Epiphanies, Other Opinions and Listening

Went for a long walk yesterday through Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Rushcutters Bay. It’s spring here and almost everywhere smelt like jasmine.1 The sounds weren’t quite as lovely. Spring seems to be the season of renovations in Paddington so the hills were alive with the sound of jackhammers. That and really pissed off birds. One of which shat right in front of me: had I been a fraction faster . . . splat of eww on my head.2

Mostly I was thinking about Sekrit Project, which I’ve been rewriting since THE DAWN OF TIME and seems to be getting no closer to as GOOD AS IT IS IN MY HEAD.

Hence the walk. I figured change of environment, a bit of movement, colour, jasmine, jackhammers, and the way to fix this book would become clear. Not so much.

Got back home with no clear plan for the broken chapters, nibbled around the edges of them, tinkering at the sentence level, which helps pretty much not at all given most of those sentences will be nuked. After an hour of frustration and little forward momentum I stomped off for another long walk. This time with Scott.

And it was fun. Much talk was talked. Yummy food was eaten. Centennial Park was admired.

Plan to fix book was not hatched.

Not exactly.

My early readers—including Scott—were unanimous that the second point of view character does not have their first pov chapter until too late in the book. It’s taken weeks of ignoring that suggestion and several long walks for me to realise that, yes, they’re probably right and if I fix that then solutions to some of the other problems may be clearer.

Or might not. But the first third of the book will definitely be in better shape.

Yesterday I was annoyed I hadn’t just made the changes as soon as they were suggested. Today I figure it took as long as it took to realise they were necessary. I can’t make changes I don’t believe will fix the book.

Maybe changing the pov early on was not the solution I needed a few weeks ago. I’ve fixed many other problems in the book since my first readers got back to me. Could be I wasn’t able to see that the pov needed changing until the other fixes had been made.

This is why I find it so crucial to have other people read and comment on my first drafts. Even if I think their reading of my manuscript is loopy. Their responses let me gauge how close my book is to what I intended. As I rewrite I’m moving closer to my vision of the novel as bounced off the reactions of those early readers. Some of their comments that I dismissed as irrelevant wind up being very relavant the deeper into the rewrites I go.

This last week I wasted a lot of time banging my head and getting no where and waiting for an epiphany: a flash of genius that would magically show me how to fix that which is broken. Which did not happen. I’m sure they do happen for other writers but I seem to be more of a Slow Realiser than a Receiver of Epiphanies.

Yet despite having written multiple novels I still have it in my stupid head that when I’m stuck there’ll be an epiphany that will fix everything. I think I’ve seen too many cartoons where ideas manifest as electric bulbs over characters’ heads.

Sadly, my writing life seems to be electric-bulb-over-the-head-free. For me it’s always been this fix leads to this bit being changed which leads to this other fix being needed which leads to this other change which means the front bit has to be moved which means . . . cascades of changes.

It’s less easy than it looks. I keep wishing it were the other way around.

I am so grateful to Scrivener which allows me to keep track of everything. Seriously have no idea how I wrote a novel before Scrivener.

In conclusion: writing is hard.

  1. Sorry, Margo, but it truly did. []
  2. No, I don’t care that it’s meant to be good luck. []

Femme Fatale Songs

At the moment I am loving this song, “Heart Killer”, by Gossling. A friend describes her voice as like P J Harvey on helium, which is about right. She has one of those very, very weird voices that people love or loathe. Kind of like Blossom Dearie, who I also adore. And, yet, Minnie Mouse singing does not make me happy.

Anyways, “Heart Killer” is a femme fatale song. A song from the point of view of the woman who is the breaker of hearts. The point of view bit is key because there are an ocean of songs about evil, mean, cold women1 who break poor innocent men’s hearts.2 So I find it very refreshing when a woman is singing with joy about scything also those hearts into tiny pieces.

Even though PRO TIP: setting out to break someone’s heart pretty much never goes well and will rebound on you and make your heart either explode or shrivel up into a tiny dry wizened husk.

I recently claimed that Femme Fatale songs were my favourite genre of pop song. I was then asked for a list of such songs and my brain froze. These are the only ones I could come up with.

Here’s Gossling’s “Heart Killer”:

Gershwin’s “Lorelei” sung by Ella Fitzgerald:

And lastly Blossom Dearie singing “Peel Me A Grape”. Okay, it’s not strictly a Femme Fatale song but, c’mon, anyone making these kinds of demands—Peel me a grape! French me a fry!—is clearly Up To No Good and would slink about in seductive manner.

I know there are other fabulous Femme Fatale songs but I’m deep in Sekrit Project rewrites and my brain will not cough up anything else. Do feel free to share some of your own suggestions. Ironically, Sekrit Project has a Femme Fatale in it. But for some reason this book wanted no music while I wrote.

Last thing: Yes, I know the vids don’t fit on my blog. Too much other work to do to figure out how to fix it now. Hopefully, the Mighty Mistress of All Things Digital who oversees this site will tell me what to do. She fixed it. Yay!

  1. Often called things like “Devil Woman” or “Devil in Disguise” or “Cold as Ice” etc etc. []
  2. Many of them written by Chris Isaak—what a whinger! []

Monsters I Have Loved

Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*

Here it is:

Monsters I Have Loved

Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson

Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.

Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.

Excellently recursive, yes?

I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.

Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.

Nah, not really.

When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:

Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis

Am I right?

I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.

No?1

Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.

Me and Elvis

My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.

The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.

I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.

I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).

Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.

(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)

I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.

That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”

A thousand times NO!2

What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.

What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3

It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.

My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.

I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.

My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.

From http://www.outbushpitchas.com

This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.

Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4

Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.

The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.

I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.

Appropriation

I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.

Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.

Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)

They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?

Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:

I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.

Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.

Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6

Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?

Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?

Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?

Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.

But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.

I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.

Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.

Originality

My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.

Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7

In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.

He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”

“Angela Carter.”

“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”

He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?

It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.

At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8

And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.

Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.

But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.

I am no more original than Elvis.

Can Feminists Love Elvis?

But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?

He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.

How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)

In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.

No! Yes! Um, maybe.

Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.

Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.

I adore it.

SO MUCH.

US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.

Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.

I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.

You all make up stories that go with songs, right?

That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)

Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.

I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.

But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.

So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11

Recursively Speaking

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.

And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.

My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .

Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.

Thank you!

  1. At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. []
  2. I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. []
  3. Check out these accounts of discovering you are black or white (though mostly black). They’re from Baratunde Thurston’s tumblr for his book How to be Black which you should all read because it’s smart and insightful and funny as. The book and the tumblr. []
  4. I recently re-watched Stay Away Joe and it turns out to be jaw-droppingly bad and not just because it is sexist and racist. There is, in fact, nothing good about that movie at all. []
  5. I was little! See photo above. []
  6. For about a week to be totally honest. []
  7. Dissenting comments will be deleted. []
  8. As you do. []
  9. Yes, including the farts. []
  10. By the way there’s increasing evidence that cave humanity was not as cavemanish as we think but I digress []
  11. Courtney Milan has written several historical novellas along these lines. They are delicious. []

Songs of Girls Who Don’t Want to Get Married (Right Now) + Thanks

I have decided that I love songs about women who don’t want to be married. I decided this while listening to lots of Gillian Welch. Twas the song “Look at Miss Ohio” which triggered this decision. Also my annoyance with certain lines in Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. “Put a ring on it”? What are we living in the 1950s or something?! Uggh.

Then I realised I couldn’t think of any other songs about women who have priorities in life other than getting married.1 Other than the “I never will marry” song:

I never will marry
I’ll be no man’s bride
I expect to stay single
For the rest of my life2

But that’s usually sung as a heartbroken miserable song of despair, which is not what I’m talking about.

Can anyone think of cheerful songs of women who are happy to be single, who are not desperate to be married, of women who may want to marry some day but not right now? Please to share in comments if so.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against marriage. I am married myself. Happily even. Nor do I have anything against women wanting to be married. It’s just that they already have a tonne of songs. I want representation for all the girls who don’t dream of a big wedding and marriage when they grow up.

- – -

Thanks to everyone for all the lovely get well wishes. I is touched. Truly I am on the mend and is not that bad an injury. Trust me, I’ve had worse. But, yes, I will continue to not be online much for the forseeable and, yes, there will be more guest bloggers. Thank you, wonderful guests, and thanks again, faithful readers, for bearing with me.

Have a good weekend everyone!

  1. This probably reflects more on my dreadful memory than anything else. []
  2. Lyrics from memory thus could be wrong—too many keystrokes to google. []

Jigsaws & Novels

In the last few weeks I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the writing of Liar and making much use of jigsaws as a metaphor to describe said writing. Turns out that Margaret Drabble has also been thinking long and hard about jigsaw puzzles—longer and harder than me, truth be told—1 and has written a whole book on the subject: The Pattern In The Carpet, which I am now longing to read.

You all need to listen to this interview with Margaret Drabble about her personal history with jigsaws. Romana Koval is one of my favourite interviewers and the whole thing is utterly delightful from start to finish. Though Drabble does maintain that there are no similarities between jigsaws and novels. Thus she rather handily demolishes the whole premise of my presentation about the writing of Liar. Thank you very much, Dame Margaret.

She’s wrong about that, okay?

And if you’re in Philadelphia I will explain to you in detail why she is wrong on Thursday night:

Thursday, 29 October, 7:00 pm
Blue Marble
551 Carpenter Ln

Philadelphia, PA

Now go listen to the Dame being witty and (mostly) wise.

In other news the Austin Teen Book Festival was truly wondrous and I’ll explain to you in detail why at some point in the future when my brain is fully functional.

For those asking about all those posts I promised to write way back when:

    a) I have written the post responding to Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful post on people’s tendency to judge female characters more harshly,

    b) the rest of those posts are still brewing but they will appear here before too long,

    c) the Srivener and Liar post is getting closer to postability. Talking about writing Liar with Scrivener in the past few weeks has changed the shape of the post somewhat,

    d) It’s astonishing how hard it is to blog on tour what with the variable connectivity and the extreme fatigue,

    e) I’ll still take requests but may not fulfill them until tour is over.

