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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Genre Gap

In this glowing age of equality us literati still happily overlook one of the more entrenched and obstructive ideological discriminations that, if we’re honest, is now largely irrelevant: the cold war between literary and genre fiction.

It is a strange war indeed, a war waged most enthusiastically by certain mass-media critics, awards juries and pseudo-intellectuals, clans seemingly ignorant of the fact that the rest of the world has moved on without them. In reality, the strangely-evolved notion that internal monologuing and odd pronouns are superior in some way to an active plot is beginning to lose traction.

100421FranckenIIThis notion of superiority evolved out of the world’s rebound from the Modernist period, as we trundled through the mid-20th century and mass-market paperbacks became a mode of dissemination and academia dug it’s fingernails into Joyce and Faulkner. One could argue that the publication of Ulysses was tantamount to the commencement of an arms race between the literaries and the hacks.

I myself am a bachelor of literature. I have read Ulysses cover-to-cover (an alarming life-achievement). Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Pynchon are among my favourite authors. I appreciate a well-strung sentence and a verbose description of madeleine cakes as much as the next snob. I believe in the art of experimental framing, the poetry of precise imagery and the power of lyrical cynicism.

However I do not consider the writers of such to be superior to genre authors simply based on a legalistic classification.

You see, the truth is much more straightforward: some writers are simply good and some are simply bad.

Unfortunately many bad writers are writing genre fiction, which has given genre an unjustly bad aroma of clunky prose. But, in much the same way, plenty of bad writers are also writing ‘literary’ fiction.

Not so long ago I stumbled across a marvellous and highly controversial dissertation from the well-known journalist B.R. Myers, in which he holds vehemently forth on this exact issue. His perspective is rather traditional, mainly in that he despairs of the plight of contemporary literature exclusively, but in doing so he highlights some of the greatest cons of modern literary pretension:

More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L.

[…] Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.

What once may have been a useful designation for the purposes of academic study in the mid-20th century is now as obsolete as the floppy disk.

He goes on to explain:

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Is it possible that Stephen King is more ‘intellectual’ than David Guterson? Quite.

SnowFallingOnCedarsThe distinction between literary and genre writing is no longer necessary. Our entertainment has evolved, like our audience, to the point where literary fiction is now itself a genre, not a ruling class as many ‘highbrow’ reviewers would still have you believe.

I direct your attention to the screen arts. Here is a medium that has far overtaken literature as a means of popular entertainment (gasp!), partly because of the responsiveness of screen artists to the demands of widening opinion. Much of that comes down to a bottom-line matter (by comparison no author these days will be a millionaire unless their work becomes a movie franchise) but people tend to put their money where their mouth is so perhaps it’s worth a thought in this discussion.

220px-BagofbonesIn film twenty years ago the gulf between ‘blockbuster’ (genre) and ‘indie’ (literary) was vast and easily depicted: one mindless, crowd-pleasing and action-packed, the other thought-provoking, character-driven and (possibly) meaningful. But directors and producers have since become wise to the fact that audiences themselves are becoming wiser, more discriminate and better educated. In response they’ve invented a whole new class of filmentertainment that manages to span the genre gulf: films that are both thoughtful and active, both character and plot-driven, both smart and entertaining.

And why not? Why can’t we admit that perhaps we are no longer the hallowed few, the only beings on earth guarding the keys to taste, intelligence and sophistication? Why can’t we admit that people are getting smarter? That perhaps they want their insightful discourse on humanity with a touch of action? Or their tightly-woven plot framed with beautiful prose?

Are we afraid that we’re not up to the challenge?

In 2009 The Guardian unwittingly (or perhaps very wittingly) shed light on this disparity between what readers (intelligent readers) actually enjoy and what the critics think they should enjoy when they published this article asking people to comment on the decade’s worst books.

Expecting, no doubt, to see a flurry of finger-pointing at the Dan Brown’s and Stephanie Meyers’s of the writing world, the result was actually quite startling. Many of the 875 comments named awards-listed books, Cloud Atlas and White Teeth among them, and others listed widely acclaimed novels such as Kite Runner and The Falling Man.

No one, however, was prepared for the particular quality and quantity of rage that generated around Ian McEwan. Commenter StuartEvers summed it up nicely:

StuartEvers 8 Dec 2009 21:54
In a shit -soaked field of its own is Saturday by Ian McEwan.
It has it all: smug, self-satisfied and completely unrealistic characters, tediously over-written “research”, plot holes you could drive both Branson’s spaceship and his ego through, quasi political noodling (isn’t it lucky that the central character knows an Iraqi?) and an ending so ludicrous it’s hard not to be personally affronted. Oh and a squash match! A bloody squash match!
On Chesil Beach was at least short and provided a good joke on Peep Show.

