Monday, 5 December 2011

Letting the sunshine in.

This month I put down the crime novels, turned off the DVD boxsets and took a breather from all the dark and troubled matter that usually calls me to witness.

So this is what it feels like to be one of those "positive people" (shudder). It feels odd, like trying to walk in a mermaid suit. I've been here before, it never lasts, the world always slaps that hippie grin right off your face.

But see, there's a new young person in my life who needs some sunlight and I've gotta be the provider.

I've decided to put down my work in progress 'til early next year, which completely sucks, but again, I can't be sifting through psychic riverbottom sludge while also meeting a small person's need for lightness and hope and level-heartedness. Maybe I'm framing it too dualistically, maybe it really is all one experience as I've always thought, but for now this feels like the right thing to do.

I will be back. Til then, keep kickin', friends.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Unfollowing the hero.

This week I read S.J. Watson’s mystery thriller Before I Go To Sleep, the story of a woman with amnesia who gradually pieces together an awareness that her constant, loving husband may not be so loving after all.

After a couple of pages I wasn’t sure I would continue with the book. I once experienced amnesia after a head injury and it was damn scary, and recalling the sensation of being lost inside my own mind made me uncomfortable, sometimes even nauseous. (Besides this, I have to admit, the book’s milieu was not to my taste, my Irish convict genes encoded with little sympathy for middle class Brits and their problems.)

. Somewhere early on, I can’t tell you where, I attached to the main character in this novel and I couldn’t let go.
My intellect--and the blood of Bartholomew Jordan running through my veins--told me I should shut the book and move on to the Andrew Vachss on the bedside table or Daniel Woodrell’s beautiful Outlaw Album on my Kindle.

I could not do it.

S.J. Watson has done that elusive thing: she’s written a page turner, the book you read in one sitting, the book you read until your eyes are red and blurred and it’s four in the morning and you have to get up at six but you can’t stop until it’s finished.

Now, it seems to me that in dramatic screenwriting it’s a lot easier to craft this rolling flow of attention and interest. It’s in the way you structure and sequence the things that happen, the flow of questions and answers. But in fiction? It seems mysterious to me, magical. The page-turner effect is like alchemy, worthy of the highest praise.

All this awe led me to wondering about character identification and how on earth it really works.

You know when somebody on a social media site says some jackass thing and your brain says, UNFOLLOW? Sometimes you even 'Unfollow it up' and hit that little green button, or the blue link that says Unfriend. Where is the line they’ve crossed, it’s inside you, right? Unique to you?

So, regarding the main character in my own novel in progress, as the story has unfolded I’ve been surprised to discover that she tells lies. A lot of them. Unfortunately, when it comes to my own tastes as a reader, I would probably shut my own book and return to Woodrell. I desire honest heroes. Flaws and moral complexity are great but the heroes and antiheroes I like best tend to be truth tellers, often to a fault. This woman, though? Habitual liar. I’ve been wondering if this will be a turnoff or even a dealbreaker for readers and if so, how to deal with this, since characters are who they are and that’s that.

This week, after tossing all this around, something great happened. Through my teaching job I got free tickets to attend a seminar at a Brisbane university by a visiting Hollywood screenwriting guru. The man’s written a couple of books linking mythic storytelling with cinema, and he works as a story analyst on studio pictures. In this seminar the guru was likening the identification process to infantile attachment, using the metaphor of the umbilical cord; he described how it is broken at birth and how we cast around throughout our lives for something or someone to which we can re-attach; he claims it’s a primal human need. (This isn’t new by the way, Aristotle and Joseph Campbell and all that.)

The guru claimed that when we 'link in' with a hero in a story, our phantom umbilicus grabs onto that character and we become one, like mother and infant, then the primal connection pulls us along for the ride.

The man was kind of an egomaniac--the telling of his ‘personal background’ tale ran for almost two hours--but the hundred or so people in the lecture theatre were indeed along for the ride. We were on his side, we were following.

Then something strange happened. A sick kid in his late teens started coughing in the audience. Not loud (we didn’t hear it and we were right in front of him) but I guess it happened more than once. The guru stopped speaking mid-sentence and said to the lad, “you should get a cough drop for that.”

The kid blushed and said, “I know, I’m already on them, I’m really sorry.” Humble, his head bowed.

