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Came, saw, monstered

Very glad to be able to say I have finished a new book! It’s another short story collection*, and it’s happened a little sooner than I expected, and still doesn’t quite feel real. But I think I’ve managed to get the lid on this crate of monsters at last.

I’m working on something else as well, of course, but it’s pleasant to take a little time out right now, to go through submissions and administrivia and attend to this oft-neglected blog. I know that I have to do something productive with the yawn of time that appears just after I finish something because otherwise I will start projects, volunteer for things, pitch time-consuming essay ideas to people, or worse, get involved in furious/hilarious discussions online. There are always plenty of those around. This loose energy is mostly an ephemeral high, but if you were thinking of asking me to write something for you, now’s a /really/ good time to pounce.

It’s been a lot of fun to spend much of the last three years thinking about monsters, and now I’m looking forward to letting myself write without that tendency. I won’t say constraint, because it hasn’t really felt that way, more of a magnetism around a certain subject, a leaning towards the ideas of estrangement and violence. I will probably always write about these subjects in various ways. I was recently asked about themes in an interview, and I had to answer that I can’t choose my preoccupations, just whether or not I pursue them. I sometimes wonder if certain questions are fixed in all of us at an early age and we’re forced to go on trying to make sense of them, and if so, why I couldn’t have been imprinted upon in this way by ice-cream, or baby pandas, or something a bit more delightful. Oh well.

I am still discovering it’s with the short story form that I find the most joy (file under stupiphany), even when the work is dark. It doesn’t really matter how many corpses show up; even the corpses can be playful. If only novels would leave me alone I’d be much happier I think. I will try to remember this next time one comes knocking. It’s very hard to get rid of them once you let them into your apartment.

The other thing I’ve noticed in the last month is how Australia has remained central to my imagination. I haven’t been home for over a year but the landscapes and the voices and the troubles and the smells of the place have persisted through this collection in a way that I didn’t really notice until I started putting it all together. It has worked this way before; I seem to become more interested in writing about places when I have left them. There’s that old overlap between imagination and memory again. Something special about fiction, the way it makes you think at a slight remove but conjures up secret intimacies. Images repeat themselves without my noticing: flocks of parrots, high among the things I miss, make a few passes. Reading over these stories has given me little waves of homesickness, mostly for Adelaide – things like riding my bike down the Torrens to the beach or dashing to Central Market for an emergency piroshki. I realise it’s a bit lame to miss Chinatown when you live in China. I’ve also been missing Yaddo, where I somehow wrote about a third of this book. What a dream that was.

Unfortunately for me, writing the stories is the easy part. Now I have to throw spores out into the universe until something germinates. This usually involves a lot of waiting, which I am not good at (hence the multitasking). But I am trying to be calm about it, and humble, and all ‘yeah whatevs nbd.’ Because after this worst & most terrible part, there’s another really good bit to look forward to, where it pops up out of the dirt and I get to hold it in my hands. Hopefully you do too.

I made gingerbread biscuits yesterday to protect myself from manically over-committing to things. Baking is excellent winter therapy for Beijing’s housebound days, and at the very least it makes the apartment smell good. The air quality has been great recently, beautiful blue skies, but also freezing and windy, so every time I go out for a ride under aforesaid skies I end up very stiff and certain that if someone hit me with a hammer I’d shatter like a cartoon. The gym is closed for renovations so I haven’t had a chance to swim, not that it’s that tempting when it’s -15 degrees out. Yesterday the smog wandered back in with a vengeance. I’ve almost missed it, the way it obscures the light; Beijing feels not quite right without it. But this country is making huge progress on renewables (simultaneously asphyxiating the Australian coal industry, hurrah); China has woken up to the problem and is taking steps to change. Toxic air won’t always be normal. There’s another odd thing to feel nostalgic about.

