Sunday, June 19, 2022

Writing as critical reading: Daisy and Woolf

This week, I was interviewed by Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh for Radio National's 'Bookshelf' program about Michelle Cahill's debut novel, Daisy and Woolf.

The opening premise of this book is an author's attempt to write a novel about Daisy Simmons, a minor character in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. In the original text, Daisy is referred to only briefly through the viewpoint of Peter Walsh, her lover who is arranging her divorce from her husband. Peter is uncertain about whether he really wants to be with Daisy, and seems more concerned that she isn't with anyone else. Daisy, meanwhile, is about to give up a great deal for him: she is leaving her husband, her family and friends, and her home in India in order to marry him.

In Daisy and Woolf, we follow the efforts of Mina, an Anglo-Indian author from Australia, as she arrives in London to see whether she can discover a more complete story for Daisy than the one we get in Mrs Dalloway or has been sought in critical responses to the book. What follows is also an exploration of the potential of creative writing as a form of criticism: because creative writing is a very permissive and open form that absorbs and celebrates desire, social situations, and relationships, the interpretive act is also a representation of family, artistic aims, sex, geography and, perhaps more pointedly in this case, of the role of race and ethnicity in our lives. Mina as an author has much in common with Daisy, and thus her written work is also an attempt to define and understand a meeting between them that occurs on the page.

As well as response to the content and characters of Mrs Dalloway, Cahill's work is a tribute to the spirit of modernism, and in particular the way modernist writers experimented with form. Daisy and Woolf is a hybrid work with elements we recognise from epistolary novels, autofiction, literary criticism,  writers' reflections on writing, and historiographic metafiction. Thus, while the book questions Woolf's depiction of Daisy, it is also a tribute to the boldness of Woolf's prose and modernist writing and its concern with experimentation. As a result, as I was reading, I found myself making connections with quite a wide range of works, such as The Details by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Hannah Kent's Devotion, and Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. I could list others, but the point is that this book has a richly mixed heritage both culturally and formally.

The end result, I think, is a work that searches for the place of storytelling in our reception of earlier works. In this case, we see how that search might combine literary and race theory to develop an argument, or at least reflection, about the embodied, experiential nature of writing practice and interpretation.

Our discussion of this book on Radio National is available in full here

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Thursday, June 9, 2022

Weeks 25-26: Góða Ferð Dísa

It's now six months since I began a series of posts that has accompanied The Sorrow Stone into the world and the hands of readers. 

Powerhouse Theatre event (picture: Joe Carter)
My first post was on 17 December 2021, and on Sunday just gone, the book was finally given its launch party at an event at The Powerhouse Theatre attended by some four hundred people, including many friends and family and colleagues, as well as new readers of my work. 

The launch was originally scheduled for February, just before the book's official publication date. But then Brisbane experienced a 'major weather event', as it was called, and my own major event was washed out. The Powerhouse, which sits close to the river at New Farm, was flooded, and The Sorrow Stone launch, its first celebration, was eventually realised as the last of a number of live events for the book.


In conversation with Richard Fidler (picture: Joe Carter)

Things change. I thought I would keep this series of posts going for a whole year. But actually six months is the right moment to turn the page and farewell Dísa, and turn my attention to my next project, an autobiographical work which at the moment feels radically, even relievingly, distant from medieval Iceland and its troubles (and joys).

In a few weeks, I finish teaching duties for the semester and begin a rather long period of leave that will allow me to travel to Greece in August and then on to Iceland for a month or so. It will be my first trip to Reykjavík since before Covid began. And it will be my first chance since I began writing The Sorrow Stone to not be thinking about the novel at some level, even if sometimes it was only in my sleep. 

My thoughts about the book now are entirely ones of gratitude. There is no remnant of worries about the difficult periods in the writing process, or fears for how the book would be received, or busy thoughts about what will happen to it next. Well, maybe a bit of those things. But mainly, such thoughts are replaced with a fuller appreciation of having had the chance to undertake this project at all. 

In a scene in the TV version of Brideshead Revisited, someone remarks to Charles Ryder that he's lucky to have a talent (painting) and the time to pursue it. The scene has long stuck with me, because it is such a privilege to spend long periods of time inside a story, and to inhabit it sufficiently deeply to be able to produce readable work that others find interesting. I had the same thought when I was in Helgafell doing research for the book. I told myself to always remember how wonderful this was: to spend long days in the landscape, walking, breathing in the autumn air, thinking about the characters from the sagas, and shaping their stories into an interpretation of my own.

Thank you, Dísa, and your much-damaged family, your strange and violent and brave times, and your heart that raged against its sorrows. Góða ferð.


Near Helgafell, Snæfellsnes, Iceland

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Week 24: Field Work

Today, I published a short piece in the travel magazine Escape about the experience of travelling to Haukadalur in the Westfjords as part of my research for The Sorrow Stone.

