Tales from the Bowery

August 31, 2018 at 3:10 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

‘His favourite sound was the click clack of typewriters […] He knew exactly how much words cost and what consequences they can have: how they can start but also stop the opened organ of the heart.’

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing

The above book has kept me spellbound this month. An elegant, erudite look at intimacy (or lack thereof) through the prism of artists in New York City, Laing’s reverences for the words she selects is exquisite. This is such a moving, beautiful book to read.

The first time I saw the skyline of New York was through the window of a Greyhound bus, fat full moon hanging low over the skyscrapers. All the breath was sucked out of me. I had flown from Australia to meet a pen pal I’d been writing to from an online feminist punk collective, Erica, and we explored the area I knew would forever more be my NY stomping ground, the Lower East Side.

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The Bowery, New York City, 2006

Four years later I returned, again with Erica, and smitten by the Bowery, I booked us into a hostel opposite CBGB’s that was so foul I’ve just spent a very entertaining fifteen minutes reading online reviews of its horrors. From the drunk men passed out on the floor of the lobby that we literally had to step over, to the blood stains on the sheets and walls that only reached head height, it remains the worst place I’ve ever stayed at. Even the reception cat had a broken leg and coughed up a furball of warning at my feet when I checked in. I do have a dollop of fondness for it, however, as it became the topic of my first magazine publication, a clipping I still have in a drawer somewhere.

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New York City, 2009

New York

New York City, 2012

That trip I had a backpack stuffed with diaries, linguistic textbooks and my university degree. I was moving to Brussels, having left my boyfriend, my 18-year-old cat and my whole life behind in Melbourne. It was in Brussels, living in a medieval house in the Street of the Candlesticks with blood red floorboards and my makeshift altar in the corner, that I had my first taste of the loneliness that Olivia Laing writes so hauntingly about.

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In Rue des Chandeliers, Brussels, 2006 – click here for story

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In Rue des Chandeliers, Brussels – click here for ABC audio story

I’d lived in Brussels as a teenage exchange student for a year, and fallen in love with both the city itself, and the glorious bliss of solitude and independence. When I moved there again at 33, it was to put down roots and carve out a life of Flemish freedom. Or so I thought. The news that the man I left behind had moved on with a new partner, three months after I left, broke me apart. I drank whiskey for breakfast, I lost weight; I stopped speaking. I had no-one to speak to anyway, to be honest. I practised my broken French and Flemish on the alley cats. But the words did come out of my fingers too, and I wrote my way above ground again.

‘Art was a place where one could move freely between integration and disintegration, doing the work of mending, the work of grief, preparing oneself for the dangerous, lovely business of intimacy.’

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing

Being alone in a new city has immense challenges, but for me, the rewards are undeniably rich. Many of my travels have been solo adventures, loner that I am, including uprooting my life and moving overseas twice. I love to dine alone, with a book and a wine and a full heart. Some of my happiest memories have been me, in a new city – Helsinki, Albuquerque, Hong Kong, Reykjavik – walking the streets with the knowledge that no-one in the world knew where I was at the point in time. But I know the flipside also, and finding it within the cover of Laing’s book reminds me in beautiful, painful ways.

The protagonist in my novel knows this also. Iceland is a precarious place to find your feet, and she falls between the cracks in the language, the culture and society. But lord, how I love finding the words to describe it.

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Ólafsfjörður, northern Iceland – click here for ABC audio story

My love of my hometown, Melbourne, has also been on display this month. I was delighted to be one of the writers selected for the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, with my story for the Reading Victoria project being recorded and played on an audio loop in the Star Observation Wheel. I took my Wolf on the wheel, and the joy of hearing my own voice tell of my love for my city, while we soared above it, was one I won’t forget. Being part of the celebration of Melbourne’s 10th anniversary of our UNESCO City of Literature designation is also a joy.

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On the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel with the Wolf 

I keep thinking of New York. My last trip, in 2016, was for the ridiculously exciting reason that one of my audio stories, ‘Almost Flamboyant’, had been selected as a finalist in the inaugural Sarah Awards for International Audio Fiction. I was so stunned when we won that I pinched my producer, hard, and then gave a bemused speech where I named all my taxidermy. Waking up to our photo in the New York Times the next morning is a jewel I keep taking out and polishing, and admiring the light that shines from it. New York sure looked good that trip.

New York Times

Picture from the New York Times

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Celebratory dirty martinis, New York City

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To hear our winning story of a taxidermy flamingo possessed by the spirit of Tom Waits, click here 

So that’s August for you! Next month I’m heading interstate to perform at the Write Around the Murray literary festival in Albury, New South Wales…more travel, more words, and always, always, more stories to report.

