Peace on Earth

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

from “Christmas Bells”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

TV Shows in 2015 (or, Not Quite a Top Ten List)

We live in an age of lists. The 10 best authors, 10 best films, 10 best songs about love and loss and war and hope. Almost by definition, a list presupposes a kind of expertise, that the maker of the list is in a position to weed out the dross and provide a subjective but nonetheless informed short-cut to quality. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but, for me, thinking about a ‘10 best of for 2015’ is complicated by the birth of my son. I don’t have a pool of anything that isn’t newborn related from which to draw and measure my 10 best of. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, and I didn’t expect to eat as much fiction or music or cinema, or whatever it was I did before I became a father, in 2015, but 10 isn’t a big number. It’s less than one of something a month. But all I could afford were glimpses of things, their place in a list, and sometimes, in the background, the TV. So, without further ado and in no particular order, a glimpse of my top 10 TV shows for 2015.

UNREAL  

UnReal exposes the sick, twisted heart of shows like The Bachelor.

UnReal is a dark and satirical look at the making of a reality dating show, Everlasting, loosely based on The Bachelor. It’s produced and co-written by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and based on her film Sequin Raze. Shapiro is a writer, filmmaker, artist and musician, and spent nine seasons working on The Bachelor in the US which provided her with the meat for UnReal. UnReal begins at the beginning, with Everlasting’s executive producer, Quinn, conducting the opening sequence from the master control suite. The season’s first contestant arrives in a horse-drawn carriage, and alights carrying a violin, which she proceeds to play. The bachelor gives the show’s host a kind of WTF nod as the contestant introduces herself as Shamiqua. Cut! Quinn yells. They can’t have a black contestant opening the show, she’s not ‘wifey’ enough. When Quinn’s accused of being racist she replies it’s not her, it’s America. Meanwhile, Rachel, one of the producers under Quinn’s wing, is en route to the Everlasting villa with some of the other contestants. She’s wearing a T-shirt that reads THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE, and lies on the floor of the limo amidst a forest of clean white legs and heels in a tightly framed shot that gives her a kind of claustrophobic, interred look, like she’s in a coffin. Which in many respects she is. They all are. The bachelor, the contestants, the crew. For this is a nasty world full of savagery and conflict where the only governing constant is the drug of the show, to which everybody’s bound but from which no-one can completely escape. And the Network looms large, fucking and corrupting and violating everything it touches to ramp the tension and secure its slot in its time. There is nothing else. And although UnReal isn’t as overtly vicious as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, it’s on the same spectrum. SBS has acquired the rights to season two and will probably air in 2016.

HAPPYISH

aHAPPYish

Happysish is about happiness, and unhappiness, and the overpopulated terrain that lies between. It was originally called Pigs In Shit, with Philip Seymour Hoffman slated for the lead until his death in 2014. The role eventually went to Steve Coogan, and the program survived one 10-episode season before the axe. It rated poorly, received mixed reviews from critics, with many calling it smug and self-satisfied rubbish, and was perhaps one of the finest comedies to come out of the US since Community. Coogan plays Thom Payne, an intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive advertising executive struggling with the 21st century. He lives in Woodstock, New York, with his partner, an intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive artist, and their young son. The ad agency where Thom works is being taken over by a couple of German wunderkinds who represent the most abject and perishable aspects of creativity, and are vaguely reminiscent of the Bond villains Mr Wint and Mr Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever; smiling, genial, and lethal. But not all the action takes place at the office or revolves around work. Thom’s real passion is literature, and writing, and thinking – the writers and thinkers mentioned in each episode are given acting credits, like STARRING SIGMUND FRUED, CHARLES BUKOWSKI, AND SEVEN BILLION  ARSEHOLES. Or the final episode which starred CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, PHILLIP LARKIN, AND JOSEF STALIN. Which go a long way to painting the melodies of the show. May it rest in peace. Five stars.

MR ROBOT

aMr RobotMr Robot begins with the protagonist, Elliot, a young man dressed in a black hoodie with a handsome, intense face, sitting in Ron’s Coffee Shop watching the door. The owner, Ron, comes in and takes a table. Elliot joins him, and by way of introduction tells Ron that Ron isn’t his real name, he changed it from Rohit Mehta on buying Ron’s Coffee Shop six years ago. Rohit (Ron) looks alarmed. Who are you? he says. Elliot continues, saying he likes Ron’s Coffee Shop because the Wi-Fi’s fast. So impressed was he by the speed, he explains, he hacked the network, and discovered Rohit runs a website called Plato’s Boys, and that onion protocoling isn’t as anonymous as Rohit might like to think. Rohit demands to know what Elliot wants. Money? Elliot doesn’t give a shit about money. Elliot says that although he doesn’t jerk off to little boys, he understands where Rohit’s coming from. He knows what it’s like to be different. He’s been different his whole life, and as he gets up to leave, sirens can be heard in the distance. They’re coming for Ron, with Elliot’s anonymous tip timed to prevent Ron from contacting his systems administrator and wiping all the incriminating data. Elliot leaves. Because this is what he does. He hacks into people’s lives finding injustices to fix, inadequacies to help, and lies to out. His awkward and misplaced heroics finally lead him to an anarchist group called fSociety, and so begins their journey to bring down corporate America. Apart from Christian Slater, who plays the enigmatic figurehead of this ragtag collection of misfits, the cast, along with its maker, Sam Esmail, are unknowns. Which is massive, given it was picked up and distributed in the US by NBC. Mr Robot’s billed as a cyber-punk thriller, and owes as much to David Lynch as it does to Fight Club, Taxi Driver, and Stanley Kubrick, and proved a canny broadcasting move as it now has a cult following moving into its second season.

