Rabbit Hole

August 31, 2007 at 6:28 am (Uncategorized)

Courtesy of his parents (thank you, Katie and Peter), Llew and I went to see this David Lindsay-Abaire play, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, last night at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli. It’s what might be called a quietly devastating story of a family struggling to come to terms with the death of a small child. Death is rarely a cheery topic, but there is surprising humour in this play, although the old biddy who kept shooting dark scowls our way clearly didn’t think so. She was not amused. And maybe she had a point. Maybe I was cackling a little louder than necessary thanks to the very agreeable bottle of Pinot Llew and I put away with our pre-theatre pub meal.

Regardless, families definitely are funny, and death is easier to bear if you can find some kind of light relief somewhere. I know I laughed loud and long over my beloved Granddad’s body upon being told he, a mechanical engineer in his working life, wanted his coffin carted to the crematorium on the back of a tow-truck. And if that doesn’t sound very funny to you, consider the fact that he got his wish.

Of course, the death of a child is acutely unfunny. It’s devastating conceptually and in reality. It’s against the natural order of things. And Rabbit Hole is wrenching enough on this point that I bawled during the performance. Twice. A few of the performances were really outstanding: Queenie Van De Zandt in the role of Izzy, Jonathan Prescott in the role of Jason, and Lorraine Bayly, a real standout as the forever-tippling Nat. I didn’t even recognise her. She was really great. Georgie Parker was tolerable in the role of bereft mother Becca, but Mark Kilmurry as Howie, Becca’s husband and the grieving father, was pretty dreadful. Everyone else seemed so well cast… he wasn’t. As Llew noted, the role should have been given to a man of imposing physical stature. And you know, I think he’s absolutely right. Seeing a really big man broken is both shocking and deeply traumatic on some basic level. As it was, Kilmurry couldn’t shoulder the pain properly, and he floundered.

There was one other thing that grated, and that was the American accents. I understand the play is set in America, and some of the idiom is recognisably American (eg the use of ‘cookout’ instead of ‘barbeque’), but can’t these things be adapted for an Australian stage? Change the location names etc and then allow the actors to speak in their own accents? It just jarred, especially when they dropped into ‘Aussie’ from time to time. I couldn’t help but feel they were all having to concentrate so hard on sounding Yankee that their performances suffered. The same thing happened in Love-Lies-Bleeding, Don DeLillo’s brilliant latest play (and if Rabbit Hole is a Pulitzer Prize winner, I only want to know when DeLillo is getting his). Maybe the standard of the acting was better in L-L-B, because it didn’t irritate me listening to an all-Australian cast affect all-American accents, but it sure as shit irritated me last night (maybe it was that darned Pinot again…).

But thinking of both plays now, and actually again with Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, it does make me wonder. Is it normal to adopt the accent of the play’s country of origin? Surely not. I’ve certainly never noticed this trend with Chekhov productions. Nor with Ibsen. So why are we doing it with the Americans?

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A Pox on Your House, Angus & Robertson

August 30, 2007 at 3:14 am (Uncategorized)

I’ve been rather slow getting up to speed on the latest sorry indication that publishing in Australia is really little more than a mug’s game. I only found out last week about Angus & Robertson’s unbelievable new mandate to publishers, but as this article shows, it’s been in the news since early August. I don’t really know how I missed this, especially as it’s so important, and so relevant to my own increasingly improbable future career.

This major bookstore chain, one of the biggest in Australia, recently sent letters out to publishers saying, in essence, that they have to pay for shelf space in A & R stores if their book list is not profitable enough. Like I said the other day: money, money, money. Pathetic. So in effect, this means something soooo utterly moronic, something straight from the Cult of Acquisitive like The Secret, can get the window display and prime sales points throughout the store, but something intellectually, culturally, creatively valuable from a small Australian publisher – the article’s example is Tower Books’ Carpentaria – has to somehow find additional funds for the privilege of actually getting their hard won title – already a minor miracle just for finding its way into print – into the store at all.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHH.