Lovely to meet so many of you over the past few weeks. I look forward to meeting Philly and Chicago peeps and answering all your questions. Maybe I’ll finally get an audience who have all read Liar and thus be able to tell you the true ending. Fingers crossed!

.

  1. Though can truth be told when I’m discussing Liar? []

Liar and Paperback How To Ditch Your Fairy Release Day!

Yup, it’s finally here. Liar is now officially out in the world in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA! Is it just me or did that take FOREVER?

Also available for the first time today (officially) the audio books of Liar and How To Ditch Your Fairy. As well as the gorgeous US paperback of How To Ditch Your Fairy which as I may have mentioned multiple times is my favourite cover of all time. (Look to your left at the squashed fairy.)

If you can’t afford to buy new books right now, but are desperate to read Liar, I recommend getting your local library to buy a copy (if they haven’t already) or having a friend who owns a copy. That always worked for me.

Happy reading!

First Chapter of HTDYF, Read Aloud!

I have been remiss in mentioning that the US paperback of How To Ditch Your Fairy also makes its appearance on 29 September.1 That’s right, finally FINALLY, the fabulous new US paperback cover will be out there in the wild, available for all who want it.2 I have waxed lyrical about Danielle Delaney’s design before. It truly is the best cover any book of mine has ever received. It captures the spirit of the book, it’s funny, and I adore the colour scheme. Happiness in my eyes!

To celebrate the new cheaper edition of How To Ditch Your Fairy I’m giving you a preview of yet another edition, the audiobook. Twas produced by Bolinda Audio Australia who even gave me a hand in choosing the narrator, Kate Atkinson, who does a splendid job.

Here is the first chapter:

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Credits:

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I hope you like it as much as I do.

The good news is that the Australian edition is available right now. You can buy the Australian edition here. And the US edition here.

Audiobooks are a whole new thing for me. I’ve never really listened to any before. How many of you listen to them? And when?

  1. It’s already available in paperback in Australia. []
  2. I do know some of you prefer the US hardcover and Oz paperback version. Madness! []

Beginning of Liar, Read Aloud!

Okay, this, I’m really excited about. Remember when I posted about getting to sit in on the recording of the audiobook of Liar? Well, now you can listen to some of it.

I’m thrilled and delighted with the amazing job Brilliance Audio did. Channie Waites is perfect reading in Micah’s voice. But don’t listen to me, listen to her, and make up your own mind:

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The audio version of Liar publishes at the same time as the book in both North America (29 Sept) and Australia (1 October). Here are the links to buy the Liar audiobook in North America: CD and MP3. And in Australia: CD.

Hope you like it as much as I do.

Stalker Song + Giveaway

I have been promising for some time that I would write about how most love songs are actually about stalking. However that time is not now on account of I am behind with everything. So far behind that I can’t continue any feuds with other YA writers or—much much worse—follow the Tour de France. Yes, it’s that bad. Again.

In the meantime tell me what your favourite/most appalling stalker song is in the comments below. I will send a signed (by me and Scott) copy of the anthology Love is Hell to the commenter whose stalker song selections most amuses me. Or at random if the busy-ness makes my brain not function enough to decide. You can find the first part of my story in the anthology here.

In the meantime here’s Stalker Song by Charlotte Martin (via Stephanie Leary):

My BEA Schedule

For those what will be attending Book Expo America, where publishing in the US of A is showcased, and there are dancing ladybugs and bears, as well as many free Advanced Readers Copies (ARCs) of upcoming books, here’s where I will be:

Friday, 8:00AM
Me and Scott will be at the YA breakfast. (I’ll be the wide awake one.)

Friday, 6:00PM
Me and Scott will be at the ABC Not-a-Dinner and Silent Auction. This time we better not be gazumped by some last minute annoying bidding person. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Saturday, 3:00PM
I’ll be signing free ARCs of Liar in the Autograph Area Signing Table No. 9.

Saturday later
Various cocktail parties. I’ll be the one wearing feathers and gold lame and not drinking any alcohol because YA authors don’t drink. They don’t fuss or cuss or smoke or drink or lie or cheat or step on people’s feet or dance the hoochie-koo either. Just in case you were wondering.

What do you mean those are some of the lyrics from the song “Saved”? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

*cough* *cough*

Here’s Elvis singing “Saved”. It starts at around 5:30.

This version is from the 1968 comeback special1 which, everyone remembers on account of Elvis in sexy black leather,2 but my favourite bits are the campy big production numbers such as the gospel medley. (Apologies for the less than optimal quality. *shakes fist at youtube*)

Forgot to say that YA authors don’t dance the boogie all night long either. How could I forget that one? They’re heinous those all-night boogie dancers.

  1. Best comeback special of all time. []
  2. And he does look mighty fine. []

Actual 1930s footage

A few of you were a bit scathing about my attempting to recast Kiss Me Kate as relevant to my 1930s NYC research. There can be no nay sayers to the following snippets of research.

First up the genius Duke Ellington & his Cotton Club Band with “Old Man Blues” from 1930:

Duke Ellington is far and away my favourite USian composer. Just for his & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” alone. Oh, how I love “Isfahan”. Yes, I know they didn’t write that until the 1960s, but there was so much wonderful music before then. Including one of my favourite songs of all time: “(In My) Solitude” from 1934.

Next up a particularly nutty Busby Berkley number from Footlight Parade (1933):

Go, cats, go! The kid that shows up around the minute marks is SO disturbing. And I don’t want to be rude but Ruby Keeler? Not the world’s most impressive hoofer. She was no Eleanor Powell. Her singing wasn’t up to much either.

Footlight Parade’s one of my favourites of Busby Berkley’s insane extravaganzas. For some reason every single one of them features a woman putting on and taking of stockings very slowly. And many weirdo dance numbers. What is not to love? Added bonus: Footlight Parade has my favourite poster boy for ADD, Jimmy Cagney.

I’ve talked about Fredi Washington previously. If you haven’t seen Imitation of Life (1934) you really should and skip this next bit cause you wouldn’t want spoilers, would you? Reveals a lot about class, race and gender at the time. Plus I have a crush on Fredi Washington.

Here’s a pivotal scene with Fredi and Louise Beaver:

Lastly, more insanity. American fashion designers predict future fashions:

Oooh! Swish! Want. Pretty much every outfit. And the hair styles. Why aren’t we dressing like that? I sure would like to see Scott decked out in that last number. Bless!

Are you all starting to understand why I’m writing this book? Is just an excuse to swim about in an ocean of 1930s fabulosity. Music, movies, clothes, books. Everything really.

Your most recent lie?

Given that my next book is about a liar, I’ve been thinking about lies and why we tell them a great deal for the last year or so. Weirdly, writing this book has made me lie less. I told Scott as much and he pointed out that I’d told a lie just 30 minutes before I told him that. But it was just a tiny lie, I said.1 Still counts, said he. He’s right. It does.

I do have a few friends who never lie. I have other friends who lie constantly. Never about anything important. They’re all social, make-people-feel-better, don’t-upset-the-apple-cart kind of lies.

What was the most recent lie you told? How long ago did you tell it? Why did you tell it?

Those of you who don’t lie and are appalled by lies no need to comment. I have heard your position put forth very strongly by my non-lying friends. I understand and sympathise. But I want to hear from the liars on this occasion.

Thanks!

  1. I told someone I was allergic to wheat because I didn’t want to offend them by not eating their homemade cake. []

Why are vomit stories the funniest stories of all?

Tonight me and Scott hung out with two fabulous writers, Tessa Kum and Rjurik Davidson, and the conversation turned to vomit, as it is so often does when writers gather. We told many awesomely disgusting stories. There was much laughter. I would share the stories with you except that I happen to know of two regular readers of this blog who would kill me if I did so. That is how strong their aversion is to vomit and stories about said substance.1

Which is something they don’t have in common with this one group of students I wound up talking to on tour last year in Ohio.2 But for some reason I was left alone to entertain about forty or fifty seventh or eighth graders. So, naturally, I told vomit stories. And they loved them, which only encouraged me to come up with more stories. In the end they were demanding that I pen a collection of said stories.

I should do it. Truly, market it to that demographic, and every writer I know, and it would be a license to print money. Maybe I should suggest it to my agent?

Maybe I shall ask Simmone Howell for her favourite vomit stories tomorrow at our event at Victoria’s State Library . . .

  1. I don’t get it. Vomit is the funniest stuff in the world. There is nothing better than a good vomit story. []
  2. Sadly, my memory can no longer tell me what city it was, let alone what school. []

Famous

Over the last two years both Scott and me have heard several teenagers respond to the what-do-you-want-to-do-when-you-grow-up question with one word: famous. “I want to be famous.”

Apparently we’re not the only ones noticing this phenomenon. The witty and extremely entertaining Scottish writer, Andrew O’Hagan, talked about it an interview he did as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. He claims that the majority of the girls he talked to at one London high school said they wanted to be famous and didn’t care how. He imagines them all growing into very disappointed adults and sees their desire for fame as a symptom of moral decay.

I’m not sure.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer, but I had other passing fancies. For a while I wanted to be a film director. But I never did anything about it other than watch lots and lots of movies. I didn’t get my hands on a camera, I didn’t enroll in courses to learn how, I didn’t memorise the movies I watched frame by frame. I just fantasised about making movies, which in my mind was more like writing a novel than having to deal with hundreds of different people—producers, camera people, editors, actors, best boys, digital effects people—and do all the other stuff movie directors have to do. I think I sussed even way back then that directing films was too much hard work. Especially for the likes of me. Directors don’t get to lounge around in their pjs all day.

I suspect that most of the teenagers saying they want to be famous want it the same way I wanted to direct films. Not that much. It’s a shapeless desire. They’re not interested in putting in the hard yakka to achieve it. It’s something to say while they figure out what they really want to do.

Most people don’t know what they want to do till they’re long past high school. For one thing you don’t have that much of a clue about all the professions and ways to make money there are when you’re in high school. My sister had no idea she was going to wind up working in the digital effects industry. I doubt she even knew such an industry existed way back then.

It’s one way in which I’ve always felt lucky. I’ve always known I wanted to write. Most of the people I went to school with had no idea what they wanted to do and stumbled into various different jobs and professions before they found one that suited.

