Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Interview with Catherine Deveny

Catherine Deveny's latest book Free to a Good Home has just been released. The book collects the best of her television and opinion columns from the Age in 2009.

For readers who don’t know you, how would you describe yourself and what you do?

I am a serial pest and professional pain in the arse. I swing between stand up and sermon, cultural therapist to cultural terrorist. I come from a stand up background and write columns, do radio, knock up books, talk rubbish and swan round Melbourne flirting and glassing people. Mostly I feel like the little girl saying “The Emperor’s not wearing clothes.” Then flashing my undies.

I’m dyslexic, an atheist (no jokes about the dyslexic atheist wondering if there really was a dog, heard them all. Although I did find out I was dyslexic when I turned up to a toga party dressed as a goat) and the mother of three boys 6, 8 and 11. That’s their ages not their names. Living in an all male household does make me want to get a tee-shirt printed that just says WHERE HAVE YOU LOOKED?

What were some of your most controversial columns this year?

Chadstone (abattoir of souls). Two And A Half Men (the drink the date-rape drug is slipped into). Hey Hey It’s Saturday (it’s about time someone exhumed and resuscitated the festering corpse of Hey Hey. Something had to be done about the staggering deficit of blokey, cobbled up, camp-concert style content on television and the shortage of middle-aged white men with relevance deprivation on our screens. Daryl Somers is the host. Host as in organism that is invaded by a virus on which parasites thrive.) Marriage (Not married. Obviously because I haven’t found the right owner. Or the right dress.)

Which columns did you most enjoy writing this year and why?

The “You know you’re from Melbourne if…” columns. (Lanes full of people sitting on milk crates eating breakfast at 3pm seems normal. You think a massage with a happy ending means when you’re finished they give you a café latte and a Readings voucher. You’ve read The Slap and hate every character in it. But they remind you of your friends. And you would have slapped the kid too. When holding a dinner party, you know the point is to serve food no one has ever heard of, from a country people didn't know existed, bought from a little shop they'll never be able to find. The fact there’s a Chardonnay Crescent and a Champagne Road in Chirnside Park reinforces your suspicion Kath and Kim is a documentary. Your wife grows the hair under her arms but waxes her growler. Partner. Whatever. You know Sunshine, Rosebud and the Caribbean Gardens are not as good as they sound. You consider yourself a socialist yet you drive a European car and have a cleaner.)

Where do your ideas come from?

Probably from not working in an office and being incredibly socially promiscuous and a huge sticky beak. The best ideas I get are when I am hanging out with my kids, drunk, avoiding work or all of the above. See AUSTRALIA’S MOST BADLY BEHAVED MOTHERS Gallery of Shame for more details.

What’s the best show on TV right now?

Seriously good? The Wire, Nurse Jackie, Rockwiz or anything on GO! Seriously bad? Rock Of Love, Deal Or No Deal, anything on Channel Nine involving Sam Newman, Eddie McGuire or Livinia Nixon. Or anything with the words ‘Gone Wild’ on the end of the title.

If you had the power to cancel any show on TV right now, which one would you cancel?

What do you mean, “if I had the power?” Big Brother? Axed. Hey Hey? Boned. Macleod’s Daughters? Gone. One call from me baby, that’s all it takes. Or a word into Harry Connick Jr’s ear….

What’s the best thing about being Catherine Deveny?

The other day I did an interview and the first question is “Why are you such a bitch?” I wet my pants laughing! Because people find my writing voice is so noisy, bossy and rude people expect me to be an arsehole. So they are surprised that I’m friendly, aggressively helpful and inappropriately affectionate on first meetings but it does give me a licence to get away with murder at times. The best thing? Not scared of anything. Incredibly happy. I feel I have escaped from social convention and been released back into the wild.

Who should receive your book for Christmas this year?

Who will or who should? Who will is latte swilling lefties, house husbands, Crikey subscribers, Monthly readers, people who vote Green, old trade unionists, 16 year olds whose parents want them ‘fighting the good fight’, firebrands, blue stockings, metrosexuals and hippies who ride bikes with baby seats on the back.

Who should? Uptight white honkies, Christians, middle-aged middle-class white men suffering relevance deprivation, private school fans, women who change their name when they get married, shopping tour trolls and climate change skeptics. Why? To watch them recoil when they rip the wrapping paper off hoping to receive a John Howard biography, a new bible or something from Chadstone.

What books will you be reading this Christmas?

Anything with a centerfold of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or the Virgin Mary in it. That’s right. You heard. I’ll be chilling out over the festive season writing my one woman show for the 2010 atheist conference and the Melbourne’s International Comedy Festival; God Is Bullshit. That’s The Good News.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Anna Goldsworthy on music and writing

Anna Goldsworthy, author of the memoir Piano Lessons, discusses music and writing.

Over your life, you have excelled in so many different areas. What drew you to the piano first and foremost?

As a young child I was obsessed by Young Talent Time, so that’s what inspired me to begin piano lessons. Later, the piano came to mean more to me: it provided me with a faith, an identity. It also challenged me more than anything else in my life.

What is the greatest lesson that your mentor and teacher, Mrs Sivan, ever taught you?

Humility. There’s a humility in living alongside these great composers, and there’s a humility going to a teacher each week to have your playing (and your character) deconstructed. ‘I don’t give compliments,’ she always reminded me, ‘my compliment is to sit and work.’

In the book, you talk about piano practice becoming a physical need for you, without which you felt fidgety and unmoored. Do you still feel like this, and how does playing the piano fit into your life today?

Practice is still an important part of my life. There’s a saying I sometimes torment myself with: ‘if you haven’t practised for one day, you know it; if you haven’t practised for two days, the critics know it; if you haven’t practised for three days, everyone knows it’. It’s a dishonest musician who tries to get by on work they’ve done in the past. Having said that, maintain a practice regimen is not as easy as it once was: a baby eats your practice.

Early in the book, Mrs. Sivan says  ‘Anna will never be a concert pianist’. How did this comment impact on you?

