Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Damned Spots

Craig Smith and I made the CBCA shortlist with our greenish book, The Windy Farm. You can make it about sustainability, if you want to, otherwise just enjoy the flying pigs. Craig’s pictures always delight me and he somehow manages to find humour in just about everything he does. (This helps when you’re writing what are purported to be ‘funny books’ and Craig is the decorator.) I’ve been lazy with the blogging, so this post is for my stroke rehab team at The Alfred. I was supposed to be keeping a work diary this week, to make sure that I didn’t work too hard and undo the good recovery my brain is making by over-stressing it. I realise it all seems like an egregious excuse for laziness. But seriously, I had two solid ten-hour writing sessions last week, without a break and I knocked myself out completely. I got an idea for a sequel to the body-snatcher book, involving the head of Oliver Cromwell,  and I didn’t want to let that bloody muse go when I had her in my grasp.Ten hours used to be a reasonable, pleasant enough day’s writing  for me. These days it’s almost fatal. I have to stop work every hour, then meditate, then … oh my god I just read this post back and I seem to have become Mozart on his death bed all of a sudden, being coaxed by Salieri to write just one more crotchet or flying pig joke. To compound the historical allusion, the doctor has found strange lumps on the back of my neck, and they’ve cut them out to analyse them. I’ve either got the Black Plague or Lupus or acute hypochondria or something even more worrisome. The odd thing about my visit to the dermatological department of the Alfred, is that the doctor kept dragging in more and more people to look at the curious lumps on my neck. Some were students, others were various plague specialists and yet others were paying members of the public at a bit of a loose end. 
It became like the state room scene, and if you do not know what I'm referring to there, why on earth are you reading this blog? It made me wish I'd gone to more effort with my underwear, but I wasn't expecting Groucho and the rest coming to spectate. I find out tomorrow what the lumps are.

And I didn't bother to fill out my work diary yesterday, because I was far too busy celebrating The Windy Farm's success, but in a restful, meditative way. Quite.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Is your smartphone making you rude? Do you think technology is a distraction from manners? How do we use technology yet remain considerate?

These topics were discussed on ABC News Breakfast yesterday morning, and of course there were numerous tweets from viewers who thought that mobile phone usage had made people inconsiderate. Viewers complained about shop assistants who took calls in the middle of making a sale – thus, not making a sale. I commiserated. I’ve been on the number 96 ST Kilda tram alongside mobile phone users whose conversations are so loud that you can’t even hear the guy up the back who’s got a bottle of sherry in a brown paper bag and has remarkable recall of the collected works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. (Why do so many derros know every song from My Fair Lady?) Our favourite horror godfather Stephen King got so teed off with mobile phone users that he wrote a big fat novel, Cell, where mobile phones have caused their users to become insane, vicious zombies, pulling people apart with their own hands, but not without first checking their SMS’s or downloading a more beguiling ring tone.

As much as I enjoyed Cell, I think Stephen King’s novel seemed too much like the rantings of an angry old man. You know, the sort of guy who is always railing at the local kids for walking on his lawn. Nevertheless it will make a brilliant movie and collect several billion dollars, provided Andy McDowell or Paul Rudd aren’t in it.

This week I finally joined the smart phone generation, or the ‘21st Century’ as Steve Jobs preferred to call it, during his zestier ‘alive’ period. I have a sweet, shiny iphone, which I am only gradually learning to use. And my stubby fingers will never be able to manage that tiny keyboard. But clearly it can’t be that hard. After all, I constantly see car drivers using their smart phones, which they obviously wouldn’t do unless (a) smart phones are easy to manage and (b) they’re homicidal idiots and Stephen King was right.

Most of all, people (including Mr King) seem to resent having other people’s phone conversations inflicted on them, when these conversations are generally about stuff that really doesn’t seem so urgent that the ringer could not have waited till he/she was off the tram or bus.

But there is a worse kind of overheard mobile phone call that can really weird you out. On one Tuesday afternoon when I took the route 96, all passengers were fixated on their tablets, iphones, kindles, or whatever they use to make their journey more pleasant. Suddenly a cry of anguish filled the tram. This wasn’t the sound of someone being attacked or harrassed (I know, because I live in St Kilda and that’s a sound I’ve heard before.) This was the sound of someone who has just received the worst possible news. It was news that physically hurt. Everyone on the tram, even the sherry guy, looked in the direction of the sound. It was being made by a young, tough-looking man who was wearing a suit that seemed a little too small for him, and that had probably been cleaned in a coin launderette once too often. The man in anguish cried out again into his iphone. It was a girl’s name. Let’s say it was ‘Brie’ because it usually is.

