In 2013 I moved to Canberra and this opened up some new books. Nigel Featherstone is a local writer (well, just up the road in Goulburn) who has three novellas out and the latest, The Beach Volcano, is a cracker. The novella seems to be enjoying a resurgence right now with Seizure and Griffith Review all giving it new life. Featherstone’s latest follows the return of a Nick Cave-esque black sheep to a wealthy Sydney family in a story that gently twists readers into a different place by the conclusion.
The other recent ACT book I picked up is The Grapple Annual #1. It’s a date-based anthology so pieces are given dates in the year with some relevance to the stories. Like all great anthologies it’s a dippable book on the bedside for when you need a story to divert. I particularly enjoyed Irma Gold’s ‘Travelling Left’ that deftly contrasts a crumbling relationship with a celebration.
I’ve been holding onto Peter Carey’s Amnesia for a while so I could really get stuck into it. Carey is best when he engages with the present rather than layering his style in historical research like Parrot and Olivier in America. So the idea of a book that returns to the present but also unfolds in Australia is exciting. He takes on contemporary topics—the unravelling fourth estate, web culture and refugees—to create a tale for our times. At times it feels like a lovesong to the Melbourne he left which resonates with me.
I got back to Melbourne in time for the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival, which has always been a great way to discover books. Seeing a writer speak about their book gives it more potency when you read their book. So it was with Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders. O’Reilly writes powerfully from herself to give this story of a group of different people—a human sheep, a man with a clockwork heart and a performance artist with the wings of angel—come together to be an empowered circus. I’ve always enjoyed O’Reilly’s writing but this feels like a new direction for her.
I’ve always read a lot of comics but the explosion of superhero movies has crowded out a lot of the quieter human comics I enjoy like Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. I enjoy reading Medium’s The Nib, which curates cartoons and comic excerpts. Through The Nib, I recently found Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree which is a great sprawling study of how the music evolved out of New York party culture in the 1970s. It’s a very wordy comic that made me wonder if comics were the right vessel for this story.
My daughter is at an exciting stage in reading as we’re just getting out of picture books and into longer chapter books. She still loves beautifully illustrated books like I’m A Dirty Dinosaur and Judy Horacheks’s Yellow Is My Favourite Colour, but it’s great to see her sit beside you starting to imagine the stories as you read without pictures to help. Unfortunately she seems to be getting into Milly Molly Mandy which has lots of early 20th century objects (not to mention gender politics) that she asks me to explain. I’m much happier with abstract ideas from the Finn Family Moomintrollbooks like what a Groke is and why does a hobgoblin’s hat change eggshells into clouds. All good parenting challenges.
Last November I also completed National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) which meant writing a 50,000 word draft in 30 days. I’m not a fan of writing manuals generally. I’ve found Robert McKee’s Story great for structure and Bird By Bird to be a folksy support, but otherwise I think John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novelis a more empathetic guide. But NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s No Plot No Problem takes on the role of coach and cheerleader. As well as a week-by-week breakdown, there’s enthusiastic advice to keep you going. The NaNoWriMo way is about velocity not self-editing, hitting the keyboard not heads against plot brick walls, so it makes for a fluid introduction to failure. It reminds me of another great recent read The N00bz: New Adventures in Literature, where writers are encouraged into the discomfort zone to experiment with new forms and different areas of the publishing industry. Fear of failure stops writers from trying new things but the NaNoWriMo ethos is that you learn more from those failures than from the randomness of success. It’s less a manual, more a cult.
George Dunford is Director of Digital Engagement at the National Library of Australia. He’s written several titles for Lonely Planetincluding The Big Trip and Micronations (with co-authors John Ryan and Simon Sellars), along with essays for Meanjin and short fiction for Sleeper’s Almanac and others. In 2014 he was included in ACT Writers’ Centre HARDCOPY, a professional development program for writers. He blogs at www.georgedunford.com and tweets @hack_packer.
02 Feb 15 at 15:03
Heartily endorse the plug for “No Plot No Problem”, George – the whole Nano process is a whirlwind of a way to get out of the fog of self-doubt and overthinking and start finding your way with a story. I think your daughter will survive Milly Molly Mandy – it left me with no deeper imprint than a vague fondness for pink stripes.
02 Feb 15 at 22:07
I loved Milly Molly Mandy as a child, George! Hmmm, forgot about/never noticed the dodgy politics.
03 Feb 15 at 9:21
Milly Molly Mandy is contentious. It’s not just the dated politics that’s hard to explain. They also have strange things like horses and carts to explain.
No Plot is great for just getting you writing and stop the self-editing. Deadlines really helped and I even found the online leaderboard kept me on track.