The guru stepped forward. Hard, angry face.

He berated the kid for distracting him.

He told him to leave.

The auditorium fell silent and I'll be damned if I didn’t hear every one of those umbilical cords snap in unison.
I felt it too, a kind of chill, at the precise moment the 'hero' lost the empathy of his audience. There was a brilliant, loaded silence, packed with meaning.

The guru had crossed the line from hardass to asshole. A Hollywood asshole at that, probably not even his own trait, just a side-effect of working for too many years in movie studios among other Hollywood assholes with their farmer-kicks-wife-kicks-kid-kicks-dog mentality. But regardless of the reason, there was nothing he could have done or said to get those listeners back, to regain their trust, their allegiance.

The rest of the session was tense, quiet. The book was closed.

I believe the writing God answers our questions if we ask them in the right spirit, and this was my message of assurance.

Your heroes can lie, they can walk out on their loved ones. They can kill people like Dexter, they can ruin people like Tony Soprano. Let them go where they need to go. If they go too far you will hear the snap, you will feel the chill.

You will know.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Children in Crime.

The other night I watched the pilot episode of a new TV drama series about an ex-cop with a photographic memory. It wasn’t a great show, I won't go into it except to mention that the idea of ‘memory’ was explored through flashbacks to the murder of the heroine’s sister when they were children. The image of the little girl lying dead in a puddle, her mouth open and water seeping in, was repeated throughout the episode as the heroine flashed back to the unsolved crime.

Although the show vanished from my consciousness as soon as the credits rolled, the image of that dead kid sat in my stomach for days like a batch of bad prawns. I was angry about it, I wanted to scrub the image from my mind. I felt manipulated.

Why? It sounds on paper like the show could have worked, right? A unique memory problem helping a character deal with her traumatic past, a la Memento? Okay, yes, but due to the show's lackluster writing and bare-bones story development the haunting of my brain felt cynical and cheap. It was as though everything hung on that one device, that one dead child.

Is this ‘memorable’ television? The viewer is disturbed by the image of the child, the camera wandering over the little body again and again and again. It creates an effect that lingers, he or she may even mention it to others (the way I tell others about the Stephen King story that’s been stuck in my mind since I read Full Dark, No Stars). Maybe the next person turns on the show next week, also sees the kid, also feels ill, says something to some friends and now, how 'bout that, we have an audience.

I guess I’m assuming, because this is network television, that it was not a writer telling a story from his or her heart (although 'The Rememberer', the short story upon which the series was based, may well have been), rather that the primary consideration was ratings. Hence the anger. There was no point to beating me around the head with that image; they were just after my eyes on the advertisements.

My churning gut got me thinking about the role of children in crime stories. What is it that hits us so hard? Is it their inherent defenselessness in real life? (I think this is the case with depictions of animal cruelty, which is why I so loved Dennis Lehane’s short story 'Animal Rescue' in Boston Noir. I was prepared to be horrified and instead I found an odd, gentle love story with a cracker of a twist. Go read it.)

What about stories where the kids are the perpetrators? Where I grew up--and in a thousand places just like it--kids did petty crime: smashing up empty housing estates, lighting fires, breaking and entering, shoplifting and pocket picking, selling pot and pills, gang bashing and rumbles, sexual assaults, torturing animals (and other kids) with firecrackers and air rifles, and those are just off the top of my head. I’m not celebrating this, just telling you how it was, and is.

There are some great stories with child characters who walk--and cross--the line between victim and perpetrator. I’m thinking of the kids in The Wire. The little boy in Fresh. Looking forward to Toomelah, from writer/director Ivan Sen. But where is this line between helpless victimhood and psychopathic criminality, and how do we know where on the scale to place our youngest characters without doing them (or the reader) an injustice?

Many fiction writers deal with this moral dilemma by leaving children out altogether, by depicting a wholly adult world and letting the gruesomeness and violence flow between ‘consenting adults’. At most, the characters may be parents protecting their families. There's nothing wrong with this choice but story worlds can easily become rarefied, homogenous. Without children, something important is missing. The best stories take place within communities, they give us special access to them, and the word 'community' implies a spread of ages, from babies to elders. (The word is used these days to mean pretty much any group with something in common, but as the great swordfighter Inigo Montoya once said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”) The adults-only approach works for short fiction, but sooner or later a kid is going to wander into a longer work and ask for attention, maybe some chocolate, a bedtime story.

