Sunday, August 30, 2009

Snacking on story: Wells Tower at MWF

Wells Tower is a name that sounds like it should belong to an Ivy League educated stockbroker, or perhaps a bored, cocaine-snorting rich kid in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. In fact, as short story aficionados and surfers of the literary zeitgeist know, he’s one of the hottest new names in American literature, with his debut short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, garnering rave reviews from critics and impressive word-of-mouth among readers. All the people I know who whispered excitedly about Nam Le’s The Boat last year, in the months preceding its publication, have spent this year enthusing about Tower – with good reason.

The first thing that strikes you about the collection is how finely turned its stories are, with prose that sings with every sentence. It is packed with accidental revelations, with flawed characters who give themselves away, allowing the reader to know them better than they knew themselves. Fractured lives navigate fraught territory. A footprint on a car windshield gives away a husband’s infidelity, and sees him banished from his home. A first date comes to an abrupt end when a child is hurt. “I like people who are in trouble,” Tower said. “People who are experiencing some kind of extremes in life.”

Tower has been publishing short stories since 2001, when The Paris Review published ‘Down Through the Valley’, a story about a man whose wife has left him for her meditation instructor, a California hippie named Barry.

But his public success began a year earlier, when he went undercover as a “carny” (or, a ride operator at a carnival) for The Washington Post. He meant to do it for three months, but lasted five days, he told the packed Melbourne Writers’ Festival audience at The Festival Club. “Participatory stories are a lot of fun,” he said. “Doing that story was fun, though I was terrified the whole time I was doing it. There wasn’t a single person working there who hadn’t done prison time.”

He described the process of writing the story – that he’d be composing paragraphs in his head while working and would run out to the toilet and scribble them down when he could, then later piece them together.

Following the publication of the Washington Post story, Tower started to be approached to write more. He got an agent. She didn’t last long. He gave her two short stories. “She said, ‘they suck, I’m not sending them out’,” he recounts. He’d already given them to The Paris Review, who – much to his shock – picked them out of the slush pile and published them. That was the end of the agent. The Paris Review publication was especially heartening because its then-editor, George Plimpton, was a hero of Tower’s. “His participatory journalism inspired me to do the carny story.”

Over the next several years, Tower continued to write and publish his short stories and journalism in publications like Harpers, McSweeneys and The New York Times. After a couple of years of publishing stories, he started to get queries from publishers about putting out a collection, but – unlike most writers in his position would – Tower kept saying no. “I knew the stories sucked,” he said. “There’s no point in sending out stories you don’t think are good. If you don’t think they’re good, no one else will.”

Of course, these stories that “sucked” by Tower’s high standards (but were published by the likes of The Paris Review) are in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – but, in most cases, in a much altered form. When it came time to revise the stories for the book, he reports being “kind of disgusted” by most of them. One story (in my opinion, one of the best in the book), ‘Retreat’, was entirely rewritten from the point of view of another character. It’s a story about two ultra-competitive, very different brothers who have never quite got along but are the only family each other have, set over a couple of days together at one brother’s rural mountainside retreat, which he plans to commercially develop. The fulcrum of the story is the intense rivalry between the brothers and the strange yet prosaic way it plays out. “I thought it would be more interesting to rewrite it from the point of view of the more morally compromised brother,” Tower reflected.

Moderator extraordinaire Chris Flynn, the Melbourne-based editor of Torpedo magazine, asked at what point Tower would stop revising a story. “I think when it gets to that point where someone says to me, ‘you’re upsetting me, it’s FINE’. I do think it’s important, when revising, to get back to the point of what the emotional thread of it is. It’s about trying to install a bleeding heart into the story and not just a bunch of clever lines.”

While Tower said that his magazine reportage often inspired or informed his stories, he was adamant about avoiding autobiographical storytelling. The story he wrote about a carnival, inspired by his virgin assignment as an undercover reporter, “wasn’t about a young journalist working undercover at a carnival”, he pointed out. What he did take from his experience was the feeling of the carnival, the kinds of characters who worked there and situations that might arise. “I think any time I do write about my own life I try to abstract the things I’ve gone through, to find the cold machinery of it.” Otherwise, he said, there’s the risk that he’d write “treacly self-confession”.

