Capturing life: interview with a biographer part 1

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Nathan Hobby:

I’m excited to have a recently published biographer, John Burbidge, share his thoughts on literary biography in a four-part interview on A Biographer in Perth. Part 1 today.

Originally posted on A Biographer in Perth:

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At the Perth Writers’ Festival in February, I discovered John Burbidge’s Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin,  the biography of a significant Perth writer often overlooked in his home country. I had the chance to introduce myself to John at the book-signing and he has generously agreed to answer my questions about literary biography to share on this blog. John’s answers – a series of four over the next four days – are splendid reflections on the theory and praxis of writing a biography. You can find more about Dare Me! on John’s website about Glaskin; find out about John’s other work as an editor and writer at http://www.wordswallah.com, including a page on his memoir, The Boatman, to be published in Australia later this year.

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Biographer-in-Perth: I was struck by the way you opened with a thematic treatment of the beach in Glaskin’s life…

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Waiting to Die: Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

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Hannah Kent / Burial Rites (2013)

How does someone live, knowing they are to die? In Iceland in 1829, Agnes has been sentenced to death; the date has not been fixed and while she waits, she is sent to live with the family of the district officer on their farm. The story of the murder which led to her sentence is drawn out in stages by the priest and the district officer’s wife, as well as sections narrated directly to us by Agnes. My interest was in the tension of living in the shadow of execution, and carrying on with everyday life, working at chores each day and finding some comfort in relationships. Because, as extreme and foreshortened as Agnes’s situation is, we are all under a death sentence. We just have the luxury of not dying at others’ hands while we are still healthy. Kent conveys the drama of mortality well, with an assurance and insight beyond that of most first-time novelists.

As a narrative, the dual strands work well: the clock ticking down to her execution as we move through Agnes’s narration of the past as well. It is probably the best way to narrate it. But I was conscious in this novel of how neat most retellings within narratives are. The story of the past unfolds chronologically in the present. I’ve been watching True Detective at the same time – same technique, with the protagonists telling their story ‘right from the beginning’. I’m doing the same thing in my new novel. Readers probably don’t mind, but I understand the desire of some writers to disrupt the chronology – say DeLillo in Underworld. There’s better examples, I’m sure; just can’t think of them right now. In life, you get bits of the stories in chunks, usually, mixed up and random. But that’s the whole process of narrativisation, I suppose. Giving shape to life.

On blogging and this blog

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It’s my 300th post on this blog. Many of those posts came in the early years after I started the blog in 2007. There was a stage I dried up altogether, and I felt I didn’t have anything more to say here. But that seems a stage many long term blogs go through, and I’ve come out the other end this year with some more things to say. (These days it’s my theology blog which lies fallow.)

The occasion has me reflecting on blogging itself. I like the way it’s instantaneous, instead of that great time lag (newspapers aside) between writing and being published in print. I like the interaction, the evidence that someone is reading when they comment – thank you so much to those who have, over the years. It’s easier not to, and yet it’s a good thing to join in the conversation. I like the strange genre of blogging, the mini-essay, with looser rules than more formal writing, and many possibilities. All that said, blogging’s strengths are its weakness, and most posts would benefit from the long gestation that writing for print has normally entailed.

I’m not altogether comfortable with the blog blaring out my name at all times. It started that way to replace the previous blog (2003-2006); my novel was still a recent memory then, and the site was the place to promote it. I changed the name, quietly, to ‘The Annotations of…’ earlier this year, because I wanted to give a better taste of what this blog was about. ‘Annotations’ seemed to capture it, words scribbled in the margins of other texts, notes on what’s going on. ‘Book reviews’ have been the most common category I’ve written in, followed by ‘film reviews’. These are never my favourite posts; I don’t get to writing what I intend to write in here often enough. I would like to be inspired to write more autobiographical posts, mini-memoirs like the one about the bus station and the houses I used to live in. I thought of some alternative names for this blog, but they didn’t sound quite right – ‘The Unlit World of Old’ (from the Morphine song) and ‘Messages in Bottles’.

