What I’m reading

I was recently asked to contribute a post to Meanjin blog Spike, where authors write about what we are reading. It’s worth checking out the series. For my part, it’s all about the PhD at the moment (four months and counting). Here’s an excerpt from the post.

I’ve heard people say that doing a PhD can permanently kill your interest in the topic of your study. Not for me. I had the good fortune to pick a topic where there’s never a dull moment: overseas commercial surrogacy. Six months after I started my PhD, two surrogacy scandals broke in Thailand; one involving abandoned twin Baby Gammy, the other a Japanese businessman alleged to have fathered 19 children by Thai surrogates. This was followed by news of another twin born through surrogacy abandoned by his Australian parents in India. More recently, there was the arrest in Cambodia of an Australian woman accused of falsifying documents in the service of her surrogacy brokerage business.

Like I say, never a dull moment.

My PhD in PIC_the handmaids taleCreative Writing comprises a creative work—a novel about surrogacy—and an academic component, which includes discussion of other novels about surrogacy. Again, I feel lucky, as my topic has introduced me to some terrific reads.

I started with Margaret Atwood’s canonical 1986 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, though re-reading Atwood’s book in a world in which wealthy women pay poor women to carry babies for them and the US President surrounds himself with religious fundamentalists who seek to curb women’s reproductive choices makes the novel seem not so much dystopian as disturbingly prophetic.

Read the rest of the post here.



Kill your darlings

In the lead up to the crime writing workshop that I’m giving this weekend in Castlemaine, I did the following Q&A with Writers Victoria, reproduced here with permission.

Photo: Joanna Sheather

By: Angela Savage interviewed by Nicola Wetzel

For Angela Savage, great crime writing depends on pacing and suspense. WV intern Nicola Wetzel interviewed Angela ahead of her Crime writing workshop in partnership with the Castlemaine State Festival to find out more.

You won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. How has winning this award affected your writing life?

Winning the Victorian Premier’s Award changed everything for me: one of the judges was a senior editor at Text Publishing and she made an offer on the manuscript not long after the awards ceremony. I submitted a seventh draft to the Awards, and it went through another four drafts after I signed with Text. But it was worth it to realise my dream of becoming a published author.

What do you want readers to feel after reading your crime stories?

I want my readers to feel empathy with the characters, transported by the story and dazzled by the writing. This applies no matter what genre I am writing in. When it comes specifically to crime fiction, I hope readers will also reflect on the ideas of justice that I write about.

How do you create your crime characters? Do you base them on people you meet, or through other forms of research?

I try not to base my characters on real people, though I might borrow small details from real life: a look or gesture, a turn of phrase or manner of speech, sometimes an encounter. For example, there’s a scene in my second novel, The Half-Child, where Australian PI Jayne Keeney plays pool with a couple of US Marines in Thailand, which is heavily based on a journal entry I made after playing pool with a group of US Marines in Hanoi in 1996.

How do you keep your readers in suspense?

Ways to heighten tension in crime fiction include: throwing obstacles in your protagonist’s path; putting them in harm’s way; killing off a character; raising doubts about the reliability of a character; and the use of red herrings (distractions) and plot twists. Suspense is also created by showing rather than telling the reader what is happening, leaving it to their imagination to fill in the blanks. Implied violence – or the aftermath of violence – can often be more terrifying than violence described in graphic detail. I’ve used all these techniques and more in my own novels to keep readers in suspense. I’ve also learned to ‘kill your darlings’ to maintain tension and pace.

What are you working on at the moment?

(*Smiles sheepishly and shuffles feet*) My current work in progress is not crime fiction but a literary novel about commercial surrogacy between Australia and Thailand, which I am writing as part of a PhD in Creative Writing. That said, I still find myself drawn to plotting techniques — rising tension, false leads, a climactic ‘big reveal’ — that I associate with crime writing.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer who has lived and worked extensively in Asia. She won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Award for Unpublished Manuscript, and the 2011 Scarlet Stiletto Award for short crime fiction. All three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels have been shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards. Angela teaches creative writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.

About Nicola Wetzel

Nicola Wetzel is a Writers Victoria Intern from Heidelberg, Germany. She studies Public Management at Hochschule Kehl and through this internship she wants to gain new experiences in what it’s like to work in a not-for-profit organisation.

