Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book launch

The last book launch I ever had was for a terrible book called The Story of Admiral Sneeze. My first book, Hippotabus, had already been published, and I was in a great hurry to get my second book published (after all, I was seventeen and rapidly approaching middle age). It's the only one of my books that I deeply dislike. Whenever I see it in secondhand shops I buy it then dispose of it ecologically. I kindly ask librarians if it might be removed from their shelves, on the grounds that it's nearly fifty years old and, also, shithouse. There are so many new books brought into the world, we owe it to readers to make them as good as we can. I remember people saying nice things at the launch, even though they can't possibly have thought the book was any good. I think they were indulging me, the seventeen-year-old geek from West Heidelberg.

A really terrible book.

And now, nearly fifty years later, I am to have a second book launch for my latest title The Night Before Mother's Day. It's a horror story, illustrated beautifully by Judy Horacek. I visited my stroke-recovery speech therapist this week, and read the text to her. (I want to read it aloud at the launch, but I'm not quite ready yet.) The speech therapist told me that I still have a slight problem with my autonomic nervous system. For those not in the know, the ANS is the human body's special default nervous system, which takes care of things we don't think about. For example, it keeps us blinking our eyes, so they don't dry out like raisins. It also keeps us breathing. My ANS is able to fulfil these two functions but there is one more thing it's supposed to do and which it is not doing at the moment. It regulates the swallowing impulse, ensuring that we swallow saliva when we speak so that the mouth and throat remain well lubricated. Most of you do this without thinking.Since the stroke I actually can't do it without thinking, which means my mouth is often too dry or sometimes too full of saliva (Yech!) to enunciate certain words. I have trouble with polysyllables, so I have to think of them carefully before I articulate them. My therapist told me that if I am going to recite from the book, I should mark those parts of the verse where I must swallow, and also highlight words that are liable to give me trouble, so that I can recite the text without too many longueurs. Given that Tracy Harvey has already created a YouTube for the book, it may seem strange that I am so determined to recite the text myself. But it's a small challenge that I've set. I'm not going to recover properly without setting myself small challenges. I even contemplated standing on one leg for the recitation, and varying from left to right between verses. But while that will be particularly hard for me, it probably won't be terribly entertaining for the audiuence. It won't be a patch on Cirque du Soleil, and that is the level of professionalism that people have come to expect at book launches. So, it will be a straightforward reading of around thirty short verses. I'm practising constantly to give the audience the best rendition of the text and added incentive to buy the book. (By the way, coming to the launch doesn’t mean you have to buy the book, but it will solve your Mother's Day gift dilemma if you do. Hope I see you there.  Allen and Unwin, my new favourite publisher, was kind to suggest having a launch. Readings Carlton was even kinder to supply the venue.It will take place tomorrow Thursday 26 April, at Readings Carlton ay 6.30. There are no official invitations, you don't need to RSVP, just turn up if it's convenient for you. Tracy Harvey, one of Melvourbne's very best comedians and comedy writers will be doing the honours, so come along and have a drink, some nibbles and a laugh or two, but go easy on the Cheezels. Books and Cheezels don't mix.

I promise not to stand on one leg. And you'll meet my mum!

 A really good book.

Lastly, here are some pictures of the launch, taken by director Bryce Ives, about whom you will shortly be hearing quite a lot.

A selection of backlist title at the launch, just to remind you that the brand new hardback of Sister Madge's Book of Nuns has just been  reissued by Working Title press.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Auntie Fran

Jesus once said 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' He said quite a lot of things, but that is one of the better ones.
But it's hard to get your head round it when you're a kid. My Mum's best friend was Fran Smith. Mum went to school with Fran at PLC, they were very best mates. And I can remember Fran coming to visit when we were little kids. She was 'Auntie Fran' and to me she was the picture of elegance. She was slim, she had excellent hair and she drove a nice car. She called Mum 'Mazza', in a way that seemed stylish. I've used Fran as the basis for a character in one of my books.

