“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.”
― Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
These are the words you really don’t want to hear five minutes before your long distance train pulls out of central Melbourne: ‘We apologise, but due to defective brakes this service will be replaced by buses.’
All the way up north, interstate to New South Wales. In the teeming rain. With only one bar of your i-pod allowing you to share the journey with Howlin’ Wolf. And with a sold out gig awaiting you at a literary festival just over the border.
Thank god I shared the journey with Lisa, my partner in crime on many an adventure, from New Orleans to St Petersburg, New York to Lisbon. We had books and notebooks, liquorice to snack on, and potent ginger beer smuggled on board in an iconic orange Penguin Publishing flask I won in a writing competition, that would also serve us well on the train ride home later that weekend.
We were all set.
When the replacement bus spat us out into New South Wales four hours later, the rain was monumental. Our hotel was twenty minutes’ walk away, my leopard print umbrella quickly turned inside out, and my suede boots were so sodden I left marks on the carpet when we eventually trudged into the hotel we’d been told was a faux Tudor/medieval slice of magic that simply could not be missed.
Truer words had never been said.
I don’t know about you, but when I travel I expect there to be suits of armour in the lobby, and jousting sticks on the walls of the dining room.
And then we were ready for a walking tour of the gorgeous Art Deco architecture of Albury, and the Murray River.
We were in Albury for the Write Around the Murray festival, where I was performing as part of Stereo Stories. In a room full of literary names, I told my tale of visiting Jackson, Mississippi in honour of Johnny Cash, with a full band on stage singing the iconic song.
My second performance was based on the Tom Waits song that inspired ‘Almost Flamboyant’, the story of mine that had me flown to New York to pick up first prize in the Sarah Awards earlier this year. With the wonderful Jack Gramski growling the Waits song ‘Everything you can think of is true’, I told the tale of recording ‘Almost Flamboyant’ in the ABC studios, imagining flamingo feathers fluttering all over the console.
I was back in the ABC studios recently, recording three more of my stories for Radio National. To my utter delight, I was told that instead of entering their annual Pocketdocs competition, would I like to be one of the judges instead? And then this smile happened…
Two more publishing jewels to tell you about: This lovely volume of travel stories has just been published, with my words nestled within. ‘Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet’ (Vol II) is a gorgeous collection of tales from Norway to Samoa, Mexico to Morocco, with my love letter to Brussels on p132. You can get your copy from this link, and take a spin around the world from the comfort of your armchair.
And lastly, this is my most personal Stereo Story, written for a man with the sweetest mouth, most impressive vocabulary and kindest heart I’ve ever known, who has totally won mine in return. Don’t tease me! Just read it, if you will, and you’ll see that two writers together is a gift I never expected in my wildest dreams.
I sat with Lisa, an open atlas, and a glass of wine.
We were planning our trip to the US at the time, which has since swirled by in a glorious haze of blues music, swamplands, jambalaya and voodoo tombs. We gazed at the map of the Deep South and discussed the possibility of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A few more sips of wine and the realisation dawned: we could identify no real reason to visit, other than the evocative name. It’s the same impetus for setting my stories in Cunnamulla or Manangatang, for living in Street of the Candlesticks in Brussels, and last week, booking a holiday house in a tiny beachside town called The Honeysuckles.
Blessed with the luxury of two weeks off my teaching job, I headed for the waves. Yes, there were Elvis tunes on the radio, country opp shops to delve into, and a bottle of cinnamon whiskey in the car boot, but the pen was never far from my hand.
I’m applying for another writing residency, again in Iceland, where I plan to edit my (hopefully finished) novel, set in the snow up near the Arctic Circle. To my delight I’ve received some publisher interest, and am so enthused to keep pouring out ink. I’m booked into the ABC studios next week to record three more of my stories, working with the brilliant producer Lea Redfern, who shared the Sarah Awards first place prize with me in New York in April. And in early September I perform at my first interstate literary festival, heading over the border into New South Wales for the Write Around the Murray festival.
This year has been monumental for my ink, and I’m still smiling. I’m also, it has to be said, the proud owner of a growing collection of flamingos, despite my lifelong hatred of the colour pink.
