoholic. She has just moved into Octavia with two brothers, Henry and Jacob. The story revolves around the often-strained relationship between these three people, and at times it’s a harrowing tale.

Let me say at this point that while I enjoyed reading “Jacob’s Air,” my enjoyment in it was somewhat less than I got from reading Russell’s third novel, “Channelling Henry.” While the latter was quick-witted, sharp and fast-moving, the former seemed a trifle slow and overly burdened with foreshadowing. I realised quite early that Jacob was going to kill himself, and as I read I started to become a trifle impatient with the narrative. It would appear that Russell is writing about a series of events that happened to him or someone he once knew (perhaps in altered form), and as such I don’t think he had the same control over the material that so impressed me in “Channelling Henry.”

Despite this, “Jacob’s Air” is still an accomplished work. The characters are lovingly detailed, Deli’s voice is engaging and compelling (although I occasionally became annoyed with her glib pronouncements about why someone wasn’t up to her standards). I think it’s always a challenge for a male writer to write in a female voice (or vice versa). It is a challenge I myself relish in my own writing, but it’s a challenge nonetheless. But I think Russell succeeds with his narrator here.

The story rolled on; it was interesting enough to maintain my interest, but not so much that I became entranced by the story. Having said that, “Jacob’s Air” was quite an easy read over its 280+ pages, and I got through it in under twenty-four hours. I am going to conclude this review by reiterating something I said before: it feels as though the writer is too close to the material to really shape it into a compelling narrative. And there I felt I could see the development in Russell’s art between his first novel and his third. Onto “The Chelsea Manifesto.” For those who might be interested, Russell’s fourth novel, “Mick’s Museum,” is apparently going to be published in 2009. I look forward to that with great interest.

Book Review – Crush by Brenda Walker

April 20, 2008 Leave a comment

Brenda Walker’s first novel, published in 1991, has the distinction of being the inaugural T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner. Set in Perth in the late eighties, it is a strange and slender novel of two people: a barrister named Tom O’Brien, and a writer called Anna Penn. The story is told in a distinctively dispassionate style that records details of everyday life, but not so often the emotions that everyday life causes people to feel.

I read somewhere that Walker completed her PhD on the work of Samuel Beckett before writing Crush, and I must say that the influence is clear here. Like in Beckett, things happen but it’s seldom certain whether any importance ought to be attributed to them. It’s appropriate that this is a kind of murder-mystery, but fans of that particular genre won’t find a great deal to grit their teeth on here. The mystery ends up being much closer to home for Tom than he had ever anticipated.

This review is sounding ambivalent, at least to my own ears, but there’s plenty to like here. For me, the most interesting aspect of this book was in the depiction of life in inner-city Perth in the late eighties. Like T.A.G. Hungerford did in “Stories from Suburban Road,” Walker has gone to some length to describe the details of the world of the time, and in doing so younger Perth-ites can gain an insight into the city that was. For me, this novel feels nostalgic, probably because I came to Perth in 1990 from England. The world Walker describes is the one I saw as an eight year-old boy, fresh off the plane.

Stylistically, Crush is strong. Despite what I would term an ’emotional vacuum’ at the heart of this novel, there’s plenty to keep the story chugging along. This is a short read, and it has been padded out over its 128 pages with blank pages and a picture which is repeated several times. The novel ends with Anna having left Tom’s house (not that they were in a relationship). She says, “I have listened, I have been touched, but now I am unmoved.” I might end this review similarly by saying: “I have read, I have understood, but now I am unmoved.”