Some people never figure it out. Or get the opportunity to do what they want to do.

Fame is a safe thing to say when you don’t know what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t pin you down to any specific career path. It’s open and nebulous. It’s also something to say to shut the people up who keep asking that annoying question over and over again.1

I’m not convinced there really are that many people who seriously want to be famous and don’t care how. Once most people think it through and see the side effects of fame—serious fame—they change their minds quick smart. Who wants to end up like Michael Jackson or Britney Spears? Your entire life fodder for the tabloid. Complete strangers speculating about just how crazy you are, knowing what you like to eat, and stalking you with cameras wherever you go.

It’s the very opposite of fun.

Which is why I’m not that worried about today’s youth and their apparent incessant fame desire.

Do any of you desperately want to be famous? Do you know anyone who wants to? Have you come across hordes of teenagers saying they want to be famous and don’t care how? Does this desire worry you? Should I be more concerned than I am?

  1. When I was in high school I was always tempted to tell people that I wanted to be a monkey. []

Excellent article on accent

Over at Daily Kos, Meteor Blades (via Scott) has an article on accents in which he points out that, yes, everyone has one and quotes Geoffrey Nunberg being smart on the same topic:

    If authenticity is a matter of heeding your true inner voice, then it probably isn’t surprising that people listen for signs of it in the way you speak. And our idea of an authentic accent reflects our idea of the authentic self. It’s the natural speech you sucked up from the surroundings you grew up in, unfiltered and uncorrected. It’s how you’re supposed to sound when you’re talking to yourself.

    It’s also a delusion. Or at least if your speech is like yourself, it’s because both are a work in progress. My own speech covers a lot more territory than it did when I was growing up in a New York suburb. Sometimes it shifts toward what people would hear as East Coast nondescript. And sometimes it gets pretty sidewalks-of-New York, particularly when I’m talking to friends from college days. (“Hey — you never used to talk like that,” my sister once said to me after she overheard me talking on the phone with one old friend.) But it doesn’t make sense to ask what part of that is my “authentic” voice. You grow up, you meet new people, you change the way you talk. If you still sound the same way you did when you were fifteen, you haven’t been getting out enough.

That’s my emphasis on the last sentence. Because, well, EXACTLY. People who travel a lot, live in other places, and pick up some of the local accents, aren’t freaks, they’re just paying attention. Accents are never set in stone unless your ears are clogged and you’re living in a hole in the ground. (And even then wouldn’t you pick up a worm accent or something?)

We are all hybrids.

That is all.

Songs heard a million times

Recently the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra launched Sounds of Australia a collection of recordings to mark Australian history and culture. One of the most recent additions was “Most People I Know (Think that I’m Crazy)” by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs.

Fair enough, thought I. That’s a song I’ve heard a million billion kajillion times and think of as being very Aussie. I also thought it was one of our first hits overseas. However, my extremely accurate research indicates that that might not be so. I’ve been asking several of my USian friends if they know the song. So far none of them do.1

So, do any of you non-Australians know this song? And if you did were you aware that it’s Australian?

For bonus points do you non-Aussies know “Eagle Rock” by Daddy Cool? (Try not to laugh to hard at the vid.) So far no-one I’ve asked, not even Scott, knows this one:

And how about Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty”? It could not be more Aussie. Hope it winds up in Sounds of Australia:

As should “From Little Things Big Things Grow” by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly:

Version the most recent:

Version the original(ish):

Thank you non-Australians for participating in my extremely scientific survey.

  1. Except for Scott and I think he’s tainted from having spent so much time in Australia and prolly heard it there. []

Music not a cure for homesickness

I have been conducting a series of scientific experiments on how to cure homesickness. Here is my latest finding:

LISTENING TO MUSIC FROM HOME DOES NOT WORK.

In fact, it makes it much much worse. I have been listening to Oz music for the last four hours. Some of it music I don’t even like. So far I have cried 4.7 times.

I feel my findings are conclusive and I can now cease the experiment.

Next: The stabbing-your-hand-with-toothpicks cure.

Wish me luck.

A Tale of Two Librarians

I know some librarians read this blog occasionally. Well this is for you.

A play called “The Future Australian Race” is being performed in Melbourne at the State Library until this Friday. It sounds absolutely fantastic so if you can get there to see it, do so!

And for those of us no where near Melbourne there’s a podcast of The Book Show interview with the two playwrights Bill Garner and Sue Gore, who are both delightful. The play is about the relationship of Marcus Clarke, one of Australia’s first writers and the author of For The Term of His Natural Life and Sir Redmond Barry, the man who is best known for sentencing Ned Kelly. The two men met at the State Library of Victoria in the mid 19th century, where Barry was the head librarian and Clarke the sub-librarian.

The two men could not have been more different. Barry was a maker of lists. No, that’s too mild a way of putting it. This is a man, who before going on a long trip, made a list of every single item in his house down to the last teaspoon, who kept lists of every thing he ate, and every time he had sex (!). Clarke was not so much of a list person. According to Garner and Gore he’d start writing a list and quickly drift of into a line of poetry. The first historian of the State Libarian called him a “bad librarian,” as Gore and Garner put it: someone who’s “untidy and doesn’t keep a good catalogue.”

Listen to the podcast. It’s hilarious and fascinating. And if you can get to the play please do and report back on what it’s like cause I’m dead cranky I can’t go.

I’m now thinking of the librarians I know and I’m sorry to say quite a few of them are bad librarians. Messy, messy messy.

Five Bells

When homesickness eats at me I listen to podcasts. I listen to news broadcasts, talk shows, shows about sport, science, design, culture. I don’t care just as long as I’m hearing voices from home.

One of the my favourites is The Book Show1. Ramona Koval’s voice and sense of humour soothe me and the range of coverage is excellent: old books, new books, local books, o.s. books, books in translation, poetry, essays etc. etc.2

Last week was all poetry. They looked at five classic Oz poems. Beginning with one of my favourites, “Five Bells” By Kenneth Slessor:

    Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
    Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
    Between the double and the single bell
    Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells
    From the dark warship riding there below,
    I have lived many lives, and this one life
    Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

The reading by Robert Menzies was gorgeous and the people commenting on it were smart and insightful. I first read “Five Bells” in high school, but I feel like I never really understood it until I listened to that show. Beautiful.

Made me wish I was back home because the Sydney he describes, the harbour he describes, I know it well and I miss it so much:

I looked out my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon’s drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds’ voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

Someone asked me what was the last thing I read that made me cry? At the time I couldn’t think of anything but I have an answer now: “Five Bells.”

  1. Which I can’t help thinking of by it’s old name,”Books & Writing” []
  2. Though it’d be nice if there was more YA coverage. I keep waiting for the show devoted to all the Oz YA writers storming the world: Sonya Hartnett, Margo Lanagan, Jaclyn Moriarty, Garth Nix, Marcus Zusak and so on and so forth. We are hot overseas, Book Show, honestly we are. Between us we’ve sold in more than thirty countries! Won prizes all over the place. You need to notice this world domination! []

Best musical of all time

I went and saw South Pacific this week with the fabulous Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner. My head’s been stuffed full of those songs ever since. It’s definitely one of my favouritest musicals. I’d only seen the movie before and, well, “good” is not a word you can use to describe it. But the stage production at Lincoln Centre is wondrously good. I’d go see it again in a heartbeat.

I’ve seen so few musicals live. Kiss Me Kate is, I think, the only other one I’ve seen as an adult. Loved it! My resolution for this year is to see many, many more. I’m dying to see Passing Strange. And I’m convinced that getting to see good productions of Anything Goes and West Side Story would make my life complete. The movie version of West Side Story is disfigured by the horrible miscasting of the leads, who can neither sing nor act, without Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn that movie would be unwatchable.

I’m also a fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but, again have only seen the movie.

So what are your favourite musicals? Which do you think I should see if I get the chance? I do live in NYC half the year, afterall. I hear they have musicals here.

Be aware though that I cannot stand Les Miserables. I also really hate the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’m not even sure you can call it music. I would rather eat my own eyeballs than sit through Phantom of the Opera.

Elvis Presley was not a racist

I’ve been an Elvis fan since I was a small child. I can recognise pretty much any Elvis recording within half a bar. I have loved his music longer than I’ve loved anyone else’s. When I’m down the only remedy is “Viva Las Vegas” (or any number of his gazillion other recordings). Today is the thirtieth anniversary of his death. I cried then even though I was only little and I’m a little weepy about it today.

I am not one of those fans who has any illusions about the man. Yes, when he died he was a grotesquely overweight junkie. Yes, there are many other performers who were more talented and innovative than he. Yes, Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” is WAY better than Elvis’s. Yes, he’s example no. 1 of how corrupting fame is. But I do think he was more interesting and complicated than he is popularly portrayed. And I love his voice. I hear it and I melt. If he’d been born into an affluent family he would’ve wound up a famous tenor.

In the New York Times this week Peter Guralnick argues that Elvis Presley was not a racist:

Just how committed [Elvis] was to a view that insisted not just on musical accomplishment but fundamental humanity can be deduced from his reaction to the earliest appearance of an ugly rumor that has persisted in one form or another to this day. Elvis Presley, it was said increasingly within the African-American community, had declared, either at a personal appearance in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” television program, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”

That he had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow’s program did nothing to abate the rumor, and so in June 1957, long after he had stopped talking to the mainstream press, he addressed the issue—and an audience that scarcely figured in his sales demographic—in an interview for the black weekly Jet.

After citing lots of evidence of Elvis’ not being the racist redneck he’s often portrayed as Guralnick moves on to talk about why Presley is often seen that way:

As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context [of social inequalty], for Elvis to be hailed as “king,” if Elvis’s enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration?

Elvis would have been the first to agree. When a reporter referred to him as the “king of rock ‘n’ roll” at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, “one of my influences from way back.”

But Guralnick doesn’t talk about other reasons Elvis is seen this way. Like the oodles and oodles of paraphernalia that associates Elvis with the confederate flag. And also because, rightly or wrongly, white southerners are frequently viewed by the rest of the US as racists. Elvis was a white southerner therefore . . . Elvis appropriated black music therefore . . .