And what Brie, at the other end of the phone had just told the tight suit guy (we’ll call him Brad because he looked like he should have been one) was that their relationship was over. This obviously came as a surprise to Brad, because his cries of disbelief and horror were absolutely genuine. What followed was Brad trying to convince Brie that they shouldn’t break up, because he was so impossibly in love with her that he would kill himself if she left him. Seriously, the breakup by mobile phone was as dramatic as that. We passed Middle Park station and Brad was still threatening self harm. At Fraser Street he’d calmed down a bit. Then Brie obviously brought up some transgression that Brad had made, because he reassured her that this would never never happen again, they’d already talked over this. He didn’t even like Wendy. And he hadn’t pashed her, he’d just bumped into her at Southern Cross Station outside Pie Face. He could probably get the CCTV footage, if Brie didn’t believe him. ‘Just please don’t leave me.’ The mood on the tram changed from one of bland Tuesday afternoon indifference to genuine concern for Brad. His agony was palpable. It touched something in all of us; that terrible moment when we learn that a relationship is mangled beyond repair. And not just any relationship. But the only one that seems worth anything and that reassures you in the night at 2.00am when you used to get nightmares, which will no doubt return. I wonder how many commuters were thinking of offering advice to Brad? ‘Come on, you were too good for her anyway.’ ‘There’ll be other Bries.’ 'I know what really happened at Pie Face. It was innocent. You're a hulluva nice guy.' I know I wanted to, but Brad seemed in no condition to take comfort from strangers. And who could blame him? He was being dropped – by mobile phone! That’s almost as bad as being dropped by an SMS or a Facebook post. And he looked the sort of guy who doesn’t usually burst into tears in public and who only just tolerates the Twilight movies because Brie likes them so much. Even the sherry guy was stunned by what he had heard. He was silent. Clearly, he couldn’t think of an appropriate song, though I’m sure there are several. Blue Sunday springs to mind, though a Jim Morrison vocal is hard to pull off. You really need to be on bourbon, not sherry.
Several people left the tram a few stops early at Fitzroy Street, to avoid Brad’s terrible, horrible ordeal. Before long it was just Brad and me and the mobile phone with Brie at the end. Brad howled into his instrument about how he would never again do what he had done that had so upset Brie. Then Brad stopped talking when he realised it could no longer serve any purpose. Brie had hung up. Brad immediately pressed return, but Brie had decided not to take calls. Now was my chance to say something to Brad, but how could it possibly pick him up after this epic separation? Brad walked toward me and the back doorway as the tram stopped at The Esplanade. This was Brad’s stop. Mine wasn’t till Luna Park. I wanted to tell Brad that things would get better, that he mustn’t give up on being a good human being. I made eye contaxct with Brad as he headed for the exit. Once I was on a tram with a young guy who was ‘chroming’, sniffing aerosol paint from a plastic bag. I remember seeing his eyes as he entered the zone of unhurting, the place that he needed so badly to reach and relied upon the paint fumes to get him there. The chromer had a dead face. He was no longer in the normal human dimension. He had mentally checked out. And that’s how Brad looked as he left the tram. I don’t think that anything I said would have saved him from how he felt. I just hoped that Brad wouldn’t throw himself under a car, or seek comfort in petrol fumes.

And when I woke up at 2.00am that night I thought about Brad and Brie, wishing they hadn’t made me an eavesdropper of their demise.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Why a tiger?

Here'e the press release for my next Penguin, which audaciously takes on the theme of comedy and how it unites and divides us. Hmm yes. That's why we put a tiger on the cover.

On my website you will find a book called My Extraordinary Life and Death. I used an old trick, where I added silly captions to some unlikely pictures, in order to build up a story. Here is the finished product.

I started doing it on my blog for Inside a Dog, the website of The Centre for Youth Literature at The Melbourne State Library. I was supposed to blog about my life three times a week, but really there wasn’t enough to blog about. I don’t review books, so I couldn’t fill my blog with literary critique.