My time in the Honeysuckles with my close friends and beautiful man was so regenerative. An open fire, crashing waves, rib cracking laughter, and dozens of ornamental fish…all well worth the drive.
I’m starting to think we should reconsider Tuscaloosa, after all.
It’s thirty two degrees
and they’re watching tv in bed
with bare feet touching
the bottom of the cracked
black and white screen.
The boy is watching Marilyn
kneel in the desert dirt
and press the roots of the flowers
back into the earth
with desperate fingers and
The girl’s gaze is fixed
on the corner of the screen
where Monty shields his scars
against the burning sun
with the back of a shaking hand.
The only sound in the room
is the purr of the fan
as the salt slick coats their bodies
and their ribcages fill
in gentle time
with each other.
And the boy doesn’t turn
as he murmurs to the girl:
that makes them so beautiful.
And she knows
who he’s really
as his little finger
hooks around hers
on top of
the white sheet.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
When every other person in Melbourne is looking out their window and cringing at the grass bent heavy with frost, the skeletal trees and the sky darkening with storms, I’m secretly beaming. When I can pull on my red riding hood coat, pour a glass of mulled wine, and reach for my leopard print ear muffs, it’s a fine day indeed. Born on the cusp of the Winter Solstice, this is my favourite time of year.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
I tore into my birthday presents and instead of wishing for jewellery or something silky to slip into, my eyes lit up at what fell out of my card. The exquisite image of a woodcut graced the outside of the card, and my Wolf had written such gorgeous words within that I almost forgot the present. But then I opened the paper that had fallen into my hands, and found a voucher to a taxidermy workshop that made my heart flutter.
The opening scene of my novel is when my protagonist, Elva, attempts her own taxidermy of a mouse on her kitchen table in Reykjavik, Iceland.
In the process of writing it, my flat has slowly acquired an Icelandic dove, a bedraggled duck, a deer skull with magnificent antlers, dolphin vertebrae, a bell jar of snake skins, a kingfisher skull, a birthday bat skeleton, a striped quail, and a snow goose suspended above my writing desk, his wings outstretched towards me as I type.
Knowing my beloved people have allowed me the privilege of experiencing the art myself, is such a blessing.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
I stood backstage and watched the hall fill. A sold out show of 260 tickets meant a hell of a lot of noise, and as people settled I straightened my little black dress, readjusted the red flower in my hair, and went over my story again. It was my second time performing at the Williamstown Literary Festival with Stereo Stories, and my excitement at striding onto the stage had just grown with time. I know public speaking is something most people dread, but I absolutely love reaching for the microphone, looking up at the lights, and telling my tale. It’s just as well, as on Saturday I’ll be repeating the performance at Melbourne’s Newport Folk Festival, with my spot at the Write Around the Murray Festival booked in September.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
Welcoming winter, flesh eating beetles and admiring bones. Army boots slipping on mud, hood up to catch snowflakes, bonfires warming frozen fingers. A watchful crowd, a waiting microphone, steps to a raised stage.
Solitude, snow and solstice.
And stories…always, always, stories.
I reached my hand under the flow of water, and somewhere in Romania a man burst into flames.
The pen has rarely been out of my hand since I returned from the Sarah Awards in New York last month, still amazed at having won. I keep meaning to write a blog post about my jaunt to Philadelphia afterwards, exploring Amish country with Erica, one of my most long-standing pen pals. We first met on a feminist punk mailing list almost twenty years ago, and seeing this wondrous woman stride towards me with tattooed arms outstretched at Philly’s Penn Station is still making me smile.
Steam dusted the bathroom mirror. I pinned back the damp curls of hair around my temples while high above Venezuela, two young women peeled the lids off trays of aeroplane food. They were armed with eight words of Spanish for their first step on foreign soil, in a land that would give one woman a broken collarbone and the other a green-eyed son.
I want to write about having four more audio stories accepted yesterday by the ABC, discussing possible recording dates and broadcast options. It’s a dream having producers who don’t baulk at stories of ventriloquist auditions at the circus, burst cloudberries in Helsinki airport or a rogue kangaroo hunter at war with his wife. I can’t wait to get back into the studio.