About Writers Victoria

Writers Victoria supports and connects all types of writers at all stages of their writing careers. Find out more about our courses and workshops, magazine, mentorships or manuscript assessments, how we can provide inspiration, information or advice, or how to become part of a vibrant literary community as a member of Writers Victoria.

If you’re a writer in Victoria, you need to be part of Writers Victoria. Period.


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An American in Paris, an Australian in America


Me & Jodie, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, 1985

Within a couple of months of finishing high school, at the tender age of 18, I left my home in Melbourne, Australia, and flew to Paris, France, to take up a job as an au pair. After my first month away, I was desperately lonely and wanted to go home. My mother convinced me to give it another week and then, if I still felt the same way, she would arrange for my return. The following day, I met three women who changed my life. The first two were sista-Australians, Harriet and Anne, whom I met when all three of us were in the process of enrolling at the Alliance Française. The third was an American called Jodie, who approached us in a nearby café when she overheard us speaking English.

Over the following six weeks, Harriet, Anne, Jodie and I became inseparable, keeping each other buoyant as we stumbled and bumbled our ways around a new language and culture, tough (for some) jobs, love affairs (for some), occasional bouts of homesickness, and the rush of freedoms previously unknown. Our picnics by the Seine involved bread, cheese, chocolate, cheap wine and Broadway musicals. We went to movies and cheap restaurants, and hit the galleries on Mondays when it was free. After one memorable visit to the Louvre, we wrote to each other on postcards of The Three Graces, fantasising about imagined futures.

When the baby was born in the family I was working with, I was charged with taking the three-year-old and six-year-old to stay with their relatives in a castle in the countryside. Jodie came along for the ride, because who can resist staying overnight in a French chateau. There was another night, too, that I remember: a night of secrets shared as the sun set, a new light emerging from the darkness.

On Jodie’s last night in Paris, we took a bateau mouche along the Seine river and went to dinner at Chartier, if I remember correctly (which is still going strong).


Me & Jodie, Cathedral Rock, Sedona, USA

We kept in touch, often at first, then less frequently, until we lost touch altogether. But thanks to the internet – to this blog, in fact – we reconnected again in 2009. We’d both partnered and had daughters. In some ways, we were both still trying to introduce the girls we were in 1985 to the women we have become.

When she found out recently that I was coming to the USA for the first time for the conference in Phoenix, Jodie wrote saying, ‘You’ve never been this close.’ ‘Close’ was still a three-hour flight from Seattle. But she made it happen. On 20 Feb this year, we met again for the first time in 32 years, at Phoenix Airport. Jodie was so excited, we came very close to leaving the terminal without her suitcase! We jumped straight in a hire car and Jodie drove us to Sedona, talking all the way, laughing at our attempts to catch up on 32 years. In Sedona, we walked to Cathedral Rock, before returning to our hotel to keep talking over red wine and Wild Turkey bourbon (Jodie’s tribute to our Thelma and Louise-inspired road trip), eventually falling asleep to the sounds of Oak Creek outside our balcony.


At Monument Valley

Tuesday we visited Monument Valley, a 13-hour round trip that took us through six climate zones, into the heart of the sovereign Navajo Nation, which we are fortunate to be permitted to visit: our guide told us the decision to open Monument Valley to tourism was won by a single vote, and there are still members of the community who would see us as invaders (with just cause, given what is transpiring at Standing Rock as I write). Despite our loquacious tour guide, we managed to keep talking, silenced only by the majesty of the landscape that unfolded once we reached our destination. No amount of movies (and I watched a lot of them in the lead-up to my visit) could prepare me for the sheer scale of Monument Valley, its vistas and its silence.

img_9799We spent Wednesday and Thursday at the Grand Canyon. I should note that Jodie had never been to Arizona before either, so both of us were experiencing these wonders for the first time. Coming upon the Grand Canyon felt, for both of us, as though we’d arrived on another planet. It took several hours for my eyes and mind to adjust to depths and breadths in my field of vision that I had simply never known before. I was struck dumb with awe: as a writer, it was a shock to be so continually lost for words. We visited several points along the south rim, watching cloud shadows dance over rocks shaped like temples. At sunset, we ventured a little way down into the canyon along the Bright Angel Trail, before the wind chill sent us to our hotel room for more conversation, wine and Wild Turkey.