I became obsessed with Project Gutenberg, the on-line repository for books that are out of copyright and therefore free to the public to download. One particular title, ‘Banbury Chapbooks’ gave me a vast quantity of curious pictures that assisted me in coming up with a bizarre story of my life. Here are some examples of pictures that caught my eye and suggested curious moments from someone's insane biography.

I know it sounds easy to make a story out of pics with silly captions, but it wasn’t. I’ll see if I can explain why.


The theme of Tigers on the Beach is comedy and how it unites and divides us. Just to remind you, Tigers on the Beach is my next Penguin novel, not the collage book we are currently discussing, for the purpose of analysing comedy, something that Mark Twain suggested you should never do.

Paul Collins owns and runs an independent publishing company, and we're very glad he does, because it gives us authors one more shot at getting published. Paul has been of great help to a number of authors and illustrators, and continues to publish with enthusiasm and aplomb. His books always look good, largely due to Paul’s strong working relationship with designer Grant Gittus. When Paul saw my blog story about the bizarre things that purportedly have happened to me in My Extraordinary Life and Death he very kindly offered to publish it as a book. I wasn’t sure about this, until Grant Gittus showed me how the book would be treated. It looked fantastic, so I went about the task of augmenting the story, and giving the whole thing a ‘comedy pass’. (That’s a film and TV script editor’s term. It simply means adding more and better jokes.)

I wanted to make the book as funny as possible. Which brings us to why it wasn’t easy to do this book. Everyone insists they have a sense of humour, but everyone’s is different. I did about seven versions of My Extraordinary Life and Death, all of which reside on my hard drive. I think a couple of them are actually funnier than the finished product. The reason I had to redo the book over and over is that Paul and his entourage (he tends to rely on quite a few helpful people and has interns) kept disagreeing with me on what was actually funny. I suppose that when comedy is presented so simply – a picture with a funny caption – everyone believes they can do it and that their way is better.

There was stuff that I thought we could lose, for the benefit of the overall ‘story’, but other people wanted to keep it. And I was obsessive about ‘plotting’ the book so that it really did cover an entire life. I had a war chapter and a school chums chapter, which I thought were both good, along with a few pages describing how the subject of the story (‘me’) made his vast fortune, enabling him to lead a life of eccentric luxury. But some people wanted to drop these chapters. I remember arguing with Paul about whether to use the word ‘tavern’ or ‘pub’ for this picture:

Paul wanted to use ‘tavern’ because it was more suitable to the Victorian period in which the story seems to take place. And of course ‘tavern’ means ‘pub’. Most people would know that. So why did I fight for ‘pub’ instead of ‘tavern’? I’ve finally worked out what bothers me about ‘tavern’. It’s a fine and elegant word but it trips up the reader.  One is inclined to linger just a moment too long, meaning the rhythm of the joke is lost. Jokes are like music. And even the best gag in the world can collapse in an embarassing heap if the person who tells it doesn’t have the timing or understand the joke’s ‘music’. Arguing about this page became symptomatic of the whole book. I got angrier and angrier. So did the Ford Street gang until they started giving notes like, ‘None of us thinks this is funny’, to which I would respond , ‘I’m sorry, but I do believe it’s funny and it’s my bloody book, etc.’ A sort of compromise was struck where we made a website that people could visit and see the chapters that were deleted. I really like the one about war. And there are four pages in the ‘general offcuts’, involving how the book’s subject made such vast quantities of money. We'll come to those missing portions in a moment. I was pretty happy with the end product, and we certainly got our fair share of good reviews. One overenthuiastic critic even sompared it favourably with a new release from Joseph Heller.

The critic was clearly bonkers.

Here is a link that actually will get you to the secret missing chapters of My Extraordinary Life and Death. Don't get too excited. It's not like we just found Fury From the Deep in Ethiopia.