Maybe it’s not nostalgia but a good old winter yearn. The days are getting longer and spring festival decorations are going up everywhere, with cute toy monkeys appearing in all the shops and monkey king gifs appearing on WeChat. This should probably be the year I try to read Journey to the West but for now I’m just looking forward to a bit more contemporary fiction (suggestions welcome). We’re going to spend the break in the city this year and for a change I can’t wait to stay home. It’s all too easy to disengage from Beijing in the winter, and while some hermit time can be good for writing, there’s also a lot to be said for running around letting off fireworks in the street…

Speaking of fireworks, shout out to the amazing Mary Anne Butler who took home the Victorian Prize for Literature yesterday – she’s a huge talent and a very hardworking writer and I’m so happy to see her getting more recognition down south.

*Yes it’s got a name but I’m not ready


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Vantage points, vanishing points

I came to the end of 2015 feeling a little disappointed. I was angered by the Australian government’s attacks on the arts, annoyed with some of the institutions I’ve been dealing with over the last couple of years, and frustrated with the cloud of misapprehension that seemed to hover over my writing. Two ironies: that a book about time should take so long to find its place in the world, and that the fate of a book about foresight should be so unpredictable. But after three weeks offline and away from home, I can see the year more clearly. I can see everything else that got done under that damp cloud. And it’s not nothing. It even looks good from here.

I’ve almost completed a new short story collection, which happened as if I wasn’t looking – I am still so in love with short fiction, partly for this ability to sneak up on me. Of all the forms I work in it makes me happiest. I have also unearthed the ore of a new novel which I can’t tell you about yet, only that it’s been taking shape for months now and I’m itching to get started on it properly. This work has carried on amassing itself while much of my forebrain was occupied with earthly anxieties, and that persistence is something to be proud of. So even without the additional honours of time at Yaddo and support from the Australia Council, the two shiny gold bones that 2015 threw me, it was a pretty productive year.

I had some great adventures in between working, of course. I traveled a lot, and I felt damned fortunate to be doing so in a year when refugee crises became so much more visible. I breathed some good air and some terrible air and watched the world’s creaking efforts to move away from fossil fuel dependence with a mixture of hope and dismay. Laughing in the face of some low-grade nihilism, I flippantly started an advice column for writers, hosted over at Overland. I love the advice column as literary form, and Cursive Letters reminds me of the fun I had when I was writing the horoscopes at New Matilda. Do you want some advice? I am pretty good at dispensing it. If you don’t have any real problems, you are welcome to make some up. We’re all fictional here.

Apart from not losing my nerve, the thing I’m most proud of is the achievement of something like functional literacy in Mandarin. I’ve been going to classes on and off since I got here, in six-week intensive blocks, backed up by my own study in between. This time last year I was overwhelmed by how far I had to go: what I knew felt like specks of dust floating in a multidimensional fog of ignorance. Now it feels like a structure, like a net. Speaking – negotiating, questioning, apologising – makes me human, to myself and to others. I’m not civilised or graceful in Chinese yet, but I’m getting better. I am still an idiot, and still regularly overwhelmed by how far I have to go, but I can figure things out, and even play a little. Language milestones are sprinkled gravel, so it’s important to stop and be amazed now and then. Learning to read as an adult continues to be very humbling, and is among the hardest things I’ve ever taken on (I sometimes joke that I decided to learn Mandarin because writing books wasn’t driving me crazy enough). It’s been an object lesson in the many social and personal values of language, a mindfucking experience of outsiderness, and a win for the brick-by-brick strategy, the child’s lesson I seem to need to learn over and over again, that ‘slowly but surely’ is always the only way to get anywhere.