The ‘noodling’ alone makes me wonder if Mr Evers himself might write a better novel than McEwan.

I declare it’s time for our self-important gatekeepers to emerge from out of the dark age and embrace the new literary rainbow. It is possible for a work of fantasy to win the Booker Prize, according to Salman Rushdie. It is possible for an author to be ‘good’ without writing literary fiction, declares Stephen King. It is also just as likely that a writer can be ‘bad’ while trying to be literary, thank you Ian McEwan.

Myers sums up with a concluding anecdote in his trademark candour:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter’s sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison’s reply was “That, my dear, is called reading.” Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing. Great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid.

It’s time to move into the future, people, hand in hand with the rest of the world in declaring once and for all peace between literary and genre fiction; that all writers should be held to the same standards of good writing regardless of the affectation of their prose.

Equality for all.

 

Elise Janes

On “October”

U2OctoberU2 are arguably one of the biggest rock’n’roll bands in the world. Generally speaking, they behave like one of the biggest rock’n’roll bands in the world without tripping over themselves or their work as humanitarian fact totems. It’s all about the music, and with Bono’s thoroughbred falsetto and the Edge’s signature guitar, U2 have carved out a kind of sonic trademark that can be traced back to their debut album Boy released in 1980. The following year they released October, with a title track that stands out from U2’s stable of songs for being so unremarkably simple and restrained. It’s just the Edge on piano, and Bono. And although it’s not a particularly short song for the format, at two four line verses and no chorus or build or quirky middle-eight to set things off, it feels brief. Like it’s over before it began. Or there’s nothing to it. Bono called October an interlude, a cold, slow, pared back, weighed down, moody evocation of winter. An Irish winter. The indifferent inevitability of it. Its through to your bones and soul.

October

And the trees are stripped bare

Of all they wear

What do I care?

October

And kingdoms rise

And kingdoms fall

But you go on

ImaginationDeadImagineBono’s description of October as an interlude on an album full of songs suggests it hasn’t fully ripened or been written into its full term. That it lacks some pivotal ingredient of song-ness and is no more than a bridge between movements, a phrase. Which asks the question: what is a song? When is a song a song and not an interlude or a jingle? In most of the arts there’s a consensus of definition based on tradition, form and length. So a painting must use or at the very least be about paint to be a painting. A film must be a film. A dance must be a dance. And a novel must be a prose narrative of considerable length with a plot driven by actions, characters, thoughts and speech. Etcetera. But wherever there’s a consensus of definition, there’ll always be those who question how those definitions are made and who they serve. Like Samuel Beckett’s Imagination Dead Imagine which is no more than a pamphlet with next to no plot or characters to speak of but is considered by many to be his greatest novel, a work of such concentrated intensity that all but the pragmatic essentials of narrative have been excised from the text. Or the short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway that reads:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Or M. Flanigan’s Codeine Dream.

I feel nothing

But pain

By itself, I feel nothing but pain is an anguished but hollow sentence waiting to be framed by what caused the pain in the first place and how the person suffering the pain plans to deal with it. Or not. However, like Hemingway’s shoes, Codeine Dream is a fully realised world as darkly grim and furnished as any conceived by Mishima or Kafka. The line-break gives it compression. What caused the pain or how the pain might be alleviated or endured is overshadowed by the expanse created by the return carriage. The same can be said of October, with its spectral landscape and manifest cold and the vanity of what do I care. In some ways, its distilled brevity holds more abstract significance than many of U2’s more definitive songs for not proclaiming itself with such exuberant sincerity. It is the winter of things, the spring, the bleak evanescence of change. And its line break appears at the end. Its compression is in the reprise.

And on… Bono sings after the final line.

And on. As if addressing something out of reach. The unknowable, perhaps; forever. Yearning, pleading, praying. Holding on to the note for fear it might drift away. So melancholy. Lost. So beautifully forlorn.

 

Like footsteps disappearing in the snow.

 

Sean Macgillicuddy

 

  1. October Recorded 1981 Label Island Lyrics and music Bono and The Edge
  2. Flanagan Codeine Dreams published in The Quarterly 24 1992 Vintage Books New York

 

“War is what happens…

…when language fails.”
― Margaret Atwood

There’s something about the astonishing horror of war that brings out the most human of stories. Spanning all thematic arcs from tragedy to triumph these narratives explore grand notions of destiny, glory and patriotism alongside intimate theatres of love, personal sacrifice and extreme resilience.