What I want to know is:

a) If we want to write lifelike communities, how do we integrate the young in a non-exploitative way?

b) As a writer, how do you gauge whether the image or character you’re using is exploitative?

c) As a reader, how much is too much?

d) When it comes to children in crime stories, who does it well, and how?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Crush on Crumley.

I get a kick out of James Crumley. I first read The Last Good Kiss after reading an interview with a recommendation by... I think it was George Pelecanos, maybe Richard Price? I was hooked on Crumley from the first sentence and every time I laughed out loud with CW or Milo I got a bit more committed.

Mr. Crumley's main characters are the kind of dudes on whom I'd probably get a crush in real life. I'm jealous of the women in the stories, even though I know it's always going to end in tears (and on that front, better her than me). His protagonists are fringe dwellers, loners. They're witty and honest and best--or worst--of all, they're hopeless romantics. Crumley's tragic denouements have all the more power because they grow out of longing, libido and most of all, love. He knows how to make a reader care, which is why it guts us when things don't work out so great for his guy.

One of my favourite short stories is Mr. Crumley's 'Hot Springs', which I found in Otto Penzler and James Ellroy's anthology, The Best American Noir Of the Century. For me it was the standout story in a strong collection. Disgraced highschool sports coach Benbow has run off with a heap of his nasty old boss's money and his beautiful young Native wife Mona Sue. Six months later, she's seven months pregnant and they're hiding out at a love-shack hotel by the warm mineral springs where Benbow takes daily soul baths while Mona Sue 'naps' in the company of a local cowpoke... but Benbow's not seeing that. His desire for her is bottomless and blinding and beautifully written.

Six months ago Benbow tasted the sweetness of revenge, and when the old man and his lackeys turn up at the Springs with hammers and knives and sedatives in hand, it's time for Benbow to pay for every touch, for every kiss. The crazy thing is, regardless of the pain he must now endure, we're left with no doubt that for Benbow it was worth it.

That's what I mean, see. Hopeless. Romantic.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

I love these portraits.

Last weekend I was unpacking boxes in my new home. I sat down for a rest and started tuning the smalltown channels on my bigass television.

O, fortuitous channel-surfing moment from heaven.

A documentary began on SBS. It was called Disfarmer: A Portrait of America.


Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959) grew up as Mike Meyer in Heber Springs, Arkansas (he claimed he was a foundling, blown onto the Meyer family farm by a tornado). He ran a small local portrait studio in the 1930s and he captured pivotal moments in the lives of Heber Springs townspeople between the wars. The images were unearthed fifty years later and they're now being bought out of the albums of Heber Springs families for big bucks, circulated among big city collectors, reprinted and enlarged for gallery viewing. It's all very funny and strange for the familes who own the pictures; they're wondering, "why would these Yankees pay ten thousand dollars for an old snap of grandpa and Uncle Frank standing against a wall in their war uniforms?"

The thing is, photo after photo, person after person, something special happened in front of Disfarmer's lens.

To re-quote biographer Rick Woodward (as posted on the website promoting an exhibition of vintage Disfarmer prints): "Disfarmer is not cruel, patronizing or sentimental about [his subjects'] plight. But neither is he a friend or pastor. He is like a crime scene photographer, determined to record the details because the details are ultimately what will exonerate a person. The reality of their condition--the hats, creases in their jeans and dresses, lines in faces and hands, bad posture, dangling cigarettes and arms, staring eyes--can be preserved in a photograph and serve as existential evidence."

My question today is: how did I not know about this guy? How many Disfarmers are out there in the small towns and outer suburbs and remote communities of the world, chronicling the inner lives of the people they grew up with for loose change and the joy of self-realisation as artists? The answer is toofuckingmany... and yet the bookshops and art galleries and cinemas of the world are still crapping out meaningless pap by and for privileged jerks with expensive educations and dead hearts.