Paul works tirelessly to promote his product.  I did more interviews for My Extraordinary Life and Death than I have for any pf my other books. I’ve bought a fair bit of stock from Paul, because I don’t like to think that he is losing money on my title, which he was brave enough to bring into his stable. But he surely must be. I haven’t seen the book anywhere except on the odd sale table. I guess one of the problems is that the book is so beautifully made and designed, that it’s rather expensive. I had hoped that the book would be a ten dollar wonder, like the current crop of ‘Popular Penguins’. I think the book would have had a much happier and more commercial life if we had kept the unit price down. The quality of paper and binding is simply far too good for such a silly joke. It retails for twenty dollars, and I would urge you to buy it, if only to keep Ford Street from going under. Although you probably will get a few laughs out of it. Andy Griffiths, who knows a few things about comedy, is a fan, and the Oscar-winning movie director Adam Elliot has also sent me a lovely email, completely unsolicited, about how much he likes the book’s comedy.

I have an embarrassingly long history of producing mass market TV comedy shows. Look me up on IMDB. I’ve also written quite a few ‘funny’ novels for young adults. I got some kudos for a funny book called The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher. I have the runs on the board, so to speak. The Australian Writers Guild even awarded me a citation for my contribution to Australian comedy.
This is what a citation looks like. And holding it is what we call a comedy writer. They never look happy, even when holding a citation.

It’s an award that many of my former employees would probably dispute. But it’s still a bloody award that I can hold up to the world to boast, ‘I’m good at comedy. I always have been.  And I bloody know why pub is funny and tavern isn’t in the context of page 110 of My Extraordinary Life and Death.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

More Fun with Rehab

Dear reader,
I'm making brilliant progress in stroke rehab. Today I want to present you with one of the exercises.
(It's okay, I'm not breaking any rules.) My therapist gave me a block of type that had been badly punctuated. There was barely a full stop in the whole thing. Anyway, my job was to make it read like English and retype it. It struck me as I was doing the work that the prose had a surreal beauty about it. It was basically telling people what to do on days where some sporting event you don't like is taking place. It's not an article that was created to be taken seriously, or they wouldn't have made the references to Julie Andrews. Everything under EXERCISE is my corrected version of the copy.

Julie Andrews shows her obvious contempt for gridiron.

Everything under ADDENDUM is the instruction I felt I had to add, just in case readers didn't get the gist of the article. In other words, it was me just pissing about. My therapist pointed out that I had made some mistakes in rendering the content of the exercise, but that it seemed like I hadn't made any goofs in the addendum, which I guess means I preferred typing it. I wanted to make my therapist laugh. She did, then we continued with Mathematics for Living. (I can't put those on the blog for two reasons. They are copyrighted for medical use only and they are as interesting as algae.)

Anyway, here we go with the exercise, which I believe Basil Fawlty would describe as a journey into the bleeding obvious.   

You don’t have to be a football fan to love Super Bowl Sunday. You can have a terrific time without ruining the game for others. ‘It’s actually a great day for non-football fans,’ says Julie Andrews, author of A Woman’s Guide to Football. You can go places and do things in relative peace because so many people will be wrapped up in the game.  So, plan your activities and leave the football fans to their entertainment. Here are Julie’s suggestions for having a super time during the January 28 Super Bowl:
Celebrate the end of the season by throwing a party for your non-football friends, with plenty of food, music and fun activities. Have the party at the home of someone who has no fans in the house, so you won’t be disturbing any serious football-lovers, Julie advises. Rent videos you’ve been wanting to see. It’s a good day to get those hard-to-find movies that are always out.  Enjoy them with your favourite snacks in a room away from the gridiron fans.  Go somewhere you usually avoid because of crowds. Shopping malls, amusement parks, hit movies and other attractions will be less crowded because the Super Bowl keeps many people away. Find a quiet place to enjoy one of those books you’ve been meaning to read. This could be a quiet time when you can read without interruption. Spend time with a friend who’s not a football fan. Plan an entire day that includes lunch at your favourite restaurant and other activities that the two of you will enjoy together. Consider joining the football festivities if you don’t really hate the game, but you don’t understand it enough to be a fan. Take some time before the super Bowl to learn about football. Julie suggests it’s not that difficult and you may discover you actually enjoy it.

Things to avoid when planning your special non-Super Bowl Day:

Do not have your special gathering in the sporting arena where the game is actually being played as there will almost definitely be crowds there and you will find yourself in the very situation you were trying to avoid! If you have an acid-throwing machine at your house, make sure to switch it off before your non-Super Bowl activities take place. You probably shouldn’t have an acid-throwing machine anyway, as Julie Andrews argues at some length in her recent two volume bestseller, Don’t waste your Money on Stupid, Dangerous Machinery that throws Acid.

