‘You write for the pleasure of putting words on a page.’ Marina Lewycka gave up on the idea of being published and then wrote the hit A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. After years of rejection slips, it was the giving up that made it possible, she told the audience during yesterday’s Behind the Scenes panel at Adelaide Writers Week. (The worst rejection: ‘We cannot summon sufficient enthusiasm’. Lewycka: ‘[Your book’s] not bad, not terrible but…”We can’t summon sufficient enthusiasm”…’)
‘I wasn’t going to get published so I thought I might as well give up and have a bit of fun,’ said Lewycka. Enrolling in a creative writing course, she wrote a novel in the voice she usually speaks in, conversationally. It was ‘different to what [was being] published’, ‘too silly, too strange’. It was her voice, not the voice of authors she had studied, not George Elliot, ‘not James Joyce’.
Lewycka’s teacher was also a literary agent so she didn’t have to send the manuscript off, risk another rejection. And suddenly she was published, following up with another two novels Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue.
It was ‘letting go of the idea of being an author with a capital A’ that let Lewycka find the pleasure in words she had loved as a child, before she was old enough to even know it was possible to publish them—and let her find her ‘own voice’ in the process.
Misconceptions, obstacles, ‘enemies of promise’: Jim Crace
Lewycka’s fellow panelist Jim Crace first saw a picture of ‘impossibly handsome’ Jack Kerouac in an issue of his mother’s Mademoiselle, wearing a plaid shirt, the ‘scroll’ manuscript of The Road—apparently written in just 31 days—draped over his arm. ‘I remember thinking fame was just thirty-one days away,’ he told the audience. ‘My first act as a writer was to buy a plaid shirt.’
Initial misconceptions aside (no, a writer’s life does not involve looking like Omar Sherif in Doctor Zhivago, pouring forth poetry perfectly formed before heading upstairs to bed Julie Christie), Crace faced Cyril Connolly’s ‘enemies of promise’ and told the story of his daughter buying him a coloured notepad for Christmas. Eager to practice her newly gained cursive skills she wrote on a new page of the pad each day: ‘no messages’. ‘That’s the truth of the writing life,’ said Crace. ‘No colleagues, no attention and no messages.’
The reward? ‘Excitement and joy comes from the fact narrative is ancient. It confers upon us an advantage: enables us to play out things before they happen’, arguments, war, death, illness, divorce, ‘before it comes to us’.
Smashing out of the coffin of the past: Steven Conte
Steven Conte, whose The Zookeeper’s War (Fourth Estate) won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for fiction in 2008, told the Behind the Scenes audience he found his ‘narrative image’ in The Fall of Berlin (Anthony Read & David Fisher) and drew on his experience backpacking in Berlin in the mid 1980s, where his experience of its autumnal mood built upon images from le Carre.
But why set his novel during the Second World War? Why not a Stasiland? Conte said he was interested in a city in which the past of WWII was so obviously present. Still, the book couldn’t be ‘safe and stale’, it needed to ‘smash its way out of the coffin of the past’.
‘Only darkness’: Michelle de Kretser
In the early stages of writing award-winning The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser collected quotations. She ‘wasn’t sure why these fragments seemed to matter, but they seemed to chime’ with her preoccupations at the time. From Wordsworth to the hymn ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’, she shared some of these fragments and how they influenced the book.
The Lost Dog was the first novel De Kretser’s had set in modern Australia and she enjoyed collecting the comments of strangers from real life and ‘taking places from the world around me and working them into the book’.
But sometimes it is not so easy to name the connection between the real world, the words of others and the work that emerges: ‘sometimes behind the scenes is only darkness’, said De Kretser. She read a Nietzsche quote from Beyond Good and Evil which she had filed with her notes for The Lost Dog. ‘What baring does this have? I have no idea!’
‘A shark book’: Peter Temple
Peter Temple, once he has warmed his audience up, does a good line in self-deprecating humour. It goes down well, almost well enough for the listener not to notice the questions unanswered, how well it protects his privacy from the curiosity of his readers. We did get this out of him: yes, like The Broken Shore‘s Cashin, he has two standard poodles; yes, he has done cabinet making (a ‘displacement activity’). His football team? The Saints.
Also, that Truth was an attempt to write about Melbourne as it is now and will be, where the Jack Irish books were about ‘a Melbourne of the mind’, a city ‘that doesn’t exist any longer’. Truth is ‘a shark book’, reliant on momentum and pace. But you need to stop and ‘allow time for memories, dreams, reflections’—being careful to kick-off again ‘before you’ve bored your reader to death’.
‘I like silence,’ Temple said. ‘It’s hard to find room in a book for silence.’ So you have to find it in a sentence, a conversation. Truth is about ‘the combat in families’, the neglect by parents of children and by children of parents and the way ‘bonds persist like animals with vestigial tails, long after the need or inclination is there’. ‘I find it endearing that we have that sense of duty,’ he said.
Unfinished stories: Chloe Hooper
Recently, Chloe Hooper has been down on her hands and knees, the first four chapters of her manuscript spread around her on her study floor, cutting and pasting sentences and paragraphs from here to there. A friend informs her she is in good company: Balzac used to spread his pages out (though in his case, on velvet). ‘But he only took six weeks to write his novel’, the same friend added.
Hooper is going on for five years on the novel now. Of course, in the meantime she researched and wrote the multi-award winning The Tall Man about the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee, a writing experience that has changed the novel she put aside to pursue it.
She is proud of the change The Tall Man has wrought: there was a lot of ‘resistance’ to the book at first, readers didn’t want to know about the story of Doomadgee’s death in custody or the subject of life on Palm Island, but this has changed, she said.
As she cuts and pastes Hooper sometimes thinks ‘a real writer wouldn’t do this’; The Tall Man, finished and polished and published gives ‘the impression, even to the author’, that there was no crisis, no effort involved. It can also give the false impression that the story of Doomadgee and Palm Island itself is finished, she added.
Allen & Unwin: 20-plus reasons to party
The first day of the festival was followed by the traditional Allen & Unwin party. A celebration of 20 years as an independent publisher, there was another immediate cause for celebration: Shaun Tan was announced at the afternoon Adelaide Festival Awards as the winner of both the children’s award and the Premier’s Prize for the Allen & Unwin-published Tales from Outer Suburbia.
It’s the first time the children’s prize winner has won the Premier’s award. (A&U chairman Patrick Gallagher professed he was also happy to have enjoyed an entire day without a panel on ‘the digital future’.)
Did anyone else get to the sessions I missed? What did you think?