I reflect on the search for a different sense of time, a task I tried to achieve in the main by walking as much as I could. I wondered if slowing my movement through the landscape might ground me a little more in its patterns. On one occasion that I describe in the travel piece, I fell asleep in a meadow high up in the Haukadalur valley, a moment that I transposed to my imagined version of Disa's life in the same place. When she wakes, it is with an altered understanding of how she will manage living in Iceland. Now that she and her family have fled from Norway, she has to try to rebuild her life, her relationship with her brothers, and she is also thinking about whether she might yet find a husband who will help her to leave them. When she wakes up, I think she feels that she will manage it.

When I woke up from my sleep, it was with an appreciation of how calm and sheltered the valley could be in its upper reaches. This was important, because it challenged my assumption that Disa and her family would have struggled with being here, that is, after their lives in the relatively wide and fertile farmlands of Surnadal in western Norway. If they'd had weather like I had that day, they might well have been relieved at what they found in their new home. It was my third or fourth visit to Haukadalur, and yet I was still learning to see the area on its terms rather than according to my assumptions.

I think learning to observe landscapes is partly about learning to slow down. Photographers and painters understand this: they wait for the right light, or they come back day after day and form a composite of viewpoints and impressions. Writing is a process of slow understanding, too, so sometimes it is an art of changed perspectives.

From The Sunday Mail (Escape), 29 May 2022

[The travel story pictured above is available online here.] 


Monday, May 23, 2022

Weeks 22-23: A Wet Weekend in Sydney

 A wet weekend in Sydney may consist of:

Umbrella from Dymocks, George Street

Dinner at The Restaurant Pendolino, three-course minimum 

The next day, walk it off, from The Rocks through town and up past Sydney University to Carriageworks

Sit, watch those milling in the festival bookshop

Speak on historical fiction at the Sydney Writers Festival with Emily Brugman and Susan Wyndham

Speak to those who buy a book

Dinner with friends in Balmain, watching the election results come in

Change of government 

At night, the Opera House pulsing with white light against low clouds

Flying home, and a moment above the rain that doesn't stop this year

An article I wrote about openness and Noosa National Park in The Weekend Australian 

 






 


Saturday, May 7, 2022

Weeks 20-21: Creative Responses

Last year, I published an academic journal article on the topic of retelling the Icelandic family sagas. Research for that article took me to Linda Hutcheon's book, A Theory of Adaptation, which describes adaptation in positive terms as a process of engagement - rather than as a derivative or inferior art form, as has often been felt by critics in the past.

Seeing adaptation as a process that can lead to many different outcomes - each with its own goals, formal constraints, audiences, and so on - is also an insightful way to think about saga composition, which over the centuries has traversed a number of different oral and written forms. Looking at saga composition this way can release the adaptive process from strict notions of fidelity to a singular 'original' text, for in fact there are many such 'originals', which tell and perform a story in their own ways. When we write or film or retell a medieval saga, we are also responding to a thousand years of that saga's performance and reception - many iterations and versions. 

This week, I've been giving more thought to all this during conversations at Outspoken Maleny with Steven Lang, and at two events, one with Krissy Kneen and the other with Hannah Kent, at the Brisbane Writers Festival. A recurring topic point in conversations that I've had with others about historical novels is about how we balance the seemingly competing pushes of fidelity and alteration, especially in relation to style. On a few occasions, I've been asked whether I wished to retain the original style and ethical outlook of the sagas, and how did I think modern readers would handle the strangeness or alien quality of the world they portray.

One part of the adaptive process, especially in the case of fiction dealing with the past, is this question of how far we want to go in order to meet the expectations of the modern reader, and at what point doing so means that we're no longer meeting the characters of the earlier stories. When there is a tension between the two, I hope I manage to privilege the latter, for if the style and ethos of a novel is very distant from the original work, it will lose sight of its own origins as a project of meeting the people of the past and trying to see things from their perspective. But of course it's an imperfect meeting always, because an adaptation and retelling instantly becomes its own moment and mode of engagement. While I agree with Hutcheon and her theory of adaptation, I think I am also quite slow to admit it into my own work, where fidelity remains a kind of goal, if not a true possibility.

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Sunbathing books (pic: Brisbane Writers Festival)

On the topic of meetings, this week when I was at Maleny it was as the first speaker at an event that in the main featured the former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who has published a book about China-America relations called The Avoidable War.  As ever when I speak at events with other authors, the cross-overs between books and ideas seem oddly numerous, even when the subject matter is separated by centuries and continents. I believe the interviews will be soon uploaded to the series's website here.


The Avoidable War by Kevin Rudd


(Pic: Outspoken Maleny)

Creative Writing Class 26: Creative Response


Friday, April 22, 2022

Week 19: Related

My sister Fríða, who lives in Reykjavík, has sent me this picture of Saga Land ensconced in piles of saga-related titles at Penninn Eymundsson bookshop in Laugavegur, the main shopping street that runs to the pond and old parts of town.

I wrote Saga Land with my friend Richard Fidler after we'd travelled in Iceland. It's rather compendious in nature, telling different kinds of tales - sagas, family stories, biographies, and history. In one chapter, I give a short version of The Saga of Gísli. In a way, doing so led to The Sorrow Stone, for it is an expansion of that chapter from the perspective of Gísli's sister. Although I'd been interested in her since I first read the saga twenty-five years before, re-telling her story in Saga Land was a first step in internalising it in a way that is needed for a novel.