At the time I was devastated – I don’t think anyone had ever previously told me that a path was not open to me. Childhood is this charmed place of endless possibility, before you’ve made the decisions that shape your life. But once I recovered from the insult, I saw it as a throwing down of the gauntlet, as an assertion I had to disprove. Now I wonder whether it was in fact an ingenious piece of reverse psychology…

What advice would you give someone dreaming of becoming a concert pianist?

There are easier ways to fame and fortune. Don’t do it unless you have to – and then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Has writing always been a calling for you, or is it something you have found yourself doing unexpectedly?

When I was thirteen, I spent a week at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival with my father, and felt a sudden certainty that this is what I wanted to do with my life. And immediately afterwards, a devastating guilt about my piano, waiting for me at home like a faithful spouse. This was a dilemma that tormented me for years, until I finally decided I had to both play and write.
Can you draw any parallels between the process of writing and the process of making music?

Although one is an interpretative art and the other a creative art, the processes are similar. Each is an art that unfolds in time, in which you have to keep an eye on both the big picture and the detail: on structure and pace, but also on the finer details of rhythm, of cadence, of phrasing. In Mrs Sivan’s words, ‘you see every little tree and enjoying, but always you remember big forest.’

How do you fit writing into your busy life?

Each morning I write several pages of long-hand, and after a few pages of drivel, I might arrive at a sensible thought. Then I fit the writing into spare parts of the day as I find them: on planes, in dressing rooms, while my baby sleeps.

Do you have any tips for aspiring memoir writers?

I think the critical thing with any writing project is just to start, and then to continue. And with a memoir, it’s probably important not to censor yourself too much in the first draft.

What was the most interesting or unexpected thing about the process of publishing the book?

One of the most touching things has been people telling me how much they have been affected by Mrs Sivan, and inspired by her teachings.

How closely involved were you with the book’s cover design?

I was shown a few potential covers, none of which seemed quite right. After I submitted a number of childhood photos to the designer, Tom Deverall, he came up with this one. I thought it was perfect – elegant but also warm and personal.

How did you feel to receive endorsements for the book from Helen Garner and Alice Pung?

Thrilled and honoured. Helen Garner has been an idol of mine for years – I’ve always found her the most disarming of writers –  and I was captivated by Alice Pung’s candid memoir, Unpolished Gem, when it came out a few years ago.

What are the books and writers that inspired you during the writing of Piano Lessons?

Both of the women mentioned above. I have also imbibed the writing of my father, Peter Goldsworthy, since childhood, and doubtless traces remain in my prose – perhaps most conspicuously when I write against his influence. After I completed the first draft of this book, I was mortified by my how much I had dwelt on failure and wanted to bring more wonder and joy into the story. I thought of Li Cunxin’s  Mao’s Last Dancer ­– not because I felt nourished by its sentences, but because I was so moved by its climactic moment, and sought this visceral response. And at the risk of sounding grandiose, Proust is my literary hero, because he can do everything (or everything that counts): psychology, poetry, comedy, philosophy, inner worlds, outer worlds, painstaking excavations of consciousness... Whenever I struggled to articulate musical experience and considered taking the easy option, I felt chastened by his example.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An interview with Robert Forster, author of The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll

Robert Forster was a founding member of The Go-Betweens and is currently the music critic for the Monthly magazine. His first book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll is an exhilarating trip through the past and present of popular music – from Bob Dylan, AC/DC and Nana Mouskouri through to Cat Power, Franz Ferdinand and Delta Goodrem.

You were first known as a songwriter and musician, how did you come to be a music writer, and was it something that had always interested you?

I was asked to be a music writer by Christian Ryan who was the first editor of the Monthly. Music journalism was something that always interested me but only as a reader. I thought about music and I would almost run ideas through my head when I listened to a record or saw a concert, but I never put any of thoughts to paper. I needed some impetus to do that, and that eventually came from Christian's request.

Are there particular music writers whose work you admire, and have they influenced your own writing in any way?

I admire the following people but you may not see any of their influence in what I do. And there has been no overriding person whom I have wished to be with my writing. No one example. But I like or have liked Nick Kent, Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, Bernard Zuel, Victoria Segal. There are many others.

What 2009 album have you enjoyed most this year?

Sarah Blasko's As Day Follows Night.

The bands and albums that you write about are diverse, what are some of your most loved albums?

Hunky Dory by David Bowie. Blood On The Tracks by Bob Dylan. Marquee Moon by Television, If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian.

What are some of the best and most memorable gigs that you’ve been to?

Talking Heads, at Festival Hall in Brisbane in 1979, Orange Juice at Glasgow Technical College in 1980, The John Steel Singers at Trobador(sic) Club Brisbane in 2009, and The Beach Boys at Festival Hall in Brisbane in 1978.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An interview with Anna Goldsworthy

An interview with Anna Goldsworthy, author of the new release memoir Piano Lessons

Piano Lessons is a memoir about growing up, following your passion, teaching and learning, music, ambition, family and much, much more. Is there one central theme or idea that captures the essence of your story?

I thought I was writing a memoir of vocation, in which I explore my relationship with music through my relationship with my teacher, Eleonora Sivan. But I’ve had a range of responses from its early readers, each of whom feels it is about something different: anxiety and obsessiveness; the lacerating nature of artistic pursuit; growing up with a writer for a father…

Do readers need to have an understanding of classical music to enjoy Piano Lessons?

At the start of the book, I have no understanding of classical music, so that provides an entry point for a reader with no musical background. I also hope it might be of interest to members of the music-loving public who wonder what goes through a musician’s mind on stage.

What made you want to write Piano Lessons?

I had always planned to write a book about Eleonora, but I always imagined this might be a project for my twilight years. Then a couple of years ago I received an email from Chris Feik, the publisher at Black Inc, asking if I might like to write a memoir about the ‘piano-playing life’. At first I thought a memoir - how presumptuous! – I’d been studying the piano for twenty-five years but still felt I was only beginning…. but gradually I came around to the idea. It occurred to me that writing such a book might clarify my own thoughts about music, and might also be a way of honouring Eleonora. But the book went beyond this to incorporate many of the themes you mention above.

