John Irving and his writing

This morning I read the essay linked to below, at John Irving’s facebook page and was surprised to see it had been published in 1980. It was the mention of one of my favourite Irving novels that caught my eye, THE WATER METHOD MAN:

It’s been 45 years since John Irving published THE WATER METHOD MAN. While his second novel is regarded as a purely comic tale, and John’s current project is a darker contemplation of life’s disruptive forces, the two novels bear some resemblance to one another.

John Irving is once again experimenting with framed narratives and writing about the evolution of a writer—like Bogus Trumper, one who writes screenplays. This time, we see the main character —Adam Brewster—mature from childhood and early adolescence to become a writer like Garp, or Ruth Cole, or Juan Diego, as if writing were an inevitability given the fateful circumstances of his life. And, along the way, despite the darkness, there are points of humor. John’s work in progress may ultimately be his funniest novel since THE WATER METHOD MAN.

And a link to the essay published all those years ago, 3 BY IRVING by Terrence Des Pres, a text credited by Irving as “the most insightful thesis on his writing.” It contains some fabulous insights into and perspectives on fiction writing, particularly his. How he works, how he circles.

I do feel his fiction went off the boil for me, but maybe I had changed, maybe his work is still as vibrant and compassionate (a word that keeps recurring in the essay) and funny as it ever was. (although I have to say, the character name Bogus Trumper is genius but Adam Brewster? Ordinary).

Anyway, I thought it a fascinating read, this morning. It helped restore the juice that I will need to push on to the next project. It has some great quotes like:


Superior fiction asks three things of the novelist: Vigorous feeling for life as we live it. Then imaginative force, strong enough to subvert and rebuild unhindered. And then–but this is rare and so essential that we might call it the “reality principle” of fiction– shrewd sense to keep the first two locked in stubborn love with each other.


Irving’s grasp on fact is firm, yet not so cramped as to dampen his delight in wild fabulation. To manage this balance with compassion and comic liberty is chief among his strengths. Not fact but fact perceived is fiction’s rightful domain, and Irving has been quick to take this special license to its limit. Rampant invention is central to his art, and one of the finest pleasures to be got from reading his novels resides in the multiplicity of styles, the range of forms and abrupt imaginative turns to be found in each book. Irving’s multiple manner, if I may call it such, his will to come at the world from different directions, is one of the outstanding traits of Garp; but this remarkable flair for confluence–stories inside stories, genres circumventing genres–is already handled with mastery in Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, and with a freedom almost wanton in The Water-Method Man, which appeared in 1972. Only The 158-Pound Marriage departs from mixed form; published in 1974, it is as lean and concentrated as a mine shaft. But in every case Irving’s habit of originality provokes surprise and enjoyment.


My last week: 5 extraordinary reading/listening days

Happy Good Friday.

A bit later in the day, I’m off to listen to some Bach, and I have hot-cross buns cooking (recipe: Nigella’s one)*. Tonight, the family does a usual GF ritual. We play a board game (Settlers of Catan is the choice du jour) and watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian. We’ve been doing this for years – the board game, the film that is. The Bach is an addition this year, as is the me making the buns.

But last week was a pretty extraordinary one for me. I read or listened to something significant each day, Monday through Friday. It wasn’t planned that way, it just worked out, but by Thursday I was thinking to myself ‘what will it be today?’

Here’s how it went:


On the Monday it all started with a George Saunders piece in the Guardian about what writers really do when they write. I haven’t read his Tenth of December, nor have I read Lincoln in the Bardo. I have both books though and just need to devote some time to George. After reading his article, and getting a little teary in one part (where he mentions empathy, and the connection between writer and reader – I found it very moving as a reader) I realise it is truly time to get serious about George.

Tuesday I started the S-Town podcast and became immersed right from the beginning. I think I listened to three ‘chapters’ lying in bed. On Tuesday I also read an article by climate-change scientist James Lovelock *great name, by the way… the family in my upcoming novel are Lovelocks*. Lovelock the scientist says that we need to enjoy life because in twenty years ‘it’ will hit the fan. I found reading the article both depressing and uplifting. You can find it here.

Wednesday I finished S-Town. As I said on twitter: I’m not going to even try to form a précis about it; what it’s about, what it does to and for the listener. But I will say I cried (again!), that it is very literary and novelistic in the way it’s edited, how it’s character-driven, concerned with ideas and that it makes you see empathy in the world of John B McLemore in such a deep and moving way.

