In Westerly 65.1: What makes for a good author–editor relationship?

“The author–editor relationship is little understood outside the publishing industry and often mischaracterised by those within it. Commentators agree that this relationship is difficult to define and complicated, with the distribution of power ebbing and flowing in response to a variety of pressures…. Adding to the mystique, the editor’s role in book production is opaque. Editors have been seen as either minor players—an optional extra—at one end of the spectrum, or as gatekeepers to publication at the other.”

I talked with authors and editors, and delved into my own experience, setting out my findings in my essay in Westerly 65.1, ‘Exploring Attributes of a Successful Author–Editor Relationship in Creative Writing.

Finding flow: the alignment of challenge and capacity

My taekwondo instructor, Master Hakan from the Australian Martial Arts Academy talked about flow in a Zoom class this week. He’d just taken us through a strenuous warm-up, exercise after exercise, pushing us hard. As we were catching our breath, he talked about that state which sits between the mental and the physical, where our engagement with our task is so complete that we forget time. It’s a state which others might know as being ‘in the zone’.

American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulates the concept in his classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, first published in 1990. He says, ‘The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding…. It provide[s] a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality’ (2002: 67).

Part of the deal, of course, is that it takes work and this was Master Hakan’s point. A state of flow emerges when we’ve put in the effort and are pushing our capacity to the limit. We see our kicks become more defined and accurate, can hold our balance for longer and our stamina surprises us.

The elements of flow, of indeed happiness, are ‘clarity of goals, feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation, and challenge’ (89). Understanding this changed my life. When I read Flow in 2013, I saw that a few things had gone missing. But I knew where to find them.

I recognised that feeling when I worked with words: writing, editing, creating meaning in text. I became absorbed in my task. I drew on my strengths, extended myself, and found the work intrinsically satisfying. I changed my career, gained a second Masters degree, and set up my own business.

This is also my martial arts journey in a nutshell. We start as white belts and as we learn more and more difficult techniques, we are challenged to go longer, harder, higher. But that sense of optimal experience which Csikszentmihalyi describes can just as easily come from a perfectly executed white belt foundation kick. You can see and feel your mastery; the feedback is immediate.

This morning, I felt lighter and stronger, with energy to spare … With a hot shower, breakfast and work to get on with I didn’t keep going, but it was nice to feel I could have! As I sit here now, I am still alive with sensation. Yes, it’s partly endorphins but it’s more than the physical. Flow changes you: ‘[After] each episode of flow, a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills.’ (41). And this is the extraordinary compounding effect that allows us to improve, to keep on.

Finding the balance between challenge and capacity, finding your flow, is the biggest game-changer of all because, ultimately, it is the source of our happiness.

The Snow Leopard

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before.

Matthiesen has joined an expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend, G.S., to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book. Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and his changing observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature he craves to glimpse during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching.

As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home but he puts these away, unopened. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. In his description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect their heads while ramming other males, he muses: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….’ (Matthiesen, 2010, p.229).

And humour, often at his own expense, is frequent.

‘October 25 …. Parts of the ledge have fallen away, and the gaps are bridged by flimsy scaffoldings of saplings.  Certain sections are so narrow and precarious that more than once my legs refuse to move, and my heart beats so that I feel sick.  One horrid stretch, lacking the smallest handhold in the wall, round a windy point of cliff that is one hundred feet or more above the rocks at lake edge, and this I navigate on hands and knees…

The sherpas come, and…GS appears, moving as steadily as the rest; I am glad the cliff corner hid my ignominious advance on hands and knees.  Squeezing by, G.S. remarks, “This is first really interesting stretch of trail we’ve had so far.”  How easy it would be to push him over.’ (Matthiessen, 2010, pp141-142).

Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London.

 

Why we need to read digital

 

Someone with a pretty sizeable following tweeted recently that reading digitally wasn’t really reading. Go read a book, you animals, she said. I wonder. What is a book?

The words. It’s the words, folks. Who is more deeply moved by the quality of the paper, than the words printed on it?