I feel like thumping something, I really do. As if small publishers and impoverished imprints in this country aren’t doing it tough enough already. As if we don’t already virtually ignore emerging young Australian writers. And the saddest thing is, as if we don’t really need, urgently, to hear what they have to say. Maybe it should be a two word anthem. Not just money, then. How about Dumb Money? Yes, that’s better. That’s much more accurate. Dumb Money. That’s us.

I think I can safely say Australia produces some of the worst commercial television in the Western World. And now it looks like the same dross is going to be promoted in book form in one of our largest bookstore chains. It’s apparently just not profitable enough for A & R to stock smaller, independent titles anymore. They’re just going to focus on their bottom line.

Well, that’s great. I’m never going to set foot inside another A & R store for as long as I live, and I hope other people feel the same way. Let’s boycott the bastards. Even if they roll back this incredibly cynical and in many cases crippling cash demand to the publishers most threatened by this move, I doubt I’ll ever feel the same way about A & R again. As far as I’m concerned, they can go to hell, and take their often terrible Top Ten list with them.

It reminds me of the great article in the Review section of The Weekend Australian, August 25-26. Hazel Rowley, Christina Stead’s biographer, turned in the very thought-provoking piece ‘The Mocking Country.’ The very first line is this:

Why aren’t Australians proud of the writers and artists who have sprung from our soil?

Well, Hazel, I would say there are several reasons. Most of us aren’t taught very much, if any Australian literature in school. Most of us are never encouraged to develop an appetite for our own stories. Many of us make book purchases based on recommendations and reviews, and in so many cases, including bookstore displays, it’s not Australian literature you’ll find being pushed. And then there’s roadblocks like A & R. Small houses have a hell of a time getting new Australian authors out there. They produce limited print runs, there’s usually no advertising and marketing budget, and reviews can be hard to secure. It’s very competitive – lots of titles coming out around the world, and not a lot of coverage in column inches dedicated to covering them. This is true even for the major publishers, so spare a thought for the little guys who can only be doing it for love, because it sure isn’t for money. So, in effect, what happens is that the already diminishing emerging author market contracts even further. Australians aren’t proud of the writers and artists who spring from our soil, Hazel, because they don’t know who they are. Case in point: as I was raging to Llew last night about A & R, and pushing Hazel Rowley’s article onto him as he tried in vain to get a good night’s sleep, he said wearily “Who’s Christina Stead?”

As a nation, we’re rather ignorant of our literary past. And we’re well on track to remain ignorant of our literary future, because at this rate, there won’t be one. Think of the tree falling in the woods. If a story is left in an empty room, has it still been told?

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Lunar Eclipse of the Heart

August 29, 2007 at 4:10 am (Uncategorized)

Australia was ringside for the spectacular lunar eclipse last night. Llew called me from the ferry and suggested I meet him at the wharf so we could watch the eclipse over a couple of drinks. A dandy idea, but I was confused: the moon was hanging right over the surf, not the harbourside side. In fact, it was directly out the front of our place. When I got down to the wharf, Llew said “You were right. We should be surfside,” but it was such a still, stunning, clear night, and the eclipse was imminent, and we still had such a superb view in the middle of the Norfolk pines that we decided what the hell, we’d stay where we were.

It was very cool how many people were out doing the same thing. Sydney is often accused of being a cultural vacuum, which is just ignorant, really, as though only rainy, ugly duckling cities can have real depth. It’s like saying there’s no such thing as a super-smart blonde. Absurd. But this ‘superficial’ tag is levelled at Sydney all the time, and I guess things like the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the Sydney Festival, the Wednesday night talks at the Art Gallery of NSW, and all the other myriad things constantly happening in this audaciously beautiful city will slowly chip away at that sour-grapes perception. Regardless of what anyone says, culturally this is a very enthusiastic town.