Most of my writing has evolved in this way, that is, as related works that seem to respond to each other, as well as to earlier texts. As a creative method, it offers dialogue between stories, and expansion, even a sense of one's works as siblings.

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On Thursday evening, I gave the second of three library talks I've been asked to present about The Sorrow Stone. This one was at Bracken Ridge, a suburb on from Brighton, where my mother and I first lived when we migrated to Australia. Going back to childhood places is often a mixed experience, but I love visiting this part of Brisbane, which at the time we migrated felt a little cut off from the world, but now strikes me as idyllic - if also still separate. 

The library presentations have small audiences, and so there's opportunity for discussion. I half-expect no-one to say anything, but both talks so far have ended in lots of questions, many of which also take me back to Saga Land material: the history of the island, the fascinating early society there, family ties, the country's geography and isolation and how these might be linked to storytelling.

The third of these library events is at Carindale on Thursday 28 April.

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After a run of good reviews, The Sorrow Stone has received a less positive response from Catherine Ford writing for The Sydney Morning Herald. She finds the plot and its transitions confusing and isn't convinced by the narrative voice, which she suggests is too much my own. While it's never enjoyable to read a negative review of your work, as here criticisms often touch on one's own concerns. Voice and plot complexity were the biggest challenges in writing the novel, and so I'm sure there will be others who also feel I didn't get there in the end. The review is available here.


Friday, April 15, 2022

Week 18: Into the Garret

An enduring image and cultural conception of writers is one of garret-dwellers who are separated from the world around them, living somewhat isolated lives of observation, introspection, self-expression. A garret itself is 'a small, dark unpleasant room at the top of a house, especially in the roof', perhaps with space for a desk and a lamp and a cramped author hunched over their work, under a roof window.

This picture of a writer and their habitation is, of course, tied to many dearly-held ideas about the creation of art: that it is an individual and even lonesome pursuit, that there is some element of suffering and poverty, that the artist is paradoxically closer to both the sky and some source of darkness, too.

And yet, despite its evocative name, the Garret Podcast: Writers on Writing, by Astrid Edwards, in fact emphasises other aspects of the writing life, ones that I also tend to focus on in my teaching, such as the exchange of ideas and techniques, collaboration between writers, explanation and discussion rather than suffering and mystery, and - in the case of Astrid's interview with me broadcast this week - our reception and appreciation of others' stories, especially those from long ago. We talked about the place of ancient and medieval narratives in our education systems, and the perilous ways in which we sometimes forget the rich traditions that precede our own times.

The Garret is a wonderful podcast series, one that helps round out our sense of what the writer's room really is. My interview, and a transcript of it, are available in full here, with many other discussions and topics featured here.


The garret of the University of Heidelberg student prison, 2012


Friday, April 8, 2022

Week 17: An autumn morning in Melbourne

I've spent the last two days in Melbourne. Last night, it was for a talk at Readings Emporium Bookshop, and this morning I've had a nice long walk through town and up to Carlton, visiting other bookshops, doing some signings, and taking in an autumn morning in a different city - the season more advanced here than in Brisbane. It's lively and there is a festival atmosphere because of the Formula 1 grand prix being held here this weekend. But my conversations with people also make me see how hard the past two years were for Melbourne. You sense the bruising, or at least that's how it seems from the impressions of a brief visit.

As ever, the Melbourne trams are noisy and welcoming, but it's also such a great town for walking. The slopes are gentle, there are lots of trees, the paths are wide and boulevard-like. Just now, I dropped in on Hill of Content and The Paperback Books in Bourke Street, Dymocks in Collins Street, and Readings Carlton in Lygon Street. I had coffee at Pellegrini's, ordering beneath the photo of its late owner Sisto Malaspina, and another one at the possibly too hip (for me, anyway) but very friendly Good Measure.

Now I've found a desk in one of the spectacular reading rooms at the State Library of Victoria, in part to kill time before my flight this evening, and also because libraries are a home of sorts. Hotels make good places to sleep and eat, but libraries are more truly familiar.

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Earlier in the week, ABC Radio National's 'The Book Show' broadcast an interview with me by Claire Nichols. It's available in full here.

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Friday, April 1, 2022

Week 16: Inside out

The programs of two of Australia's literary festivals - Brisbane Writers Festival and Sydney Writers' Festival - have been launched. Both events are held in May. Brisbane's theme this year is 'where our stories live' (3-8 May); Sydney has gone with 'change my mind' (16-22 May). 

The relationship between stories and place, and the topic of how storytelling influences our understanding of things, are broad enough to capture the work of most writers, but also well-directed to current concerns. I think about how our sense of place has been affected by the strange lives we've led over the past two years. While I imagine many of us want our stories to relate intimately to specific places, in a sense to capture and be captured by locations and settings, I also hope for my stories to travel beyond the borders of my life, and to interact with the wider world and its stories and places and people. To be with others. 

