Jerilderie and John Safran: Staying out of the Way

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So it’s nearly Christmas. I don’t have much to say about Christmas; my kids love it so it’s good to make them happy but mostly I find it all a bit crass. So let’s move on.

This morning I finished reading John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi, a true crime account of the murder of a white supremacist named Richard Barrett by a black man, Vincent McGee. The book is an exhaustive account of Safran’s efforts to get to the bottom of what happened and, if you like Safran’s “nerdy enfant terrible” routine, it’s a ripper. He befriends McGee and ‘buys’ a good deal of his story after the man has been incarcerated for at least three decades. If you aren’t a Safran fan or are not familiar with his television work, you might find it something of a chore. However, what carries the book (I think) is his boyish excitement at getting caught up in both the investigation of the main players in the story, and the writing of the book. He makes no attempt, it should be noted, to keep himself out of the story.

Recently I completed preparing a unit of work for English teachers, as part of the Reading Australia project, on Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. This text eluded me for some time– I had no idea how it approach the task of developing teaching or learning experiences evolving from it. It would seem to be written down more or less as it was dictated by Ned–most experts seem to agree that Kelly Gangmate Joe Byrne was the scribe–so it lacks formal sentence structure, grammar, punctuation. It is, as a text, somewhat chaotic for this reason. However, it is Ned’s story (or at least his version of events) in his own words, and for that reason it has a clearly defined cultural and historical significance.

Not long after I finished the Unit I picked up a Kelly hatchet job, The Kelly Gang Unmasked by Ian Macfarlane. I’ve read about five pages of this book and already it bugs the shit out of me. Why? Because it seems clear that Macfarlane made up his mind about Ned long before he wrote the book, so everything in it is therefore filtered through that prejudice. It’s laden with value judgements and therefore does not represent either good historical writing, or an interesting ‘true crime’ account. From the top of page 9: “Of course, Ned was fibbing as usual.” It’s the ‘as usual’ that I have a problem with, and goes to the heart of what I fear will be a tedious problem with this book. I may persevere with it. Of course, the Ned Kelly is open to different interpretations along the “Hero or Villain?” line so I’m okay with Macfarlane telling he wasn’t saint; I wish he’d been a bit more objective about it.

So how does all this come together? I’m interested in writers putting themselves in the way of their work, I suppose; placing themselves in the middle of their own stories. Without giving too much away, Safran directly involves himself in McGee’s personal affairs at the end of his book. Arguably, Ned Kelly reinvents himself somewhat in The Jerilderie Letter; he seeks in it to exonerate himself, especially, from the murders of the three policemen at Stringybark Creek in 1878. Macfarlane would seem happy to allow his biases to inform the presentation of his subject. Each writer is, in his own way, seeking to arrive at one or more truths. I am interested also in the difference between truth and fact. The rather dull cliche is that the facts should never get in the way of a good story, and certainly a writer’s role may involve either inventing or manipulating facts to suit narrative purposes.

It’s interesting to consider, perhaps, the innate relationship between narrative and truth, then. It is relatively easy to determine the facts of a situation (although some contest here is still possible, especially with regard to Ned Kelly) but facts only really become worthwhile when we imbue them with some sort of truth (which is usually subjective). On their own, facts are somewhat forensic, clinical; they need writers to give them shape and colour.

We might not necessarily like those shapes or colours, as readers; but that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

 

 

 

One Day: Coda

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I’m still processing the experience of participating in One Day Ten; the performances on Saturday night were interesting for their diversity and the variations in voice, style, genre. As I’d hoped, Catch Me was lifted to another level in performance; my script became something else again, not quite unexpected perhaps but different and better for it.

I may one day actually throw myself out of a plane with a parachute on my back, and after counting to ten I might pull the ripcord; I will hope, no doubt, that when I do the chute will open and all will be well. So the other night I climbed to some altitude and threw myself out of the plane and, thankfully, the parachute seems to have opened. It was exhilarating. I described it to someone as a rush; I think the fact of knowing that an audience would be seeing my play added somehow to the adrenalin. I love writing letters to the editor for exactly the same reason–someone might read it! Someone will actually Read My Words!