Thursday I woke up thinking: what’s in the day ahead? Turned out to be a Brainpickings post about the art of walking and perils of a sedentary lifestyle. Henry David Thoreau published a book called Walking. He wanted to remind us of how the ‘primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness’; that ‘everything good is wild and free’ and that it’s not about transport or exercise but some much more than that. I have loved Thoreau’s quotations for years, and I loved Into the Wild that was based on his words and philosophy.

And on Friday it was a TED talk, on emotional correctness.

Any one of the above would have been significant and singular. Cumulatively it made for a hell of a week. These things made me think, and feel, deeply. And realise things. That yes, I will just go for it and really plan and book that trip for next Christmas. Yes, I will make sure I keep my walks going, make them longer, and continue to look up, down and around. Yes, I will continue with my gut health and food adjustments. Yes, I will read those classics that I keep putting off.Yes, I will continue to attend to my writing and really devote to it, keep on prioritising it and try to reduce distraction, the static that gets in the way.  Yes, I will install the Freedom App that I’ve known about for years and have been intending to get onto. And yes I will use it. And finally, yes, I will delete Goodreads.

*  The buns are good!

Writing novels & opera – art nexus


In one week I have discovered that yes, I DO love opera, but only, it seems, when it’s Wagner’s Das Ring Des Nibelungen. Funny that. I am a bit surrounded by opera people. My mother loves it, and my daughter too. It kind of skipped a generation with me, but I would go along once a year with the two of them, not to be left out. I also have a friend who writes opera reviews for a paper here in Melbourne. I have another friend who I went to primary school with who sang for years in Germany, has sung each of the Ring operas, and now lives in London and is an agent to musicians and performers. The Singer and I have had a flurry of facebook messages going back and forth over the last day or so, as he has delighted in my new-found conversion to The Ring.

My critic friend has taken me to a couple of operas, and offered me more and I’ve declined, because (shhh) I didn’t really like it. I’ve never been a live theatre person, or musical person. I fell asleep in Carmen once; also at Camelot, even though my friend was Guinevere and we’d heard the stories about Richard Harris flapping his privates at her while from the wings  – both years ago. I prefer books and movies, and I always have. I like the ballet but only in moderation and while I liked Madam Butterfly and Swan Lake recently, and Eugene Onegin a couple of years ago, it’s Not Really My Thing. My time is precious, I am running a business AND trying to be a novelist at the same time. I also have children, wider family, blah de blah, and on it goes. So NRMT. Until now.

When Saturday a week ago The Critic was here for dinner, he asked me if I would be interested in seeing Das Rheingold with him on the Monday night, two days later.

YES, I said. I WOULD. (The Ring had been on my list of things to do since 2013 when my mother went here in Melbourne and said I HAD to see it one day. But then she’s an Opera Person, I thought. She would say that.) But I am about experience, and epic experience whenever possible. I admit, until I saw Das Rheingold, in my mind the attraction was the experience of having seen The Ring Cycle – and the endurance involved, to know what it was like to sit there – not what I might actually feel or love or take in while present. Oh, how misguided that was.

So I went on Monday, and sat with dropped jaw for the entire two and a half hours. We went to the after-party and that was amazing, being on the inside (writers always feel on the outside of things; it’s the position to best observe). I saw the sparkly frocks; the fabulous women of opera with their oversized vibrant spectacle frames and dramatic flowing fabrics. The men in dinner suits. On the Wednesday night the same thing. It was Die Walküre and I was in love. Irrevocably and completely fallen. It didn’t matter that technical difficulties extended not one but both intervals. It didn’t matter that a woman from Kooyong was sitting in The Critic’s seat when we finally got back inside after the dinner break. That she’d found his forgotten tickets on the platform at the station and whizzed herself in, prepared with a story of how she came to be seated there. It was a moment of high emotion inserted into an evening of already mega-drama.

Siegfried was Friday night, and again, it was epic. The blown-up image of the dragon putting on his warpaint, nude, was my favourite part, as was the appearance of Brünnhilde – magnificent character played by a magnificent woman. I am besotted. I wasn’t prepared for the sight of seeing ten women on stage, the Valkyries, Brünnhilde helping Sieglinde: two strong women, in a loving sisterly embrace, surrounded by strong women, with no one scheming, plotting, jealous, aggrieved. How refreshing it was, and so outside of the stereotypical way women are often represented. How marvellous.

This afternoon, we head in for a 4pm start, for Götterdämmerung, which The Critic has described as an earthquake. I am dressing accordingly. Vivid red dress, pink tights, yellow bag, purple nails and lips. Look out. I’ve ordered our boxed dinners and tonight, I also complete my tetraptych of souvenirs:

  1. first night was the program
  2. the CD box of recordings in Vienna in 1958, 1962, 1963 & 1964. It is sublime.
  3. coffee mug saying What Would Life Be, Without a Little Wagner?
  4. And tonight, it’s the viking hat. Yes, I’m getting it and probably wearing it home in the car.

