Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Overland #204: 'Reading Coffee' The Writing Process

Overland #204: "Reading Coffe"
And a little on the writing process



It’s a thrill to have a story included in a journal close to my heart: Overland. "Reading Coffee" is my third story published this year and also my third story published in my debut year as a writer. Hopefully there will be many more to come (perhaps one without a beverage in the title.). A hearty congrats to all the contributors in 204, especially the other two fiction writers: Jacinda Woodhead and Charlotte Wood.

I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a small part of the process with you.

I’m not somebody who has a fountain of dazzling ideas, they don’t fall for me from the sky like rain and when I do have one I often examine it briefly and then toss it away in realisation that it’s lacking that indescribable factor that could potentially transform good to great. Yes, it’s the x-factor, how droll.

The idea for the Overland story germinated when I was reading about the 1916 Kalgoorlie Riots in Greek Pioneers in Western Australia by Reginald Appleyard and John N. Yiannakis (a great read for anyone interested in early Greek-Australian history). My Pappou, Lucas Pitsikas, was involved in the commissioning of the book and I’d heard stories about the riots from both him and my uncle, Terry Pitsikas, as a youth. The richness of the story was already there, for me the idea had that x-factor, but I needed to capture the essence and finesse it. After some contemplation, I thought it’d be interesting to embellish the event with some Greek folklore.



Having a family girl like Mary as a protagonist really added the required cultural element. Mary’s family meant that I could delve a little into the nature of the Greek diaspora in Australia at the time. Furthermore, Mary’s age allowed for connection and disconnection, as worried children often experience moments of escape and enjoyment even in the most troubling circumstances (possibly a false generalisation from my own personal observations). Her early ‘discovery’ meant that the tension could simmer throughout while the characters and community were developed.

I wrote the first draft as a skeleton, then fleshed it out with specifics, then culled again for pacing and effect, before laboriously, and often nauseatingly, redrafting again and again and again.

Originally the story had two threads, one was purposefully vague. I cut this due to a difficult-to-publish word limit (even now the story is around 5000 words – I’m not a flash fiction fan). I also sacrificed the thread to make it a generally linear narrative, which allowed for greater clarity and reader accessibility. The culling was literally a ‘kill your darlings moment’ that took an aeon to arrive at. I may explore the vanquished thread at a later date. Who knows - it could become the genesis of another tale?

The opening and ending, in essence, belong to both threads, and I was a little nervous about keeping them but Jane Gleeson-White, the Overland fiction editor, was right in encouraging me to retain both.

I hope that the story brings a little  awareness to our nation’s racist past (although Overland readers are usually a very socially aware group). It’s sad that even today there are the occasional children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of migrants who claim that the ‘new kind’ of migrants aren’t the same. To those people I’d like to scream banshee-like: ‘lights on and wake up!’ The fact is that during previous eras, their parents, grandparents and great grandparents were thought of in a similar, or frequently far worse, manner. Horror, horror!

My prime aspiration, however, is for readers to enjoy "Reading Coffee". For me the story always takes precedence. Ultimately, I’d prefer the reader to leave thinking that it’s a great narrative – any thematic afterthoughts are a rewarding bonus.

As for the genre: I do enjoy, and write, open-ended short stories, this one though, has an almost-closed ending, a rarity in the modern open-ended short story world.

Feel free to comment on "Reading Coffee" and I hope you like Overland #204. It’s a real honour to play a small, humbling part in it – clich├ęd as it sounds. You can become a friend of Overland Literary Journal on Facebook too. Yes, this is a tacky plug for a journal that’s published me – but I am a fan and subscriber myself.

I’d like to especially thank Jane Gleeson-White who heroically saved me from a couple of anachronisms. Jane was a consummate professional and a delight to work with, a loukoumi herself, whose enthusiasm invigorated me.

And that’s that. For the Perthites out there, Overland #204 will be sold at New Edition and possibly Planet Bookstore. I’ve been told that it’s ubiquitous in its hometown of Melbourne and other states.



And with a final side note on my current reading: I’ve just finished The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Lots of fun, easy to sink your lupine canines into; it’s a nicely paced blend of literature and genre, and genre parody. One of my unpolished book reviews about it to come soon. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Short story: 'Buffalo' by John Kessel

"Buffalo" by John Kessel




"Buffalo" is one of those must read stories, deservedly winning the Sturgeon Award as well as the Locus.


John Kessel is a struggling immigrant in the US who works hard as a logger to get by during The Great Depression. He clings to a flame of future hope and this is why he reads science fiction, especially that of HG Wells. In their first encounter, Jonathon merely sees HG Wells.Their second meeting examines both their lives at a later date.

