‘Something is going to blow’: Charlotte Wood on building narrative tension

Among the awards for Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s most recent novel, The Natural Way of Things (2016), was the Stella Prize. She gave a full-day masterclass to postgraduate students at the IIML on 4 September 2019. MA fiction workshop member Caleb Harris was there.

Charlotte Wood. (Photographer credit: Chris Chen)

Charlotte Wood. (Photographer credit: Chris Chen)

As well as being a lauded novelist, Charlotte Wood is in demand as a creative writing teacher. So along with conveying an inspiring day full of practical tips, my goal with this write-up is to avoid giving away too much of her best material on the internet. Here, then, are a few snap shots of an engaging masterclass, which included helpful handouts and exercises, and was entitled ‘Building Narrative Tension’.

When Wood started writing she felt ‘doomed in terms of story-telling’. She loved language and knew she could create a good image, but the idea of keeping readers turning pages seemed a mystery. This was her stage of ‘she said nothing, and turned away’ stories. The stories often contained a sensitive character staring ‘at dust motes turning, or whatever’ and feeling things very deeply, but then doing nothing. ‘The one thing [the characters] never did was to act, because to act is to show yourself and they weren’t ready to take that risk, because I wasn’t. Nothing happened in my stories.’ She wanted to share with us what she learned in emerging from that period of deeply felt, but static writing. ‘These are things to try when you feel your writing is a bit flat, and needs a kick along.’

She stressed that for all of her suggestions, there were many great works of literature which did the exact opposite. ‘Every writer finds their own way of writing. Part of your job is to find your own process.’

Her first strategy was about action. Australian novelist James Bradley suggests writing at the top of every page: ‘What happens on this page?’ Characters should be kept moving, even if it’s as small an act as making a cup of tea. ‘And if they’re in a hurry, even better.’ Realising something didn’t count as action, though some people could pull it off. ‘Alice Munro can do anything, basically.’

While some characters were inherently passive, even this could be conveyed with the likes of ‘micro instances of drama’. An example was the protagonist in the film The Graduate, who’s constantly being held captive, in big and small ways. ‘The tension in the reader rises’. Wood took that idea and used it for a character of hers. She decided to never give him a moment’s rest, even though he was just having a very ordinary day, going to work at the zoo. Another example was TV’s The West Wing basically consisting of people walking and talking very fast, so that the energy stays high, even during complex discussions. Even tiny things like having a character pick at laminate on a table, or a listener tapping their foot impatiently, could create tension. The idea was to use the body in space. ‘We are our bodies; our thoughts and feelings happen in a body. Imagine something you felt, in your body, and ratchet it up a thousand times.’

Playing with time also helps tension. An example was the use of big calendar events, such as Christmas, Passover or anniversaries, when people are with family or wishing they were. ‘There’s a lot of intense emotion built in… it can give your writing a jolt of energy’. Another way was using a setting or situation where time is on everybody’s mind. The Natural Way of Things, for example, takes place in a prison, so there was a natural problem of energy, since no one could go anywhere and all the days could have seemed the same. One solution Wood found was breaking the book into four parts, for the four seasons, and showing the changes as the year went by. Section breaks, chapter headings and titles could do a lot of work in that way.

Surprising the reader was an important tension-fomenter. It didn’t necessarily have to be via car crashes or violence. ‘You can push even small, ordinary moments into drama. We want to discover something.’ Spilling food on a friend’s rug, for example, could actually be very intense if the food was chicken blood, the rug was white and expensive, and the friend was vegan.

Arguments could be improved simply by being made ‘more vicious’. Sometimes writers shrink from such intensification, saying it wasn’t realistic, but Wood advocated another idea of realism. ‘Writing is like life, but it’s not life, and that’s why we want it.’ Some writers are worried about becoming melodramatic, but most could afford to turn up the intensity several notches. ‘If you’re afraid of melodrama [in your work], you probably need some.’

Still on the theme of surprise, she noted the pleasure of discovering a way to write a character that didn’t fit the ‘type’. One example was a prison guard in The Natural Way of Things, called Teddy. Wood had been writing a stereotypical burly guard. ‘I was boring myself to death.’ Then one day she saw a fit, dreadlocked guy walk by, who looked like he might enjoy surfing and yoga, and thought: What if it were him?  Another example was novelist Richard Ford inventing a suburban real estate agent who is also, in a sense, the Dalai Lama. Alice Munro often does this by having something vividly transgressive done by a character who had not seemed that way inclined: ‘A great big bomb chucked in the middle of all these good girls’. A class mate asked how to apply this idea to real people, in non-fiction? Wood: ‘Think about what’s surprising about this person, their contradictions. We all have them.’

Observing life in all its messiness as well as all its beauty was another way to inject tension. We can tend to think that because it’s a story, ‘art’, we have to tidy it up and make it beautiful. At a zoo in preparation for writing a zoo scene, Wood tried to widen her gaze, and noticed new things: a chip packet on the ground, a fork lift, a mother holding her child up to a cage and saying, ‘he’s looking at you,’ a bucket of celery sticks. From that she was able to include in her subsequent scene much more texture, which she could push out into theme and structure – things like the ugliness of consumer culture, that human desperation to put ourselves at the centre of things. ‘If you’re getting bored, the reader will too. The one real rule is don’t get bored. That feeling of, here we go again.’

Concentrating your setting and time-frame were often very useful in creating tension. ‘You’ve got to have a setting, so why not use it in a conscious way?’ Changing the space could create interest, but it could also unhelpfully release the tension built up in the earlier space. Prisons, hospitals and police stations were obvious examples, but a family home could be just as usefully confining. ‘The reader knows something is going to blow’.

The principle of compression could also be usefully applied to editing. A great exercise we did was taking a scene of our own, which we’d been asked to print and bring to class, and chop it down into as little as two or three sentences. The idea was not necessarily simply cutting or summarising, but rather letting one or two strong images stand for the whole. Wood’s example was a long, blow-by-blow train journey which she ended up rendering just through the shine of the passing train’s lights in the eyes of a cow, turning its head in a paddock. Trying this seemed to produce a particular relish among our class. Wood said a new writer she was mentoring found the same enjoyment, commenting afterward: ‘It was a whole long line of material, now it’s a coiled spring’.

After lunch Wood got onto what Paul Simon might have called ‘hints and allegations’: suggestions by the author, to the reader, of conflict and troubles to come. As an example she read out the beginning of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land. ‘In that swift little set-up, he’s planted lots of little time-bombs to go off later… we’re programmed to find out what happened.’ A class member asked how that’s done, if the author is still figuring out what happens while they write, as is often the case? Wood likened it to casting out a fishing line. You can ramp up the tension artificially, discover what could happen, then decide if you like it. ‘Say something wild, throw it out there and see what comes back. You don’t have to publish it.’

Another option was simply leaving stuff out, as Wood chose to do with the details of the back stories of the imprisoned women in The Natural Way of Things. She felt it created a helpful sense of estrangement, confusion and unease, though not every reader liked it. ‘But if you try to please everyone you’re going to create a hideously dull book.’ To illustrate, she read out possibly the best-received quote of the day, by David Simon, creator of TV masterpiece The Wire. This was Simon’s explanation of why he favours challenging world-building and street jargon:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

In that spirit, Wood urged us to claim the freedom not to explain everything. She talked about a scene of hers, where a grieving, shocked character thinks she sees a small creature in her car. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. It’s enough of a disruption, a tiny mystery… to cause unease, discomfort every time she gets in the car.’ She quoted novelist Amanda Lohrey on liking a novel always to have ‘a message from another realm’, and not wanting everything too mastered, too known. ‘Introduce a shiver of the unknown into your story’, Wood said.

She did, though, sound a note of caution on secrets, especially ‘big reveals’, which can often fall flat and/or leave the reader feeling tricked. A better tactic was to consider, what are the broader questions this secret raises? Revealing the secret early, then exploring such questions was often a better source of power for the novel, than building up to a big reveal.

It could often be helpful simply to leave secrets unsaid, or mysteries unexplained. ‘People don’t go around explaining their world to themselves.’ She quoted James Bradley again: ‘Density of information doesn’t make fiction real, density and quality of imagination makes fiction real.’ All this could be summed up in ‘skip the boring bits’, Wood said. ‘If they’re there because you think they should be, but it feels quite dull – chuck ’em out.’

In connection to this, the question came up of who to write for. If not the story-killing average reader, who was Wood’s ideal reader? ‘I work to a reader who is smarter than me and quite a critical thinker.’ From that we got onto workshopping, and how much you should stick to your guns when people don’t get your drift (or just don’t like it). If a few people have the same questions, looking at clarifying is probably a good idea, Wood suggested. ‘But remember there’s a difference between confusion and productive ambiguity.’ There was an element of tight-rope walking required between these.