As for Heber Springs... it's my unshakeable belief that an insider who has always known and been known by a people can tell their story better, more intimately, than an outsider. There is no way Disfarmer could have stirred up and caught those emotions, the rawness in those faces and bodies if he wasn't a familiar, an intimate (whether it was a congenial relationship or not, and the tornado story and the name change seem to indicate not). I know plenty of people who disagree with me on this, who see no issue with the anthropological project, with entering another culture or community and applying careful observation and skilled mimicry to the tribe in question and presenting this as art. Look, I say do what you want, but you'll never get what the insider gets, you'll never give us magic, it will only ever be a simulation. If you can prove me wrong, please do. Until that time I'm calling it a waste of your artistic energy, and given that you only have 80 or so years on this earth, you're pissing away valuable time. I'd rather you tell me about your own tribe in your stories or films or art. You have inside knowledge of that world, why don't you share it?

Anyway, all this is to say, it's a truly happy day when you find an artist who makes your hair stand on end and your skin prickle with goosebumps, whose voice you recognise in an instant across generations and continents. I want to find more Disfarmers, I want reviewers and moviemakers and librarians to help find them for me.

Can you help?

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

I love this Australian drama series.

Ian David's Blue Murder is an Aussie television drama, made in the mid-90s, before the Sopranos (I point that out because I see parallels in the quality of the writing, and also in the writers' ability to interpret and recreate an underworld with its own internal logic and ethics).  It's about organised crime and dirty cops, based on true events in Sydney.

Blue Murder is a masterpiece. The script is tight and cool and sophisticated. Keep your eyes out if you're trawling the DVD bins (or the online equivalent), I found it for under ten bucks at Mount Druitt Target. It's worth owning this series, you'll watch it more than once.

I love this Australian movie.

Lots of people the world over are loving a recent Australian movie about a crime family in Melbourne with a highly influential matriarch. I'm not gonna say much about the film since I'm trying to focus this blog on "praise"... let's just say that I feel the same way about the film as I do about The Boys and that behind my reaction there are, as always, feelings about class. About who in this country gets to make films about whom.

What I will say is this:

Indigenous writer/director Ivan Sen is the real deal.

Beneath Clouds is the best film to come out of this country since Mad Max.

It's probably more leisurely and poetic than hardcore genre fans would like, given your well-established appetites for lean and quick and brutal, but please track this one down and give it your hundred minutes.

There is nothing unnecessary in this movie, not one word, not one shot. And it is brutal. And yet it sings.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Desperate women.

Recently I submitted a couple of short stories to the Sisters In Crime Australia Scarlet Stiletto Awards, a short fiction competition for Australian women writers. The terms of entry for the contest specified "active woman protagonist". Now of course I know what this means, the character's desire drives the story, she has a plan, meets obstacles etc. etc. You won't find me arguing with this, it's Storytelling 101. I guess the judges didn't want to read a whole heap of stories where the female characters were all, you know... dead. Corpses in car boots.

And the truth is, across contemporary mainstream crime fiction, TV drama and films, this is still largely the case. (I'll never forget a review I once read for a new TV series in which the (male) reviewer wrote angrily, "from Twin Peaks on down, it's just more dead women!")

Interrogating my stories to see if they fit the brief--and pondering the relative 'activity' or 'passivity' of my characters--started me thinking about the role of women in our stories.

In 2011 the dominant culture promotes ass-kicking, strong, independent, sassy female characters and that's all good, I'm one of those girls and even if I weren't, them's the times we live in. BUT. I think we're missing something. Not every female character in books and TV and movies has to represent the Warrior archetype, there are others that are just as valuable (and some pretty great hybrids, like the Mother/Warrior in Terminator 2: Judgement Day)

'Strong' women are so often drawn as 2D cartoons, no facets, no inner life or secrets or contradictions. In trying to 'liberate' us from depictions of weakness or victimhood or frivolity, the culture offers us yet another cardboard fantasy. 'Role models' rather than actual characters. Bleugh. As for the femme fatales, (femmes fatale?), when they're written well they are a blast but it's rarer than it should be to find one who rings true, where there is honesty and nuance in the telling.

I've lived in this world as a female for a few years now, I've travelled the globe and met all kinds of folks and there's one thing I know for sure: sometimes the most dangerous, desperate thing a woman can do is to allow.

For many women in this world, attaching to a man and surrendering control is the best--sometimes the only--way of achieving a goal (shelter, money, babies, immigration) and the truth is, it's as fraught with danger as picking up a sword and going to battle.