Examining wars real and imaginary, ancient and present, from classics to modern Booker-prize winners there’s something in this list for everyone.

1915: A Novel of Gallipoli (1979)1984-by-opallynn-d4lnuoh
Roger McDonald

1984 (1949)
George Orwell

A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Ernest Hemingway

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Erich Maria Remarque

Atonement (2001)
Ian McEwan

Birdsong (1993)Birdsong-Sebastian-Faulks
Sebastian Faulks

Catch-22 (1961)
Joseph Heller

Cold Mountain (1997)
Charles Frazier

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Ernest Hemingway

Gone With the Wind (1936)
Margaret Mitchell

Matterhorn (2009)9780802145314_p0_v1_s260x420
Karl Marlantes

Regeneration (1991)
Pat Barker

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut

The Book Thief (2005)
Markus Zusak

The Iliad (800 BC)
Homer

The Kite Runner (2002)ou-cover
Khaled Hosseini

The March (2005)
E. L. Doctorow

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)
Richard Flanagan

The Things They Carried (1990)
Tim O’Brien

The Quiet American (1955)
Graham Greene

Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993)17905709
John Marsden

War & Peace (1869)
Leo Tolstoy

War Horse (1982)
Michael Morpurgo

Elise Janes

Work Habits of Successful Writers

If you’re an emerging writer you’re probably still squeezing in your scribblings at some inconvenient and uncooperative time of day, like 4am before you have to get ready for work, or in the park at lunch (if you can get away from your desk), or on the train commute home. You probably have to set aside whole evenings two weeks in advance, hoping that your plans won’t be thwarted by an impromptu dinner guest or a forgotten birthday party.

And this is good, because as E.B. White once said if you don’t write when circumstances suck, you’ll never write at all. I’m paraphrasing.

Then every few months you find yourself with an entire day at your astonished disposal. Maybe even two in a row. Two?! At first you stand in shock, raking your memory for any possible forgotten commitments. But then you realise that the washing is done, the bills are paid, the kids/spouse/parents/roommates are nowhere to be seen, the blank page in your diary really is a blank page and you well up with joy.

Now what? How do you transmute all that free time into a productive writing spree? Because, for the love of all things, don’t let a single second go to waste.

In preparation for that day, and for the gilded future in which writing is what you do for a living, peruse the daily habits of some people who really know what they’re doing.

 

Maya Angelou

amd-angelou-jpg“I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them — fifty acceptable pages — it’s not too bad.”

and later in her life…

“I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.
I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.
I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!”
But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.”

 

Simone de Beauvoir

“I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.”
“If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.”

 

Don De Lillo

“I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.”

 

William Gibson

“When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap.”

 

Ernest Hemingway

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

 

Jack Kerouac

“The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.”

 

Stephen King

stephen-king-writing-tips“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book—something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh. On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”

 

Henry Miller

“MORNINGS:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.
AFTERNOONS:
Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
EVENINGS:
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.”

 

Haruki Murakami

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

 

Anaïs Nin

“I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.”

 

Susan Sontag

“Starting tomorrow — if not today:
I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)
I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)”

 

Anthony Trollope

“Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”
Every day for years he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years.
from Daily Routines

 

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt-Vonnegut-260x300“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies.”

 

 

Elise Janes

My World Through Stories

free-antique-style-world-map-computer-pictures_2269047

An imagined world

Montreal, Canada

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Peter Pan, J.M. Barry

I studied part of my literature major in a fall semester at McGill University. We arrived in the summer, after a month travelling west coast USA, and the musical city was intoxicating, ringing with Quebecois French, wild celebrations, strange experiences and layers of history. I had four lit subjects, each requiring a text a week. My book/play/poetry collection was too heavy to ship home so I sold most of it to a Canadian friend one snowy night before Christmas. He gave me his personal copy of Meditations in return, to this day one of my most treasured literary items. Of all the wonderful texts I read throughout the shockingly beautiful fall several stand out to me, but for some reason none more so than the original Peter Pan, which I studied along with Romeo & Juliet and My Own Private Idaho for a comparative essay on boy gang culture.

 

Calgary, Canada

Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw, Will Ferguson

Obtained from a hostel bookshelf in Calgary on a solitary trip to the Canadian Rockies, one of many expeditions out from Montreal. I read this at the start of my Canadian residency and the quirky anecdotes and bizarre historic detail established in me a new respect for the cultural diversity of the great maple-leaf nation.