Books and stories can do their own travelling, of course. They don't need their authors for that.

This week, I had my third period of 'isolation' when I became a 'close contact' over the weekend. I re-scheduled and postponed things for the week ahead, including teaching and an event I had planned at Avid Reader bookshop. I stayed indoors, did an online grocery shop, etc. only then to discover yesterday that the rules changed on Monday and that, as someone who's had Covid in the last 12 weeks, I didn't come under the definition of 'close contact' anymore. I could have been out and about all week. 

Never mind. I gave my lectures online, all but one of the grocery items arrived (not the chocolate ice creams!), and the book kept doing its own thing, regardless of whether I was housebound, a close or distant or medium contact, an author locked away or one in the world. Three reviews appeared. Gemma Nisbet, for The West Australian, wrote: 'The Sorrow Stone is a taut and suspenseful narrative told in understated elegant prose. Disa may, per her own assessment, be remembered as “the worst woman who ever lived in Iceland”, but in this telling she emerges as an emotionally complex figure.' Ann Skea called the work 'a gripping and exciting novel' in the Newtown Review of Books, and Susan Francis, in her ArtsHub review, went so far as to say that 'there is no other book like this.' 

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I've called this series of posts, now up to Week 16, 'a year with The Sorrow Stone.' This week, with it seeming to go on ahead without me, it feels more accurate to call it 'chasing' The Sorrow Stone. But with the festivals announced, I can look forward to the novel and I having a good catch-up, in person and in place, and alongside other writers and critics, including, in my sessions, Hannah Kent, Emily Brugman, Susan Wyndham, and Krissy Kneen. 

More details are listed here (BWF) and here (SWF). Other live events here.


Paddington, Brisbane


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Week 15: Two interviews

This week, two interviews with me about The Sorrow Stone have appeared, both of which use framing ideas to join the novel and its writing to other cultural and creative questions. 

One, in the literary journal Kill Your Darlings, asks mainly about work spaces and writing habits; the other, in Booktopia's podcast 'Tell Me What To Read', pairs interviews with me and Omar J. Sakr, author of Son of Sin, also published this month, as an instance of connecting cultures.

I think both interviews show how pairing ideas or artistic works can suggest links between them rather than needing to spell things out very directly or precisely - such as links between stories and cultural backgrounds, and how one's writing patterns express both personality and artistic goals.

The interviews are available here (Kill Your Darlings) and here (Booktopia).


Hólmavík

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And, a new writing exercise on backstory:



Sunday, March 20, 2022

Week 14: Writers as teachers

Last week, after a week's delay caused by the floods, another teaching semester began, at last with the expectation (or at least realistic hope) that classes can be held in-person all year. 

For most, I think, being back on campus is an enormous relief. That feeling of novelty and freshness when everyone returns at the beginning of the academic year - something you always feel during the first weeks - is heightened after two years of disruptions. And the nature of teaching, which demands energy and commitment and a degree of performance, is also made more obvious by virtue of the various distances that came with COVID-19.

Like most writers, I don't make a living from writing alone. As a result, writing forms part of my professional life, even if it often occupies a disproportionate amount of time. A challenge for writers like me is to find other activities and occupations that complement rather than detract from the writing life. 

For me, teaching at university has been almost ideal in that respect. This is partly because I was always interested in the Humanities, and my PhD is in literary studies. It's also because teaching engages the mind in a very active form of learning that requires you to communicate, test, and apply your knowledge iteratively across years and subjects. Teaching asks you to be clear in your expression, and to allow what you think to change on the basis of conversations with others.

Teaching is also, at its best, grounded in both theory and practice: it is a place where the two must be joined, because the individual experience of writers and critics is also a way of considering wider contexts, be they technical, social and cultural, political or ideological. The classroom allows writing to be an expression of individuality and, simultaneously, a way of hosting dialogue and debate.

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Yesterday, ABC Radio National's 'The Bookshelf' show featured a discussion of The Sorrow Stone, in the main between host Kate Evans and a scholar of Old Norse, Lisa Bennett, who like me is also a creative writer. The episode, available here, was rather similar to what I describe above: a review of creative work, and one that was very aware of the literary-historical contexts and theories framing it.



Saturday, March 12, 2022

Week 13: Riverbend

Good bookshops care about both writers and readers, and are often sources of employment for young writers and critics, editors and publishers. Many of my own students have worked at bookshops during and after their degrees.

Yesterday, I drove across town to visit one such place, Riverbend Books in the riverside suburb of Bulimba. To me, this part of Brisbane feels a little separate from the rest of the city, I expect because of the way the river guides such suburbs along its bends and peninsulas and through to its further reaches. But Riverbend Books is itself wonderfully connected, and has long been a hub of literary life in the city. It hosts many talks and events, plays a key role in the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and is a strong supporter of local writers and publishers.