Less explaining is often more, though, especially when it comes to editing. ‘I throw out way more than I end up with.’ She remembered writing fifty thousand words of a novel and getting bored. ‘I printed it out and I realised I didn’t know whose story it was. Then I realised it was about one sister. So I cut out everything that wasn’t her, or didn’t shine a light on her. I cut out thirty thousand. I was initially horrified, but then liberated.’

The final point was about simply telling truer stories, and telling them better. ‘You want to turn the page, because you want to stay with this voice.’ It was a case of giving every sentence a quickening impulse and energy. ‘Put one of your better, more living, energetic paragraphs up front, then get rid of everything that doesn’t match it… find the truth and take out the lies. I feel evangelical about telling the truth in fiction.’ The point was to never leave anything in that you didn’t believe, even if it sounded good. ‘In your heart, you know there’s a bit of fakery going on. Mean every word.’ To illustrate, she bravely read aloud an early draft of a piece of finished work, then the final version. ‘This is a bit embarrassing but… I want you to see how it changed.’ The problem was how she had depicted a middle-class character’s fears of becoming homeless. ‘Every time I went past it, I had a false note, a bad feeling.’ When she fixed the false bit, making it ‘realer’, it ended up having a positive effect in the whole text. ‘If I’d left it in the fake version, I wouldn’t have discovered all this other important information about her – things like middle-class attitudes to beauty, shame, appearance.’

Wood had a list of types of lie worthy of rooting out. My favourite was avoiding things people only do on TV, like pacing up and down, or looking in mirrors and not liking what they see. ‘Don’t go to that shared library of images, of the shared imagination.’ Good ways to listen for these ‘lies’ included reading your manuscript aloud, and retyping it. ‘You can feel the boring bits coming.’ Not stopping thinking just because the manuscript was getting close to publication was fundamental. ‘Think about the meaning of the words on the page, the line, the sentences… Excruciating garbage can still be found.’

There was time for a couple of questions to finish a nourishing day. What if an early reader says ‘cut that bit’ and you do, but then a subsequent reader or editor says ‘Oh I loved that bit’? Wood said this pertained to learning to trust your instincts. Learning to receive feedback was also crucial, and a big part of that was not defending yourself. ‘Just listen. Don’t reject, don’t accept. Just sit with it a while, then decide what to do with it.’ Sometimes, it came down to ‘heat seeking’: Going with something you can’t leave alone, regardless of feedback. ‘This is the big question all of us have to face: who’s running this show? Me.’








This is not a masterclass: creative nonfiction with Maria Tumarkin

Cultural historian and writer Maria Tumarkin (Australia/Ukraine) visited the IIML for a full-day session with our postgraduate students on 9 August 2019. Author, biologist and MA workshop member Danyl Mclauchlan took notes.

Maria Tumarkin promises not to scream too loudly. We’re in the seminar room in the Stout Research Centre and we’ve been asked not to make too much noise because it’ll disturb the scholars in the adjacent rooms. She’s standing at the front of the class, next to a whiteboard and a projector screen.

Tumarkin is an essayist and historian. She grew up in the Soviet Union, moved to Australia as a teenager before the collapse of communism; finished a Phd in cultural history; teaches writing at Melbourne University. Today she’s speaking to a crowded room of Victoria University creative writing students and affiliated poets, short-story writers, novelists and essayists, talking to us about writing at a pitch and intensity that often threatens the spirit of the no-screaming promise without ever quite breaking its word.

We begin with our homework. Tumarkin asked us all to provide a paragraph from an essay we love and then speak to it, although she gives us permission to ramble about anything instead of speaking to the slide. We work our way through the quotes: it’s a diverse selection, but Ashleigh Young, Huerta Mueller, Mary Ruefle and Tumarkin herself appear multiple times. She then comments on the properties of the chosen essay while annotating a whiteboard. By lunchtime the whiteboard looks like this:


Tumarkin has complicated feelings about the modern essay. We have a reading packet featuring three of her own works. The first, This narrated life, published in The Griffith Review in 2014, questions the contemporary fetishisation of storytelling. The primacy of ‘storytelling’ among the intellectual and cultural class, who celebrate ‘the power of story’ as something unambiguously miraculous is something Tumarkin is suspicious of, and the essay interrogates why. Perhaps it is because we cannot do all of our thinking through stories? Perhaps stories are too persuasive; they can manipulate us instead of leading us to the truth? Perhaps it is because the narrative structure of stories privileges certain subjects, and the logic of the narrative dicates that they should be told in certain ways? She writes:

It is hardly accidental if many of today’s more successful live storytelling events have a whiff of this. Plenty of them also wrap around themselves a cult of faux simplicity (oh, the timeless artisan feel of stories), which obscures the artifice involved in packing the entire world into a series of tellable tales.

This model of truth as a form of entertaining storytelling leaves out important ideas that cannot be reduced to simple narrative stories, Tumarkin argues. It leaves out scientists, thinkers, educators, artists and activists who cannot reduce their ideas into such a palatable form. And it is not a substitute for genuine public debate:

. . . with its bumping of heads, its pushes and pulls, its peculiar and all-important labours – defending your position, nailing your opponents, issuing rejoinders, synthesising thought, changing your mind – that are so different to the exertions of storytelling

All of this adds up to ‘narrative fetishism’, she worries: a way of shutting our ears and eyes to the truths that hurt us the most; a way of not sharing our most important experiences and truths. Storytelling is not a strong enough construction to describe what artists – novelists, essayists, performers – do; she feels that something much deeper and more meaningful happens in the essential act of communication.


‘The term masterclass bugs me,’ Tumarkin announces at the beginning of the day. ‘I agree with Maggie Nelson. Artistry trumps mastery.’ So instead of a class we spend the morning discussing the different essays, taking notes on Tumarkin’s pronouncements. ‘You can have radical aims,’ she tells us, speaking of an essay about ‘the end of capitalism’, but avoid polemic and clichés of thought. The essay is not propaganda. Or: ‘there’s nothing worse than elegant variation,’ as she approvingly dissects an essays use of repetitive language. Or ‘Use multiple tracks,’ on an essay that discusses both the environment and a broken relationship, ‘But don’t use tacky metaphors.’ The tracks can converge and diverge. Should we map our essays out before we write them? ‘It’s great if you can but great if you can’t.’

There’s more. ‘The essay is a machine for making connections,’ and those connections should be surprising and highly meaningful: connections that would only occur to the person writing the essay. They show the author’s mind at work. They’re about thinking on the page. Essays are written forwards, and they’re about preserving the process of arriving somewhere – if, in fact, you do arrive.’ They’re a communal space: a conversation. ‘We should be in dialog with other writers, not co-opting them. And: you need to write against the knowingness. But this is risky and ‘And anything risky can be a disaster.’

We break for lunch.


The second essay in the reading packet What The Essayist Spills is a review of The Unspeakable, a collection of essays by the American essayist Megham Baum. She begins with the choices Baum made about not-naming some of the characters in her essays: a fellow writer she clashed with on a literary panel; a gay writer went out to dinner with Daum during a period in which she dressed and acted like a gay woman, and wanted gay women to think she was one of them; children she’s paired with in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, who she can’t identify for obvious ethical and legal reasons. Tumarkin finds the withholding interesting, because Daum has been identified as an essayist who is ‘personal yet anti-confessional’. Thus, perhaps, the title The Unspeakable:

Unspeaking as in walking ideas and experiences back from the ready-made language and the ready-made audience for their telling. Unspeaking as in creating a space and a distance between the lived reality and the work of writing, enabling the writer, as Deborah Levy memorably put it, ‘to chase your characters, chase your ideas’ across the page.

Tumarkin sees this is part of a broader trend in contemporary essay writing, exemplified by essayists: ‘using lived, felt experience as a starting point for her about-me-but-much-much-bigger-than-me sort of stuff.’ This category of essay:

goes about smashing the bottom from underneath the author’s experiences, thinking them out into the world, finding the language to hold them, and, crucially, steering them away from Bays of Redemption and Isles of Lessons Learned. Daum is not alone. This kind of thing  – the personal essay that exceeds the contours of a singular life or mind – is its own sub-genre right now.