I have friends who hate Elvis because he was loved by the good ole boy racist sexist dropkicks they went to school with in the South. Elvis is forever tainted by that good ole boy worship.

Everything I’ve read about Elvis convinces me that for his time and place he was less racist than many of his peers. He understood the origins of the music he played which is more than I can say for many white boy rock ‘n’ rollers over the years. Does that mean he wasn’t racist at all? Unlikely given the systemic racial inequality that prevails in this and every other country and infects all our brains. Does it mean he was a nice guy? Who knows? He certainly wasn’t in his later drug-addicted days. Junkies are hard work. And rich junkies who are worshipped by millions of people world wide? Ugh.

I think it matters whether or not he was overtly racist. People who hold him up as a symbol of the white South and a believer in white supremacy should know he wasn’t a white supremacist.

It’s very hard to separate the symbol from the person. Especially when the person was as big a mess as Elvis was.

Excuse me, I’m going to go have a little cry and play “Long Black Limousine” now.

Of fans and geeks

El and Rachel Brown correctly surmised that the fan half of my question was inspired by the bruhaha about whether John Scalzi should be nominated for a fan writing Hugo or not.

For the record: yes, Scalzi should, and I hope he wins for all the reasons that have been described in great detail here, here and here. I’m also not comfortable with people telling other people that they are or aren’t “fans” or “geeks” or anything else. Those are the kind of labels you get to choose for yourself.

The geek half was inspired by my being asked to contribute a story to an anthology about geeks and geekery. My instant response was to say, “No.” Not just because I can’t write short stories, but because I couldn’t begin to think of a geeky story. (Plus no way am I biting the head off a chicken. Ewww.)

Also I was just curious about how you lot define those words. Part of what’s interesting in the great Is-Scalzi-a-Fan debate is that there were so many different definitions of what a “fan” is, which led to much talking at cross purposes. Seems thesame is true of “geek”. Veronica defined it the way I would, but Cecil defined it the way I would define “fan”.

A number of people take “fan” to mean someone who loves something uncritically. I can’t help but laugh at that when I think of the number of letters I’ve had from self-proclaimed Magic or Madness fans who tell me in minute detail the stuff they don’t like about the trilogy, just as much as the stuff they do. Clearly, these are slippery, slippery terms.

Thanks everyone for such fascinating responses.

So why do I call myself a fan but not a geek?

Let’s take the word “fan” first. I’m not a fan of science fiction, which may sound odd for someone who did a Phd on it, which became a book. To be honest the whole PhD thing was never a passion. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer, but as everyone knows there’s no money in that, so I went for an academic career to support my writing habit. The subject of my PhD was an accident. I’d read sf as a kid but I’d read lots of other things too and, honestly, I think the vast majority of sf (film, television or film) is on the nose. Many of the so-called classics of the genre like the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke or Star Trek or Blade Runner leave me cold.

It’s the world building that does it for me with science fiction, being transported to somewhere that is not like the world I know. I get that just as readily from books about places I’m unfamiliar with: Japanese crime books fascinate me; Australian ones not so much. I also get that button pressed by books from the past (Jane Austen, Tale of Genji,1 Elizabeth Gaskell, Miles Franklin et al) historicals, fantasy, westerns and so on. Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson create worlds that are almost completely alien to me. I adore their work.

I love the writings of Samuel R. Delany and Maureen McHugh and Ursula K. Le Guin. But I’m not convinced that it’s the science fictioness of their work that does it for me. I’m just as happy when they’re writing fantasy or memoirs or criticism or blogging or whatever else they choose to write. I love the way they string their words and sentences and paragraphs together. Yum.

If I were to be banned from reading one genre it would be less of a hardship for me if that genre were sf rather than fantasy or historicals. (Naturally, I exempt manga from all these categories.)

I’m also not a fan in the sense that Ulrika is talking about. That is I’m not a member of a community that came together around a love of science fiction in the late 1930s and is still going strong today. Or am I? I definitely feel like I’m a part of the WisCon community. For years I helped with the running of that particular science fiction convention. I was on the ConCom. Can you get much more fannish than that? And, like John Scalzi, I feel very much at home with many members of the science fiction community who definitely consider themselves to be fans.

However, I’ve never written fanfiction. So I’m not part of that thriving aspect of fandom. Nor do I read it. Though there are definitely books and stories I love, like The Wide Sargasso Sea, that are a kind of fanfiction—but the kind that plays around with out of copyright texts and thus gets to be published.

I’m happy to call myself a fan not just because of the WisCon thing, but because there are a lots of things I love. Elvis Presley’s voice. Cricket. Madeleine Vionnet and Hussein Chalayan’s clothes. The writing of way too many people to list here. I love Bring It On and Deadwood and Blue Murder and My Brilliant Career and ES and Nana and Osamu Tezuka and mangosteens and the food of countries like Spain and Mexico and Thailand and Japan and Italy and Ethiopia and the great wines of Australia and New Zealand and Argentina and South Africa and Italy and France and Spain and many other places.

I don’t think the word “fan” implies uncritical love. There are clothes of Vionnet and Chalayan’s that I think are naff, Cricket matches that bore me, Angela Carter books ditto, and Spanish food and French wine I’ve had to spit out.

So why aren’t I geek?

First up, the word is American and doesn’t have much resonance for me. I never heard it as a kid nor “nerd” neither. Not outside of a John Hughes movie. (That’s not true of younger Aussies.)

The people I know who are self-described nerds or geeks have passions for stuff that bores me. Video games, role-playing games, board games and the insides of computers. I have many friends who are into these things and, well, I am not like them in this regard. I do not know what “chaotic good” is, even though Scott’s explained it to me like a hundred times.

I’ve had flirtations with various computer games over the years, but my attention span for them is microscopic, and ulimately I’d much rather be reading a book.

Once I got into Go for about a year, to the extent that I was playing it with a bunch of Go fanatics on servers in Korea, and reading books on it. But it was largely research for a novel I was writing. When I finished writing the book my interest in playing Go lapsed. It’s still by far the best game I’ve ever played, but I doubt I’d even remember how anymore. I haven’t played since 1999.

Many of my geeky friends are also collectors.

I hate stuff. I spend a large chunk of my life recycling and throwing stuff out. I hate things that sit on the mantlepiece and serve no purpose other than to collect dust. I see no point in them. Nor in stuffed animals, or dolls, or collectable cards, or any of that. I love cricket but I have no desire for cricket stuff cluttering up my house and am endlessly giving away the cricket tat people give me (clothes excluded).

If I collect anything, it’s books, but I cull them ruthlessly and often. If I’m not going to reread it, or I’ve had it for more than a year without even cracking the spine and there seems little likelihood that I will, then out the book goes.

Also I have a terrible memory. Always have had. I can’t tell you what year Bring it On came out, or who directed it, or who all the actors are without looking it up. I have to read a book a billion times before I can remember any details about it and even then I’m pretty crap. I just did a test on Pride and Prejudice I don’t think I’ve read any book more times than that one. I got 5 out of 10. I would not be able to tell an original Vionnet gown from a knock off. I do not have the trainspotting gene.

So, yes to “fan” and to “enthusiast” (thanks, Bennett), no to “geek” or “nerd”. I’m also quite happy to be called a “dag”. Yes, I am also a “spaz”. (Though, Christopher, I say to you: Know thyself!) And “dilettante”? Oh, yes, that’s me. I have the attention span of a gnat.2

  1. I confess I have never finished The Tale of Genji despite repeated attempts. The bits I’ve read have been fabulous. It’s just that the book is so damned heavy and hard to read in bed. I know, I know . . . dilettante. []
  2. Except for blogging, apparently. Bugger but this was a long post . . . Sorry! []

I am a foreignor

This morning at brunch we were subjected to dread awful music played too loudly.1 A whole CD’s worth.

“What is this crap?” I asked. “I’ve never heard it before. I hope never to hear it again.”

Scott looked at me like I was deranged. “You’ve never heard this before?”

I affirmed that I had not and was grateful that was the case. He continued to doubt me, asserting that the band had been huge in the eighties, and unless I grew up under a rock I could not have avoided hearing them.

“What band is it?” I asked. Scott looked blank and waved his hands around. “You know, one of those one-word bands from the eighties. Like Kansas or Toto or Berlin.”

We asked one of the waitrons who told us it was Foreigner Journey. She also expressed amazement that i did not know the band.

“She’s Australian,” Scott pointed out.

“So you like Abba then,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

I admitted as how that was true. “But people who don’t like Abba don’t like sunshine or mangosteens or freedom.”

“I hate Abba,” she said.

“You hate Swedes then,” I replied. “Swedish people are all about Abba and sunshine and mangosteens and freedom.”

“Oh no, I love Swedes! My girlfriend is Swedish,” she said clearing away our plates. “She plays Abba all the time. Ack!”

“You’ve really never heard Journey or Foreigner or Toto or Kansas before?” Scott asked.

I shook my head.

“What a blessed life you Australians lead.”

So, my Aussie readers, is my lack of knowledge of those one-word American bands from the eighties an aberration? Am I the only Aussie who doesn’t know them?

I’ve never listened to commercial radio. Maybe while I was listening to Triple J and 2SER and the other ABC radio stations, those bands were on high rotation on 2SM or 2MMM or somewhere like that. But I did watch Countdown and don’t remember seeing those bands there either. And I just flipped around these charts and couldn’t see them listed anywhere. But I was pretty cursory about it.

Do you Aussies know these bands? Were they as popular back home as they were here in the US of A? Seriously, everyone in the restaurants was playing air guitar and mouthing the lyrics. It was terrifying!

Help me out!

  1. How loudly? It was audible. That was too loud. []

Audio Books

A friend is in desperate need of recommendations for really good audio books. Fiction, non-fiction, doesn’t matter just as long as they’re really good. I don’t listen to ‘em myself so I was of no use.

Can you help her out?

Happiness

I cannot explain why this make me so very very very happy. It just does.

Australian fast bowler, Brett Lee, in a duet with Indian legend Asha Bhosle. Why don’t more cricketers sing?

The song is currently no. 4 on the charts in India. Wonder if they’ll release it here?

Happiness is . . .