Yes, I understand that one can appreciate the tactile, but the paper and ink and glue is not why we read. To hold onto that is a sentimental romanticising — or a fetish.

What makes a book?

A book becomes ‘publishable’ when, after writing, it has been edited, designed, illustrated and typeset. Marketing and promotion start in the lead-up and continue after release. So, then what? What else makes a book?

First, we build and run machines to print words onto sheets of paper. That brings considerable environmental baggage starting with the trees, of course, but also from toxicity of inks and dyes and bleach. Then we cut those paper sheets into small rectangles and glue these printed sheets between thicker sheets. Sometimes we bind them into a solid casing needing more glue or stitching. More machines.

The supply chain

These printed and bound wads of paper need to be shipped. From printers, which may be anywhere in the world, to distributors’ warehouses to booksellers’ warehouses and then to retail booksellers. And bookselling is the great unknown. Finding out what sells, and how to sell it, is elusive.

If the bookseller is a shop, the books then go onto shelves. If it’s an online store, more warehousing. When they aren’t sold, they are returned: ‘remaindered’. More logistics, and warehousing is expensive.  A publisher never wants to print too many. These are pulped. Great for the environment, that step. Sometimes they’re pulped because the publisher doesn’t have room, and even though this book might have a readership, it becomes ‘out of print’. Time to move on. Shiny new authors are always around the corner. Sometimes books are pulped because they have an error. It might be a typographical error that is just too embarrassing (book production is a human process) or it might be a legal issue. More pulping. After corrections, then more printing. More packing, distribution and warehousing.

Profits are in volume

Sometimes the publishing house is very tiny, or the author is independent. The distribution of books between factory to warehouse and into bookshop is difficult, especially in a country like Australia with a tiny market but vast geography to cover. It’s expensive and exclusive. If you can’t get a distributor, you can’t get your book into bookshops. There’s a reason that publishing houses have become huge conglomerates (80 percent of books sales are controlled by only a few firms): this system benefits from economics of scale. Operators with volume.

Every one of these steps costs money. And none, none of the above, has anything to do with writing.

Digital is better for authors and for readers

When the financial returns to authors are so small, most make less than AUD$12,000 each year, what steps can be cut out?

Digital is better for readers who can download immediately and read more. We need more, better and cheaper ereaders and we need to be able to buy ebooks from multiple sources. I don’t want Amazon to have any more power than it already has. And we need more options to ‘gift’ ebooks than we have in Australia now.

It’s happened with music

This isn’t even new—we’ve crossed this threshold with music. Most music is streamed now and we’re all still standing, albeit with some nostalgia. I heard Zan Rowe interview Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) on Triple J recently. Cook seemed aware of an inherent contradiction between his desire for music to be played, and a certain wistfulness about today’s world. We can find and listen to anything anywhere anytime. But has something been lost, he mused? Has the passion gone? Growing up, he recalled the joy of finding copies of records which might only exist in one or two places and he loved them all the more because of the struggle to get them.

We will always need some print books: for libraries, for people with special needs, and for collectors. And books of photography, art, and design, of course. For this, there is print on demand. But for the bulk of trade, or consumer, books, we need to be buying digitally.

Is exclusivity part of the deal? Nope. It’s not. And I think most struggling authors would agree with me.

The Chain, Adrian McKinty

Newtown Review of Books published my review of Adrian McKinty’s The Chain this week!

This is one hell of a ride. If you’re looking for a book to keep you up and turning the pages, this is for you. Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has shown his versatility in producing a tight, intricate thriller which unfolds with escalating horror.

Rachel Klein is pulled into a waking nightmare when her child is kidnapped and will only be released when she has paid her ransom, kidnapped another child, and then demanded that child’s parents pay a ransom and in turn kidnap another child. As a sinister plot device, harnessing the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child is genius. It is also limitless, and Rachel has just become its next link.