“It’s about getting to a place where your characters are real to you, where you know them and you’re not dressing up a whole bunch of statistics and research to pretend they’re real people.”

Who does Tower read and recommend? Among the names he passionately recalled were Lorrie Moore (a newish favourite of mine), Deborah Eisenberg, Denis Johnson, Flannery O’Connor and Richard Yates – one of my own all-time favourites. “I think he’s about the best short story writer you could find,” he said, describing the novels that followed his revived classic Revolutionary Road as “really depressing”. (A fair assessment.) “But in a short story, he doesn’t have the time to build up to an apocalypse.” He especially recommended the story ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’.

“I try to snack on a short story every day when I’m writing,” he said.

Asked for advice for aspiring writers, Tower underlined the importance of a revision and a trusted reader, “two really important tools”. He said that it’s taking him longer and longer to write a story. (“I used to be happy with a story after three months.”) On revision, he said: “People think that revision is like cleaning up after the party, but you come to realise that revision is the party. For me, I’ve realised there is no party.”

Tower comes across as charming, ever-curious and possessed of a dry wit, peppering his conversation with wry observations and deprecating one-liners. But more than anything, you come away from hearing him talk with the conviction that he is a serious writer, passionately dedicated to his craft, and to the exhausting, never-ending pursuit of getting it right.

“I’m a believer in literature. I’m not a church-goer or anything, but I have a tremendous belief in literature and its power to transform.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Colour me green

I can't stop thinking about a comment Kalinda Ashton - short story writer, playwright and now novelist - made at during a MWF panel on the weekend.

Talking about the transition from writing plays and short stories to writing novels, she said:

"With short stories, I begin with the most fleeting ideas. I generally write them in an afternoon - or maybe in two sittings, for the longer ones, the ones that are five or six thousand words."

As someone who has been working on one short story on and off for two years and has just submitted another after six months, I was amazed and stupidly jealous. When I read that Nick Cave dashed off his novel in two or three months (and then presumably had an editor clean it up), I'm unimpressed. Fast work is just as often laziness as genius. But Kalinda's stories are fantastically polished. Colour me green.

I identify more with the method (though not the talent, obvs) of virtuosic short fiction talent Wells Tower, who reportedly drafts his stories 30 times. Looking forward to seeing him at the festival this weekend, too ...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guilt about the Past: Bernhard Schlink at MWF

Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, spoke to a sold-out opening night crowd at Melbourne’s Town Hall. In person, he is almost precariously tall and thin, walking with a slight stoop, as if apologising for taking up so much space. His voice is soft, low, polite. Heavy with the weight of the subjects he speaks and writes about.

Schlink spoke about the topic of his new (non-fiction) book, Guilt About the Past. Of course, it’s a topic that has informed his novels, too. The Reader was about a 15-year-old boy who had an affair with a much older woman, who he encountered years later in a courtroom, being tried for war crimes. Homecoming explored the experience of a man whose supposedly long-dead father turns out to be alive, living in the US – a Nazi collaborator.

Both novels explore the idea of coming to terms with a younger generation being intimately (often unknowingly) involved with someone implicated in Nazi war crimes and their attempts to come to terms with that.

Schlink spoke about “guilt through solidarity” – guilt suffered by people who didn’t perpetrate war crimes, nor were in a position to offer resistance or opposition, but suffer a kind of guilt through their association with the perpetrators. Some of these people are children or grandchildren of perpetrators; others are simply Germans who identify with the culture and the nation that perpetrated these crimes.

It’s a guilt associated with not renouncing the guilty members of their society or family, even though they know they are guilty. And it’s something that, I presume, affects huge numbers of everyday Germans. (Not to mention the application of that principle here in Australia, to non-indigenous Australians and their relationship to those who dispossessed or oppressed Australia’s indigenous people.)

“To distance oneself from grandparents who were perpetrators is not actually a choice for most children.”

There is a correspondence, Schlink said, between the trauma inherited by the children of victims and the guilt inherited by the children of perpetrators. They are united by the same crime. These groups can’t ask for or give forgiveness, though reconciliation between these two groups is possible.

“While forgiveness lifts the burden of guilt fromt he guilty party, reconciliation makes the burden lighter.”

Referring back to the Australian experience, Schlink concluded that Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations seemed problematic, “because it doesn’t come from the perpetrators themselves”.