My friend in London has reblogged a blog post I wrote a little while back on this website, about rejection. He thinks it of interest  to the singers and musicians he works with, and I can see how building resilience in the face of rejection, and developing persistence, patience and endurance, are essential to not just artists everywhere, but anybody who is chasing a passion or dream. Life is what you make it, and people don’t hand you things. Yes, you can build a team of supporters and champions, and that’s important. Things can’t happen in isolation. But it is down to you to make it all happen and that can take a lot of effort, heartbreak and – most importantly – time.

Tait Memorial Trust – Australian Artist Update

On rejections

Michael Hauge and Larry Brooks on story engineering


I’m writing this mainly I guess for any writers who might be reading. Rejections (note the plural) are part of the game. And it is a game, not a fun game or one of manipulation, but of patience, perseverance and professionalism. Another thing: it’s a long game.

I wrote about rejection here, for author Lee Kofman, and how me submitting a terribly-written travel article back in 1990 (and getting rightly rejected – and in retrospect it was a LOVELY ‘No’ letter, I have the feeling it came from Jonathan Green) meant that I didn’t submit anything for years. I didn’t stop writing, I’m not that precious or thin-skinned, but If I’d known then what I know now, a slow-dawning awareness that started building once I started writing seriously with a view to publication from 2008 onwards, I would have seen that not only was that piece a draft, wholly unworked and not worthy of appearance outside of my diary pages, rejection does not mean you are shit.

Now, as I am sitting with a completed second novel manuscript, the first draft of a third ready for next-stage development, and fourth in its early stages, I am so glad that not only was that pathetic travel piece denied its place in the canon lol, but also that the first few submissions I made to literary journals were nixed as well. I know now that my novels need a long, long time in the oven, with the preparation of them like one of those crazy recipes that have so many ingredients you almost decide not to cook the bloody thing, but then you think, well, give it a whirl, it’s the weekend, I’ve got the whole day, and you make the hugest mess of the kitchen, use every pot and pan, and you kind of enjoy it but kind of think ‘why am I even doing this?’ And it took me a while to realise that if  I can manage my impatience by thinking ‘the thing will improve, take your time, this is nowhere near finished’ and resist rushing it to readers, an agent, the publisher, then the pressure comes off a bit.

Another thing that helped me with my manuscript development is the idea of a conscious structure and deliberate story points. There are a bunch of people who have written about these (American screenwriting guru Syd Field; Michael Hauge; Larry Brooks) in ways that are clear and helpful. I consider myself a literary fiction writer, but reasoned there was no reason why I couldn’t also incorporate some of these dudes’ systems. (And the story points don’t have to be big obvious clunky ones; they can be subtle shifts, emotional changes or realisations).  It seems there is a move happening, driven by readers, booksellers and therefore publishers, away from novels that are ‘only’ beautifully written, interior and character-driven (all such hard things to do well in the first place) to books that have all those elements but with extra elements of storytelling that publishers believe will sell the novel to larger numbers of readers (cross-over books). I wonder whether this is because of long-form television and how people are accessing their preferred narratives. It’s also possibly because of how we are distracted by our phones and cannot settle to fiction in the way we used to. (Noam Chomsky talks of the perfect dyad between a man and his television set. I think it’s true, but between a human and their phone.)

Wonderful woman and agent Virginia Lloyd (who represented my first novel and sold it to Allen and Unwin two years ago – two years ago on Melbourne Cup Day it was acquired), has written about attracting the attention of a publisher here:

Advice on how to attract a publisher

Virginia is super professional and smart, lovely to deal with and has extensive experience – she worked as an in-house editor for PanMac before setting up as a literary agent, in Brooklyn NYC where I met her in a very hip bar, and now in Sydney. She represents some authors, as well as offering editorial services: mentoring/coaching; manuscript assessments; editorial and structural development.  You can read more about her services here. While she no longer represents my work, occasionally I send a (panicked) email to her and she talks me down, and for people who might feel they need some help and are happy to pay*, I can’t recommend her highly enough. Like I said above, it’s a tough business and it is important to try to build a group of people who will champion your work, be in your corner, make you feel supported to keep going. Much of it is about endurance and not cracking under the strain, not giving up.

Finally, I came across this article about the reasons a manuscript gets rejected by agents, written by an agent’s reader (an agent is often the first person a writer will be submitting their novel manuscript too, although in Australia they are harder to get than a publisher it seems!)