Who runs this psychopathic business? The reader gradually finds out through McKinty’s agile shifting of perspective. For some chapters we are in Rachel’s point of view, living her collapsing world, but then we meet a pair of twins who, as children, delight in the manipulation of other kids. Who are they? We also enter the lives of the reluctant kidnappers and get into the headspace of Rachel’s daughter, the victim. Kylie’s voice is authentic.
She knows she shouldn’t have gotten into the vehicle. That’s how girls vanish …You don’t get in the vehicle, you turn around and you run, run, run.
But she doesn’t. She has a gun to her head.

While The Chain is a twisted adaptation of cyber extortion, its trade being children, the business model is not too far from the truth. I read this book, serendipitously, while covering a seminar on cyber-crime and Internet security. McKinty has done his research. The profile of The Chain’s criminal masterminds is accurate. Hackers are not hoodie-clad misfits living in their mothers’ basements. They are smart, tertiary educated, and use their cyber skills to solve more and more arcane intellectual challenges. The spyware, malware and intricate cyber breaches used to take over data systems is now so sophisticated that these extortionists set up helplines, hire translators and develop navigation tools to allow their victims to make the transaction as smoothly as possible. The corporate crowd attending the seminar I covered were advised to ‘park the criminality’ and see them as businesses.

McKinty prises open a conundrum: we have used information to defend ourselves, to minimise our vulnerabilities, but have we become hostage to it? Social media that broadcasts our every move has now been overtaken in its sheer scope by the Internet of Things: baby monitors over a cradle can tell you where a baby is, when she is sleeping, and how far away her parents might be; GPS trackers in kids’ shoes; doorbells that record every coming and going. McKinty’s commentary on the technology is timely. We have become accomplices to our own surveillance—we enter the Panopticon willingly.

And if one turns to crime—to rescue a child, to kidnap another, to buy narcotics—the information you need is there. When Rachel breaks into a house, Pete, her brother-in-law, asks how she learnt to break the lock. ‘Google,’ she replies. Of course. When searching for a child to kidnap, she turns to Facebook:
There are a breathtaking number of people whose profiles and posts are public and can be viewed by anyone. George Orwell was wrong, she thinks. In the future, it won’t be the state that keeps tabs on everyone … it will be the people … We are our own secret police.
As the reader becomes aware of the operation of the Chain, the secrecy, the reach of its tentacles, it is impossible not to think of Stasiland, Anna Funder’s powerful examination of East Germany’s secret police. At its height, it was thought that one person in four was in its fold reporting on their own community—family, friends, neighbours. Anybody can be watching. When Rachel sees a strange man look at her and then nod ‘grimly’, she thinks, ‘Is he another one of The Chain’s agents?’

Another time, Rachel is fiercely punched in the stomach, in public, by another stranger. A message from The Chain. The Chain is a perfect example of the gig economy, our outsourced culture where the victims themselves do all the work. Once corrupted by their own complicity, they cannot turn to authorities. The operation runs on fear and they are self-policing.

While The Chain multiplies, its corruption spreads like an oil slick. Doing evil makes us evil. Its insidious takeover of our ‘better nature’ is part of the its power. Rachel becomes aware of the contempt in her voice as she discusses the mother of the boy she is about to kidnap: ‘She remembers that Tacitus line about how you always hate those you have wronged.’

Rachel is on the road when she realises what she has to do to get her child back. She pulls ‘Into the slow lane, into the medium lane, into the fast lane.’ You will too, and don’t forget: the best kept secrets are those hidden in plain sight.

Adrian McKinty The Chain Hachette 2019 PB 368pp $32.99

Wedding Puzzle, Sallie Muirden

I recently reviewed Sallie Muirden’s gentle and thought-provoking book, Wedding Puzzle, for The Newtown Review of Books.

How does anyone ever manage to choose a partner for life? Given the imperfections of every choice, given that we are all complicated individuals with our own distinct bundles of neuroses, Muirden asks how anybody ever manages it at all.

Beth Shaw, who has spent her life so far trying to avoid decisions in love, preferring to be passively chosen than to choose herself, must answer this in Wedding Puzzle. The book opens with her driving to her childhood home in a pretty seaside town, on her way to her own wedding. The town’s mock Tudor hotel is where she and Jordan, her fiancé, had impulsively decided to marry a few months earlier. But the night before the wedding, she has received an anonymous letter telling her something shocking about the man she is about to marry.