This post is dedicated to
my beloved father, John Bern,
because the novel I dedicated to him
has not found a publisher yet
and because
I think it will make him gag

Happiness is . . .

  • Finishing the first draft of a novel that was tonnes of fun to write, which means the rewrites are going to be even more fun.
  • Celebrating said finish by going out to see fabulous theatre (Keating at the Belvoir) with my parents, sister and husband.
  • Continuing the celebration with a wonderful meal at Tabou (best mussels ever!), drinking loads of champagne, and filling Scott in on all the stuff he missed in Keating: Gareth Evans, Eddie Mabo, Native Title and why Alexander Downer was in drag with fishnet stockings.
  • Coming home to discover that Bertelsmann Verlag has bought the German rights to Magic’s Child and will be publishing the whole trilogy in 2008 with two month gaps between each title. No annnoying waiting for the German readers.
  • Trying to decide whether to have a bit of a holiday in Ireland or Spain. Such a dilemma!

What all is making you lot happy? We happy peoples love company!

Hear me speak!

The good folks at Penguin recorded me and Scott talking to each other a few weeks back and now

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

.

I’d like to thank Ganda Suthivarakom for the excellent editing job that leaves out all the truly embarassing bits. Phew!

The privilege of knowing Ellen Kushner

This seems to be the year of books being published what I have a vested interest in of such proportions that the fact of them being in print makes me all teary.

First there was Julie Phillips‘ long-awaited Tiptree bio, later there will be Yvette Christianse’s just-as-long-awaited debut novel Unconfessed, and right now there is Ellen Kushner‘s The Privilege of the Sword.

I’ve been a Kushner fan since 1988 when her first book, the unspeakably wonderful Swordspoint, helped get me through a tedious illness. My friend, Jane Pritchard (bless you, Jane!), loaned it to me along with a whole stack of other excellent books, but Swordspoint was the only one that I reread instantly. It’s been a touchstone ever since.

At the time it never occurred to me that one day I would meet Ellen and we’d become friends and I’d wind up staying in her and Delia Sherman‘s home in Boston. Which I did for the first time in 1999 and was instantly hit with women’s troubles. Gah!

When I’m miserable one of the things that cheers me up most is being read to. It’s a sign of just how at home Ellen & Delia made me feel that I demanded they read to me. Ellen dug out her abandoned sequel to Swordspoint and started reading me the adventures of Katherine whose uncle the Mad Duke Alec (one of the heroes of Swordspoint) forces her to learn swordfighting just because it amuses him to do so.

I was spellbound, completely lost in her story, and forgot all pain. Ellen kept reading until her voice was hoarse and there was nothing left to read. It was magical.

Here we are in 2006 and that book has finally been published. In its finished form The Privilege of the Sword is even wittier, more adventure packed, and exhilarating than I remember (which is saying something because that early draft was damned fine). I want to be Katherine when I grow up. Or possibly her uncle. Or maybe both.

Do yourself a favour and hie thee to your nearest book shop or library and grab a copy for yourself. You’ll love it. I promise!

Off to copyediting

Blessed release: Magic’s Child is now on its way into Polly Watson’s genius copyediting hands. Thank Elvis!

I confess I was worried. Especially when Penguin’s spring catalogue arrived with Magic’s Child listed as if it was an actual finished book. Gah! I thought. Booksellers will be ordering a non-existent book!

Well, it exists now—in finished form even! And, if you don’t object to a moment of skiting, it’s not too foul, not too foul at all. Phew!

Rather than thanking all the peoples what helped (their moment of glory is in the book’s acks) I’m gunna list the music what got me through the last few gruelling weeks:

  • Benny Goodman Sextet (with Charlie Christian prominently featured)
  • Billie Holiday
  • Blur (Think Tank—thanks Andrew)
  • Cat Power (Moon Pix—thanks Richard)
  • DJ Dangermouse (The Grey Album)
  • Fairuz (Zikrayat—thanks Tina)
  • Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 Sad and Sorrowful Songs (Gritton, Simonov)
  • In The Mood For Love soundtrack (Michael Galasso—thanks, Adrian)
  • Missy Elliott (The Cookbook)
  • Piazzolla (Yo-Yo Ma)
  • Ray Charles (Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music and The Very Best Of Ray Charles)
  • Sarband (Sepharad)
  • The Shangri Las (“Past Present Future” cracks me up every single time. Genius! Thanks Ray for telling me about the Myrmidons Of Melodrama compilation)
  • Shuggie Otis (Inspiration Information)
  • The Streets (Original Pirate Material—thanks Rob)
  • Sufjan Stevens (Come On Feel The Illinoise!—thanks Mike)

I wonder if the resulting book is at all influenced by any of that music? Looking at the list also makes me realise it’s time for some new music. Should at least get the new Cat Powers . . .

Reading things like this and all your encouraging comments here and in email also helped me get through my toughest novel writing experience thus far. Who knew that wrapping up a trilogy would be such a bugger?

I’m so happy it’s finished. Doesn’t the complete trilogy look fine? Imagine it sitting all together on the bookshelf!

And now I sleep for a week or more. (Scott, wake me up when the copyedits arrive.)

PS Today is the official pub date for the Australian Magic Lessons and is currently featured on the front page of Penguin Australia’s kids’ books. Spread the word!

Through a Brain Foggily

Thursday went to the Bronx Library Centre and got to hang out with some very smart, very interesting teenagers. Hey Melanie! Hey Elizabeth! Hey Rachely! Hey Rachell! Hey Melodie! And hey the girl with the lovely French name that I can’t remember! (Sorry.) And we talked books and writing and Midnighters and Uglies and it were fun.

And just as wonderful was the fact that Carol, who’s (I think) the head of Young Adult Services for the Bronx Library Center, is from Trinidad and loves cricket! So we got to talk about Brian Lara and Dwayne Bravo. A brief cricket moment in the midst of a desert of non-cricketness. Which is why I haven’t mentioned the highest scoring one-day match of all time in which Australia scored 434 and thus had the game in their pockets only to be outscored by South Africa. Holy crap! How is that possible? (And, you know, poor bloody bowlers—must’ve been the flatest, uncrackedest, giving-nothingest wicket of all time.)

But I digress, libraries wonderful, librarians wonderful, teenagers who come to library events wonderful.

That night we caught up with some of our YA novel writing compatriots and talked shop, gossiped, and decided whether trolls are human or not.

Today was the Books of Wonder reading. We read with newly minted superstar, Marcus Zusak, who courtesy of an appearance on Good Morning America, has been at number one or two on Amazon.com since Friday am. Oh my Elvis! He was charmingly overwhelmed by the fuss and the long queue of adult women wanting him to sign Book Thief for them.

Also appearing were Linzi Glass, author of The Year the Gypsies Came who I’d heard all about from Little Red School House librarian, Karyn Silverman, and Sarah Durkee whose middle grade book, The Fruit Bowl Project sounds utterly charming. We were on the girls table together and thus got to natter muchly about this and that. Very genial.

The event was a lot of fun. Always fab to meet new writers and the audience was fabby too. Lots of friends (thanks, guys, for the support!), not to mention all the folks I don’t know. Oh, and it was such a treat recognising these two brothers from Queens who were at our last Books of Wonder event and just as they did then asked smart cool questions. Yay, them.

Best of all, as usual, were the wonderful staff of Books of Wonder. Peter Glassman, the owner, is always fabulous. He’s so genuinely enthusiastic about books for kids and teenagers. It’s infectious. And it’s always a pleasure to hang out with Sara and Elena. Librarians and booksellers = the world’s best people.

So it’s as well we had to run from Books of Wonder to the New York Public Library for the 77th Annual Exhibition of Books for the Teen Age where Chris Crutcher gave the most wonderful speech about censorship and writing for young adults. He is my new hero.

And now I’m crawling into bed to sleep for many, many, many hours.

Posted: NYC, 9:30PM, 18 March

Merry, Merry, Happy, Happy

I hope everyone who celebrates today or any of the cluster of days around it—or who’s just enjoying the days off work or school—has a most excellent end of the year. I plan to.

I’d like to adopt the USian custom of giving thanks (yeah, yeah, I know they do it on a different day—whatever!). Here’s what I’m thankful for:

    That I’m home in Sydney living in the best place ever: Flying foxes at dusk! Huge decks! Huge bath tub! Views! Amazing pubs, cafes & restaurants within spitting distance! Southerly breezes!

    That I’m home in the land of continuous cricket coverage! Of beautiful beaches! And the best avocadoes (yes, Mely, you need to move here, not smelly California) and mangosteens and mangoes and all the other yummy fruit and veg my heart pines for!

    Rediscovering all my CDs what have been in storage since forever. Most especially Sepharad: Songs of the Spanish Jews by Sarband. Best CD ever!

    The books beside my bed: The Tale of Genji—started it, but am intimidated by its enormousness, though I really want to take part in this amazing discussion; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince—started it; Shaman’s Crossing by Robin Hobb; The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte—finished it, loved it!; The Big Ship: Warwick Armstrong and the Making of Modern Cricket by Gideon Haigh—started it; Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm—started it.

    My writing career, and that I can type those words without cacking myself. Yes, I really do have a writing career!

    My family and friends. Especially my family: Jan, John, Niki and Scott, with whom I’m about to do the whole yummy food and wine, pressies, playing-lots-of-games thing! Bring it on!

Hope most everything is wonderful with you lot as well.

Wow

So, last night we got to hang out with the smartest group of folks I’ve hung out with in an age (and I hang with much smartness, let me tell you). At the Teen section of Elizabeth Library, New Jersey, we read a little bit, we told anecdotes, got asked very smart and very funny questions, I got to talk Spanish, and afterwards we got to eat great pasta and drink good wine and enjoy more ace conversation.

I read from my great Australian cricket mangosteen Elvis fairy novel, which I feared would tank with the seventeen-year-olds, but they laughed harder than the Brooklyn audience. Yay! I finally wrote something that cracks people up. And some of them knew about cricket. One guy plays it with his Pakistani neighbours. How cool is that? And many loved basketball and knew about the WNBA, not just the NBA! Heaven.