I first met its owner Suzy Wilson in 2011 when I published The Promise of Iceland. Since then, I've been a regular visitor and have spoken at a number of the bookshop's events. Suzy reminded me that last time I was there, for a talk on Saga Land, I mentioned the so-called jólabókaflóð ('Christmas book flood'), which is the Icelandic name for the publishing of lots of books around Christmas, and also the practice of always giving books as Christmas presents. It seems the term resonated, for soon after I gave the talk a Jólabókaflóð Bookclub was formed at Riverbend and has been going since.

Such connections and responses are engagingly unpredictable, and they're also a reminder of how a bookshop hosts exchanges which create new currents and ideas that can then take on their own life. It's about four years, I think, since I mentioned jólabókaflóð at Riverbend, but really that's not so very long to hear back about the impact of a word, and what emerged as a result.


With Suzy Wilson, owner of Riverbend Books

The Sorrow Stone is currently Riverbend's 'book of the week'



Saturday, March 5, 2022

Week 12: Sydney

I wasn't sure I'd get to make this trip. The flooding we had in Brisbane was moving south and threatened to postpone it, just as my book event at the Brisbane Powerhouse last weekend. On Thursday morning, when I was due to fly, a thunderstorm closed in on the airport, causing delays. But we were eventually allowed to take off into the dark clouds, the plane bouncing heavily until we cleared them, and our approach into Sydney was smooth. The harbour appeared with its unwavering optimism, if a little greyed by clouds and passing showers. 

At Bookoccino
My publicist Jean and I started our travels across the city at the lovely Bookoccino in the seaside village of Avalon, the first of twenty-two bookshop visits we're making in Sydney. It sounds like a lot (and is) but actually it's an enjoyable way of exploring the city. I get to meet booksellers and if they want we can talk about the book; I sign some copies; and, I love hearing about their shops and trade and odd bits of industry news you pick up. Going to so many bookshops also allows you to appreciate their individual character, their bearing in a street, how they reflect a neighbourhood and offer a place of retreat and calm from it. Bookshops abound with personhood and memory. 

The only downside, perhaps, is having my photo taken a great many times. I imagine I must look a bit ridiculous, standing there beside a pile of my own books, but such is the social media age. 

Constant Reader, Mosman


On Friday, in between bookshop visits, I spoke at Dymocks Literary Lunch - a series that's been running for some thirty years - and, while we've been on the road, have received more first reviews of the book. This morning, Daniel Keene in The Saturday Paper has written a wonderfully positive piece, including this:

In lifting Disa from the densely populated weave of the Icelandic sagas and teasing out her story from their tangle of kinships and events, Gíslason has given her a rich emotional life. She is a secondary figure in a saga of blood and honour – of men killing men – but here she stands centre stage. The narrator of her own tale, she has a complex inner life, capable of deep, abiding love and implacable anger. Like a shard of pottery dug out of the earth and brought into the light to reveal its true shape and colour, Disa’s story is given its true emotional weight and human consequence. 

Gíslason’s prose is wonderfully controlled; it can be as stark and harsh as some of the landscapes he so beautifully describes, and at other times is imbued with a quiet but deeply felt lyricism.

Disa ponders how swiftly news travels from house to house, community to community, how stories spread across the country “like the wind into a hall when two doors open at once”. Gíslason unlocks and opens the doors to Disa’s story, and it might just blow you away.

I've started collecting excerpts from this, and other reviews that are appearing, here.


The view from Balmain East ferry terminal

At Kinokuniya, Sydney CBD



Sunday, February 27, 2022

Week 11: Flood gates

On Friday morning, torrential downpours began in Brisbane and haven't abated since. The river is flooding, already six lives have been lost, and homes and streets are under water, just as they were in 2011 when the last major flood occurred. 

I find it difficult to believe it's all happening again, but it is, and the surreal distress of seeing familiar places disappear feels the same as it did then. The creek that runs near my home has reached over all the smaller bridges and up the bike paths and into the parks. River debris and rubbish are building up against submerged fences. The local ovals looks like shallow marsh lakes.

It's worse in some of the riverside suburbs. One is New Farm, where today I was meant to hold a book event at the Powerhouse Theatre to celebrate the publication of The Sorrow Stone. Naturally, we've had to postpone: there is water rising under and around the venue, and the main road there, Brunswick Street, is blocked in places. 

The cancellation of a book event is a very minor inconvenience, but of course I'm disappointed it can't go ahead. We had sold some 400 tickets, and it was to be an exciting launch for the book. But we should be able to re-schedule a Powerhouse event a little later in the year, and in the meantime I'll also be flying to Sydney for a lunch event being held on Friday - my first interstate trip since the pandemic began. With luck, my next post in this series of travels with The Sorrow Stone will be from there. 