As far as we kids were concerned, Fran had only one fault, and that was that she didn't know how to 'receive' a gift. Mum loved Fran and whenever she came around she would have a little gift ready for her. It was never jewellery or anything expensive like that. It was usually a cake or something interesting that Mum had bought at an auction. Mum was always in the auction houses buying boxes of things called 'sundries'. These were brown cardboard boxes full of things that didn't really deserve to be auctioned on their own. So you might get a box containing a Rupert the Bear book, some dolls, a bicycle pump and a wood carving - all for two dollars. One of the weirdest things we found in a sundry box was a bicycle pump that seemed to work backwards. Rather than blowing air out, it sucked the air back in. You could use it to deflate bicycle tyres, if you ever felt the need. None of us knew what the strange thing was (this is years before the Internet) but Mum - through talking to a scientist - found out one day that it was a 'smoke tester', used in his daily work and could he buy it? Mum sold it for a lot more than she paid, so we were all happy. I kept the book and my sisters kept the dolls. The wood carving was set aside. When Fran came around one night, Mum had the wood carving all wrapped up nicely in pretty paper. . She thought Fran might like it. And she did like it, but there was one thing about Fran that we could could never understand. She would actually abuse Mum for giving her a present. The conversation would go like this:

Mum: Hello Fran.
Fran: Hello, Mazza.
Mum: Would you like a cup of tea?
Fran: Look, I'd love one.
Mum puts the kettle on.
Mum: Oh, by the way, Fran, I was at an auction the other day and I found something nice that you might like.
Mum hands over the carving wrapped in gift paper. Fran frowns.
Fran: Oh Mazza, you shouldn't go buying me gifts.
Mum: It's just a little thing. Open it.
Fran: You're very naughty for buying me a present.
MUm I just thought you might like it.
Fran: Oh Mazza, I hate you for doing this.
Fran unwraps the present and admires the wooden carving.
Fran. Oh, it’s beautiful.
Mum: I'm glad you like it.
Fran: You're terrible to give me things. Oh, It's so pretty, I really hate you.
Mum: It's nothing. I got it in a box of sundries.
Fran: Mazza, I can't possibly accept this. You're awful, giving me things.
Mum: But I like to.
Mum brings in the tea.
Fran: Oh, and you made a cake too. You're very naughty to go to effort.
Mum: I just bought it, I didn't make it.
Fran: Mazza, you're horrible, you little shit, going to all this effort. The wood carving and now the cake.
Mum: Milk?
Fran: Yes, milk please. Well, I feel so spoiled by you that I can hardly bear to look at you, you grotesque harpy. What a bitch you are! Presents and cake …
Mum: I think the cake might actually be a bit stale. You can dunk it in your tea.
Fran: Oh Mazza, this is delicious. You've been too nice to me. I don't deserve it, you horrible cow. Christ you make me sick sometimes with your generosity.
Mum: Oh, I don't mind. You're my friend.
Fran:  Ooh, this tea is nice.
Mum: Would you like a chocolate biscuit?
Fran: Mazza, if you dare to offer me a chocolate biscuit I will burn your stupid ugly house down. Oh yes, just the one, thanks.

Auntie Fran, you see, had great difficulty in receiving. She never thought she was worth it. I've exaggerated the conversation just slightly. Fran would never have called Mum a 'shit', but it's how we kids heard it. What was the matter with Auntie Fran? She was Mum's best friend but she was always abusive when you offered her a present. Of course, when we grew up we learned that this is fairly common behaviour - people pretending to be cross if someone gives them something unexpected. But as a kid, I just couldn't understand it. I vowed I would never be like Auntie Fran and if someone gave me a present I would always be grateful. Actually I overdid it a bit. When Mrs Wittingham nextdoor gave me a bag of lemons from her tree I practically collapsed with delight. 'Thank you so much, Mrs Wittingham, for these very beautiful fragrant lemons. I love them all.' Mrs Wittingham backed away nervously. Grandpa gave me an old dictionary once when I was in primary school.  It did look fine, with its leather binding, but I overdid the gratitude, with 'I don't know what to say for this precious gift.' Dad sighed and told me to say 'Thank you.' But my whole sense of gift-receiving etiquette had been completely bent out of shape by Fran's expressions of hatred to Mum for giving her presents. Sometimes we would ask Mum not to give Fran a present, so that we wouldn't hear Fran's endless litany about how awful Mum was. We didn't like to hear Mum being insulted for being nice.