What Daum accomplishes, and what Tumarkin admires is the revelatory complexity of the ending of Daum’s essays. In an essay on motherhood, on the decision on whether to have children, the complexity and ambivalence of the decision and outcomes: ‘the essay’s charge comes not from identity politics, not from some stigma-busting super-moves, but from the gradually swelling recognition in a reader’s gut (if I may be so bold to speak of a reader’s gut) that we, humans, do not know what we are choosing when we end up choosing something.’ We are met with revelation, not confession.

Tumarkin – heretically – contrasts this with Roxanne Gay, who has ‘litte surprising to say’:

I understand how certain kinds of people may utter what are essentially banalities in a way so utterly disarming or credible, or carried with such a perfect mix of conviction and irony, that those banalities could be experienced by large groups of people as joyful truths. I understand that individuals possessed of such gifts are interesting precisely – if not only – because of this ability, and that they are originals in their own right. It may be that the personal essay is a special form that elevates these kinds of voices and creates these reading highs. Which is fine, and could be great, especially if this coming together through mutual recognition, the ecstatic and the communal, happens for people who usually feel on the outer of public life.

Validating the pre-existing values of the cultural class is not what essays are for, Tumarkin believes. They’re for ‘thinking about things that need to be thought about yet don’t get thought about much, or at all, or interestingly, or for long enough.’ She ends by telling us to buy Daum’s book and read Tumarkin’s favourite essay in the collection ‘Matricide’, an essay Tumarkin refuses to tell the reader anything about (There’s an abridged version of this essay at the Guardian website, if you want to follow her advice).


After lunch we work through Tumarkin’s slide show, beginning with quotes that also featured in Tumarkin’s Daum review:

‘All the best essays are epistemological journeys from ignorance or curiosity to knowledge.’ – Geoff Dyer

‘The essay’s job is to track consciousness … Instead of lecturing you, [the essay] invites you into the pathways of the mind of a writer who’s examining, testing, and speculating.’ – Philip Lopate

‘The truth to which the essay has access emerges only at the point where thinking, in an effort to remedy the insufficiency of existing categories, drives thought beyond its own boundaries…’ – Adorno.

Here is Tumarkin’s Anatomy of an Essay, a representation of one of her writing processes:







And here’s how this works. ‘I’ll notice something like: all the shops in my neighbourhood kept closing down and being replaced by cafes and other places that sell food,’ Tumarkin explains. ‘And it irritated me that I kept thinking about that. So I ask myself: is there an essay there. Can I write something interesting? Has anyone else noticed this and written about it? And then I research. And I love to research. I’d be happy doing the research forever and ever and none of the writing. But you have to write.’

A quote from Zadie Smith on the slide show:

When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people’s, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment – once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in – what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception.’

And the slide show ends with Tumarkin’s list of vital contemporary essayists:

Zadie Smith, Helen Garner, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, Eliot Weinberger, David Foster Wallace, Annie Dillard, Roland Barthes, Jenny Diski, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Leslie Jamison, Christopher Hitchens, Teju Cole, Patricia Lockwood, Ashleigh Young, Sarah Manguso, Fiona Wright, Meghan Daum, Mary Ruefle, Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Dyer, Brian Dillon, Alexander Chee, Wesley Morris, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Anne Boyer, Robert Dessaix, Durga Chew-Bose, Sinead Gleeson, Kate Briggs, Alexander Hemon, Ariel Levy, Valeria Luiselli, Marilynne Robinson


The final work in the reading packet is you can’t enter the same river twice from her new collection Axiomatic, a work in which she puts most of her ideas about the contemporary essay into practise. The essay consists of two voices: Tumarkin’s and her closest childhood friend, who she was inseparable from growing up. They’re speaking of their lives back in the Soviet Union, the times when when they were teenagers, their friendship over time; history; memory. Life. The voices appear in columns, side-by-side, unless they don’t: sometimes a single voice takes over the width of the page. They repeat themselves, loop back, interrogate the validity of their memories. They talk to each other; contradict each other. They quote diaries, poems, letters. Dreams. The voices seem to merge and part. It’s fascinating seeing the author’s ideas cohere into a creative work, but it’s also very hard to quote from representatively (this too is possibly not accidental).


The final session of the day is on the perennial issue of ethics in writing non-fiction.

‘Some things are black and white in the ethics of non fiction writing,’ Tumarkin warns us. ‘If you’re fabricating anything you’re writing fiction. If you’re intentionally misleading your readers via framing or important omissions you’re writing fiction. If you’re creating characters or inventing composite characters you’re writing fiction. If you’re making up quotes, misattributing quotes, putting yourself into the middle of a story when you weren’t there, changing the timeline to intensify the drama or ‘interviewing the dead’ (‘The dead are not up for grabs,’ Tumarkin insists) then you’re writing fiction and you need to alert the reader to

this.’ ‘If you don’t remember something, admit this instead of covering it up. Many powerful memoirs have ‘darkness at the centre of the map’. When you leave nonfiction behind and start writing fiction you buy yourself a real freedom,’ she concludes. ‘But you leave behind the power of the real.’

She quotes the American journalist John Hersey:

‘Subjectivity and selectivity are necessary and inevitable in non-fiction. If you gather 10 facts but wind up using nine, subjectivity sets in. This process of subtraction can lead to distortion. Context can drop out, or history, or nuance, or qualification or alternative perspectives. While subtraction may distort the reality you are trying to represent, the result is still nonfiction. The addition of invented material, however, changes the nature of the beast. When we add a scene that did not occur or a quote that was never uttered, we cross the line into fiction. If you’re in a gray area around any of these issues you’re writing fiction.’

Someone asks: ‘What about remembering painful things?’ ‘Writing is not therapy,’ Tumarkin replies. ‘You don’t necessarily have to write what shames you. You don’t have to go into the dark recesses of your soul.’

Not only do we have ethical obligations to our readers, she warns us, we have ethical obligations to our subjects: ‘Do not leave someone else’s world diminished, poorer than it

was before your entry into it.’ You should have consent from your subjects, but consent is only the beginning. Don’t treat your subjects as characters. They’re real people. Grant them complexity. And consent is no antidote to exploitation, appropriation and exoticism. Ask yourself: what are you taking and what are you giving back?’

And you should revisit these issues of consent. Most people have not considered what it will be like to be written about. You need to inform them. You should offer them anonymity. ‘Put yourself through the ethical mincer.’

Someone in the class asks ‘What’s the best way to write about family in an ethical way?’

‘Make way for tension, disagreements and other versions,’ she advises. Her arrangement with her own mother is a negotiated deal that her mother can take things out.

Next we walk through a couple of ethical case studies. (We’re rushed for time and skip past a series of slides on Karl Ove Knausgard and some in the room cheer quietly.)


In 2004 Ann Patchett published Truth and Beauty, an autobiographical account of her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy. Grealy had jaw cancer as a child; the removal of the tumour left her with facial disfigurement; many reconstructive surgeries left her with an addiction to painkillers. She died of a heroin overdose at the age of 39. Patchett had consent from Grealy’s family to quote from her letters, but it was a consent they bitterly regretted once the book was published and they saw that it depicted Grealy as brilliant but deeply flawed, self-absorbed, even parasitic. Grealy’s sister attacked Patchett in the media as a ‘grief thief’.

‘Patchett has every right to tell the story of her friendship and her loss, but there are other issues here.’ Tumarkin argues. Lucy Grealy can’t speak back to Patchett’s book: we must consider the human rights of the dead.’ Is Patchett turning Grealy into a commodity? Are there issues of the abled exploiting the disabled? On the other hand: isn’t Patchett honouring Grealy by depicting her complexity? Isn’t she helping to keep her memory alive?

Second case study: Boy, Lost, by the Australian writer Kristina Olsson is a reconstruction of Olsson’s mother’s early life, written after her mother’s death, about parts of her life she never discussed with her children. Olsson’s solution is to let the reader know that the book is based on rigorous research but also ‘an act of imagining’. She acknowledges the gaps and silences in the material:

‘This is the story my mother never told, not to us, the children who would grow up around it in the way that skin grows over a scratch. So we conjured it, guessed it from glances, from echoes, from phrases that snap in the air like a bird’s wing, and are gone.’


The last few moments of the class are about form. you can’t enter the same river twice uses experimental form but Tumarkin warns us not to use ‘complexity and fragmentation as an excuse to cover up writerly laziness and bad thinking.’ You have to do the hard work, she warns. ‘You have to go through the dark forest, like Dante did, and then your writing will be good work instead of shit lazy work. Any more questions?’



Description and the senses: a masterclass by Devin Johnston

Visiting US poet and essayist Devin Johnston gave a masterclass at the IIML on 8 June 2018. MA workshop member and poet Tim Grgec provides a round-up.