THE LEFTOVERS

aThe Leftovers 1The premise is simple: one day, 140 million people disappear from the planet without trace, cause, or any obvious connection. This is the bedrock upon which the series is based: what if something truly inexplicable happened in our lifetime, something without precedent, like the big bang, and without inherent logic or reason? What then? How do we live with such an event, and the overwhelming unknowing of what happened, and whether what happened might one day happen again? How do we tame this wild ignorance into something we can manage and discuss over dinner? The Leftovers is one of the most important television programs on air. It asks, when faced with something so beyond our abilities to rationalise or understand, why do we turn to belief? Why do we need to believe it must be this, or that? And once determined, why the need to bunker down in camps of believers and non-believers? This is the religious imperative. And The Leftovers wonders what it is that religion fills, but like UnReal and Mr Robot, The Leftovers is a drama, not a polemic, and it doesn’t assume to know the answers. It’s about the people, the leftovers, the ones who stayed behind, and what’s possible in a world where tomorrow may in all likelihood never come.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

aThe Man in the High Castle

Another show that carries a dangerous premise is The Man in the High Castle. Taken from a novel by Phillip K Dick , it’s a revisionist take on World War II, with the Axis powers winning and dividing the US into three parts: The Pacific States of America governed by Imperial Japan, the Greater Nazi Reich which runs the length of the east coast and west as far as Texas, and a neutral band between the two called the Rocky Mountain States. There’s a resistance, and the pilot wastes no time setting up the violent tensions of occupation. Then a spanner. One of the protagonists finds some newsreel footage of Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945. Like The Leftovers, you’d be hard pressed to find a more dramatic rapture event than this. If the footage is to be believed, then everything is a lie, and somewhere, in some not too distant space-time continuum, there’s an alternative reality where the Allies won the war. It’s a bit like Winston’s paperweight in 1984. Where once ye abandoned all hope, now there is a window. Needless to say, when the occupying forces discover this footage exists, the chase is on. Which is as far as I got, so no spoiler for this little nugget.

GOTHAM

aGothamGotham is a noir prequel to the Batman story that revolves around the day-to-days of the Gotham City Police Department, in particular Detective James Gordon. Unlike the Leftovers, or The Man in the High Castle, Gotham doesn’t break any ground. But to its credit, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. The production is lavishly operatic, with all the tropes, stereotypes and social idioms of the comic book given a bang crash pow course in moral complexity, and the acting highwires between the histrionic and the ridiculous without ever losing its grip. Which is no small feat. However, what struck me about Gotham was the music. In the first episode, a singer auditions for a nightclub spot with Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain. Next episode the New York Dolls pop up. Iggy Pop, The Stooges. Then in episode 04 another singer auditions for the same nightclub with a pared back version of Spellbound by Siouxsie and the Banshess. Now, Souixie and the Banshees don’t get out much these days, and given what had preceded it, I checked out the credits for SOUND. Turns out to be Graeme Revell, frontman for the 1980’s punk industrial electronic group SPK. Revell’s been composing for TV and film for over two decades, with all sorts of titles to his name, from Dead Calm in 1989, to The Crow, Bride of Chucky, The Matrix and its sequels, Pitch Black and its sequels, Lara Croft, Sin City, Dennis the Menace Strikes Again, and the list goes on. I was reminded of Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance who wrote the score for Balibo, won a Golden Globe with her score for Whale Rider, and is perhaps best known for her work with Ridley Scott on Black Hawk Down, The Insider, and Gladiator. Or the French electronica duo Air who scored Sofia Coppola’s film The Virgin Suicides. Or Clint Mansell, formerly with Pop Will Eat Itself, who scored The Fountain with Kronos Quartet. Or Trent Reznor’s score for The Social Network. Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood. These are more than bands or musicians providing a song to top or tail a movie or soundtrack a car chase, but an industry shift away from traditional composers like Morricone and Williams to the Billboard alternative music charts.

I’m not sure what it all means, if anything, these swings in cinema and TV, with the recent crop of movie stars appearing in shows like Hannibal, True Detective, House of Cards, Fargo, the trend some say began with The Sopranos and The Wire towards a more literary narrative arc, programs that can’t be dipped into like tracks on an album but have to be watched from the beginning to the end, episode by episode. Maybe we’ve become more demanding, as an audience. Who knows? What’s good to know – even though I didn’t make it to 10 – is that quality television is starting to become more fashionable than it has for some time. Which makes parenthood just that little bit easier. Or not. Who knows?