In hindsight, I mused to myself yesterday, I think I tried to do a bit too much with the script; it covered an awful lot of ground in barely ten minutes. I’ll chalk that up as a rookie’s mistake, the result of a kid at Christmas waking before his parents and getting to open all his presents in something of a frenzy.

On the way out of the theatre the other night, a friend of mine asked me: “Where did that come from?” This is a question that real writers probably hate, I think; I’m tempted to say, somewhat facetiously, “Well, the ideas shop had a sale on…” It’s like asking a doctor–gee, how do you make people better? It’s just so clever! The truth is (and this is the Big Secret, folks) that I really don’t know where it came from. It emerged from a synthesis of experiences, ideas, questions, emotions, Ave Maria, passions, toast and a few cups of coffee. And a love of writing dialogue. And the Sartre quote I cited in my previous post. All of that and the fact that the clock was ticking, ever louder.

When I emailed the script in I commented that it wasn’t the most cheerful piece of theatre One Day will ever stage, or has ever staged; I blamed Christos Tsiolkas for this, as I finished reading Barracuda last week. A difficult book to enjoy for lots of reasons, but I was captivated by it in that voyeuristic way; writers like Tsiolkas hold up the mirror and defy you to look away. What’s in the mirror is very often unpleasant.

I tried to do that with Catch Me. I hoped get to do it again next year. I’ve already started thinking…

One Day on the Island, Part Two

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This post follows on from one I wrote almost exactly twelve months ago, where I railed against those who denigrate The Island as a backwater without recognising the depth and diversity of artistic talent that exists here. This year, to my delight, Mudlark Theatre (in the person of the utterly fabulous Stuart Loone) invited me to write for One Day Ten and I thought I would document the process.

9.04pm

So the countdown began just over an hour ago. I have a stimulus, a director (Nicole Lewis), an item of set and a cast of three–Matt Taylor, Caitlin McCarthy and Natalie Reid.

One Day Ten the stimulus

This is the stimulus; a Rorschach inkblot. Everyone I have shown it to thinks it looks like a vagina. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to think when you see these things? I’ve actually decided that this leaves the wrting brief fairly open; anything could be read into this. That’s a good thing.

My set item is a mannequin, painted stark white, which can come into two pieces or (apparently) together as a humanoid shape. Without a head.

So I have to beaver away now and have a ten-minute script for three actors finished by about 5 am in the morning. Ideas are coming…

One Day script beginning

9.59 pm

Listening to Ave Maria. My play has three characters: the Man, the Child and The Mother. It is about grief and it is not about grief; grief is something of motif in my work. It underscores, perhaps subtly, my novel The Blue Cathedral and I explore it in poems like ‘Cigarette’ and ‘What is a Road’. Grief is fascinating.

Sartre: “A cry of grief is a sign of the grief which provokes it, but a song of grief is both grief itself and something else.”

10.20 pm

Okay–listened to Ave Maria twice and most of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor. Hooray for YouTube. Probably edging into procrastination territory now though. Time to knuckle down.

11.49 pm

Catch me first draft

About half way through the first draft. Not gone quite where I thought it would but it’s shaping up very nicely. The challenge with such a short script–only ten minutes of performance–is to serve the twin masters of economy and clarity while somehow retaining a sense of the throughline. So I have three characters and there has been a death, but of whom we are not sure, and the cause of the death also remains a mystery. An original intention was to replay the same scene three times with different emphases or from a different character’s point of view; I’ve rejected this idea I think, because I think it’s too unwieldy given the ten-minute time frame. So instead I have gone with an idea drawn from the movie Memento, which begins right at the end (or just before the end) of the story and then unfolds in reverse chronology. I have started with the end of the story and I am trying to work back from there. I don’t know how it will work…I suppose that’s why we have drafts! And the Delete key.