Image of writer and publisher Devin Johnston (source: Saint Louis University)

Poetry, for American writer Devin Johnston, eludes categorisation. It simply exists as a form in which writers extend beyond themselves—wherever that might lead.

Central to Johnston’s poetics is the musicality of language. His poems (which achieve an enhanced meaning when read aloud), illustrate the reflective possibilities of the lyric. Image and sound are inseparable. His work offers what poet Forrest Gander describes as  a ‘rich and particular lexicon’, with consonants—as well as vowels—carrying their own distinct ‘music’. In this regard, Johnston’s work follows in the tradition of Basil Bunting, whose poetry, in its demand to be read aloud, also provides a satisfaction in enunciation: a delight to be both heard and spoken.

For Johnston, the satisfaction of writing poetry comes in its testing of idiom. The ‘give and take’ process, to use his phrase, of sounding particular words, phrases or lines, is a test of a writer’s language against what is being described. Writing, then, becomes an exploration of the ways in which words circulate in both meaning and sound, of precision and gesture.

Johnston’s essay ‘Creaturely’ observes the English language’s insufficiencies in describing smell:  ‘We have little language proper to smell, only makeshift analogies that take on a currency through volatility.’ Rather than favour visual representation, Johnston’s workshop component of the masterclass also aimed for participation in the sensory experience. He began by handing out stems of rosemary. We were asked to describe the herb’s smell, both metonymically and metaphorically, then turn these descriptions into a poem. The second exercise involved describing a scene entirely by sound. Johnston encouraged us to consider the two components of a metaphor, tenor and vehicle. The former refers to the object or phenomenon being described, the latter the associated image of comparison. Successful poetry negotiates between the two, finding a middle-ground of both descriptive precision and metaphoric surprise.

Cover image for Creaturely and Other Essays by Devin Johnston (Turtle Point Press, 2009)
Johnston writes poems almost entirely in his head before putting them to the page. Early drafts on paper or Word documents, he claims, prompt the poet to agonise over concerns (such as line breaks, punctuation and formatting) that can be considered much later in the creative process. The poetic material remains fresh and malleable in Johnston’s head. His methodology, then, can be viewed as an attempt to avoid stale or overworked writing. He reassures us that one’s writing process is not entirely mechanical, much less formulaic. More importantly, writing should be an enjoyable exercise.


Terese Svoboda masterclass – Laura Southgate

UnknownOn 16 May, the MA students were honoured to attend a full day masterclass with Terese Svoboda, the author of six novels, a short fiction collection due out next year, seven poetry collections, a book of translation, a biography and a memoir. Her novel Cannibal was named one of ten best westerns of the year and described by one reviewer as ‘a female Heart of Darkness’. Her video work is also award-winning and she’s received a Guggenheim.

Our day consisted of readings, conversations about Svoboda’s work, discussion of others’ work and an in-class exercise. During the first session of the day, Chris Price introduced Terese to us. What followed was a lively conversation full of insight and refreshing (sometimes daunting) writing advice. Below are a few of many highlights.

Mother burns the bridge

Terese reads us ‘Bridge, Mother’, a poem powerful in its sparseness. Simple words (‘mother’, ‘burns’, ‘bridge’, ‘other side’, pronouns, articles and the like) are arranged in declarative sentences to produce different, sometimes contradictory emphasis or information. This stark unemotional language produces a startling emotional effect.

How to achieve this powerful simplicity? Terese tells us she had twenty constraints in this exercise – it’s an exercise Chris knows, it turns out, so she can share it with us. And it took a mere ten years to write. So get to work everybody!


Terese began her writing life as a poet, but an experience in her young adult life with a social anthropologist filmmaker boyfriend in Sudan cannibalmade her want to write fiction. This became Cannibal, her first novel. It was fifteen years in the making, during which time she grappled with some of the differences between poetry and fiction. Poetry occurs in a single moment on a white page, whereas fiction, she was told, emphasised character development and plot, and she was always bored with how to open and close doors in the prose. She says if she weren’t always ‘rebelling against these things’, she would have learned earlier that ‘story is a magical thing that you unearth and discover’ – but magic takes work.

Gordon Lish

lish-classicA turning point in Terese’s writing life was attending Gordon Lish’s famed writing workshops. She describes these in riveting detail. Lish looked ‘like a Presbyterian minister’, she says, ‘but kind of evil, like Sam Peckinpah’. You weren’t allowed to pee at any point during the sessions, even Terese, who was pregnant at the time. Not only that but the sessions were very long: it wasn’t unusual to finish up at 2am. People would break down, there would be people next to her on respirators, people with two weeks left to live. He made you believe fiction was worth devoting your life to. It was like EST or brainwashing, you emerged believing that.

It wasn’t all mind control though. Lish was welcoming to poets. He liked the ‘torque’ that words by themselves could lead you to, he encouraged people to stop and see how a text could unfold, one word at a time, as if he were ‘pulling a pearl necklace out of his mouth’. He didn’t believe in conventional plot. The only challenge for him was to get the reader to turn the page. Plot for Lish was like the Native American practice of shooting an arrow toward the sun, going to pick it up and then shooting again. A feeling of not knowing where you’re going was important to him. Because of this, he encouraged the use of first person, present tense. It allows things to unfold for the writer at the same time as the reader.

These lessons were liberating for Svoboda. ‘Fuck it, I didn’t have to do anything the way I was supposed to.’ She discovered what she needed to do with her novel: start again and proceed word by word. She never looked at any of the previous versions. ‘I thought nobody would ever publish it and that was a relief.’ (Of course it turns out she was wrong on that count.)

The Ps of writing

Play is what you’re in it for, not just for the dopamine rush when you’re really ‘in it’, Terese says. Her novel Pirate Talk and Marmalade was developed out of the considerable constraint that the entire thing would consist of nothing but dialogue between two or three people. ‘I was told I was very good at description so I decided to do this book without any description,’ she says. ‘Just say no to me and I’ll do fine.’

In light of this, Chris suggests that perversity is another writing tool. ‘Perversity and perseverance – the two big Ps, yeah,’ says Terese. If you get stuck, turn to another form. The constraints of one form can enliven another. It also helps to leave things for a while. ‘I’ve got drawers,’ she says.

On anger

Revenge can be an important motivator for your first book, Terese tells us. Anger is what helps get you through all that learning. But it’s hard in that mode to make the character you’re trying to describe sympathetic – so that’s especially where the fiction comes in.

One helper in this regard is the compression of memory. Detachment helps too. This is why hardly anyone writes a good deathbed book. Everyone starts with their traumatised childhood because everyone has one.

Anger is also often the driving force behind political poetry. A political poem is harder to write than a love poem, she says, ‘and that’s pretty darn hard to write’. ‘Let anything that burns you come out’, she quotes Lola Ridge as saying, and tempers this exhortation with a warning: find something to support your position with regard to anger, be sure to contextualize it. Speaking out with anger is seldom considered acceptable. An Adrienne Rich obituary described her as a ‘poet beyond rage’, not an angry poet. The New Critics hated women and regarded them as ‘shrill’ rather than angry. A contemporary example is Hillary Clinton.  Terese’s suggestion is to ‘flex the muscle of anger, don’t KO the reader’. But you have a responsibility to express anger. Poets are the only holders of truth. ‘I don’t wanna remain silent,’ she says. ‘Do you have a problem with that?’

Lola Ridge, ‘bad girl’

lola-ridge-coverTerese wrote a biography of Lola Ridge, an anarchist Modernist poet and committed activist. Her second book was from the point of view of a little Australiasian bad girl.  She was born in Dublin and emigrated to New Zealand as a child and spent 23 years here before emigrating to New York City, where she received very favourable critical attention as a writer and was an editor at avant garde literary journals. She had a personal relationship with all the big names in New York at that time (between the wars): Marianne Moore was one of her best friends. At her death, the New York Times declared her “one of America’s most important poets.” Despite this, she’s been largely forgotten in New Zealand and the United States. Why is that? Part of it has to do with the politics of the canonisers, Terese argues. Influential Elliot and Pound were elitist, whereas Ridge was vocally and uncompromisingly for the radical left. Women poets were also perceived as a threat during the time Ridge was active, following the immense publishing success of Edna St Vincent Millay. As a result, women poets were widely denigrated. She was also experimental at a time when poets looked for form. Others have seen her perspective with regard to her radical interests in those who were lynching or executed as ‘maternal’, but Terese argues that Ridge always writes from a female point of view and that’s so rare it’s seen as maternal.