 

Sean Macgillicuddy

 

Thoughts in Light of Recent Events

grey area quoteA couple of months ago, I wrote about what I expected to get out of quitting my part-time job. In truth, quitting my job has left me feeling (perpetually) uneasy. I no longer have the option to fall back on bakery work if I fail to find a full-time job, and I am gradually chipping away at my hard-earned savings. Though, with nothing to fall back on, I have no choice but to work hard towards securing my dream job, so in a way, quitting has been a positive move towards my (hopefully) bright future. Quitting my job has also allowed me to spend more time with family and friends; this has been invaluable.

Clearly, risk-taking has its perks, and its consequences; I guess you just have to take the good with the bad. Having said that, it is not my belief that one can easily brush off the feelings that come with unemployment. I can’t even begin to imagine how unemployment would feel with a family to support. In instances like this, people will reach out to those around them. Through this, some will be told that their situation could be worse; other major issues exist in the world. In the past, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of making these judgements myself. But, what I’ve come to realise recently, is that the issues of someone who has been born into privilege, and the issues of someone who has been born into disadvantage, are not mutually exclusive. Hurt is hurt. When someone expresses feelings of hurt in a time when many are dealing with tragedy, it does not mean they believe their feelings are more important than those of others who are suffering.

Having said that, I do think it can be beneficial at times for individuals to take a step back, reflect, and be thankful for what they have. Turning twenty-one last week, worries were playing on my mind about my future. These worries were disrupted when I learned of the terror attacks in Paris and Beirut. On my birthday, I was very thankful to have made it to twenty-one. For a while, my thoughts will surely be consumed with the ‘what ifs’ of my future, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel any less for the people of France and Lebanon, and for all the people of the world who are suffering.   It would take pages and pages for me to tackle these issues of which I have merely brushed the surface.

Being a very indecisive person, I have a tendency to look at life differently with every changing hour, so I rarely have total confidence in my opinions. I often find my opinion swayed by content online, only to have it swayed again (even a minute later) by a comment posted under an article. Until recently, I’ve viewed debates as wrong or right, black and white. But, now I’ve come to realise that most issues have large grey areas.

I guess we can only try our best to stay as informed as possible, and we can spread awareness about issues through providing those around us with information (without being nasty and condescending of course). Hate is the motive for many attacks that have occurred, and will occur, around the world; kindness is needed now, more than ever.

 

Carmel Purcell

 

How to change the world into words

My top three pieces of writing advice? Stop whining and write. Stop fucking around and write. Stop making excuses and write.    – Nora Roberts

Screen-shot-2011-04-01-at-9.05.04-PM

Sean Macgillicuddy: There’s writing, and there’s being a writer. Writing doesn’t always make you a writer any more than being a writer makes for better writing. That said, a good rule of thumb in becoming and being a writer is to turn up. Whatever that might be – a couple of hours a morning, late at night, or a number of assigned days a week that slot in with your other job, the one you do part-time for money – the hours you turn up are like surgery, or a precision athlete mid race. It’s a contract, this turning up to write. If you want a personal day or you don’t feel well, it’s a big deal. A really big deal. And don’t be shy. Let everybody know that this space is where and when you turn up to write and, within, reason, if the world wants you for anything it can go fuck itself. Alternatively, and this applies more to emerging writers than writers with an established path or agent or contract, find a writer you admire and pretend to be them: clothes, habits, hair. If they’re alive, attend a function as them. If they’re dead, the same. Transcribe one of their better known works – Illywhacker, say, if you’re Peter Carey – and look for a publisher under your own name. Enter it into competitions, a master class or two at Varuna, use it to find a mentor. If people ask what you’re working on, tell them. If they say it sounds a lot like Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, deny you’ve read it, or accuse Peter Carey of plagiarism, or confound them with some sleight of hand question like, ‘You’re not one of those people who never read anything they haven’t written themselves, are you?’ When you’re inevitably discovered, the lesson to take from the exercise, the tip, is to believe you have something to say. That inherent within you is something that matters, that’s legitimate, that carries with it an urgency and how it’s told will come. At that point, see above.

Ken: The view from my desk.

Ken Ward: Write when it’s hard to, when you don’t want to – are too tired, too disinterested, not inspired enough. It’s here your efforts will satisfy you the most.

The view from my desk.

 

 

Jane: Current workplace.

Jane Abbott: Forget everything the books tell you. Write with passion, as one possessed; write what you would love to read. Sacrifice everything else in order to write. And never, ever give up.

 

 

 

Elise: The State Library of NSW is most conducive. Except they won't let me sleep here.

Elise Janes: Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Life’s too short, and there’s too much to be said and done to waste time measuring sticks. You may need to leave the country to get any useful artistic work done because Australia is small and insecure and so are most of its cultural gatekeepers. Don’t let them trick you into thinking the world is small. They are just afraid. Don’t be afraid. Write what you want to write and forget everyone else.