I’d love to know if any writers are reading. I know I have some readers who are readers, and as I still work out what I want to do with this space, in terms of blogging, I’d love to know what people would like to read about. It’s clear my book ‘not-reviews’ are sporadic at best. I do the 6 Degrees posts, and occasionally share articles of interest I come across. It’s a bit of a mess, really, but I guess it’s okay.


* Virginia is very clear on her website about how the fee structures work, in terms of literary representation (where there is no upfront fee) and other services. A reputable literary agent will never ask for money upfront, or to take on a client. Lit agenting is done on spec, and sometimes, if you are lucky, they will put in a lot of unpaid work with you to develop the manuscript before approaching publishers with it. This is what happened with me and Virginia, on not one but two novel manuscripts. You can see why I love her so much, she stuck with me and believed in me, even though it took two years to get a book contract.

Helpful snippets on getting published

From Sarah L’Estrange at Radio National, a chat with various publishers including ‘newbie’ Geordie Williamson about slush piles.

Text publishing is quite unique in that all their submissions are hard copies (about one hundred a week), and they sit all together on Fridays and go through them. Each manuscript is read twice.

Geordie says of the readers at most publishers, though, ‘who knows whether they are a good reader, whether they’re tired, or about to quit. The notion that there’s some standard response to unsolicited manuscripts – it’s not true.’ (Williamson calls the slush pile ‘the unhappy place’ which I think is cute and horrifying and true.)

One of Scribe’s publishers – Lesley Halm – read the slush pile for two years when she first started working there. She ‘loved it’ because she’s a writer herself. This plays to an anxiety I have, that circulating your work (as a writer) around the traps when you are trying to get a book contract for your novel leaves you vulnerable. I have heard stories (overseas mostly) of writers pitching ideas or submitting whole manuscripts, to be rejected and then have to watch as their story idea was used and commercialised by another creative.

There is some final advice:

‘Whatever you do, don’t hassle them (the publishers).’
‘It doesn’t even help to push a publisher, if they haven’t responded.’
– join a writers class – try to get representation from a literary agent – go back to re-read a book you loved and study it; look at how they balanced character, exposition and dialogue scene.

Well worth a listen – runs for about 11 minutes.

The pros and cons of the slush pile on Books and Arts


Let’s play links

If you’re anything like me, at all times you’ll have about twenty browser windows open across the top of your computer screen. Occasionally, I do an archive, which means copy and pasting the urls into a Word document. Which is like a ‘bookmarking to read later’ action that usually doesn’t result in me reading any of them.

For a while I’ve been thinking I should use them as posts here, so today’s the day that I show you what I’ve come across in my browsing, because let’s face it, we’re all doing it, probably far too much and far too lasciviously. I mean all that information, just out there, ready to be found.

I’m going back to the beginning of my links list and here are the first seven*:



At a time when Turkey’s dramatic news cycle is dominating international headlines, the country’s Nobel laureate has written a novel about a street vendor.

Anyone who knows me even a little, knows I am nuts about Orhan Pamuk, probably Turkey’s greatest living writer. This is an article about his then new, upcoming book A Strangeness in My Mind, which I read as an ARC because my daughter was working in a book shop, they gave it to her and she brought it home and placed it firmly in her mama’s loving arms. (It strikes me that Pamuk’s works have become more readable over time. I wonder about that…)

What Orhan Pamuk’s new novel tells us about Turkey today



Orange Pekoe Reviews

I have this link but obviously I didn’t click on that day’s post to make sure I could navigate back to the original thing that caught my eye. Anyway, it’s a great blog so why not work backwards?



Oh. Neil Strauss is next. I read his The Game years ago – god knows why – and back then it was an offensive yet fascinating read (he shared a house with Courtney Love!) but not the extremely misogynistic and violent thing that the male pick-up ‘artistry’ movement is today. In his book, Strauss covers strategies like negging and wingmanning but I don’t remember anything about walking a woman up to a wall and choking her, or laying hands on her without her consent. Anyway… this link is to an article about HOW NEIL STRAUSS GOT MARRIED AND IS A CHANGED MAN.




Sorry about the headline of this one, but it’s about filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s death, and I obviously googled her, or followed a link from facebook or twitter, because people were talking about her, and her films, saying how wonderful they are, and it made me think I needed to explore.



Okay. So, because I’m not editing links, this is where you get to see that I’ve been a bit stalky. COME ON, WE ALL DO IT. I obviously looked up Lucy Treloar’s page of events, or maybe followed a link (less stalky). I really liked Lucy’s book Salt Creek, and think it deserving of any and all accolades. I also met Lucy for a couple of coffees at Mr Tulk at SLV and she is SO NICE and it was good to chat about books and the world, and I look forward to seeing her again.

salt creek



Watch Chantal Akerman’s films for free here. You’re welcome.
And a New Yorker article about her.
And another article at Lola.