Overnight snow put paid to our plans to trek the Kaibab Trail on Thursday morning. We ‘settled’ instead for walking the entire south rim trail; as we kept saying, every choice we had was good. We talked, paused to take photos, held each other when we slipped on the ice. We had several close encounters with elk, saw a flock of bright blue pinyon jays and spotted a condor on our westward walk. When it looked like we risked missing our tour bus back to Sedona, a couple from Minnesota came to our rescue, driving us back to the village.

img_9956Friday we returned to Phoenix to meet Jodie’s 16-year-old daughter, Caroline, who flew in from Seattle to spend the weekend. Jodie treated us to a wonderful hotel in Phoenix, and thanks to a great tip from an Uber driver, we ended up at a fabulous Mexican restaurant, Los Olivos, for dinner. Caroline retired early, leaving Jodie and to to keep talking…until 2 in the morning.

To say it was as if the past 32 years hadn’t happened would be trite: we’ve both been through major rites of passage since we last met. As the mother of teenagers, who has also lost both her parents, Jodie has walked tough paths that still lie ahead of me. I am grateful for what she shared with me this past week, and for the benefit of her wisdom and experience.

But to rekindle what was a significant friendship 32 years ago, and experience the intimacy and joy of that friendship all over again… Again, I am lost for words. ‘Gift’ comes to mind. Likewise ‘grace’. Words with religious connotations that make me squirm, but that go some way towards describing how precious this past week has been.

img_9814Thirty-two years seems like a long time between drinks. But as Jodie pointed out, when you’re in a landscape among rocks that are 1,840 million years old, it puts things in perspective.

I don’t usually blog about stuff as personal as this, but I’ve chosen to do so for two reasons: to thank all those back in our respective homes who encouraged and supported Jodie and me to spend this past week together; and to encourage anyone reading this who has a friend they miss to make the time to reconnect.

Life is short. Seize the day. Seize a whole week if you can.

As for me and Jodie, we’re already planning our next reunion.

Continue reading

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Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 3

With two very good women, Goldie Goldbloom & Meredith Martinez

With awesome Goldie Goldbloom & Meredith Martinez

I woke up to cold rain in Phoenix, which apparently only happens about five times a year. Would have felt more depressed about it except that a) there was another day left of the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference; and b) I finally found a place to get a decent cup of coffee in Phoenix (Royal Coffee Bar). Seriously, I was on the verge of giving up coffee altogether. But I digress…

My day started on the panel Writing Culture for Another Culture, with Ghanaian-American crime writer Kwei Quartey and poet-translator Catherine Hammond. We started by talking about what culture(s) we’re writing about and for whom, before moving on to our responsibilities as writers. Kwei and I share issues when it comes to writing for a ‘Western’ audience: make it too authentic and you risk losing readers, he said; on the other hand, making novels work can mean glossing over nuances. We talked about why we were attracted to crime fiction as a way of telling stories that cross cultural boundaries. We talked about questions of authenticity, too, and the importance of doing your research – I referred back to a number of points Malinda Lo had made in her session the day before. Catherine made an interesting point about her work as a translator of poetry (she translates Spanish poet Olvido García Valdés), when she posed the question, ‘Am I humble enough not to impose my will on the material, but to let it impose itself on me?’ I picked up on this when talking about being a writer who asks permission to use people’s stories. The people I spoke with were very positive about the session, although apparently, when I mentioned my novel The Dying Beach, people in the audience were Googling The Dying Bitch on account of this accent I allegedly have (I laughed my head off when I heard this!).

The next session I attended was Research and the Creative Process with Arizona local Adrienne Celt (whose feature article in the lead up to the DNRS conference I really admired), and two Australian expat authors I got to know and like, Goldie Goldbloom and Dominic Smith. This was a rich discussion, revealing a dynamic relationship between research and creative writing. Adrienne talked about coming across things in the course of her research that planted the seed of an idea for a story. At the same time, for her, access to physical experiences – learning to sing opera, for her novel The Daughters – as part of her research was ‘very important, not only for sensory details and to add authenticity, but in providing greater access to metaphorical possibilities.’ Goldie, too, spoke of the value of physically walking through the landscape where the subject of her new novel, Gwen, artist Gwen John, had lived and worked, and how it changed her perceptions of her protagonist. Dominic described his novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos as ‘a book heavily steeped in research’, coming ‘out of the gaps and silences in art history.’