Conan Elphicke: When my children’s books ‘go Rowling’, or even get published, then I’ll start dispensing tips. You won’t be able to shut me up. Until then …

Carmel: My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

Carmel Purcell: I don’t feel that I am skilled enough to give tips because I am still learning. But, I guess if I have any advice it is…learn to appreciate criticism. Criticism is inevitable and very important in the field of writing. I am a very stubborn person so this is something I will always struggle with.

My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

 

 

Ashlee: An obvious addiction to Apple products.

Ashlee Poeppmann: Keep writing! Every day, about something or about nothing! It’s all about practise and finding what you’re comfortable with. This is the best advice I’ve received from other writers, and it works best for me.

An obvious addiction to Apple products.

 

 

 

 

 

Narcotics, love, and Colombia: An interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee (2014 IPPY Gold Medal Award winner) talks to Heather Vasquez from the University of Central Florida about her new novel, Juventud.

Juventud tells the story of young Mercedes Martinez, who seeks the truth about her father, Deigo, a wealthy Colombian sugarcane plantation owner with narcotrafficking ties. When she falls in love with Manuel, a fiery young activist with a passion for his faith and his country, she awakens to the suffering of the desplazados who share her land. Following one tragic night, Mercedes flees Colombia for the United States to a life she never could have imagined. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia seeking the truth, but discovers that only more questions await.

Headshot_Vanessa Blakeslee

In the acknowledgments, you mention that the story of Juventud began at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What inspired you to place the story in that specific time period in those places?

Fiction isn’t born in a vacuum. The initial inspiration for Juventud had struck me in college. One night I sat among a group of young women, all of us sharing stories about our first loves. One of them, an international student from Colombia, told us that her first boyfriend had been killed—shot to death by a masked gunman in a nightclub. We listened, riveted, as she described how he died in her arms at sixteen. But even more disturbing was her admission that she couldn’t be sure, but she suspected her father might have arranged for the young man to be killed—the father hadn’t approved of their relationship, and was determined for his daughter to leave Colombia and finish her education in the United States. Oddly enough, she admitted that in time she’d come to see how her father’s reasoning was correct even if his methods were not. Had she stayed in Colombia, married the young man and not sought a higher degree at a well-reputed school, her life would have turned out much differently—her opportunities and worldview greatly limited.

The student and I didn’t stay in touch. But her story haunted me—the lover’s bloody end on the nightclub floor, the father’s insistence that she find a better life in the US. For her to even suspect her father of carrying out such a ghastly deed—what must this man be like, and how did she maintain a relationship with her father, if at all? For years the questions simmered in my imagination before I put a word to paper. But I finally did, in my first semester at Vermont College, and a voice emerged. My professor urged me to explore where it might lead. That voice belonged to Mercedes.

 

How did the place and time influence the story?

In studying the sociopolitical events of 1990s Colombia, a certain period of tumultuous unrest in early 1999 caught my attention, in the southern city of Santiago de Cali. This, then, was the backdrop that I inevitably had to set the dramatic questions against, for the personal conflicts of the characters to emerge from place and resound thematically. So from early on I had a distinct vision that I was striving to capture.

At first, Google searches and Wikipedia sufficed to lay the broad strokes. I chose Santiago de Cali as a backdrop—a lesser-known, southern city and hotbed of violence in the late 1990s. As I turned up more websites about human rights, guerilla activity, and so forth, I uncovered a series of events in early 1999 that ideally worked as a backdrop to propel the characters’ motivations—the ELN’s hijacking of an Avianca passenger plane, the surge in threats, bombings, and assassinations of public figures and peace advocates including humorist Jaime Garzón and later, Archbishop Duarte. I ended up condensing the timeline of Part One to a specific five months.

From early on in the process, I understood that I had to include the Church if I was going to be true to the time and place. Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; the very philosophy behind the guerilla movements in South America is that of Marxist Liberation theology. This ideology interprets the Christian faith from the perspective of the poor, and in the early days of the guerilla movements, the 1950s and 60s, the members adopted Marxist teachings in their advocacy for social justice. When I came across the ELN revolutionaries kidnapping the congregation of La Maria Church in a wealthy district of Cali, I knew this had to affect my characters somehow. La Maria Juventud and its leaders, Emilio and his impassioned brother Manuel, were born.

 

Juventud_CoverThere are specific details about Colombia, FARC, and the ELN. You mention sources you used to in your acknowledgements. While you were researching, what information and facts were you most surprised to learn about?

The most surprising and disturbing facts I learned concerned the paramilitary atrocities of the 90s and early 2000s. In the US, we have been led to believe that the FARC and ELN guerillas were the most brutal forces to contend with, the “enemy” so to speak – when in fact the “paras” carried out just as many terrorist tactics, if not the majority. Yet the mainstream media remains silent on these privately-funded, unofficial “armies” who carry out the dirty work of politicians, the wealthy and multinational corporations against the poor. I was also keenly aware that many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, maybe the FARC, but little else. In Juventud, even though the characters are fictitious, Manuel’s idealism, Diego’s protectiveness, and Mercedes’ suspicions are all informed by real events.

 

What else did you do to learn more about Colombia? Did this influence you on a personal level? For example, do you now have a favorite Colombian food?