I chose the burgundy towel. I folded it over the edge of the bath as lightning tore the sky apart in Chennai, monsoon rain sending fish bones and cigarette ends coursing down faded stone streets. Two tourists stood under an awning advertising cola, jeans rolled up in the deluge, watching cats run along the gutters at the top of the houses as the night lit up.
I’d love to tell you about my forthcoming words in Press 53’s ‘Everywhere Stories’ anthology, and ‘100 Lightnings’ by Paroxysm Press. And when I find the time, I’ll fill you in on my appearance at the Williamstown Literary Festival in June, and the fabulous Write Around the Murray Festival in September.
I stepped slowly into the water and lowered myself, letting the heat creep up my skin. Three suburbs over, my next lover slid a finger inside the mouth of a woman with a short temper and a long memory, who would later stand outside my window and watch our shadows move behind my rice paper shades.
I also have an opportunity in late June to pitch my novel to several publishers and agents, so need my manuscript to be in the best shape possible. So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll tiptoe back to my writing desk, pick up my new glasses, and get to work.
Somewhere in a desert country, a cat perched in the dust and wrenched the head off a mouse. It paused to lift its face to the sun, blood on whisker tips. Its tail flicked from side to side as I closed my eyes, and slid under the water.
Excerpts from ‘Step into the Fishbowl’, first published in Paper Darts
I was curled up on the floor next to Gate 53, drinking a weak airport coffee and gingerly touching the travel dreadlocks that had already begun to form in my unruly mane, after only two flights. I debated whether it was worth turning my phone on, given it was almost time to board my flight to New York. But I did, and scanned through the emails that had been sent while I was soaring about the Pacific, headed from Sydney to L.A. When I found one from the organisers of the Sarah Awards, my reason for travelling, telling me a photographer from the New York Times would be at the ceremony and asking my permission for them to take my photo, I placed my phone back in my lap and stared with wide eyes at the other travellers in the airport lounge.
The adventure had officially begun.
Earlier this month I had the amazing good fortune to be shortlisted for a literary competition showcasing ‘the best in audio fiction’, run by Sarah Lawrence College over in New York. One of my audio stories, ‘Almost Flamboyant’, was one of the top three finalists, and myself and my wonderful ABC producer Lea Redfern were both invited over for the ceremony. With travel assistance from the organisers and wildly enthusiastic encouragement from my people in Melbourne, I packed a bag with a week’s notice, took a deep breath, and leapt.
It’s easier to trust you’ll land on your feet when you have beautiful friends like Gretchen to welcome you with open arms, hand you a front door key to their apartment in midtown Manhattan, and mix you a dirty martini as you fox up and apply the red lipstick for the ceremony.
I adore New York: this was my fifth trip there, and returning on the basis of my writing was a tremendous experience. I swayed as much as my vintage high heels would allow as I headed straight for my favourite café on the Lower East Side, to wait for my producer and fellow nominee, Lea. When she walked in the door an hour before the ceremony, all we could do was laugh as we met each other for the first time, interspersed with hugs and strong black coffee.
The Sarah Awards were held at the headquarters of America’s National Public Radio, with a waiting list for tickets to the sold out ceremony. Jet lag was held at bay with sheer excitement as we mingled, watched the live performances, and chatted to the other finalists and the lovely creators of the Sarah Awards, Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson. And then we sat front row as silence fell, and the winners were announced.
In all honesty, I’d been so excited by even being a finalist that I hadn’t given much thought to actually winning. They announced the third place, and Lea and I clapped enthusiastically. Then they announced second, and it began to dawn that it wasn’t, in fact, us.
Our story had won first prize.
Lea and I turned to each other in slow motion, mouths open. And then I reached over and slowly, gently, pinched her in disbelief.
The night was incredible – I keep trying to pin it all down. I gave a dazed speech on stage in which I accidentally named my taxidermy, Lea holding the beautiful hand crafted award and grinning. When I texted my boyfriend in Melbourne to say ‘First place!’ I got an ebullient message back telling me he knew, as he’d been watching the live feed and sharing it with all our people back home.
There was euphoria, champagne, and an after party at a rooftop bar looking down on the East River as fireworks exploded over the Statue of Liberty. Poor Lea must still be carrying the bruises of my astonished fingers as I squeezed her and asked ‘Is this really happening?’