A submerged foot bridge, Enoggera Creek, Ashgrove

Friday, February 18, 2022

Week 10: Signatures

Signatures are

being a boy and the endless attempts to devise one I liked, from writing my name plainly to something I thought had more personhood, not just two words that signify 'I'

a link between story and author; in memoir, an attestation of truthfulness (as argued by Philippe Lejeune)

the time at the signing table that you get to speak to someone who is about to read your book (or not read it, depending)

the moment, after a person you know asks for a dedication, that you realise you've forgotten their name and you have to invent a ridiculous reason for them to say it out loud

absurd, if written over and over in a single sitting, as when you repeat any word too often

scribal, not printed; a sound as well as a mark

a term in the 1972 essay by Jacques Derrida, 'Signature Event Context'

in sales, considered damage to a product, rendering the book non-returnable to the publisher (a guaranteed sale)

and, this particular week, a morning at my publisher's office signing copies of The Sorrow Stone for Booktopia, an Australian online bookshop.




Friday, February 11, 2022

Week 9: Live events for The Sorrow Stone

I'll use this week's entry for something a little more informative than meditative: to begin listing upcoming live events for The Sorrow Stone.


Sunday 27 Feb               Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre (postponed due to floods)

Friday 4 March              Dymocks Literary Luncheon, Four Seasons Hotel, Sydney

Wednesday 30 March    Avid Reader Bookshop, West End, Brisbane (postponed due to Covid)

Thursday 7 April            Readings Emporium, Melbourne

Thursday 14 April          Kenmore Library, Brisbane

Wednesday 20 April      Bracken Ridge Library, Brisbane

          Tuesday 26 April            QUT Literary Salon 

Thursday 28 April          Carindale Library, Brisbane

          Wednesday 4 May          Outspoken Maleny

          Friday 6 May                  Brisbane Writers Festival 

          Tuesday 17 May             King Street Book Club

          Saturday 21 May            Sydney Writers' Festival

Sunday 5 June                Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre


Hope to see you there!


Learning how to stack hay, Borgarfjördur, 1986

 

Friday, February 4, 2022

Week 8: Positive

Along with some 265,000 other people in Australia, this week I tested positive for Covid-19, I suppose an inevitable thing given that I have school-aged children who do a lot of team sports and given, too, that I haven't confined my activities beyond the usual confinements that come with my life in writing and research. My daily patterns are so regular at the moment that I should be able to identify when I caught the virus, but I haven't got a clue. It's everywhere, after all. 

I have only mild symptoms. Being positive is an odd feeling, nonetheless, I think because for two years I've been observing the spread of the virus in that procession of graphs, models, figures, statistics and maps that have dominated the reporting of Covid, but that don't really tell us much about the humanity inside or behind the numbers. When the virus first emerged in early 2020, I followed these numbers almost obsessively, and it was difficult to concentrate on anything else. The world outside was falling quiet, lockdowns everywhere, but it was harder to locate an inner quiet that might be productive. Now that it's busy outside again, that inner point of reflection seems easier to find; I'll use the next week or so in quarantine to write, and to plan this year's teaching.

But, perhaps because the virus has caught up with me personally, my thoughts also keep returning to its beginnings. I recall my travels with my family in Christmas 2019. We visited my brother-in-law in Milan, and then took a friend's suggestion to spend a couple of nights in Bergamo, where a few months later the virus hit with such terrible force. When that happened, we were back in Australia. I couldn't quite believe the reports that were coming from the town, or that it could be the same place we'd seen, with its magnificent old streets on the hill and vibrant new town beneath. Its life and pace and glamour, old-stone beauty and narrow, crowded lanes of apartment buildings and shops. How could all that be quietened so quickly? How did the people in the town cope with the loss of so many? 

Two years later, the sense of unreality has largely been replaced with an acceptance of the virus's ever-presence. But that unreality is also still there, returning faintly, when I get the text message saying I have tested positive and must 'remain at your nominated place of isolation for seven days', mostly here at my desk.

*

Yesterday, I was interviewed (by phone) about The Sorrow Stone by Rebecca Levingston on ABC Brisbane. One of the nicest parts of our discussion was hearing Rebecca read a short passage from the book. After residing so long inside my own mind, it was wonderful to hear the words spoken by another person. It felt like a new introduction to Disa, someone I've 'known' for years. This is the passage she chose:

We rode Faxi out of the yard, down past our neighbours’ farms, along the river and past the woods until we reached the white pebbles at the beach. Everything was in a glaze under the sun. The water was so clear I could see my feet and the lines on my toes. The boys took off their shirts and ran ahead. I stepped in more carefully and lifted my dress. The water was a mirror around my waist. I saw my long hair and braids. My eyes that people said were too hard.

The full interview is available here, beginning at 2:13:00 in the online recording.


Bergamo, December 2019

 

Friday, January 28, 2022

Week 7: The right kind of difficulty

The English travel writer Paul Theroux once observed that, for travel writing to be effective, there must be some kind of difficulty for the traveller. Otherwise, the writing is mere 'chatting', by which I expect he meant that the writing is about leisure, relaxation, holiday talk. I think it's a fair principle, although I would add that the nature of the difficulty needn't be physical or logistical: sometimes, internal difficulties are more powerful than the external ones. In the case writing fiction, they are also usually the more present. What is the problem that the writer seeks to explore? What is at stake for them in doing so? What turns the story from an account of events to a question that seems urgent or necessary?