In addition to academic texts, I consulted primary resources: online footage of peace marches in Colombia in 1999, news articles from that year, archived interviews with notorious paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño Gil from before his death in 2004. These placed me even more fully in 1990s Colombia. On a personal level, I was also in the midst of shifting away from the fervent Catholicism I’d been practicing in my mid-twenties because I couldn’t reconcile my personal stance on women’s and gay rights with the Church’s doctrine, but found myself reluctant when it came to Catholicism’s stance on social justice—a cornerstone that I believe Christianity, but especially Catholicism, very much gets right. I’m a huge proponent of “faith in action,” in that respect—the only way spiritual principles make sense to me is if they are lived out in practice. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When the time came to title the book, the editors and I decided on Juventud, which translates to “youth” in Spanish. “Juventud” speaks to our tendency in youth to see the world in black-and-white rather than shades of grey. But it also captures the ongoing humanitarian crises in South and Central America—the tens of thousands of children illegally crossing the US border and the drug-related massacre of 43 students in Mexico in 2014, even as the Colombian government and the FARC move toward a lasting peace. Fiction can show readers how events effect people like Mercedes, Manuel, and Diego, in ways that a news article can’t.

As for food, you can’t beat a homemade arepa.

 

How did your research influence the story? Did you make changes to what you had planned as your learned more about Colombia?

Research largely shaped the story, especially early on, and while I don’t feel that I over-researched, there was a lot of material that ended up getting cut. For instance, I knew Diego Martinez had to be complex and not just a one-dimensional villain, so I needed him to have a legitimate occupation but with room for some shady activities to go on. I guessed he might own a plantation, and I researched the agriculture of the Valle de Cauca region. Growing sugarcane was a perfect fit. In research, some of what you learn informs the narrative directly—for instance, in the scene when Mercedes first accompanies Diego to their cane fields and he partly confesses; there she briefly describes his farming operation. But often, a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. I’ve spent more hours than I like to admit watching YouTube videos of alpaca shearing, only to have scrapped those sections.

At one point, in trying to figuring out what would lure an adult Mercedes back to confront the individuals from her past, and mainly Papi, I tried to write a parallel plotline of her as an FBI agent. I read the official FBI training manual, researched different possible career paths for her—embassy police, DEA—all of which felt out of my purview and ability to pull off convincingly. I wrote about a hundred pages, all of them horribly weak. And in the end my research revealed that for someone with Mercedes’ background, having any ties at all to a family member who’d been involved in narco-trafficking, even if she wasn’t herself, would have eliminated the possibility of her having any kind of U.S. government career with top-secret clearance. So that steered me toward making her more of a scholarly expert and researcher who ends up doing more of what I’ll dub, “the D.C. bounce-around”—working in government for a time and then the private sector, in this case, finding her way into journalism.

But that failure wasn’t for naught—I ended up mentioning that this was why she didn’t end up someplace like the FBI, and the research on top secret agencies and their joint task force operations with other nations’ special forces units certainly helped when it came time to build Asaf’s character swiftly and effectively. So I’m afraid mostly the alpacas lost out!

 

There are influences of the Catholic and Jewish faith in Mercedes’ life. How would the story have changed if she didn’t have those? 

The novel would be enormously different, absent of the religious context—I suppose I might have invented a way for Manuel to lead a secular human rights’ organization. I imagine I’d have mined the thread of the desplazados more, or the narcotrafficking, rather than touch on the sexual coming-of-age and women’s rights subplot. But leaving out the Catholicism, certainly, wouldn’t feel true to the culture nor historical fact. The Church has very much been involved in all facets of Colombia’s civil war—civilian and guerilla.

The Catholicism created a conduit for me to bring in the Jewish thread to the book—I’m always looking how to complicate threads further to create more contrast and meaning. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if her mother is not only American but Jewish, and if her mother is on an identity-quest of her own, and if Mercedes eventually goes to visit her in Israel? And then we have the contrast between another decades-long conflict, that of Israel and Palestine, and the Colombian civil war. So in the latter half the book expands outward to reflect not just the issues of social justice and violence in South America, but the global conflicts still raging today. The common ground between Judaism and Christianity is unearthed, but also the divide between the religious and secular. Not to mention the resonance of what Mercedes has escaped from, after she learns the history of her maternal Jewish family prior to World War II.

I suppose I also could have structured the narrative differently—say, three third-person narratives, one following Mercedes, the others following Manuel and Diego—but I was more interested in Mercedes as an embodiment of the global citizen of today, the highly-educated Millennial who inhabits several different identities and cultures, and how she navigates the paths available to her. Education and access to birth control are enabling women around the world to make strides and command their destinies for the first time in human history; I found myself more invested in giving a female protagonist full rein, seeing how her roots in a conflicted country leave their imprint on her emotionally as she otherwise achieves success.

Mercedes’ story is ultimately about how our perceptions very much shape our desires and decisions, not always to our own best interest. Inevitably we are molded and driven by what happens to us in our youth and how we perceive those events, a perspective which is limited and therefore flawed, yet unbeknownst to us at the time, and often for many years afterward. Through Mercedes, the novel reveals how we grapple to make sense of these formative individual experiences – and how as adults, we have the opportunity and means to gain clarity, responsibility, and forgiveness, and ultimately understand and transcend our past even if it will always remain part of us.