For a real life perspective, let's look at my former next door neighbour. When she first moved in, she rocked up with her children and the house was peaceful and they smiled. They did, I saw them. Then, over time, desperate allowing: she let her new boyfriend move in to her house and bring his brothers and friends with him. She let him sell drugs from her doorstep. She started selling them herself. He set up methamphetamine production and distribution from the house, her house (italics because she yelled "this is my f*ckin house" two or three times a day; they were probably baby's first words). She gave him her car keys, she had a baby with him. She left him alone with her kids from previous relationships. Then domestic violence, lots of it, possibly molestation, she lied to the cops and the child protection workers for him, every time they came to the door, every single time. She kicked him out, she let him come back, she kicked him out, she let him come back. I don't know how the story will end but it doesn't look good.

It's a real life crime story, not original or compelling in itself but maybe a starting point. It's a real woman's role in a crime story. I'm not denying my former neighbour responsibility when i talk about allowing, I'm just saying she dropped a long way down for the love of another and she wasn't chasing that man down the street, she was just opening the door every time he knocked. (I hope it doesn't end with a corpse in a car boot but it's not inconceivable, the stakes are high and people aren't exactly in their right minds.) This happens all over the world, every day, but the question it raises--why does she keep going back to him?--is a great one, an important one. I wish I could find more well-written stories that grapple with it, cos you know, I've been guilty of over-allowing myself in the past and I'd love to know what the f*ck that was about. For some readers, why do I keep letting him/her back in? might be THE question in their life, the only question.

I found that very question wrapped up in Megan Abbott's delicious Bury Me Deep, the heroine at a turning point where she was racking her brains, saying to herself, "he is nothing, and yet still...?" Go find that bit, it'll knock you out.
As a somewhat related aside, one of the reasons for Ms. Abbott's breakaway success is that she is able to render women from earlier times (ie. USA in the 1940s) in an authentic way. She acknowledges her characters' 'passive' roles in society while giving them agency and curiosity and desire.

On to another example, seventies cinema is IMHO unbeatable and one of the best movies from that era, brutal and poignant and devastating, is Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which I'm sorry to say has not been released on DVD. (*Cough torr.ent cough*.)

I'm calling this story noir, not because it's dark--it is--but because the main character falls down a hole and then just keeps digging herself deeper and deeper until tragedy is the only possible outcome. It's based on the true story of a lonely New York schoolteacher with a habit of cruising bars for one night stands. It was fictionalised by Judith Rossner in 1975 as the novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar. In 1977 a true crime account was published by journalist Lacey Fosburgh (Closing Time: The True Story of the Goodbar Murder), the same year the novel became a feature film.
It might seem a dated idea now, everyone does whatever they want with anyone now, right? Umm. Just watch the movie. It's not a morality tale about the dangers of casual sex. It's drama, in the truest sense of the definition: people doing stuff to people.

Theresa Dunn gets in real trouble and the way she handles it gives us insight into how women feel and behave, but also how the character as a specific individual feels and behaves. She walks out into the night, she takes a lucky dip of random men from the streets of the city and she lets each one of them in. Literally, figuratively, metaphorically. I guess prostitutes do this every night but we know their goal, it's usually survival, money for living and the feeding of families and/or addictions. Theresa doesn't have to do this, she has other options for finding love and lust and companionship, but she's chasing something, she's getting a payoff. What is it? She doesn't know who they are, bad guys good guys, she doesn't think about that, she gives herself up completely to her inner pain and seems at times to be playing out some kind of death wish.

Brave. Risky. A challenge to sexual liberation and feminism, yes, a challenge to pretty much every value system I can think of. The fictionalisation of this true story shows what's best about storytellers, whose role it is to be truthful and revealing, the light bringers, not just flashing cool images and stereotypes at the reader or viewer, on the other hand not just repeating what is 'worthy' or what makes us look appealing or acceptable. I don't know that you could make this movie today.

So, back to passivity and I do apologise for the looong post but it's a big idea.