Cannes Film Festival, France In May, 2002.



I am toying with the idea of a PhD but when I think about it, and I am quite a lot at the moment, which is funny cause I don’t really have time to think about it, let alone do one, but I’m pondering who or what would be my focus (I’d want to do it in literature, not education and not creative writing), and it is a very short list: Nabokov, Hemingway, or Emily Brontë and her Wuthering Heights.

I am fascinated with all three of them: Nabokov for his writing and his brain; Hemingway for his misunderstood domestic life (that could be the thesis question right there), and Brontë for her magnificent, enduring novel (and there’s another adaptation to film on the way. By a director who first read the novel at six. Right.)

The other thing I’m kind of interested in is works in translation. I’m about to finish Knausgaard’s fifth volume in his My Struggle cycle, and have read some Ferrante (my mother has read them all and thinks the translation of Ferrante is poor at times; I was enjoying and will get back to the books), but here is an article written by Nabokov in 1941, about the ‘sins’ of translation.

The Art of Translation: On the sins of translation and the great Russian short story



* Why seven? Because I want to be snappy, also SEVEN is a significant number in terms of my third book.

True confessions

My Reading India is not going well. I finished the Mother Teresa book, it was VERY interesting, and readable and quick, and of course brilliantly written being Hitchens. I am part-way through the Freedom at Midnight book, the non-fiction exploration of the independence movement, led by Gandhi, and I’m learning a lot, and it’s filling in my enormous gaps in knowledge. But here’s the thing: When I’m busy and tired and I fall into bed, I want to read a book that I can really get immersed in, relax into and not work too hard at. So even though I’ve set myself this confined reading year as a way to challenge those tendencies I have as a reader, to make myself read more widely and seek more diversity in the books I read, it is a struggle. So I’m cheating.

Who am I cheating with? Well, at the moment it’s these two in tandem:


The Sherborne is about ‘research’* (kind of, who am I kidding, not really) and I haven’t finished it yet but am really enjoying; and the other one, I can’t justify other than with a pathetic whine ‘I just wanted to read it.’ I avoid politics these days. Just can’t do it. I’ve stopped listening to the radio (Jon Faine: couldn’t take it anymore, just made me steamed) and I don’t read the political articles in the papers. I avoid conversations with people about politics, and am extremely ill-informed these days. But there was something about what I’d read of Niki Savva, and the commentary around this publication, that made me want to go there. I’m glad I did. It is quite balanced, and well written, and while all the hoo-ha focus is on the feeding-of-PMs-from-forks and the did-they-didn’t-they prurience and the do-we-the-public-need-to-know wonderings, there is a lot in the book about previous political workings, how staffers operate, bullying and strong-arming, how journalists and politicians work (they’re all texting each other, non-stop. It’s fascinating!) and even though I wouldn’t have thought I’d be interested, there’s also a lot in there about Tony Abbott ‘the man’ and what kind of person we had as our last PM. I don’t even think I’m half way through, and while it does seem repetitive at times, it’s quite a good read.

I’ve also read this since last posting:

murder without motive martin mckenzie-murray

But that was borrowed from a friend, and I (perhaps deliberately, unconsciously) didn’t even consider, when setting the challenge for myself, whether borrowing books was permissible. Murder Without Motive by Martin McKenzie-Murray is not just another true crime book, it also goes some way to exploring issues around masculinity and violence, and is also distinctive by the way McKenzie-Murray records his interactions with Rebecca Ryle’s parents. He is extremely sensitive and sympathetic, and if anything, this is a book about the suffering of a family, how parents manage to survive such an awful thing, and there are passages in this book that strike me as unique in that they have provoked me into contemplation of ideas I’ve never thought to have before, about suffering and emotional pain, and the effects they have on the people who have to keep living.

So. That’s my Saturday confessional done. Will check in next week, hopefully with some of my challenge books read.

(Also, interestingly, when I posted my phone food pictures the other day, my visits spiked to 79 (day before: 14; day after: 19) which is a startling and clear imperative for me to post more about food which is slightly depressing, (I love food but prefer to talk about books) but it made me think Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest knows what she is doing. It’s also Kate I think my above confessional is written for mostly as she is doing a self-imposed challenge of her own, and doing better than I it would seem, unless she has some confessing to do as well?

* My exemption books from my Reading India challenge are books for research for my own writing projects, but the challenge was that I not purchase any other books that aren’t within my challenge guidelines.