 

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut story collection, Train Shots, won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and has been optioned for a feature film. Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in the Green Mountains ReviewSouthern Review, the Paris Review Daily, the Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others.

Juventud is available for purchase from Curbside Splendor Publishing.

 

 

A picture speaks a thousand words (and all that)

We asked our writers to recount a literary experience and provide a pictorial state of mind. One says as much as the other.

Ashlee Poeppmann

My feet relaxing at the beach where I feel most at home.I recently volunteered at the Brisbane Writers Festival last month, and while it was hard work I really enjoyed myself. I was lucky enough to get time to meet and see a few different artists. One of my favourites was Sophie Hannah. It was interesting to hear her story about becoming the ‘new’ Agatha Christie, as Hannah mentioned that it was all just chance that the Christie Estate chose her for the new series. She said you can’t plan luck but you can prepare for it.

My feet relaxing at the beach where I feel most at home.

Carmel Purcell

CarmelLately, most of the literature I have been dealing with has been business-related. I am doing an internship that requires reading many tech-related articles and reports. This has been a positive experience as it has sparked an interest for me in marketing. I intend to learn more about marketing over the next few months and plan to experiment with writing on a variety of different platforms.

This is a picture of me at the markets. I am always in my element when I get to try new kinds of food. I’d love to be a food blogger.  

 

Conan Elphicke

ConanIf I’ve ever had any, they took place years ago, such as when I got tongue-tied in the presence of dissident journalist John Pilger at a book signing, or drove two hours at short notice to see Douglas Adams do a superb book reading at the Harold Park Hotel in Glebe, Sydney.

This conveys my tendency to be a poseur, if nothing else. It was taken in the Noel Coward suite at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore on my honeymoon. I have less hair now and am more dilapidated, physically and psychologically.

 

Elise Janes

Elise beachI’ve taken to streaming author interviews and literary podcasts while I run or do the housework or something else that negates the ability to hold a book in my hand or type. The honesty of some writers is wonderfully liberating but also a constant challenge to my mindset, especially during those long redrafting months when it feels the end will never come. The legendary Maria Popova from Brain Pickings delivered the most recent of these, a rediscovered NYU lecture from Kurt Vonnegut, where he spoke for 50 minutes straight out of his subconscious. He observed that at the age of 47 he’d outlived George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence and Jack Kerouac. That gave me pause. As with anything of value it’s the daily getting-up-and-doing that makes it worthwhile, not the so called light at the end of the tunnel. To write everyday, to create, is a privilege. I hope I never forget that.

Jane Abbott

JaneWithout doubt, the most significant experience was when I recently received an offer of publication from Penguin/Random House for their Vintage imprint; a two book deal, with an option on the third. The first book, Watershed, is slated for release next June/July. To have one’s work acknowledged in such a way is the very best possible vindication that you’re on the right track.

 

 

Ken Ward

HMD40-climbing-mountainI’ve never been a big viewer of American TV series. The idea of up to 22 episodes a series with no guarantee of a resolution in the end – not for me. This past year I’ve started to delve into some of the big series over the past 10-15 years, including The Sopranos and Friday Night Lights. There’s so much to love in these programs but it’s what I learnt from the things I hate that’s helped inform my writing of late.
To be specific, Janice Soprano, Tony’s sister. From her first scene, I’ve hated her. Every time she’s on camera, every time she’s talked about while absent my blood pressure boils. I just wish the creators would’ve written her out.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand: Every character has their own agenda, is living their own life and sees events through their own filter. The tension Janice brings to scenes is really important to the drive and push of the story. She’s so blinded by her own sense of entitlement and how unjust life can be, it shapes everything she perceives and does. This impacts the story a lot.
Each time I come to the page and a scene has multiple characters interacting, I’m actively considering this notion from EVERY character’s side: ‘How does this affect my agenda? How is what’s happening here make me feel?’
It’s pushing my scenes and story development in places I didn’t expect I’d go.

 

What inspires you?

A tired enough question at face value, but an important one to ask yourself if you’re an artist of any kind. What is it that gets your fire burning? What do you surround yourself with? What motivates you, educates you, informs your attitude to life? Some inspirations stick, others come and go. So what’s inside you right now?

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Favourite books, authors, artists, works:

Ken Ward: I’ve just finished Perfidia by James Ellroy. In nearly 700 pages not a line, not a word is delivered without juice. Reading his novels are like watching the fight scenes from the Adam West Batman series – Zlonk, Kapow, Bif.

Carmel Purcell: Currently, I am reading What Westerners Have for Breakfast by John McBeath. It captures the experience of being in Goa (in India) perfectly. The last book I read was Tea with the Taliban by Ian Robinson. It was brilliant. I love reading books about the unique experiences people have had in challenging places.