Ridge wrote one of her books on a drug called Gynergen, an amphetamine. This was a time in the United States, she reminds us, when no one drank (or at least, not legally) because of prohibition, but drugs were freely available everywhere. (And when Terese says everywhere, she really means everywhere. 7UP had Lithium in it until the 1950s!)

Ridge was also very ill with anorexia, only 69 pounds (31kg) at one point. She was hospitalized and sometimes bedridden as a result, which Terese thinks was not entirely a bad thing for Ridge’s work, as it gave her more uninterrupted time to write, and made her seem like a woman of leisure, more similar to her patrons’ lifestyles.

‘I’ll never write another biography’

‘I’ll never write another biography,’ Terese says. ‘It’s the drowning in the middle of a sea of facts.’ Some of the challenges of writing Lola Ridge’s biography in particular were: getting threatened with legal action for plagiarism; not having access to all the papers; and not knowing much about modernism (and the balance of making what she did learn about it accessible while also to making it readable for people who already knew about it), and having to craft information in a certain order so that the reader will already know one fact in order to understand another. The most Oulippian thing you can do is write a biography, having to stick with the facts, and support each sentence with a citation, she says. In the end, she couldn’t wait for Lola Ridge to die. The death scene, however, was miserable, but mitigated by the fact that her husband brought her breakfast in bed a few days earlier, a luxury she craved.  Ridge had found strength in isolation, despite the sad circumstances of her demise. ‘I am my own citadel,’ she quotes Ridge as saying.

Writing Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, her uncle’s story of being a GI in post-war Japan presented different challenges. It’s both a personal story and a family story, and secrets surfaced that some of her family were unhappy about her sharing. However, she cautions us against worrying too much about family when writing from life, because you don’t always know what relatives will be offended by. She wrote terrible things about her mother in her first book, Terese says, and the only thing that offended her mother was a depiction of her wearing an ill–fitting sweater.blackglasseslikeclarkkent2.jpg

Svoboda was also uncovering secrets the US military didn’t want people to know when she was working on Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, about executions by the US military of their own soldiers. Getting information was hard. A mysterious fire at a remote archive in 1973 was often blamed for the inability to produce records. Terese says a librarian friend of hers recommends her book to anyone who’s doing research, because it keeps meeting dead ends and she had to find new leads. Writing a biography became similarly obsessive. You see your subject everywhere you go. It’s also expensive, because you have to travel to places physically in service of the obsession. She says that the trick with this memoir was to find a mystery that would lead the reader deep into the book.

The exercise

Our in-class writing exercise was as follows:

Select one word that has significance to you. Produce a lyric essay in five parts. Parts 1, 3, and 5 are personal memories in present tense, not necessarily chronological. Parts 2 and 4 are intellectual, analytical. They could involve quotes, myth, words used in literature or film, word derivatives, and so on.

We had a half an hour to write something based on this prompt, with access to an internet-bearing device for research if we needed it. We were to write for ourselves (it wasn’t collaborative).

Afterwards, Terese went around the room picking out people to read what they had written. Word choices were as diverse as ‘ontology’, ‘homeless’, ‘night sweats’, ‘yellow’, ‘doubt’ and ‘daughter’, and the resulting essays were as interesting and varied. In the end it turned out nobody was exempt from reading their essay aloud, including Emily and Chris. Perhaps had she warned us of this beforehand we might have made more cautious, self-censoring choices. After each reading, Terese provided an instant commentary on the work and often some more general writing advice, for example, ‘a way to get energy into a prose piece is to contradict yourself’. She also spoke about complexity in a character. We all contain the elements of a Dostoevsky character, a murderer or great lover, because we are all human. For a character to be believable, we need to know how they are like us.

Terese produced some more Gordon Lish nuggets in the course of this session. Lish made people confess to the worst things they’d ever done in their lives, she revealed. Somebody would break down making these confessions, and then he’d say ‘you didn’t have to tell the truth’. A work ‘has to make us cry, not you’. We’re to look for what makes us human, what moves us, for guidance. Fiction, according to Lish, is a sacred torch that’s been handed to us by someone else.

A Loving Surgeon


imagesNovelist and poet Jeet Thayil held the first masterclass for this year’s MA. Easily seduced and readily impressed, I drew a picture of him in a cool denim jacket inside my notebook. I also took some notes, which are presented below:




Everybody knows poets don’t make any money, so they can get away with a lot. Readers have some expectations of ‘correctness’ from a novel while poets are expected to be half-insane.

Keep one continuous notebook for a dedicated period in your life, for everything — grocery list next to class notes, a hard-earned phone number next to a sketch of a bird. It will read like strange and personal poetry in the end.28086987

Poetry loves a list. The structure is so familiar, there’s freedom to be crazy inside it.

It’s a fashionable claim that a poem should stand completely alone, and should not need the context and history it was written in. But how much poorer would we be if we did not know it. Look at Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’. (We did.)



When violence is gratuitous, it is not correct. We’ve seen movies that feel like the director is getting off. It is gratuitous when you can remove violence and not lose anything. Take Homer’s Odyssey, take the Bible — violence is integral to those stories and you cannot remove it. Odysseus monologues on the slaughter he’s about to commit. The slaughter is integral to the tale. Jesus’s disciples were suicides; nobody followed him and expected to live very long.35285194


Jeet echoed James A. Michener: he is not a writer but a rewriter.  At the start of each day, he will go over the previous day’s work and revise or re-write it, which can take several hours.

Reading poetry, before beginning to write, is also a useful practice.

Be wary of the parts you are fond of simply because you had tremendous fun writing them. They may not suit the story. Those might be the darlings to stalk and murder.

Other Experiences

Jeet fielded questions from students, about writing other cultures, or experiences vastly different from one’s own. If you’re not going to risk being disliked, Jeet said, there is no point in writing, and the key to writing such work is paying extremely close attention. To write as a total act of love. The writer as surgeon, lovingly cutting up what he or she sees. Might showing someone and asking, “is this OK” be a good idea? No it will not be OK. It will destroy you as a writer.

During the coffee break I asked Jeet if he outlined his novels. He didn’t. Thank you, Jeet Thayil, for coming from far away and teaching a fantastic masterclass.


Jeet Thayil was a guest at Writers and Readers, The New Zealand Festival, Wellington March 2018. He is an Indian poet, novelist, librettist and musician. His most recent novel is The Book of Chocolate Saints. Read some of his poems here.


Notes from a poetry masterclass by Marianne Boruch

photo of Marianne Boruch by Will Dunlap 2

This checklist was compiled by MA student Rebecca Reader from thoughts and suggestions made by Marianne Boruch during the course of a free-flowing conversation at the IIML on 28 July 2017.  Marianne remarked after the fact:

images‘This list of ‘tips’ is interesting to me, a little unnerving though, cast as questions and then imperatives. That gives me pause. I hope I didn’t come across as a bully on these matters since uncertainty is a major element in making poems: always a kind of second-guessing which feeds and keeps open the meditative impulse. But I am very grateful to Rebecca for jotting these down, not as dictums so much as just reflections of a fellow traveller of hers-—and anyone smitten with poems and their making. We’re very lucky, aren’t we?  And that history is allowing us this moment to support our discussing such matters.’



Questions to ask during revision:

  • Does the poem undergo a shift in tone or mood? Does something in the poem change?
  • Is the poem abstract – does it open out into something bigger, have a larger quality and an intention of its own? Writing is alive if it arrives at something more than you had in mind.
  • Is the poem top-heavy with declarative sentences? Have you raised questions? Have you exclaimed? Or brought in urgency and hesitation via fragments?  Vary your syntax!
  • Have you over-explained? Less is more is an old and valuable dictum. Just enough is a useful mantra and caution.
  • Does the poem compress broad themes, times shifts or multiple associations into a small space?
  • Could you get a personal imprint on the poem without using ‘I’? Can a sense of personal juice be enacted through tonal shifts, lively language, surprising phrasing?  When used, the ‘I’ could well be abstracted to avoid the ‘Dear Diary’ effect. Vital discovery about the greater world often comes that way.
  • Is the reader watching the poem’s speaker figure something out? Is there a progression of thought in the poem?
  • Could you shift to present tense to introduce more urgency?
  • Does your white space create the pace and moments of stillness you’re after? Poems are made of sound and silence.
  • Does your poem have a trapdoor, a place where the poem slips inward, into individual realization, no matter how the world outside the self seems the main subject? Treasure that trapdoor which is our secret passage to the interior, the lyric heart of all poems.
  • Could you use a crochet hook to take an image used earlier in the poem and rework it later, even perhaps as part of the ending?
  • Could you flip the order of your closing lines, drop an upper line to the bottom for example, especially if that line is open-ended or contains a question? Most lines are portable and can travel and resettle. Some have serious wanderlust.
  • Have you read the work aloud and removed the padding?
  • Have you befriended your poem by revisiting it over a period of time until it is no longer an exact xerox of your guts? Regular visits with your poem move you beyond your initial state of enamoured shock. Daily meditation over lines that somehow bug you can result in an effective change being made. In short–show up, sit quietly with the current drafts of your poems; give them the time and space to keep revealing themselves to you. That’s what revision is. Patient companionship. Poems are fully alive and separate creatures, after all. They are not their maker. It takes a while to know them. And they often surprise you.

