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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