Sydneysiders love it when something unusual happens. We are, en masse, up for anything. We are not aloof, constantly halted in our tracks (no City Rail pun intended) by such a range of phenomena that there’s not enough space here to recount it all. Just a few examples: the Olympics, the QEII, U2, NYE, the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, festivals (art, film, food, wine, music), growers’ markets, restaurant and exhibition openings, premieres from Bauhaus to Borat, the Boxing Day Sales. Anything goes. So last night, armed with the knowledge of some kind of astronomy show, Sydney came out in force for a sticky-beak.

Now, apparently the lunar eclipse was visible all over Australia, so I’ve no doubt millions of us enjoyed it last night, but I have to admit to a real rush of affection for my fellow Sydneysiders last night as Llew and I walked to the beachfront to have dinner under a deep red moon. There were so many people sitting on the beach promenade watching this strange sight: whole families, groups of friends, delighted visitors, old timers and permanent residents. We were all instantly transformed into devoted moon-gazers, just because it was there, happening right before our eyes, on a perfect, starry, full moon Sydney night. People of all ages, races, nationalities and religions, sitting quietly, staring at this special moment in time, just taking it in. Everyone together. And if that’s not a valid, valuable cultural characteristic, I sure as hell don’t know what is.

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Tolkien’s Gown (and other stories of great authors and rare books)

August 28, 2007 at 3:16 am (Uncategorized)

My friend Anna lent me this fabulous book last week, and I have to tell you about it. Its author is Rick Gekoski, a rare-books dealer (among other things), and it is a thoroughly cracking read.

It helps that I love books. I love everything about them. I always have, and I always will. I love the physical manifestation of the novel as much as the concept of everything it may contain. Nothing fills me with satisfaction quite like a good book, and I feel genuinely sorry for people who don’t care for reading. And although Gekoski’s book isn’t a novel, it’s about novels and poems, and about the people who write, read, and/or collect them. Of course, there’s rather a lot of overlap in these categories, as good writers tend to be voracious readers. Book collectors also need a bit of the fetishist or obsessive in their character, too, and it’s my personal feeling that an awful lot of authors share this quality of compulsion. They must, to do what they do in the circumstances in which most of them do it. And all of these ingredients in Gekoski’s capable hands make for a great read.

I think I have actually managed to precipitate a flu relapse by sitting up late the past few nights gorging myself on Tolkien’s Gown. I could hardly bear to put it down. Sunday night – Monday morning, in fact – when I did finally stop reading at 2 am, it was reluctantly and only because I didn’t want it all to end so soon. I kept away from it all day yesterday, and then excitedly raced to bed knowing it was waiting for me. Llew fell asleep after noting the dopey, entranced look on my face, and I buried myself in Gekoski’s book. Like someone eating around their favourite chocolate in the box, I left myself two chapters to read over my cup of tea this morning, but by then it was really more like ‘mourning.’ Now I’ve finished. It’s always a sad day when it comes after such a great, galloping ride. I want more, now, another full volume at least. It’s been a while since a book has produced such a strong reaction in me, but there it is: a book about books.

Gekoski’s got a lovely, accessible, lighthearted tenor to his writing. It’s enormously affectionate, and not at all pretentious even though some of the money changing hands is breathtaking, and even though he has to namedrop as a matter of course (imagine being friendly with Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie). The anecdotes are wonderfully revealing, the snapshot of the dust-jackets and covers in question altogether riveting, the summary of each text, as well as the potted biography of each author, frank and insightful. It’s so enjoyable, perhaps because Gekoski is so clearly enjoying himself too.