Aussies in Arizona: Dominic Smith, me, exchange student Jean, Goldie Goldbloom and author Margaret Spence

Aussies in Arizona: Dominic Smith, me, exchange student Jean, Goldie Goldbloom and author Margaret Spence

Dominic pointed out that as writers, we’re always researching the world around us. His novels are often the result of something in his notebook that bubbles up to the surface ‘and then a research siege follows’. For him, the main research skills needed are culling and distillation. He said he ‘learned the hard way’ to organise his research so that he could find material when he needed it: he uses spreadsheets tagged with relevant details such as ‘Dutch painting techniques’, ‘Food’, etc. Goldie, by contrast, describes herself as ‘never getting past the hoarder’s phase of the research’. While both agreed that talking to experts is great for gathering information, Dominic’s approach is to do his homework so he knows what questions to ask, while Goldie asks, ‘Can you explain it to me as if you were talking to a three-year-old?’ All three writers encouraged participants to follow their instincts. ‘If something carries charm, energy or allure, go with it,’ Dominic said. ‘Yes, stay with details that move or provoke you,’ Adrienne concurred. Goldie put it: ‘Find that moment of emotional truth, then write.’

Locked out of a session I wanted to attend on The Political Poem, I took the chance to catch my breath chatting with the endlessly fascinating Goldie Goldbloom, before heading to Dominic Smith’s session on The Mystery of Personality, the title of which comes from Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose: “…a story involves, in some dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” Dominic gave an overview of historical understandings of personality, from the Greek ‘humours’ theory, to contemporary bio-psychological approaches that put personality down to genetics and neurology. His advice was to understand the main theories, but to go beyond them. Writers need to explore the dramatic meaning of behaviour, not just observe it, he said. Moreover, ‘drama plays close attention to exceptions to the rules, which are not picked up in psychological profiles.’ Dominic gave us five principles for creating the ‘mystery of personality’: 1) Render characters from the inside out; external flourishes are not enough; guard against oversimplifying motivation and desire. 2) Personality is part consistency, part paradox; paradox makes us capable of surprising, but its the consistency around it that makes paradox interesting. 3) Think beyond types, traits and temperaments. Personality is not fixed but fluid. Characters should surprise us. 4) Pose riddles and puzzles for your characters – ones that you don’t know the answers to. 5) Create a personal atmosphere for each major character, as described by Virginia Woolf in her essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.’ See them holistically. ‘You have to spend a lot of time forming the right questions to open a new door into a character,’ Dominic said, adding, ‘This usually happens late in a novel’s development.’ Another inspiring session, with practical ideas I’ll be able to bring to my writing.

Last drinks: Paolo Bacigalupi, Malinda Lo, me & and Cheryl Klein

Last drinks: Paolo Bacigalupi, Malinda Lo, me & and Cheryl Klein

The final plenary of the conference brought together literary agent Emma Patterson, editor Cheryl Klein and author Malinda Lo for discussion on The Business of Writing. While this was an presentation aimed at emerging/unpublished authors, it was interesting for me to learn about how the US publishing industry works, and to hear discussion about marketability, branding and the complexities of genre-swapping. The general consensus among the panellists is that what is most important in terms of making an impression as a writer is voice, followed by character(s). As Cheryl put it, ‘you can’t fix voice and character, but you can fix a plot.’ The other thing that came through was the importance of cultivating good professional relationships between writers and their agents/editors. I was also interested to learn the impact an editor’s passion for the subject matter can have on the decision to publish. On the vexed question of whether social media/online presence matters – hot topic of conversation among Paola Bacigalupi, Benjamin Percy, Meredith Martinez and me the night before – Emma said while it matters to some publishers, writing credentials are more important. Cheryl added that it’s good to have one form of social media – one that’s comfortable for you. ‘What’s important is consistency and ease.’

I guess that form is blogging for me, at least when it comes to travel and events. Sadly, blogging seems to be falling out of fashion in favour of e-newsletters. But I reckon I’ll stick to it, so I can be ahead of the curve when it comes back into fashion.