 
It does not sound like much but "Buffalo" is exceptional. The Great Depression and the US at the time felt well drawn and real. The psyche of a migrant worker; hope through reading and dreams; and the idea of meaning in literature, are all intelligently explored themes here. The atmosphere of the period is tangible too: Duke Ellington is mentioned and Roosevelt's attempts to defy the depression are delved into through the characters dealing with the arduous period.


I'd recommend "Buffalo" to any reader. It lingers like a good whisky well after you’ve finished.




The Locus Awards Anthology is a treasure chest of stories well chosen by the Perth anthologist, Jonathan Strahan. They aren’t the pulpy trashy sort of genre writing but tales that would appeal to any literary minded reader. There isn't a dud amongst them; most are masterworks of the field.  In the collection I also discovered "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley, which is in 'My Favourite Novella List'  (http://anthonypanegyres.blogspot.com/2011/03/my-favourite-novellas.html). I have a writer friend, Daniel Simpson, who used "Jefty is Five" by Harlan Ellison (another great tale) in his thesis. They are just a couple of the many stories that gleam in The Locus Awards, another one will be mentioned soon. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The 'Oneiral' Effect

The 'Oneiral' Effect

I'd like to qualify this before I begin that I view myself as a Greek-Australian. I'm proud of both identities and comfortable with saying so. I am, however, not overly patriotic but interested. I've read Seferis, Elytis, Kazantzakis, Psellus and Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Homer (etc); I enjoy Greek music: rembetika, smyrneika, Haris Alexiou, Dalaras, Bithikotsis, Melina Kana, Papazoglou, Lidakis and Malamas (once again the list would go on). I like speaking and hearing Greek.

As for the Australian side: I write in English;  I don't mind saying 'goodaye'; I'm a huge West Coast Eagles fan in the AFL; I follow cricket; and I laughed non stop during The Castle. I care about our nation and who we vote for. I love Whitlam, admire Fraser, adore Perth and wish I could save all of Australia's unique flora and fauna. Go Bob Brown!

So having qualified that I'm proud of both cultures - and not in the nationalistic sense of saying that either are superior to the myriad of other cultures out there - I'd like to post about the 'oneiral effect'.

Often migrants from non-Anglo-Saxon/Celtic backgrounds cling to traditions and values of the eras and countries they migrated from. We often hold ideals of the Motherland/Fatherland being a dreamlike place, where things are purer, people better, the culture superior. For the sake of this slap-dash post, I'm calling this the 'oneiral effect' - there's probably a more formal term out there already in use (but that would require research and this isn't that type of blog) - and as 'oneiro' means 'dream' in Greek it felt for me an apt way to describe it. The oneiral effect often places ethnic communities in a time-warp. Not a complete time-warp but one where things are moving much slower than the state the Motherland is in.

There is a poignancy and beauty in the need to cling to a past that has actually moved on. I know many people in Australia who use Greek words long extinct in the modern vernacular; I know of  traditions that even second, third and forth generation Greeks hold at weddings that have vanished from much of their Fatherland, the Patrida.

With the ease these days of electronic communication this effect will lessen over time but it will still maintain some thin presence. It's both sad and touching; there are dollops of pothos and pathos here. I'm mentioning all this because Neal Ascherson  (in his history Black Sea - the Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism - a brilliant work) mentions a story which resonated with me with its depiction of a culture under the full oneiral effect.

Dio Chrysostom (a Greek in the Roman period) was a travelling philosopher and arrived in a dying Greek town of Olbia - on the Black Sea. It was a town of now only 3000, which once had been a vibrant city of 30-50000 people. In the surrounding countryside lived the peoples of the steppe, the nomadic Scythians. Dio had come from the Motherland, so to speak, the modern world and in this largely ruined city he found a people, the Olbians, clinging to a Hellenic culture from a few hundred years ago. This to me is the extreme form of the oneiral effect: distance and isolation in a community clinging to and attempting to maintain the cultural 'superiority' of the motherland.

Dio thought the place odd. Here beards were still worn in an ancient Hellenic fashion, while in Dio's Greece, shaggy beards were no longer all the rage. A handsome young man on horseback on recognising that Dio hailed from the distant Fatherland, boasted to Dio of his Hellenism: his feats of bravery, his interest in philosophy and his many male lovers. While in the Greece of Dio's time, the poetry now concentrated on the beauty of women.

In Olbia, they still all sat down in an archaic fashion outside the Temple of Zeus to hold their debates. Olbians loudly boasted that they knew Homer by heart (can't be a bad thing) yet their Greek was antiquated and poorly accented and the city in ruins. They also wore Scythian clothing and had in turn been influenced from the 'foreign' surrounds. They were like some ethnic communities: both more traditional but also naturally influenced by their region too despite their attempts not to be.

