An initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and its Creative Producer Nigel Featherstone, F*CK COVID, was an online-only event. It comprised two panel discussions, featuring “four of Australia’s most exciting literary voices”, one focused on fiction, and the other non-fiction. I will report on these in separate posts.
Both sessions included the authors reading from their books for a few minutes, which, as always, was a treasure.
Hard truths; Risky fiction, with Irma Gold and Mark Brandi
After introducing the authors and their latest books, Irma Gold (The breaking, my review) and Mark Brandi (The others), Featherstone launched into his gently probing questions, which resulted in some great insights, for readers and writers. We started with Gold and Brandi describing their books, but you can find that info elsewhere if you haven’t read the books! You can also read more about Irma on her novel in my report of a conversation in May.
On their inspirations
Interestingly, both authors’ novels started as short stories.
Gold’s started as a story that is now, essentially, her first chapter. It was not initially about elephants and animal cruelty. She feels that if she’d started with that idea the novel would have been more issues-driven that the character-driven story it is. The two characters appeared to her fully-formed she said. She also said that her stories are usually dark, but she wanted to write something more joyful.
Brandi’s novel started as a short story (published in Meanjin in 2016). Unlike Gold’s non-autobiographical novel, Brandi’s story was based on a childhood experience that gave him his first insight into the complexity and contradictions of the adult world. However, he said that as he has talked about the novel post-publication, he has realised that the story was more inspired by his father’s life with his father’s father. It’s about nature versus nurture, and how events affect us later in life.
On challenges they faced writing difficult sections
For Irma, this was writing the animal cruelty scenes. One scene in particular was “very hard” to write. She wanted to not make the book so harrowing that people would not want to read it. Her aim was to give enough for people to understand the situation. Even so, one agent and some publishers found her story “too risky” and did not want to take it on. Gold said what she loves about writing is “seeing the world through other perspectives”, which is just what we readers like too, eh?
For Mark, the whole thing was challenging! He also likes “seeing world though other eyes”. The discussion focused mainly on writing difficult material through a child’s eyes. Brandi spoke about trusting readers. He believes that the reader’s imagination can do a better job than the author, so he creates the prompt to allow readers “to go to the dark place if they are brave enough to”. People, he said, can tolerate cruelty to humans more than to animals. (Why is that?) He also said he’s happy to read “dark stuff”, that it doesn’t give him a negative world view (which I relate to).
Nigel complimented Australia’s publishing landscape, believing we have publishers prepared to take risks.
Nigel asked Mark about his “pared back” style, in which there’s barely a sentence that is exposition or description. Mark responded that this is what he likes to read. He likes to be trusted, respected as a reader. He wants his readers to bring themselves to the work, and to “paint the picture themselves”. Reading, he said, is a “dance between reader and writer”.
This led to a discussion about dialogue. Brandi tries to use dialogue sparingly. It must have meaning. Nigel quoted Francine Prose (Reading like a writer) who wrote that “good dialogue is when character’s thoughts are louder on the page”. Irma concurred, saying that every line of dialogue has to have a reason for being there.
On themes and perspectives
Nigel suggested that Irma’s overall theme was Hannah’s yearning to do the right thing and to find love. Irma replied that she wasn’t consciously thinking of these, but she has later realised that Hannah came from her observation of 20-something tourists she’d seen in Thailand. Their freedom looked “so delicious and wonderful” but she’d realised that, at her age, she had the benefit of knowing who she was, and where she was going. Uncertain Hannah came from this recognition! It’s interesting to explore a character like Hannah, particularly when you throw in someone like Deven who tests and challenges. Nigel commented that in good novels, the DNA is in the opening, and that The Breaking opens with a sense of tension, darkness, and humour.
For Mark, Nigel returned to the issue of writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old (Jacob). Mark confessed that the inner child is “close to the surface for him”! Then, turning serious, he identified the two main issues: a child’s limited understanding of the world, particularly when that world is closely mediated through his father; a child’s language and narrow “vocabulary palette”. He used Jacob’s imagination to convey things a boy’s language couldn’t.
Here a William Faulkner quote was paraphrased, as it seemed to apply to both Irma and Mark. The original is:
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
On bringing together character, plot and story
Nigel asked about their writing process, regarding how and when they bring all the elements together.
Irma said that for her character and place go together. She also talked about how her work as an editor has given her an insight, particularly, into pacing. She said that her first draft is very much character-based, with plot and pacing honed during editing.
Mark’s response somewhat echoed Irma’s in that he’s very dependent on his editor and publisher for help with plotting. Again, his style of reading aligned with mine, when he said that he doesn’t pay much attention to plot in his own reading, and that he “will stay with good characters through whatever harebrained plot the author throws up“. I loved this, because I don’t care about plot holes. I care about characters and ideas.
Anyhow, he said that he leaves a couple of months after his draft, and will often see plot deficiencies when he returns to it, but there are always more when the book gets to publisher.
- On their writing sessions: Both writers said you need a routine, and described their own. Mark drafts 2-3 hours every day because “voice and character are crucial” and he needs to stay with them. Irma said her process/routine varies for each project depending on what’s happening in her life (as she works full-time and has three children). With The breaking, she could only allocate two three-hour sessions a week, but her subconscious worked away in between, making those sessions productive.
- On writing violence, and how to dial it back when the subject matter is violent. Irma suggested that people tolerate more violence against humans so it may not be a big problem, while Mark says that you give the reader enough details, then trust them to imagine. The question is, he said: What are the violent scenes in service of? Are they to convey what it’s like day to day, to support characterisation, or? Answering these will help avoid gratuitous violence.
- On titles, which comes first, the story or the title: For both it was clearly the story, but Mark said that The others came to him very early while The rip started as something else. Irma said The breaking came to her after the book had gone to the publisher.
Tips for writing through the pandemic
Mark said routine and ritual and hard work – and giving it your whole being and heart.
Irma admitted that, until now, we Canberrans hadn’t been greatly affected, but she agreed that routine is important. Now she is in lockdown, and has more time, she plans to grab that! Find your time and your routine, was her advice.
Live events are the best, but online ones like this can be just as good in terms of both content and warmth. Watch for session two’s report …