Special thanks to Meredith Martinez and the team at the Virginia G Piper Center for the invitation to be part of Desert Nights, Rising Stars 2017. I had a brilliant time, made new friends, bought too many books, and sold some, too. It was a privilege and a pleasure.


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Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 2, part 2

Malinda Lo, photo: Kevin S Moul

Malinda Lo, photo: Kevin S Moul

One of my most anticipated sessions at Desert Nights, Rising Stars was with YA writer Malinda Lo on Writing Diversity: How To & Why Not. Malinda began by explaining that she’d proposed the topic as a way of addressing questions she is constantly being asked about who has permission to write what, how to write diversity well, and how to avoid criticism. She started by noting that ‘diversity’ is an imperfect word, ‘shorthand’ for people of colour, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and disabled people, ‘in other words, everyone who is not the white, straight, cisgender, abled norm’. She then answered the question of who has the right to write diverse characters very directly, saying, ‘Every writer has the right to write whatever they want, but every reader has the right to read what they want.’ (For Malinda, this means choosing not to read white men writing on Chinese women). She added that writers not only have rights but also responsibilities, and that to write diversity well means doing the work — there are no shortcuts.

In terms of the ‘why/why not’, Malinda’s first point was to ask ‘Why do you want to write it?’ If your intention comes from guilt, however well-meaning, this will colour your story and is unlikely to result in good writing. Better to appease your white guilt by buying books written by people of colour. Loving another culture – or more commonly, a single aspect of another culture – is also seldom grounds enough to write about it, often resulting in the fetishisation of that culture. ‘Allow your love to take you a little deeper,’ Malinda advised. Her second question to ask was ‘What privileges do you have?’ Unless you are made aware of your privilege, she said, your writing is likely to lead to oversights and biases. She directed us to resources on her website www.malindalo.com (click on ‘blog’) that address privilege. Her third question was, ‘What power differentials are involved?’ Here she highlighted the self-doubt that results from growing up, not seeing yourself reflected in anything (books, movies, etc). She noted that white writers risk oversimplifying matters because we have not had this experience.

Photo: Kevin S Moul

Photo: Kevin S Moul

In terms of ‘How to’, Malinda’s take home message was: ‘Do you research with humility and respect — there are no shortcuts.’ Step 1 is ‘Approach with Humility’. Do not mistake your hobbies for expertise. Respect the culture that you’re writing about. Step 2 is ‘Avoid cultural misappropriation’. Cultural misappropriation, Malinda said, ‘occurs when a more powerful culture cheerypicks aspects of a subordinate culture and uses those cultural artefacts in a way that is completely divorced from its original context or intention.’ It ‘is not the same as cultural exchange or cultural appreciation’. It is fine and natural to be inspired by another culture, but you need to be aware of context to avoid stripping away meaning. Research is an important part of this, and it means ‘moving beyond Wikipaedia’ to Step 3, ‘Do your research. There are no shortcuts.’ Effective and thorough research involves reflection, reading a lot and asking a lot of questions. Paying ‘sensitivity readers’, better called ‘cultural experts’, is also recommended, though Malinda noted that as a writer, you don’t have to take all their advice. She added that there is no way of doing research that avoids making mistakes altogether; and that criticism is ‘not the end of the world’ but rather an opportunity to learn. Two novels recommended as effective examples of authors writing across cultural boundaries are: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olin Butler, and The Boat by Nam Le (that last one was my suggestion).

Prior to Malinda’s session, in an effort to step outside my usual comfort zone, I attended a panel called Where do we go from here? – After the Apocalypse with Matt Bell, Benjamin Percy and Paolo Bacigalupi. This fascinating panel took in differences between dystopian (‘the world got broke’) and post-Apocalyptic (‘the world is falling apart and we slowly have to put it back together’) literature, how post-apocalyptic literature reflects the anxiety of the age, and the ethics of writing violence. Matt Bell and Benjamin Percy try to avoid writing violence that is enjoyable, less it spills into what Benjamin called ‘gore-nography’. Paolo felt that imposing moral judgments on what should and shouldn’t be writing closes off avenues of creative exploration. Any violence, he suggested, should align with the values of the overall story. There was also discussion about how to avoid didacticism in post-apocalyptic fiction – or how to be political without being polemical. One suggestion was to avoid giving good people good values and bad people bad values. Another was to think beyond simplistic concepts – such as the ‘strong man’ structure (good vs evil) at the heart of novels like The Hunger Games – in favour of more complex models. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood were among the authors recommended for their non-didactic fiction.