The Olbians in alien lands clung to archaisms in an Hellas long since gone. And although the oneiral effect occurs in our own present day society, not much in our modern wired era of communication compares to Olbia - except in a few rare pockets nearing extinction.

Although, I occasionally feel nostalgic for the Hellas of my grandparents and great grandparents, I realise that times change, culture changes, and that today's world may be growing in terms of population but it is certainly growing smaller on most other accounts. Our global technologically-powered proximity means that the oneiral effect will continue to be diminished too.

The Olbian tale is, nevertheless, touching; and for history buffs, Neal Ascherson's Black Sea, The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism is well worth a read.



Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review: 'The Secret History of Moscow' by Ekaterina Sedia

Book Review: The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia


In 90s Moscow, Galina, who has experienced visions in the past, sees her younger sister, Masha, transform into a jackdaw and fly away. There's a spate of missing people all likely to have followed suit. In a quest to see what is happening, Fyodor, a homeless street artist; Yakov a cop and Galina jump into Moscow's 'Underground' - a fantastic world of folklore and Russian history.

If you're thinking American Gods and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, then you've hit the bullseye.

Sedia's prose is quite beautiful and she uses sensory imagery to dazzling effect. Having said that, a bit of fine tuning by the editor may have made this a better piece as on the odd occasion the writing, impressive as it is, jars unintentionally.

It seems to me that Sedia is attempting to convey Russia's compelling but often tragic past to the reading world. She succeeds in painting a vivid picture of both the Russia of the nineties and of the Russia past, right back to folklore times. Invading Mongol-Tartars; early Greek and Scandinavian influences; the idea of Byzantium enduring with Moscow reigning as the Third Rome; Tsarist Russia; Communist Russia; and Post-Communist Russia are all touched on in The Secret History of Moscow.

There are, however, some annoying techniques. Character sketches are used throughout rather than the usual back-story being integrated into the the text. This slows the pace, although I'll admit to being hooked by the tale of Fyodor and Oksana (an attractive gypsy lady). These back story narratives are giant flag posts waving the reader to the different classes and issues in Russia; they could have been interwoven far more subtly.

A similar thing occurs with historical info-drops, but then again it is hard to imagine Sedia's novel functioning without them - readers unfamiliar with Russia would have required some clarity.

Galina (apart from the ending) and Yakov do not seem to develop as much as I'd anticipated and Sedia's dialogue wasn't nearly as convincing here as her prose. It often acts as an uncomfortable insert to tog the story along. Dialogue needs to do more than just that – I’m a firm believer in Janet Burroway’s idea that effective dialogue requires a dual purpose (A Guide to Narrative Craft) .

As for the plot, it lacks some bite and, despite the elegant descriptive prose, seems adolescent at times. The underground landscape appears forced and fairytalish, and the story falls into place a little too late and a little too conveniently. Moreover, there is not enough tension in the novel's central part. Events provide wonder rather than doing more by adding to plot tension. For instance, Yakov meets his long deceased grandfather but it does not progress much further beyond discovering his own grandfather's back-story.

Despite all the before criticism, I'd like to congratulate Ekaterina Sedia on a sound second novel. There are parts that I truly enjoyed and she's certainly a talented writer with a bright future. After reading A Secret History of Moscow I would not be averse to reading her shorter work for a better feel and while the novel, The Alchemy of Stone is not on my immediate reading list, it may well find a place on those shelves in the future. Ekaterina is one of those genre readers with a literary bend and that's the type of genre fiction I like so I hope she enjoys a successful career.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Short story: 'My Side of the Matter' by Truman Capote

"My Side of the Matter" by Truman Capote

"My Side of the Matter" is a humorous short story written from the perspective of a sixteen year old husband, supposedly hapless and caught in the clutches of a pregnant wife and two eccentric aunts. The reader is positioned to sympathise with the husband’s ordeal while at the same time it’s comically unveiled that he’s certainly not blameless in the whole ‘Southern’ fiasco. 

The distinct voice in "My Side of the Matter" makes it an excellent piece for any writer who wants to examine a story in terms of point of view. It also isn’t saturated in the flowery prose that is omnipresent in Capote’s work (which can be dificult for some readers to stomach - although I like it).

While a celebrity in his own era, in contemporary times, Capote is often linked to the film Breakfast at Tiffany's which enjoys a cultish status among fans. Perhaps Audrey Hepburn has ensured that Capote remains in our literary landscape? The release of his non-fiction 'novel': In Cold Blood on screen has also revived another text and any chance of him becoming an ephemeral figure has vanished forever - excuse the pun.

Capote was also an accomplished short story writer, something to be said in a time that saw shorter works thrive and even be handsomely paid for. In addition to "My Side of the Matter", "The Diamond Guitar" is another Capote story well worth a read.