Did you find it difficult to write about yourself and your family?

I enjoyed writing about childhood but the writing became more problematic for me as I grew up. I didn’t think I could still be embarrassed by my adolescence – surely a statute of limitations applies in such cases – but reliving those years was still painful: writing about my teenage anxieties seemed to resurrect them. And while I loved writing about my family, I wondered afterwards if I had said too much.

What has been the reaction from your family after reading the book?

My sister was the first to read it. She’s a trainee psychiatrist and had been counselling me through my anxieties about the manuscript before I showed it to her. And while she was very reassuring I could tell she was a little concerned (what has she written about us this time? Can it really be that bad?). So when she called me up to say she loved it, I felt tremendously relieved. My mother was equally gracious, as was my father, who provided me with good editorial feedback (he also suggested that I spice up his dialogue with the occasional witty Latin one-liner, but that didn’t seem fair). And although my grandfather fretted that he seemed ‘even more pedantic than I admit to’, he was generous enough to proof-read the manuscript meticulously, discovering any number of rogue commas and grammatical errors.

How did you choose which parts of your life to include and exclude from the book?

Mostly the material chose itself. There were certain formative events that needed to be there: key triumphs and disappointments, my first audition for Eleonora. I did find I was more drawn to stories of failure than of success, so that by the time I finished the first draft I had completed a catalogue of disasters: the memoir of a failed musician. I’m not sure why this fixation on disaster – self-deprecation gone rampant? An unwillingness to appear ‘up myself’? But there’s also a relief in admitting to failure. The construction of a c.v. and of a career is all about focusing on successes, while failures contain more comedy, certainly – but also better lessons


To read more about Piano Lessons, head over here. The second and third parts of this interview will be posted on this blog throughout October.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John Hirst on his new book The Shortest History of Europe

When I turned my lectures on European history into a book, The Shortest History of Europe, I was told that they could not be called lectures. Lectures are boring. So they are called chapters. But my lectures were not boring—they were interesting, varied and arresting. Since the scope of the course was so broad—from classical times to the French Revolution— I wanted very specific, memorable things to happen in the lectures to anchor the broad concepts and give them meaning.

I paid actors to stage a debate from the Assembly in classical Athens as recorded by Thucydides. I showed the early scenes from films of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, the first to show how aristocrats lived and feuded in Italian towns, the second to show how German kings divided up their kingdoms among their children as Charlemagne did with his. I did lots of readings—the rape of Lucretia from Livy’s History of Rome, the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I demonstrated how clever the Greeks were by doing a geometrical proof on the blackboard.

At the end of the lecture on political history I paired off the students in the aisles and had them demonstrate the mode of salutation to rulers through the ages: in Rome from the republican salute (similar to the fascist salute) to prone on the floor before the later emperors; kneeling before a feudal monarch while he grasped your hands and then rising to kiss as equals; kissing the hand of absolute monarchs while kneeling; and finally the reappearance of the republican salute in revolutionary France. Learning by doing!

How much of this could survive in a printed book? A good deal. It doesn’t look like a normal history book. There are many readings, a geometrical proof, a Newtonian law, a good deal of what I put on the blackboard —summaries, time lines and short cuts. The whole history of Europe is reduced to a one-page diagram.

My talk has been tidied up but I wanted to keep the feel of a spoken lecture. In lectures scholars have the licence to be bolder than on the printed page. Except I am not a scholar of Europe. My expertise is in Australian history. Only a non-specialist could take the leaps I do. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Adam Shand on how the police force has changed since Brian 'Skull' Murphy's day

What a wonderful world of hindsight we live in. Today we conclude that police like Brian Murphy got too close to villains and were corrupted in the process. I would argue that police of today are too far away. There is an ever-expanding array of technology available to police to ensure they don’t get too close to their targets. In fact, with surveillance technology, the officer may never look an angry man in the face before he arrests him. The cops can eavesdrop on conversations of villains, track their movements with devices hidden in their cars, or simply follow their mobile telephone signal. Despite this, there are still lots of guilty men going free because the cops did not do their jobs properly.

In Murphy’s day, to keep tabs on a villain you had to be in his pub, his line of sight and often right up in his face. It took some courage and guile. Today the force is largely reactive. The cops will wait till they can lock a bloke up before they move.

In Murphy’s day, it was standard practice to let a bloke know he was being watched, that the cops knew what mischief was being committed. It was an early warning system that helped keep the peace. Today, if a member of VicPol were to do this, he would find himself charged with perverting the course of justice.

In 1978, two Perth detectives asked Murphy to set up a meeting with Christopher Dale Flannery in Melbourne. Flannery would later become famous as “Rentakill”, one of the country’s most notorious hitmen. But at this time, he was a minor crim just out of jail, working as a bouncer at a sleazy St Kilda nightclub where Murphy operated his informer network.

Flannery had form in the West having beaten an armed-robbery charge for the hold-up of a David Jones store in 1974. Murphy promised Flannery that the West Australian cops wouldn’t arrest him, question him or belt him. They just wanted to tell him something.

Flannery agreed to meet them at Marchetti’s Latin Quarter in the city but only after a good deal of cajoling. After a couple of drinks over entrées and idle chit-chat, he grew increasingly agitated.
“So what’s all this about?” he asked.
“Well,” said one of the detectives. “We know that you’re planning to break your mate Archie Butterly out of Fremantle Jail with a helicopter.”
Flannery’s face froze.
“You should be aware that you’ll be flying in Swanbourne Army Barracks airspace, where the SAS are based.” He paused. “If they spot you, they’ll shoot you out of the fucking sky. So I’d think twice about it if I were you.”
Flannery was thunderstruck. He jumped up as if to leave the restaurant, but then his face softened. He thrust out his hand and shook with the Perth detectives.
“Thanks very much. You’ve probably just saved my life,” he said with genuine gratitude. Flannery was now indebted to Murphy.