Just now, sitting here writing this, I am reminded of seeing Peter Carey at a literary dinner in Balmoral, at which he read from the just-published Theft and signed attendees’ copies, including mine. There was something so snide, so smug and humourless about the man that night (I have no idea if Carey suffers permanently from this condition, so let’s assume it was an isolated bug up his arse) that I came away wishing I hadn’t just forked out forty-five bucks for his book. And indeed reading it left something of a bad taste in my mouth. ‘A Love Story’? Hmmm. As has been widely discussed in the press, I think it is perhaps more ‘An End-of-Love Story’, with all the bitterness and acidity that usually entails. At any rate, the spirit of Gekoski’s book seems to me the opposite of Carey’s novel. I think you could accurately subtitle Tolkien’s Gown ‘A Love Story,’ and I’m going to be very glad to pay someone for a copy of my very own. Thanks for the loan, Anna, I loved it.

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Don’t Taint the Tamar, Turnbull.

August 27, 2007 at 3:40 am (Uncategorized)

Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull is giving the public a few more days to comment on the proposed Gunns pulp mill on the Tamar River in Tasmania. And he’s said he’s “not unsympathetic” to the concerns of the public about the proposal. Not unsympathetic. I love a good double-negative, I’ve always had a soft spot for them, but I feel like Turnbull’s is more a display of fancy footwork than playing my song.

If you’ve never been to Tasmania, you should go, because it’s fantastic. It’s an incredible state, packed with the very best Australia has to often in terms of beaches, mountain ranges, ignoble tales of colonial and penal histories, isolation, flora, fauna, food and wine. And the Tamar River is crucial to those last four. The region has developed an impressive – and environmentally sympathetic (Tasmania’s excessive logging of old growth forests sadly notwithstanding) – tourism industry around food and wine, but the native flora and fauna have largely been allowed to survive and, indeed, thrive. The result is a fabulous natural environment that simultaneously affords its residents and guests all the wonderful advantages of a world-beating food and wine destination. I am a very, very big fan.

So the idea of a whopping great $2 billion eyesore of a pulp mill slap bang on the Tamar makes me see something quite other than “green.” There is simply no way the proposed mill would have anything other than a profound and negative impact on the area’s ecological balance, quite apart from the fact that it would also pulp to death the area’s existing tourism industry, big business precisely because no one’s gone ahead and destroyed the place before.

There is something really wrong, and really short-sighted, with the way Australia behaves towards its greatest advantages. It’s like we take everything that is really, really special about this country and then just delight in annihilating it, throwing money at anyone and anything that can wreak the most damage in the shortest time possible. Bring it down, throw it up, turn it on, dig it out, use it up. But whatever you do, don’t leave it there for future generations of Australians. Whatever you do, don’t protect it. Good God, no, are you mad? Raze it to the ground. Set it alight. Demolish it.

Money, money, money. That should be our anthem, just that one word repeated over and over and over again, because it seems it’s the only one we’ve got left in the national vocabulary. Money, money, money. It trips right off the tongue. It says everything there is to say. Australia: money, money, money. See how right it is for us? See how well, how truly it captures the cultural, social, economic, educational, architectural, medical, and environmental flavour of today’s Australia? It’s just perfect. Money, money, money. All together, now.

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Man, I Miss Paul Keating.

August 24, 2007 at 2:28 am (Uncategorized)

I know it’s futile, so, so futile, to wish for a world other than the one that exists, but every single time I read an article or a speech or the transcript of an interview with former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, I almost fall off my chair with longing.

Australia didn’t properly appreciate Keating when we had him. Many people still don’t appreciate him now. But there are many of us, and I’m realising as this topic comes up more and more that there are even more than I suspected, who have long admired the man and really wish he was PM today. What a different Australia we would have now had he not been defeated by Howard, the man who has (almost spitefully, it seems to me sometimes) rolled back so many of Keating’s regional (as in Asian) and national cultural, economic, and strategic initiatives in the long, long years of his office. I was damn depressed the day Keating lost, and that was before I had any real appreciation of how I would come to revile the man who replaced him. It makes me want to cry.