An internal, intuitive experience in a rough and tumble world makes for a fascinating story (I'm thinking of The Sound and the Fury and also Jane Campion's gorgeous In The Cut, adapted from the novel by Susannah Moore). Speaking of corpses in car boots, Detective Sarah Linden in
The Killing is a good example of a beautifully rendered heroine with a tangible inner life. She uses her gentle, compassionate nature in the service of her goal, ie. finding Rosie Larsen's murderer. She maintains an introspective manner without ever becoming a 'passive protoganist' (whose only function onscreen to be acted upon by others). I'm not saying she's sensitive because she's a woman or a mother, it's not like that, it's just who Linden is. She knows things nobody else can know, she goes places nobody else can go, because she listens and receives. A great quality for a detective.

British TV drama Thorne: Sleepyhead is another good example (adapted for television from Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead). We go inside the mind of a young woman whose attacker has deliberately afflicted her with 'locked in syndrome'. Her passivity is terrifying, she literally does not move, and yet she quests, she wants, she tries. It says something to me about being female, something I haven't seen or heard before.

The fact is, and this is getting all confessional here, it can feel good to yield (okay, unless you're the last character I mentioned). Maybe that's the answer to the why question, maybe it's that simple. Nobody sets out in life to be a hardass, not at first anyway. It feels good to be kind and accepting and to let go of the reins, it feels fantastic to truly, deeply forgive. It can feel like the reason you were put on this planet, like your spirit's work is done. BUT. When you're talking about real life, real human beings, you gotta pick the person on the other side of that dance, that lunge and parry. It can't be just anyone. There are opportunists and there are thieves and there are humans with great contempt for humanity. That makes for great books and movies, we love those books and movies. But in real life? It's called Russian Roulette, and it's a lonely game.

Just ask Theresa Dunn.

Monday, 1 August 2011

I love this short doco.

At film school I made friends with a young Directing student who needed to make a short video documentary for her first year project. Since she was new to Sydney and didn't know where to start, I brought her back to Mount Druitt and St. Marys, my birthplace, the home of my family, the place where our matriarch can still be found.

I showed the Director around (the way Daniel Woodrell might have shown around the Winter's Bone movie crew, making sure they were, if not welcomed, at least not rammed off the road or hunted for sport). Over a month or two the Director settled in and went out exploring and meeting folks on her own. In the end she found a hell of a story. I don't see much of her these days but I still have a sweet spot for the documentary she made. Check it out:

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Start your engines.

The Buddhists say suffering is caused by four basic anxieties:





It's been said that if you look at any successful, well functioning story through this lens you will see one of these anxieties working as a kind of 'engine' pushing it all forward.

Assuming you buy this idea, let's say we each have one anxiety that resonates most strongly within us. My core anxiety, my engine as a writer is Meaningless. How do I know? Because I'm drawn to absurdist, fatalistic narratives. Idealistic characters up against a cruel and random world. I want to know what God is thinking (or not), I crave the lessons right now that will only come at the moment of death (I don't know about your death but I'll confidently say it of mine). I'm driven to ask why of everything, everyone. I see a base bewilderment about fate, justice, karma, suffering and consequences in everything I write.

It's why I like noir stories and why I take umbrage at 'noir' tales that are really just violent images with bummer endings. The hero doesn't have to be a good person but I crave the downfall, the flow of choice and consequences.

It's my question, my quest.

My dear screenwriter friend sees Death at the core of everything she writes and most of what she enjoys to read or watch, and I see it there too, clear as can be. Her films are full of ghosts and crossings and grief.

Many of the young men with whom I went to film school--a rarefied hothouse, so maybe not the best test of true values and intentions--seemed to cluster pretty tightly around Guilt in their writing and filmmaking. To show you what I mean, here's Ian Irvine's neat little short script Splintered (film directed by Peter Templeman, produced by Stuart Parkyn.)

I enjoy these stories but the core anxiety, Guilt, doesn't shake me up. To me feeling guilty is kind of a pointless pursuit (like Farmville or the Tour de France or collecting porcelain dolls). You did it, you didn't do it, just deal with it is my pragmatic response. Regret interests me more--what you didn't do, missed opportunities, lost lives and loves a la Grey Gardens--but Guilt is like the stockmarket, somebody else's business. I couldn't get a good script or story or novel out of it if I tried. It'd be kind of like writing in a genre you don't read, and the good guys warn against that.

