My days are usually spent reading for work. Proofreading can be tedious at times (cookbooks, finance texts), but I whoop with glee when a corker of a novel, memoir, collection, etc. lands on my desk. Standouts this year have been: Heat and Light, by Ellen van Neervan—a collection of unique, real/mythical short stories—and Gap, a crime novel in verse by Rebecca Jessen (reminiscent of Dorothy Porter). Another was Cracking the Spine (Spineless Wonders), featuring ten short stories from ten Australian writers, accompanied by an essay from each author offering insights into their writing process.
Proofreading is a different type of reading experience. It’s hardly a romp. More of a careful plod. I’ve been asked if ‘normal’ reading, or reading for ‘pleasure’, is possible for a proofreader. Truth is, I relish the time when I can read for fun and not be on the lookout for misplaced apostrophes.
My usual reading-for-fun habit is to dip into short story collections, especially when struggling with my own writing. I’ve just re-read the long-short story ‘Tumble Home’, by Amy Hempel, a long-time favourite author. What I love about Hempel is the way she can slip humour into the darkest and gloomiest of corners. Just as my heart is curling up in pain I explode with laughter. In ‘Tumble Home’, the narrator addresses her absent lover from within an institution. Much of what ‘happens’ is uneventful, quotidian, often funny. Warren ‘(pronounced Worn. Or Warn)’, a fellow inmate, has a habit of making malapropisms, advising a ‘cold compost’ for a headache, and being unable to ‘follow the threat of your conversation’. Although we are made aware of the narrator’s mother’s suicide, this tragedy remains off-stage, yet somehow manages to inform the world of the story with a terrible weight. Heartbreaking stuff. Hempel also writes short-short stories, and I am increasingly seeking these out (and trying to write them). Variously known as micro-fiction, flash fiction, sudden fiction.
Further to reading helping us with our own writing: I remember finishing Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels and straightaway launching into the writing of a story that was not remotely similar subject-wise, but somehow Michaels’ breathtaking prose took me to a place where my mind felt freer than usual and I found I was able to write uncluttered sentences, and use unusual metaphors, that just worked. Writing was light, joyous. If only it were always so.
In need of a skinny book to slip into my shoulder bag for a recent trip, I unearthed Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup. I’d never read it, nor (I’m ashamed to admit) any of her other books. A Kindness Cup won the Age Book of the Year Award in 1975. It takes place at the turn of last century in a north Queensland town. A posse of local men shoot and kill a group of indigenous Australians camped on the town’s outskirts, and, rather than face death at the hands of these murderers, a young woman, Kowaha, throws herself off a cliff with her baby. The baby survives. Twenty years later, these small-minded, violent men are now honoured citizens and Tom Dorahy, a schoolteacher at the time of the massacre, is determined to reveal the true story at the week-long reunion, ‘Back to Taws’.
From the first page my pulse quickened at the compressed, vivid and poetic cast of sentences. ‘After all these longitudes of time, what would that make them all if all of them could make it? Trembling sexagenarians, hearts pausing—but not for joy; eyes cataracted, prostates swollen or excised, livers cirrhosed, hearing dimmed.’ ‘Only rock, scrub and the long line of fox-faced men moving in towards massacre.’
Can ‘what I am reading’ also be interpreted as ‘what is being read to me’? I saw Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, interviewed at the Sydney Writers’ Festival by Geordie Williamson, and caught the Michael Cathcart interview on the radio recently. What is it about the Irish? This is utterly original writing. Intense, pruned prose—Joycean, yet not. ‘Sentences’ such as: ‘Slap of.’ ‘I.’ ‘It’s a.’ ‘And that dark body unwashed night and thick pyjama’s smell of week worn.’ ‘Her shreds of her.’ This is language chopped up into raw fragments that takes us into the marrow of a story of damage: a brother with a tumour, an absent father, a molesting uncle and a girl’s struggle to find herself. McBride read excerpts from her book in her wonderful, warm Irish lilt. She should make an audio recording. Apparently she has theatre training.
I’ve been focusing on writing prose for a goodly while and I think it requires different synapses or something, since I haven’t written or read many poems. Saying that, I caught a broadcast of Simon Armitage recorded at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and was reminded of how much I love his poetry and of how much I love hearing him reading it. His latest book, Walking Home, is an account of his trek of the Pennine Way from north to south (folks usually head south to north), ending up in his home town of Marsden. Along the way he gave poetry readings in exchange for a bed. During this broadcast he read an unrelated poem, ‘Paper Aeroplane’ (as yet unpublished, since he didn’t finish it in time to be included in the collection of the same name). It begins ‘Thank you for waiting’—the ‘voice’ is the PA inviting people to board a plane in descending hierarchy from ‘First Class passengers only’ to ‘meteorite passengers’ to ‘accredited beautiful people’ to ‘sapphire, ruby and emerald members’ to ‘travellers of elegance and style’. All the way down to classes in ‘loam, chalk, marl and clay’ to ‘mediocre passengers’, ‘scroungers, malingerers, spongers and freeloaders’, and finishing with ‘sweat, dust, remnant’. He read it in his melodious, deadpan Yorkshire accent. Totally side-splitting. You can hear the audience in stitches.
In the same broadcast, Armitage read one of his ‘Stanza Stones’ verses carved into rock on the Marsden to Ilkley poetry trail. I was weeping at my desk listening to this. I want to walk this trail.
Be glad of these freshwater tears,
each pearled droplet some salty old sea-bullet
air-lifted out of the waves, then laundered and sieved, recast as a soft bead and
And no matter how much it strafes or sheets, it is no mean feat to catch one raindrop
clean in the mouth,
to take one drop on the tongue, tasting cloud-pollen, grain of the heavens, raw sky.
Let it teem, up here where the front of the mind distils the brunt of the world.
Imagine if I could say ‘what I’m reading’ is chiselled into a rock. I can run my hands over the words. Smell them. I can read them in the rain and they will not be washed away. Could anything be more appealing?
Susan McCreery was awarded an ASA mentorship in 2013/2014 and a Varuna PIP Fellowship in 2014 for her short story collection. Her poetry collection, Waiting for the Southerly (Ginninderra Press), was commended in the Anne Elder Award 2012.