So here’s a link to another of Keating’s bravura speeches, this time on the history of and proposed agenda for the forthcoming meeting of APEC. This is the full text. If you’re not up for that, an edited version appears on smh.com.au

Keating understood and embraced Australia’s position with the eye of a visionary – and I mean our actual position on the globe as well as our international standing – and he was succeeding in steering our interests where they belong when he was defeated. Goddamn it. Keating, we hardly knew you.

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Giddy-up, Horsey…

August 23, 2007 at 2:00 am (Uncategorized)

Last weekend, Llew and I headed to Taylor Square for Cas and Simon’s engagement party. I’d heard only good things about the new Will and Tobys (yes, I know it should be Will and Toby’s, and yes, it drives me INSANE that they haven’t corrected this infuriating punctuation error in their branding. Knock yourself out with lower case, but don’t leave out apostrophes because then you just look stupid), so I was excited about seeing a decent bar up close. It doesn’t happen very often in Sydney these days.

I liked it. It’s a pretty sexy room, and they have this unbelievable horse lamp I really wanted to ride all the way back to my house. It’s a life-size black stallion, with a lamp. Hard to picture, I’m sure, but we all had to go up and stroke it. I fully expected someone to leap on its back before the night was out, but it turns out Will and Tobys is much too civilised for that.

It’s just a really simple but effective job. Quality finishes and a kind of Upper-East-Side-apartment aesthetic means it’s quite a dislocating place – it feels like Sydney, but not as we know it. Its elevation over Taylor Square means it also enjoys views that feed directly into that sense of being elsewhere – it’s quite clever, the way they have harnessed the space.

I don’t love communal bathrooms – girls like to talk about secret women’s business and reapply makeup in toilets, both of which explicitly preclude the company of men – and Will and Toby have a really strange, verging on fetishistic obsession with plunging their bathrooms into the deepest, deepest dark. It’s the kind of inky black in those toilets that makes said makeup reapplication a rather chancy operation at best. Shed some light, boys, please.

Whilst there celebrating the betrothal of our lovely friends, Llew discovered the venerable Tom Collins cocktail, whilst I enjoyed several flutes of sparkling wine. Will and Tobys Taylor Square is that kind of place. You feel like men should be dapper and women should be divine.

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Strange Days

August 21, 2007 at 5:57 am (Uncategorized)

i just found out a day late that award-winning journo and SMH blogger Jack Marx has been sacked by Fairfax. “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice. That’s bizarre. Apparently he lost his job after posting a satirical blog imagining Kevin “Badabing” Rudd’s activities during the now-infamous night out at Scores in New York (in 2003, mind you, so… gee, I wonder why it’s come out now?).

Jack Marx is a funny writer. And since when was satire a sackable offence? What the hell is wrong with these people? It’s funny that Kevin Rudd went to a strip club and got on the sauce. I’ve done a quick ring around, and most of my friends, male and female, think it’s a good thing he had a loose night out. God knows we’ve all had plenty. It’s just not a big deal at all, and I hope Kevin “Bam Bam” Rudd (see, it’s just a little light banter, no harm in having a laugh at a prominent politician’s expense…) stops apologising for it.
Stay the course, Kevin, stay the course. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: they’re coming for you. But is this the best they can do?

You know, I doubt anyone in Canberra wants a microscope turned on their activities after dark. Or even in broad daylight, for that matter. Some ministers are notorious boozers. Some like to stop in at Fyshwick to visit “voters” who are members of the world’s oldest profession. They put a whole new spin on the image of politicians out “pressing the flesh.” And Bob Hawke, one of Australia’s best loved PMs, once held the Guinness Book of World Records title for polishing off a yard glass of beer. I think we can all handle the idea that Kevin Rudd got drunk and watched a strip show. BIG DEAL. Every time my husband goes on a buck’s night I accept the exact same premise will be the very definition of his evening.