I look back and see I was writing in quite a different voice for this blog in 2007, more informally, and more concerned to write about politics and religion. I can’t imagine what I might sound like in 2021, and what I might be caring to write about. Well, actually, let’s face it – it could be much the same as now.

Amalgam Places: The Puzzle of ‘Calatta’ in Prichard’s Intimate Strangers

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Nathan Hobby:

I wrote on my other blog about the merits of amalgam places, with reference to Tim Winton and Katharine Susannah Prichard

Originally posted on A Biographer in Perth:

If a writer sets a novel in a world without any familiar reference points, it might be described as surreal, or placed in the fantasy or alternative reality genre – Paul Auster’s In The Country of Last Things comes to mind. Other times, familiar places are given new names and also possibly amalgamated, while within that reality other larger places remain the same (Australia is still Australia). In Tim Winton’s work, is Angelus simply Albany renamed? One could go mad trying to tie down the suburb of Cloudstreet; it’s West Leederville, but it’s also Subiaco, and other western suburbs. And this is surely the point: renaming a familiar place loosens the constraints on the novelist. The novelist can construct their own place like building Lego, taking bits which go together. The railway line can be closer to the river. In the same way that time is manipulated, memories from…

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Obsession in suburban Perth: Tracy Ryan’s ‘Claustrophobia’

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Tracy Ryan Claustrophobia (Transit Lounge, 2014)

My friend Tracy Ryan’s new novel, Claustrophobia, was published recently by Transit Lounge. Set in Perth, it’s a literary thriller about a woman’s obsession with her husband, Derrick’s ex-lover, Kathleen. The claustrophobia of the title is an apt description of the feel of the novel. We’re constrained within the narrative viewpoint of Pen and her narrow, obsessive world. Her marriage is claustrophobic, too, the jealousies and social isolation fueling her behavior. The clichés in which Pen talks and coats her world hint at a darker side constrained within, and it’s this side of her which is gradually revealed.

Pacing is important to the thriller, and in this novel it’s just right, building up tension slowly and, for the reader, unbearably, knowing something must break. The plot opens with an inciting incident of Pen uncovering an undelivered letter from Derrick to Kathleen, and deciding to open it and read it. From here, this initial decision to keep a secret in her marriage in retaliation snowballs expertly with each chapter.

I’m left at the end unsure of how to judge the characters; this ambiguity is probably part of the novel’s psychological accomplishment. Pen is an unsettling protagonist to live with for 240 pages. The positive spin on her provided by one of the other characters is that she’s intelligent and passionate, but crippled by low self-esteem. Yet as with people in real life, the characters around her don’t know the level of neurosis and obsession percolating behind her façade. Derrick, her husband, truly is too controlling, and can be seen to have helped cause Pen’s madness; yet he is a somewhat more balanced and grounded person than Pen. Kathleen is the most sympathetic of the major characters, an articulate and generous academic who lives life to the full—and yet has her own obsessiveness which emerges late in the novel.

The novel evokes Perth so very well, from suburban life in the hills, to the hallways and cafes of UWA, as well as the bush town of Pemberton. There are too few novels set in Perth, and this one is convincingly grounded in it. It’s possible to loosely associate it with the crime genre, and suggest that with the work of David Whish-Wilson and Felicity Young it begins to map out Perth as an increasingly plausible setting for crime fiction.

On the subject of genre, the characters discuss the novels of Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon, perhaps a case of the novel wearing its influences proudly. These are the right reference points for a contemporary novel in the tradition of these two writers, with the fresh setting of Perth.

