Tag Archives: Paul Genoni

Writers need discerning friends

Though writing is largely a solo activity, even the most experienced authors need appreciative responses from at least a few readers after a book emerges into the world. Without this occasional encouragement it would be hard to sustain the effort to go on writing.

Book reviews in media outlets traditionally helped to meet that need. But now that nearly all newspapers and magazines have imposed drastic cuts on their review space, many worthy books get scant public attention. There would often be a deathly post-publication silence if it weren’t for thoughtful comments by discerning friends.

Such comments are especially valuable when they come from accomplished fellow-writers who can be trusted to read with insight. Does friendship impede their judgment or lead to mere flattery? Unlikely. Tact doesn’t require them to say things they don’t mean. And after all, total objectivity can’t be guaranteed in any circumstances. Published reviews by purportedly independent critics may sometimes be coloured by undisclosed personal attitudes (friendly or unfriendly) towards an author.

In the lull following the launch of my new novel I’ve felt heartened by messages from several writer-friends. Without hesitation they have agreed to let me quote some of their comments here — which also gives me, in turn, an opportunity to mention appreciatively a few of the many things I admire in their own writings.

At an early stage there had already been encouraging evaluations of my manuscript. Among the people I asked to read A Thousand Tongues and tell me whether it seemed fit for submission was Dave Whish-Wilson. Dave had previously sought my opinion of the ms of his fine historical novel The Coves, so I solicited this reciprocal favour. Of all his books, I like The Coves best. Its storyline sustains a strong momentum, evoking mid-19th-century San Francisco’s ugly outpost of Australian gold-diggers with unforgettable power. The language is replete with acrid smells and gruesome sights of that frontier world in all its raucous, rancorous violence, and the young central character is surrounded by a great rogues gallery of mostly unsavoury adults.

To my delight, Dave had this to say about A Thousand Tongues:

What a pleasure it was to read your ms, and what a fascinating story set over three different but linked eras. Not an easy job to manage, and hold it all together! For this reader the structure is working perfectly. As well, I thought all of the characterisation was spot on, as was the integration of what must have been a significant amount of research into the different story strands.

Subsequently the person I asked to launch my book was Paul Genoni, co-author with Tanya Dalziell of Half the Perfect World — a really absorbing account of the talented international bohemian community on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s and 1960s, in which Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston were pivotal figures. (The book’s cover shows them in the company of Leonard Cohen and his lover Marianne Ihlen, who also lived on Hydra; its title comes from one of Cohen’s songs.) Fittingly, Half the Perfect World has recently won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction, and will soon be made into a film.

In his launch speech (which can be read in full here), Paul praised my novel in terms that made the long toil of creating it seem worthwhile:

A Thousand Tongues carries all the hallmarks of Ian’s three previous novels—it is impeccably researched, meticulously plotted, and blessed with elegantly and artfully crafted prose. Nothing is laboured, and the pages slip by in a most beguiling manner. Ian is working at the top of his craft, and to my mind it is remarkable that this intricately crafted novel has been delivered in such a compact and constantly engaging form.

A few days after the launch I received a message from Nick Hasluck, one of Western Australia’s most eminent writers. I hold his work in high regard, and especially admire Our Man K, a novel that revolves around real-life Czech journalist Egon Kisch, who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Nick’s portrayal of Kisch imagines his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (whose own character ‘K’ becomes linked to Kisch), and also with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Like all Nick’s fiction, it is thoughtful and cleverly shaped. So I value his comments on my work:

I have now finished reading A Thousand Tongues and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your style, as always, is perfectly suited to the mood and theme of the story. Likewise, the historical background and related research were of considerable interest to me and handled deftly. The combination of these qualities is becoming increasingly rare in contemporary Australian fiction so, upon closing the book, I felt hugely rewarded.

Another leading fiction-writer in this state, Brenda Walker, has continued to express enthusiasm for my work since she saw a draft of the first novel a decade ago, and I’ve been buoyed up by her loyal support. Her own World War 1 story The Wing of Night made a big impression on me. It draws with great skill on a range of historical resources to create a moving tale about those who fought and those they left behind, evoking beautifully the resonance of linked events and the mystery of character. Within a few days of obtaining a copy of A Thousand Tongues, Brenda sent me this upbeat email:

I’m carefully reading your elegant book — very much enjoying the slight formality of the writing and the interesting shifts in time and location…. I think you have every reason to feel wonderful about this book and the next!