Scott read from Pretties which kind of tanked, and then from Peeps, which went over huge guns. He read about toxoplasma and there was much speculation about who has the parasite and who doesn’t. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Then you’ll have to read the book, won’t you?) So many of them had read at least one of Scott’s books. One had read all of them and was full of smart questions. I made Scott do his Donald Duck voice and it slayed them best of all (he can harmonise with himself—next time you see him, just ask—he loves to perform on command). There was a queue of people wanting to have their photo taken with Scott. How fab is that?

And at the end, the library gave everyone a copy of one of my books (they had a choice of Magic or Madness or Magic Lessons—yup, Penguin genorously gave them a whole stack of galleys) and one of Scott’s many books. Though some tried sneakily to take two of Scott’s books. The competition over copies of Peeps was intense. We signed for all of them and thus got to talk one on one to everyone. Great idea, no? It was fabulous fun and I want to do it again.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love libraries? And librarians? And people who love libraries and librarians? No? Well, I really, really, really do.

Another late night post

On account of tomorrow we is off to Atlantic City for the book fair and then to Philadelphia to stay with the fabulous Liz Gilbert this is another hasty late night post. Not that it’s so very late, it just feels like it on account of Scott and me did our debut Brooklyn readings tonight at the Barbes Bar. Many of our friends came (yay them!) and there were actual total strangers (yay them, too!). Twas a blast. For the first time ever I actually enjoyed reading. How bout that? Scott read great in his Texan accent and Bennett Madison was most funny, too.

Highlight of the night: the youngest member of the audience coming up to me to tell me that she loved the bit I read from my as-yet-unfinished great Australian YA cricket fairy mangosteen novel. She told me what her fairy is and those of various members of her family. Then when I said I didn’t have a fairy, she said, “Yes, you do! You have the good-story fairy.” Isn’t that lovely? I was so touched I almost got teary. Sadly, I was too over-energised from reading to remember her name, but if you’re reading this: thank you! It meant a lot to me.

hummingbird or hoax?

I finally did it. I finally got a photo of a hummingbird. Hell, I got two. What kind of a genius, am I? And it required no patience or planning at all. I just happened to be in the kitchen with the camera.


You see it? There in the centre right of the photo, just behind the pale purple flowers.

No? Well how about in this photo:

This time look just left of the pale purple flowers.

Okay then, here’s the first photo again, but this time cropped with the hummingbird dead centre:

And the second, also cropped and in the centre:

See it? Isn’t that cool? You don’t see it? Look closer, damn it! See the grey blur? See the wings? That’s the hummingbird. Bloody hell, those buggers move fast! More than a gazillion wing beats per minute, I reckon.

And you know what? I don’t care if you can’t see the hummingbird. I know it’s there. That’s all that matters. I have achieved the one thing I came to San Miguel to achieve: I have taken a photo of a hummingbird.

I loves them. I do.

P.S. Top of my current want list? A decent digi camera. You know, with a zoom and stuff.

You Must Listen to This

“Rampage” is one of the best radio documentaries I’ve ever heard.

Over the last few years Australian war artist George Gittoes has been documenting the war in Iraq through the music of the conflict—the sounds being listened to and made by US troops in Iraq. Now he’s travelled home with the soldiers and found himself in a whole new war zone—America.

Miami specifically. In his previous documentary, Soundtrack to War (chunks of which were used in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheidt 9/11) one of the soldiers he followed, Elliot Lovett, said that Iraq was a doddle compared to where he lived in Miami. Gittoes followed him home and discovered that it was true.

Listen to it here.

Randomly

Georgette Heyer books remain most excellent on the umpteenth reread. On this occasion Venetia, Frederica, and Sylvester. Am unable to decide which I like better: Venetia or Sylvester. Right now am tilting towards Sylvester on account of authoress Phoebe’s roman a clef, the hero, Sylvester’s attempt to “mount” the heroine, and the truly appalling Sir Nugent Fotherby. But the sexy talk between Venetia and her Wicked Duke Damerel is hard to go past.

Can’t stop listening to Missy Elliot’s latest The Cookbook. Current fave: “We run this”.

The latest New Yorker has a gorgeous account of just how much Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) drank in a day:

At about ten o’clock, he would have his “morning draft”—usually “small” (or weak) beer, but sometimes regular beer or even wine. Cakes might be eaten with the draft, but dinner was the day’s main meal, then taken at noon, and, at least on some occasions, this was washed down with wine—possibly watered, given the volumes that Pepys records knocking back. During the rest of the working day, more wine might be consumed; Rhenish wine (sometimes sugared); “sack” (sherry or Spanish white wine); claret (red Bordeaux); “Florence” wine; “burnt” or “mulled” wine; wine flavoured with wormwood. He might also have further drafts of beer (traditionally hopped) or ale (traditionally unhopped), and specified as Margate, Lambeth, China, or Hull).

Fair enough. Drinking water back then was dangerous. I’d’ve been dead of cholera so very fast. I love me the taste of water. Especially New York City tap water which was unavailable to Pepys. Poor bastard.

It finally got hot here in NYC. I’m very happy.

How to Do Your Head in (updated)

Watch the Tour on the tellie while following the cricket through the BBC’s online radio and exchanging emails about it with your sister. Apparently I don’t multitask well. My head hurts. Thankfully the Tour is finished for the morning and I can concentrate on the cricket.

Am really enjoying the cricket right now. McGrath is bowling like a demon. He’s already gotten fivefer. Ha ha! I knew that Australia getting out for 190 was all about the wicket, not about the bowling. Of course now that Australia is in it’s all about the bowling not the wicket. No, I am not one-eyed.

Oh my, I’d forgotten about the BBC commentator—Blofeld’s appallingly plummy accent. It is to gag. Ack. Ack. Ack.

Update: 17 wickets taken in one day! Australia all out for 190; England 7/92 and only one real batsman left. McGrath gets his 500th test scalp with unbelievably brilliant bowling. As Merv Hughes said “Fair dinkum that was a good day’s play.” I reckon!

I Got Me an Agent

Yup, at long last, after an epically long search, I’m agented! My new agent is Jill Grinberg of Anderson Grinberg Literary Management. She’s fabulous. Fulfills every one of my perfect agent requirements (which, as I’ve mentioned, all the other agents I met also fulfilled), and liked and understood my twelfth-century Cambodia novel (which only one other agent was into).

Jill also brought an extra something I hadn’t even realised was important to me: she understands the Australian market and its relationship to the UK one. Given that she represents a slew of other Australians—including such wonderful writers as Alison Goodman, John Marsden, and Garth Nix—it figures.

I’m feeling dead chuffed with my decision, but also a little sad about the other agents I decided not to go with. Mostly, though, I’m just relieved that it’s done and I don’t have to go on any more agent first dates or agonise over my decision. Yay! I got represented!

This and That

Interwebby thingies I read and enjoyed today:

Tingle alley has some flittering thoughts about how fascinated she is by other writers’ acknowledgments here and here. Me too!

Some more Australian gloating about the coming Ashes series.

A cool review of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy.

Lesson learned today: sometimes google is definitely not all that, and a trip to the library is required. My attempts to find out more about the recording, publishing and reception of Bill Broonzy’s”Get Back (Black, Brown and White)” inspired by Josh’s comment here yielded close to nothing. Anyone out there got any leads please to let me know!

I finished up with the oz version of magic or madness—damn it’s hard to read through your own book a gazillion times. I honestly don’t think I can look at it ever again. But I’m dead pleased to be that much closer to having the book out in my own country! Now, back to the monster that is Daughters of Earth.

Slightly Less Wimpy

Tonight I have managed staying awake until 2:50AM. Well, that is the time at this moment. I am bedward headed, but not quite there yet. (Shelly, I am but a sliver of my former self. Apologies.)

Things I learned at WisCon today (or, er, yesterday):

Robin McKinley and Scott Westerfeld have completely different modes of writing. Scott’s is more sensible, but Robin’s sounds like a whole lot more fun.

Ex-friend Mely might possibly regain friend status. maybe. If Serenity is never mentioned. Ever.

Doselle is the same age as me! And Lauren.

Good wine that costs money is way better than free cheap beer, especially when drunk with the likes of Chris & Gwenda.

Elad is a darling.

Pan Morigan is amazingly talented and, on top of having a divinely gorgeous voice, she can play the accordion!

Pizza at 2AM tastes way better than it actually is.

Sleep is good.

That is really, really all.

Back in Madison

So here I am back in Madison, Wisconsin for the annual feminist sf convention, WisCon. I just figured out that this is my seventh WisCon, while that’s nothing compared to the folks who’ve come here since the very first one way back in the olden days, it’s pretty damned amazing. There’s no other gathering like this of any kind that I’ve been to that many times. Such a committment!

Not only have I been coming here since 1996, I’ve also been actively involved on the convention committee. First organising the academic programming, and for the last few years, the readings programme, (that is organising the writers who want to read their work aloud for the enjoyment of the rest of us). In the hotel car on the way here from the aiport I got to overhear two of my readers discussing their preparation for their reading. (Don’t worry, I’d already outed myself as the person who organised the readings–I wasn’t spying.) One had read her piece out loud more than ten times! She was determined to have it fit the short time allocated to her and have it make sense. Not easy when you’re reading something from a larger piece. I could have hugged her! That’s just what I want my readers to do. Realise that they’ve got an audience, work on their pieces to make sure they’re not too long, or too boring, get them just right. Those two readers had never been to WisCon before and were nervous and excited and I wanted to hug them for that too. There’s nothing like your first WisCon.

And for the first time ever the con hotel (it’s been in the same hotel for a very long time now) has wireless throughout. I ask you is that a good thing? I mean here I am sitting in my hotel room blogging when I could be out enjoying the beautiful day and buying the damn toothpaste we forgot. Well, it did just enable me to do some actual work, ie send off the last essay of Daughters of Earth to Wesleyan Uni Press. A damn fine essay it is too. In fact, the whole collection is so much better than I’d hoped for (and, trust me, my hopes were high!). I feel like hugging all my contributors too. Hell, WisCon makes me want to hug everyone in the whole world and it hasn’t even started yet.

Here’s to another fabulous WisCon and I hope the newbies have as good a time as I know I will.