1.23 am

Just finished the first draft. Not happy with the ending: too much of a blatant yank on the heartstrings. Time for a break and a stretch and a wee and another coffee and a think. I’ve drawn some inspiration from what I’m doing from Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, who in his book of that name mentions that Brecht, as a Marxist, believed that theatre “must show the ways in which society loses its equilibrium”. I may have lost sight of that a bit towards the end of this draft.

1.58 am

At a rough read, my masterpiece is eight minutes long, which is good. Stuart would rather it be under than over the time limit. Also good to know I have a couple of minutes to play with, in tweaking and fiddling, which is what I’m up to now; although, with stage business, I wouldn’t be surprised if I fill out the ten minutes pretty closely. So there’s no scope for major revision. Also I have to write out a white sheet I wanted to use in the opening scene; no extra props! Damn it. I think I’m still being allowed to use some blank sheets of A4 paper, so that’s okay.

2.54 am

I think it might be done. I am not sure what else I can do with it. Have spent the last hour fixing the structure of the last scene (of three) which I simply couldn’t get to work but I think I’ve cracked it. I am sure–in fact, I hope–that even though I have this sense of finality about it now, the director and the actors will surprise me with how they deliver the script to performance. I’ll read it again and try for a rough timing and then, if it really does seem that I should stop tinkering, I’ll email it in.

3.58 pm

And it’s gone. Emailed to Stuart and Nicole, the director I’m working with. The second timed reading clocked in at 8 mins 50 seconds, so with dramatic pauses and stage business that should almost certainly push ten minutes in performance. I think I have regained a sense of the Brechtian notion I referred to earlier, about equilibrium. It’s not a completely cheerful piece of theatre but I think that ‘kick in the guts’ stories have their place. I vividly recall films like Once were Warriors and Trainspotting for that reason.

And so it’s done. It was exhilarating–I have crafted and more or less perfected something that didn’t exist, except as an inkblot, a few hours ago. I have to let go now–something I’m not really used to, since with fiction and poetry I retain the Last Word, as it were. Not this time. So let’s see where my baby–it’s called Catch Me by the way–is taken by the talented and interesting people into whose care it is now trusted.

And with that, it’s probably time for some sleep. Good night. Or morning, as the case may be.

Improbable Fiction and a writer’s paralysis

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Yes, I know. Long time between drinks. Very long. Let’s move on!

Last night I attended one of the last rehearsals of a local theatre production of Alan Ayckbourne’s play Improbable Fiction. The central conceit of this play is a clever one–a writer’s group meets to discuss their work (in Act One) and then, following some portentous thunder and so on, the characters they have created come to life (in Act Two) and act out the situations in the books they are writing. It’s quite a romp–very funny, very well acted by a strong local cast, providing further evidence of the cultural strength and resilience of my little corner of the world. Congratulations must go to the Launceston Players.

However, I was taken by one of the characters in particular and I thought I would muse briefly on her situation. The character’s name is Jess and the book she has in her head is a historical costume drama, a la jane Austen perhaps, but despite her best intentions she has yet to commit a word of it paper. I cannot remember the exact way it’s expressed in her dialogue but, to paraphrase, she is afraid that if she attempts to translate the perfect world of the book that she has in her head into words on paper, it won’t work–she will never be able to capture exactly the story that she has crafted in her mind.

Many people will tell you that the easiest thing in the world is not to write. I have been told at workshops and so on, many times, that no one is expecting it of you; the world is not holding its breath in anticipation of your masterpiece. So in writing, we have to look beyond this and find motivation to keep the pen moving or the fingers tapping. This situation might well be compounded by fear of the type that Jess articulates–what if we get it horribly wrong? Here’s a truth: you might. Hemingway said that the first draft of anything is always shit, if you’ll pardon the vulgarity. But writing is nothing if not a search for meaning and part of the intoxication, the thing that more often than not keeps me heading back to the pen or keyboard, is that everything is part of that search. It’s very unlikely that you will ever complete a story or a poem or a novel exactly as you initially imagined it, because that’s what ideas and characters do–they evolve and react and change and, sometimes, they argue with you.