Also based in Perth is Tangea Tansley, but her books reflect the fact that she has lived in many parts of the world. These include the Middle East, where Out of Place is set, and Africa, the location for A Question of Belonging. I found the latter novel particularly memorable for its unflinching way of depicting the plight of a young widowed woman trying to maintain her independence on an isolated farm against the background of the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1970s. I was very pleased to get an email from her about A Thousand Tongues:

Just to congratulate you on your lovely book. Your clever choice of epigraphs, which led so smoothly into the braiding of past and present, was right up my street. A book to savour in the reading and ponder thereafter. Very well done.

Another friend, Professor Bob White, is a distinguished literary scholar with an international reputation, especially for his numerous critical studies of Shakespeare. When I was at an early stage of developing my novel I read his wide-ranging book Pacifism and English Literature. Its discussion of Shakespeare’s attitudes to war and peace gave me much food for thought. So the following message from Bob about A Thousand Tongues delighted me:

A great pleasure to read. I admire the way you interweave so many strands together while keeping them all clear; and there are powerful moments. Thanks for the memorable literary experience, and keep writing!

Ken Spillman and I became acquainted when we were both guests at the same literary festival a few years ago, and discovered a number of common interests. He began his writing career as a historian, and then moved into the creation of books for children. Ken is probably best known for his series of Jake stories, which are immensely popular with young readers in several countries, but of his many books the one that stands out for me is an allegorical fable called The Circle. Every sentence in The Circle is beautifully balanced. Knowing that Ken is such an exemplary stylist, I was particularly happy that he said this about A Thousand Tongues:

It really is exceedingly well written — there’s a great eye for detail and your prose is so polished.

I’ve known Andrew Taylor well and admired his poetry for many years. I reviewed one of his early books way back in 1973, co-founded with him in 1975 the long-running Adelaide institution known as Friendly Street Poets, co-edited an anthology with him in 1978… It’s been a long association. Many of his poems have stayed with me, but I have a special fondness for those collected in one of his relatively recent books, Impossible Preludes. It contains beautiful lyrics – often witty, sometimes poignant, always with an unforced conversational directness. Over the years, Andrew has kept a friendly eye on my own poetry and fiction, making lots of encouraging comments. While reading this latest novel, he sent me an interim message, describing it as “utterly engrossing … powerful and confronting.” And then, after finishing the novel:

A Thousand Tongues is very impressive. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, nor does it need to be. It’s a relentless exploration of what is conscience and its varied consequences, and you play that out within an extraordinarily well-realised historical and geographical context. Well, contexts, because of the two fine frames. I was very impressed by the detail with which you establish all that, and when I saw your list of sources consulted I wondered how you had time to write the novel. I also like the way certain things are left without unnecessary explanation, such as the wall the conchies are forced to build, which underscores its pointlessness. Also the exploration of ancestry is not only very topical but also very well handled.

For my part, I’m deeply grateful for all these appreciative remarks from fellow-writers  about my new book — and for the pleasure that their own books have given to me. Writers need discerning friends!

More than a quaint ritual

A quaint old cultural ritual, a remnant from the days when books emerged less often and seemed correspondingly more significant? A bit of ego massage for the author? A custom that is disappearing anyway because its cost is no longer justified by the sales generated?

Previously I’ve posted some thoughts about ceremonial book launches, noting that even authors themselves are not unanimous about the value of these events. David Malouf (so successful that he can afford to be dismissive) shrugs them off as merely “exercises in vanity,” while Miriam Cosic regards them as a vanishing species, “one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.”

Paul Genoni delivering his speech to launch A Thousand Tongues

Having had my new novel A Thousand Tongues launched at a cheerful event yesterday, I incline towards the more optimistic opinion that this traditional way of celebrating a book’s birth can still create ripples of publicity that reaffirm collectively the worth of literary creativity for readers as well as for writers and publishers.

Anyway, I enjoyed myself thoroughly and the crowd that filled Mattie Furphy House apparently did so too. I’m grateful to all who contributed to the afternoon’s success, especially  to Dr Paul Genoni for his eloquent appreciative speech (a version of which will later be published as a review), to my publisher Framework Press for all its support (particular thanks to Indeira William), to the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) for the use of its lovely heritage-listed venue, and to Olivia for a great sales job.

And by the way… I’m delighted that Amanda Curtin generously invited me to write a piece about my novel as a guest on her website. She posted it there today and you can read it here.

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 1

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Every December it’s a staple item for the literary pages of newspapers: an array of brief responses by a bevy of writers and critics to the question ‘Which books stood out for you during the last year?’ Many of these respondents have reviewed several publications over the previous months, often in the same publication, so it’s not difficult for them to slap together a couple of paragraphs that draw selectively on verdicts they’ve already delivered.