Having said this, I loved reading Cornell Woolrich's Fright this week and will run up another post on it soon. Paranoia and fear and lies, all the tragic results of covering up a crime (or an accident functioning as a crime), now that I can get behind.

Goes for Detour, too, in spades.

(Neither of these two stories are driven by Guilt, by the way, not deep down. For Prescott Marshall it's Doubt: is he busted or isn't he? For hitchhiker Al Roberts it's getting caught, ie. Death.)

There are noticeable class differences between us, even in a first world country like Australia. Maybe our individual anxieties are influenced not just by our temperaments and our karmic missions but by where we're situated within the hierarchy of needs at birth (are we born scrabbling for food and shelter or do we grow up reaching for 'self-actualisation' through psychotherapy and violin lessons?)

Maybe Guilt is more of a middle-class concern, is what I'm gettin' at.

When I think of Guilt and social status I'm remembering a Cherrie Moraga essay* in which she said: "guilt isn't a feeling, guilt is an intellectual mask to a feeling. The real feeling is fear: fear of losing power over another, losing one's position of privilege..."

It's undeniable that some writers, regardless of class or upbringing, are kicked into motion by the Guilt engine and they write powerful, original stories when they let it lead them. (Look at working class Bostonian Dennis Lehane's stunning standalone novel, Mystic River. You know those boys who didn't get into the police car? Guilt. You know Dave, who did? Death.)

As for Doubt, I really don't get it. Again, I enjoy the stories--many mystery stories and almost all legal dramas are fuelled by the Doubt engine--but it doesn't keep me awake at night. In this lifetime I fall on the side of Faith and blind belief and I'm okay there. Doubt definitely seems to be a driving concern for people I've known and loved who grew up in wealthy, atheist and particularly academic families. All that Descartes and the constant demands for proof, I couldn't bear it but it really puts a fire under them.

To each their own anxiety, huh?

* Badly paraphrased via This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color.

Sunday, 24 July 2011


Yesterday's trip to the Gold Coast Library brought treasure.

If I read good things about a book on the internet I track it down on the library's web catalogue and order it in to the nearest branch. Because this library is awesome and has pretty much everything, it's usually sitting in the hold bay within two or three days... however nothing beats walking into a library with twenty blank spaces on your borrowing account and no plan or agenda. You wander along like a beagle sniffing out The Book, the one you are meant to read right now. Maybe it relates to what you're writing and can help you work out a story problem, maybe it's nothing to do with writing and there's something on your mind about which an author can offer illumination.

I remember picking up Laura Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere and feeling dazzled and nauseous when I read the synopsis on the back cover. Not only was it story territory that interested me as a writer--which scared me a bit, as though reading the book might lead to unwitting trespass--but the concept also spoke directly to me as a reader. I clutched that thing to me and hustled it out of there; man, I probably would have stolen it if it wasn't free.

Besides the thrill of finding a book of Patricia Highsmith short stories (The Black House) and Hard Case Crime's reissue of Cornell Woolrich's Fright (I love that guy, he handles pain like no other) I brought home a trio of series novels yesterday that hit on a question I've been circling around regarding my work in progress.

My novel in progress is in the third person and my girl, my heroine, is identified by her first name... however lately whenever I name her I'm impelled to type her last name instead. As in, every time. Is it a mistake to change this, I've wondered, is this the thing that will make her look tough and independent but in the process annoy the reader and make him or her put the book down? I seriously don't know. I know I would never change it just to make a political point (I'm under no illusions that it would change anything for anyone) but I also know that for a week now I've been dithering every time I type that first name, fingers repelled by the keys.

I wonder why heroines in books and movies are almost always identified by their first names while the most compelling of heroes--or anti-heroes--are immediately identifiable by The Word, The Name. The three heroes that came home with me yesterday are Scudder, Reacher and Parker. You know them, right? As soon as you hear those solitary surnames, you know them.

The only female protagonist I can think of who is consistently called by her last name is Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies. I'm sure feminists have come up with damning reasons for this, to do with social inequality and females being seen as smaller, domestic, not taken seriously, blah blah blah. That's not my business as a writer, though, all that comes later. I just have to tell the story that wants to be told.

So anyhow my thanks go out to the Gold Coast Library and to the writers of the single-name heroes and anti-heroes of crime fiction. I picked up some amazing reads and I came home with an answer that has finally freed the fingers to run.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The One.