Perhaps writing that first draft, just committing words to paper, is akin to casting yourself off from shore and going where the wind takes you; don’t argue too loudly, and don’t be afraid.  The American novelist Jane Smiley says that she searches for the energy in her writing: “…at some point in every day’s writing, there will be a sort of takeoff…there’s a place where I feel the energy moving itself forward, instead of me pushing it.” (Reference below.)

Yes, writing takes courage–if for no reason than because you do it in spite of what the world asks of you. All creativity, someone once said, is courageous. I understand the sense of paralysis that Jess refers to; perhaps it’s small act of rebellion to cast this aside and just get on with it, and appreciate that I probably won’t land where I expected to.

Jane Smiley cited in Maran, M. (ed.): Why we Write: 20 acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do. 2013. New York: Plume Books (Penguin).

All That I Wish…

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Again, it’s been long enough since my last post to warrant another one. Life has trundled into the way again–mainly work, and associated trivialities.

I wanted to report this morning, really as a continuation of my previous post, that I probably won’t finish reading All That I Am. I can’t, in all honesty, remember the last time I opened it now; if nothing else, then, the book has hardly drawn me in. I think, fundamentally, it’s unnecessarily complicated. It is well written–the language, and Funder’s voice, is lovely–but ultimately I think she’s tripped over her own structure. Part of me wants to sneer that she’s showing off, but that’s not quite the problem–I think I’ve been kept out, somehow, by the assembly of her component parts.

I’ll leave my bookmark where it is, though: you never know.

I also admit to being distracted. I read Matthew Condon’s Three Crooked Kings over Easter and enjoyed it–I look forward to the sequel, All Fall Down, due later this year. These books are a foray into non-fiction for Condon; his novel The Pillow Fight is a sensational, brutal, clever novel (which details a harrowing relationship marked by domestic violence in which the violent party is the woman). There are other novels, which I am yet to catch up with.

On my list is How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman and to finish reading The Genesis Flaw by LA Larkin and Redback by Lindy Cameron. I started these two for a panel I chaired at the recent Writers Festival, Shock of the Now, in Hobart.

Critics: Be nice, or get the knives out?

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Recently I discovered a new website–one that, as a diehard fan of the printed word, has me salivating. It’s the Sydney Review of Books and it may be the reason why Not Much Gets Done in my little corner of the world for the next few weeks.

My attention was drawn to the Brain Feign in particular, mostly because at the moment I am reading All That I Am, the book Ben Etherington takes the hatchet to in this article. I have been reading the novel for some time now; last year it was on the bus to or from work, and more recently I’ve tried to fit it in where I can. (I try very hard to make time for reading; this is much easier on some days than others.) It’s not a difficult book by any means, and yet I am not drawn to it–it hasn’t grabbed me in the way that, to give two recent examples, 1Q84 or HHhH did. I am not going to suggest that Ben Etherington has given me permission to abandon the book, but his article makes some very interesting points about the nature of criticism in Australia at the moment.

His chief argument is that Anna Funder has received a pretty cruisy time in the review pages for her first novel (and second book). Many of the reviews published of All That I Am seem to come from a position of adoration–fuelled in some cases by cosy interviews with the author, so that quotes from her appear alongside the commentary on her novel. Etherington mounts an informed and reasonably forensic critique of the novel and his reasoning is difficult to fault. When I shared his article on Facebook yesterday I noted two things–I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to finish the book (I probably will) and I wasn’t sure where his article left the Miles Franklin award, which Funder won for this novel. This has been controversial in some areas, as the book is only tangentially connected to Australia. Very quickly, if you haven’t read it, the narrative is split between two characters, Ruth and Toller, who are both reflecting on their role in trying to warn people about what was happening in Germany immediately after the election of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. Ruth, her husband Hans and cousin Dora end up in London exile; Toller is reflecting on his role from exile in New York. (Ruth’s memories are coming from her old age in a Bondi nursing home, hence the rather flimsy Australian connection). I won’t go into Etherington’s reasons for not liking the book–you can read them in his article and I probably wouldn’t do them justice. Suffice to say, he doesn’t like the book–and not one adverse review of it has appeared in the media here.