I do a fair bit of reading, but not since my high school days have I kept a memo list of all the titles, and I no longer write reviews frequently. So if – lacking those aids to memory – I now ask myself which books back there in 2013 made an impact on me, the emphasis of the question shifts slightly because a few months have elapsed: it’s about what still lingers in the mind, what the residue of all that reading is. In some cases a book that may have engrossed my attention at the time when I was holding it in my hand has since begun to fade from recollection, while another book continues to do its invasive work in my head.

Writers hope that their readers will experience both kinds of engagement. I was delighted when someone reviewing my first novel (in Bookseller & Publisher) said she was ‘completely absorbed from the first page to the final scene’; but it was especially satisfying that another reviewer (in The Sydney Morning Herald) said ‘It has stayed with me and has been hard to shake off.’ Lasting impressions, even if they involve mixed feelings, can sometimes be more important than an immediately positive response of ‘liking’ a book.

Most of what I read last year was hot off the press; other titles had been out in the world for longer. Regardless of whether they were newly published, what do I now think about some of those books?

I’ll omit reference to a lot of the non-fiction, because that reading was merely instrumental – it belonged to the research groundwork for a couple of novels I was drafting last year. But a few other non-fiction books have stayed with me, and I’ll discuss them in the rest of this post, leaving the fiction to a sequel instalment.

An unusual ethnographic study that came my way is Icelandic Men and Me by Robert Faulkner, who spent many years as a music teacher in Iceland. He writes about the way in which male identity in Icelandic communities is still shaped by traditional group singing. A specialised book, yes – but its author makes it very readable, not least by bringing candidly into the foreground some fascinating reflections on the shaping of his own masculinity in England. Faulkner’s book also appealed to me because of my own long-standing interest in Icelandic cultural traditions (I learned the language as a student, and analysed a 13th-century mythological tale by Snorri Sturluson in part of my book Narrative Exchanges).

When the shaping of an entirely factual story is exceptionally skilful it can acquire most of the qualities of literary fiction. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale (whose previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was similarly memorable), is a meticulous, compelling account of a sensational mid-19th century divorce case in England and the events leading up to it. I can’t think of any other book that gives such a moving insight into a woman’s experience of marriage and sexuality in that period.

Completely different in its scope and in the kind of reading experience it provides, Simon Schama’s massive work of scholarship Landscape and Memory was heavy going, and at times the weight of detail felt oppressive as I waded through its 650 pages of text and its countless colour plates and other illustrations. Yet I keep recalling portions of it, and I think I’ll be opening the book again from time to time. The extraordinary range of Schama’s research has produced an encyclopaedic compilation of imagery and stories about the relationship of Europeans to their physical environment – forests, waterways, rocks, mountains and the rest of it – over many centuries. It’s a gigantic monument to the process of making meanings from the symmetries and tensions between culture and nature.

Noelene Bloomfield’s Almost a French Australia is a handsomely produced and diligently researched book, full of fine illustrations and fascinating historical details. But for me its most memorable feature turns out to be the recurrent narrative pattern summed up in its title’s plaintive first word: almost. This account of French exploration in the southern oceans relates episode after episode of near-success, disappointment and last-minute disaster. Among the most notable tales of (mis)adventure are those of Saint-Aloüarn, who claimed Australia’s western coast for France in 1772 but died in Mauritius on his journey home, and of Baudin three decades later, who also perished in Mauritius after surveying much of Australia’s shoreline. Between those hapless voyagers came (among others) the brilliant navigator La Pérouse – lost in a shipwreck near New Caledonia after criss-crossing the Pacific from Cape Horn to Russia and from Alaska to Botany Bay – and D’Entrecasteaux, whose search for La Pérouse took him to many places before he too died at sea. Apart from hundreds of French place names dotted around Australia’s coast, there is little to show for all that doomed heroism.

I remember clearly the distinctive qualities of three books of essays read in 2013. Other Colours, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, gives a colourful picture of what cultural life in Istanbul has been like for someone who education and family background bring east and west into a productive tension. Legal Limits, by Western Australian lawyer-and-writer Nicholas Hasluck, illuminates several aspects of the relationship between law and literature and conveys particular insights into fictional work by Kafka, Orwell, Coetzee, Borges and others – including some of Nick’s own novels. And Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012, impressively edited by Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni, assembles nearly 90 short lively essays by different hands to give a kaleidoscopic account of literary and popular culture in this country during that period.

But most of what I read last year was fiction, and I’ll discuss about 20 titles in my next post…