If I had any doubts about that, waking the next morning to a dozen messages that we were in the New York Times meant I would always have proof of this extraordinary, blissful night.
And that’s only part of the adventure. After a sublime celebratory meal at the legendary Waldorf Astoria courtesy of Gretchen, where we swilled whiskey cocktails and dined on lobster, caviar and oysters, I headed off to Philadelphia and another beautiful friend, Erica, waiting with open arms.
But that story will come, I promise. Until then, here’s an interview I did with the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas here in Melbourne, chatting about the awards.
And just in case you missed it, the above link lets you listen to the winning story itself, resplendent with a surly flamingo. I will never look at that creature the same way again after one pretty much flew me to New York.
Not literally, you understand…but what a story that would make!
There are some characters that are difficult to pour into a notebook, and then leave there.
I’ve been spending time with Elva, the protagonist in my novel. She’s a half Australian, half Icelandic taxidermist living in Reykjavik, hiding the darkness of her obsession between the lavish pelts and flesh eating beetles of her profession. Sometimes when I’m writing, I can hear her boots crunching on snow, and smell the sulphur of the underground hot springs.
My time in Iceland is never far from my mind.
Then there’s the foul tempered barmaid with a Welsh flower tattooed on her chest in ‘Early Dog Violet‘ and the kleptomaniac southern son in ‘Elvis Would So.’ I still smile at the Australian backpacker mistaken for a member of Lithuanian Big Brother in ‘I Like Your Deer’s Moustache, and Other Lithuanian Tales’, the sinister shadow puppeteer in ‘The Old Man With Birds For Hands’, the cherry beer swilling voyeur of ‘Street of the Candlesticks’ and the woman counting her rib bones on Rachmaninov’s old bed in Russia in ‘True, False and Floating.’
But I have a special place in my heart for my surly, splenetic taxidermy flamingo with a smoker’s cough, a foul mouth, and the inclination to sing Tom Waits songs on a Melbourne tram.
The resultant story in its ABC podcast, ‘Almost Flamboyant,’ will never be far from my heart now, as it’s just won a Sarah Award in New York. This competition from Sarah Lawrence College celebrating ‘the best in audio fiction’ is being advertised with the byline ‘Movies have Oscars, TV has Emmys…now audio fiction has The Sarahs.’ This definitely made all manner of exclamations fly out of my mouth, believe me.
I was on a packed peak hour tram to work when my producer, the amazing Lea Redfern, rang me to gasp that our story had been announced one of three finalists, with the first, second and third places being announced on Friday April 1st at the award ceremony in New York. Ahem. And did I, perhaps, feel like going with her to pick up our prize, with assistance from the organisers?
To my utter amazement, my flights are booked, my dress is laid out, and I’ve given Lea the address of my favourite café on the Lower East Side to meet her on Friday, just before the award ceremony. It’s being held in the Greene Space, in the New York Public Radio’s headquarters, organised by Ann Heppermann, a producer from This American Life.
The first thing I’ll do when I see Lea is reach over and give her a firm, ebullient, and utterly amazed ‘I-Can’t-Believe-We’re-Really-Here’ pinch.
So wish us luck! And as always…I’ll bring you back stories, people.
You always hated that story.
You still remember the book in your mother’s hands, the golden braid on the cover pouring down from the turret. She kept trying to show you the pictures, but your scowl was stubborn.
You sat behind Faye Littlemore in French class and never learned to pronounce ‘Je voudrais une pomme’ properly because all you could think about was sliding one of her fat little plaits between the blades of your scissors and hearing the metal groan.
You learned to wear headbands and scarves. You could never get away with a hat. You cut your hair yourself; no-one else was allowed near. You owned bone brushes that hurt your tender scalp, but you deserved it.
Trichotillomania… seven syllables from a sullen mouth, as your fingers snaked upwards.
The compulsive urge to pull one’s hair out.
You read about Rapunzel syndrome, where sufferers actually ate the hair they wrenched free. The strands knotted inside them, plump and dark, deep within their belly like a swallowed secret.