Sallie Muirden Wedding Puzzle Transit Lounge 2019 304pp $29.99

Read the full review here.

After the Flood

Delighted to report that Black Phoenix Publishing Collective has published a new book!

I was privileged to edit Stacy Nottle’s beautiful book, After the Flood, earlier this year.

What would you do to save someone you loved? When the storm breaks and the creek at Moonbroch Station floods, more than one life is in danger. After the Flood explores loyalty and the tensions and complexities of abiding relationships. A gripping portrayal of how we cope with trauma, After the Flood is as uplifting as it is thought-provoking.

Available now.

Read about After the Flood and Stacy Nottle here in Tara East’s blog (warning: spoilers!).

My review of The Place on Dalhousie, MELINA MARCHETTA

First published in the Newtown Review of Books.

Melina Marchetta has written a story about home in The Place on Dalhousie. Home is both a place — where you live, the geography, the cityscape, the country — and a state of mind, the comfort and familiarity of having people around you ¬who know you and care for you. Home is support in its different guises.

Rosie Gennaro has lost the most important people in her life — her mother when she was 14, and now her father — and she feels she has lost her home, the house her father built for her and her mother. She has moved in with a boyfriend, then out again, and she has taken off travelling, working odd jobs, moving on when it suits. The book opens with Rosie in a regional town where she has found work as a carer. She seems drawn to other people’s homes.

The town floods and she stays on to help, working alongside Jim, an SES volunteer:

It’s rained for forty days and forty nights, so when a guy who looks like Jesus in orange SES overalls comes to stand next to her, Rosie thinks it’s all a bit biblical.

Marchetta’s few words bring us the familiar orange uniform we associate with tension, disaster and recovery, a bearded young man and Rosie’s weary fatefulness. The story’s timeline moves back and forth among an ensemble of characters and piecing it together is part of the enjoyment. This is a book to reread.

Rosie and Jim have a brief relationship, seeking comfort in one another, but then lose contact, travelling in different directions. It is only the beginning of their story, though. When they meet up again in Sydney several years later, the landscape has shifted. Rosie has returned to what was her home, her father’s house in Haberfield in Sydney’s inner-west, the place on Dalhousie, with her new baby. Also living there is Martha, her father Seb’s second wife, and both women lay claim to the house.

Martha and Seb had met in the cancer ward where they were caring for dying loved ones. Marchetta handles weighty themes with a light touch. Death, and the search for solace by those left behind, rears up often. Seb has also died prematurely and we see the repercussions of loss. Marchetta’s strong women show us that death is a part of life. Though it is one end, it is not the end.

Marchetta’s characters find support in different forms. Jim is searching for his parents, but his close-knit group of friends from school, and their parents, brothers and sisters are his family:

He’s home, and he knows he’s home because they’re here and that’s the way it is, just the certainty that one of them will always be around, and it feels like everything’s going to be okay …

Martha’s school friendships, reforming around an adult netball team, are another source of support with a shared history. The pokes at netball prima donnas are laugh-out-loud funny for any woman who remembers school teams. In another forum, the bitchy competitiveness of a mothers’ group is shown to be a veneer: underneath is solid, practical support.

Responsibility is a constant theme — responsibility to one’s children and one’s parents, financially and emotionally. Rosie’s Italian grandmother comes back to the house on Dalhousie, worried for her granddaughter. Of Jimmy’s job as a fly-in fly-out worker in the mines, Martha says, ‘You need to make this work, Jimmy.’ Frankie, Jimmy’s best friend, who knows his patterns and his history, says to him, ‘That little boy needs you, no matter what.’

And the migrant experience is here. When family is on the other side of the world, the neighbourhood becomes de facto family:

Martha had never sensed Loredana in this house before, but she’s imagined her languorous walk down Dalhousie chatting to every second person outside their home … That husky strong accent attracting the foreigners, the rapid musical dialect comforting the old-timers.