In creating a poem:

  • Be in the process not thinking about the process. When you write, words come through you.
  • Be as quiet as possible and as empty as possible.
  • Be open to images and note why they strike you.
  • Have no idea of where you’re going. Intention isn’t worth much—beyond the initial triggering impulse. Let the words and lines lead you into the poem’s real mystery. (You rarely know what that is at the start.)
  • Don’t be too wilful with research or the poem may not emerge.
  • Use favourite lines or images from poems you’ve read or written to inspire other poems. Waste nothing. Often bits you’ve cut from your earlier pieces make good seed for future poems.

An Interview with Charlotte Wood


by Antonia Bale

The Australian has described Charlotte Wood as one of that country’s ‘most original and provocative writers.’ She is the author of five novels and two books of non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, won the 2016 Stella Prize, the 2016 Indie Book of the Year and Novel of the Year, and was the joint winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. It has been published in Britain and the US as well as many countries in Europe. In 2016 Charlotte was named the Charles Perkins Centre’s inaugural Writer in Residence at the University of Sydney.

In July, MA and PhD prose and poetry students at the IIML were lucky enough to take a masterclass with Charlotte on building urgency and pressure. Unfortunately Charlotte then lost her voice and was unable to appear at Te Papa for her planned ‘Writers on Mondays’ reading and conversation. This interview is in lieu of that event. MA student Antonia Bale speaks with Charlotte about language, experimentation, Pinterest and writing what you want to write.

Place plays an obviously strong role in The Natural Way of Things but it’s also something that really influences the narrative in Animal People and, to a lesser degree, The Children. Is place a starting point for you?

9781760111236It can be, and definitely was with those three books, even though the place in The Natural Way of Things wasn’t a real place but a kind of dreamy (some would say nightmarish!) no-place. I do find that establishing a setting fairly early on helps me develop characters and plot, because once I have a place I can have my people responding to it, pushing against it, and often, being trapped in it with problematic others. Which can bring about useful frictions and conflicts. What I mean is that if I have a place in which to see the people of my story, I really need almost nothing else to begin a novel. This is comforting if, like me, you are the kind of writer who doesn’t plan from the beginning.

The Natural Way of Things traverses some dark territory– misogyny, how women who speak out about sexual abuse are treated, the media’s role in this – and yet the way you use language in the book is strikingly lyrical and beautiful. You’ve said that you felt that this came about as a response to the darkness in the novel. Can you talk to us a bit more about how you see the relationship between subject matter and language use?

It’s not really a very conscious decision, I have to say, but at a certain point in writing The Natural Way of Things I could see that I was constantly drawing beauty into the story as a way of balancing the ugliness – the moral and spiritual ugliness – of the material. The language in that book is much lusher, much more lyrical than, say, in Animal People. I don’t know if it would work terribly well if I were too conscious of this at the start – it could end up a sort of mechanistic approach, when what you want is for the language to merge very naturally with and arise from the story you’re telling. But I guess the overall point is that stories need light and shade, and with such a dark story, it seemed essential – for me as the writer, as much as the reader – to allow in as much ‘light’ in the form of beauty, and the potential for my girls to perceive beauty – as possible.

At the same time, too much beauty is a dangerous thing in a book. When I was first writing, I mostly relied on the beauty of language to stand in for the absence of other things like plot and strength of ideas and narrative tension. It didn’t work – too much lyricism ends up just making the prose claustrophobic and self-conscious. So now if I feel myself tipping into an overindulgence in the luxury of language, I try to punch a few holes in it with a bit of ugliness or plainness.

 The Natural Way of Things is very different from your previous books. You’ve said that while writing it you really didn’t think anyone would read it. And yet, it has become a breakthrough book. Can you reflect on what this might mean for writers and their relationship to readers? Should writers write what they most want to write and trust that readers will get it?

They most definitely should write what they want to write – but this is tricky territory, because ‘wanting’ is hard to define. I didn’t want to write the book I did, for example! I found it frightening and dark, and while I don’t want to be too dramatic about it, I felt I was entering some really quite horrible part of myself that, at times, felt almost dangerous to engage with. So, I really resisted the darkness of it, and kept trying to write around it, and to make it into a ‘nicer’ book. But that didn’t work at all, so only when I stopped resisting its nature did it begin to work. And once I got the first draft down, then I thought, okay: now make it into art. That’s where the beauty and the hope can come in, from turning a mass of ugly material into a shapely work of art.

I think you have to be honest in taking the big risk of this, because it’s more than possible that you can do all this – be yourself, write what you want to write, trust the reader – and then not be rewarded with readers or praise. It happens all the time. There is absolutely no guarantee that readers will follow you wherever you want to go. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, because what is an artist here for, if not to pursue her own creative instincts?

I discovered with The Natural Way of Things something I had sort of intuited before, but hadn’t really had to rely on: that if you pay close enough attention, and listen to your instincts, a book will tell you how to write it. You have to yield enough to it, and have the humility to accept that you can obey this and still fail. It’s scary! But when the rewards do come, they are so thrilling. You learn a lot about yourself, too.

9781760293345In your interview with Margo Lanagan for The Writer’s Room you said the scrapbooks she makes for her work appealed to you at a ‘non-verbal, gut level’. You used Pinterest in a similar way to gather images to help you imagine the future world of The Natural Way of Things. What did this approach lend you and how did it influence the tone or language of the book?

It was really useful. Seeing Margo’s beautiful scrapbooks inspired me to be more organised about collecting images as triggers and inspiration, which I had always done in a haphazard fashion. Pinterest turned out to be the perfect way for me to collect them, for that book – I’m doing it again now, but so far it’s not proving as useful, so maybe it depends on the book. I made sure it was a ‘private’ board so nobody but me could see it, and then I set it as my computer’s home page whenever I opened the internet. After a while of just collecting images very instinctively, I saw that the colours were mostly complementary, that there was a mood being created by the sombreness (and occasionally downright creepiness) of the images. There was a tonal cohesion to the images that was somehow consoling, even when the book was a total mess. One of the things that’s useful about it, and Margo said the same thing I think, is that it’s a good way of plunging yourself into the mood of the book very quickly.

Margo said this about her images: ‘They’re particularly good for when you get called away from the project and you lose contact with it. If you want to get back into the feeling of it, something like this is much quicker and stronger than reading through the draft that you did and the notes that you’ve made.’

If anyone’s interested, my The Natural Way of Things board is now public – it’s pretty creepy though, so be warned!

Your novels are considered ‘realist’. However, there’s a slightly mysterious presence in Margaret’s car in The Children and in The Natural Way of Things Verla’s fever dreams bleed into her waking life. What does departing from strict ‘realism’ give you as a writer?

It gives you everything. I mean, it allows so many more possibilities – Amanda Lohrey was the writer who crystallised this for me, when she told me in our Writer’s Room interview that she doesn’t trust any novel that doesn’t contain what she called ‘a message from another realm’. We were talking about dreams, and she said that while lots of readers hate them, they can bring in another layer of meaning into a book, and I completely agree.

1562502I don’t know about you, but I feel that a huge part of my life, and my ‘selfhood’ for want of a better word, exists on some other plane than the visible and the tangible. Our thoughts, memories, dreams, anxieties, our relationships, our sense of ourselves, often have very little to do with what can be identified as the ‘real’, concrete world.

It could be because I was raised in the Catholic religion, which quite apart from all the nonsense is full of a very rich sense of mystery, that not to acknowledge this sense of the unknown, the dreamy, the ‘supernatural’, feels to me that I would be ignoring an enormously important part of life. And so to ignore it in fiction seems madness.

From a technical point of view, it’s also a very helpful way sometimes of creating the unease, or the sense of tension and suspense, that helps to propel a reader through the pages. As Lohrey said, ‘small, unorthodox manoeuvres can have potent effects’.