A Meme Thingie

Awhile back Gwenda called on me to do this meme thingie. However, my musings are too high-class a location for such low-brow frippery (that’s right, Mely, I mock your mock!). But now that I’m slumming in blogland with the rest of youse . . .

1. The person (or persons) who passed the baton to you.

Gwenda the Spenda

2. Total volume of music files on your computer.

10.89 GB. Not a tonne . . . Haven’t managed to get done ripping all my cds on account of them all being in Sydney in a storage unit. Sigh. I am missing my seventies Elvis. I surely am. And Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues. Double sigh.

3. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.

“Hijos de Culo” by Bersuit Vergarabat. They’re an Argentinian band, bought it last year in Buenos Aires. I adore it. They funny and talented. The title translates as “Children of the Adorable Enchanted Land of Pixies”. Honest.

4. Song playing at the moment of writing.

“This is All” Jay Hawkins.

5. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs).

Of late, in random order:

“Get Back (Black, Brown and White)” Bill Broonzy–brilliant, brilliant satirical song from the forties. “If you’re white, you’re alright. If you’re brown stick around, but if you’re black: get back, get back.”
“Fallen” K D Lang–her voice. Oh my.
“To Be Good Takes A Long Time” Vika & Linda–I don’t care what they sing, they got the best harmonies going ever. And has anyone even heard of them outside of Australia?!
“Isfahan” Joe Henderson–this one’s on high rotation. It’s so so so beautiful.
“Ojalá” Silvio Rodriguez–can’t hear this song without wanting to cry. Rodriguez does that to me every single time. Such lyrics!

6. The five people to whom you will ‘pass the musical baton.’

I don’t want to offend anyone by not passing such a lovely baton in their direction, so whoever wants it it’s yours, even though it’s kind of old and everyone’s on to the next one of these thingies . . .

Different Worlds

One time Scott was taking his niece Renee for a ride through Times Square in a pedicab. They’d just seen a Broadway show. He leaned back in the rickshaw and stared at all the lights around him, the neon, huge TV screens, advertisements several stories high. Scott’s been a New Yorker a long time now, but living in the East Village he rarely does touristy things like Broadway shows or gaping at the electric splendour of Times Square, yet to his surprise he was loving it. From ground level, from the middle of the street, without having to crane his neck upwards, he could see how extraordinarily beautiful it was.

He sat in wonder staring, while Renee talked animatedly about the show and consulted her program. "Isn’t it gorgeous?" he asked her at last. She looked up, the briefest flick of her eyes, said "yeah," and continued to talk about the show. She was still caught in the wonder of the live show she’d just seen, unable to catch a glimpse of the sublime Scott had caught in the lights above them.

When I was fifteen my best friend, Emma Winley, and I would sometimes lie down in the middle of her floor to listen to music, closing our eyes, and then at the end of each song talking about what we saw. I’d lose myself in the lyrics, imagine who those people were, what was happening to them in that slice of life covered by the lyrics of the song, what happened afterwards. Emma was much more impressionistic, caught in the rhythms and melodies, hardly hearing the words at all. We never saw the same thing and it made us giggly happy.

Another friend of mine, Rebecca
Skloot
, recently had a lovely
article
in the Times about a town in West Virginia
where she often goes to write. Here’s what she says about her favourite
restaurant in town:

"To call Baristas a restaurant would be a serious understatement. It is a restaurant, but it’s also a barbershop. And a coffeehouse. And, of course, a massage parlor. . . . You can eat in the basement pub, with its low oak ceiling and stone walls. You can eat on the patio overlooking the Ohio River, in the garden next to the hibiscus plants or in the café surrounded by walls of local art. You can get a haircut or a bona fide Swedish massage while you wait, then sit at a table covered in quotes from Camus or Malcom X."

According to Rebecca the food there is wonderful, made from all
local, fresh ingredients. The Baristas’ hamburger is the best she
has ever eaten. But the most popular restaurant in town is a Bob
Evans. There are 576 Bob Evanses in 21 states across the USA and
they all look exactly the same with identical menus and identical
methods of serving the food. The meal you have at the Bob Evans
in New Martinsville, West Virginia is exactly the same meal you’d
have in "Orlando, St Louis or Baltimore."

Rebecca ate at the New Martinsville Bob Evans several times, sampling a variety of dishes and being underwhelmed by them all. She simply didn’t get it. After talking to some of the folks who loved it so, she started to get an inkling. They valued its lack of surprises, its sameness. After a few days she retreated back to Baristas wondering what made her a Baristas person and the others pure Bob Evans?

I’m all for different perspectives, different ways of living, of seeing the world. One of the glories of being in other places is seeing how varied the world is. I’m so relieved Buenos Aires isn’t exactly like Sydney. That there are places where people don’t know who Elvis is. Spending time in the US I am thrilled every time I discover pop cultural memories the yankees have that I don’t. Growing up in Australia I always thought I knew all about the USA, I could name all the states, knew a tonne about its music and movies and literature, but I didn’t, not even close. I still don’t really know this country, I probably never will. That makes me happy.

But the gulfs. All those Bob Evans people and Baristas people living in the same towns, same cities, sometimes shopping in the same stores, or going to the same churches, who can’t talk to each other, or if they do, can’t make any sense of what the other says. Whose different worlds are so completely incompatible there’s no room for each other in them. That makes me sad.

New York City, 3 November 2004

(Updated: 18 Jan 06 to correct factual errors. Thanks, JKC for pointing them out.)

Writer’s Block

Raymond Chandler would lock himself in a room for four hours every day. In that time he didn’t have to write, but he wasn’t allowed to do anything else. Not write letters, do crossword puzzles, play solitaire, read the newspaper; he could only write. Eventually boredom forced him to it.

A writer friend of mine claims there is no such thing as writer’s block, only writer’s procrastination. "Writer’s block," she claims, "has taken on a kind of mythic status for writers and wannabe writers, and become this curse or disease the hapless writer catches. Crap. It’s laziness pure and simple. Anyone can write any damn time they want to.

"If I’m having difficulty getting going I just type anything at all. It might suck and have nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be writing, but I keep at it, and before too long I’m back on track. Nothing simpler."

Yeah, but what if you start off by typing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? What then, eh?

I tend to wander around. Right now I’m sitting in the hallway with my feet in the bedroom and my laptop perched on my knees. I’m supposed to be rewriting, but it hurts my head, and I keep getting stuck. Difficult to see a way to transform the monstrosities sprawled across the screen into elegant, or even, coherent sentences. Easier to write this.

My excuses for not being able to write today are, in order of malign impact: a hangover, jetlag, and having run out of good books to read (necessary to get the creative juices flowing). Also, cricket season is in full swing back home—Steve Waugh’s final test series coming up—and I’m in New York City which is so depressing it dries up all inspiration.

Scott reckons that were we in Sydney, I’d be getting no writing done at all cause I’d be lying on the couch in front of the TV watching the cricket (or we’d be at the SCG if there was a game on). It’s a filthy lie. I’m well able to write and watch cricket and bitch about Keith Stackpole, the world’s most tedious and annoying cricket commentator. All at the same time. If we were at home right now, I’d be writing what I was supposed to be writing.

I never have writer’s block. No matter what I can write. My problem is that while I can always write something, that something is not always what I’m supposed to be writing. These musings are dead easy. No deadlines, no editors to deal with, no pressure, no reviews. And most glorious of all, I can always tinker with them long after they’re "published" online. They’re not frozen on the printed page, all errors intact, until the end of time. Writing the articles, introductions, books that are due, well, dead, maybe, but not easy.

I really don’t understand why it’s so hard. I love writing. Since I was a child I’ve written stories, poems, essays, novels, limericks, the entire contents of a school magazine, anything at all. Once I get going, I’m fine. It’s the hours of staring at a blank screen, getting up and wandering around, tidying up, remembering that we’re out of olive oil and that I should really go buy it now, answering emails, deciding that I haven’t seen so-and-so in ages and must—this very minute—meet them for lunch, reading the Sydney Morning Herald online to laugh at the latest epic Paul Roebuck account of the cricket: "a large crowd sat in the shelter of Moreton Bay figs and children played their games as their seniors batted and bowled, ghostly figures settling ancient scores", opening up a different document and working on it instead of the thing that is becoming more and more urgent as the minutes, hours, days tick by. Then when it becomes really, truly, terrifyingly urgent, then all of a sudden I can write. Like the wind. And most perverse of all, I enjoy it.

So why do I go through this performance every time? Why can’t I just sit and write. I love writing. Why do I have to trick myself into it? Offer myself rewards and punishment? Why can’t I just write what I’m supposed to, when I’m supposed to, and thus have more time to do it absolutely right? As Justice Brandeis, or Aldous Huxley, or someone, once said "There is no good writing, only good rewriting". Or as Sylvia Kelso says "You can’t edit nothing, but you can edit shit".

Here in San Miguel de Allende after the first run-around-and-have-lots-of-fun week I’ve been writing what I’m supposed to six days a week. The most productive, disciplined period of my life. I keep having to pinch myself. And all it’s taken is moving to a different country where—other than Scott—I don’t know anyone, where we have no internet connection, where the cricket is even more inaccessible (of course, now the test series against India has come and gone, Steve Waugh’s international career is over, and I’ve missed the whole thing), where there’s Silvia (the housekeeper) removing most housework procrastination, and where we’ve taken to reading our latest chapters out loud to each other every two or three days so there’s no possible way to hide a lack of productivity.

And even so, I still can’t just start working on the novel. Oh no, first, I have to gossip with Silvia in my faulty Spanish, make sure my water bottle’s entirely full, work on a musing, draft an email, look out the window—especially if there’s a bullfight on (we can see the crowd from here, but not the gory action), fix up my web site, bite my nails. And then, as a very last resort, write what I’m supposed to be writing.

I love it.

Here’s hoping I can keep the writer’s block as micro and under control when I return to those cities chockablock with distractions for me: Sydney & New York.

New York City & San Miguel de Allende,
25 October, 2003-9 January, 2004

A Night at the Oak Room

I’ve never been in a room with so many face lifts. Terrifying. The air was heavy with perfume. They wore diamonds dangling from fingers, wrists, ears, throats, or glittering in their hair. The men wore suits, enhanced with ties, cravats, and handkerchiefs daringly sticking up from breast pockets. These were the kind of people who own more than one house, car, boat. These were not people like me and Scott.