You also read that knots in hair are tied by elves, and when unwoven, bring all manner of black magic to the bearer. You wondered who had climbed into your hair and tied it full of spells, and tried to remember how Rapunzel ended. You vaguely remembered a prince, but all you truly recalled was a patch of thorns that took someone’s eye out. You knew the Brothers Grim filled their forests with shadows.
It’s Medusa who came to your rescue. You sat in the tattooist’s chair and watched the snakes take shape on your skin. You had your hair coiled in a braid, not wanting temptation as the pain gained momentum.
Your back was straight when you climbed down and walked to the mirror five hours later. Medusa stared back from your skin. Your goddess was sure and sensual, hands on hips, head up. You imagined your tresses as alive and serpentine, curling around your face, framing you, protecting you. Your fingers didn’t rise, but for the first time, stayed at your side.
Today you stood in front of your class of international students, teaching them animal vocabulary. You wrote the words ‘lion’s mane’ on the board.
“You can also use the word ‘mane’ for a person’s hair, if it’s long and thick,” you explained.
“Like yours?” one asked.
You ran a hand through your hair, falling in deep red waves almost to your waist. You imagined your snakes as they writhed, glowing in the late afternoon sunshine. It’s all you could do not to reach up and pat them.
“Yes,” you told the class. “Like mine.”
(The original version of this story first appeared in Monkeybicycle Literary Magazine, 2012. This edited version is for an upcoming radio show on the topic of ‘obsession’, broadcast dates to be confirmed).
The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library
– Albert Einstein
I spent Sunday rehearsing at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, a multi-million dollar domed building that resembles an enormous golf ball. I was there preparing for a gig with Stereo Stories, a wonderful collective of writers and musicians telling our stories behind the songs we love. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform with them at literary festivals such as the Newstead Short Story Tattoo, Williamstown Literary Festival, and the Brimbank Readers and Writers Festival, with several more booked for 2016.
I know I’m supposed to be wary of public speaking, but just between us…I love it. Give me a stage and the opportunity to discuss my ink, and watch me strut! Just last week I spoke at a Scribble Salon event where I relished telling of my love for Babes in Toyland’s beautiful feminist punk, and snarling ‘Liar! Liar!’ into the microphone in emulation of Kat, the singer.
So the two hour show next Sunday, Feb 7th, is something I’m really looking forward to (bookings available on the link below). The performance space is extraordinary too – a real indication of how libraries have changed since I first set foot in one.
Like most writers, libraries have always been a sacred space for me. I can still recall the nook I’d curl up in at my high school library, nestling Erica Jong’s ‘Witches’ or ‘Go Ask Alice’ on my knee. Well, once I’d graduated past the Sweet Valley High series and its, to me, exotic American take on teenage life.
Then there was the tiny library on Rue de L’ecuyer in Brussels, where I spent my seventeenth year – in that city, not the library, although both would almost be true. It was one of the few places I could find English books when the burden of French became too heavy, and it was the place where I found one that irrevocably hooked me: ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath.’ I fell into them so deeply it took years for me to re-emerge, and I was not the same person afterwards. It was the first time I was ever tempted to commit the ultimate library sin and consider not returning the book, ever. In the end I bought a series of red brocade journals and, ashing my Gauloise cigarettes away from my Doc Marten boots, wrote out dozens of pages by hand, not wanting to spill a single word.
In my twenties I almost lived at my local library here in Melbourne, at the Northcote branch. This new thing called the internet had arrived, and in the days before dial up modems were affordable, I’d book into their computer room to print out my emails, and take my precious clutch of pen pal messages home. I was addicted to pagan and punk message boards, loving being able to connect with like-minded people all over the world, many of whom I’m still in touch with.
My favourite library, however, is one that still takes my breath away – the Klementinum, the sprawling National Library of the Czech Republic, in stunning Prague. I went there in search of one of my characters, named Clementine after the building itself, and joined a tour of the amazing Baroque Library room. Clementine had an obsession with Kafka, and so I asked the guide, excitement making the pitch of my voice waver, ‘Are there any Kafka books here?’ Her curt, efficient and utterly charming ‘Exactly no’ made my shoulders droop at the time, but now gives me much mirth.