Today this kind of deal making is way out of bounds. Imagine if Flannery had decided to carry on with breaking Butterly out of jail in a spectacular hail of gunfire. Imagine if the SAS, as expected, did shoot the pair of them out of the sky, the flaming helicopter crashing down on Fremantle’s residential areas. Imagine the scandal if it came out that police in two states had prior knowledge of the plot. The headlines would be irresistible. Rather than arresting Flannery on conspiracy, they had tipped him off and bought him dinner to boot. It doesn’t bear thinking about the aftermath. But none of this happened. Flannery dropped his plan and was grateful to Murphy. For the next year or so, Flannery and his network of villains in St Kilda fizzed to Murphy. Murphy even had advance warning Flannery planned to kill a solicitor Roger Wilson before it happened. He also tipped off the homicide squad that Flannery had killed another man, an associate from the St Kilda disco where they worked. The calculated gamble of tipping Flannery off had paid off, even if the homicide squad did little with the precious information that Murphy passed on.

It’s easy to condemn the past. Murphy broke plenty of laws in the service of what he was as his duty. Yet it was because of men like Murphy that police have the equipment and powers they do today. I would argue they are only marginally more effective than the old cohort, despite their obvious advantages.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Guest blogger – Adam Shand, author of The Skull

Early in The Skull I wrote how a former Deputy Commissioner Bob Falconer said either Brian Murphy was “the most corrupt and dangerous man ever to be a member of Victoria Police or the most maligned. I don’t know which.”

It’s a dichotomy that troubled me ever since Falconer passed the comment. Falconer was part of a Vic Pol team that investigated Murphy and his protégé Paul Higgins in the early 1980s for involvement in Melbourne’s brothel wars. Vic Pol’s investigations would eventually land Higgins in jail for five years, while Murphy escaped without charge. That a competent investigator like Falconer could come to this ambivalent position was daunting to say the least. How was I to trip up Murphy if the State with all its resources and coercive power could not? It suggested Murphy had a power and cunning that went far beyond the norm.

If I were pressed, I would agree that Murphy was “corrupt and dangerous” but not in the conventional sense of the phrase. No-one I spoke to had any first hand accounts of him copping a quid. Second hand accounts tended to disintegrate upon investigation. His lifestyle does not suggest a man living beyond his means. But I would say that he did manage to “corrupt” the system he worked under. However, as another colleague told me, Murphy’s methods may have appalled him but whatever he did was always in the service of the community. It might not have always been lawful but justice in the extra-legal sense is not always clear cut. That’s why the second half of the book is called Ways and Means, back then the public generally did not worry about the methods, only the results. That has all changed today.

It’s interesting that many complain police have lost the battle for the streets. People are no longer safe at night, they can’t walk home alone without fear. Despite all the public surveillance technology, few offenders are brought to book for random assaults and thefts. And putting them in jail is often a shattering experience for the victim in court. It’s no wonder then that people fondly remember the days when police inspired fear and respect in the criminal classes. If they lost in court, they would square up with the villain later on. As brutal as it seems now, there was a deterrence factor that was undeniable. If you wanted to walk the streets in Murphy’s district you had to submit to his power.

I wonder how a modern day Murphy would fare today. Would he be drummed out of the force, even jailed for his methods? Or would he survive in any era, able to adapt to changing circumstances. I wonder whether we need such officers today.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Patrick Allington on book covers

Can you tell a book by its cover? I’d say you can ... sometimes, sort of, up to a point. And that’s as far as it should go. A huge part of the pleasure and the mystery of reading comes from readers’ capacity — independent of the influence of the writer or the book designer — to dream up their own versions of people and places within a story.

A cover is the only overtly illustrated part of a novel, which is why it should never give too much away or be too precise. New editions of books published to tie in with films are the worst offenders. If I read, say, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, I don’t want the versions of the main characters that form in my head to look like Ralph Fiennes (very hard not to think of airplanes) and Cate Blanchett (Australia’s first female PM in waiting, with apologies to Julia Gillard). But I can’t help it: now they do.

If the feedback I’ve been getting is any indication, Figurehead’s cover gets it about right. It’s visually striking: the faceless man — there’s a faint hint of his features beneath a blue-green wash of skin — suggests somebody secretive, shadowy, possibly sinister, somebody expert in the wearing of masks, somebody with a public persona that sharply diverges from the private, inner man. It’s a visual hint about the ‘tone’ and the subject matter of the book. But no more.

My fascination with book covers stems partly, I think, from my use of visual art and photographs to help fire my creativity. There’s something about looking at art that sends my imagination off on unexpected tangents. My computer screensaver — a John Olsen etching of a bewildered, faintly depressed-looking fish, possibly a Murray cod (if you were a Murray cod you’d probably be depressed too) — has saved me from a failed day’s writing more than a few times.

But my interest in book covers also stems from the fact that I worked for many years in various Adelaide bookshops — most recently at an antiquarian booksellers (that’s a seller of old books, not an old bookseller). For dealers and collectors, book covers take on a whole different type of importance. To maximise their monetary value, the dust jackets of modern first editions (anyone remember the hardback?) must be present. But more than that, the jacket should be intact, bright, and free of rips or tears or chips or stains or those mould stains known as foxing — so named because it’s as if a muddy-pawed fox has pattered across the book.

I remember once coming across a first edition of Peter Carey’s Bliss in a box on the floor of the Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam) charity bookshop on East Terrace in Adelaide. For some reason or other, UQP decided to issue the book with a snazzy but utterly impractical silver foil jacket. My copy still had its jacket but, as tends to happen to foil over the years, it was creased and scratched and looked a little like it had been stored in somebody’s outhouse.

Book collecting is an odd pursuit (it’s something I’m exploring in my novel-in-progress, Potatoes in All Their Glory). I put my first edition copy of Bliss inside a protective cover, made from a special type of plastic designed to not react chemically with the book, and sat it on my shelf. A few years later I sold it, along with a pile of other books. I didn’t get much for it — maybe four or five times the loose change I paid for it at the Community Aid Abroad shop. In the time I owned it I never opened it to read. I never would have dreamed of doing so, because it was a first edition with a fragile jacket. It was hardly a book at all, by then.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Guest blogger Patrick Allington on first novels

First novels, I’ve had a few.