Bernard Schlink commanded respect from his audience, but he didn’t necessarily command our attention. What he had to say was extremely worthy and interesting and made good sense, but I came away feeling that I would have got those messages better by reading his book. The general buzz in the Town Hall lobby afterwards, and at the festival over the weekend, agreed with my observations. Still, he sold out the space and I dare say that most of the people there went away pleased to have been in the presence of a great writer and thinker.

What I was left with, I think, was the gravitas with which he carried himself – modest but not falsely so, dignified and understated. There was the sense that he was there to serve his material, to deliver his message. And a sadness, too. A sense of shame at being German, a carefulness about him as a result of all the cultural baggage that carries in the post-Nazi era.

One audience member questioned him about Jewish activities in Palestine, asking what he thought the pathology was connecting Jewish survivors to Palestinians.

"I don’t think it is for a German to judge what Israel is doing in Palestine," he said. "Israelis will listen to what Canadians, Americans and Australians say to them, but the definitely will not listen to what a German would say to them."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

David Sedaris on Daylesford, the Kookaburra song and his family

Our destination that afternoon was a place called Daylesford, which looked, when we arrived, more like a movie set than like an actual working town. The buildings on the main street were two stories tall, and made of wood, like buildings in the Old West, but brightly painted. Here was the shop selling handmade soaps shaped like petit fours. Here was the fudgery, the jammery, your source for moisturizer. If Dodge City had been founded and maintained by homosexuals, this is what it might have looked like.

Read the New Yorker article in its entirety here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sending them out

Every Monday, F has a friend over to play after school. I know to expect them 15 minutes later than necessary. They dawdle home, picking up bits of rubbish from the footpaths – impressively long sticks, interesting shaped fragments of metal – which they hand over distractedly at the door. (‘Look what we found!’)

They shed their schoolbags, shoes, socks and jumpers in a trail between the hallway, the kitchen and F’s room. Every Monday, I call them back to clean up after themselves and they loop back obediently as I unfurl slices of bread at the counter and insert them into the toaster, four at a time. We talk about their day as I slice green apples into eight methodical wedges and pile them on plates with BBQ Shapes, hearing about mean kids and footy triumphs and what they did on the way home. I butter the toast, slice it in halves, serve the plates and – more often than not – retreat to my home office while they amuse themselves.

Two weeks ago, they had lingered at the creek and gone on an imaginary quest there.
They were five minutes later than usual, arriving home at 4.20pm. Their navy school pants were streaked with mud, their nails and palms dark with embedded grit. I made them wash their hands before they ate, wondering whether to tell them off and scold them to come straight home next time. Instead, I told them to make sure they don’t ever linger longer than they did or that I’d punish them.
‘I was just about to come looking for you. You were just in time,’ I said.
‘What would you do?’ asked L, F’s Monday companion. ‘How would you punish us?’
‘There’d be no toast and no BBQ Shapes. Only apple.’
The boys gasped theatrically; half appalled, half playing at being appalled.

Last week, I had a mountain of work to do. I cut up the apple and set out the BBQ Shapes and told them apologetically that they’d need to make their own toast, because I had a deadline. (‘Nahhhh,’ said L. ‘We’ll be okay.’) I don’t let F watch television or play computers during the week, but was so desperate not to be disturbed that I handed over the Foxtel remote on my way to my office and told them to go for it. As I hunched over InDesign, the boys bickered loudly about what to watch, eventually calling me in to referee. Decision forced, I retreated to my study again. Ten minutes later, they crashed through my door. I swallowed a scream.

‘Can we climb the tree out the front?’ asked F breathlessly.
‘Sure,’ I said, and they ran out, slamming the screen door behind them. From my window, I watched them barrel through the picket fence and onto the strip of grass on the other side of the footpath, where they scaled the tree and settled happily in its branches. For the next half hour, I worked to the muted sound of chatter on the other side of the windowpane, glancing up at intervals to check on them. They sat in the tree, chirping strangely polite greetings at surprised passers-by on their way from the train station, followed by cascades of giggles. (‘Good afternoon!’ ‘Hel-lo!’ ‘Have a nice day!’)