 

Paris Eurail Trip

The English Assassin, Daniel Silva

Purchased in a second-hand bookshop in Montmartre for three euro it was one of few English-language books on offer and elicited a patronising smirk from the bearded shop-guy. Not my usual fare, it turned out to be a fantastic scenic parallel to our trans-European journey. And the heroine was a violinist convalescing in Portugal.

 

Sola Voce European Tour

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth

The tomb of Monteverdi is in Basilica di Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice

The tomb of Monteverdi is in Basilica di Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice

One of my all-time favourite books, as much for the time of life in which I discovered it as for the story itself. I bought a second copy from a bookshop in Montreal and reread this during a tour of Europe with a chamber choir from the University of Queensland. Violin was my major degree study so I felt an intimate connection with the protagonist and the way music, both craft and passion, was an inseparable part of his identity. His string quartet performed in Vienna and Venice and our choir toured to these places and more, the pieces we sang becoming a soundtrack to our incredible experiences just as the music Michael plays parallels his doomed love affair. The writing is astonishingly beautiful and full of melancholic depth and I’ve never read another author who has such a nuanced understanding of the intricacies of Art music practise and the lesser-performed masterpieces of the Western canon.

 

Oahu, USA

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

On my second trip to Hawaii I had just finished Kerouac’s famously meandering roman á clef. Though it had little connection to Oahu it nevertheless leant a deeper magnificence to the Pacific sunsets.

 

Penang & Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers

I have a thing for pirates and so does Malaysia, whose history is drenched in nautical mishaps and adventure. A perfect book for resort poolsides, a Singapore sling in one hand and a view of the Straits of Malacca before you.

 

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy

Siena, Italy

Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, Frances Mayes

As part of an extensive overseas trip we spent a week in a villa in the Sienese countryside. It was as exquisite as it sounds, made all the more so by Mayes’s portraits of Tuscan life and epicurean recommendations. Thanks to her we discovered an antiques fair at the top of Arezzo hill and the pure delight of fava beans with pecorino fresco and local sangiovese.

 

Paris, France

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Having read The Sun Also Rises for my lit studies, invoking an endless love of Hemingway, it comes as no surprise that one of the greatest moments of my life was purchasing A Moveable Feast from Shakespeare & Company before walking in the rain along Rue Mouffetard.

 

Vernazza, Italy

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

I found this book while revisiting a little apartment in Vernazza, Italy, on the last leg of a world trip. This was before it became a hyper-marketed movie so I had no idea what to expect. I’m still not sure what to make of it, but the novel reads a bit like a travel narrative touching on various parts of the globe and traversing huge spans of time. For me it evoked a similar feeling to travelling around the world, that anchorless, ageless sensation. The musical tale of Robert Frobisher was a special gem for me, as was the seafarer’s bookending narrative.

 

New York City, USA

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jnr, & E.B. White

On my third trip to NYC my husband and I spent one week in the East Village and another in Green Point, Brooklyn. Every minute was perfect, and littered with literary memories. The shelves of our East Village apartment were full of contemporary sociology books, and I spent a glorious morning in the JP Morgan Library & Museum, and an equally glorious afternoon wandering the hallowed halls of the Public Library. Not to mention McNally Jackson in Soho, the Met rare book collection and the gorgeous bookshop attached to the MoMA. I bought Auster’s trilogy in the gift shop of the Whitney Museum and reading it later was amazed at the true New York-ness of his hyper-realistic style. Another grand life-moment was purchasing the latest edition of Strunk & White’s style bible from The Strand.

 

Pool deck of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Georgetown, Malaysia

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

It’s fair to say Penang has stolen my heart, in a manner on par with New York City and Rome, due in no small part to its 20th century literary heritage. It’s one of few places in South East Asia that bring together many extreme historic influences because of its unique geographic location: sitting at the heart of the shipping lanes that bore the lifeblood of world culture for more than 3000 years. Penang counts in its history an ancient Austronesian settlement, a Persian dynasty, the oldest Sultanate in the world, a port for the Dutch East India Company, a British colonial fortress, Chinese opium wars, and Japanese occupation in WW2. Greene’s book is set in Vietnam but finds its place alongside many authors of that era who were fascinated by the South China Seas, such as Anthony Burgess, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Noel Coward. I read this book with my mother on the pool deck of the Eastern & Oriental where Maugham himself penned several novels.

Elise Janes