And so next Sunday I’ll take the lift up to the performance space of the swanky new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, past ‘The Great Wall of Stories’ and the enormous balcony looking out over the water. I’ll spread out my writing on the lectern, straighten my pencil skirt, push my glasses back up to the bridge of my nose, and attempt to tame my unruly mane.
Before I begin to read, I’ll take a deep breath to inhale the presence of all the pages of ink around me, beneath me, beside me, thinking of the day when my name will be written down a spine on those very shelves.
When I was a child I used to count.
The shadows on my bedroom wall, the spines on my beloved books, the whiskers of my cat and the folds in the fabric of my flannelette Fraggles pyjamas. It was a ritual that never failed to comfort me.
I don’t count so much anymore. When I need solace there are adult solutions: deep breaths, basking under a ripe moon, pen strokes across thick parchment, phone calls to friends and occasionally, straight whiskey.
Adult solutions, like I said.
But at this time of year I pull out the abacus and string my days along it, and let me tell you, my smile is wide.
2015 saw half a dozen published stories, four more recorded at the ABC studios, one Hollywood actor reciting my lines in front of my wide eyes, one invitation to submit my work to the Australian Writers Guild Awards, performances at five literary festivals, two competition wins and one writing residency deep in a Finnish forest. Add to that one leap of faith in submitting a story to the New York Times (rejected, as perhaps expected, but so exciting to hit ‘send’ on that one), six collaborations with musicians and photographers, four applications for fellowships, one invitation to write and narrate a half hour radio show, and one nascent Instagram account to display all of the above.
That’s one lovely paragraph, I think.
2015 also welcomed in two taxidermy workshops as research for my novel, a deer skull with antlers, one bell jar for my many snake skins, one tiny kingfisher skull in a case on my bookshelf, and several porcupine quills to hold together my snaking red curls.
Books read: couldn’t even begin to count.
Friday afternoons spent with my coven of artists, discussing love, life, lust and art over wine and laughter, red notebooks dotting the tabletop among sketch pads and cameras: about thirty.
New tattoos: for once, none, but one request to extend my red swamp lilies down my right arm. So 2015 sees me with only three inky flowers, three cauldrons, three spirals, and thirteen black and blue snakes, their tiny heads writing across my skin.
This year there was one Finnish residency hosting four artists, five studios, three house cats, one sighting of the northern lights, six invitations to the sauna, three village pubs (Huutula!), countless meals of reindeer and bottles of cloudberry wine, and one protective wolf outside my window.
Squirrels sighted: only one, damn it.
Three jaunts to Helsinki, one zebra patterned bachelor pad, seven vintage clothing stores, one tiny chihuahua in a diamante collar stroked by a Russian man with unbelievably luxuriant dyed black hair, and one rockabilly bar with Soviet hot rod tractors, flames painted on the sides.
Ten days in Portugal saw one amazing motorcycle ride, five enormous glasses in a single port tasting session, one cable car ride over fractured red rooftops, dozens of serpentine streets running with scores of tough little alley cats, nine wrought iron balconies in the three apartments we rented, seven black and white photos in a Lisbon flea market, six sunsets over the River of Gold, several fado CDs, one nervous poodle peering over a balcony, and so many Portuguese custard tarts that I blush to even think of it.
Amsterdam gifted me with at least a dozen bridges stretching over sparkling autumnal canals, countless vintage stores, one big red rockabilly flower for my hair, one traditional Dutch fishing village, two men on bicycles wearing clogs, far too many plump salty bitterballen to dig toothpicks into, and many Irish coffees under Hallowe’en decorations. Rotterdam gave me one beautiful friend and her new baby, fifteen years of amazing friendship, ten Korean pancakes and so much laughter my ribs hurt.
And Melbourne? One small flat filled with dictionaries and red high heels, a rotund black cat to watch over it all, one novel to dig deep into, two more residencies to consider for next year, an abundance of story ideas and a pile of little red notebooks to spill them into as the cycle turns and 2016 comes into view.
I couldn’t ask for more, really.
Here’s to 2016…may it bring us all belly laughter, a wealth of friends to share it with, and as always, inky fingertips to splash across the page.