Etherington’s wider arguments go to the role of criticism in our literary culture. One might reasonably ask–have we become Too Nice? Possibly. Arguably, and this is my phrase, we have developed a Cult of Corroboration in recent years; we are prepared simply to go with the flow rather than entertain any notion of being provocative. In retrospect, a review of Funder’s book before it won the Miles Franklin which highlighted the flaws that Etherington identifies would have been provocative. For some reason, genuine critique of this book has been off-limits, and I have no idea why–it’s clearly not perfect, if there is such a thing as the perfect novel. I won’t for a moment suggest that anyone has gone easy on Anna Funder because she’s a woman, and an attractive one at that. Rather, if had I to offer a reason, I would offer two: All That I Am treads very similar territory to Funder’s first non-fiction book, Stasiland, which I have not read; and secondly, it might be possible that people are squeamish about criticising a book about Nazi Germany, perhaps the single biggest Evil Trope of the twentieth century.

As someone with ambitions to win one one day, I am more concerned about the Miles Franklin Award. Literary awards are controversial; I think Patrick White referred to the Franklin in the 1970s as a chook raffle. I will state that Funder’s novel is well written–the language is beautiful and the characters are interesting, and certainly considerable gravity in the situation they are in; the stakes are very high indeed, and this keeps one turning the pages. But as I stated, it is only notionally connected with Australia and on one level really has nothing to with the country at all; and, as I’ve explained, it has not been subjected (until now) to any meaningful critical rigour.  So, in all honesty, I am not sure why it won. Controversy can be healthy, and debates should be had about whether a book should be eligible for the most prestigious literary award in the country if it only just meets the criteria, and if everyone who has read it has been Awfully Jolly Nice about it.

However, I don’t think Australian literature–yes folks, there is such a thing, I checked–is served very well by this. We need critical rigour: I would be happier to hear a range of views about a book I wanted to read–or even about my own books–rather than uniformly positive or negative ones. Integrity should not be a dirty word in the review pages of our country’s literary journals.

 

Tony and the Whitewash

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Taking a break from the Next Big Thing to share this article, which was published today on http://www.tasmaniantimes.com. Cheers.
Tony Abbott should have had a pretty good week last week; by rights; he probably thinks he has. He was handed the date of the next federal election on a platter by a Prime Minister who desperately needs to claw back some ground in the polls, and who (by announcing the election date) has given the Coalition a fairly sound opportunity to verify its policy and fiscal credentials over the next two hundred days. There’s a better than even chance that Abbott may be our next Prime Minister, although a lot can happen in seven months. However, comments made by him on Australia Day, during a speech delivered in Adelaide, should give people cause for considerable concern in the event that we wake up on September 15th with a new occupant in the Lodge.

These comments have not, to my knowledge, been reported at all in the media, apart from a brief mention on crikey.com.au, which is where I happened to read them. This is the extract from Abbott’s speech, quoted verbatim on Crikey yesterday:

It is a proud people that you are joining. We had inauspicious beginnings. The first lot of Australians were chosen by the finest judges in England, not always for good reasons, and from that rather inauspicious beginning we have become a rich, a free and a fair society …

I don’t know the context in which the speech was delivered; it sounds like it was possibly a citizenship ceremony, or something similar. Those circumstances are not particularly important. For my purposes with this little article, the first half of the third and final sentence is the important bit.