*

This week, the Queensland government announced the end of international border restrictions on entry to the state. After almost two years of quarantine and limits on the numbers of international arrivals, the border is re-opened, and one major difficulty for travel is removed. And yet, in the same week some governments around the world signalled that Australia is now seen as a more risky destinations (because of increases in Covid cases), and that travellers from Australia may face greater restrictions. It seems that opening borders can lead to closing borders; one door opens and another door shuts.

In such moments, I'm tempted to defer my own travel plans. But then, I try to remember that travelling has never been easy, at least when viewed in a wider historical frame. The last thirty-odd years of relatively cheap, easy, and reliable travel is, in a way, an historical oddity. For, travelling has usually been fraught with danger and difficulty, with uneasy border crossings and uncertain receptions. With that in mind, yesterday I bought a ticket to Europe, for a bit later in the year when I have a long period of leave and I hope to spend a few weeks in Greece and Iceland to work on new writing projects. Perhaps by then the difficulties will have eased, or there will be new, more internal ones in their place.



Mostyn House School, Cheshire


Friday, January 21, 2022

Week 6: Paper run

On Thursday, I received my first print copies of The Sorrow Stone. The story, which has existed in pretty much its current shape for months, is now also an actual book in the way books have been conceived for hundreds of years. In the manuscript cultures that existed before that, before mass printing, each copy of a story was its own work, and could express the specific goals of the scribe who copied, modified and compiled it. But perhaps that kind of variation still happens to some extent, because each print copy will be read in its own way. Though each book is exactly the same, reading experiences will do the work of variation.

When I was an undergraduate, students wrote a lot of comments in the margins of library books, sometimes about the material in the book and sometimes about whatever else was on their minds: how terrible a subject was, dissatisfactions of loneliness, boredom, the noise in the library, the silence, or obscenities and jokes, and also drawings, too. It seems to happen much less now: maybe social media has taken the place of book margins as a site of disgruntlement and confession. I expect books are happier about it. But marginalia, however annoying and destructive to the books, was a reflection of their nature as living things, even in the age of mass production. The book was the book, yes, but it was also the jottings in the book.

Today, the easiest way to access library books - especially academic titles - is in electronic form. I read my students' work in Word documents or in PDF files. Most often, I write on a computer, too, and I love how I can take my laptop with me anywhere and write in the time I have between other commitments. And yet, I still reach for paper copies of creative works, I think in part because I've come to associate screens with work and research, and paper with art and reflection. The printed novel remains as its own kind of reading.


 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Week 5: Borders

At 1am tonight, the Queensland border will fully re-open to the other states and territories of Australia. Strict border restrictions and controls were introduced in 2020 to limit the spread of Covid. At the same time, they have reminded us of the nature of the Australian federation: the states are largely responsible for health and can limit free movement to and within their jurisdictions. As a result, during the pandemic we've seen different parts of Australia adopt their own approaches to managing the crisis, and internal borders have become almost as powerful and defining as our international one.

The desire for boundaries is ever present; it's not just a Covid thing. We see it every day in the news, in political gestures such as Brexit and in anxious deliberations about what to do about a tennis player who arrives unvaccinating, but all around us, too, at least in my suburb, where each year more and more tall, block-out fences guarding property and privacy replace the see-through and lower fencing that used to dominate in Brisbane. Boundaries limit access, and assert ownership and responsibility, and in this way they are meant to keep us safe.

This week, one of the local schools in my area has replaced the fencing on a length of ovals that everyone calls 'the flats'. Even though they belong to the school, these ovals are always being used by others, I'm sure with the school's approval, for the old fencing was only ever some steel rails that seemed designed mainly to keep cars off the grass. In some places, it had even become embedded in tree trunks and encased by branches. The new fence is similarly porous. Though it's a wooden picket fence this time, there are plenty of gate-less openings and it is only waist high, that is, easy to jump or step over. The fence will do a job in keeping cars off the grass and cricket balls from running onto the adjoining road, but the ovals remain in full view. They are open, and different kinds of safety (that come with community health and enjoyment and sharing spaces) will no doubt result.

*

In arts and literature, boundaries are often questioned and tested and made fun of, but of course they're just as powerful as other kinds of social and cultural borders, for they're used to define credibility and expertise and to gauge and even predict the value and quality of a work. The divides between so-called capital "L" literature and others kinds of writing, between forms, and between art and entertainment are seen as old-fashioned and unnecessarily value-laden, but they're regularly asserted nonetheless - in prize culture and 'best-of' lists and grants and the shelving and labelling at bookshops - and writers and artists who work across forms are sometimes viewed as diluting the impact of their best work. I suspect a belief in borders is behind this kind of approach, and that its valorising of singularity and isolation, and purity of form, is something that most artists and critics would find disturbing in other contexts.

This morning, in a moment of idle thought as I drove past the ovals, I wondered what would happen if the government declared that from 1am tonight there would be no more borders between art forms - film, literature, visual arts, dance, music and all the others. From 1am precisely, they would be as welcome in each other's territories as the people of Australia are now welcome to come to Queensland. If there is to be a fence between literary fiction and genre novels, henceforth it will only ever be waist high and easy to jump over, just like at the flats.