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Hex signs at midnight

December 27, 2016 at 6:23 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

I may be alone in this sentiment, but for me, 2016 managed to sneak in great gold.

I’ve been hearing laments about the darkness of this past year, especially in regard to the slew of writers and artists we’ve lost. For a child of the 80s, as I am, this has been particularly striking. Don’t get me started on politics this year either. But what’s writing if not stepping stones out of the bleakness and into the gold? So here is my personal round up of a year that has been, to be honest, pretty damn rewarding.

2016 held performances at five literary festivals, three visits to the ABC studios, more writing paycheques than ever before, one gig as a short story competition judge, one interview feature with the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas here in Melbourne, and several emails of interest about my novel from a publisher. There were fourteen stories performed, recorded or published, and one exciting literary award that had me throwing a cocktail frock, notebook and passport into a bag, and jumping on a last minute flight to New York for the ceremony.

And we won first prize.

With the wonderful Lea Redfern, producer extraordinaire

With the wonderful Lea Redfern, producer extraordinaire

The link to the New York Times article

The link to the New York Times article

Winning the Sarah Awards for Audio Fiction remains one of my proudest professional achievements as a writer. Photos of me in the New York Times: one. Congratulatory messages from friends, family, editors, publishers and producers: about fifty. Dirty martinis in celebration: you don’t want to know! ABC producer by my side and in my heart: one lovely Lea. Two amazing friends to put me up, one in New York and one in Philadelphia. One extravagant lunch at the Waldorf Astoria with lobster, caviar and champagne held high. Years spent writing to my Philly penpal: about seventeen. Number of tattoos she’s got in that time: pretty much uncountable. One trip to Amish country, and numerous slices of divine Shoo Fly pie. Distelfinks on walls: two. Ribs cracked upon hugging both my US loves goodbye: at least three. What a joyful, ebullient, unexpected trip!

Manhattan martinis

Manhattan martinis

Amish country, Pennsylvania

Amish country, Pennsylvania

Amish county with Erica

Amish county with Erica

Distelfink hex sign in Philly

Distelfink hex sign in Philly

Flamingos sent my way to honour the story, ‘Almost Flamboyant’: about ten.

My latest addition

My latest addition

Four blood red trumpet lilies tattooed down my arm in long, painful sessions, to join the three already there. Delight at finding a trumpet lily tree outside my new house: immeasurable.

In progress...

In progress…

Completed...for now.

Completed…for now.

Bella donna trumpet lilies

Bella donna trumpet lilies

A move to the west of Melbourne, after 25 years lived north. One reason for this: my beautiful Wolf. Two arches of the iconic West Gate Bridge beckoning me home, seven bookshelves in our new house, and one writing studio. After a tiny kitchenette with only two burners for a decade, a new kitchen with huge stove allowing me to cook Jewish feasts of slow cooked Tzimmes, root vegies in a glaze of cider, cinnamon and golden syrup, til our house smelled divine and our bellies and hearts were full. One wary cat, still hesitant to explore her new home. Hours already spent on the sun deck, welcoming summer: dozens.

Back yard bliss.

Back yard bliss.

2016 saw many trips out of town, from the canola fields of Ninety Mile Beach to the sun bleached bones of rural Moyston. One trip brewing for next year…Iceland, I’m coming back!

Moyston, rural Victoria

Moyston, rural Victoria

The Wolf in Moyston, rural Victoria

The Wolf in Moyston, rural Victoria

One taxidermy workshop, nine meticulous hours of skinning and stitching, and a TV crew to film it. Uncountable headshakes from my man when I suggested our new home contain a tank of flesh eating dermestid beetles. Next year, perhaps?

Scalpel and shiraz at taxidermy class

Scalpel and shiraz at taxidermy class

Here’s to the joy and promise of 2017…may it bring you indulgent nights with friends, steps on welcoming soil, and always, always, words spilling from your fingertips.

To 2017, and all its stories.

To 2017, and all its stories.

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Flight of the flamingos

April 23, 2016 at 3:39 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

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.

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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.

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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.

With the wonderful Lea Redfern, producer extraordinaire

With the wonderful Lea Redfern, producer extraordinaire

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.

The link to the New York Times article

The link to the New York Times article

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.

New York

New York

On the steps of the New York Public Library

On the steps of the New York Public Library

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.

The link to my feature at the Wheeler Centre

The link to my feature at the Wheeler Centre

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!

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The Sarah Awards

March 26, 2016 at 11:51 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

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.

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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.

I promise.

TheSarahAwardsLOGO

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