Sometimes you find something that is very, very special.

I know anybody who keeps up with anything has read Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone and probably long before it was adapted for the screen. I'm a bit embarrassed to say I read it for the first time this week, choosing things as I always do in my own strange and serendipitous order. I read The Bayou Trilogy and a couple of Woodrell's other novels and of course they were great.

But this book was perfect.

I get it now, everybody calling him a "writer's writer." To misquote one author, "he writes the things other writers wish they'd written." Yes yes yes. The prose is intimidatingly gorgeous and the editing is masterful. The story is glorious and the characters go round and round inside you for days, telling you things, asking you questions.

This book is MINE, you think when you turn the last page and set it down. This was written for me.

Just hours after finishing Winter's Bone I drove down to the Northern Hotel in Byron Bay, a town on the north coast of New South Wales, to see my friend's beautiful 'country gypsy' band Ruthie-Ma-Toothie (named after an Ozark folktale, incidentally). They were playing the support slot for a singer named Mojo Juju, an artist I already knew from her recordings to possess a unique and crazy gift for singing the blues. At the end of her set Mojo Juju and her new band played I Put A Spell On You.

It was the same kind of magic I felt when reading Winter's Bone.

You are electrified, all thought of craft and comparison falling away, shaking your head in disbelief and saying this is THE ONE. What kind of mad luck let me into this room, to witness this? What did I do right?

Twice in one day.

Something terrible must be coming.

Friday, 8 July 2011

I love this book.

My favourite book of the past year--and I read a ton of books--is Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep.

I realised recently that I have a special place in my odd little heart for stories where the protagonist ends up with a skeleton in his or her closet--usually literally--and it's a disastrous spiritual burden, a gory guilty secret. I'm thinking of Richard Wright's Native Son and the horror of the discovery of the bones he's hidden in the furnace. Or Hitchcock's Psycho and the car that keeps popping to the surface of the swamp like the villain in your worst nightmare. In Bury Me Deep it's a pair of suitcases that the heroine is left lugging all over the country (I don't think that's giving too much away seeing as it's based on a well-known true story, the Winnie Ruth Judd 'Trunk Murders'). This kind of story makes you feel scared and ashamed and the best kind of sullied.

Church of McGovern

This week I watched the first episode of Season 1 of UK screenwriter Jimmy McGovern's newest series, Accused.

I'm a gushing, dribbling fan of the writer, from Cracker and The Lakes on down. He's pretty much my hero. Accused did a lot of the things Mr. McGovern does best--turning the details of working class life into a functioning drama and playing out the pressures and injustices of the British class system--yet I have to admit was a bit disappointed with the legal scenes that rounded up the episode.

I understand that the show isn't a 'legal drama' (it explores the crime itself rather than the outcome) but to me it felt like the episode skipped it's natural climax and robbed me of my payoff for the hour I'd just invested in Willy Houlihan's problems. (Errgh, doesn't that sentence sound screenwriter-y? I feel like hitting myself.) I was left with the impression that the writing team's legal research may have been lacking regarding the trial process and that we'd just jumped over a plot hole or two. ("Wait, what? Go back!") I was surprised because that's really not like Mr. McG, he usually has so much respect for the viewer. I also didn't see his usual fleshy specifics in the characters of barrister, jury and judge so I was unable to understand why the verdict fell the way it did.

Series 2 has been commissioned and I'll watch a few more episodes of this one before I say more; Mr. McG has given me hours and hours of rapt viewing and a real live creative champion from my own side of the tracks, so the benefit of the doubt is the least I can give him in return.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

I love this movie.

Laura starring Gene Tierney, directed by Otto Preminger.

Holy hell, she was beautiful.

I love this book.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Two thirds of the way through Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter I was beset with dread: I haven't been following this poor sad guy who has possibly, even probably, done nothing wrong only to watch him get crushed without mercy, have I Mr Franklin?

I love you, Mr. Franklin.

This novel is a perfect example of our simple yet elusive goal as writers: "a good story, well told". I loaned the book to four people in four days and they each read it in one sitting and wandered around with dazed, satisfied faces when they were done. I want to order copies for all my favourite book lovers and send them out as winter surprises.

I love this movie.

Night of the Hunter (1955) has my heart.