For my final session of the day, I had the great privilege of being a late ring-in for a panel called Writing borderlands: Geographic and personal boundaries with Acoma Pueblo Nation poet and author Simon Ortiz and author Benjamin Alire Sáenz. I mostly listened to my fellow panellists as they talked about their experiences of marginalisation – ‘growing up as Americans even if we don’t feel American’, as Simon put it – and the importance of resistance. Benjamin, who grew up in the ‘liminal space’ of the US-Mexico border, argued that ‘borders are false’. In a blistering critique, he said that ‘borders are to keep poor people out. Rich people can go anywhere – there are no borders for them.’ He added that Americans ‘are not taught to break down borders, we’re taught to build walls.’ My own small contribution was to challenge the idea that Australia was a land without borders, with reference to the AIATSIS map of Indigenous languages that shows the boundaries that existed prior to white invasion, and to talk a little about being a white writer aware of this legacy. (I added that I would not have been on such a panel had there been an Indigeous Australian in the room). I had a couple of participants tell me later that the AIATSIS map was a real eye-opener for them.

After a faculty dinner (‘faculty’ being the collective noun for conference guests/teaching staff) at ASU, a few of us kicked on at Casey Moore’s Oyster Bar, stopping for last drinks at the Gringo Star in Tempe, where we talked about the value (or not) of social media to writers. Upshot: it don’t sell books, it takes up a lot of time, it connects you to your readers (maybe) and also to trolls. Merry-go-round and swings, really. An intense, inspiring day.


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Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 2, part 1

imageI’m probably crazy blogging at this late hour, but I don’t to miss the opportunity to capture at least fragments of a full and inspiring Day 2 at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference here in Phoenix, Arizona.

My day started with a session called The Truth About Showing and Telling with Elizabeth Evans. Elizabeth attempted to debunk the notion that showing is always more important than telling, arguing that a good writer can create a narrator/narrative voice that establishes a relationship with the reader and allows for a mix of the two. She offered Irish writer William Trevor’s story ‘Events at Drimaghleen’ as a case in point. A number of participants questioned whether the omniscient narrative voice in Trevor’s story would wash with contemporary American publishers, one noting that for YA writers in particular, a first person (preferably present) point of view is pretty much obligatory. Regardless of publishing trends, Evans’s advice was to ‘read the best stuff you can find’ and, in doing so, learn to read your own work as if it was written by someone else.

Next session was The Absurd: Tackling Odd Material with poet Matthew Olzmann. Poetry is something I’ve recently started to appreciate after a long hiatus, and Matthew’s session only increased my enthusiasm for this form. He made a comment that ‘What we’re willing to believe doesn’t necessarily correspond to what is logical, rational or reasonable’ (he was talking about readers, but in the current political environment in the USA, this observation takes on added significance), and went on to talk about ‘suspension of disbelief’, a term originally coined by Samuel Coleridge. He then got us to workshop several poems that attempted to explain the inexplicable: Ave Maria by Frank O’Hara; Noah and Joan by Denise Duhamel (my personal favourite); The Poem You Asked For by Larry Levis; and Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition by Wistawa Szymborska. Matthew suggested that what carries the ridiculous or ludicrous premises in these poems — what allows us to suspend disbelief — is either the force of the speaker’s personality (as in the O’Hara and Duhamel poems, though in different timbres), the figurative possibilities (as in the Levis and Szymborska poems), or a combination of the two — see [American Journal] by Robert Hayden. He encouraged us to recognise the value of spontaneity and surprise in the process of making art: ‘It may be unbelievable, yes, but it’s still worthy of belief.’