And then, the tone altered, relaxing into familiarity.
‘Hello G!’
I looked up to see our next-door neighbour in his fluorescent work vest; his son, F’s best friend, bouncing delightedly at his side. G was frowning into the tree. I knew what was going on immediately.
‘Come up here!’ the boys shouted to Boy Next Door. ‘Come on!’
He flashed towards them. His Dad stopped him with a hand on his arm and low words, too low to hear. They stayed a moment longer, conferring with my son and his friend up the tree, and turned towards home, passing the wall of my study on their way to their front door. I heard Boy Next Door wailing and stamping.

Boy Next Door is, more often than not, my third young visitor on a Monday afternoon.

My boys resumed their greetings, their chatter, their darting up and around the branches. I thought of Boy Next Door, alone in his bedroom. I sighed and left my computer.

‘Hi Mum!’
‘Hey Ariel!’
‘Hi boys. Is BND coming to play?’
‘Um ... yes. Later,’ said F.
‘We don’t know.’
I left the warmth of the doorway and stood under the tree, speaking softly overhead.
‘Is he allowed to come over, but not allowed to play up the tree?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said F.
‘Or out the front?’
‘Yes. That’s right.’
‘Ah,’ I said, and turned to go inside.
‘It’s okay,’ called F, giving in to guilt. ‘I think we’ll come in now.’ He dropped to the lowest branch. ‘HEY BND!’ he shouted. ‘WE’RE ...’
‘F! Don’t shout, go OVER there,’ I scolded. I lowered my voice. ‘And,’ I added, ‘can you tell G that I was watching you out the window the whole time? Please.’
‘Sure,’ said F, in a way that made me sure he’d forget my request by the time his feet hit the ground, if he’d ever listened to it at all.

Before I’d shut the front door behind me, G and BND were on the footpath.
‘Can he come and play?’ asked G, reverting to our polite Monday ritual.
‘Of course,’ I said, completing it.
He looked at me, wondering how to say it.
‘They’ll be playing inside,’ I said. ‘Or out the back.’
‘Oh, good.’ His whole body sagged in relief. He looked up at L, who was squatting on the lowest branch of the tree, readying to jump. ‘Are you okay, son? Do you want some help getting down, there?’
‘Nah,’ scoffed L. ‘I’m right.’ He sprang clumsily from his perch, landing heavily, jerkily on his feet.
‘Are you okay?’ G repeated. ‘You right there?’
‘Course,’ said L, straightening with shaky aplomb and running past him, through the front door, into the lounge room, where the television still blared from earlier. I was proud of him – L is a renowned sook and would normally explode into false sobs at an adult enquiry after his wellbeing. G followed him to the front door. He peered in at the boys, sitting three across on the couch, bodies slumped, eyes on Spongebob Squarepants. He smiled, waved goodbye to his son, and ambled back home.

Boy Next Door turned nine this Monday. His parents let him walk from his house to ours alone for the first time this year. Last year, I had to escort him home and back again if he went to collect a ball they’d kicked over the fence, or to get his footy cards. ‘It’s a dangerous world out there,’ his parents told me, more than once. ‘It’s not like when we were kids. Someone could just snatch him off the street.’

I strongly believe that this is media-fuelled nonsense. That children are just as safe, if not safer, than they ever were. I also believe that allowing children freedom to play and explore free of adults, and gradually extending that freedom as they grow older, is essential to creating a strong sense of self.

In a fabulous article for The New York Review of Books that had me shouting ‘yes!’ and ‘ex-actly!’, Michael Chabon makes the point better than I ever could:

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past ... The primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known.

He also offers a cogent, insightful explanation for this shift, going deeper into the issue:

The endangerment of children—that persistent theme of our lives, arts, and literature over the past twenty years—resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and its ills, at the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation, and commodification, and feel guilty. As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it.

And makes an excellent point about just why this freedom is so important, for reasons beyond the obvious (the pleasure of it, the valuable sense of independence and self-confidence it brings):

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible ... Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Obviously, I'm not advocating flinging open the doors and giving children free rein. (And neither is Chabon.) But letting children gradually off the leash in a responsible, age-appropriate way while keeping a surreptitious eye on them as they ease into each new stage of independence is surely part of the job of parenting.

'If I do send them out,' Chabon wonders plantitively, writing from suburban California, 'will there be anyone to play with?' Luckily, I don't think things are quite that bad here yet.

If I send F out, he just won't be able to play with the boy next door.