Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A mouse has a little beating heart

Don't laugh - a mouse has a little beating heart, that little mouse I let live behind the cupboard was really 'humanly' scared, and it was being stalked by a big beast with a stick and it didn't know why it was chosen to die - it looked up, around, both ways, little paws up, on hind legs, breathing heavily, hunted -

Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels

I often think of that line from Kerouac -' a mouse has a little beating heart' when I deal with mice. The episode the quotation comes from is when Kerouac is working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak.

This morning I took another mouse far from the house  to the area beyond the workshop and let it go. Every night when I set the tunnel trap in the kitchen I get at least one, or two, the first before I go to bed; then I re-set the trap.

I take heart in thinking that there must be quite a colony down there now - at least they will find other mice there. They are just small, brown mice. I don't know how they keep getting into the house. They're so small that I've weighted the end of the trap with a one dollar coin taped to the outside, in order for it to tip.

But they always go with a full belly. I lure them in with peanut butter with rolled oats stuck on top.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rediscovering vinyl

Underground Man has been rediscovering his records, so last night I found myself listening to
Catholic Boy, the late Jim Carroll's 1980 album. I think this track 'City Drops' is about my favourite.

 And it took me back about 15 years ago, when I was speaking to a small group of senior girls at a Catholic secondary college in a rural Victorian town. I was talking about my novel The Serpentine Belt, and mentioned the influence Jack Kerouac had on the writing of it.

 'You've probably never heard of him ...' I began.

 One of the girls said, "I have. I've read Jack Kerouac.'

 A brief quiz assured me she wasn't having me on, and our conversation continued later, after the session. She asked me if I'd read Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries. I said I hadn't, but that I loved his album, Catholic Boy. 'Catholic Boy!' she exclaimed. 'You have Catholic Boy!'

 Just one of those exchanges that make going into schools surprising and delightful.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Not at all feeble

This was one of the stages that would happen, just as now she was at the stage of crawling confidently, briskly, towards cigarette butts whenever they were in the park. When she sat up it was a miracle of posture, her back beautifully erect, her big round head a weightless balloon.

Emily Perkins, The Forrests (2012)

What a lovely, exact image of a baby.

As you've probably worked out, there aren't a lot of recently published books in the attic, but I like Emily Perkins, and have read every one of her books.

To my mind, this, The Forrests, is her best. It's the story of Dorothy Forrest, from childhood to death, told in a series of stories, different parts of her life.

EM Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel (A book  I studied at university and often have recourse to) says that nearly all novels are feeble in the end. This is because the characters start being manipulated by the plot, which takes over as a book nears its denouement.

I do find this, and this is why I nearly always like the beginnings of novels more than the later stages. Characters start out acting naturally, and then 'Oh No! Here comes the plot!', rolling like a juggernaut towards them, crushing them and rendering them lifeless.

This doesn't happen in this novel; it's satisfying all the way through, and especially at the end, because the 'plot' as such is life. Dorothy and her sister and brothers and parents and husband and children - and Daniel, the stray, deprived boy who attaches himself to the family as a child, and who Dorothy loves all her life.

I do think that people are inherently interesting - I'm never bored by the stories friends and family tell me of their life. And in novels, I don't demand that exciting things happen, just that the story be told in an engaging and meaningful way. There has to be a shape to a novel, and in this way they differ from life, which appears amorphous at times. And a meaning needs to emerge as well - isn't this why we like novels? That they are 'shaped and artful'.

In portraying life as worthwhile and engrossing and difficult, there is wisdom in this book; I think this is what I look for when I read. And there is art. Perkins is a sensory writer - we experience Dorothy's life in minute detail, we are there with her, and the images are poetic and true.  The only problem is that sometimes - and only sometimes - the detail takes over.  There's a boring bit where a cup of coffee is made, and sometimes the physical movements are described so exactly that I find them hard to follow, and I imagine the characters' bodies contorted in an unnatural way as in a game of Twister.

But then there is the beautiful simplicity of sentences like this :

 "In the dim bedroom, Louisa reached for Dorothy's hand."

Coming at the end of a paragraph of description, it perfectly weights it. This is what I like - language with rhythm.

This book was a friend to me. I immersed myself in it. I remember reading the passage quoted above while sitting in the sun on the balcony off our bedroom with a cup of tea, on a day when I strongly needed to relax and breathe and have time to myself.

Friday, August 10, 2012

I think I may be a little bit classic

It's come to my attention that my 1997 novel, Loving Athena, is on a list of 11 books nominated as Australian YA classics from the last 30 years by kill your darlings.

I'm chuffed, of course, though I know the book won't win - it's up against many best-selling and loved books. Athena would only have ever sold about 2,000 copies at most, and is long out of print, but it's always had its fans.

One girl wrote and told me she'd read it 19 times.

Even I haven't read it 19 times.

About a decade ago, I got hate mail about this book, from a class of students who'd been made to read it. It was vitriolic and aggressive in its tone - they wondered how on earth the book had been published, but most of all, they said why didn't I just make Keats gay, as he so obviously was. (Well, of course he's gay - he's a gentle boy who writes poetry - what else could he be?) By the way, they weren't wanting me to write a gay novel, it was the opposite of that.

 I was very low on iron at the time, had just come home from an operation after months of feeling ill, and I didn't reply to them. I simply didn't have the energy. I dropped their letter sadly into the bin. What made me sad was the intolerance of someone who was 'different'. These were the Pauline Hanson years, when Muslims and other 'unaustralian' people were being targeted with hate. It was now, obviously, quite okay to be intolerant.

What was their teacher thinking?

Anyway, I'm amazed that this book, of all of mine, has been chosen. Mahalia and Secret Scribbled Notebooks, are far better known, have sold many more copies, and been published overseas.

So to celebrate, I'm putting a little bit of Athena into the attic.

The novel is about a young man named Keats, who writes poetry. He lives with an old man, a potter, on a commune called Elysian Farm near Lismore. There is a real Elysian Farm near Lismore; I've never been there - I just liked the name (just as there was a real Hope Springs bookshop in Lismore - I put it in Secret Scribbled Notebooks - I have been there many times (it's now defunct), and it was very as I described).

As my Keats wrote poetry, I interleaved each chapter with one of 'his' poems.

This is one that a lot of people have told me they liked:

Street Kid

I'm sick of poems
that are shy,
ready to run
if you look at them,
that want to be wooed,
yearned after
and adored.

I want a poem that stands aggressively on street corners,
cigarette in mouth,
loitering with intent.