The characters’ names in The Natural Way of Things – Verla, Yolanda, Teddy, Boncer, Maitlynd, Hetty – jump out off the page. They’ve got a kind of moxie about them. They’re quite different to the Geoffs, Cathys, Margarets, Stephens and Fionas of The Children and Animal People. Are names a way in for you in terms of creating character?

It’s very strange – the names in The Natural Way of Things just pretty much arrived out of the blue and did not change (apart from some of the peripheral girls, whose names took longer to settle upon). Again, after the fact, I could see that these quite strange names were part of the feeling of otherworldliness of that book – whereas with the previous two novels, I wanted a very real sense of ordinariness, of familiarity. I wanted the Connolly family to feel almost already recognised by the reader, so the familiarity of the names were a part of that.

None of these decisions are so conscious at the time.

I remember my friend the writer Tegan Bennett Daylight talking about character names way back when we were both baby writers, and how sometimes in writers’ early books characters have very beautiful names, or very dignified, quirky, whimsical sorts of names. You know, nobody’s called Alan. Or Sharon. It’s as if you’re naming your first baby. And Tegan said that if you’re not careful, the characters’ names can ‘stink of your ambition for the book’. I thought that was very astute, and I’ve tried to remember it. Although with The Natural Way of Things I obviously abandoned that altogether!

You’ve said that you chose to set Animal People in a single day as a kind of technical experiment. What other technical experiments have you set yourself? How has this influenced your writing?

6070162It’s helped, sometimes, to have this idea of a technical mark to aim for. With The Children I wanted to push myself on the drama side of things, to get a bit more suspense and tension into my work. Animal People was the one-day experiment, and in The Natural Way of Things I wanted to play around with reality, allowing myself some speculative, non-realist experimentation. With my new work in progress I’m having a shot at a more complex and rather old-fashioned use of omniscience or shifting points of view, but I don’t think it’s working very well. We shall see! Sometimes the technical and craft elements of writing are consoling things to focus on when other parts aren’t working.

In terms of its influence on my work, I’m not sure exactly what effect it has had – I have always had a horror of repeating myself, and wanted to do something quite different with each book. So I guess it has pushed me into new terrain, so far. But the more books you write, the harder it is not to repeat yourself, and I’ve become interested lately in the way visual artists quite often seem to even cannibalise their own earlier work to make new work – they don’t have the same kind of shame about this that writers have (or at least this writer). So I might be relaxing my views on this!

It was such a delight to revisit the Connolly family from The Children in Animal People. What was it like writing a book about a character that you (and readers) already had some context with? Did you consider this a creative constraint? Is it something you’d consider doing again?

It was fun to do that, almost a sequel but really a completely independent book. I found that having the main character of The Children – Mandy – completely offstage and absent in Animal People – gave me enormous freedom to basically start again, yet have glimpses of the family here and there. In one way it was a constraint to have the same characters I guess, but not really, because I thought about it as a completely new book with completely new characters. I just had to re-make them in a new context.

I once said I’d never write about Stephen or that family again – but a very astute bookseller challenged me to write about Stephen in, say, 20 years’ time. Who knows, maybe I will!

In both Animal People and The Natural Way of Things the ending offers something akin to hope or salvation. Is this part of what you think an ending could or should do? 

Hope is an interesting ethical position, and an expression of who you are as a writer. In general, I vote for optimism over despair. I think I’m actually a fairly pessimistic person, but I do see hope as a moral position – if you give up on hope you abandon the possibility of change, and that is a very, very dark place to go. Recently I heard someone say, of the current political climate, ‘we should save pessimism for better times’, which I thought was an astute remark.

I would never, ever tell another writer that an ending ‘should’ be hopeful. Some of the most powerful books I’ve ever read – that have galvanised me into a change of heart or a deep psychological response – have had very pessimistic endings, and it’s that very ending which paradoxically creates the possibility of hope in a reader, the understanding that our only hope is to push back against what might seem inevitable. So, I don’t hold a position on what other artists do, and there’s little I dislike more than one writer lecturing another on how they ‘should’ work. But I suspect that my own endings will generally contain at least the possibility of hope, purely because I can’t accept despair as a personal position. I mean, I accept it all the time in my own life, but you have different responsibilities when you put something on the page for others. Maybe.

You interviewed Australian and New Zealand writers for The Writer’s Room while writing The Natural Way of Things. How did these conversations influence the techniques or approaches you tried in this book? How important is it for your writing to speak with other writers about the process and craft of writing? Do you consider it a necessary lifeline for a writer?

It’s a necessary lifeline for me, but I would never presume to say it’s essential for all writers. The one overarching lesson I learned very clearly from the interviews, in fact, was that every writer has her or his own, specific, idiosyncratic and absolutely inviolable process. Part of learning to write, I think, is learning to accept your own needs and nature, and to respect your own instinct and process.

That said, every single interview I did taught me something exceptionally valuable. It was like an amazing private master class each time. When The Natural Way of Things came out I wrote an article for The Guardian where I pinpoint precise lessons I took from specific writers into writing the book.


For more from The Writer’s Room, Charlotte Wood’s interview with Lloyd Jones can also be found in The Fuse Box: Essays on Writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.

Te Hui Whakapūmau/Māori Students’ Graduation Address 2014 – Hinemoana Baker

Hinemoana BakerKia ora huihui mai nei tātou katoa. Me kii, ko Tukorehe me Ōtākou ōkū marae-a-hapū, marae-ā-iwi rānei, engari ko Te Herenga Waka tōku marae whakatipu kei te Whanga-nui-a-Tara, nō reira tēnā tātou, tēnā tātou, tēnā tātou katoa.

Thank you to Victoria University and to Te Kawa a Māui for asking me to be here and speak today – a privilege and a pleasure. It’s quite emotional to be back here in Te Tumu Herenga Waka, at Te Herenga Waka, the marae which raised me in many ways, and scores of others over the decades.

It has been nearly 20 years since I graduated right here with my BA in Māori and Women’s Studies (back when there was a Women’s Studies Department) and ten years since my Masters in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. First, I want to mihi to all of you Māori graduands whose day it is today. I mihi to you in the widest, warmest, truest, most deeply felt, most ‘I get what you’ve been through to be here’ kind of way. I want to congratulate you all on what you have achieved and what is being recognised today.

When I was sitting where you are, I felt a combination of things. Relief that the sheer workload was over; excitement; a kind of tired triumph. But I also felt grief – or a prescience of grief – anticipating what changes might come after this day, those connections that would inevitably unravel a little as the future arrived with its new opportunities and demands.

It might seem strange, at a time like this, to talk about sadness. But in the Māori world it’s a natural thing. Whenever we are welcomed in pōwhiri on any of the marae around the country we are invited to grieve, to bring on our dead and our sorrows alongside our celebration.

I believe the true beauty of occasions like this lies in this variegation. As scholars, as thinkers, as Māori and as human beings, it’s part of our duty to remind the world about the beautiful complexity of things.

When I was sitting where you are, it was the sadness of what I was leaving behind that affected me. And not just what I was leaving behind on this campus, but in my life and my life-path up until that point. It was this sadness, just as much as the excitement at what I was about to step into, that made this day in my own history so important and so memorable.

So in this spirit I’d like to share with you some words from a Bohemian-Austrian poet writing at the turn of last century. His name is Rainer Maria Rilke, and I have found his words nourishing at moments in my life of transformation, of deep and significant transition. He writes a lot about sadness and anxiety, but in this passage from ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, he also writes about knowledge, about the limits of knowledge. He writes about the future, and how we may embrace it, how it may embrace us when we least expect it:

If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys.

For those sadnesses are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing…

We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes.

We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way, in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.

In closing, what I’d really like to do is my best John Campbell impersonation. I feel like exclaiming ‘Remarkable! You are all quite simply remarkable! Marvellous!’ But in fact I’m not sure if that’s John Campbell or David Attenborough. In Māori, I would say: Koia kei a koutou, e – which I think could be loosely translated as bloody good on you all. May your futures step into you today.

Mauri ora

Hinemoana Baker is the 2014 Writing Fellow at Victoria University. Her latest collection of poems is waha | mouth (Victoria University Press).

Emily Perkins – Candour v Confession: on reading Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

At the Byron Bay Writers Festival this month I met Robyn Davidson, and have since been immersed in her book Tracks. As you might know from the recently released movie of the same name, it’s about her odyssey on foot and camel from the centre of Australia to the coast in the 1970s. I haven’t seen the film but have gone online to search images of various characters who feature in the book, mostly to discover that the real people (‘the originals’) have been usurped by screen-stills of their movie-star avatars. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, or something.