Martha’s responsibility, too, becomes clear in the end, and the place on Dalhousie becomes home again.

Melina Marchetta The Place on Dalhousie Viking 2019 PB 288pp $32.99

Dying in the first person, Nike Sulway

First published in the Newtown Review of Books (18 July 2017), my review of Nike Sulway’s luminous novel, Dying in the first person.

This is a powerful and extraordinarily beautiful story of family, love and sacrifice. Sulway has created a world we enter slowly, uncovering the past and its hurts in small steps. It draws the reader into a place of mystery and wonder as Samuel is brought face to face with an emissary, Ana, who brings news of his long-estranged twin brother.

We learn of Morgan’s death in the canal near their home in Amsterdam in the opening lines —‘A woman came across the field, carrying the body of my brother, who had drowned.’ Ana’s first contact is through letters, then telephone calls. Samuel and his mother, Solange, have had no first-hand contact with Morgan for many years but on accompanying Morgan’s body back to be buried, Ana stays, allowing herself to rest, to be loved. In Sulway’s depiction of her growing relationships with Samuel and Solange, there is a longing and vulnerability that all readers will recognise.

Sulway explores ideas of sacrifice and the accompanying notions of obligation, commitment and entitlement; these are part of loving somebody. Her characters’ offerings to those they love are almost biblical in their scope—life, freedom, memory and voice—but we can see echoes of them in our own lives. We all make huge, yet unrecognised, sacrifices every day, for love.

It is through the book’s gradual unfolding that we learn of Morgan’s life, his self-imposed isolation from his family and why and how he died. Ana’s complicated relationship with Morgan is teased out. Ultimately, she has wanted to save him: ‘I believed I could rescue him, restore him to himself, simply by being patient and kind.’ Sulway’s examination of Morgan’s mental state reminded me of Jeffrey Euginides in his 2011 book The Marriage Plot where Madeleine, who wants to save Leonard, is told: ‘But you can only save yourself.’ Sulway is acutely aware of our limitations in treating emotional pain.

The book’s central theme is the power of language. Sulway portrays its role, through narrative, in recording truth, or lack of truth, which then, in turn, allows us to see reality and change and grow. As children, the boys develop a secret language, sophisticated and complex. As adults, Morgan writes books in this language and becomes famous; the language has taken on a life of its own, studied by linguists, the focus of international conference. His books are translated by Samuel who is conflicted about his role in appropriating words not his own. Who owns these stories?

As boys, they had developed an entire world in this secret language—the island of Nahum—inhabited by men only. Sulway’s examination of the roles of men and women, their strictures and freedoms, is light and deft. She never hammers home a message, leaving nuance and murkiness to allow us to reach our own conclusions. While her attachment to her women characters is evident—Solange, in particular, her talents, intellect, resourcefulness, independence—she tells her story through men and their agency. Women’s stories and powers, the influence of a mother in shaping her children, is always present but in the background.

One spring morning,’ my brother would intone, holding his tiny craft aloft in this wide, pale hands, ‘the father leaves his son sleeping and goes to the sea. He does not know, when he steps onto the deck, whether he will return, whether it will be a good day, or a bad day, but he goes down to the sea, because that is what men do.

And at the end, we are left with Ana’s sacrifice, her selflessness as she, too, goes into the storm.

Sulway’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She forces her readers to slow their pace, to absorb every detail through her recreation of scenes in real time precision: the trappings and formalities of a funeral, the basting of a turkey.

In the kitchen, our mother laid out her ingredients, as well as her needles, skewers, scissors and string, her long-handled, flat-faced spoons and glass bowls. She had taken out her recipe form its hiding place, where it lay folded all year, cheek-to-cheek with a page clipped from the newspaper in 1949, which had detailed instructions on how to truss a turkey. Once everything was in place, she opened a bottle of dry Semillon, poured herself a shallow, golden glassful and began.


In many ways, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships and the little that children ever really know of their parents’ lives.

Sulway, Nike, Dying in the first person, Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, ebook and paperback (304 pages), RRP $29.99