So I have slowly admitted that Dyschronia, the problem child, needs to be set in the corner for a while so I can work on my two new manuscripts, and I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll subject it (or myself) to another draft. I wish I had more solid news but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I took a huge risk writing it, and I have learned a lot about writing from it. I’m still very proud of what I made, and that matters more to me than whether it has a life outside my office. Maybe it’ll find its time and place eventually, and maybe it won’t. Writers, especially writers with advice columns, talk a lot about living with failure as a part of the work, but even though it’s a constant companion, it can rear up at times, feel overwhelming. I try to offset this by working on a couple of projects at a time and deriving satisfaction from other sources, like study and printmaking. With that in mind, I’ve planned my year fairly well in advance in order to avoid both excessive focus and excessive multitasking. Writing that sentence, I can already hear myself laughing this time in 2017, with the benefit of future hindsight. But between now and then, I have work to do! And I am very fortunate to be able to keep doing it.

Happy new year, friends and readers and survivors – wherever you are, whatever you’re working on, I hope you have started the year with good perspective.


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Intention

I’m back in Beijing after almost three months away – the first two on an adventure, and the third at a residency in the US working on stories for a new collection. I’ll respect the privacy policy of Yaddo by not describing it in detail here, but i cannot refrain from expressing wonder at the extraordinary value and privilege of such places. Working in a colony alongside other creative people, in a place where so many other people have created, does something to the mind. I had some transformative conversations, exceeded my modest goals, managed to do three months’ worth of work in less than one, and have returned to my real life with a decent-sized pile of new stories for the monster collection I have brewing. This week I’ve been sorting them into those that are finished, those that will need another draft or two, and those that are lost causes – by some miracle the third column is empty and the first two are even, so apparently the gold spun in the palace still weighs something in the town. I was half expecting it all to fall apart in my hands like salvage from a dream.

I’m giving myself the rest of the year to put a rough tracklist* together and look for gaps and links and balancing-places. I am aided in this quest by some tidy money from the Australia Council (kindly proffered just before the Minister snatched much of it away), and hopefully that will enable me to continue in the vein of miraculous efficiency resulting from extraordinary privilege.

Meanwhile, I have an essay out in Overland about Detroit, which I visited last year and found I couldn’t not write about. It’s online here, and in print in issue #220. The thinking in it is really the culmination of a lot of thinking I was doing in the writing of the novel, Dyschronia, which I still can’t tell you more about just yet – I think I succeeded with that book’s mission to break time, but not in the way that I intended. Hard to believe the universe is composed completely of accidents crashing into other accidents when it has such a sharp sense of humour. Or maybe that’s a simpler case of cause and effect than I think.

Oh, if you’re into poetry in a big way and you want to contribute to the intellectual space that Overland makes, you can apply to be the new poetry editor, which would make you my counterpart but with more blank space. Being part of a literary journal is a bloody rewarding gig, if you’re up for the effort. The clever comrades are also looking for volunteer readers at the same link, deadline this Sunday.

*if the last one felt like a mixtape, i guess this one’s an album


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Free the arts!

The present Australian Arts Minister and A-G George Brandis wants to take a big chunk of $ from the peer-reviewed, democratically accountable national body the Australia Council and use it for his own personal “excellence” [read:slush] fund. This is the same guy who gave $275000 cash to Melba Records last year without any competitive peer review process and without bothering to tell the taxpayers (whose money it was).

So Overland literary journal and the MEAA and a bunch of writers and artists are putting our signatures to this letter. I’d encourage people to share it widely and sign it too:

Australians for Artistic Freedom

Democratically accountable public institutions are as vital for a healthy society as diverse arts and culture, and this move by the Liberal government is an attack on both. On the upside, we can take this move as an acknowledgement of the importance of free artistic expression to Australian culture right now – if it didn’t matter so much, the bullies in power wouldn’t bother to smash it to pieces in front of us.

Small organisations and individual arts grants will suffer most from this, as we are worst positioned to attract other funding sources such as corporate philanthropy. Without small orgs and individual artists, the sector as a whole is impoverished – and so is Australian culture in all its diversity.

It’s well and truly time to mount a broad campaign to shake these treehouse thugs out of office, and I hope this statement will contribute something to that effort. It’s an effort that is going to have to come from the grassroots, the very people they are counting on silencing here. So not shutting up about it is a good first step.


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