Ashlee Poeppmann: I love reading Fiction, especially Science Fiction and Magic Realism. Currently reading Volume Four of Philip K Dick’s collected Short Stories. But how can you ever choose just one favourite book? I’ve been staring at my bookcase to find an answer. But each book has a different feeling and memory inside it for me. Harry Potter will always have a space in my heart. It was the first novel I read, and I grew up with the characters. I remember saving my small amount of pocket money each year for the next book. I was recommended Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel in High School by my English Teacher. It now has a special place in my heart. On my first day at University, I was recommended The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Carter took another slice of my heart.

Sean Macgilliduddy: Currently reading Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By and before that Anna Funder’s The Girl With the Dogs. Recent exhibition I wish I’d seen but didn’t – Banksy’s Dismaland in the UK.

Elise Janes: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien still fascinates me: lyrical, strange, brutally intelligent, and funny. Not quite sure how he got it all so right. Author/journalist Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats, among other things). I heard him speak recently and he’s a rare thing, an honest, humorous thinker not afraid to show us up for what we are. (Plus his name rhymes with Ron Swanson). The compositional advice of Stephen King, Strunk & White, Van Gogh, and Robert McKee. And always, Martin Scorsese. Storyteller, genius, auteur, an original in every sense of the word

Conan Elphicke: Well, I’m a middle-aged man so my current books tend to be about all things military – anything by Max Hastings or Antony Beevor. Which is shockingly embarrassing. I might as well wear slippers and a cardigan, smoke a pipe and grow dahlias. My all-time favourite books include Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Also the better work of Douglas Adams and Clive James. That doesn’t sound very high-brow so I better throw in Joyce, Goethe, Rimbaud and Dostoevsky, though I’ve never read a single work of theirs and probably never will.

Jane Abbott: It’s safe to say I have no new favourite books. No sooner do I finish one and think, ‘Wow, that’s going to the top of the list,’ than another takes its place. (Although I have to say, it’s hard to beat McCarthy’s The Road.) Like most people, I do have some old favourites, which I read as a child and still re-read every now and then, as a kind of reminder: Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Tolkien (of course), Stephen King’s The Stand, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. These preferences are nostalgic as much as they are admiring.

 

Current inspirations:

Ken: Kyle Chandler’s portrayal of Coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights. His sense of integrity, hard work and personal responsibility make me confront head on, and without aversion, who I am and how I want to be.

Carmel: I am inspired most by people my age who carry themselves professionally and have done very well for themselves so early in life. It inspires me to work hard at the things I love.

Ashlee: I wouldn’t consider myself a poet, but I love reading poetry. Some of my favourite poets are unpublished – I usually find them online. One blog that’s inspiring me this week is ‘mythpoetrynet.tumblr.com’, which is dedicated to poetry inspired by mythologies.

Sean: Spring.

Elise: The visual art of Arnold Böcklin. An Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco. Anything written by Tennyson. And the sea, as ever.

Conan: My wife and kids.

Jane: Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, not least for their endurance. Also Charlotte Wood, Elena Ferrante, Robyn Cadwallader. I think it’s interesting that they are all women.

 

Quote or idea to live by:

Ken: When you speak from the heart, you speak to the heart.

Carmel: Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.

Ashlee: What is important in life is life, and not the result of life. – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Elise: Stuff your eyes with wonder. – Ray Bradbury

Conan: Mindfulness and resilience.

Jane: The biggest challenge we face is shifting human consciousness, not saving the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving, we do. – Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez

 

Who are you?

In celebration of a whole year of Cringings we asked our regular contributors, both past and present, to tell us about themselves: who they are, why they write and what inspires them in life and art. The answers are as varied as they are entertaining, a symbolic cross-section of the vast range of writers working in Australia today. Here follows the first in our series of interviews. Enjoy.

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Who are you?

Jane Abbott: I’m a single mother, living (mostly) in Melbourne with my two teenaged sons. Prior to 2013, despite a deep-seated desire to ‘write … one day’, I’d never really put myself to the test.

Conan Elphicke: A former travel writer and freelance journalist, I’m now working on yet-to-be-published children’s middle-grade fiction. When it comes to the Cringe, I’m among other things the ghost-writer for confused visionary Sir Partridge Gormley. Though he seems to have died or something because I’ve not heard a peep from him for months.

Elise Janes: I sing jazz, I play violin, I read read read, I go to film festivals, I watch theatre, I wear bright colours and I drink red wine. I have lived in Montreal and on an island in the Whitsundays. My ideal date is Spanish food, spicy cocktails and a table to myself. I watch too many Vine compilations. I laugh at hipsters but eat their food. I often say too much.

Sean Macgillicuddy: I once knew a man who believed he was living his life backwards. He wasn’t joking, or being clever, or on anything that might have led to this odd conviction. At the time, I didn’t get it. However, as I near the end of my 52nd year, the awkward father of a nine month old boy, my first, I’m beginning to understand what he meant. More and more I feel isolated by the adult world of accumulated wisdoms and expertise, of knuckling down and taking responsibility and having opinions about things like politics and food. If I once had a cultural or national identity it is long gone, being unable to comply with the draconian rigours of what is and is not Australian, and who I am is increasingly determined by the day-to-day essentials of what I do as opposed to any grand narrative of self. I live in the tiny village of Gundaroo, about 30 minutes north of Canberra, having moved here seven years ago from Sydney. I’m a husband, a father, a cook, a son, a brother, a gardener, a man. But even these are just words. I know no more about being a father than I do about being a man. Which is perfectly OK, until an adult comes along with a wagging finger brandishing some garbage about the unexamined life not being worth living. To which I’d say the unlived life isn’t worth examining, and brandish back some garbage of my own. The aim of life is to live and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. Henry Miller.