Abbott is someone who often seeks to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’. He is a volunteer firefighter; Christopher Pyne puffed his chest out last year and reported that his leader had recently helped a blind man run in a Marathon. In 2009, he spent time in the remote indigenous community of Aurukun and helped with several community services. Part of his public appeal strategy, it seems, is to roll the sleeves up, set his face to Concentrate and muck in. Perhaps he is no different from other politicians in this respect; they want to remain ‘in touch’ with their electorate. Or so the reasonably simple orthodoxy goes.

This makes it very hard, indeed perhaps impossible, to place his comments above into any kind of helpful context. An enlightened, educated person living in Australia in 2013 must have considerable difficulty ascribing to the view that ‘the first Australians’ to arrive on the land of this country were convicts. Such a view flies in the face of decades of widely reported archaeological findings, of decades of reconciliation initiatives, of matters that are considered in historical archives to be factually accurate. This is notwithstanding that the term ‘Australian’ is itself a European appellation, drawn from Latin; I concede this and use the term here purely for convenience. The first occupants of our country would not have known this name and convicts transported here were not referred to as such either.

So, although very few people seem to know about it, Abbott has commenced his genuine bid for the Lodge from a very difficult position. Perhaps he is genuine about the very serious and pervasive issue of indigenous welfare, if we take his visits to remote communities as an effort on his part to inform himself about the ‘on the ground’ issues. (And if he is genuine, this will mark a pleasant change in Coalition values from his predecessor, who did next to nothing about the issue in eleven years as Prime Minister; the Intervention arguably had some merits although it came very late in Howard’s term, was wildly unpopular among many indigenous communities and could be considered a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem the then Government had hitherto ignored.)

Abbott may well believe that Australian history begins in January 1788—this would seem to be a fair conclusion to draw from his comments, which also reinforce the notion that celebrating our “national day” on the 26th of January is inherently problematic; but that’s another story. Perhaps there are Australians who listen and nod appreciatively when he says such things—this is their right and I am not here to argue otherwise. But I am here to say categorically that Abbott is wrong, and that his comments are insulting and ignorant. They smack of the ‘dog whistle’ that John Howard liked to blow.

Put another way: given the strength and diversity of evidence available, it seems reasonable to conclude in our high school history classes that human beings occupied the land that we now know as Australia anything up to 60,000 years ago, possibly longer. Further, that explorers and traders visited this land and interacted with indigenous groups anything up to 300 years, and possibly before then, prior to 1788. So who does a reasonably articulate and well informed student sitting in a high school history class who researches this and forms well-based conclusions, and then hears the Leader of the Opposition completely erase tens of thousands of years of existence with a single sentence, believe? Their teacher, or the Honourable Member?

Statements such as those he made in Adelaide render Abbott’s position inconsistent, at best, and at worst incorrigibly racist. His inconsistency is something we are well used to; his position on climate change, to give but one example, has been especially adaptable to any given audience. This aside, though, it’s often very difficult to know exactly where the potential Prime Minister stands on important issues. I consider that the indigenous heritage of this country is a fairly important issue. If Tony Abbott is posing for photographs with indigenous schoolchildren while helping them in their classrooms on one hand, and completely refusing to acknowledge their cultural heritage or identity on the other, then he’s taken the Aussie tradition of having two bob each way to a discomforting alarming extreme.

At a time when he will be desperate to demonstrate inclusivity and fairness, when he will hope that all Australians consider him in a favourable enough light to let him switch sides of the House of Representatives, this is a terrible attitude to demonstrate. His comments belong in the Australia that existed prior to 1967, when our sable brethren were preferably seen but not heard. That Australia, really, no longer exists. Someone should let Tony Abbott know, and well before September 14.

 

 

Cameron Hindrum lives and writes in Launceston. His novel The Blue Cathedral (Forty South Books) was published in 2011 and his two-volume chapbook of poems, Private Conversations Volumes 1 & 2, appeared in 2012, published by Another Lost Shark and Walleah Press respectively.