So why on earth has Jack Marx been sacked for writing a satirical blog about Kevin Rudd’s minor misdemeanour? It’s topical, it’s funny, it’s a free country, and Jack Marx is a member of the free press. Oh sorry, scrap those last two. I was just getting carried away.

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Stage One: Rejection

August 21, 2007 at 5:22 am (Uncategorized)

Have you heard of the 5 stages of grieving? I think stage one is denial, but if we were talking about the 5 stages of publishing, it wouldn’t be called denial. It would be called rejection. And maybe there aren’t five stages. Maybe there’s just one, which the unpublished author is forced to relive over and over and over again.

Something to look forward to, I guess, because I have officially entered stage one. Yes, I have my first official rejection. I’m on the board. The dartboard, that is. It took a full ten weeks to get it, but yesterday I received the long-anticipated, form rejection note from my dream literary agency. It’s five lines long, and it’s on a ‘With compliments’ slip, despite the rather ironic fact that there’s really nothing complimentary about it.

Llew took one look at it and said “It’s not very big,” to which I replied, “It doesn’t take very long to say no.” There’s no need to waste a whole sheet of paper on it, that’s for sure. This slip format is not only economical, it’s good for the environment to boot. Three cheers for brevity.

It’s one of Australia’s biggest agencies, so I knew this was almost certainly going to be the outcome. It was always a one in a million chance that the first agency I approached with my unpublished manuscript (MS) would do anything other than reject it. I knew that. I prepared for it. I expected it. And yet somehow it was still disappointing, even knowing everything I already know about this process. There’s a weird, highly schizophrenic aspect to all this, whereby I am supposed to remain “optimistic” even as I’m “realistic.” In this context, I really feel they are mutually exclusive terms. In reality, there is no cause for optimism. My MS has virtually no chance of getting published. Trying to be optimistic about my chances whilst being realistic about my chances is, as I emailed Tim this morning, somewhat akin to watching a midair collision. The two kind of cancel each other out.

Sigh. Since receiving my rejection slip, I’ve taken another long, hard, “realistic” look at my MS, and I am left with the uncomfortable premonition that I’m going to bomb right out of the competition, too. I’ve always known that was the likeliest outcome, but until yesterday I’d focused more on being “optimistic” about my chances. Now I’ve decided to trade my optimism for realism. It ain’t gonna happen. I’ve read extracts from the books of the previous two winners, and I can confidently say mine is nothing at all like either of them. If I were feeling optimistic, I’d say that was a good thing. Since I’m feeling realistic, I know it’s not.

In the interests of trying to salvage some kind of vision for my writing future that is both realistic and optimistic, I will just say again that I do know, I really do, that many authors have to write several manuscripts before they manage to get one published. Most authors have their first MS rejected; many of these are rejected many, many times. I do understand that this first MS of mine will, in all probability, never see the light of day. I accept that likelihood as part of the whole sick enterprise. So where is the optimism, you ask? Well, it’s in the fact that I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to keep working on my new MS. I’m going to keep writing, because I know it’s the only way I will improve as a writer. It’s the only way I will ever get published. And I’m going to send a sample of the first MS to another agency, and then wait for my second rejection slip to arrive. See? Optimistic and realistic.

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But Teacher, the Web Ate My Homework…

August 17, 2007 at 6:04 am (Uncategorized)

I wrote a post about an hour ago called ‘An Unwelcome Guest.’ I clicked ‘publish,’ and it seemed to upload as usual. I got the ‘Your post has been saved’ message, and ‘View post,’ just for good measure. What I didn’t get was my post, not on my site, and not when I tried to go back to find it in draft form. Repeated search operations have proven futile. My post has vanished.

Currently I am feeling too deflated by its disappearance to even consider re-writing it. The moment has passed. It just wouldn’t be the same. I have emailed WordPress Support in the hope that they are better equipped to retrieve these things from cyberspace, but assuming they’re fresh out of ideas too, I think we’ll just have to call it a day and I’ll start over on Monday. Have a good weekend, all.

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