Tim Winton published his first novel, An Open Swimmer, when he was twenty-two years old, an achievement that has always faintly irritated me. I intend no personal malice towards ‘our Tim’, and I don’t doubt that he worked hard at his craft even though he was young. It’s just that when I was in my early twenties I could barely tie my shoelaces.

I take solace in the fact that Peter Carey wrote three unpublished novels before he published Bliss. Without trying to link Carey to my own floundering formative attempts at writing, I reckon Winton is probably the exception to the rule. So it feels strange — and in some ways misleading — to call myself a first-time novelist. Figurehead is certainly the first novel I’ve written that I could honestly call ‘finished’; it’s also the first novel I’ve written that a publisher has chosen to publish. But I recently turned 40 (as one of my workmates gently explained on my birthday card, ‘It’s all downhill from here’) and I’ve been writing novels most of my life. From well before I was 22 years old, I’ve filled notebooks and hard drives with half-finished manuscripts, first chapters and outlines. Any number of voices and all sorts of ‘grand’ ideas — some vague, some intricately formed — have rattled around in my head for weeks or months or years before seeping away.

Despite the frustration that comes from so much unfinished business, and despite the amused bewilderment that comes from asking myself ‘What on earth was I thinking?’, I find that remembering those lost novels is fun. And, no doubt, an excellent distraction. I’m especially fond of one early attempt at a Great Australian Novel — written when I was, give or take a birthday, twenty-two years old. I saw it as a road story of sorts, but also a Voss-like saga of exploration. The main character was a talking three-humped camel called Barney or Fred or Bruce or something like that. It trekked north from Adelaide’s pancake-flat suburbs, through the vineyards of the Clare Valley, through abandoned copper mines and the wheat-sheep belt, through the red desert and straight over Uluru, through crocodile-infested swamplands, all the way to the tropics where it bounded triumphantly into the water at a place called Escape Cliffs. I don’t remember why.

I do think of Figurehead as my first novel. But I also see it as sitting on a foundation consisting of many other stories and fragments — some abandoned, many forgotten, a few I would like to forget, and some, I hope, still gestating.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Upcoming events with Patrick Allington

We're really excited about Patrick Allington's new-release novel Figurehead (Patrick is going to continue guest blogging on The Inc. Blot throughout July.)

If you live in Adelaide or Melbourne, don't miss the chance to hear Patrick talk about his book in person. He'll be in Melbourne this Thursday at Readings Carlton and Figurehead will be officially launched by J.M. Coetzee on Wednesday 29 July at the South Australian Writers' Centre in Adelaide. Details on both events can be found on our website.

And here's a review of Figurehead from the Australian.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Guest blogger – Patrick Allington, author of Figurehead

I love books. Not just reading them. I love holding and caressing them, blowing dust off them, sniffing their musty pages, and especially standing before long lines of them contemplating all those titles ... all those stories.

A book is a feat of technology and craftsmanship. I’m talking about the paper, the ink, the glue, the spine, the covers. Sure, these days the crafting is mostly performed by machines. But, still, a book is an inanimate object — a leaved brick — capable of springing to life without resort to a password or a lithium battery. Books age — some gracefully, others like they’ve been left out in a storm — but it takes a lot to kill a book.

I’m no Luddite (at least not when it comes to reading). I’ll embrace the e-book, with all its revolutionary implications for how we will read and probably even what we will read. But I’ll do it when — and only when — the technology and the design combine to create a product as magical and as dependable as the paperback. And when some inventor comes up with a way that I can wander aimlessly around my house, browsing through my collection of electronic tomes in desperate search for the exact right tale to suit my mood.

Mind you, my book collection is an undignified mess. It urgently needs order — only I can’t decide what system to impose. And there’s an added complication: recently I took delivery of my first novel, Figurehead. Now that I’ve got over the excitement of picking it up and holding it (or some of the excitement, anyway) I have to decide where it should go on my shelves.
Adjacent to my favourite book, perhaps? But which favourite book? The Yes, Prime Minister scripts, which help me fall asleep most nights? Or in amongst Saul Bellow, who never fails to wake me up?

Or should I sit Figurehead with those books that I so loved as a child that I grew up wanting to be a writer? As a boy I was tiny, and I still have a picture book my parents gave me called Patrick Will Grow: “I’m glad Patrick is small,” Mother said. “I don’t know where we could put another bed.” “Patrick will grow,” Grandma said wisely.

If not Patrick Will Grow, then perhaps Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree series. These are the first books that I can remember trying to imitate: the child-heroes in my handwritten stories had great adventures and faced terrible dangers by going down a magic cave instead of up an enchanted tree.

My wife, in an uncharacteristically fastidious moment, recently suggested that I order our books in straight alphabetical order. At first I found that proposition horrendous, but I’m starting to come around to the idea. What I find most appealing is that despite the illusion of extreme tidiness, it will actually lead to wonderfully weird and random couplings: Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satire on Fleet Street, Scoop, will share space with Steve Waugh’s autobiography; Frank Moorhouse’s Loose Living will stand beside Marlo Morgan’s whacky new-age Mutant Message Down Under and not that far from The Latham Diaries.

And Figurehead will be in most agreeable company. On one side, there’ll be a row of Margaret Atwoods. I’ll put Figurehead spine to spine with The Handmaid’s Tale in the hope that some of Atwood’s magic will rub off on me. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale I knew — again — that I wanted to write a novel.

On the other side of Figurehead will sit Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one time (I was still at school) I re-read that book so many times that I could just about have recited the whole thing — definitive proof, surely, of the indestructibility of the paperback.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Don Walker in conversation with Stephen Cummings

Earlier this year we published Shots, a memoir by Don Walker, the former Cold Chisel keyboardist and songwriter. Don spoke with The Sports’ Stephen Cummings (who has also released a memoir recently) at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May. The resulting conversation was lively and entertaining - they spoke about music-making, the music business, writing and much more.