Underclass Meets Metaworld: Review of ‘A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’

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A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists / Jane Rawson (Transit Lounge, 2013)

Wrong Turn is set on the streets of a semi-post-apocalyptic Melbourne in 2030. Climate change has displaced many and made life difficult for those eking out an existence under the glare of the sun in a world with little water and many ways to die. The main character is Caddy, a thirty-three year old aspiring writer who does what she can (including casual prostitution) to eat and drink. The early chapters of her wheeling and dealing in errands and squabbles over five dollars as she sits in a hot bar sparring with the bartender reminded me of the feel of Thomas Disch’s 334 and some of Philip K. Dick’s work (besides the mindbending which everyone focuses on, PKD was a chronicler of the little person surviving the future). Rawson has brought to life the underclass of the near future, with its mix of boredom and menace.

To do this as successfully as she has would have been plenty enough to accomplish in a novel, but Rawson attempts much, much more. Without losing its tethering in this ruined Melbourne, the focus begins to turn to the characters Caddy is writing about, two orphaned teenagers attempting to travel through every twenty-five foot square of the USA, a task that will take them ninety years at their current pace. (I love a quixotic project like this; there is a whole other novel worthy of Paul Auster or George Perec here.) Without giving away too many of the twists, the novel shifts into the territory of writer-meets-characters and the Gap, a meta-realm which could have come from a Stephen King novel. For my taste, it’s territory which has already been overexplored, but Rawson’s take on it is quite fresh.

Wrong Turn is a distinctly Australian novel, compelling as a portrait of life as climate change hits and of the petty concerns, dreams, losses and consolations that make up the fabric of existence, as through the eyes of Caddy, a winsome character. The author blogs here; you can read her reflections on the writing life, including her work-in-progress, a non-fiction guide to surviving climate change.

The greatest song forever, for now: from Amy Grant’s “Prodigal” at the end of the tape to my five-star itunes playlist

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In 1991 the greatest song of all time, bar none, was Amy Grant’s “Prodigal”. It’s a beautiful piano ballad, a song about waiting for a loved one to return. It was at the end of my cassette tape of the album Unguarded (1985), which I’d saved up my pocket money for two months to buy, and Dad warned me if I played the same part over and over, it’d wear out. So I had to listen to the whole tape to wear it evenly, all those bouncy aerobic songs of mid-80s pop till I got to that Greatest Song of All Time. I’ll be waiting, counting the days, until I finally see your face. I knew Amy Grant was waiting for me, somewhere, waiting, probably for me to hit puberty and not be ten years old.

These days, my music collection is managed by itunes, and I studiously rate all additions to my library. Being an impartial judge of music, my ratings are objective of course, and a five star song is a five star song forever. But, why then, do I keep skipping tracks by Au Revoir Simone, that band of synthesiser-playing hippy housewives who I had a brief crush on in September 2011? And how come Depeche Mode and the Smashing Pumpkins keep dropping a star these days? Was there something wrong in my objective taste of five star songs? Of the 253 five star songs in my collection, 32 are by the Cure and only 25 are by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Does this finally arbitrate the long running rivalry in my head over who my favourite artist is?

Being a librarian and having some fondness for records (in the non-LP sense), I wish itunes was more sophisticated. I wish it had multiple ratings: a rating for when this song was in season, when it was in tune with me and my life, and my rating now. Then I could re-rate songs with impunity, without losing a record of just what my taste was in years gone by.

I haven’t listened to Amy Grant’s “Prodigal” for quite some time. I don’t have it on itunes, or even on CD. I don’t have a working tape player any more. I have the tape itself, and I don’t think it ever wore out. My dad never warned me that a song could ever wear out in my head, that my favourite song, that a perfect song, might one day stop being so.

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As I write this, with my five-star song list on random, The Cure come up with a song I have not tired of despite living with for fifteen years, “Bloodflowers”, which carries in it all the ambivalence of loving a song and knowing it’s the best song in the world, and then not knowing that any longer:

Never fade
Never die
You give me flowers of love

Always fade
Always die
I let fall flowers of blood