We've lost contact with Auntie Fran, but I hope she has learned how to receive a present. The Queen will be a little miffed when she sends a 100th birthday card to Fran. Will Fran send it back, writing, 'You're awful' and 'Christ, I hate you," all over it?

Friday, April 6, 2012

What's in a Title?

Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires
Trimalchio in West Egg
On the Road to West Egg
Under the Red, White, and Blue
Gold-Hatted Gatsby and The High-Bouncing Lover.

Okay, you probably know what these are. They're the various titles that were considered for 'The Great Gatsby' by F Scott Fitzgerald. And if today we knew that magnicient book as 'On the Road to West Egg', we'd probably laugh if we learned that the publisher had once considered calling it 'The Great Gatsby'.

This cover art was complete before Fitzgerald finished writing the novel. He loved the picture, and adapted some of his prose to make the cover more relevant. (He was probably afraid the publisher might reject it.)

Choosing a title is hard. Unless I get a flash of inspiration while writing, I usually leave the selection of a title till the very end of the writing process, which is why my book 'The Shiny Guys' was for many months known as 'Ward 44'. It's even on the contract. Editor Dmetri Kakmi liked the title because Chekhov wrote a peculiar short story called 'Ward Number Six', which he thought had a natty ring. But since most of the literary references in 'The Shiny Guys' are to Kafka and not Chekhov, it didn't really fit. I originally called the book 'Ward 44', because that was the number of the ward where I ended up in 1985 when I had my first serious encounter with clinical depression. The title helped me write the story, because whenever I opened the document on my computer, there were the words 'Ward 44' and I was mentally transported back to that unhappy time. But 'Ward 44' sounds self-important and far too serious. I really didn't want to write that kind of book. As the story developed with the appearance of shiny antennaed creatures in my narrator's peripheral vision, I was determined that these creatures would somehow find their way into the title. But in the book they are referred to as 'Nestorians' or 'giant cockroaches'; another tip of the hat to Kafka and his most famous short story, Metamorphosis, where a typical man called Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he has transformed into a cockroach. (Actually, I don't think Kafka ever refers to Samsa as a 'cockroach', but rather a bug that seems very like one.)

'Get your hands off me, you filthy cockroach, if indeed you are a cockroach..'

And 'The Nestorians' seems a lousy title for a book, since it's difficult to remember, though the more rabid of Doctor Who fans seem to have no difficulty recalling the names of all the aliens in the good doctors' adventures. When I last checked in on the Sci Fi channel he was battling a sort of giant Dutch alien chicken called an Ergon.

The terrifying Ergon, that lives in a crypt in Amsterdam. (If I have this wrong I'm quite sure the Whovians will put me in my place.)

Anyway, I think that most readers familiar with Kafka's work take it as read that Samsa has become a cockroach. The important thing is that Samsa has become a repellant creature and he has to deal with people's horrified reactions to him. A lot of teens seem to like this story, and I think I know why. In my teen years I certainly turned into a bit of a 'repellant creature' myself, at least for part of the time. I changed by the day, growing pimples, greasy hair, then ugly soft hair on my face. My body became long and gangly and I lost all coordination. My voice went squeaky. I was grotesque. I might as well have been a giant cockroach.

Me having a bad hair day in Year Nine.

The last line in 'The Shiny Guys 'is a direct reference to 'Metamorphosis', even though I don't mention the book anywhere in the story. It's a bit of foreknowledge that gives the ending an extra kick for the initiated. But you don't have to have read 'Metamorphosis' to gather what is meant by the last line. (There is quite a lot of mention of 'last lines' throughout the story, as Colin, my narrator, is reading a Kafka novel, 'The Castle', which doesn't actually have a last line - only a last half-line.  It seems Kafka lost interest, as he finished mid-sentence.)

 It's a terrible anticlimax, or I found it so after devoting hours to it, even if I was listening to a talking book version as I was travelling around Western Australia. I should probably have been reading Winton or Stow for local colour, but I was reading Kafka's 'The Castle' -  and from now on, I will always associate Western Australia with a bizarre landscape over which i must travel to arrive at a mysterious castle where I will finally learn exactly what is going on.