Julie Andrews adds with a note of caution that it is considered exceedingly poor form not to attend the Super Bowl if you are actually a gridiron player on one of the two teams competing. Also, remember that many people go to the game as a family, which of course will mean that their homes are vacant for the afternoon. Seize the opportunity to burgle these houses as you will meet little resistance, and you may also come away with quite a substantial swag of contraband. It is best to steal small, valuable things that are easily transported. Julie Andrews suggests it is unwise to steal refrigerators as these are large, cumbersome and difficult to maneuver. You will find it easier to hock items such as jewelry and up-to-date electronic equipment. If your husband insists on attending the Super Bowl, despite your imploring that he spend time with you, then you may care to pursue couples counselling, or indeed shooting him if this does not render positive results. Though Julie Andrews is quick to remind her readers that murdering your husband can lead to all manner of complications. There is also the very real possibility that your bullet may miss and Hubby may return fire, leaving you dead and bleeding on the settee. Hardly the Super Bowl celebration one would hope for! Toodle-pip!

Monday, November 25, 2013

And now … in new, improved GERMAN flavour

I’m not going to bore any of you with a definition of  onomatopoeia, because most of you already know, and if you don’t, it doesn’t especially matter. In my very first verse book that I wrote for Penguin (it was called In the Garden of Badthings and it was a long time ago) one of the verses is nothing but a collection of nonsense words.
My first book of verse with Penguin. It's still in print, if you go for that kind of thing.

 The verse is called A Swamp Romp, and, when read aloud, it’s meant to sound like trudging through a swamp. That’s all there is. There’s no sharp sting in the tail, and nobody dies in a peculiar way. (I was a little surprised when I read my second book of Penguin verse, The Fed Up Family Album. Just about every character ends up dying in a weird way. 
My second book of verse with Penguin. A complete bloodbath. The corpse count is higher than Romeo and Juliet, which manages to knock off all the teen characters except one.

People are devoured by shearing machines, or expunged by sculptures made of plumbing. One cousin meets her demise in a knitting machine, and another in a coffin perched on roller skates. It didn’t occur to me at the time that  the book is fixated on death, yet purports to be funny. A critic called David Tickell gave me a really hard time about it, and I now see why. I’m also amazed that I can remember such a dreary name as David Tickell after all these years. We pretend the bad notices don’t bother us, but of course they do. If David Tickell were a character in the Fed up Family Album he’d die a particular nasty and bizarre death, no doubt involving machinery. And yet he’s probably a perfectly nice person. We always pretend to believe that, as well. He’s obviously not a nice person. He’s a troglodyte, a reprobate and that 'c' word that I never use. CRITIC. We seem to have wandered off the point a bit. Here is the original version of A Swamp Romp as it featured in In The Garden of Badthings. (There's an illustration too but you really don't need to worry about that.)

Makes no sense at all. Really doesn’t work unless you’re prepared to read it aloud and indulge a horribly precocious author.

To my knowledge, none of my work has been translated into any wonderfully exotic language, not even French. The Night Before Mother’s Day was translated into American English by the painless rendering of ‘Mum’ as ‘Mom’. I was surprised when Penguin told me that someone wanted to translate one of my poems into German. I was even more surprised when I learned that the poem they wanted was A Swamp Romp, which really can’t be translated from English, since it’s not actually in English to begin with. I wished them all the best and was startled to find out, eventually,  what a good job somebody had done of translating Anglish nonsense into German nonsense. Here’s the German version. (And German really is the ideal language to use if you’re going to create the impression of trudging through a swamp.) Eins, zwei, drei …

I'm immensely flattered that someone went to all the trouble of making English onomatopoeia into German onomatopoeia. Here's the German book …

And here's the monster that apparently makes all those German onomatopoeic noises:

And here is the finished cover art of my next Penguin novel, Tigers on the Beach. It's due out early next year.

Pretty, isn't it? The book will investigate such topics as why there are so many weird deaths in a book that is meant to be funny (The Fed up Family Album, not Tigers on the Beach). Yes, it's a book about comedy.