Friday, January 7, 2022

Week 4: Searches

Recently, I reviewed a collection of essays by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard for Australian Book Review. A common idea in the essays is that art is at its best when it is searching. This view connects, I think, to something we find in Knausgaard's memoir series My Struggle, namely the tendency in the memoirs to suspend conclusions or findings and maintain an anticipatory tone. The Norwegian and Swedish settings of these memoirs is always coming into being, too, while the other writing that Knausgaard mentions in his autobiographical story are presented as exercises and therefore places of refuge from the busyness and difficulties of family life. Writing is somewhere to go and be. It is an active place rather than a point of completeness.

I find this, as well, in my own writing; the pleasure of finishing a project is also the pleasure of being able to begin another one. For me, these beginnings have tended to overlap with something incomplete in earlier work. All writing involves selection, and so there are always omissions, and sometimes these seem to demand that you go back and make up for that omission in a seperate work. Writing is a series of encounters with experience and with other attempts to represent it, your own attempts and those by other writers.

*

This week, The Sorrow Stone was included in a list of the 'most anticipated novels of 2022' in the Fairfax group of newspapers, while Sydney Morning Herald and Age books editor Jason Steger also highlighted the book in his 'Booklist' newsletter. He wrote that, "If you liked the setting of Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, for example, then the chances are you’ll want to read Kári Gíslason’s The Sorrow Stone, which is set in medieval Iceland and Norway, in the days of the Vikings, and follows the fortunes of Disa and her son as they flee a crime of revenge."


At Newell Beach, near Port Douglas, Jan 2022

Friday, December 31, 2021

Week 3: Hidden Properties

I'm on holidays with my family in Port Douglas, Yirrganydji country, and all week have been struck by a sense of the hidden properties in the landscape here, like the hidden properties in narrative - of the underneath elements in the water and forest and the streets, in the heat. 


Hidden Properties


Box jellies,

Biancaea decapetala,

spiders the size of two hands,

drunks who laugh too hard.

Coconuts.

Rain that soaks a shirt in ten steps.

Something in the seaweed that makes you red.

Boulders and branches:

swept out of the boat and into the torrent,

breathless.

Silence and shadows.

Exiles in floral shirts,

shy sharks.

Reef edges.






Friday, December 24, 2021

Week 2: First responses

Yesterday, I gave my first interview about The Sorrow Stone. The journalist and I spoke on the phone for 45 minutes, a bit longer than I expected, and the interview ranged widely across the characters, their relationships, and the nature of the times they lived in.

The questions people ask about a book reveal something of their response to it, and certainly one way of approaching The Sorrow Stone is as a novel about an historical period. The Viking Age occupies such a steady and vivid presence in the cultural imagination. Other early responses have come in the form of a first review by Georgia Brough in the industry-oriented publication Books & Publishing and a couple of comments on social media from people who have been sent advance copies. They're positive: Books & Publishing called the book 'entirely enthralling', Alida Galati posted on Twitter that it was 'one very compelling story', while Britt Owens commented on the Brisbane Powerhouse Facebook wall that it was a 'masterpiece'.

Over the past decades, the nature of the dialogue between readers and writers has changed and expanded, partly because of social media, and I'm not sure it's healthy for writers to spend too much time reading what's said in online platforms. But at this point, comments like the ones above help settle the nerves and allow me to focus more on other things, my next project, which is starting to need me to do more than rough sketches of unconnected scenes. Knowing that the reception of The Sorrow Stone is beginning well is a kind of permission to think less about that book, or to think about it in different ways that aren't as focussed on whether it's any good or not.

That said, for the first time in my writing career (and also a first for my publisher) the book is coming out with a 'guarantee': it will have a sticker on the cover saying it's a 'guaranteed great read'. If the reader doesn't think it's great, they can send in a form at the back of the book and get a refund. Of course, I understand why my publisher is doing this and I appreciate their faith in the book. But it's also a funny idea, because it anticipates what is a complex and often unknowable thing - how others read and interpret your work. Since the 1950s, there has been much theoretical discussion of reader reception, an approach to literature that positions interpretation and meaning with readers rather than with authors' intentions. Now, with sites like Goodreads and other online discussion groups, and very accurate data of sales patterns, reception is truly a dominant form of meaning making. And yet, authors are ever-more present, as well, seeming to accompany the work into the world, much as I am doing here.

*

Today, I woke to the sad news that Joan Didion has died at 87. I thought about her and her writing during the whole of my morning swim just now; sometimes, the death of someone we don't know can be oddly upsetting, as though we do in fact know them very well. Didion played a major part in re-personalising long-form journalism, and she showed that memoir could be as artful and precise as fiction. The Year of Magical Thinking is a stunning work that performs and analyses grief at the same time: the form and content are perfectly matched to elevate the work with insight and courage. She is an author who gave so much of herself on the page. Perhaps it is no surprise to feel the loss acutely.