You can watch the first part here:

And the second part here:

Thanks to SlowTV for providing the footage.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Inc. wins Small Publisher of the Year

We're very proud to announce that Black Inc. has won Small Publisher of the Year in the 2009 Australian Book Industry Awards.

You can read all about the awards and various winners in this article from the Sydney Morning Herald.

We would also like to congratulate Penguin for winning Publisher of the Year and Readings Carlton, one of our all time favourite bookstores, for winning independent bookshop of the year.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Annabel Crabb talks to David Marr

Annabel Crabb and David Marr discussed the latest Quarterly Essay Stop At Nothing –The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney recently. If you couldn't be there in person, we highly recommend you watch the videos below – they are very entertaining.

Part 1

Part 2

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Alice Pung on becoming a writer

We asked Alice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem and editor of Growing Up Asian in Australia, "When did you first decide to become a writer?"

Here’s what she had to say:

When I was younger, I did not yet know how to deal with my feelings, or with the seemingly unending plagues of headlice and scabies I used to get, or with looking after younger siblings while my parents both worked, feeling trapped in a horrible domestic nightmare. I had such low self-esteem, I needed to feel like a winner at something. So I began a Guinness Book of Records at thirteen, where I made myself the world record holder in all the categories: ‘Record for the person who has pilfered every single hairstyle Ronald MacDonald has had for the past ten years’ (mum made me get a perm to burn off all the head-lice eggs), ‘Record for the best Ironing-Board impersonation’ (I was flat-chested), and ‘Record for the Worst Face in the history of the Universe’ (self explanatory). I still have that little notebook tucked away in a journal somewhere.

I looked back over my journals when I was eighteen and found them rather hilarious, even though they were unintentionally so. And that was when I decided that I would write a funny book.

I was tired of reading manuals by Asian women on how to feel miserable and oppressed. Young girls - particularly Southeast Asian girls - are socialised not to vocalise any form of anger or annoyance. And girls are not supposed to make fun of themselves because it is meant to do some sort of irrevocable damage to their brittle self-esteem. However, it seemed that Asian women could write countless books on their ten thousand sorrows, and be published, as long as the misery came from the forces of the outside world.

So I was tired of reading Oriental Cinderella stories and migrant narratives of success. Instead of inspiring me, they actually made me feel like an abject failure. When will I ever accumulate enough suffering to be a real writer? I wondered. I had defeated no communists/nationalists/evil stepmothers, did not have a seedy past or narcotic addiction, and the only thing I had ever smoked was salmon (in the oven).

Then I thought, damn it, I'm going to write a book about yellow people aspiring to become white middle class! It's not going to start with the struggles of war, but something more ironically Marxist - it would be about a working class family and their petit bourgeois dreams. And damn those who perpetuate the stereotype of the joyless Asian. My characters are going to laugh. So
Unpolished Gem was begun, a book that was premised on poking fun of my abysmally low, adolescent self-esteem; and a book about my love for my quirky, daggy family.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull

The latest Quarterly Essay Stop At Nothing – The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull by Annabel Crabb will be hitting shelves this weekend. The essay is causing quite a media stir.

Here's a taster:

Malcolm Turnbull talking to Annabel Crabb about his falling out with Kerry Packer:

Kerry was, um; Kerry got a bit out of control at that time. He told me he'd kill me, yeah. I didn't think he was completely serious, but I didn't think he was entirely joking either. Look, he could be pretty scary...He did threaten to kill me. And I said to him: 'Well, you'd better make sure that your assassin gets me first because if he misses, you better know I won't miss you.' He could be a complete pig, you know. He could charm the birds out of the tree, but he could be a brute. He could be like that. But the one thing with bullies is that you should never flinch...
And Annabel Crabb musing on Malcolm Turnbull:
How would Australia be different if he were prime minister? What are his most closely held policy convictions? I asked dozens of Malcolm Turnbull’s political colleagues this question, asking them to name three. Many of them had to pause before responding. ‘You’ll have to excuse me. I’m eating some chocolate,’ was the best initial response, from a Liberal on the other end of a phone line.
Here are links to some of the coverage of the essay – the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, and Sky News.

Annabel Crabb will be discussing the essay at events in Melbourne and Sydney next week. Book a spot now so you don't miss out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reporting from the Sydney Writers’ Festival

USA author George Friedman attended the Sydney Writers’ Festival to talk about his book The Next 100 Years – A Forecast for the 21st Century. George’s sessions were booked out, with hundreds of people in attendance. The questions George was most commonly asked were about China (“Is it the next global superpower?” – George says no), Australia’s role in the world (George says we are a trading country that relies on being able to use shipping routes across oceans that we have no control over – a potentially dangerous position), and also which countries will emerge as great powers (George thinks Turkey, Poland and Mexico – if you want to know why, you’ll need to read the book.)

Nicolas Rothwell’s The Red Highway was launched at the festival on the Saturday night. The launch venue was packed and David Marr officially launched the book, speaking glowingly about Nicolas and his work.

Don Walker had three sessions at the writers’ festival. In his in-conversation session on Saturday, he spoke about his memoir Shots and his early years with Cold Chisel, including some fascinating insights on what it was like to play gigs in a jail. Don also performed with guitarist Charlie Owen to a sold out session at Glebe Library.

Amanda Lohrey traced the shifting line of truth in fiction in the session 'The Truth in Fiction and Non-Fiction', recalling the bushfire she lived through in north-east Tasmania in 2004 that influenced her novella Vertigo. Amanda also spoke about her childhood immersed in a fiercely political family, and her feisty grandmother who would talk to Amanda about politics as Amanda sat drawing at the kitchen table at the age of four.

A lot of Black Inc.’s author's events were filmed by SlowTV. You will be able to watch them, and many other sessions from the festival, on the SlowTV website soon…

Diary of a Publicist

A day in the life of a book publicist at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

1.30am – Awaken in Sydney hotel room to the sound of dripping water. Hotel room roof is leaking.