This memoir has got me thinking about the literary difference between confession and candour. There is intimacy to a confession that draws you in, makes you lean closer. I often admire softly spoken people for the effect of their modest pitch. But speaking up and speaking clearly doesn’t have to mean shouting. (I have a theory that this is something women, particularly, worry about, for various obvious reasons.) Tracks reads like a direct, honest book, and involves transformation and soul-searching, but has none of the tinge of confession that we often find in personal stories. Davidson does not position the reader as more or less powerful than her narrating self. She’s not in search of absolution and she accepts there are limits to understanding, even as she tries to expand her own – and ours. If she moves us, that is an effect of the work, not the primary goal, which seems like something simpler, such as exploring, if that’s not too reductive.

If the book were being written now it’s easy to imagine a different and possibly diminished version – even, in our documented age, the self-consciousness of a journey undertaken in order to tell the tale. Back-story, confession, analysis, struggle, revelation, growth. The book as it stands resists that order, refusing to psychoanalyse itself in any simplistic way, and spares the author nothing, good or bad, in all of her incarnations through the desert. It’s beautifully shaped: expansions and digressions are made and much is elided. The shifting tone is anecdotal, lyrical, pragmatic, bewildered, funny and angry, and in leaving questions unresolved the memoir chooses honesty over comfort.

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson

There’s more that I’m thinking through about this, and if anyone has responses I’d love to hear them. In the meantime here is a distinction between candour and confession I plan to take into my writing and teaching: confessional work asks to be forgiven, or to be liked, whether ingratiatingly or confrontationally; candid work has other motives. In candid writing the writer and reader are equal, with cost and reward to both in the investment. No one is showing her pain to elicit sympathy, and no one is falsely comforted by a sense of superiority or ‘there but for the grace of God’. Candid writing generates more clear-eyed recognition than misty sympathy. A book like Tracks is interested in exploring the larger nature of the story it is telling, leaving an open space for the reader to enter. Before the 18th Century, when ‘candour’ came to mean ‘freedom from reserve in one’s statements; openness, frankness, outspokenness’, its meanings included ‘openness of mind’ and ‘freedom from malice’. Its root cand also belongs in candle, and accendere: to kindle, to set alight.

Emily Perkins teaches the MA Fiction Workshop at the IIML. Her most recent novel is The Forrests.

Faith and Will – Carl Shuker


So, how do you write, exactly?

Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

Obviously the Ballard here is J.G., in his Paris Review interview. Here is the author of, at his death in 2009, 18 novels and by my count 22 assorted collections of short fiction. In 1984, when he said this, James Graham was 54 and had published 10 novels and 15 of those collections. What lies behind this perfect little quote is an enormous lived treatise on the faith and will of writing.

J.G. is turning irritably in his grave right now, but hear me out.

In 1964, three novels into his career, Ballard’s wife died of pneumonia. In his joyous, playful The Kindness of Women he rewrote his own biography such that she dies after a fall at a Spanish beach resort. He is forced to drive his three children home to their dusty semi in Shepperton, TW17. Imagine that drive.


J.G. Ballard outside his house in Shepperton.

Shepperton, to his readers, is an otherwise banal London commuter circuit suburb luminous with his fiction: its reservoirs clasping drowned light aircraft in their waving weeds; its leafy green über-English foliage poised trembling ready to explode into a precisely and passionately observed tropical rainforest; its residents walking as if lost in a dream, ready for their deviating sexualities to emerge and find their fullest expression on church pews and dashboards.

What he did, just three novels in, his wife dead, age thirty-four, was to drive home to Shepperton with his three bereaved children, and commence the unimaginable task of bringing them up alone and writing his life’s work. And though Miriam died of pneumonia, not of a mysterious concussion in the back of a Catalan ambulance, whether or not he verifiably drove those children home doesn’t matter. Because that is what he did. He drove them home from the place of their mother’s death, and then he drove them to school in the morning, every morning, and came home, poured himself a large Teacher’s at (I like to imagine) about 9:15 (elsewhere in a very generous and humanising admission he talks of it calming his nerves), and commenced on the next 500 to 1000 words of some of the most devastating, numinous, repetitive, terrifying, sad, monotonous, prophetic, hilarious fiction we keep from the latter half of the twentieth century. (Martin Amis called Ballard’s fiction “at once totally humourless and entirely unserious”: his persistently strange work always rewards the paradoxical juxtaposition, and like all the biggies, he always reveals his reviewer.)

This is an act, behind his—and any big writer’s—apparent bravado, Godlikeness, unassailability (I don’t ever think of McCarthy sitting down to Blood Meridian and murmuring “Oh, I just can’t enter into this imaginatively today”): an act of faith, and of will. Because the weird catch-22 or ouroboros of novel writing is that to do the creative, imaginative work of making a piece of prose ring in a reader’s imagination, to raise and fire an undoubted world with bounce and blood and passion such that the reader has total faith in it, you must have faith in yourself. It’s a requirement.

It may sound trite. But consider this: out of nowhere, you’re say 24 and haven’t hardly finished a proper emotion let alone a thing we might call a book, you’re required to have faith that this tiny two-inch corner you’re painting right now will form an inevitable, essential, closely examinable and yet seemingly seamless and unremarkable part of a huge, huge canvas (you know only it’s really big) that you don’t know the exact dimensions of yet. (There’s a not-small element of bluff.) Because if you don’t have that faith then the brushstrokes, the mark making, will be incongruous; tiny, perfect details here; broad evocative strokes out there when you got confident but ran out of time/material/story/whatever. Pacing all wrong. Result: “Patchy”—L. Patchett, Listener. “Uneven”—Michiko Kakutani, NYT.

So because it’s me and not, well, you, I’m actually talking about, back to the first person: the catch: in order to do what I need to do and what I know I can’t do, or certainly have no prior evidence I can do, I must have faith in myself that I can indeed do this miraculous thing. Faith is a synonym here for love of self. But also, over time, as the fiction progresses, for me, faith in the people of the fiction. Faith in the world as it is transformed into the fiction. Faith as synonym for love of world. (Of course what also works is support of community, of family etc., apposite energies or obsessions like anger, loss, love, big passions which can be channelled, etc., Scotch.) Will is the element of getting myself into the position to have faith. “I will, every day, be here at this time doing this thing and if you think I won’t and that I will fuck this up like I fucked those other things up you’re about to get a lesson in will.” Or something equally self-exhortatory, vociferous, not to say strident. This is our only time and our only time in the sun; bitching about publishing and about debt and stress and hard work and tiredness and failure and dumbing down of this and that are just ways of not doing what I really have to do.

Don DeLillo has a lovely bit about will, in Underworld:
“Have you come across the word velleity? A nice Thomistic ring to it. Volition at its lowest ebb. A small thing, a wish, a tendency. If you’re low-willed, you see, you end up living in the shallowest turns and bends of your own preoccupations.”

It’s a Jesuit talking to a young man. And I can see it’s kind of scary in isolation from the big sepia warmth of that book. It’s not just about set teeth and application of trouser seat to chair, as Kingsley Amis has it. Here’s Ballard, at his desk every morning in his, let’s face it, filthy house, his three children (three children) off at school, with his glass of Scotch, commencing on the next page of the novel, of his alternative affirmation of the psychosexual horror-comedy of the twentieth century.Drowned_World

And before I tell you what he does next, looking down at what he’s written, there’s another thing I might mention, apart from writing, and books, that is the result of this exercise of faith and will. Bill Manhire reports on always feeling like the youngest person in the room. And it’s written all over his face. Seamus Heaney said, “All poets are young poets really, that’s the beauty of it.” It was written all over his face too.

There are writers out there, and unhappy, frantic-seeming people with intense inner lives who haven’t found their work, who only calm under the weight of a task. I think of them like certain teenagers, all power and energy and no direction. Give them a task, give them a weight to bear, precisely calibrated just above their expectations of themselves. And they may bitch and moan, but the weight must be such they are forced to concentrate, and calm. There is a peace.

And there’s more. Because here’s Ballard, 34, with his three children, his debts, no doubt, and his memories of murder, atrocity, torture and starvation. His lost wife. He looks down at what he’s just written and chuckles.GetImage

Carl Shuker is the 2013 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. His books include The Lazy Boys and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon. Asked to recommend Ballard titles, Carl writes: ‘For new readers I’d say definitely start with the canonical Crash, or for those more squeamish, The Drowned World. And for the wonderful transmogrification of Shepperton: The Unlimited Dream Company.’

Carl is representing the MA year 2001 at the IIML Alumni Reading on Sunday 29 September from 7.30pm at Circa Theatre, Wellington.