Ashlee Poeppmann: 21 and a fresh graduate from Queensland University of Technology. I studied Creative Writing and Interactive Design. I’m currently working part time as an admin assistant but will someday go back to university for further study. Someday.

Carmel Purcell: I am a third year uni student studying Creative & Professional Writing and Entertainment Industries at Queensland University of Technology. In my spare time I like to watch American Horror Story or go out to lunch with friends and drink lattes and hot chocolates. I am passionate about food and travel and always change my mind about where I want to go. At the moment I am interested in travelling to Israel, Turkey and Morocco.

Ken Ward: I’m someone for whom writing is my Everest. A finished manuscript that delivers on the promise it makes, is the ultimate achievement.

 

What do you write and why?

Jane: I had always imagined myself to be a writer of no particular genre (both my current manuscripts are quite different), but apparently my publishers believe me to be a writer of dystopia. Who knew? For me, writing is simply about telling a damned good story, one that the reader can’t bear to put down. Within that story, the themes will be as various, and as hard-hitting, as I can make them.

Conan: I just answered part of this question. My main focus is children’s writing, in part because my own childhood was improved markedly by some of the greats: CS Lewis, Kenneth Graeme, Tolkien and even the wretched Enid Blyton. Children’s writing also demands you distil narrative, which is an appealing challenge. It’s all about story.

Elise: I love a good, flawed character engaged in conflict that challenges their integrity and fear. Genre-wise I write dystopia because humanity is terrifying; fantasy because reality is small; and literary fiction because I’m processing some stuff. Who isn’t. I also write academic articles because there’s too much knowledge to know and I want to know it all; and, let’s be honest, I write a lot of opinionated articles because too many people don’t know enough and yet think they do. There, I said it.

Sean: I love books. I love the idea of books, their look, that someone somewhere created this thing and there I am in their hands. As they are quite literally in mine. I love the private elegance of reading words that have been rolled into a shape that transports me intellectually and aesthetically and emotionally to spaces I can’t otherwise inhabit. And in some cases, don’t want to. Bukowski springs to mind. Oblomov. But I love them all the same. I love the craft of books, of stories. I love the grip a book can place on your soul, when it refuses to be put down. I write narrative fiction, with four novels and a collection of short stories gathering dust in a drawer or drive waiting to be buried or resurrected, who can say. The composition of a novel is an enormous task, and, like anything of value, hard work, but the rewards of writing well, of perfecting a sentence, a page, a chapter, are difficult to describe. I write to feel that thing, and to understand it, to bring it into other areas of my life, perhaps, that symmetry, capacity, that grip on your soul.

Ashlee: I write fiction, as I find that’s the easiest way for me to express my ideas. I also go through a lot of phases with themes. Lately I’ve written a lot about ghosts, wolves, my family and things I think about on public transport.

Carmel: I write for uni because I have to. I write a range of things for the cringe blog because it’s good fun and it’s important for me to document parts of myself and my experiences in stories. I also write corporate pieces because I am a Content Writing intern.

 Ken: I’m drawn to personal struggle. The moment when we go from being disconnected to connected. This journey towards realisation excites me.

 

An All Hallow’s Read

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Allhallowtide, Night of the Dead, whatever you call it and however you think it came into being one thing’s for sure, it’s become a majorly lucrative chocolate-selling and movie-renting business. This year why not save your consumerist fervour for Christmas and instead stay home for a quiet evening read, with a flickering candle and a glass of brandy or something. What to read, you ask? We have just the thing.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thus, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act i, Scene 2.

The_King_in_Yellow

Thus begins one of the oldest, strangest and oft-referenced works of speculative fiction to grace our shelves, as mysterious today as it was when first published in 1895. The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, and if you’re nodding your head now it’s because you recognise the title from the first season of True Detective, where the themes and symbolism were referenced as a kind of otherworldly red herring to the mystery pursued by Rust and Marty.

The intertextuality doesn’t end there. Chambers’ collection itself is hung on the influence of a play about the titular King, which is continually referenced throughout the stories but never fully presented. The play is said to bring insanity or a grim fate upon those who read it. Besides Chambers’ stories themselves being a great read, this elusive structural gimmick is pure squirmy genius.

And its heritage is vast. Chambers’ Yellow King was influenced by the classic works of Ambrose Bierce, Théophile Gautier and even Poe, and went on to be a foundational inspiration for most of the significant genre players of the  twentieth century, including H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein and even Stephen King.

All this over a creepy fictional play that never actually existed.

The best news is that it’s now public domain so you can read the entire text online. Enjoy.