1.40am – Discuss the issue with the night manager (try to look both dignified and outraged whilst wearing brightly patterned pajamas)

1.43am – Due to the number of authors and publishers staying in hotel, there are no spare rooms available. Make do with a bucket and towels to stem the flooding.

6.15am – Alarm goes off.

7.25am – Meet author in hotel lobby for his first session, a breakfast event.

7.35am – The pre-booked car transfer from hotel to the venue is held up in airport traffic. Rush to find a cab.

7.45am – Cab circles the same block several times whilst we all peer out the windows, trying to read building numbers and find the venue. (I’m not a Sydney local, needless to say.)

7.50am – Safely deliver author to session.

9.50am – Session has ended and author still signing books for audience members. Call the producer of a TV interview we have lined up. Let him know we might be delayed.

9.55am – Rush to find a cab.

10.20am – Arrive at studios for pre-recorded TV interview.

11.00am – Interview successfully filmed. Find a cab and rush back to hotel for interview with a journalist from newspaper.

11.20am – We are ahead of schedule. So is the journalist. Interview begins.

12.10pm – Interview ends and photographer from the newspaper takes author “across the road” for a photo shoot. Whilst my back is turned (chatting to journalist) the author and photographer disappear.

12.20pm – Author and photographer still missing. Wander up and down road looking for them.

12.30pm – Author reappears. Says he was taken to what appeared to be some kind of cave. Is nervous about the photo.

12.45pm – Head back to the hotel to move out of my flooded room.

1.30pm – Eat lunch, check emails, make calls. Set up several more interviews for the author. Watch a few minutes of Days of our Lives.

3.15pm – Meet author in hotel foyer

3.30pm – Travel to ABC studios for a radio and a television interview.

5.45pm – Interviews both successful. Detour by the make-up room at the author’s wife’s request to remove all the heavy foundation applied to his face for TV interview.

6.00pm – Cab back to the hotel

6.30pm –Time for dinner with another publicist to debrief and gear up for the next day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Writers' Festivals

Some of the Black Inc. staff are preparing to head up to Sydney for the Sydney Writers' Festival this week. Funny things can happen at writers festivals. Just ask Sandy Mackinnon (also known as AJ Mackinnon, which is the name he published his book under.)

Sandy recently returned from the Williamstown Writers' Festival. He told us the following story about his adventures in Williamstown, which he has kindly allowed us to publish here:

I stayed in the most superb Bed and Breakfast right by the sea in the centre of Williamstown, a boutique outfit called Captain's Retreat, beautifully restored and furnished and, as it turned out, run by the sister of a teacher colleague of mine from the Corio campus. She was marvellous and ran the B&B superbly, with home-made cakes and everything just perfect. I was put in the Captain's Suite where, Hal Porter, the famous Australian writer writing in the 60's, had written much of his stuff. After a slightly dreary afternoon, I settled down to some much needed relaxation, finishing up in a very deep hot bath in the en-suite spa. To really relax, I lit the three little tea-candles, turned out all the lights, switched on the bubbly jet things and lay back to relax in the candlelit darkness. As I lay there, I felt all the tension in my shoulders easing away and my body slumping lower, lower, lower in the water. Then the place exploded and everything went pitch-dark.

What had happened was that I had accidentally dislodged the bath plug so the water was slowly draining out - hence the feeling of slumping lower and lower. This wouldn't have been a problem except that when the water level dropped below the air-jet pipes still going at full-force, they sent all the water rocketing straight up in great fountains of spray
like power-sprinklers, extinguishing the candles and hitting the ceiling, the mirrored walls, the window sill and curtains, and hissing like a nest of angry cobras. It was like suddenly turning on ten fire hydrants all at once. Of course in the darkness I couldn't find any of the controls to turn the damn things off or replace the plug or turn the taps on to refill the bath so I wallowed and blundered around getting sprayed in the face before I finally managed to hit the right button and everything went quiet, except for the steady drip-drip of half a ton of water as it descended from the ceiling to the floor again.

After that the mood was lost somewhat, so I called it a night and went to bed, helping myself to half a bottle of port that had been thoughtfully put by the bedside.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Best spots to read in Melbourne

What are the best spots to read in Melbourne? We asked a few of our Melbourne authors to name their favourite spots. Here’s what they had to say:

Alice Pung:
Recently, I have been reading, standing up, on the Number 19 Tram when I head to and from work. Reading on public transport is like being in a mobile pedestrian library - you get to see what other people are reading too, particularly during peak hour. And you actually get to watch people read, which is usually quite a private matter. You get see the pace at which they turn their pages, how engrossed, embarrassed or distracted they look. It is the best way to find out about interesting books to read.
Catherine Deveny:
My favorite place to read? Public toilets. It's not a book I am reading but the graffitti. Sex is ace. Sex is olden. Sex is best in the back of Holden. Reservoir Station 1981 (I wrote that). Also this. If God didn't want us to have cleaners he wouldn't have invented people who didn't go to university. Brunswick East Primary School 2009, cubicle three, prep room (I wrote that too). Also the dunnies at Mario's in Brunswick Street - Catherine Deveny Is HOT!!! (yep me again). Also love lying under a tree on a blanky with my kids at Heidi drinking hot chocolate. Love the kids book room at Readings. Great on a winter's day followed by a slab o cake at Trotters. It'd be cheaper than the movies if I didn't end up spending $100 on books every time.
Ann Blainey:
I like to read in the Fitzroy gardens - either in a seat near the Clarendon Street entrance, under a tall pine tree, or in a seat near the Conservatory, looking across at the elms along the main path.
A quick survey of Black Inc. staff revealed a few other favourite reading spots – Systems Garden at Melbourne University, Illia Cafe on William Street in the CBD, the 109 tram to Richmond, CERES cafe in East Brunswick, and, of course, in bed, in an armchair or on the couch.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Red Highway launch

We launched The Red Highway by Nicolas Rothwell in Melbourne on Tuesday 12 May. It was launched by Marcia Langton. You can watch a video of the launch below