Goldie Goldbloom in full flight

Goldie Goldbloom in full flight

Next up was Torquing Images: Creating Tension Through Distortion with expatriate Australian author Goldie Goldbloom (her real name!). Goldie’s session was wildly engaging. She admitted to nailing home her message: that by far the majority of most memorable characters in fiction are not likeable, and ‘If your characters are nice, they’re no fucking good. We have to give them a twist to make them memorable.’ Using our own take on memorable characters from favourite books, Goldie suggested that what grabs our attention is characters who are flawed in a tragic way, who are idiosyncratic, and in whom we recognise ourselves. She cited Humbert Humbert from Lolita, and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, among other examples, noting that the majority of examples are men, and that readers have less tolerance for women who behave badly. Goldie explained that humans are hard-wired to crave novelty — it’s the impulse that makes small children stare at what is odd to them — and that the older we get, the harder it is to experience novelty. At the same time, we better remember what is novel. All of this boils down to the need to create characters who are distorted, dissonant, twisted — while not neglecting their humanity. Asked how to avoid creating over the top characters who defy disbelief, Goldie said you need to maintain the emotional or moral consequences of their actions. Her advice boiled down to: ‘Take something that you know and then twist it to make it more memorable.’

Tune in tomorrow, local time, for notes on the afternoon sessions.


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Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 1

Simon Ortiz, photo courtesy of Kevin S Moul

Simon Ortiz, photo courtesy of Kevin S Moul

The Desert Nights, Rising Stars (DNRS) conference opened today at Arizona State University (ASU), with afternoon workshops, followed by a reception and a keynote address by Acoma Pueblo Nation poet Simon Ortiz.

I started my conference experience at a session with TM McNally, author and director of the ASU’s Creative Writing Program, on ‘Lyrical Fiction’. TM quickly rejected popular notions of ‘lyrical fiction’ as referring to the use of poetic language, redefining it as fiction that ‘says more than it says…[that] conveys the most essence in the least amount of space.’ Just as I was thinking, Surely he’s going to quote Hemingway, he quoted Hemingway — specifically, his desire to ‘make people feel something more than they understood’.

Lyricism, TM suggested, is about efficiency. To illustrate, he handed out some lyrics from a Colin Hay song:

I drink good coffee every morning
It comes from a place that’s far away
And when I’m done I feel like talking
Without you here there is less to say

Old Main, DNRS venue

Old Main, DNRS venue

He suggested that all we know about the speaker in the song comes from what is not said in this passage — that what is most powerful is what is implied or conveyed.

TM went on further to suggest that anything that happens in a story happens for three resasons:

1. Because it is true (true = feels real)
2. Because it is necessary to propel the plot
3. Because it is emblematic, i.e. works on a metaphorical level

Following TM’s session, I ran a workshop called ‘Never just description: Using setting to enhance your story’; and as it happens, I made similar points, quoting Andrew Cowan (from The Art of Writing Fiction) on the use of detail in story. Cowan suggests detail must:

1. Be concrete and appeal to the senses (aka “feel real”)
2. Advance or enhance the story telling (propel the plot, shed light on character)
3. Signify or resonate at the thematic level (be emblematic)

img_9524In fact, the resonances between the two sessions were so strong that a number of participants asked if TM and I had planned it that way. We hadn’t, of course: I don’t even known his real name!

My workshop was attended by 35 people, and the feedback suggested it was well-received and useful. I was really impressed with the level of participation and the quality of the writing in the exercises that people read out. For the most part, they even understood my accent. (I didn’t actually know I had an accent until I arrived in the USA!).

After the sessions, we all attended a reception featuring smoth jazz and fabulous food — hominy grits with jalapeños, tacos, tamales — and where I enjoyed meeting and chatting with some local emerging writers.

Kenny Dyer-Redner & Simon Ortiz: fighting words

Kenny Dyer-Redner & Simon Ortiz: fighting words

Simon Ortiz then gave the keynote address, which was really a call to arms. His resounding message was, ‘Speak truth to power.’ He cited the Cheyenne River Sioux protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL) as an example of speaking truth to power, and spoke of knowledge — particularly ancient knowledge invested in Indigenous peoples — as ‘sorely needed in the world’.

Simon also suggested that ‘literature is essential to inclusivity’ — an assertion I’ve heard echoed by people of colour and Indigenous writers in Australia. He challenged the DNRS conference to become more truly inclusive of Indigenous/Native American writers. A powerful and eloquent address that I hope will set the tone for the conference as a whole.

I’ll do my best to keep blogging the conference sessions, but if I fall behind, check Twitter under #dnrs2017 for more.