Here we were jammed cheek by jowl into the Oak Room with people who didn’t live in the East Village or Park Slope or Harlem or Chelsea or any of the other places our friends reside. We were the youngest in the room. I was the only woman not wearing make up; Scott the only man whose shirt was not cinched with a tie. We overheard them subtly pointing out the celebs. Only one of which we’d heard of—Helen Gurly Brown—seated at a table just near us (the Oak Room ain’t big; everyone was seated at a table just near us) and we weren’t a hundred per cent sure which one was her.

What the hell were we doing there? Scott’s fault. He knows that I was brought up on the songbooks of Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Cole Porter. That my head is jammed full of the lyrics of hundreds and hundreds of standards from the twenties, thirties and forties. He was shocked to learn that I had never seen any of that music performed live, had never been to any cabaret. We were going to celebrate two years living together by doing just that.

This was opening night. Before the show even started Andrea Marcovicci, looking divine and very much the diva with her short silvery hair, high cheekbones, and black and silver shell top and skirt ensemble, was circling the room greeting people with a theatrical "Hello, darling!" and air kisses. She seemed to know almost everyone. The couple seated opposite us from Bay Ridge (Sydneysiders, think Sylvania Waters) made sure they attended all her shows, owned all her cds, and were shocked that I’d never heard of Andrea before.

By the time the show was about to start my expectations were through the roof. Scott had waxed over-the-top enthusiastic about her Gershwin show. It wasn’t just me expecting something earth-shatteringly good: even before the lights had gone down the room quieted, all you could hear were diamonds clinking. The expectations made the air almost as thick as if people were still allowed to smoke. Then the lights went down, everyone held their breaths. Andrea lit so beautifully that she glowed, strolled out smiling, blowing kisses, took up the microphone and sang.

Vibrato. Lots of vibrato. I hate vibrato. Her voice was not the jazzy contralto I’d been expecting. She’s more in the Mary Martin Broadway singer mold. I hate Mary Martin’s voice. The song ended, everyone applauded. Scott leaned forward, "What do you think?" I turned, gave him a frozen smile, and squeezed his knee. Fortunately she started singing "If I Were a Bell" almost at once, making it impossible for me to say anything.

Andrea didn’t destroy "If I Were a Bell" as Jean Simmons had in the movie version. Her diction was perfect, and there was considerably less vibrato. Better, I thought, nervously, but she’s not exactly Sarah Vaughan or Ute Lemper. I may be able to endure this evening. The song ended, Andrea started talking, started charming, she introduced her two accompanists, one on piano and the other on bass, both superb musicians. She began to tell the story of upper-class Jewish lyricist Frank Loesser who was never quite what his mother wanted. Tin Pan Alley so declasse. Andrea described mother and son and I could see them vividly.

Something magical happened. Andrea was wonderful, her voice suddenly the best voice I have ever heard. She sang and I was grinning. I looked around: everyone in the room was grinning. Every single person, from audience to waiters, had their eyes on her. Riveted. I hugged Scott, said, "Thank you."

She told more stories, mostly about Loesser and his first wife, who was known as the evil of two Loessers. His second wife, his widow, was in the audience, as were his two daughters, one of whom had just published a book about her father, to which Andrea referred often. I wanted to buy the book, I wanted to buy Andrea, or perhaps, be Andrea, or have this show never end, or something.

She was warm, witty, funny. An incredible story-teller. Her show is not a series of songs so much as a two-hour long opera, each song following naturally, almost, inevitably, from the next—those we all knew and could mouth the words to as well as the known-only-to-musicologists, not-sung-since-the-thirties ditties. Each story Andrea shared with us built on her previous stories. The more stories and songs Andrea sang, the more immersed in this world we became. Andrea asked us questions, laughed at the shouted answers, admitted her occasional ignorance and hoped the experts in the audience would forgive her.

She sang to each and every one of us: shaming us for breaking her heart, begging our permission to go out and play, exhorting us to go buy war bonds, flirting with us.

When it ended we were left dizzy, instantly pleading for encores, not because that’s what you do, but because we weren’t ready for the real world. The thought of leaving the hot, over-crowded Oak Room, full of all these people who had become our best friends in all the world. We applauded till our hands tingled, smiling at each other warmly, knowing that no one else could understand what we’d just experienced.

The last encore was, "Baby, It’s Cold Outside", sung with her brilliant pianist. Andrea tempted him to stay, his resistance was futile. It was hilarious. Funnier than I’ve ever heard that song be before. She invited everyone to sing along; we all did.

The show ended with Andrea being swamped with many gorgeous bouquets. It was her birthday, as well as the anniversary of her first appearance at the Oak Room some twenty years earlier. She thanked everyone, from Loesser’s family to her other friends and supporters and the music experts in the audience. She got teary; we got teary.

Neither Scott nor I were in any mood to go home. We sat in the Algonquin bar drinking cocktails. Me, one appropriately called an Andrea Marcovicci, Scott a Dorothy Parker. The diva herself held court at a table nearby, talking to everyone, shining as brightly as she had while performing. Looking not remotely tired.

I ran into her (literally) on the way back from the bathroom. Hot-cheeked and stammering I gushed about how much I’d enjoyed the show, how I’d never heard those songs performed live before. I babbled on about it being Scott’s present to me on our anniversary. She put her arm around me, beckoned to Scott to come over, hugged him too, told us that the second anniversary was special, and several other things I didn’t hear because I was in touched-by-a-goddess mode. Gormless fan, that’s me.

On our way out we passed another couple, in their seventies or early eighties. Both dressed up to the nines with beatific expressions on their faces.

"Wasn’t the show wonderful?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," the woman said. "You were there?" She sounded surprised.

We nodded, both grinning.

"So wonderful to see young people!" the man said, as though he’d never seen anyone below fifty before.

"She’s glorious, isn’t she?" Scott said.

They agreed that she was, delighted by our (in context) youthful presence, as if our sole purpose in attending the show had been to reassure them that the music of Frank Loesser would not be forgotten.

We walked home in the cold autumn night, past the over-the-top gaudiness of Times Square, tipsy, giggling and enchanted.

New York City, 19 November 2003

The Hour of the Wolf

I am a dutiful wife and so I agreed to wake up at 3:30AM to accompany Scott to Jim Freund’s crack-of-dawn sf radio show on WBAI.

Here’s Scott’s account:

Because we just haven’t had enough jet lag this year, I agreed to go on Jim Freund’s radio show. It’s called "Hour of the Wolf," and has been going for 32 years, and everyone in sf who comes through NY must do it by tribal law. (Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany used to run it.) It’s on a very cool radio station called WBAI, which is all hip and listener-supported, with neither ads nor government funding. What’s the catch? The show’s on Saturday morning from 5AM-7AM.

Now, because there’s millions of people in range, there is an audience at that time. According to Arbitron (which to me sounds like a bad name for a company in the business of providing data), 30,000 people are listening at 5AM, and about 120,000 are listening at 7AM. The error range is 50,000 plus or minus (Arbitron, indeed), so at the beginning you can be pretty loose, ’cause like 6 people could be listening.

Me and Justine had only about five hours sleep on Thursday night, because of mad drinking and early breakfast date. We figured exhausting ourselves and going to bed early would work. It didn’t. We became hysterical and giggled until about 1AM, and the wakeup call came at 3:30AM, the car at 4:15AM.

But coffee is coffee, and Jim and I had a good time talking about cricket and bisummerality while 0 to 80,000 people were listening, Then I read "Non-Disclosure Agreement" from 5:45AM to 6:30AM, which means most people tuned in in the middle and were like "huh?" Then I pushed Risen Empire and finally read the funny and short "Cat Years" for the last 10 minutes.

But here’s what’s interesting. We got back to the East Village (WBAI is on Wall Street) and went to the local 24-hour diner to eat good Ukranian food and languish in bad Ukranian service. (So painful on no sleep, until we started giggling.) On the way out I saw this skinny black guy with a hat pulled down over his head, his feet all tangled together, alone at 8AM on a Saturday morning scribbling in a notebook. And, of course, it was Tricky, either getting up early or coming down hard. But looking very much the tortured artist, not unlike I was feeling by that point. So although it is vanishingly unlikely, I fantasize now that he was up early to listen to WBAI, and his next album will have an anthropomorphic cat rap on it.

—Scott Westerfeld

I have to confess that I knew almost nothing about "Hour of the Wolf" before this morning’s outing. I’d seen Jim Freund at various readings with large headphones on his head, wincing when people tapped the microphone. Apparently he was recording proceedings for some science fiction radio show but I knew little beyond that.

Turns out "Hour of the Wolf" was founded in 1972 by Margot Adler who now works at NPR on such shows as "All Things Considered". Jim Freund was part of the show right from the beginning. They’ve interviewed almost every writer you can think of in science fiction and fantasy and have produced many sf and fantasy radio plays, including an adaptation of a scene from Lord of the Rings which involved close consultation with J. R. R. Tolkien. Sf scholars should know that they have the majority of the tapes from the show’s history and Jim seemed quite keen to make them available to scholars.

I thought that the whole thing would be utter, utter hell. I’m not an early morning person, don’t like waking up until I have to. But I had a really good time. The two hours zoomed past. What with Jim’s, um, idiosynchratic choice of music, the entertaining conversation between he and Scott and the fact that I kept falling into hallucinatory little micro-sleeps. Jim Freund has a surprisingly excellent radio voice and got Scott talking about many things Australian (always a good thing). Though they both kept mentioning Scott’s newest book The Risen Empire without actually saying what it was about until I prodded (off-air).

I think the six people listening would have really enjoyed themselves.

"Cat Years" is indeed very funny. So too is "Non Disclosure Agreement".

Sadly, I wouldn’t have recognised Tricky. You know, not unless he was performing and there was a sign up that said "Tricky".

I seem to have rashly agreed to be the one behind the mike some time in the future. If that happens maybe we’ll see P. J. Harvey or Me’Shell NdegéOcello at Veselka next time (them I would recognise).

New York City, 21 June 2003