The Sydney launch of The Red Highway will be at the Sydney Writers' Festival on Saturday 23 May 23 at 6pm, Bangarra Mezzanine, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. David Marr is the official launcher. This is a free event, and all are welcome. You can find out more details on the Sydney Writers' Festival website.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mother's Day gift suggestions

A typical Mother’s Day gift guide tends to promote either cookbooks or chick lit when it comes to books. If your mother’s reading tastes are a little broader than that, here are some alternatives suggestions:

For the environmentally conscientious:

Now or Never
By Tim Flannery
RRP $22.00

For lovers of blood and gore:

The Shanghai Murders
By David Rotenberg
RRP $22.95

For the arty (if you’re generous, because it’s pricey):

Performances 1971 - 2008
By Mike Parr
RRP $199.00

For the armchair traveller:

The Red Highway
By Nicolas Rothwell
RRP $32.95

For the muso:

By Don Walker
RRP $27.95

For the devoted Age reader (who doesn’t drive a 4WD or watch The Footy Show):

Say When
By Catherine Deveny
RRP $24.95

For the lover of literary fiction:

By Amanda Lohrey
RRP $19.95

The above books are available at all good bookstores (although Performances 1971 - 2008 is a specialty art title, so it could be a little harder to find.)

And here are some other, non-book options that we like:

- Her very own vegie garden
- A family of ducks from Oxfam
- Quarterly Essay gift subscription
- Mad Men Season 1

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Our favourite bookshelves

Here are some of our favourite bookshelves

The Opus Bookshelf
Inspired by the Romans. Designed by Sean Yoo.

The Bookworm Bookshelf
Flexible and able to assume any desired shape. Designed by Ron Arad.

The Staircase Bookshelf
A 'library staircase' in which English oak stair treads and shelves are both completely lined with books. Designed by Levitate Architects.

The Infinity Bookshelf
The shape of the bookcase is a lemniscate—a figure 8 and the mathematical symbol of infinity. Created by Job Koelewijn.

The Annotation Bookshelf
Created by Lau Design.

The See-Saw Bookshelf
To balance out your books. Created by Generate Design.


Check out more great bookshelf designs here, here and here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Author Tours

We have two national author tours coming up in May that we are really excited about. Nicolas Rothwell is going to be discussing his new book The Red Highway at events in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. And USA author George Friedman will be touring Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Byron Bay to discuss his book The Next 100 Years.

Both authors are guests of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. You can find out more detail about their events on the Black Inc. website. (You can read about their books there too.)

Here's an interview with George Friedman from the Business Spectator website, and a lecture by Nicolas Rothwell on SlowTV.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

AJ “Sandy” Mackinnon

Author AJ “Sandy” Mackinnon is the kind of person who has adventures. Not jumping-off-a-cliff extreme sport type adventures but proper, old-fashioned adventures.

When he was nineteen, he decided to travel to Iona, a tiny isle lying off the west coast of Mull, which in turn lies off the west coast of Scotland. He went in search of the Well of Eternal Youth.

At age thirty-five, Sandy decided to leave his job as a teacher in England and row his dinghy down the River Severn. He ended up still rowing, in Romania, a year later. Along the way he crossed the English Channel; was arrested by the River Police; tear-gassed in the Budapest Metro; trapped without funds in Serbia under threat of bombardment; and captured by Balkan river pirates.

Currently Sandy is a teacher at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus. His interests include conjuring and home-made fireworks.

Here’s a great clip of Sandy talking about his life and book, if you want to know more. (His book, by the way, is The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Submission guidelines for Best Australian Stories, Essays and Poems

Head over to the Black Inc. website to download the submission guidelines for the Best Australian Stories 2009, Best Australian Essays 2009 and Best Australian Poems 2009. (The link to the pdf is in the news section at the top of our homepage, if you’re lost.)

All three anthologies accept unsolicited, previously unpublished work. The deadline is 1 August 2009.

We’ve got two new editors this year – Robyn Davidson will be selecting the pieces for Best Australian Essays 2009 and Robert Adamson will be selecting the poems for Best Australian Poems 2009. Delia Falconer will be editing Best Australian Stories for her second year.

Want to get to know the editors a little better?

Read a transcript of Robyn Davidson’s appearance on ABC TV’s Talking Heads, an essay by Delia Falconer, or listen to an interview with Robert Adamson on ABC Radio National's Book Show.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Page 99 Test

English novelist, poet, critic and editor Ford Madox Ford once said "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

We’ve applied this test to our new crime fiction release The Shanghai Murders by David Rotenberg. Here’s page 99 (the main character Detective Zhong Fong and his colleagues are at a gruesome crime scene in an alleyway in Shanghai):

Over and over again, Fong was approached with “What are you looking for?” And over and over again, he said, “I’ll know when I see it.” So they brought him everything they found. A small handful of one-fen coins, half a well-leafed-through Hong Kong porno magazine, bits of several different kinds of food in various degrees of decay, a sole from the toe of a lady’s shoe, and many more things—none of which pleased Fong. He had already found the piece of heart and the strip from the JAL airsickness bag, where he thought they would be. The Chinese driver informed the police that his Zairian charge never carried a wallet, that he, the driver, always went in after his client was finished and paid the bills. So that accounted for the wallet’s whereabouts.
As the driver headed downtown with a police officer
to make a full statement, Wang Jun approached Fong.
“One hand points to the guy’s ID.”

“The other to the second part of the message,” replied
“Which is?” asked Wang Jun.

“Which is what we are looking for. No! What we’ll keep looking for until we find.”
Wang Jun slipped a cigarette into his mouth. “Did you notice that the body pieces weren’t put together very well this time?”
“I noticed that.”

“Could it be that our guy is slipping? Maybe he made
a mistake.”

You’ll find more books being put to the test at the Page 99 Test Blog.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What we're reading

Non-work books that Black Inc. staff are reading right now:

Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins (publicist)
The Vivisector by Patrick White (web content coordinator)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (office coordinator)
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (marketing and publicity manager)
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (editor #1)
Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse (editor #2)
The Baader Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust (publisher)
Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam (general manager)
England’s Dreaming – Sex Pistols and Punk Rock by Jon Savage (designer)