The coast of Western Australia. Eagle-eyed viewers may see a castle in the distance. Or not.

 As for the title of my last book, I wanted it to be playful and creepy, which kind of sums up the book itself . I thought of 'The Shiny Guys', which could either be malevolent creatures or even decent, handsome ones. (Although 'shiny' characters in novels do tend to be horrible. Just look at Edward Cullen. ) Penguin didn't like the title at first. I rewrote the book so that the term 'Shiny Guys' was used more often, and I justified the title that way. The book had another title that I liked. It was 'Good night, Mental-case,' which is how Colin bids sweet dreams to his best friend and fellow patiuent Mango. But that title was vetoed early on, as we didn't want to offend mental-cases.

Titles can be buggers to think up. The members of the Monty Python troupe recall how frustrating it was to come up with a title for their brilliantly crazy TV show. They went through several alternatives:
Owl Stretching Time
Gwen Dibley's flying Circus
Sex and Violence
Whither Canada?
(Some of these titles became individual episode titles in the first series.)

In the end the show became much bigger than the title and it's hard to think of it being called anything else but 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'. I feel sorry for people who found out about Monty Python via their movies, which are pretty patchy, to be honest. The team's best work was undoubtedly the first three series they did of their TV show. The second series especially had the best sketches and  animations by Terry Gilliam, which tied the whole show together. But I'll blog about Monty Python another time. This is supposed to be a blog about titles. And it's quite relevant to me at the moment because I've written a musical tribute to the life of Australian cookery celebrity, Margaret Fulton. It's going to be staged later this year so it needs a title. But no one can agree on what to call it. Margaret disliked my first idea, which was 'Margaret Fulton: Communist'. Margaret was indeed a communist and quite committed, but then communism under Stalin rather rapidly lost its gloss and people were disinclined to identify themselves as 'red'. I love the fact that Margaret Fulton, who is to many an image of conservative suburban cosiness, was also attending communist meetings and reading about Marxism. 'Margaret Fulton: Communist' is a surprising title that grabs the attention, which is what I was trying to do. It was also accurate, but Margaret preferred a title a little less inflammatory. And so, we devised a list. It has been sent to Margaret (who does not use email) in the hope that one of them grabs her attention. The first dozen or so are all her suggestions. I'll keep you posted on this. My preferred title for the moment is 'Margaret Fulton: Warrior Princess'. We'll see how we go with that one. But here are the present contenders:

Margaret Fulton Through a Looking Glass
Margaret Fulton, Don't Sing at the Table
MF - An artichoke is only a thistle
MF - Not to be dismissed
MF - Out of the Kitchen
MF - With a light touch
MF- With warmth and humour
MF - Not Really Intimidating
MF - The Secret Ingredient
MF - Revolutionary
MF - Capable of Cooking a good Dish
MF - Commands Respect
MF - Self Respect Works Miracles
MF - Shares Her Life
MF - Commands Respect
MF - Revolutionary
 MF - Braveheart
MF - Warrior Princess
Make Your own MF,
MF - Two inches larger than life.(The cardboard cutouts)
Margaret Fulton Knocked Me Over
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner - The Margaret Fulton Musical
Margaret Fulton in the Red Corner

Margaret Fulton not being a communist.

Thus we come to the end of another post. There is no book puffery that I can append, as is the wont of most Facebook authors, so I'll close by mentioning that transcendentally talented Craig Smith has completed the design and illustration of my new book, Heather Fell In the Water, a cautionary tale about the need for kids to take swimming lessons. It’s the easiest title I've ever dreamt up, as the story features my little sister, Heather, who had this extraordinary habit of falling in water, no matter where we went. Even in places where there wasn't very much water at all she would somehow find some and fall in it. Hence, the family car was always equipped with a change of clothing for Heather. Craig's work is typically beautiful but I really can't show you any of it just yet. I can show you the new cover of the recent Sister Madge hardback reissue. If anything, the 'Heather' pictures are even better.

And if you'd like to hear Tracy Harvey give a performance of my book , The Night Before Mother's Day, accompanied by Judy Horacek illustrations,  go here.